Thursday, November 09, 2006

Living in a male-dominated society

Posted by Rachel

This past Sunday, Carson’s work mate, Saikou Samusa, invited us to have lunch at his family compound. He lives a little walk off the main road. His compound was so peaceful. There were no kids running around and screaming everywhere. No motorcycles whizzing by. There was a big garden and fruit trees scatter around the compound. In the corner he built a bright yellow cement home with glass windows. We met his wife and five children, who were all very welcoming and respectful.

So it was Carson, Saikou, Bruama (my counterpart at the nursery school), and myself sitting under the cashew tree. They brought out the spread! Bananas, guavas, attaya, juice, cold water, and groundnuts. Mr. Jallow (one of Carson’s fellow teachers) and his friend came by later. We had Benechin and cow’s meat for lunch. We felt as though we were being spoiled. Their hospitality was fabulous. We had genuine conversation about the Gambia, the US, development, gender roles, teaching, our favorite foods, you name it. We were among friends with them. It was nice to feel at home in a way.

The entire afternoon it was the men and I, while Dramane, Saikou’s wife, cooked and served us. Even when they were talking about family planning and gender, Dramane was running back and forth with food, water, etc. She reminded me of my Jewish grandmother. She kept coming with more food!

Being a white woman, I am an honorary man here in the Gambia. It is a male dominated society. The men work outside of the home, they speak good English, and rarely do any domestic chores. I work with mostly men. All of my counterparts are men. Men dominate the education sector and every other sector for that matter. It’s the boys who come knocking on our door at night for reading or homework help. It’s the 20-something year old men who stop by our home to chat with Carson and claim their friendship. The boys and men here are forthright, mobile, and demanding. The girls are shy and very seldom do they initiate or ask for anything from me. The women are vocal, but busy working in the fields or in the compound.

I miss having a support network of women. Most women my age do not speak English and already have 4 kids. It is the men who want to have intellectual and analytical conversations. My language skills are not at the point yet where I can express my self, where I can talk about life in general, the past, or the future. But also, I can’t be my total self with these women. I can’t talk about what I want to do in life, my career, or my marriage. The reasons being a) the women who did not go on to high school or even go to school, do the same work day in and day out, b) their marriage is at the bottom of their priorities. Women here are a tight nit group. Most of their husbands work in the city. Even if they are around, I never see displays of affection of any kind between a husband and a wife. They are all in the same boat. I never see any one of them cry or obsess about how they work everyday. They just go. I am here wanting to talk about how I miss my family and friends, my home, salads and ice cream. The women do gossip. They talk about anything and everything that happened the day before or on the present day. They are affectionate with each other. Even men show more affection towards each other than any husband or wife.

So I finally realize how hard it is to be a women in an Islamic, traditional, and rural African society. My goal now is to seek out women I can relate to. There are a couple of female teachers at the lower basic school that speak good English. I also want to find ways to spend more time with the women. Maybe go to the fields with them. Find a way to work outside of the public sector. I guess I’m just feeling the isolation of being in a culture where I don’t quite fit.

The true meaning of In-Shallah (if God wills it): Understanding patience in the workplace

Posted by Rachel

I was busy last week preparing for the workshop at Kerr Pateh. I had all my teaching aids made and rounded up some books and other donated materials wasting away in the storage room. I had the night before jitters. I got up early on Saturday morning. I overloaded my bag with books and biked 20K there. Passed the construction crews on the way. Many of them declared their love for me. Some yelled out “Liisa!” I must have met them around Kerewan sometime. The road to Kerr Pateh is sandy now that the rains stopped. So I trudged through the sand as fast as I could to escape the kids running after me.

I came to the school and found Mr. Jarra there. He told me that the assistant principle has the keys to the school with him. I asked where he was. I quickly learned that he left the night before for “an emergency meeting.” And he did not leave the keys with the principal. So the workshop was cancelled. I honestly was not surprised. Mr. Jarra felt so bad. But we had a nice chat over egg sandwiches and tea. He is very committed to development. In fact he wants to go back to school for Gender and Development. I told him that is my interest as well!! So we talked about gender roles here in the Gambia, the plight of women, and polygamy. It was refreshing. So not all was lost. I went to Kerr Pateh yesterday to observe the teachers and In Shallah, we will have a workshop this coming Saturday.

Observing yesterday was interesting. The headmaster, Mr. Jarra, treated me liking an honored guest. He brought me sodas and watermelon. He brought me bean sandwiches and juice. I just don’t know how to tell him that his motivation and commitment towards developing this school is enough to impress me. I hate feeling like a celebrity every where I go. I am here working just like them. The last thing I want them is to spend money on me. I never know when it is an insult to not except showing of hospitality.

I sat in most of the lower basic classes. A couple of teachers did some great child-centered activities. The students were engaged throughout the class period. Other teachers had a hard time managing their class. They just started teaching, no introduction to the subject of the class, no context for these kids. The students were not paying attention and being disruptive. The teachers yelled and even hit some students on the head for acting out. I do not want to bash these teachers but rather, try to understand the best way for the Gambian education system to move away from this “chalk and talk” method. My whole idea of rules and classroom management I learned from both being a student and a teacher conflicts with what I saw while observing. They banned corporal punishment about 5 years or so back, but never introduced alternative methods of discipline. The teachers here are underpaid, under-resourced, and not respected. Sound familiar? Even in the states this is true. But there are more incentives in the US like health insurance, retirement, legitimate professional development, even funding further education. So why should teachers here take the extra time and effort to incorporate new methods of teaching? I just hope I don’t sound too ridiculous at the workshop talking about classroom management.

I’m trying to think of a way to provide teachers the motivation and confidence to do great things in the classroom. Maybe a regional competition, whereby teachers demonstrate a child-centered lesson. The teacher that wins receives a reward as well as a reward for their school. That’s a rough idea. I have been talking to some cluster managers here at the REO and they say that workers here in the Gambia are being underutilized, that’s why it can not develop. Maybe we can think of something!

I am working with a teacher at the Kerewan Lower Basic. We are preparing a resource center. The school had boxes of books for science, non-fiction, fiction, and maths just sitting in their closest room, spoiling. We brought them out and have been going through them these past couple of days. The resources are being donated to the Gambia; it is just a question of figuring out how the teachers can use them to supplement their lessons. The UK has donated bits and pieces of math and reading curriculum, which is great, but it takes awhile to figure out what’s there. It can be frustrating to see books and materials spoiled from termites and other critters. I was organizing a box and found four baby rats! Oh the hazards of the job.

Our first Koriteh! (Oct. 23)

Posted by Rachel

We woke to the sounds of music playing, women pounding, and an excited murmur seeping through the humid morning. We knew that Ramadan was over. We weren’t sure if Koriteh, the celebration of the end of Ramadan, was that day or the next. But alas someone sited the new moon in the capital, so the party began. Everyone goes to the mosque in the morning for prayer. People visit family and friends bringing food and other offerings. The men are dressed in their Kaftans, a floor length robe almost but more shirt-like, and the women in their Komplets, a head scarf, lavish shirt and wrap-skirt. The children are dressed in their very best. Some boys were wearing brand new western style cloths; a collard shirt, jeans, and sneakers. Others in Kaftans. Some girls wore little prom dresses or Komplets, with fancy dress shoes.…they all looked so grown up and nice! For a second I forgot that these were the little terrors running and rolling around the sandy roads of Kerewan.

Koriteh is almost like Halloween for the children here. They go around the entire village asking for “Salleboo.” People usually give then one Dalasi or a piece of candy. They came in packs all throughout the day. I rushed to the bitik and bought a big bag of candy because we forgot to save our Dalasi coins. The teenage girls did up their hair. They looked gorgeous, as though they were going to a prom.

Aja was busy cooking in the morning. We greeted all the elders that came to the compound. Finally it was time to have our big feast for lunch. We ate with Aja and the kids. They had at least five bowls of food. We had chicken and loads of veggies over bennechin (like fried rice) with a tasty hot garlic sauce. They started brewing attaya the minute lunch was over. Oh the Gambia is back! I put on my Komplet and we walked around to visit neighbors and work mates. They all said I was pure African in my Komplet.

There is no holding back for holidays here in the Gambia. On Koriteh, I was in awe of how beautiful and new everyone’s clothes were. I felt shamed in my old Komplet and dirty sandals. If someone came to visit the Gambia for this one day, they would never know that kids wear torn and tattered clothes or that meat is a rare to see in the food bowl. It was a showing of abundance on Koriteh. And the big holiday is yet to come! Tobaski is on Dec. 31st I believe. They slaughter big rams and eat meat all day. It is a big all day, all night party!

We travelled into the capital the Saturday before Koriteh. That was a big mistake. Imagine the malls right before Christmas. The city was packed with people. I truly think half of the Gambia was in the capital that day. We went in to go to the bank and the grocery store…you know just a quick trip. Oh the naivite! We went into the bank and it was packed wall to wall with people. So we went upstairs to the VIP area to do our banking. We felt so guilty using our Peace Corps and toubab status. But we paid for it waiting for the ferry to cross from Banjul to Barra. (Kerewan in 55K from Barra). We waited three hours for the ferry to come. There are supposed to be three operating at the same time, and should be only a half of an hour wait. But of course, you cannot assume anything as fact here in the Gambia. We waited for three hours. The ferry terminal kept filling up with people. We had to wait behind a gate, so we were all crammed in there. The mobs that were in the capital were now all waiting for the ferry. Each person having bags and bags of new Koriteh clothes, food, and other offerings. We were with two other Volunteers, Becca and Adam. When the ferry came and they opened the gate, it was a mad rush to get on the ferry! Luckily Becca is a lacrosse player, she’s tough and bulldozed through people. I stayed close behind. We reached the second deck of the ferry and looked back to see a sea of people still coming. And of course, don’t forget that it was humid and hot as heck. Oh, the subtle reminders that we are living in a third world, err developing, country. Which one is PC now?

But Happy end of Ramadan! Bean sandwiches are back and I can drink and eat in front of people! Aja thought that I did not drink water. I told her that we came when to Kerewan when Ramadan began, and I did not want to be rude. She is used to seeing white people with their water bottles.

Gambians vote for the Democrats

Posted by Carson

So our only regular source of current events is BBC Africa, giving us news from a very international perspective. In case anyone was wondering, the top story over here is, in fact, the US midterm election. Maybe now that things have gone the way they have back home, I can stop trying to answer the question, “Why does George Bush/America hate the world so much?”

My Linen Pants

My Linen Pants
Posted by Carson

Clothing in the Gambia is a little different. If you want a shirt, you can go to the lumo (weekly market) and get a mass produced shirt with the 50 cent logo on it or some sweet jeans with patchwork guns sewn on (gangsta style) or second hand shirts. In fact, you’ll sometimes see old ladies or little children wearing second hand t-shirts that say “tease” in hot pink or something like “I’m with stupid”, while not knowing what it says. Our 11 year old host brother was wearing a colorful blouse with some nice 80’s style shoulderpads last night. You can also buy fabric by the yard with your favorite designs or colors on it and take it to one of the million tailors in your village (we have one in our family compound). For a new shirt, the process will cost you about $1.50, which is a lot of money on a Gambian (or peacecorps) budget, but still well worth it.
So, now I have my newest, greatest pair of linen pants to wear in the sweltering heat along with my super baggy, colorful and gaudy wax print shirts. Rachel’s had some nice wrap-skirts and equally flamboyant shirts. Wo betiyaata. Rollin’ in style.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Math AND Science.

5 November 2006: Posted by Carson

So, the science teacher at the Senior Secondary school has been accepted to the University of the Gambia to begin a bachelors program in education. Way to go bro.

On a completely unrelated note, my course load has incidently doubled as I take on the Senior Secondary science classes. I'm actually pretty happy that I get to teach something a little more interesting and Rachel's gonna be busy these next couple months too (she fill you in as soon as she gets the time), so it's all for the better. By this time next year we might even have a functional science lab!

What’s this Word?

October 31, 2006 Posted by Carson

English is the official language of the Gambia, and many educated Gambians are excited to improve their comprehension and vocabulary. Today, a teacher at the school asked me to explain a word to her. She leafed through the book, muttering about how nobody has been able to translate it and that hopefully I would know it. With some effort, I was able to explain “MOOSEBURGER” to a Gambian.

Late for school, that's an ass whoopin'

Nov, 23 2006: Posted by Carson

School assemblies are conducted Mondays and Fridays before classes begin. Our fledgling Senior Secondary school is strapped for teachers and space, so we double shift. Grade 11 comes in the morning and Grade 10 comes in the afternoon. That means that, as teachers, we teach from 8 in the morning until 6:30 at night in buildings that have no electricity, let alone air-conditioning. For the next 3 months, in order to catch the students up, we’re also conducting mandatory weekend classes from 9 to 12, both Saturday and Sunday. I can’t really complain, though. My load is pretty light this term, allowing me to spend time on some secondary projects.

Fridays are half days for schools in the Gambia. We start an hour early and finish around 1:30 to allow time for Friday prayers. Showing up for that Friday assembly, an hour earlier than usual, proves a challenge for both students and faculty. Today, for example, at 7:00 sharp, 2 students and myself were the only ones present. Within 15 minutes there were 6 or 7 students present and one of the elder teachers showed up and began assembly.

A typical school assembly consists of the students standing single file in 2 long lines, facing the faculty. It begins with the humming of the national anthem, “For The Gambia, hmmm hum himm himmm….” followed by 30 seconds of prayers and then maybe 1-2 hours of announcements and finished by another rousing rendition of “For The Gambia”. The announcements mostly consist of every teacher giving a “motivational” speech about how the students won’t amount to anything in this life if they don’t tuck in their shirts. Maybe something else about how the girls should not wear lipstick because this is not a beauty contest and if it were, they would loose anyway. Blablabla.

As today’s assembly rolled on, most of the 40-some other students showed up in groups of two or three, wearing their uniforms of burgundy pants and a white button-down shirts with the school’s crest sown on the front pocket. At the end of the session (running well into my class period) all of the late-comers were beaten with 5 strokes of a length of PVC pipe across the palms of their hands or their butts. As they wiped the tears from the corners of their eyes and rubbed their raw palms they came to class. Who’s ready for MATH?!?! HIGH FIVE! Alright, not funny.

Corporal Punishment is a big point of debate here. Technically illegal in the school system, many parents and faculty firmly believe that it’s the only way to instil discipline in the students. A few years ago, a student died after being beaten at school and more students died during the ensuing protests. Now, there are some stubborn opinions on both sides of the issue. Most people are ignorant or sceptical of the concept of positive re-enforcement, lumping it in with “those western ideas”.

The argument goes something like this: American kids have TV and toys that you can take away from them. Gambian kids don’t have these things. They play in the dirt. So, if you want to punish them, you have to hit them. It is therefor the responsibility of any decent parent (and larger sibling) to whoop the shit out of a kid that makes a mistake. Also, as part of the communal nature of village life, friends and neighbors, including the teachers, are expected to help raise the swarm of littl’uns running around and in the process, beat the snot out of them. After all, it takes a village to raise a child.

Peace Corps The Gambia Married Couples Newsletter

We are the only married Peace Corps Volunteers in the Gambia. Also, our sitemate, Harinder, the coolest Sikh in town, edits the Peacecorps newsletter and does pretty well at the sarcasm and cynicism that keeps us all going. In addition to writing his own articles, like the recent expose on the KMC (Kerewan Married Couple), he accepts submissions. Here’s our contribution for the upcoming edition.

Peace Corps The Gambia Married Couples Newsletter:
Representing the extensive network of married PC volunteers in the Gambia

Rachel and Carson voted volunteer married couple of the month.

Married PCVs now outnumber single PCVs in Kerewan 2 to 1.

50% of PCTG married volunteers think locally tailored tank top not flattering. Remaining 50% think Carson’s and asshole.

PCTG married volunteers unanimously agree with your host family: Why aren’t you married yet?

Married couple’s double-date with Harinder and Nate a success, Harinder confused.

Married volunteers petition PCTG to provide tandem bicycles.

Gambians at water pump reach consensus: Carson’s an “OK” wife.

Female PCV surprises suitors, backs up claim of already having husband.