Thursday, October 26, 2006

Rachel at Work

Posted by Rachel

This past month has been a whole lotta of ups and downs. Not even day by day, more like hour by hour. It has taken a month to finally begin to understand how I can fit into the community of Kerewan. With the elections in early September (surprise, surprise the incumbent won…. After he threatened to cut off funding to any village that did not overwhelmingly vote for him) and Ramadan, work at the Regional Education Office has been slow, even by Gambian standards. It has about two months for the schools to get settled into their schedules, acquire the right amount of teachers, and make registrars of their students. So school won’t get into full swing until November.
The first week I did a whole lot of sitting, dancing with the secretaries to Senegalese music and hunting for a counterpart. I was frustrated. I kept wondering what I was supposed to be doing here, what was it that I had to offer. What does a development worker do anyways?!
I decided to change my strategy and attitude. A wise man (Hi Dad!) told me that I should just hang out. And for the past three weeks that’s what I’ve been doing. I chat with people at the office. We talk about work, family, politics, etc. I decided to start going to the primary school here in Kerewan and observe the teachers, and learn about the Gambian school system. The headmaster loved that I wanted to be “a part of the staff.” Truly I just wanted to hang around, but whatever Mr. Joff sees fit. So I chat with the teachers about their challenges, their lives, their students. I watch them teach in a barren room of crumbling concrete with learning aids half eaten by termites on the walls. Students are crammed around tables so high that some have to stand to write. Teachers have only a black board and chalk in the way of materials. The assistant headmaster, Mr. Singateh, said to me the other day: “The white man has done a good job of showing us that Western education is most important. So we have most of our children in the schools, but how can we teach them without any resources? How can we educate them by western standards without resources.” And I can only say…yes, it’s not easy, which is a common Gambian response.
I have made friends with a couple of teachers. Neneh, is a Christian Gambian, she is not fasting so we have snacks together in her classroom. She is funny and a good teacher. She is from Banjul. Teachers here are posted to schools anywhere in the country. They change there posting every 2 or 3 years, often to locations far from their family and home.
At the REO I finally met Mr. Kebe. He is the cluster manager of 10 schools in Kerewan and its surrounding area. I soon learned that the Kerewan primary school is building a resource centre for teachers. Mr. Kebe is pioneering this and I sat down to talk to him about it. He also said that other schools in his area have a need for a resource center and teacher training. Yes, I found myself a counterpart!
At the REO, there is a storage room with boxes and boxes of donated textbooks and learning aids. I learned that they have been sitting there for the past three years!!!! No one at the office is in charge of these books… so I asked Mr. Kebe if I could begin looking through the materials and see what would be good for the resource center. So I have spent hours in the corner of the room dodging spider webs and hornets nest trying to figure out what invaluable curriculum are in these stacks of boxes buried in a thick layer of dirt.
So hopefully, in these coming months I can begin having workshops with teachers. Helping them make learning aids. Exchange ideas. Bring in books and teacher resources.
I also met the head teacher at the Nursery school here in Kerewan. Nursery schools are fairly new to the Gambia and none of them are funded by the state. Mr. Fatajo invited me to the school. There are two classes of twenty pupils in a two room school. The walls and floors need major repairs. The fence needs fixing. There are no learning aids or materials for that matter. Remember our cozy preschool classrooms, with bright and flashy learning aids everywhere; mountains of books and games and crayons and glue and glitter and paper. This school has nothing. I counted 10 books, 2 games, and five learning aides on the wall. Yes, this will be a big project.
We met to write letters to ask for funding for learning and building materials. Once we receive funding, we will work together to make learning aids. Mr. Fatajo is motivated. He wants to paint the inside and outside wall with animals, shapes, trees, etc. It is just so hard to see the lack of funding halt, stifle, frustrate the positive and worthy development that so many Gambians strive for.
There is an education PCV who is writing a Nursery School Curriculum for the Gambia. I hope to work with her more and help implement the curriculum once we can get these nursery schools off the ground.

ADWAC is an NGO based in Kerewan that focuses on the development of woman and children in the North Bank Division. My next door neighbor works there, Lamin Kasamas, where he is the education coordinator. In fact mostly men work there. Small detail. ADWAC recently started a woman’s rights program where the staff went through a gender training workshop. I hope to work more with gender training within the community. I found these great gender training manuals published by Oxfam at the REO and brought them to ADWAC. They are bringing in a new officer of the program in January and they “foresee” me working with her. I’m excited to be able to use my degree!! ADWAC is also focusing on creating nursery schools in their impact area. Lamin asked me if I could help train teachers once the schools are stable and off the ground.

17/10/06 (Official date: one month in site!)
I went on trek today! Mr. Kebeh wanted me to check out the Ker Pateh Basic Cycle School, Grades 1-9. So I rode my bike 18K each way to observe and chat with the Headmaster, Mr. Jarra. The main rode going east is under construction. I ate a lot of dust! The road north to Ker Pateh, the village is about 1 km from the Senegalese border, was a big mud pit in some areas. Imagine me on my fancy Peace Corp mountain bike with a gleaming white helmet leap froging through the mud with a boy driving a donkey cart. As usual, I felt out of place.
After a long chat with Mr. Jarra, I learned that the school has a huge need for furniture. I walked into a Grade one class with 90 students crammed in. There is not enough furniture to split the class in two. The school has the space and another teacher, but no furniture. Do you remember our nice desks and chairs and kidney tables? Or carpet and pillows for the reading area? The children are lucky if they have an intact cement floor below their feet, a wooden bench to sit on with two of their peers, and a narrow table to write. Ker Pateh is trying to form a nursery school, but of course there is no furniture or learning aids.
When I walked into the classes, all the students stood and said, “Good Morning Madam!” I chuckle every time. It is just so wild to be treated either like a celebrity or an alien, or both at the same time. I just want to blend in. I want to be able to ride my bike without mobs of kids screaming “toubab”, running as hard as they can to catch up with me. I suppose I represent power and money, I am a celebrity. I am…let’s say……J-Lo to these kids. So, I must learn that they are not being malicious. While their actions by American standards would be considered extremely rude, here it’s their way of greeting foreigners. So this is my way to reconcile the constant attention….just keep saying to myself “I am J-Lo, I am J-Lo.” Oh Gosh, how ridiculous is that!?
Anyways, Mr. Jarra and I will be leading a school-based workshop together. We will collaborate and plan the program. The previous PCV trained him to lead workshops. It will be in two weeks (in Shallah: God willing). This will be a great way to learn what a Gambian workshop is like! Mr. Jarra is motivated and determined to develop his school. It was refreshing to see. On the ride home as I looked out to the lush green sahel, grass and corregate roofs clumped together in the village up ahead, I had a moment where I was said to myself, oh man I am in Africa! I live here, this is my home, this is where I work. I don’t have these moments as often as I thought, but they are nice.
So I hope I can go on trek more and visit more schools in the area or within a reasonable biking distance. Work is starting to snowball bit by bit. I am finding a niche in this community, yet!

Carson at Work

Posted by Carson

So, I’ve been teaching 10th and 11th grade math for almost a month at Kerewan Senior Secondary School. The school, started only last year, still has a relatively small enrolment, and is confined to a far corner of the Upper Basic School campus (Grades 6-9) until the national government builds an actual school for them. With only two classrooms, we split up the two grades, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Overwhelmingly, I enjoy my job. I love to be in front of the class, especially as I become more comfortable with my delivery and teaching style. The kids are even beginning to understand my accent, or are at least more convincing with their smiling and nodding.
That’s not to say my life is without it’s challenges. As I write this, Ramadan is in full swing, crippling my ability to assign homework and present new material. Can you imagine a class of high-schoolers fasting? It doesn’t exactly lend itself to productivity. Also, the standardized 9th grade test results were just released, meaning that those accepted into grade 10 can begin class… 7 weeks into the official term. And I can’t forget chronic shortage of teachers and lack of available teaching resources.
By far the greatest challenge I face is the general lack of ability of the students. Because of English as a second language, mass-promotion, the culture of illiteracy at home, and the general lack of resources, my students are poorly prepared for highschool level math. They are not stupid. Some of them are incredibly insightful, and show real motivation to achieve. The rest, I assume, have the potential to learn, whether it’s realized or not. They just have not been exposed to, or made to practice, many concepts that I had hoped or expected.
For example, most of the Peace Corps here have been asked several times, by young and old alike, whether we have the moon, stars and clouds in America. The moon?! I’ve always taken astronomy for granted as a sort of motivational science. When many of us were young, we dreamt about being astronauts. Through talking about the planets, I was always enticed to pay a little more attention to math and physics. So, when in model school during training, I tried a 9th grade astronomy lesson and it flopped harder than I ever hope to experience again. Woah, woah, forget the solar system… The Earth is round?!?
So, time and again, I’ve had to take a step back and re-evaluate. Take nothing for granted. After discussing last years course material (nothing new, just last years topics) for 3 weeks, the class average on an un-ambitious practice test was 7 out of 20. Once again, step back and reassess. Recently, I’ve found my most useful teaching aid for 11th grade math to be a 4th grade math textbook donated by an elementary school in Utah. Using that book while veering away from the “chalk and talk” teaching and encouraging student participation and problem solving at their desks and getting them up to the board I’m seeing immediate but modest progress. As soon as Ramadan ends, they’ll even be going home with math homework. There’s a first time for everything.
As the year progresses, I’m committed to co-chair the Science Club and the Current Affairs/Debate Club. Also, after Ramadan, (once again, gotta wait for Ramadan to end) I’ll be firing up the generator and setting up the computer lab. We’ve got 4 Pentium 1 machines yellowed with age and hosting ant colonies right now, though I’m not sure that they turn on yet. Once that happens, it sounds like there’s significant interest in computer classes for adults and teachers and, as a remote possibility in the distant future… maybe even students.
In the midst of all of this, I’ve got to make the point that the teachers and administrators I work with are completely impressive. I know that this makes them the exception to the rule in the Gambia, but they really are committed to teaching well. That’s not to say they’re not as fatalistic as every other Gambian I’ve ever met is, because they are. It’s a sort of necessary coping mechanism. Absolutely frustrating, but definitely necessary. But in many instances, it goes much further than that. So many teachers in this country are under-trained and under-compensated and so much of the administration is apathetic, I’ve been able to sigh a breath of relief that I might be spared that hassle. Maybe it’s too early to tell, but I think my work and other projects will be well received. We’ll see.

Samateh Kunda (Kunda is compound in Mandinka)

Posted by Rachel

Here’s a run down of the people in Samateh Kunda. It is a renter’s compound consisting of several families. The Samatehs own the compound, hence the name.

Aja Njai is the woman who keeps the compound running. She is 28 years old with five kids. She is strong, funny, and just awesome! Unfortunately she doesn’t speak more than a few words of English. She has a sympathetic ear and we actually have some great conversations with her (in our limited Mandinka of course). Aja does the laundry, cooks, cleans, you name it, all while nursing a 9 month old baby. Sometimes literally at the same time. She has become a good friend to us.
Aja’s husband, Faabackary Samateh, works as a fireman in Kombo. He only comes to visit once a month for two days at a time. Mama Sware is Faabackary’s mother. Aja lives with her mother-in-law and her five kids. Mama Sware is old and stubborn. She doesn’t do much work, expect sweep and fetch water. Mama doesn’t bother us much. We talk to her

Re-cap: Aja has five kids and a compound to take care of, her husband’s out of town, fortunately she has her… mother in law?!

Aja’s kids: Lamin, 11; Karamo, 10; Binta, 8; Fatoumata, 3; Alu, 9 months.

Lamin is bossy, a jokester and loves to sing. He is very loving with his baby brother Alu. The previous PCV, Nyima, gave Lamin her discman and speakers, along with a Tupac CD. So on Koriteh, we jammed to Tupac. Lamin and Karamo knew all the words. I tried to teach them the running man and the sprinkler…you know the white people dance. They said it was too hard. So they busted out some Mandinka dance moves. I tried to mimic and of course they laughed.
Lamin walks around the compound singing day and night. He will bust out some dance moves or karate moves randomly. He has a great spirit. He is loyal to his mom. It is sweet to see. School is not his strength. He reads at a first grade level and his math skills are just as low. But somehow he has moved up to the sixth grade no problem. He is good at memorizing, though.

Karamo is respectful, curious, and smart. He is also very loving with his baby brother. He is the brains of the family. He comes to our place at night to read and do homework with Carson. His reading level is not at a fifth grade level, but it is still better than most his age. Lamin, insecure and jealous of being surpassed by his little brother, will usually come in to read as well. Lamin is very pushy and demands attention during these night time reading sessions.
When either of us are reading or just sitting out on our front porch, Karamo will come and sit next to us, hoping to get a glimpse of what is in our hands. Karamo helps us a lot with language. He is patient and eager to talk with us. We will try to explain something in Mandinka and he will always know what word we are fishing for.
A funny story about Karamo.: During the first or second week of Ramadan, Aja, Mama, the kids and I were sitting outside enjoying the night air. They were all stuffed from their break fast meal, but still cranky and tired from the heat of the day. Lamin put on a pot of attaya over the small portable charcoal stove. Karamo was ordered to take off the mat from the bantaba (a big concrete square for lying and sitting). As he took off the mat, he knocked over the attaya pot, spilling all the attaya leaves on the ground. Everyone started screaming at him. When fasting you can’t have any liquids. So you can imagine the excitement of having attaya (a Gambian addiction) after a long and hard day of fasting. You should have seen his face. Aja, Mama, and the rest of the family livid. He ran off so fast. He hadn’t come back before we went off to bed.

Binta is quiet and beautiful. She has the middle child thing going on. Being the oldest female in the family, she helps Aja with the cleaning and caretaking of the compound and family. I started reading with her the first week we arrived. She is in fourth grade and doesn’t know her alphabet. But, she goes to school in the afternoons and is too busy to sit down and read anymore.

Fatoumatah is a terror. She is completely adorable and bright eyed, but already has an attitude. Her entire life, there have been volunteers in the compound, so she’s been partly raised by toubabs. This has afforded her more attention than the average Gambian child. She can identify the parts of her face in English! She has sass and class.

Alu- I love this baby! He is so adorable. His eyes take up half of his cute chubby face! Carson said just the other day, “I can see my entire reflection in his eyes.” He also likes to pee on me. But I don’t mind….because he’s just so darn cute!

Faabackary’s older brother, Kebe, lives here with his wife and three boys. Also, N’Dae and her daughter Adama live right next door to us. N’Dae owns a restaurant and she is one of our favorites, speaking Mandinka, Wollof, Fula, and French. On the other side of us is Lamin Kasamas and Kutu Jarju and their one year old son, Omar. Lama and her four kids just moved out leaving a vacant spot. Njatu, a rare single woman, works at the REO with me, but might move out soon. More on our neighbors later.

What do we eat, anyway?

Posted by Carson

We mentioned the local food. Rice with oil usually constitutes 3 meals a day so we make a lot of effort to cook for ourselves. Though it puts a little more strain on our budget and freetime, it’s been worth it so far. Between the daily market, the small biticks (shops) and our proximity to the capital, we do alright. We get one meal per day from our host family and prepare the rest on our own. We’ve even built a sort of cooking hut in our “backyard” out of corrugate tin, local style, to house our propane tank and double burner camp stove. We’ve also come into some basil seeds, so maybe in a month or two, we’ll have a nice herb garden. Having been sick in one way or another for about half of our total time here (I’ll spare you the details), I’m excited to get down to the business of putting weight back on.

Food Items available locally (some are seasonal):

Bananas, Tomatoes, Bread (there’s actually a Senegalese French style baker’s hut 2 compounds down from us), rice, more rice, peanuts (raw, boiled, and roasted), peanut butter, squash, bitter green leaves (sort of like spinach??), bitter tomatoes, watermelon, mangoes, biscuits, condensed milk, powdered milk, eggs, flour, onions, garlic, tomato paste, green tea, sugar, salt and pepper, chicken and beef spam (gotta keep it Halal), mayonnaise (yeah, from gross to delicious in just 3 months, but how does it keep sans refrigeration??), beans, pasta from Banjul, partially hydrogenated palm oil (Mmmm), and whatever you send us ;^). Oh, and we couldn’t forget our favorite: Chocoleca, an imported and expensive combo of chocolate and peanut butter.

Food items we wish we could get(wink, wink):

Cliff/Power Bars, Tuna in a pouch, Annie's Mack and Cheese(whole wheat and white chedder), a magazine or two, some TP as packing material, and of course, we love surprises!

The Daily Grind

Posted by Carson

So, as mentioned in previous emails, we’re living in the bustling provincial seat of the North Bank, Kerewan. Rachel and I seem to have created some sort of routine amidst our chaotic first month of life here. Quite an accomplishment in and of itself, considering we’re in the midst of Ramadan. Every morning, we wake up at six and run west out of town, along the paved section of the national highway (see “northbank road” below). This is quickly becoming our only running route for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it cuts through mangrove and tidal flats so there are no outlying villages where children who don’t know us can harass us (we’ll explain “toubabing” later). This means the only locals who puzzle over our bizarre behavior are the fishermen and bush-taxis. Also, with construction to the east between Kerewan and Farafenni, we can avoid the heavy trucks kicking up dust and rocks. And, of course, it’s beautiful. As we cross President Yaya Jammeh’s bridge (the second bridge in the whole country, donated by Taiwan, but don’t tell him that, it’s his!) and turn around into the sunrise over the tributary, it’s an incredible sight every morning.
After our run, it’s a quick breakfast of peanut butter and banana sandwiches and a bucket bath before we’re out the door and on our way to work. During Ramadan, we usually cook lunch for ourselves, then head back to work. I usually start sweating at about 8 in the morning and don’t actually stop until I wake up and peel myself off our foam mattress at six the next morning. That means that the only time I’m dry is the 15 minutes before we work out in the morning. Good thing the hot season’s only 10 months of the year.
Dinner this month is with our family. Gambian food is sometimes really good (Domodah, Niankatango), sometimes not so much, but always consisting of rice and oil with lots and lots of Maggie brand MSG flavoring as well as real salt. Good thing I sweat a lot. After dinner it’s social hour, when Gambians sit around and drink attaya (I’ll explain attaya, too). Actually, they prefer to always drink attaya, but Ramadan sort of gets in the way.


THE NORTH BANK ROAD is one of the two main east-west highways in The Gambia. Think of a two lane country road in the US: no center line with a car passing, on average, every 10 minutes or so. While it’s currently in the process of being repaved, potholes are already forming before the project is even completed. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, because it’s a helluva lot better than the southbank road which is so deteriorated that vehicles opt to risk the mud on either side than the actual road. No exageration.

RAMADAN is the Islamic month of fasting. It’s based on the lunar calendar so the dates change a little each year. During this time, between sunrise and sunset, Muslims are not allowed to eat, drink, gossip, fight, show affection etc. While a truly remarkable demonstration of faith, it tends to make work a little difficult, as coworkers and students are often less than productive.

ATTAYA is a West African drink as well as ritual and passtime. It’s chinese gunpowder style green tea sometimes with mint or basil picked locally, that they brew incredibly strong with a lot of sugar. They pour a serving from one shot glass into another and back until a thick head of foam is formed then they serve it as if it were a little cappuccino. 3 brews are typically made from one batch of tea, the first having all the caffeine. The entire process takes about an hour… and repeat.

TOUBABING is a hazard of the job. It’s why we’re paid the big bucks. We are Toubabs (two-bob) as are all non-black, foreign people. For many villagers, the only whites they have contact with are tourists who drive by in safari jeeps and throw candy at the kids. Every gambian child knows 2 phrases in english: “Toubab! What is your name” and “Toubab! Give me minty!” Sometimes, they’ll just sit there in groups of 30 and yell toubab as you walk by. It sounds innocuous, but it begins to wear you down. Sometimes it’s even a little malicious. By now, we’ve got most of the kids in our section of the village to call us by name, so on our way to work we’re bombarded by repeated high pitch shouts of “Lisanding” and “Jalahmang”.

Rachel and Carson in The Gambia: The Basics

Posted by Carson

In the interest of keeping friends and family informed, we’ve decided to follow our best instincts, make good on our vague intentions and actually post a blog. While this should allow those at home to check up on our progress and (mis)adventures a little more easily as well as save us the hassle of mass emails, it should also be a great resource for anyone outside “the loop” who may have been casually wondering, “what ever happened to those two kids, anyway?”
We’re even coming up with a plan to post updates regularly, so these 2 years can fly by and it’ll feel as if we were never more than a click away. So, please, pass on this address to anyone we may have lost contact with. But, of course, don’t let this stop you from writing or calling the old-fashioned way (ahem, ahem):

Rachel Glickel and Carson Bennett or
Carson Bennett and Rachel Glickel (depending on who you love more)
US Peace Corps
PO Box 582
Banjul, The Gambia
West Africa

Rachel’s cell: 220.989.9440
Carson’s cell: 220.989.9441
(sometimes difficult to reach from overseas, so please try again later!)

And, of course, feel free to email us at and

We’ve posted some pictures to snapfish, and have taken many more, but it’s proving a challenge to upload them from our severely limited access to the internet. Don’t worry though, where there’s a will, there’s a way.