Saturday, December 15, 2007
This past week, I've been working a nine to five and I am beat! We had the planning meeting for the Face-to-Face teacher training program that will take place this holiday break. We had to plan for two weeks of class. I am in the English group with three other PCVs, one VSO (British version of PC, sort of), a Belgium whose been living here for three years working at the Gambia College, and four Gambian men. The dynamic was interesting, painstaking at times, but we have a scheme of work focusing on reading comprehension. Getting all of us on the same page while trying to understand each other's understandings of certain teaching methodologies was difficult. But alas, all of that is part of this intense learning experience we embarked on one year and a half ago.
Being in the thick of the city life for a week is also exhausting. I was a commuter! I took an hour to go 12 K through the neighborhoods of Kombo (the name the refers to all the fast growing towns that sprawls form the main drag in Kanifang). The streets and sidewalks are filled with people, produce, second hand clothes, Mercedes, exhaust, taxis, construction, shop after shop lined sidewalks, more exhaust, concrete, sewage, men slowly riding bikes, women sitting side by side on the edge of the road with their produce stacked into neat piles splayed in front of their overworked bodies, and professionals waiting for a taxi. It has the packed, congestive, dirty feel of "African cities." The growth is noticeable after just a year or so. The traffic never moves at a constant rhythm, its jarring and sporadic. I look down the single road through connecting these municipalities and the smog that rises to the scorching sun infuses every breath. People are everywhere, men are every where calling out to the white woman; you are surrounded by it all. It give us hope. Hope that here is a viable organic economy growing.
As we head back to site to today, I am so grateful that we don't live in the city. The harassment would be unbearable. That alone would want to make me leave this country. We have our compound, our family, our kids, our neighborhood. It all provides a sense of belonging, a sense of protection, however small in the scheme of life. But it's there. And as we look down these next six months to the ending our service, this sense of place will again change.
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
Sunday, December 02, 2007
The next day was the 40th anniversary commemoration ceremony of uninterrupted service (no civil unrest or war, bloody coups, or natural disasters. So good for The Gambia that they are a peaceful country, but not yet where it needs to be self sufficient. Sorry, I have been a little down on development, on massive amounts of international aid pouring into Africa, on leftovers being donated that flood the markets... But it's all complex and we are trying the best we can, little by little day by day. And I wouldn't trade any of this experience for anything. Whoo, ok. But, the ceremony was really special. Secretaries of state were there. We all got to speak about our work. The Director of all of Peace Corps sent in a video to us. So we felt appreciated.
The next day was a productive all volunteer meeting. The best part was catching up with fellow PCVs. One night, the local brewery, Jul Brew, threw us another party. More free beer! But it was all about lightening up, having fun, and chillin' with your pals. Probably the next time our education group will be all together is at our Close of Service (COS) conference in May and thereafter we will all be heading out one by one. We have loads of pics that will come soon soon.
This week is the last of classes. These terms are so short with all the holidays and staff meetings in the middle of classes. Tobaski, the big one of Muslim holidays, is Dec. 20, so the shopping season has begun. During break I will be working with the Face-to-Face program that trains unqualified teachers that are in the schools right now. The program takes place during the summer, Dec., and March breaks up country in Jonjonbure. I'll be there for a couple of weeks working with teachers on teaching reading and writing. And then... my parents come out for a visit in mid-January!
Happy holiday season! Happy Hanukkah, eat some chocolate covered matzoh and latkas! Our thoughts are with all our fam and friends. It never feels like the holidays here, so kick back an extra cup of spiked egg nog for us. Isn't it amazing how much we identify food with every event, person, holiday, routine, and past time? I love it!
Thursday, November 22, 2007
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
Rachel said it all. The Cold Season came on November 7th. Just like last year, I was sitting at school at 9 in the morning sweating in the unmoving air, watching the sun climb to a more efficient angle of attack when it happened. The wind picked up sand and dust into the air and the humidity vanished. My shirt, already damp with the morning's exertions, dried as I was wearing it. That night I wore an extra shirt to bed as we pulled the sheet over us. And, sure enough, the next morning's bucket bath made me yelp.
Posted by Carson
Last year, some representatives from a not-to-be-named standardized testing agency came by to see our school. Among other things, they came to check out the quality of our “science lab”. This meant it was time to clean-up. The windows had been kicked in by bored kids and some of the donated microscopes and other equipment have been thrown on the floor and the wind blows through the place leaving dust and dirt over everything. I’ve diverted my time to other projects simply because the school won’t secure the room (which is a gripe for a different time) and there’s no point in me spending my time setting up the lab. I’ve already done it twice and you wouldn’t know it if you saw the place. While the block had electricity years ago, it doesn’t anymore. Wires hang loosely and fluorescent lights are still on the walls. I think some NGO or government dept used it as an office for a while.
So, it was time to clean up. As I completed a full inventory, one of the school’s caretakers swept the place out and we set up some tables and put on a good show for the representatives. The caretaker, one of three at the school, is an “Old Pa”. He’s in his seventies and is none-too-interested in working very hard. That’s ok, because he’s not paid very much. It’s just one of those situations where he shows up, hangs out and makes a few bucks. He came up to me shortly after the cleaning and said they needed to take some of the light fixtures to the other blocks where there’s electricity some of the time. I let him in and locked after he left with 2 fixtures. A month later he came for a few more. This time, I unscrewed the one on the ceiling for him. Glad to be of assistance.
Last week, he came to take the rest so I tossed him the key as I went into class. An hour later, I asked the Head Master if he’d seen the caretaker with my key. He said, “Why’s the caretaker have the key?” I told him that the Old Pa was taking the lights down and he said, “What do you mean he’s taking the lights down?! What’s he doing with the lights!?! You can’t give him the key!!!! He’s not trustworthy!” What do you mean he’s not trustworthy? He’s the care taker of the school. So there it is, I’ve unwittingly aided in the pilfering of the limited assets of a poor school. The next day, work was back to normal and the janitor’s still there. I asked about any consequences and they just laughed as if to say, “that wily caretaker, gotta keep a closer eye on him.”
Thursday, November 08, 2007
We turn, we change, we adapt, we grow, we breathe. The dry, dusty harmattan winds came yesterday. And with that the rainy season is over. One day we trudge through heavy hot humid air and the next we are in the middle of the desert dodging blistering sand filled winds. Carson and I are ecstatic! The humidity will soon be all gone and we will welcome the cold nights and mornings. This morning we woke up bundled in our sheet. I went out for my run and enjoyed my body warming up as I ran faster. Our bucket baths were freezing; I had to keep jumping up and down to ensure blood circulation. And I believe it was only 65 degrees. Oh the thrill of it all!!
This past month I have been adapting to some more changes. With an influx of volunteers from the UK, The Netherlands, Philippines, and Canada, there are now ten of us living and working here in Kerewan for the next year. There are four at ADWAC and two at the education office. The two Canadians, Kristy and Jen are awesome! Too bad they only stay for six months. They have all come with set projects and support from their organizations. As a Peace Corps, we come and assess the need and then figure out where we are needed. So, for most of us, our jobs are not set in stone. Carson, though, has a more set job as a teacher. So I felt a little displaced.
I had to refocus some of my work. And let’s be honest, I would much rather work on the ground than sit in an office all day, dealing with all the bureaucracy, admin, and the “boy’s club” atmosphere. I now go and teach phonics and reading to the grade one class here in Kerewan. I will soon work with teachers in grades 2 and 3. The Gambian government realized that only a small percentage of students in grades 1-3 know how to read. So there is a focus on implementing early grade reading teaching strategies, such as phonics. Now I’m that crazy visiting teacher who comes in a reads books aloud, plays phonics games, and has the kids practice writing letters in the sand. I am having a blast! And I hope that teaching phonics for a whole year can show Gambian teachers how it all connects. How teaching letter sounds will progress to reading three letter words and then on to learning word families and so on. Teachers have all heard about it in workshops, they have handbooks, but I’m not sure if they have truly observed it.
My girls club at the middle school is going great. The past two sessions we talked about the female reproduction system as part of this year’s theme, “knowing your body, knowing yourself.” So here I am teaching sex ed to fifteen Muslim fourteen year old girls; everything from the menstruation cycle to puberty. I had a great time making teaching aids for that! It has not been the easiest task, but they have been great sports. Some were really interested. Hopefully they know a little more about what is happening inside their bodies.
Carson and I love our Reading Mentors program where his high school kids come and read to the nursery school kids twice a week. The little ones enjoy it, the older students gain confidence from it, and the nursery school staff enjoy seeing the older kids serving their community. We are also helping the grade 12 students study for the English sections of their exams come May. Carson is holding science and math study classes.
I’m still working with nursery schools in the area, also focusing on early reading. I still go to the ADWAC office working on the Women’s Right Unit, slowly, slowly while the coordinator is on leave.
All in all, I feel as though this is a blessing in disguise. More focused work at the ground level, more contact with kids, and less having to deal with admin! Little Liisa is almost two months old and is getting so big! But, she cries and cries and cries. Alieu and Muhammed are walking, running, screaming and still eating dirt. I love watching these kids grow! Lamin is in grade seven and Karamo is in grade six. Karamo finished second in his class last year! What a smartie! These days he comes over to study with us.
So here’s to cool weather on the way and with that much needed relief!!
Thursday, November 01, 2007
Written October 19
Yesterday evening, I went to visit little Liisa. She had just fallen asleep, as usual. It was busy in the Jarju compound. Aja was there pounding rice with two other neighborhood women. Mariama was expertly braiding a woman’s hair. Janke was sitting regally on the bamboo bed fanning herself with a woven hand fan. The kids were running in and out, singing, dancing, crying, and screaming at every turn. I sat on a small and short metal stool. Mariama handed little Liisa to me, greeting me as I attempted to hold her awkward tiny body in my arms without letting her head drop or her entire body to roll from my grasp. I look up to Aja and others pounding rice. Pounding with a oversized wooden mortar and pestle is probably one of the hardest jobs women do; they do it with tenacity, intensity, and pristine rhythm. Sometimes, three women pound into the same mortar creating a beat usually heard on an African drum. Sometimes, I see teenage girls doing tricks with their pestles; throwing them in the air and then clapping one, two, or three times before catching it with missing a pounding beat.
Women pounding has been a part of this society for centuries, since ancient times. The beginning chapters of Roots describes the drumming of women pounding as the sun rises over the village. A woman pounding remains an unchanged aspect of this West African society crossing centuries and centuries of change. Some NGOs provide milling machines as an alternative to pounding. Few are used for income generation for women’s groups. Some are left broken and rusting.
Picture this: Aja, in a wrap skirt, sweating bullets, with her fellow women pounding up and down, klonk, klonk, klonk, and all are silent expect for the their hot and heavy breath releasing with each thrust. A rusted corrugate fence, held up by gray, termite ridden cut tree branches, stands behind them declaring the boundary of Jarju Kunda’s land from the compound next door. The Jarju’s farm with tall, leafy, green, and supple corn, cassava, and millet spreads one hundred meters back. Just another one hundred meters back, a twenty five story mobile phone tower gleaming in the setting sun jetting up from the road.
As we search for authenticity back home in the states, we often revert to the “tribes of Africa;” the dress, beadwork, drums, carpentry, weaved fabric, fetching waters, pounding, sifting, weeding with a wood and iron spade. As much of the culture here remains as it was “long ago,” simultaneously much of it is changing. So how does a static society and a changing society coexist? It is a subtle marriage, one that often goes unnoticed unless asked directly. Mobile phones, electricity, TVs, DVDs, cars trucks, Mercedes Benz, radios, and tape players exist amongst mud huts with grass roofs, open wells, pit latrines, rice fields, women carrying goods and water on their heads, women carrying babies on their backs, donkey carts, horse carts, and reed fences.
This coexistence of the Western things with the African things symbolizes a struggle of developing nations. The struggle to not erode to a culture in limbo, as this society feverishly wants to shed their past identities and adopt the new flashy ones of the West. But, chasing after industrialized nations in hopes to “catch up” is impossible. Perhaps, these Western things are creating yet another rift between those living in poverty. Those poor families who can afford a mobile phone versus those who cannot, where both families are living in cement block houses without electricity, both families go to the farms, rice fields, and gardens, but one family can rise above the next because of a possession of a thing.
The phenomenon of “Keeping up with the Jones’” infuses societies that are barely treading water in the capitalist global economy. This culture used to live completely off the land, whatever it provided, they used for housing, food, and income generation. But now that industrialized countries parade their wealth and goods through all media outlets, Gambians want it all. It is a status symbol to wear jeans, sunglasses, sneakers, a fifty cent shirt, and living in a house with a shiny corrugate roof, sturdy cement blocks, with a TV and fan. Materialism is rampant, everyone hear never has enough things, because now they have something to compare their plight in this world. So the keeping up with the Jones’ that we thought was uniquely American, is right here, amongst the people who live on less than a dollar a day. So now a class system in replacing a hierarchical system based on age and tribe. These fancy twenty or thirty something men straight from the city waltz into their family compound up country receiving the highest respects, because they are the ones making the money, in fact they are the ones supporting their family of twenty.
I am interviewing the mama muusoos (grandmothers) here in Kerewan. They tell folktales, I record it, and then attempt to translate. Usually, I have one of my counterparts there to translate. I ask them if they tell these stories that they learned as children to their children, and most replied with a big “no.” They said that with TV and hip hop music kids don’t gather around at night to listen to folktales. Sound familiar? A co-worker at the local NGO I work at part-time, Faburama, said that with loss of folklore comes an erosion of cultural orientation. Folklores teach morals, societal norms and values, and identity. Without storytelling as an avenue for teaching such, children look to the Western ideals. So as the social fabric from centuries ago wears thin to someday make room for modernization, industrialization, or which ever the buzz word is for eurocentric norms and values, Gambia moves into a state of limbo, standing bare and exposed.
I watch the pestles cut across the backdrop of a the gleaming and phallic mobile phone tower and wonder where women like Aja, only twenty-eight with five children and probably more on the way, illiterate, and poor will fit, if at all, in the future of The Gambia. Will a country, without a viable economy, well managed education system, or democratic leadership, someday develop away from the culture that once held them together? And what will happen if it actually does?
Saturday, October 20, 2007
School has started. I'm teaching exclusively Grade 12 math and science this year and only pulling a single shift (heck yeah!). I'm getting computer classes up and running in the evenings to limited success but unlimited promise, so we'll see. I'm also holding almost daily tutoring sessions to prepare for the Grade 12 West African Examination Council (WAEC) Exams. This is quickly turning into a resounding success as attendance to an optional, free hour or two in the sweltering heat of mid-afternoon is growing more and more every day. I had 35 on Thursday and expect more on Monday. The proof is in the pudding (I don't know why I pick that saying) so we'll see if any of them pass this incredibly difficult exam in May.
Our most rewarding project (and least amount of work) is the Reading mentors program where Rachel and I couple my students with her nursery school kids twice a week for reading time. We aim to make it a formal school club and participation has exceeded all expectations. It's unbelievable. And, of course, every night is homework time at Jalamang and Liisandings as the neighborhood kids pile into our small front room for math and reading help. It's incredibly fulfilling so long as the DON'T PEE ON OUR COUCH! Too late.
Life at site is great and my LSATs went really well as Rachel and I begin to contemplate what's next. To top it all off, the cold season is rapidly approaching which means more to us than you can imagine.
Sunday, October 14, 2007
Carson and boys walking back from the Mosque. We spent an hour at the mosque: forty-five minutes waiting for the town to arrive and fifteen minutes for prayer. The elders continued to pray as our host brothers and sister jumped up, grabbed our hands, and told us it was time to go. Lamin, far right, is carrying the prayer mat, in which four boys fit if laid horizontally. All Muslims pray on a mat, never directly on the ground.
The Alikalo, or the traditional leader of Kerewan, and his entourage coming to the mosque for Koriteh prayers. As we watched from a distance, the town came in droves. It was a bit like the red carpet. The man over the loud speaker would announce when important people or families arrived.
The women who go to the mosque must pray behind the men. Usually they are pushed outside because there is not enough room inside the mosque. Here at the main mosque they have a rectangular cement block structure to perform their prayers. The women who completed their pilgrimage to Mecca, or the Haj, wear the white shawls and black bands on top of their heads. Girls and women from the ages of 15 to 70 rarely or never go to the mosque to pray. It's rumored that this demographic of females receive "Islamic points" for staying home to pray.
Saturday, September 29, 2007
About The Gambia
Have you met anyone with HIV/AIDS? –Sidir
I have not personally met anyone with HIV/AIDS. I most likely have sat next to them while travelling, walked passed some on the street, or even worked alongside them without ever knowing. A lot of volunteers, who work in the health sector, do HIV/AIDS awareness and work at clinics with HIV/AIDS patients.
Why is Carson's class failing? –Katie
This is something that cannot be blamed on one person or event. The education system needs a lot of improvements. With a shortage of teachers and classrooms, the average class size is forty-five. It is easy then for many students to fall through the cracks. With a national policy of mass promotion, students go to the next grade levels without every truly comprehending the basics in each subject. So by the time students reach grades 10 and 11, they are nowhere near where they need to be to succeed.
Have you ever seen a wild hyena in person? –Adam
There is a nature reserve just out side the capital called Abuko. There we saw five hyenas, with a huge fence in between us and them of course! We hear stories about hyenas coming into villages. They are enough to scare me away from walking in the bush at night or the early morning. Gambians tell us that if we come across a hyena in the wild to not run, climb a tree, or fall down. You should just walk normally. What would you do if you saw a hyena? Maybe go on the internet and learn more about hyenas in the wild. If you find out any good tips, let us know!
Do you think our communities are alike in any way? –Jessica
Yes! We all like to laugh, spend time with our families, dance, play sports, drink soda, go to school, tell stories, and talk about the weather. There are some major fundamental differences: Gambia is based on a communal family structure, while America is an individualistic society. The majority of Gambians are Muslim, while America has a diverse set of religions. Gambians practice polygamy, while in America it is illegal to have more than one wife. Amidst all this difference, we all still love, cry, laugh, and feel pain the same way.
Does The Gambia have an airport? –Tom
Yes it does! It is actually fairly nice. NASA funded the airport’s construction in order to use The Gambia as an emergency landing site. I am not sure if this still holds true currently. Go onto NASA’s website and see what they say about it.
Why is The Gambia so poor when in the ancient times it had so much wealth? –Josef
In ancient times there was a different standard of wealth. The ancient empires in West Africa, such as the Mali Empire, were self sufficient. They used their own system to measure wealth. Now, after colonialism, The Gambia’s wealth is compared to that of the industrialized world. The currency, markets, jobs, and traditions were mostly replaced with that of the British’s. A new language, new currency, and a whole new system were put in place that was not organically Gambia’s own. In this age of Globalization, The Gambia’s development consistently falls short to developed nations, such as the US, Germany, England, and China.
The questions to ask now are: how can we provide aid that empowers Gambians to develop their country, rather than perpetuate a cycle of dependency? What can we do to educate others about Africa? Is it fair to judge Africa’s development against that of Europe and the US? What can you do locally to help others think and act globally?
Do people treat you guys better or worse because you are white? –Jay
Both. We get a lot of attention that we are not used to. We are like celebrities. We cannot hide and we cannot blend in. It is difficult to live in a place where we are immediately judged based on the color of our skin. People assume that we are very wealthy. They assume that we will give things away all the time. They assume that we have all the answers when it comes to acquiring a visa to study or work in the US or Europe.
On the positive side, as a white woman, I am considered an honorary man. So I can eat with them or sit with them at ceremonies. My co-workers think that I am an expert in computers, especially when they see me type fast. I am often considered an honorary guest at meetings. On the negative side, the children always scream out TOUBAB (white person), when they see us. When riding my bike, children have thrown rocks at me or grabbed onto my bike.
Now that we have lived here for over a year, I feel much more a part of this community. We are accepted and protected by our host family and neighbors. We still receive unwanted attention when travelling into the capital.
About Peace Corps
Did you pick to go to The Gambia or were you assigned? -Isabel and Sophie
The application process took us about a year and a half. The average is eight months. We requested to be placed in the region of Africa. With that information they assigned us to The Gambia. Go to their website, www.peacecorps.gov to find out more about the process.
How old do you have to be to join the Peace Corps because I'm interested! –Yasmeen
In order to join you must earn a four year degree from college or university. The average age of Peace Corps Volunteers is 28. In The Gambia the ages range from 22 to 66! Check out Peace Corps website, www.peacecorps.gov, to learn more about the application process and volunteers’ experiences.
Why did you join the Peace Corps? –Jacob
We joined because we both wanted a challenging and fulfilling experience abroad. Both my parents served as Peace Corps Volunteers in the late sixties; my dad served in Peru and my mom served in Iran. So I grew up hearing about Peace Corps stories. Carson and I wanted a chance to truly understand and see the world through another person’s perspective. Living with a host family, in remote areas of the world, will do just that. It will shake your worldview to the core.
What has been the most memorable experience for you guys? – Ariana
Gosh, there have been so many! The everyday experiences we have with learning the language, eating new foods, and meeting new people. Two years grants us endless memorable moments and experiences; seeing success with our work, perhaps. The Girl’s club weekend, was truly memorable and rewarding for me.
About living far from home
What is it like to experience situations that are so far from our own? –Elena
It is scary yet fascinating, overwhelming yet rewarding. Being here teaches you how to work and live with people that are very different from you. It can be very frustrating and intense, but in the end, you will have the confidence to handle any situation you find yourself in.
What is it like being so far away from home? Do you ever have moments when you regret going to The Gambia? –Rebecca
With technology where it is today, I don’t feel as far away as I thought I would have. I have access to email. I have a mobile phone that my parents and friends can call. I still get very homesick. I have some days where I regret coming here. But then I think about all that I have learned and gained from being here and I wouldn’t trade that in for anything. And anyway, it is not worth living life with regret. No day but today!
What do you miss the most? -Grace and Ellie
First and foremost, I really miss my family and friends. I miss ice cream, especially Oreo ice cream and raspberry sorbet! I miss the winter. I miss sleeping in a comfy bed with air conditioning. I miss salads. I miss going out to cafes and chatting all afternoon with friends or family. I miss the comforts, which I never appreciated until now.
I know we will miss many things about The Gambia when we leave; for example, playing with the neighbourhood kids, taking showers in the rain, the local peanut butter, or going to the gardens. We will also miss our fellow volunteers; they have become our family over here!
I have a namesake, a toomaa. Little Liisanding was born on September 12, 2007 in the wee hours of the morning at the local clinic here in Kerewan. I arrived later that day from a quick trip into Kombo. I couldn’t believe Mariama finally gave birth. I was checking in everyday for two weeks to see if the baby came. In the mornings on my way to the market or work, I went across the sandy road to the Jarju compound greeted Janke, the first wife, and Mariama, the second wife. Mariama was usually lying on the mat on her side with her hand below her very pregnant belly. I asked, “Denaanoo le? (Where’s the baby?)” They both laughed. I continued with a light tone, “I mang wulu foloo? (You have not given birth yet?)” Mariama chimes in, “Denanoo be sinoo. (The baby is sleeping.)” Janke laughed and repeated the entire conversation. I wished them with a good morning and went on with my day.
In a culture that states the obvious, pregnancy is never a topic of conversation. No one touches a pregnant woman’s belly. No one asks how the pregnant woman is holding up. The topic is off limits. It is part superstition and part traditional culture. By not acknowledging the pregnancy, perhaps, that will bring luck and health to newly born baby. Or if there is a miscarriage, on the surface it will go unnoticed to the community. Outside the compound, women wear oversized blouses that drop past their rear end with long wrap skirts that hang at their ankles. Women are to never show their lower abdominal region down to their calves out in public. So a pregnant woman doesn’t start showing until the seventh or eighth month. I noticed Mariama began to gain weight on her tiny fit body. Weight gain on its own is not an issue here, except with growing children. Her face filled out and her arms got thicker. I suspected a baby was on the way. For me, pregnancy is a reality that I can not ignore. Blame it on our culture’s parading of motherhood in every media outlet. Or the expectation that a pregnant woman must be the happiest woman, and therefore would love to talk about it and be touched incessantly. If not, then they are committing a major cultural taboo. It is almost instinctual that when I see a pregnant woman that I know here, I ask if their body is feeling healthy today. She tells me yes and laughs with some surprise and then quickly changes the subject.
A toomaa is like a godmother. Most kids have toomaa but not all. Since Mariama began showing, she and her co-wife, Janke, were telling me that they would name the baby after me if it was a girl, and if the baby was a boy, they would name it Jalamang, Carson’s Gambian name. I would laugh, thinking that they were joking. So I began to ask where little Liisanding was and Mariama would joke and say she is in my belly, still sleeping. Even when Mariama gave birth, I walked into the Jarju compound, and elatedly exclaimed, “Liisanding lee?! (Where’s Liisanding).” Janke told me to go into the house and look at the baby. I walked into the mud brick home. There was a long front room, with two beds on opposite ends. I walked to a small hallway and turned right into Mariama’s small square room, just big enough to fit a double bed and a chair. She lay there, fanning herself. I couldn’t imagine just giving birth and having to endure the stifling heavy heat that comes with the rainy season. I looked over to see a bundle with a squishy nose sticking out. I have never seen a day old baby before. The next day I came and Mariama let me hold her. It was so small. She looked barely human. Her face turned purple when she wanted to cry, but she couldn’t quite get her lungs into gear. While trying to manage this little thing, Mariama told me that I am really the toomaa. She said she asked the elders from her husband’s family and they approved of naming her after my Gambian name, Liisanding Samateh. I said to myself, so this is not a joke. For the first time, these women are not joking with me. I have gotten accustomed to our style of conversation. We joke, tease, and laugh. I did this with all the women. In that moment of disbelief, I felt awkward but accepted.
So with a toomaa comes responsibilities. Seven days after a birth, there is a kulliyo, a naming ceremony. Kulliyos occur often, at least once a week, in a town of three thousand. A baby does not have a name until the male elders come and bestow a name onto the baby. Besides the sperm, this is the only other role that men have in regards to reproduction. Pregnancy and birth are totally in the women’s realm. As the toomaa, I am supposed to be present and give a nice gift at the ceremony. I asked around in hopes to get some ideas about what is culturally acceptable for me to give. Most said things for the baby, like clothes, powder, oil, and soap. Some told me to go to the capital and buy an oversized cellophane wrapped baby washing pan with all the necessities in it. I thought about how expensive that was and also the unwanted attention of a toubab lugging this huge gaudy gift back to Kerewan was not something I wanted to deal with. So I opted out of the latter and shopped around Kerewan. I found everything but the baby pan. Aja and Dabo came to inspect the gift, to make sure that I didn’t forget anything important. Aja, said it was good, but that I needed to buy some baby oil. She was a little nervous for me, she could not believe it either, that they had picked me to be the toomaa. As Aja usually does, she made sure I saved face.
All week leading up to the naming ceremony, I felt a bit of a fraud. Why did they pick me? Is it because I am a rich white woman? I felt so bad for thinking they had an agenda. But, even if they did, I hoped it was out of love. I worried that my gift wasn’t enough. I worried that I could not make any promises to this family about my role as the toomaa. I am leaving in ten months, what do they truly want from in me that amount of time? Is there a way to keep connected to them after we leave? I kept going around in circles and getting more nervous. Then I stopped and realized that this was an honor. They have accepted me; they have invited me to be part of their family. The elders also agreed to it, so that means I am acknowledged as part of this community.
It was cloudy with a light sprinkle on the morning of the kulliyo. Finally, the cool morning gave everyone a respite from the unbearable heat. The clouds lingered low. The naming ceremony was supposed to start at nine or so. I put on my green tie and dye dress, accented it with a gaudy black necklace that I bought at the Barra car park while waiting for the ferry one afternoon, and searched for my purple prayer shawl. I was a little nervous. I have been to several kulliyos before, but not in this capacity, not as the godmother. I felt a weight resting on my shoulders as I searched our dresser for my shawl. I needed something to put over my shoulders as this was an occasion with the elders. I sipped some green tea, got my gift together, and dusted off my sandals. Carson went off to the school. He reassured me that the day was going to be great. As I was about to give up and head out, I remembered I left my shawl in one of my travel bags. I shook it out, just in case there were some spiders having a party, and through it over my shoulders.
I ran over to the Jarju compound. Some male elders were beginning to arrive and it looked as though things would not get going for another hour. Janke came out of the house with no shirt and sweat beading from her forehead to her large black breasts. She has been cleaning, getting the house ready for the influx of about one to two hundred visitors. Janke is one of my favorite people here. She is one of the cooks as the nursery school. She is on committees and leads women’s coops. Heavy set, with beautiful chocolate skin, curves and muscle that gives her stance strength and conviction, a face that sparkles, and a booming voice, Janke is in command. Her husband, Mr. Jarju, is tall, lanky, quiet her opposite. He smokes and keeps to himself. Yesterday morning was the first time he had spoken to me with a smile. As the first wife Janke’s six children are older and some have their own kids. Her youngest daughter, Titi, is fifteen and was part of my Girl’s Club this past year. If I had to guess, Janke is in her sixties, but she looks forty. Liisanding is Mariama’s fourth child. Her oldest, Alhagie, seven years old, comes to read with me at night. Her second oldest, Janke, comes as well. Even Yonkoba, third in line, who just learned how to walk and talk, comes over. Mariama is a shade lighter than Janke and a couple of inches shorter. Her smile spreads wide like a butterfly under her big pronounced nose. She looks younger than Janke, but like most women here, she is weathered beyond her years.
I left for a little bit to go see if there were any tomatoes at the market. No such luck. I returned an hour later to a room filled with women. There were about twenty women sitting in the front room and another ten milling about in the back to check in with Mariama and little Liisanding. Six women sat with Mariama in her small stuffy room. I spotted Janke, who was already busy with her hostess role. She looked like royalty, wearing a purple tie and dye komplet. She grabbed my hand and sat me in between the women in the front room. My head was already spinning. The women, ranging from twenty to eighty, barraged me with greetings, flailing there arms up every which way as bright pink and blue, electric orange and yellow, deep shades of green and pink fabrics decorated the drab mud brick backdrop. Loud and intricate designs faded into one another, while prayer shawls with magenta, gold, lime and silver sequence reflected the thin rays of gray light.
I looked out the window to see the men filing in. They sat outside on the opposite end of the compound. I saw Janke carry the baby outside to the male elders, who are seen as both community and religious leaders. The elders on the father’s side usually chooses a name for the baby. This time, they accepted my name. I got up and followed closely behind. An elder washed a razor with a single blade and began to shave the baby’s head. While doing so he said a silent prayer. Although his hands were shaky, he shaved the hair off with relative ease. He then whispered the name her family has chosen in to her tiny wrinkled ears. The griot, a praise singer, stepped out and announced this name, Liisanding. All the men then began to pray, with their palms facing upward and their voices droning Arabic. I knew they were finished when the brought their palms to their faces and then to their chests. Within minutes the men dispersed.
The women took no part in the ceremony. There were inside buzzing with activity. I could here the energy pulsing. I joined their hive, weaving my way inside. I saw familiar faces and friends. I saw the women from the neighboring Fatty, Ceesay, Singateh, and Danso compounds. These are the women that I see at the market or at the pump fetching water. I found Mariama surrounded by women. She looked revived and recharged, as though the gathering of women infused her body with strength and vitality. I sat in this circle, swaying and bending with their camaraderie. They passed little Liisanding to me, who was wrapped in a black, red, blue, and yellow weaved cloth. The amount of cloth around her doubled her size. Her body was warm next to my chest. Women were coming and going, asking me if I was happy that I have a toomaa. They walked over to Mariama and gave her money, some gave five Dalasi and some gave fifty Dalasi. Aja came in to tell me that it was time to give my gift. We rush over to our compound, inspected the gifts one last time, put the items in a black bag, and scurried back over. Aja was my cultural liaison. She presented the gift by emptying all its contents on the floor in front Janke and Mariama. The women clapped and awed. I wondered if it was still enough and if they were reacting out of formality. But the beat went on. Women kept coming in, offering bowls of rice and a small amount of money. Janke poured the rice into a plastic fifty kilogram rice bag; it was full by noon. The women called out to me when Carson stopped by to join in the festivities and pay his respects to the men of the Jarju compound. They say to me, “Liisa look, your husband,” and smile at how odd our outwardly loving relationship is.
I was overcome with such respect and admiration while observing how these women take care of each other in this male dominated society. Janke was such a gracious host, making sure Mariama’s celebration went on without a hitch and without Mariama having to lift a finger. No matter if its co-wives, sisters, or friends, these women support each other. I came outside to enjoy the cool air that was coming with a looming rainstorm. I sat on a mat next to Aja. All the women were gasping at how much dirt Alu was eating. I noticed that the women on the mat were having a meeting sorts with Mariama’s brother. Women were passing around money and he was reading out names. I asked Titi what this was all about. She told me in her broken English that it was a Mother’s Club. The brother looked and asked me to read some names he did not recognized. At that moment I was the only one who was literate in Mandinka. I read out names such as Tida, Konteh, Nkey, Naakebba, and Sutay and each time the women responded with a ha or hani (yes or no). I asked the brother, who spoke good English, what this club was all about. He told me that the women contributed fifteen Dalasi (about sixty cents) per week. There are roughly fifty or sixty women in the group. Each time a woman gives birth she receives three thousand Dalasi. This club is like a savings bank. A woman has a baby every two to three years. So putting in sixty Dalasi per month to the Club ensures that that money will not be spent on other things. I looked to my left and saw one of the women counting the stack of Dalasi by one hundreds, kiling, fula, saba, naani, luluu, wooro, wooro wula, sey, tang. She put that stack of one thousand dirty, worn down Dalasi bills aside and began counting from another pile. I am humbled by the security these women provide for each other in all aspects of life.
The celebration rolled on and more people come and go. Since it is the holy month of Ramadam, the celebration was somewhat subdued. Usually there is dancing and lots of eating. But today, women lie on the mats together enduring the pains of fasting. The women did not begin cooking until late afternoon. Two were cutting the butchered sheep into smaller edible pieces. Two other women were cleaning the large cast iron cooking pot. Another woman began pounding the black pepper and hot pepper. The crowd thinned out as the rain poured down. Many women have to go home to prepare a break fast meal for their husbands. Usually the party continues through the night with loud music and dancing. Mariama told me after the Ramadan, they will have dancing. Last night, the rain muffled the lingering excitement of celebration. Janke gave me a heaping bowl of Benechin with a potato and two hunks of meat. Benechin is the staple party dish in the Mandinka community. It is rice cooked in loads of oil, with tomatoes, tomato paste, onions, hot peppers, black pepper, MSG flavor packets and served with some veggies and meat. As I took my bowl across the sandy road home to Carson, I heard the dusk call to prayer. It was break fast time. Janke scurried to serve the remainder of the guests. Slurping and chewing replaced the laughing and chatter.
I took my time walking back to my compound, enjoying the rain, soaking in the day. I was amazed at how comfortable and at ease I was throughout the day’s events. A year ago, spending all day at a naming ceremony would have been painfully overwhelming. That day I did not feel like an outsider, a spectacle, or this random white person in the corner. I was Liisanding, the toomaa. I am still different, but I am accepted into their family and into their community. People continue to congratulate me, that I have been given this honor of the toomaa. I smile with them, exuding deep appreciation for what I whole heartedly embrace.
This past week has been an emotional rollercoaster. There is no catastrophic event or reason to prompt such a ride. Highs and lows creep up on you. They are often difficult to justify. But, nonetheless, it is a reality that I have come all to accustomed. Maybe it’s the malaria medication making my emotions run amuck, maybe it’s the heat, and maybe it’s the constants of guilt, helplessness, insecurity, and pain around us. In my attempts to figure out why I am feeling what I am feeling, I find myself going in circles until I can blame something, anything that causes those low low moments and even the high ones.
Last Tuesday, I was feeling quite crappy about being here. We were in the capital. Carson was working on Law School stuff; I was running errands and doing email. I felt physically run down. I figured I was fighting some sort of bug. But, something else was eating away at me. Usually, shopping for lentils at the supermarket and buying fabric for a Koriteh outfit would make my week, but this time it was just there, as something to do. Being around fellow PCVs, even our good friends, didn’t bring me out of my funk. Becca and I even went in to talk to one of the Assistant Directors about applying for government jobs. No matter the amount of stimulation, I couldn’t shake it.
So this it, what is it? I felt this way before, in fact, almost all PCVs feel this way one point or another during their service. This it, it manifest through questions such as: What’s the point? What am I doing here? What does this experience truly mean to me? Am I really making a difference? Is this whole experience worth it? Am I just wasting time? Shouldn’t I be thinking of a career? Where will I be when all this is done? When will I be done? And it goes on, spirals out of control. It makes you negative, cynical, jaded, and downright low. We usually get slammed with all this in the middle of our service. Peace Corps named it the “Mid-Service Crisis.” While I appreciate the name, these emotions come and go throughout. It’s like a worm, an ameba, something that just sucks the life out of you at the given moments.
For me, it was a feeling of being lost. I like to have some control in life and when I feel it slipping, it comes quietly and slaps me in the face. Kerewan has been so quiet, eerily quiet. All my counterparts were away, schools were closed, and the women were too tired to talk or hangout from working in the rice fields. We enjoyed being hermits, but that can wear on one’s psyche as well. I felt stagnant. I felt unmotivated to begin another year. I thought about all the frustrations, failures, and maddening moments over the past year. Do I really want to go through that again? I get it, I did this past year, can’t that be enough? With Carson studying for the LSATs and applying to law schools, we have been talking incessantly about the future. What next after this? How can we use this experience to get where we want to be with jobs? What do I want to do or be? And so I began feeling lost. I lost my sense of purpose here and thus lost my motivation. I lost my confidence that I can have a successful career and have a family. I lost my sense of self. This may sound drastic, but this is what happens. It breaks you down to the rawness of your situation. It forces you to constantly reevaluate what you are, who you are, and where you are.
Becca and I were on the ferry heading back to our sites. I just wanted to get home and to our house, for what I don’t know. To be there, to do some yoga or Pilates, try to sweat it out. Becca noticed this. She said I looked tired. We talked about this feeling that sucks all my energy. How the ho-hum of a quiet summer mixed with the realities around us create a perfect canvas for these low moments. So we were making a list of what to look forward to these next coming months. She talked about her parents visiting, I mentioned Carson taking his LSATs. We then remembered we wanted to make a calendar that exploited male PCVs (more like a parody of those “all male” calendars) to raise money for our Girl’s Club programs. We laughed in the midst of the crowded second floor seating area. I looked out to see the ferry stuffed to the brim of its corners. (I never even want to guess what the maximum weight is.) I realize that it is all about strategy to survive these two years. The days, weeks, and months weigh so heavily, sometimes it feels like the year is trudging through mud. But with some projects or small event to look forward to, time picks up just enough to get you through. Becca and I part ways at the car park next to the ferry terminal. I squeeze into my seat on the gele and ride the way home.
I remember a fellow seasoned volunteer telling us, just make it to the next day; it can’t be any worse than today. So I made it through each and everyday that was just so scary to be in. I got home that afternoon, did some Pilates, and just cried. Feeling relieved to have the chance to let it out. I couldn’t cry on the ferry with Becca for that would have brought even more attention to the two white women on the second floor. I needed to get home to be myself, to be with my head. I often find myself separating my emotions, my reactions, and my judgments from my everyday interactions. I have to in a way be stoic. I can’t take anything truly personally. I would go crazy here, otherwise. People criticize every aspect of me, they tease ferociously, and they constantly need something from us. So I put up the iron cloak. But, with just me, in our safe American space we have made for ourselves here, I let go of the armor and succumb to the low moment, to it swirling in and out of me.
In the next day or two, it is pushed under the rug. Things start to happen. I unloaded a bit on Carson, which helps me figure stuff out. I had a good chat at the market. I ate millet and sour milk with cinnamon and sugar. I had a fascinating talk with one of my favorite Gambians, Faburama. He is the coordinator of the Women’s Enterprise and Development sector at ADWAC. We talked about Mandinka folklore, how it was eroding to make way for the hip hop lore of 50 cent and Tupac. We talked about the cultural gap here in The Gambia. How without this folklore there is a lack of cultural orientation. The younger generation wants Gambia to be just like The West, and the older refuse to succumb. This friction simmers while this culture is in limbo. I asked him to tell me some stories he remembers. He told one about the greedy hyena and the clever hare. This got me thinking about recording elderly women telling these stories, translating into English, and making them into children’s books. So maybe the morals from these stories can orient children back to their roots, while embracing the values of education and innovation. I also interviewed the new Program Officer at ADWAC. She is an empowered, unmarried, professional Gambian woman. A rare sight here. She was eloquent and gutsy. It was a great conversation. I proposed the folklore project to my Nursery School counterpart. Bruama loved it. He will translate and we will transcribe the story in both Mandinka and English. We will start this week! Also, more neighborhood kids are coming for reading time at night. I found out that two girls from my Girl’s Club passed their grade nine exam and will attend high school in the city. They are going places. Also the father of one of the girls, Sally, approached us and asked if we could pay for Sally’s schooling. We did not hesitate. Sally is the one who wants to be vice president. She gave a roaring performance at the debate this past year. She also was the main character in the drama about early marriage and HIV/AIDs. So we are more than willing to invest in her future.
With the snowballing of events, I am set free. It happens that fast. Yeah, it can make you go crazy. But life would be dull without it. I can let my hands raise overhead and enjoy the weightlessness of coming over the high point on the rollercoaster. After which, I will come tumbling down from in the near future. But, no day but today.
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
The weather is a character in this adventure of ours. We consistently react to it, whether it is the burning sun during the dry season or the humid air consuming the rainy season. The weather dictates each day. It is always the first topic of conversation after the greetings. Our emotional and physical state of being is enslaved to the temperature, sun, dust, rain, humidity, and wind. With only cement walls and a corrugate roof, it is all inescapable. So like several other aspects of this place, we have learned to embrace it. If it’s a hot night (with no electricity) we take a bucket bath, dry off a tad, and throw on some Gold Bond medicated body powder. The tingling is awesome! If a big rain storm finally arrives after a long hot and humid day, we run inside, take of our clothes, run to our back area, and enjoy the sweet bliss of a letting the cold rain soak every inch of our bodies. We put our drinking water in a big clay pot to keep it cold. We sleep on a grass mattress because unlike a foam mattress, it does not trap heat. My favorite is in the month long “cold season,” when we have to heat up our bath water in the mornings. So with accepting the weather for what it is, we have learned to react to it accordingly, we have learned to live with it.
Embracing the elements is a good marker for how far we have come here. The heat, humidity, sun, the bugs, the rodents, shitting in pit latrine used to be all consuming. Now all these have eroded to the emotional challenges. When I see a cockroach, which is every night, I just shrug, pick up a hard object, try to kill it, if I don’t catch it in time, I shrug again, and crawl into bed. I love spiders here. I let them take over the ceiling and corners. They eat the bugs and mosquitos, which is a good exchange for shelter in my book. But, those jumping spiders that I find in the bed, I make sure I beat them dead before falling asleep. There are a lot of crickets in our house. They like dark and tight spaces. Often times I pick up a container or book and underneath I find a whole family of crickets along with there excrements. I hear them throughout the day and into the night. Some days they take a rest.
One morning this past month, the rain came steadily. It was cool, with just enough wind to not make the rain travel sideways into the windows. I had just taken my bucket bath, dried off, dressed, and was about to make some hot water for tea. Our kitchen, which consists of a wood table, camping stove, and gas tank, is outside the house in the concrete area behind the house. We propped up a roof over it and called it an extension to our two room house. I went to open the screen door to the kitchen, when a rat jumped onto the middle of the screen door, clenched its claws and stared straight at me. I gasped and looked right back at it. It was soaking wet, the rain must have flooded it out of its hole somewhere among the maze of the neighborhood compounds. I screamed at it to go away, found an object and threw it at the door. It fell off and fled the scene. I waited about five minutes to go outside, assuming that is was still lingering inside of our cement walls enclosing the back area. When I got the courage to open the door, the rat came back. It jumped to the same place and frantically held itself three feet from the ground. I couldn’t believe it, it really wanted in. It’s nasty slimy tail, its disheveled soaked fur, its rabid eyes starring me down. I told it no way you are coming in here and ruining my favorite part of the day, breakfast! I had some freshly ground peanut butter on hot bread and with some black or green tea, I was in heaven. So I threw plastic bowls at it. (I was happy that we opted to by metal screen when we moved in.) I threw metal cans. I even threw nails. It whimpered and ran away. Ha! I won! I waited another five minutes just be sure. I went out with a bowl in hand, ready for more action. But it never came back and I enjoyed my breakfast while the sweet smell of victory mixed with the fresh smell of rain soaked earth.
Our good friends Todd and Becca came to visit last week. We decided to go for a walk in the early evening. The day was hot, humid, and miserable. Luckily in August and Spetember that means a rain storm with come soon. Some clouds were coming in, but we weren’t too worried. As we were leaving, Aja, who was relaxing on her day off from the fields, advised us not to go out because rain was coming. We told her we’ll turn back once the clouds got dark. We walked to the main road and then to a dirt road right before the bridge to get to the rice fields at the edge of the tributary. We let the cool air that came along with the clouds pass over and under us. As we passed the rice fields, dark and ominous clouds were intruding the rich green and red landscape. It was beautiful. The long, elegant white herrings and florescent red finch-like birds punctuated rolling black clouds with a sense of calm. We walked to the edge of the tributary and looked to the sky. White fluffy crisp clouds were fleeing the storm front that was swiftly making ground over head. The setting sun outlined the black clouds on the edge of the storm front with a dusty green. We all looked at each other, don’t green clouds mean a tornado is coming. We breathed again when we realized that our American words of wisdom did not apply to this particular storm. We then wondered if there ever were tornados in Africa...
The clouds had not dropped any rain on us yet, so we decided not to linger any longer and headed on home. A little less than half way home, the wind picked up and sheet of rain fell over us. It was just like air conditioning. We were soaked in two minutes. The four of us walked onto the deserted main road. And here we were, the crazy toubabs, at it again. We only saw little boys in the nude showering in the down pour. The storm felt so refreshing and I felt so alive. I couldn’t keep from smiling. Our skirts clung to our legs inhibiting any normal walking movements. Our feet were slimy with mud. As we neared our compound, all I could think of was Aja’s warning. We opened the heavy iron door and there she was sitting on her front porch, breast feeding Alu, and laughing at us all. She told us so. But, I didn’t care because I was cold and wet and loving it.
Friday, August 31, 2007
Wednesday, August 29, 2007
But before we get into that, some quick updates:
-It is hot and muggy. After a two week hiatus from rain, it’s been raining heavily for the past two days. So that means the nights are bearable!
-The opening of the school year just got pushed back to September 17th. So Carson and I are enjoying some down time, hanging out with the kids, and reading some great books.
-Ramadan will begin September 13th (same day as Rosh Hoshannah). We are thinking about fasting the last two weeks of it.
-The new Education group just swore in as volunteers this past Friday. After the ceremony, we fired up the grill, made guacamole, and called it a celebration! So we are officially second year volunteers now! Watch out!
-Carson is working on starting a garden. A Gambian man named Maline is a dedicated agro-forester. He loves working with Peace Corps. He grows trees, nursery beds, and tries out new crops. He is trying to introduce yams here in TG. He has a far off dream of yams taking the place of rice, which requires so much work to cultivate. So Carson bikes down to Maline’s forest, the only dense forest for miles, in the afternoons to hang out. He will begin to fire up the computer lab at the school. Maybe some kids and adults will come by for some lessons before school opens. Carson is also busy studying for the LSATs, which he will take at the end of September.
-I am just hanging out, going to ADWAC and helping them put out their newsletter. I also want to prepare some teaching and learning aids before I go out to visit the nursery schools. I have had some great and productive meetings with my counter part at the Education Directorate. We made a work plan for a nursery school intervention program for this coming school year. So far so good…
I went to visit Becca at her site yesterday. She lives in Njongon, a small Wollof/Serrer village about 60K from Kerewan. She is an easy gele ride or two. Becca has become my close friend here in a place where a support network can be limited. While away, I realized how much I missed our Peace Corps family back here. The depth of mutual understanding and support we have with each other is unmatched. This shared experience is something special. We all need each other to stay sane, to stay dedicated, motivated, and positive. We need to vent, laugh, and hash out issues with one another. We need each other to attempt to understand our role here and what all this around us means.
Becca lives in the one catholic compound in her area. She is the one of the two Peace Corps Volunteer that lives with a Christian family here in The Gambia. Her family is originally from Senegal. Most of the family members live and work in Senegal. There is an unusual dynamic in Becca’s compound that I have grown to love: relaxed with a crisp ease. This might be because there are no young children taking over every corner.
Her host father, Pa Saine, is my one of my favorite Gambians. He is a tall burly man who I rarely see standing. He lies like a king or sits back in his chair like an old tenured professor philosophizing about life. Pa’s face is sweet but weathered. He has patches of gray in his short hair tightly clung to his square head. His voice is urgent and crackling. Everyone stops when he speaks. He summons Becca or anyone when he has a question or a statement. But he is not strict or austere. He is caring and intriguing. He is both the patriarch and the heart of the Saine compound, two qualities that are not always mutually exclusive here. His sons, daughters, and wife respect him, but they playfully laugh at his antics.
Last night, we finished dinner and went outside to site on the large plastic mat. Pa was sitting in his chair, his son and grandson were a couple feet away sitting on wooden benches, and Hawa was lying on a small bench, using a plastic chair to balance. (I believe Hawa is a grandchild or cousin, but not quite sure. She is around fifteen years old and the one who cooks most days). The clouds cleared just in time for the night sky. Njongon has no street lights, so we could see it all: the Milky Way, the big dipper, and layers upon layers of stars. All we had was a dim Kerosene lamp allowing a circle of light.
Pa speaks Wollof, some English, and even less Mandinka. So the conversations go round and round until we figure out what each other are saying. In Wollof Pa asks Hadi (Becca’s Gambian name) my name. I tell him that I have been here before. I ask if he does not recognize me. He remembers, but it was too dark at the moment. He said he remembers that I was beautiful. Becca chuckles and warns Pa that I have a husband. I ask him if he wants to be my second husband. This gets Pa going.
“Where is he? Is he pretty?” Pa asks in haste.
“He’s in Kerewan living with me. And yes he is very pretty.” Between Becca and the grandson we get my message across.
“Does he have money?” Pa questions matter of fact.
I hesitate and begin playing along with him. “No he does not have money.”
And then Pa goes into his favorite question format, “Which would you rather…. A husband who is pretty with no money or a husband who is ugly with lots of money?” Becca laughs, she knows he is turning his show up a notch for the guest. One time when Jim visited, he posed the question of “Which would you rather: fire or water?”
I stand by my convictions and say “I would rather a pretty man with no money.”
Pa grunts in disapproval. In his broken English he claims, “Me, I like for ugly and money.”
Becca turns to me and says that Pa wants her to find him an old, ugly rich American woman. He talks about this with her often. We then hear his wife banter back from inside the house. She is screaming something in Wollof about how he is talking crazy. We chuckle loving this moment.
At this point, all the others watching are laughing uproariously. Hawa laughs so much she falls to the ground. Becca informs me that she always literally falls over when she laughs.
“Pa?” I ask, “Do you have money?”
He teases, “Yes, I am a millionaire….. And I am old and ugly! You see, you should take me.”
“Pa, you want to fight Jalamang? He is tall and young.” I egg on.
He lets out a “well” that sounds like “uh” and “we” together with some crackle and resonance thrown in. “He is long? How long?”
“No, that is not possible.” He goes into debating on who the tallest and shortest people in the world are. This goes on for five minutes as we through out countries such as Mali, Sudan, China, and the Pigmies in Central Africa. There is a lull, I look up to the stars and notice how the sky has shifted. I swat mosquitoes.
Pa interjects abruptly, “Ugly and money that’s what I am.” With that we laugh and throw our heads back. An unpredictable closure to an unpredictable evening. But that is Pa.
The next morning, we come out to greet the family and I find Pa feeding the donkey through the nose, while his grandson is holding down the awkward animal at the neck. Becca shrugs, “Oh that Pa, he is only medicating that donkey.” I smile and greet him in my broken Wollof. Pa looks up from his labor (and a rare moment that I see him standing), “Ah, Liisa, I see you now.” He then gets back to his veterinary work, mumbling and huffing in a uniquely profound Pa manner.
When it comes to the time to head back to Kerewan, Pa is nowhere in site. He is usually the one to get all flustered and in a huff and puff about me leaving. He begs me to stay at least for lunch. Becca and I spend fifteen minutes convincing him that I have to go. But this time it was his wife who was sifting the millet. She asks me to stay for lunch and acts almost appalled that I am leaving. Becca and I again spend time convincing her that I want to catch a bush taxi before Friday prayer time when everything comes to a halt in the afternoon. She allows it.
Becca walks me to the side of the road where I can catch a bush taxi. Here, they call it pushing your stranger, or seeing them off as we understand it. I wait in the glimmer of dust as each vehicle passes. I thank Becca for another great visit and for stocking me up on laughter, good talks, and light hearted moments. A bush taxi chaotically comes to a halt in front of us. I board, the apprentice laughs at the toubab greeting the people on the van and so begins my adventure home.
27th Aug 2007
When there is a moment of doubt or fear, there is sometimes someone there to help me find my way. Often times I assume the worst can happen to me here. Running alone in the early hours of the morning, those bleak and morbid thoughts pass through me. What ifs take over an otherwise opportune time for reflection and calm. Maybe its being a woman in this world or maybe its being a white person in Africa, but expecting the worst at any moment erodes my ability to truly trust a stranger, more specifically a man.
Trust is a loaded notion. In a society of such insecurity, trust does not come easy. Fatalism overrides trust. Gambians that I have worked with do not trust their co workers or community members. My counterparts constantly assume that I will forget what they have asked me to do… They begin their statement with, “Hope you did not forget what we talked about…” As an American, I am insulted that they would assume that I am forgetful person, after I have consistently followed through in the past. It took some time to realize that this is not a personal attack on my character, but a reflection of how people interact with one another here. Most people always assume that things will just not happen; expect the worst and, if you have enough energy and patience, hope for the best.
When I walk or run in the Kombo, I ignore all men who say hi or yell or hiss to get my attention. I can’t trust any man enough here to look them in the eye and say hi back. I pretend I don’t speak English. You just never know how they will take. They may take it as I want to be your friend or I am open to marriage. I have to put on an iron coat.
Sometimes my confusion or doubt is transparent through my iron coat. I try to put on the front that I know what I am doing at any moment of the day here, just to keep even more attention away. But, of course, that’s a huge lie and the children are the ones that see this the most. Sometimes this can be hugely annoying, but other times it can be what saves me.
This past week, I went to Becca’s site to help her paint the library at the school. A Fula boy named Samba came to hang out while we were painting. Like most Fulas here in The Gambia, Samba is light skinned, handsome, with sparkling eyes and a great smile. He is going into the seventh grade. He sat down and watched me as I was painting the hundred square. I challenged him to try to find the numbers whose digits add up to ten. We worked it out together and he found the pattern. I relish these random moments of teaching.
He had a catapult in his hand. I asked him what he does with that.
“I kill birds in trees,” he replied with earnest.
'“Oh, which birds do you kill?” I ask while thinking to myself did I really ask a thirteen year old boy that question?
He told me the bird in Wollof. I did not recognize it. “The yellow birds,” Samba generously clarifies. They are a bright deep yellow with black stripes. I have never seen such vivid color, especially next to a background of gray cement and green mango trees. These birds are small and travel in groups of ten or so. So when a kid disturbs the mango tree that they are resting in, they erupt in activity spraying the sky with dabs of yellow.
I come back from my serene moment in my head and continue my curiosity. “You kill them and after what happens?”
“I eat them.”’
“Oh.” Good for him, he is getting protein in his diet. And in my attempt to be funny I say, “You should kill one and give it to Hadi to eat. She would love it!”
Becca looks up from her painting, “No! Don’t believe Liisa. She likes to act crazy, you know.”
Samba smiles, I laugh (mostly at myself), and Becca brushes it off as another one of my attempts at sarcasm with Gambians.
The next morning I wake up just as the light disrupts the night clouds. I throw on my running shoes and go out on a bush road that Becca recommended. I am used to running on the main road. I was a little scared of the bush. It is safe; it is a back road that connects to another village 2 K away. I had hyenas on my mind from a classically wild conversation with Pa Saine the previous night. Pa asked me that if he brought a hyena to the compound the next day, would I marry him. I told him yes and that I was expecting to see a live hyena in the morning. In Pa style he asked if Donkeys ate sugar without any warning or segway.
I go out about a half of km and feel that I have not found this “bush road.” I turned around, still a little spooked, and find Samba and his friend emerging from the outer compounds of Njongon. At first I thought it was some boys that will scream toubab and give me a hard time. But then, I realized it was him, relieved I wave and yell out, “Samba!”
He looks at me, “Liisa, you are training.”
“Yes, where’s the road to the next village?”
“Oh you are going to Busong, the road is here. Let’s go!” Samba and his friend begin to run with me. Samba is carrying an empty 10 litre bucket with a cover that used hold mayonnaise. He is on his usual morning errand of milking his family’s cows for fresh milk to sell. I asked him if there were hyenas out here. He laughs, “No, you see all these cattle, this is where they stay.”
I look up and notice herds of fifty or so cows. The herds graze in this area of the bush, so that means no threat of predators.
They are running at a pretty good clip and Samba asks if I am tired. I say no and ask him if he’s tired. He shakes his head no. He spots his herd and tells me that he cannot run on the way back to village. “I will have this full of milk and running will do no good.”
“Ok, thank you for running with me and showing me the way.” They smile and walk quietly to the herd of light brown and white cows lying without a care, without an aim.
Seeing Samba at that moment energized faith in my existence here. I needed someone to show me the way. I needed someone that I could trust. He was just doing what he always does every morning and I was trying something new. Our paths crossed and the worst was far from occurring.