Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Mid Service Woes

There's no one particular update to make or incident to report. This is more of a "we're at the local NGO using the inet and Rachel's finishing her work so I'll write something" post. In fact, there's plenty to say, but probably not enough time to get into the details.

Life's been interesting for both of us. We're coming up on our first year in country, language is good, we have friends and a good relationship with our host family, and we're as settled as we could expect. So... what's the problem? After 3 weeks of writing, administering and grading final exams along with writing report cards and updating transcripts, I've counted 50 of my 78 10th grade students who scored a ZERO on a remedial general science final exam; we've tag teamed and literally shouting down a blind village elder for stealing the valuable scrap metal from Rachel's nursery school renovation project (he had it coming); Rachel's raising the battle flags and getting ready figure out why, exactly, there's no more World Food Program support for her nursery school; and, to top it off, all of this doubt, despair, cynicism and frustration is pre-ordained and well documented in our intro-to-service literature. It's even got a name! "mid-service crisis". Nothing to be worried about. Just another adjustment period before our second year of service.

I think Kerewan can use a vacation from us as much as we can from it. 2 weeks and we're out of here for a few weeks in France and a week in the US before coming back. And don't worry, Rachel will write more about the village elder incident in a day or two.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007


The rain pounded the cement, dirt, and corrugate last night. This was the real deal. All the depressions and divots in the sandy roads filled with muddy rain water. The air was thick and fresh as we stepped out for the morning run. Our running shoes were muddy for the first time in a year. For some reason we ran on the dirt road into the bush, thinking that it would hard packed just like in the dry season. We slipped and slided in our attempt to stay fit. The bugs came out of nowhere and the rest of day was like wading through a thick soup. But the sky is clear, no more dusty haze that blended with the scorched earth.

A harsh reality came like the pounding of the "big rain." The World Food Program (WFP) will stop supplying food to all unattached nursery schools here in The Gambia. This means that all nursery schools that are not part of a primary school will not receive food. This means that Kerewan Nursery School will not receive food. So as the cement fence is nearing completion, the head teacher doing end of the year assessments, and a roof is placed on the outdoor toilet, this amazing school will have no food. This school that is working so hard; where the staff take such pride in the school and their work.

WFP's reason is something along the lines of lack of resources. WFP is widely mismanaged here. Food is given and taken home by students and teachers. I see women selling WFP beans at the markets. Headmasters and top officials blatantly steal bags of rice, oil, or beans. There is just no over site. Living in a bitterly poor country, I understand the need to spread the wealth no matter where it came from or what it's for. It's fine that teachers take home food, that the school cooks take home food by way of salary. But why stop supplying food to nursery schools that already have no support from the state. Why not take food away from schools that aren't working hard to increase the quality of education. Why? Why take something away from a school that is already so vulnerable, where the teachers don't get salary, and where everybody shows up every morning without skipping a beat. And why didn't the top educational officials stand up for nursery schools to WFP? Did they only think of the private rich schools in the city. Why does everyone forget about the provinces, the rural villages, the rest of this tiny country. Why can't children living away from the city get a chance?

Janke, one of the cooks and my next door neighbor, cried when she found out that the food supply will be. She has put her heart and sweat into this school. There are six or so women that rotate cooking each term. These women are important to the school's survival. These women are or were mothers of children attending the nursery school. These women are the community members who are involved in the day to day happenings of the school. These are the women that sensitize others mothers about the importance of sending their child to nursery school. This is so crucial in an illiterate society such as The Gambia. In a country where there is a huge gap between the community and it's schools, these women are the few community members supporting schools and education. What will happen without them? These are also women who are illiterate. They are smart and keen and working in the school is their chance to work outside of their reproductive and productive roles in home. Food supply means so much more to a school than lunch for the kids. Food here is about community and sharing. For the kerewan nursery school, it is what brings the children to school day to day and it facilitates community involvement.

Two steps forward, three steps back here in the world of development work.

So what now? I am trying to find NGOs that will fund a feeding program. I really want to call and scream at the top education officials here. But that won't work. That's all they need, another toubab telling them how to do their job. Who knows if there will be a group out there to provide food. The staff suggested raising school fees, but that might deter families from sending their children. Gosh, the feeding program is so important. It is truly one of the few rewards and incentives staff and students have. That love and thirst for learning has not quite come to fruition in this illiterate society. But a school with a safe, clean environment and food supply will bring these kids to school. How can we fight for this? The staff suggested a community meeting... I am getting worked up. I'm realizing that a year here has allowed me to become truly attached to my projects. My limits are many here as a PCV.

When defeated I go to my crocheting, to life's little pleasures. I sit with Aja, Dabo, Mariama, and the kids on the mats. We sit in the shade to beat the afternoon inferno. No matter how hot, though, Lamin is brewing hot Attaya (green tea and loads of sugar). Aja and I sit and crochet together. I asked her to teach me a couple of months ago. These days I am pretty good. My mom knitted my whole life and of course I come to Africa to learn. We sit, gossip, flick the biting ants off the mat (twice already i got bit in the butt, those suckers hurt!), scream at the little ones when they get too close to the burning coals that's heating the tea, laugh, greet the passerby, chat about the weather, my work, their work, the rains, and ask the small boys around whether the tap has turned on yet. So when failures and set backs pile on my shoulders, I sit and chat with my family of women.

I was reminded by a returned PCV that sitting and chatting, just doesn't happen back home in America. I am always talking or connecting with someone everyday. But back in the states, everyone is so disconnected. So no matter how frustrated I get with the numbingly slow pace of life here, I turn and realize the personal connection I feel everyday with this community. I enjoy the moments early in the morning when the compound is waking up. The heat or the activities of the day have not taken us hostage. The kids are not quite screaming their heads off yet. Everyone checks in with each other. We greet, ask if we slept in peace, and wish each other peace for the day. These moments are what we should all live for.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

New Training Group, 1 Year in Country!

Over the past three days we've been in Kombo to help receive the next batch of education trainees. They're a couple of weeks ahead of last years schedule, but it's a huge milestone for us to effectively move into our second year in country and watch the training process unfold from a whole different perspective. It's especially amazing to realize that, despite the relentless daily obstacles we still face, we really have come a long way over the course of a year. As we picked them up from the airport and as we talk about all the details of life here that we've come to take for granted and that they'll learn first hand soon enough, it's like stepping back in time and seeing ourselves. This group will do well. There are 20 of them with a wide variety of ages, experience and personality and even a married couple! I think they'll be in the same training village that Rachel and I were, but Bombako will take care of them. At the same time, the education volunteers from the year before us are packing up and going home. I think I can imagine the conflicting emotions they must be feeling. No doubt they're ready to close this chapter and start the next while reluctant to give up what they've spent years building. Two have even decided to extend their service. Just like I couldn't imagine myself in their shoes a year ago, I can't imagine ourselves finishing service a year from now. A year is a long time and there's a lot to think about in the mean time... like final exams this next week.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Nursery School Workshop

Last week I had a very successful teacher training workshop for nursery school teachers. Twenty participants attended representing six schools in the greater Kerewan area. The Kerewan Nursery School hosted the workshop. I teamed up with the Senior Education Officer, Mr. Kebbe, from the Regional Education Office for the planning and implementation of the workshop. He is a great counterpart and so passionate about supporting nursery schools. The government does not fund nursery schools here in The Gambia. Either they receive funding from private international donors, school fees, or none at all. None of these teachers receive a salary. They teach these children becuase they believe in nursery school education. I am so humbled by their commitment.

There was an even split of men and women attending. Three women brought there babies. Everyone was there sharing ideas and talking about their schools. It was neat to watch. We covered topics on classroom management, the importance of daily routine, alternative discipline measures, rules and procedures, phonics, reading aloud, math and writing activities. It was a long and productive day. Each of them was motivated, asking questions both to me and the group. The cooks fired up the best domoda (peanut stew) I have had yet in this country.

My goal for the day was to show these teachers that they have support. I wanted them to feel encouraged. I wanted them to know that they have an important role in their communities. I just wanted to praise them becuase that is a rarity here. I wish I could give more. I wish I could pay their salaries, to keep them going and motivated. But that wouldn't be sustainable. It's the governments job to do this, not mine alone.

Next year Mr. Kebe and I have plans to continue these workshops throughout the Northbank Division. At least to continue them in this Kerwan cluster. I went to visit two of them to bring books and more learning materials. Most of these nursery schools don't have appropriate level books for these children. Some don't have any at all. Some don't have any furniture, some don't have all four walls, some don't have a blackboard and chalk. But all have teachers who brought smiles and ideas to this workshop.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Life's little pleasures

Posted by Rachel

Mr. Fatajo lining up his 45 nursery school students every time they enter and leave the classroom (one of my greatest teacher training successes thus far!).

Watching the high school kids come and read to the nursery school kids every wednesday. Watching the smiles and bright eyes on everyone's faces.

Aleiu running to me and collapsing into my lap with a face full of dirt and snot.

Going to the market with my plastic shopping basket twenty feet from our compound every morning before I head out for work. I pick through small piles of tomatoes while greeting and chatting with the women. They help me find the "strongest ones." I go from table to table picking up hot peppers, scallions, sometimes cabbage or eggplant, maybe I'll find a sweet potato or two, some cassava, mangoes, maybe some bananas. I request my favorite, locally made peanut butter. I bring a 1 litre container for them to fill up. As I walk away they all wish me a morning in peace.

Eating locally made peanut butter and hot bread from the bakery three compounds down the road every morning. And our brothers who we send to pick up the bread.

Sitting with Aja and the kids for two to three hours some afternoons. Aja is teaching me how to crochet. I am making a hat these days.

Four kids come every night excited to read, colour, and learn some phonics.

Seeing one of my girl's club members around town. Stopping and chatting for a little while.

People still asking me about my garden, eventhough I harvested about a month ago now.

When Carson cooks.

Watching Carson teaching.

Talking, debriefing, venting, laughing, and appreciating over dinner everynight.

When our new two year old neighbor from Senegal, Mamu, sticks his head in the front door every evening and lets out the most sweet and gregarious, "Liisa!" Afterwards he runs off because he is scared of the screen door when it whacks shut.

Taking three bucket baths a day. And one at night under the stars. Jumping into bead still soaking wet and then feeling the coolness of the fan. Electricity (while not constant) is still such an incredible luxury.

Baby powder.

Going to the shop that has cold water and the store owner with a big gut wearing a small green fula hat always boisterously greets me with "Hey you! You OK?"

Showing the women that I can carry a 20 litre container of water on my head. I got the delts to prove it.

Arriving to Samateh Kunda after a week away and the kids running out to greet us and help carry our bags.

.... becuase the daily obstacles can bog us down here, so why not focus on the things that make us happy everyday.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

First Rain!

It rained last night! At 5:30, we woke to the sound of heavy drops on our corrugate tin roof. We jumped out of bed and ran out the back door as quickly as possible to pull all of our laundry off the line and, slowly waking up to the realization of the first downpour, paused a minute to appreciate it. Then, crawling back into bed, we listened to the call to prayer and the sound of dust being washed from the air. We've been hearing stories of rain from further up-country for weeks now and have been waiting as the Harmattan's turned back and the clouds have crept westward.

The timing couldn't have been better. We spent all of Friday afternoon fixing screens before the swarms mosquitoes come and putting up a few more sheets of corrugate over our kitchen area. 12 hours earlier, and we wouldn't have been prepared.

Harinder came from Kombo/Banjul today and was recounting how nice the breeze was through the window of the bush taxi all the way from Barra, through Berending, Ndugu Kebbe, up to Kuntair, 15 Km from us when all the sudden he was slapped in the face with humidity. Chances are it's here to stay. At least we made it to June before the hot, dry air gave way to the rainy season nastiness. On the plus side, the brown sand and scorched earth should turn green soon.

Of course, it'll be another month before we can count on any regular rains and maybe a week or two before it happens again, but it's official... The rainy season's here.