Friday, August 31, 2007


Here are some pictures from our trip to France and a few from The Gambia. We'd like to put up many more, but they take a while to post. Stay tuned.

All three brothers on the train from Nogent.

Our computer lab in action.

Here's Binta, Rachel's close friend and counterpart. This is far and away Rachel's favorite pic of Binta and I'd have to agree.

Me with Mamud, our little Wollof neighbor. He's a tornado wrapped in a hurricane wrapped in a Tsunami. More energy than all three put together, yet he's affraid of bubbles and the screen door.

Rachel's nightly reading group. Alieu, Binta, Kumba, Mamud, Alhadji, and a few more faces. It's like this EVERY night.

Rachel, Becca and Chad at the swearing in party for the new group. Contrary to popular belief, Rachel got those Tupac and Fitty shirts in France and brought them TO Africa.

Swearing in for the new education group. They're a little earlier than our group, but what the hell.... 1 year in! woohoo!
Here we are riding on the cliffs of Britany... in tandem!!! It's tougher than it looks.

If Rachel's life were a sitcom, this would be the title shot. Here we are in Chartres.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Some updates, stories, and a fabulous old man named Pa

Here are two long accounts of my visits to my friend Becca’s site. She has a great host family.
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?”
“Two meters”
“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.

Kids these days...

Written by Rachel on August 12th 2007
I came back from my run this morning and Muhammed was walking about. He was naked, like most children two and under are at some point in the day. They may be naked because they just took a bath, which presents the opportune moment to roll around in the sandy earth. At night they may be naked because it’s just too darn hot. They may be naked because they ran away from their mother or older sister trying to cloth them. So we see a lot of naked toddlers milling about, totally oblivious to the fact they are not wearing any clothes to provide a small barrier to the dirt, sand, and whatever else is on the ground. Muhammed is an expert mimicker. A couple days back, he mimicked my stretching. The one wear the legs are spread apart and you touch your hands to the ground. He caught on to this one fast. So this morning, he came over to join me in my post running stretching routine. He pushed his legs apart as far as he could, bulldozing sand on the outsides of his feet. He touches down, giggles, and comes up. He claps for himself. He must of got this from me clapping all the time. It is a universal language at times with kids, when you don’t know what else to do or say to keep them entertained. He then repeated, this time pushes his legs so far apart the he fell back on his bare bottom. He giggles and gets up and does it again. He has sand all over his behind, chest, legs, and arms. Dabo, his mother comes out to sweep. She looks at Muhammed, sighs, and hunches over to sweep. I feel a tad guilty that he has become so dirty, so I brush him off. But as he runs back to his mother, he trips, falls, gets back up, stops, sits down, rolls around, and crawls. Kids are meant to get dirty, be dirty, and momentarily get clean.

Thursday, August 09, 2007


We traveled to France and to the States this past month. It allowed us to step back, to look at our role here, and what we needed to do to make the best of it. It is so easy to become negative. And we needed a chance to refresh, recharge, and renew our commitment. And I think we did that.

We handed our embarrassingly oversized luggage to the boy apprentice. Every gele (bush taxi) driver has a boy apprentice to help with loading parcels on the roof of the once European made and owned bus/van. The apprentice also collects the fares, which can be comical as he attempts to get each passengers attention in the middle of the journey. The interior of the bus/van is ripped out and replaced with home made iron welded benches. Sometimes there is plywood on the floor or side of the bus/van to cover a rusted out crater. Parts are never really replaced. The driver brings it to a roadside ironsmith that “specializes in vehicles” where he makes a what-he-deems a replicate of the broken part. Almost every trip we take on a bush taxi the driver stops at least twice to pour water on the overheated engine. The smoke or steam, I haven’t been able to figure out which one actually rises up from the under the hood, engulfs the gele. Surprisingly we have yet to ride a gele that has broken down and left us stranded in the heat of the day. We hoped that this day would bring us the same luck.

The apprentice struggled to hurl ours bags to the top of the gele where maybe there would be rope to tie them down. Our bags were stuffed with wooden statues and other gifts for friends and family that we can claim are “straight from Africa” (because that notion holds so much weight and value in the western world). The boy wanted us to pay twenty dalasi for the bag, but I knew that the local price was only ten. We always travel with bags that can fit on our laps. It assures a more peaceful journey from every aspect. Most Gambians travel with very little; expect the women who bring their harvest to sell at the market in the nearby town or village. That day we looked more like fresh-off-the-plane tourists than those crazy white people who have been living in The Gambia for the past year. Yes, it was the year to the day. July 6th we left on an unusually moderately full gele. We of course stopped every five minutes along the way to fill the gele sardine style and once more to pour water on the engine. But we made it to the Farafenni car park, inching closer to our destination.

There we were beginning our month long journey to soak up family, friends, and the comforts of the western world. We took a horse cart to the Senegalese border, hitched a ride part way with a Senegalese engineer working with the Egyptian company that is building the roads in The Gambia, got a seven seater taxi to Dakar crammed in the back row of seats next two an large military personnel, and took a city taxi to the airport. We got on the plane and couldn’t sleep because we each had our own individual TV with twelve movies to choose from. From the moment we sank into our spacious (relatively speaking) airplane seats we knew that next month was going to be a whirlwind of choices, options, pleasures, and vices. We were ready; the week leading up to our trip was so painfully slow, that we could not believe we made it through a year living in Africa.

We met up with my family and Carson’s younger brother in Paris. I have a huge family of French cousins that married into my mom’s side of the family, so we spent time with them for the few days we were in Paris. I went running the day after we arrived. It was freezing, 50 degrees (Fahrenheit). My ears were cold! I ran past the Louvre, the Notre Dame, to the Eiffel Tower, and back along Le Seine. It was invigorating! There were other people out running and no one looked at me like I was crazy. (In The Gambia, it is not normal for women to go running or “to train” as they call it.)

We went to Nogent, about two hours southwest of Paris by train to stay with more cousins. Each night we split in to teams of two, each team cooking dinner during the week we stayed there. It was great. My brother’s Italian girlfriend got the prize for best meal. She wipped up three fish dishes, fresh tomato basil salad, roasted potatoes with rosmary, and so on. Carson and I made guacamole, roasted potatoes, and parmesean crusted chicken with a tomatoe relish on top. It was fun to be able to cook whatever we wanted and have every resource available to do so. So lots of eating, lots of walking to the castle up in the hill in the middle of town, and lots of quality time with brothers and the parents. The French countryside is so unique; it is both quaint and grand. It was still cold there. I was wearing a sweater and a jacket with the hood pulled tightly over my head one night while playing cards outside. I wore my jeans almost everyday! (I have only worn them once in The Gambia, and it was agony).

We spent our remaining five days in Brittany. We had more beautiful weather. Hard cider, mussels, and crepes are the gems of Brittany, in terms of food. The coast is unreal with its cliffs, sand coves, and deep blue water. We rented bikes and rode along the coast, Carson and I even rented a tandem! (Tandems are a lot harder than they look.) Our favorite excursion was to the island of Belleile. We rented scooters and zipped around to huge rocky cliffs with arch formations, bright and charming coastal towns, long sandy coves with clear water, farms, and tree lined roads. I sat in the back seat, while Carson lived out his childhood dream of driving a scooter. I let the wind take hold of all that holds me back in everyday life and just rode it out, truly being carefree. I think that was our recharge moment. Recharge what living over here slowly drains out.

It was surprisingly easy to transition through cultures. It wasn’t this paralyzing culture shock that should happen when you go from a developing country to a developed one. It was fluid and calming almost. We were going back to our roots, albeit those of consumerism and abundance. I felt safe in being anonymous. I felt at ease walking down the streets. There was no mass of kids yelling TOUBAB! or men yelling “hey, hey, nice girl!” We were with our home people, our family, and that meant everything.

What I did feel was guilt. Massive amounts of guilt. Guilt that we had the means to spend two weeks in France, to eat amazing food, to travel. Guilt that I could choose between seven different salads and twenty flavors of ice cream at a restaurant. Guilt that we enjoyed it all. I asked my mom, who served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran in the late sixties, if this guilt ever went away. She told me no and that she went back to Iran twice. So what do you do with it and how do we negotiate through life with it?

We spent a fast week in the states. We entered the customs line after arriving in Boston from Paris and I immediately noticed that everyone spoke English around us. It was weird to be able to overhear everyone’s conversations. There were two TV screens up above and CNN was on. I guess this was right after the YouTube debate, and all they were talking about was Hillary Clinton’s pink suit jacket. I turned to Carson, and said “Look’s like not much has changed.” It was another fluid transition, a whirlwind of transcending through our connected worlds. We spent time with close friends, catching up over a few quality beers or ice cream or Thai food. We went to Ohio to hang out with Carson’s family and check on his dad whose is battling cancer. It was nice to be able to be around, talk, help out, and cook dinner. It is difficult to be here and out of the loop in a sense.

We stocked up on underwear, deodorant, protein bars, children’s books, and loads of crayons and markers and departed on our two day journey back to The Gambia. It was rough saying good bye once again to family and friends. But a year is really not that long. I think it is difficult leaving behind the comforts of sitting around the dinner table with family, being able to totally relax, sleeping in air conditioning, and eating ice cream. I did eat ice cream every day of that trip and it was oh so glorious. And I realized it’s these comforts I never knew were comforts before coming here or maybe never appreciated.

Two days later we showed up to our home in Kerewan. Home is such a loose term these days. We haven’t had a home for any long period of time since we have been married. These two years in Kerewan will be the longest period of residing in one place for us. Maybe it was the grueling two days of traveling; thirteen hours on a plane, with five hour lay over in between, a night in Dakar, and twelve hour taxi ride (no horse cart this time) that beat us down. Maybe it was being away for too long. Maybe it was the uncertainty of if we were ready to be back, but it didn’t feel like we were home as we stepped off the gele. I noticed the rain soaked dirt roads and the bright Ireland green covering what we once knew as scorched earth. It felt familiar yet not. We turned into our compound and the kids came running. Dabo started crying. And Aja popped up from washing clothes. Muhummed and Alu recognized us. They both wanted to be held. They looked a little bigger, a little more agile. It was a moment that we hoped for, something to bring us back into this life.

It has been a bit of a shock not to be thrilled to be back. Everyone we have seen has asked for a traveling gift or money, even if we barely knew them. All those cultural differences, all of those feelings of being targeted as the rich one in town, all of those comments that would be rude back in the sates came rushing back. I forgot about that, I forgot about the harassment, I forgot about that feeling of helplessness living amongst those who don’t have the choices that we have available to us.

I was talking to one of my friends this morning and he was talking about his financial hardships. He told me that he when he thinks about his future he feels sad. I told him to keep trying, to believe that something will happen. But I felt empty when I said it. I saw the fatalism in his eyes. I hate how money decides someone’s fate. I then said we should start working together to improve your writing so you can succeed in mechanic school and open your own business. He light up for a moment and agreed that he wants to come by for some sessions.

But this is what we came back to: moments that rip our hearts out. And this is why we enjoy those light hearted moments so much, we savor them. I was doing pilates yesterday afternoon and Alu and Muhammed walked right in and looked at me strangely as my body was in a weird position. They then crawled on the mat with me and put there hands over head in attempts to mimic my movement. I laughed and welcomed the interruption. And then we just hung out on the mat until they got bored… Any that’s what is all comes down to hanging out and savoring the moments that make you laugh and ease the heart from the pain and frustration you feel everyday.