Saturday, September 29, 2007

Questions from Mr. Smith's Sixth Grade Class

Our friend, Chris Smith, teaches sixth grade in Brookline, MA. Last year, while teaching about Ancient Africa, he assigned his class to read our blog to learn about modern day Africa. Some forty students created beautiful and artistic cards and letters. They were well written and asked great questions. We thank you all for making us feel so special and appreciated. Now we want to appreciate your hard work by answering some of your insightful questions.

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!

Pics and such

Here are a couple of long posts and pictures. Sorry, I relish having a laptop at site. Carson is taking the LSATs right at this moment! He got a good nights rest and went in pumped for action! This is why he has not been writing too many post lately. You will hear from him soon enough. School is off to a slow start. Ramadan is in full swing as we roll into the dog days of October. Our compound is lively again with more kids, crying babies, and wives cooking all afternoon for the break fast meal at dusk.
--rachel




Here's Alhagie (left, standing), Janke (center), and Yonkobaa (right) during our nightly reading time. These are Rachel's toomaa's sister and brothers. Now who do you think left that mysterious wet spot?










At Rachel's toomaa's naming ceremony. The men and women were separate throughout the entire day. Carson was the only man that I saw entering the women's circle. The women are on the left, while the men are on the right.

Rachel holding a live chicken. The picture does not show how freaked out I was!

Becca visiting our place. We made big books together. It is a story and counting book in one. It teaches about the environment and The Gambia's ecology. We hope to use them to encourage reading aloud and storytelling in the classrooms! Becca is quite the artist extraordinare! Thanks hun for all your help!

My Toomaa!


Top: Mariama with little Liisanding
Middle: Me and my toomaa!
Bottom: Little Liisanding getting shaved.








September 20, 2007
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.

Rollercoaster

Sept 16, 2007
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 Elements

Sept. 9, 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.