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?