Monday, February 25, 2008

Aja's new baby!

Aja gave birth to a baby boy on Thursday, February 21 at four in the morning. This is the seventh time she has given birth and she’s only 30. As usual, I didn’t know she was pregnant until she was six months in. The night before she had to walk a half a K at two in the morning to the local clinic to give birth, we were outside talking about how the mice keep her up at night. She realized that she has not slept well for the past two weeks. I asked her how many months she has been pregnant for. She took a minute to count. Nine, she said. I looked at her tired and swollen body and said, “Soon, then.” She smiled. Up until Thursday night she has maintained her busy workload, going to the gardens, cooking, cleaning, doing the laundry, and so on. She has a couple hours of respite in the afternoon. I would always feel so bad, that she is doing this on her own. Her husband is not around to help her out and her kids still just want to be kids. Other women are doing the same, just going on business as usual while carrying a baby to full term. Just imagine the pain, the aching, the discomfort that they have to stomach each day.

We went to visit Aja and the new baby in the clinic about five hours after she gave birth. Aja was glowing, smiling, and sitting up relieved in a way. The baby was tiny with huge eyes just like Alieu’s. She was telling us that her deliveries are always fast. This time, she came into the clinic at two in the morning and gave birth at four. I went back in the afternoon to bring her cold juice. She was waiting to be discharged. The other bed was occupied this time. A young woman, maybe even a teenager, gave birth at one in the afternoon. She looked a bit traumatized. The birthing room at the clinic was what you would expect to find in the developing world: drab walls, sparsely furnished, no sheets. But it was clean. When she finally was able to return home, she gave me the baby boy to walk back with. Alieu was there with her and had to be held. So here I was walking with a baby, just hours old, in the heat of the afternoon, hoping not to drop it. And there’s Aja walking at a good clip beside me carrying her two year old son. The resiliency astounds me, humbles me.

The best part about women giving birth here is that they have to stay inside the house to rest for seven days, until the naming ceremony. So finally Aja can rest her body, her joints, her feet. I go and sit with her and she tells me her body is not used to resting, that it feels sick and tired. I caught her yesterday doing some laundry and the cooking. She can’t keep busy hands idle, I suppose. She has her younger sister in town helping out with the work. Lamin and Binta go to the gardens. And Alieu wines, screams, and cries because he does not like this new baby in the house. He’s has been known to kick the poor little thing. He always has to sit on Aja’s lap. That means I get to hold the baby.

This past month alone, about ten women that I know and talk to regularly have given birth. Tis the season, Carson says. His fellow teachers told him that this was a busy time for naming ceremonies. Some many newborns around me, strapped so sweetly on their mother’s backs make my maternal clock tick just a little louder. Not a day goes by, when someone wouldn’t ask Carson and I about when it’s baby making time. We go back and forth between stories: We really want to have a baby here, but the Peace Corps won’t let us; Carson is afraid of babies; I want to finish my work and school, so not until another five years down the road. Gambians don’t like that last one.

I’ve had some great talks with Aja these past couple of days, mostly about being a woman in this world. We compared breasts, talked about breast-feeding, how her body feels after birth, what birth is like in America. She showed me pictures of all the kids from when they were real little. We talked about how each of her kids was different. We admired Alieu’s stubbornness. We enjoyed cold juice. We were there together sharing womanhood through motherhood. She makes me a stronger woman.


by rachel
Feb 21

We are exhausted…. From a fabulous long weekend in Dakar! The 35th annual West African Invitational Softball Tournament (W.A.I.S.T) came and went in a montage of cheap beer, breakfast spreads, dancing all night, crazy uniforms, swimming, laying by the pool, eating pastries, ice cream, eating, eating, and more eating. Oh and some softball; we lost three and tied one. Our uniform was a mesh shirt with a print of The Gambian flag. We were bumpsters, you know the guys that hassle all tourists. So, on the sidelines we were all doing the “bumpster workout,” which consists of incorrect push ups, lunges, ab work, sprinting, and so on. We were having a great time pretending to hassle the other team just like bumpsters hassle us. The tournament proved to be a safe channel to vent our frustration of daily life in The Gambia, chat with volunteers from either Senegal, Benin, Mali, Mauritania, or Guinea, and to just kick back soaking in the sweet rays of life.

Traveling to Dakar for a third time made us feel like an old hat on the block. We knew where to go, what the local price of taxis were (and not the “white” price), how to negotiate ourselves it what seems now to be the “Paris” of West Africa. Dakar, with roughly three million people in and around the city, is booming with contrasts. High rises against infested slums, patisseries against street vendors, open air bustling markets against posh upscale shops. PCVs in Senegal told us that each rainy season, Dakar sees an outbreak of cholera. Who knows why measures have not been put in place to prevent such an outbreak, the usual laundry list of African development complexities come to mind. It was obvious that the money was layden in the vast construction of roads, overpasses, five-star resorts, mega malls, rotaries, beautification (lining the new ocean-side road with palm trees), and sidewalks. In less than a month Dakar will host the Islamic Conference, in which all heads and kings of Islamic states will attend. The Senegalese government has already postponed the conference twice. It is now or never, but even the road to the airport is still a steamrolled dirt maze.

In light of hosting the conference, the Senegalese government arrested a handful of people for performing a gay wedding. Homosexuality is strictly illegal in Senegal (Gambia, as well, where people deny that it even exists). It is said that other Islamic states look down on Senegal’s “lax practice” of Islam. While we were playing in our shorts and enjoying beer and hot dogs, riots broke out downtown after, due to severe international donor pressure, the people arrested at the gay wedding were released. People took to the streets against homosexuality, and perhaps against the big bad western influence.

I contrast our weekend’s activities to that of the rioters to portray the complexity of difference here in the Africa that I have come to know. Just in Dakar, we saw the fancy ex-pat community, the street sellers, the boys begging, the dynamic taxi drivers, women doing laundry on busy street corners, professional men and women huddled into local bush taxis, waiting for the bus service, or walking the streets of downtown. Even in the built up Independence square downtown, with the tallest buildings I have seen in the two years here, there are piles of broken concrete, sandpits where there should be sidewalks, and trash collecting in the once unnoticed cracks and crevices. Dakar is a city in limbo, on the brink, going from a sandy capital to a concrete metropolis. So while there are homosexuals practicing civil disobedience and rioters standing up for what they know as right, there are fancy sidewalks to worry about and overpasses to build. And it is these gaps, these cities and countries in limbo, these contrasts are what make up Africa today. They represent, perhaps, the bright future in store for far away, after years, even decades, of growing pains.

Dakar dwarfs The Gambia and I yearned for the understated city of Kombo and the slow pace of Kerewan. In this past weekend we created a mini America from what we know and love: sports, beer, and food. It was exhausting, especially in this context. I had a glimpse of the things I will miss once we go back to Toubabado (the land of the whites) for good: our compound, Aja, the mornings, the kids, and the familiar little place we carved for ourselves here. But in the end, it is great to be back in the sway of life here, exhausted from having truly lived, Touabab style…

The ferry

Here's the infamous ferry. We have to cross it every time we need to come into the city. It is an 8k stretch that takes about an hour to cross because usually only one engine is working. Going to the terminal in Barra (on the north bank) to buy tickets, get into the holding pin, and loading the ferry is always an adventure. The ticket window is swarmed with people, elbows, bags, everything flying around you. We run to get on the ferry, because it has been known to leave without letting all the people on. We weave our way through massive trucks and fancy UN cars. Ten years has been taken off our lives from all the exhaust we inhale each and every time. There is just no system, so each time we expect insanity. There is always a mob of people, cars, trucks, wheelbarrows, motorcycles encircling one another. Pushing, shoving, tripping, yelling, and always smells of rotten food, manure, the tide, salt, and fish. The ferry is such a raw in-your-face set of moments.

The parents with Aja. I love how Aja is smiling. Usually Gambians never smile in pictures. It is interesting how our candid way of taking pictures is so deeply rooted in our cultural values.

Carson, Steve, Georgia, and Rachel. My parents got local outfits made. They wear them well! I am so thankful for them, for coming all the way to TG to check out our scene.

Little Liisa and Rachel in matching shirts. My parents sent Carson and I shirts with our Gambian names written on it as a Christmas/Hannukah gift. When they came to visit they brought my toma one as well. Little Liisa's mom, who didn't go to school, didn't know what was written on her duaghter's shirt at first. My mom thought it would be a great literacy campaign to get everyone shirts with their names written on it.

Mr. Jawara giving Rachel a chicken in thanks for sponsoring his daughter's high school education. Sally was a leader in girls' club last year. She is smart, well-spoken, and hard working. She place eleventh in her grade 10 class this past term!

Friday, February 08, 2008

Here's Rachel with the 'rents on a boat tour of the The Gambia River! Just like the "African Queen," as my father kept saying.

Rachel with the Jarjus! Look how big little liisa is getting!

Top from left: Junkuba (father), Mariama (Liisa's mother, and second wife), Janke (first wife)

Bottom from left: Yankuba, Janke, Moo Lamin