Monday, March 31, 2008

Wedding ceremony at Jarju Kunda for Titi (one of my girls from last years club). It seemed like all the women of the town showed up to really get down and party.

Aja at the wedding ceremony with

cutie Bamutar.

Kids will be kids. The neighborhood kids keeping themselves busy during the wedding ceremony. There's Yonkuba falling over the iron staff of the ox cart. He's been made infamous by the wet mark left on our couch.

Rachel being thrown into the fury of a feet stomping mob. Dust was flying, the sun was creeping below the horizon, and the women were infusing energy into my tired body.

A wedding ceremony at Jarju Kunda. Neither the groom or bride were there. It was basically a party for the bride of the groom, Janke (front left, wearing black and yellow). Janke is one of my favorite people here.... and she can dance. All these women can dance. It is so electrifying beautiful!

Rachel and her Toma, Liisanding! She is a big baby for six months. It was rough carrying her on my back. This was during a wedding ceremony at Jarju Kunda, so I took care of her for most of the day. I was a true Gambian women, fetching water and doing all the chores with little Liisa tied to my back.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Girls will be girls

by rachel

I am surrounded in their buzz of comradery. They are loud, rambunctious, screaming at the top of their lungs about anything and everything. They have a pulse, a rhythm that I ebb and flow with. This is their show. But, what else would you expect from 20 fourteen year old girls.

This year’s club is on it. We’ve talked about sex, puberty, menstruation, safety, setting goals, delaying sex, cultural changes and gender roles. They help me, teaching me all the relevant terms in Mandinka and translating to those girls who don’t understand me. We hold mini debates. I have the girls stand up in the beginning of every club meeting to state their name and answer the question of the day. The question can be what they wore for the holiday, where they feel safe, how their best friend supports them, or what their favorite time of day is. Four out of the twenty stand up straight, speak loudly and with confidence. The rest are really shy: they barely stand up, laugh with shame, cover their faces, and speak inaudibly. A lot of this has to do with not having a command of the English language, but the huge reason is a cultural shaming of girls. Girls are taught to not speak openly in public and in front of male elders. I see a lot of men play this up, condescendingly talking to young women and girls, making fun of them as they try to speak or answer. So every Wednesday, we practice speaking in front our peers in hopes to find their voice.

The Girls’ Club Sleepover with Becca’s club will be in mid-April. We are hosting it here in Kerewan want to raise some funds locally. The girls decided to put on a luncheon sale. Everyday at break time women come to the school and sell bean sandwiches, acra (fried beans) sandwiches, a local soup called ebe (mostly cassava and palm oil), fish pies, and iced juice. On the first Tuesday in February we came instead of the usual vendors. The experience was tiring, to put it mildly.

The girls are a force on their own. Each member contributed 25 Dalasi for ingredients and I covered the rest. Two girls went to a big market 25 K away to find ingredients that are not find in Kerewan. Ten girls and I spent all of a Sunday afternoon criss-crossing Kerewan for flour, butter, tomatoes, onions, jumbo, salt, pepper, etc. We put in an order at the bakery for one hundred a ten loaves of bread. At every shop, the girls erupted in an intense hasty banter about money, the items themselves, who’s responsible, and the cost. They sauntered slowly in the blazing sun between errands. I realized fast that I exerted too much energy trying to have them do it my way: quickly. (This is what I learned here, my way (the American way) is not the only way to get things done.) So I let them take the reins and eventually everything got checked off the list.

The next 36 hours were insane. The girls arrived at my compound Monday afternoon to begin cooking. Oumie, whose mother teaches third grade, arrived first with three bundles of bowls, oil, beans, and iron pots. She the shortest in the group, but the most level headed. Oumie is calm, dependable, and goes nowhere without wearing her hijab. She is also the best cook in the group. Shortly after, Nyimasata arrives, words ringing from her booming voice. She is tall, thunderous, and incessantly talking about something. Nyimasata is a natural leader, one who I often look to in the meeting to help get my point across. Majula is trailing behind with a graceful poise and inviting face. She is super shy, but is the one girl who I have seen go from follower to leader since I have known her. So much potential hides behind her unassuming mannerisms. When she gets talking and doing, Majula shines. Kaddy, also known as “Kas,” rolls on through. She is tall as Nyimasata, but much more of a tomboy. Kas commands an audience with her lofty stance and her full and soothing baritone voice. Tida joins us as we have all started to shave and cut the cassava for the ebe. Her intellect rises through her gleaming smile and curious eyes as she walks with a purpose. Tida is balanced, responsible and caring. Eventually fifteen girls arrive as we prepare the fires, make the dough for the fish pies, mix the ebe, ground the dried fish, and cook the beans.

We started cooking at three in the afternoon and didn’t finish until ten at night. There was a light energy amongst all of us. The girls divided the cooking tasks, all the while gossiping at full speed and volume. I watched, in awe of there innate ability to cook for hundreds. It was wonderful to learn how to cook these dishes and see them interact outside of the school setting. They are even more chatty and animated. As dinner time came and past and the sky turned from blue to black, we all realized it was time to go home.

I woke up before dawn on Tuesday with a rush of nervousness. The sale was later that morning and we still had to make the acra. Oumie was the first to show up again, and eventually throughout the next hour other girls arrived. We were tired and excited. I stepped back and let them organize themselves. We had to be at the school at ten. We barely made it. The bakery was late getting out the bread, and it was less than we thought. I didn’t realize a dozen meant half a dozen. We only had two tables to hold the monstrous bowls of beans, acra, fish pies, and ebe soup. Students began to trickle out of there classrooms. It was good. The girls were handling serving and collecting the money. Then the swarm came.

In a country were the people refuse to queue, the bustle turned into madness. The students surrounded the tables. Elbows, money, beans, acra were flying. Carson and I tried to maintain an order, but per usual failed. We could have set up the tables a better way, spread out the food. But we didn’t have enough bowls. Then the bread ran out. We hastily sent someone to get bread, but break time was coming to an end and there was still a pack of students who didn’t get a sandwich. The bread came too little too late. Despite the battle we did make some money.

We all headed back to my compound exhausted. We had to wash the pots and bowls. I think we were a little freaked out from the selling experience. The girls just sat there. So I started to wash and then one by one they got up to do the same. Their talking became louder, tense but still joyous. I heard some tough Mandinka being thrown around. I looked up and there were two girls attacking each other. A full out fight! I rushed in and pulled Mariama away, surprised with my strength to keep her from going back in. All the other girls formed a wall between them. I was bewildered! Why the hell were they fighting?! A very pregnant Aja comes running in to bring order to the situation. Mandinka is flying out of everyone’s mouth. I am lost in this situation. I asked again and again, louder and louder what this fight was about. One of the girls insulted another’s mother. I lost it. I started screaming at them. This was supposed to be for them, they were supposed to work with each other, to support each other. I threatened to call it all off, cancel the club, send them all home. I began to cry, so tired from not having a moment to recharge in the past 24 four hours. I stormed out, not knowing what else to do. They all stared at me, shocked. People don’t cry here. Aja follows me to my house. She told me to stop crying, that this is how we are different. Whenever there’s a program here, people quarrel and fight. I was humbled by Aja’s understanding of my reaction. She gets that I am in unfamiliar territory. But, ashamed that I couldn’t handle this on my own and had to drag her tired body into all this.

Then I started laughed at myself. How could I not expect this from a group of teenage girls? They are like this all over the world, full of energy and hormones. What a learning experience! They are so strong together, so loud and obnoxious. But yet as individuals, they are so vulnerable. I walk back, embarrassed that I lost my cool. They quickly surrounded me and stated their discontent with the fight. Nyimasata announced on behalf of the others that anyone who fights will have to pay 25 Dalasi to the club. I laughed appreciating their initiative and creativity. I breathed a sigh of relief that they still accepted me as their teacher, after losing it in front of them.

I looked over my shoulder and saw Oumie and Tida cooking more sauce for the afternoon sale. I sat by them listening to the oil crackle in the searing iron pan. At the end of the day we made 1000 Dalasi. The next week I told them their earnings at our club meeting. They roared with applause and accomplishment. I then told them each to stand up and say why we need each other. I wanted to tell them that they have made my service worth it. I need them, for they are my teachers, helping me understand what survival truly is in our relentless world.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Posted by Carson

Sorry guys, It’s been a long while since I’ve written. Lately, everything in my life has been going either extremely well or extremely poorly. Looking for something that I can have more control over, I’ve concentrated mostly on the here and now. In The Gambia, this can be the most exhausting of all. Sometimes the absurdity can weigh me/us down. It doesn’t help that we now have an official Close of Service date: June 15th. For anyone who likes to count, that’s 100 days exactly until Rachel and I can come home, see family and friends, prepare for the next step and be a part of some important things back home.

Mutar Peed In My Face

Posted by Carson

As Rachel mentioned earlier, our host Aja had a baby boy! I must admit, newly named Mutar is certainly cute and he hasn’t learned to cry very loudly or for very long yet. At least not while he’s camped out on our couch in the late afternoons. He really has been a learning experience (refer to title). Following are some pics of his naming ceremony and some other good stuff.


But first, behold in all her glory, Rachel's namesake, little Lisanding. Perhaps not beautiful in the conventional sense of the word, but I like to think she'll grow to be... well, she'll grow. I'm a little mean, but it's really a great honor for Rachel to have a namesake and we're very proud.

Get a Haircut, Son

Here he is, our host's latest baby boy: Mutar. He came with a fair complexion, just like his grandmother and one older sister, and dark bags around his eyes. On the 7th day after

a baby's birth, the elders decide on a name and shave the baby's head. Mutar is named after the Tailor who has lived in our compound, Samateh Kunda, for many years. He's become a member of their family, so they are honoring him as such with a "Tooma" or Namesake.

Here are the two elders, preparing to give the new baby, Mutar, his first shave. Notice the bowl of kola nuts in the back. They're always given as travel gifts or during ceremonies.

Karamo and the Old Men

Here's Karamo looking out from our front porch as the old men pray for the new baby, Mutar. You can also see the big, blue, goodie-stuffed, seran-wrapped plastic tub that Rachel got them as a gift. These are always given for a first child's naming ceremony, but by the sixth or seventh people tend to loose enthusiasm. Mutar is the only child born in our compound while we're here, so Rach went all out.

Big Money

Everybody donates a little money to the new baby's family during a naming ceremony. Here the women are counting the collection.

Emmed and the Ladies

Here's Emmed, short for Mohammad, in the forground looking as he usually does while the women pray and chat in the center of the compound. This kid is cute, but he NEVER wipes his nose.

Rachel with the Women

Here's Rachel in the back of our home, Samateh Kunda, with the rest of the women cooking lunch for the ceremony. The women all have on their best outfits and you can see the giant 3-legged cooking pots they use for cooking rice.

Who IS that 6 ft tall white guy?!

Here I am hanging around the naming ceremony. I usually feel profoundly uncomfortable at big gatherings because I can never remember the names of extended family and get tired of them quizzing my Mandinka. Instead, I try to sit with the other men who tend to huddle in the corner as the women compare outfits.

Harmattan Sunset

The Harmattan trade winds blow south from the Sahara across West Africa during the dry, cold season. By the time it reaches The Gambia, it's usually a mild but dusty, hot breeze. Sometimes we see a great sunset as a cloud of dust and sand rolls across the sky. This pic is from the back of a gele-gele bush taxi.

Homeward Bound

Here we are looking haggard on the way from Banjul/Kombo back to Kerewan. As they say, "it's not easy." It's only about a 55 km ride over smooth, paved road from the ferry terminal, but coupled with fighting your way through the terminal, the hour long ride across, negotiating Banjul and taking a series of public tacis to the towns of Kombo, it is, in fact, not easy. It'd be worse if we lived further up-country.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Rachel's Pitching at W.A.I.S.T.

Here's Rachel taking the mound at the annual West African International Softball Tournament (WAIST). I wish we had more pics but our camara has finally bit the (harmattan) dust. Besides, most of the other pics are of bad tan lines and volunteers "napping" by the pool. It's a hard life, afterall.