Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Here's us with the Director of Peace Corps Worldwide, Ron Tschetter. He and the director of Africa region, Lynn Foden, came to visit us in little ol' Gambia! Carson and I were a part of a small group meeting with the the director. Tschetter and Foden were motivating and affirming of our service here. Lynn almost had us almost convinced to continue with Peace Corps in Rwanda or Liberia! But, don't worry folks stateside it is for a little while yet. It was such a treat to talk to such a big wig.


A white blaze mantles the blue sky. The sun is a pale shade of cement gray from morning to evening. It is light without texture or color, simply lighting and heating the day. The sun’s insidious rise and fall all but burns the arid insipid landscape, leaving nothing for an on looker’s imagination. No autumn golden light at sunset, no sparkling sunrise over a crisp cold morning. Such trite descriptions melt in the dingy glow of this April sun. From top to bottom it is a palate of drabness, stealing color schemes from a 1970s rug, parquet floor, hospital wall, school cafeteria, trash can, laundry mat, warehouse, grandma’s bathroom, and basement cubicle. Uninspired backgrounds that slow time, staling all energy and creativity that make a day possible.

Perhaps, the women and men wear such bright, textured color to clash against such a lifeless background. A splendor of flowing, sequenced, patterned, bold fabric paint the landscape with Monet’s brilliant strokes. Beautiful botanical gardens and water lilies sway and rise as women banter at the market or wait in line at the hospital. The true show of color comes with the ceremonies. Women and men replace their everyday clothes with cloaks of royalty as they stroll to a naming ceremony or gather for Tobaski. To be trite, they shine and inspire brilliantly like the golden autumn sun igniting the yellow, red and orange maple leaves.

Life’s little pleasures, continued...

Carson and I were taking care of Bamutar. He was crying of course and we couldn’t calm him down. So in comes his namesake, an old, petite, fiery man, who wisps Bamutar from my grasp while switching his cigarette from one corner of his mouth to another. His grace and silliness shine as he attempts to calm his toma with hums, clucks, coos, and reprimands. We watch in speechless awe as he undresses the baby, changes the diaper, and baths him. Cigarette still in mouth, he walks back to his mud bricked house with a smiling, quiet baby. Clearly my maternal instincts have a long way to go.

Janke, the co-wife of my toma’s mother, told me that I looked bigger. Apparently living in Kerewan for two years has served me well she explained. Rather than taking it to mean that I have gained weight, as Americans would of course, I took it as a compliment. I am stronger, wiser, and aged-gracefully.

Mamud uses Carson as his climbing wall on a daily basis. Carson flips, throws, twirls, that little guy for a good half an hour. Mamud could go all day.

The shyest girl in my neighborhood, Binta, always perplexes me. When most kids are in our faces for whatever reason they seem pertinent, she simply says hi and walks away. But when we are passing the football with Alieu and Ehmed, she comes charging through. Always the first one to the ball, kicking with force and intensity. She leaves all the boys in the dust.

Carson eats an average of five mangoes a day. Every morning I am reminded of his overabundance while he labors over the pit latrine. Ask Carson exclaims, “Consequences be damned!” (Kaboom...)

Carson and I making a list of all the must have items in our apartment come August. Olive oil, dark chocolate, and brazil nuts to name a few.

Being ok with talking all about the near future. Reading all about DC and Georgetown, jobs that I could apply for, is helping us get one foot out the door. We are ready. We are ready to go home.

Alieu stills scream bloody murder when Aja gives him a bath.

Karamo coming in to use our laptop. I teach him how to write while he learns how to type.

Buying fabric in the city for tailor made suits that will come out to cost less than a third of the price at home. Carson getting six shirts tailored, because this is the first time he has shirts that truly fit. (And he can’t stop talking about it.)

After realizing that his facial hair is a similar texture to that of African hair, Carson took a hint from the local barbers, coupling a razor blade with a comb, to trim his beard. He’s super jazzed.

Figuring out that we can make humus here!

Going to open our door in the morning just after waking up and finding Ehmed squatting across the compound. I ask him what he is doing and he replies “Buwo, buwo,” (taking a crap). The next morning, Ehmed was out again doing his business when Alieu stumbled out of his house. He walked four feet and squatted. While both took their morning crap, they conversed in their two year old gibberish, clearly talking about the troubles of the world.

Carson’s boss telling him to omit the existence of his first wife to convince a white woman to come to The Gambia just to marry him.

A girl's right

Girl according to The Gambia:
A girl is a female between the ages of 9 and 30. A girl becomes a woman when she marries and bears children. This could be at age 12 or 26, 16 or 19, rarely are girls over 27 not married with children. If a girl 23-35 is not married, it is strange. I am still called a girl, even though I am 26 and married, because I do not have children. Womanhood comes with motherhood, period. A girl lives in the family compound until she marries. Then the girl goes to live with the husband’s family where she will become a woman. That is usually the only change expected by girls.

Fifteen years after the government began providing free education for girls, life is beginning to change. A girl gets outside of the compound to learn with her peers. She has the opportunity to complete school to grade 12 free of charge. If she has good grades and exam scores, she can then go on to university. The opportunities are available for girls and it is now becoming the norm for families to send their girls to school. But if the girl fails her grade nine exam, she perhaps goes to a vocational school, where she learns tie and dye and soap making. Or her family marries her off since she will not keep going on with her schooling. I usually see single professional women in the city. When I see them working and living here in Kerewan, I am thrilled that they can be a different kind role model for the girls. Genders norms are beginning to change. For the first time here in The Gambia, the next generation of girls will have mothers who also went to school.

Girls will be Girls (Part 2): Girls’ Club Two Program!
Girl’s all over the world have the right to live without harassment and the other ills of sexism. That’s what thisu program was about, showing them that they don’t have to put up with it, that they have the will and ability to stand up for themselves and their friends. In teaching the girls about their bodies, sex, and being assertive we hoped to foster a dialogue and framework for the girls to value and protect themselves. To in the end learn how to stand up for their rights to a safe future.

So we pulled it off, a second girl’s club sleepover program. Becca brought her club to Kerewan on Friday, April 11th. We had a two day program held at the Kerewan Middle School titled, “Our Bodies, Our Minds, Ourselves.” Fifty energized girls attended, two amazing Gambian women, and three of my favorite women in Kerewan cooked four meals. Mary Louise Sambou, a teacher from Becca’s school and Isatou Bah, a leader in the Youth Action Movement and employee of ADWAC, joined us in facilitating the program. Becca and I felt more prepared than the previous year’s program. We knew how to talk and relate to the girls better. We knew what issues surrounded them everyday. We both fundraised with our clubs by raffling off soccer balls, holding luncheon sales, asking government and NGO offices for donations, and personally contributing.

We planned four sessions between getting to know you and trust games, meals, relay races, football, volleyball, and basketball. The first session was having the girls get to know each other and their place in the community. Becca had the girls write a “Day in the life” calendar for both girls and boys. What we all found was that girls did more chores and boys had more time to play football, study and hang with friends. This affects the girl’s ability to exercise, study, and be with their friends. Isatou immediately stood up and told the girls that they had to change the attitudes of their parents. Show them that they, the daughters, deserve more time to study and exercise. As an outsider I couldn’t say this, and that’s why having Isatou and Mary Louise part of the program was so crucial to its success. After the program, one of the Kerewan girls, Tida, said, “Now I can differentiate between what boys do and what girls do. Before I couldn’t.” Kaddy added, “I see the difference. Girls cook. Boys don’t cook. We all go to school. Boys play football, but girls don’t.”

That evening we played sports. I attempted to play volleyball (the girls call it volley volley). The girls laughed at me, but some weren’t that much better. We didn’t care, it was just us girls. I stopped to look around the school compound to see all the girls playing sports, talking, walking, just free to be teenage girls. Becca’s girls played basketball. Some girls passed a soccer ball around the circle of them. Nyimasata came in and out of the circle while washing and putting straightening cream in her hair. She’s a firecracker.

The Kerewan club raised their own money for a DJ. Having a dance party at the school is a big deal. All the girls got decked out. They mostly wore western club clothes. Tight jeans, cute tops, and skirts above the knees. A bit scandalous, yes, but girls will be girls. They were beautiful and confident, dancing from the minute the music began. They glowed, laughed, chatted, ran from one group to the next. Becca and I insisted on a girls only dance. We did not want boys to come and harass the girls. We also didn’t want to be responsible for any unwanted pregnancies. The girls didn’t want the boys to come either. Kaddy said, “ I don’t like it when boys are at the party. They chase you and call you. When you don’t come they insult you. I get angry.” Kas commented that the boys are “tough, tough, they are not serious.” Tida went on to confirm, “I like that, no boys. They will disturb us. Tell us this and this.” Denying the boys entrance proved to be was one of our most difficult life experiences.

We stood behind the faded red iron doors in the shadows of the street lamp. The two oversized doors served as the main entrance for the school. There was no clasp, nothing to ground the metal sheets to the soft sand. The doors were a simple tease, a mere symbol for protection. Stones pounded the already battered door creating familiar sounds of a blacksmith molding a spade. Stones came through the lacking doors, soaring through the middle opening as we let the girls enter. Sticks whipped our fingers as we closed the doors against the weight of the mob. Leaves and dirt putter down over our heads from the walls next to the doors. Verbal abuse and mocking ricochet against the lifeless door permeating the tense dead air. We looked at each other and said, “So this is what happens when boys and young men are told ‘no.’” Those doors never did come to life, swallowing the angry male mob. Those doors just shriveled away, failing us, refusing to tell the male mob no. We were the only ones. The boys and young men wanted to come for the dance party, we told them no, girls only. We told them no. So they, as young as eight years, attacked.

Becca and I were on the fronlines, protecting the girls’ right to a safe space. The male population just couldn’t believe that girls can enjoy themselves without them. We were stoned standing up for these girls’ right to be, for their right to be free of sexual harassment, their right to have fun, to dance without boys lurking around trying to touch girls inappropriately. Girls need to know that they have the right not to be touched when they don’t want to be. Eventually at midnight, we couldn’t hold the male mob back. They had been jumping over the fences and hiding in the shadows. With an hour left in the program, Becca and I walked away from the door. Isatou and the Kerewan girls came over, worried and upset that the boys were being to rude and awful. I remember Tida saying, “Liisa, let’s go, come and dance, these boys will always be rude. I don’t want them to hurt you.” So we reluctantly pulled back. We still walked around keeping the boys away from the girls. But the girls didn’t even talk to them, they just stayed with each other. Luckily it took forty-five minutes for the boys’ shyness to wear off. Fifteen minutes later we turned off the music. There was a moment when Becca and I simultaneously pounced a boy who touched a girl’s butt. We looked at each other as we finished reprimanding the boy and said, “Since when did we become the chaperones of a middle school dance?!” We plopped down feeling like the older, responsible adult that we never thought we could become.

We managed to get some sleep between the girls chatting and the heat. The next day we had a packed schedule. I knew it would be tough with the lack of sleep and the oppressive heat. We began with relay races to get everyone’s blood flowing. Isatou led the second session of the program: Adolescent Sexual Reproductive Health. She talked all about STIs and pregnancy prevention. The biggest issue she emphasized was “proper use of condoms,” not just use of condoms but proper use of condoms. She knew that some of these girls were already sexual active, so why only talk about abstinence. Isatou is a true progressive here in The Gambia! We did a proper use demonstration – checking the expiration date, putting it on, putting it in place, disposing of it – with my hand (too wide and not long enough, but it worked). Nyima reflected, “I liked the session with Isatou about STIs and properly using condoms. I learned that sperm makes a girl pregnant. I did not know that before.” Other girls echoed this. Nyima continued, “I learned how STIs and HIV/AIDS are transferred.”

We then covered the reproductive system. I led the group in a body mapping activity. The girls traced each other’s entire bodies. They then had to label the parts they knew. Some girls even labeled their breasts and vagina. I asked what made us girls, they shouted out hips, breasts, my privates, one even said hair is certain parts. I then placed a picture of the reproductive system on one of the bodies. We learned all of the parts and what their functions are. Isatou had a great diagram of a penis entering the vagina. It just helped make everything more clear and available. Tida explained, “Now I can label all the parts of my reproductive system. Before, I could not label it.” Binta said, “I learned about my body, my… internal body.” I enjoyed teaching sex education to the girls. Knowing our bodies empowers each of us to know how to protect and keep ourselves safe and healthy.

The third session was about the myth versus truth when it comes to sex, pregnancy, and STIs. Some myths include pregnant women can’t eat eggs, if you wash yourself after having sex you can’t get pregnant, oral sex can’t give you an STI, you can’t get pregnant before your period, and so on. The best part of the session was Isatou and Mary Louise validating that these myths were crazy and should not be taken seriously like many other Gambians do.

Our last session talked about being assertive and making the right and safe decisions. We wanted the girls to know and fight for what is best for them. I wrote up some secenarios where they had to make decisions about whether to have sex, walking alone with a boy, how to be assertive, stand up for oneself, and what strategies they can use to stop abuse or avoid unsafe situations. They can’t say no with a smile. They have to say it with power, say it like they mean it.

When I talked to a couple of the girls a week later, we talked about why it was good to not have the boys at the dance party. Kaddy stated, “Boys, they disturb us… telling us I love you.” Tide interrupted, “We say to them an assertive ‘no!’ No! No! NO!” Tida’s clear and steady voice grow louder and more powerful. I smiled and thought to myself, “this is the greatest moment of my service.”

By the end of the last session the girls were spent. The heat seeped into our muscles. We ate lunch and cleaned up the classrooms we slept in the night before. While cleaning, I realized that my mobile was stolen. Who knows who stole it, people walk through the school all the time. My club immediately went and searched the other girl’s things. Then Becca’s girls got offended. So it was a little dicey as we wrapped up the program and said our goodbyes. My girls were just protecting me, it was really cute. I hate that it was at the expense of offending others, but it was what they do, protect your family.

I look back to being stoned. Neither of us were seriously hurt, but boys were throwing stones at us. I have never been so disrespected, so under attack. So whenever I hear the devastating reports of women under attack all over the world, being raped, assaulted, stoned, murdered, disenfranchised, undermined, I will know that Becca and I truly stood up for these girls. We played our part in the fight for a girl’s and woman’s freedom to be.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Photos of the Girls' Club Sleepover Program titled, "Our Bodies, Our Minds, Ourselves."

It is probably best to view these pictures from the bottom up.

One of the last sessions we did was called, "Knowing how to fight for what's best for me." We had ten secenarios where girls had to make decisions or be assertive to protect their right to safety and empowerment. We talked about the different strategies, language, and body language to use.

Isatou talking about her life experience. She grew up in a traditional Fula family. Her father refused to send her to school. It was her mother who supported her schooling from the small money she made selling at the market. Isatou was in the top of her class and wanted to go to the city to attend of the best high schools. Her father forbade it wanting her to marry. Isatou refused and was kicked out of the compound. She was at the top of her class, of course, excelling against all odds. She was active in the community, volunteered for the UN, committing herself to community work. Now she is the only one in her family working. Of all her brothers that her father sent to school, none of them have a steady job like Isatou. She was welcomed back into the compound and still refuses to marry until she is ready. Isatou is a true example of how changing attitudes can empower girls. I was left speechless after she talked, just so grateful for her existence and active participation in this community.

(At this point is was two in the afternoon. Alot of the girls barely slept the night before. Between the heat and the lack of sleep it was hard to keep them engaged as we can see with the girl sleeping in the back.)

Becca discussing what's true and what's false when it comes to issues of sex, abortion, STIs, and pregnancy. The discussion crossed both traditional and religious boundaries, but the girls were so into it.

Girls placing their content on their cards in the true or false category. Becca asked them to look at it very briefly and immediately decide whether it's true or false in order to get a gut reaction.

Becca getting ready to lead a Fact versus myth session. There are so many incorrect myths about sex and pregnancy and STI prevention. Some examples: birth control makes you baron, if you wash yourself after sex, you can't get pregnant, pregnant women shouldn't eat eggs, you can't get an STI if you have oral sex, and so on. The girls perked up for this session, some in disbelief that what they hold is true is actually false. It wasn't Becca or I who convinced them, it was Isatou and Mary Louise (our Gambian counterparts for the program) who stood up and defended the truth.

After the girls put the parts of reproductive system together and labelled them, we checked each others work to make sure we all know what exactly is inside of us.

Isatou talking about what happens when the egg is fertilized. She had this great picture of the penis inside the vagina; one that I had never seen during my sex ed classes.

Talking about our menstruation cycle and what exactly happens down there and why. You can see the final products of our body mapping in the back. For this activity the girls had to match the action with the picture. For example: The womb lining breaks apart and blood flows through the vagina.

Body Mapping! There's Isatou sitting towards the back in the red head wrap.

We did a body mapping activity to begin our discussion about the anatomy of a female, what makes us women and girls. The girls had a great time. Here they are identifying the parts they know. Most of them identified the breasts and vagina. From there we talked about what inside of us makes us female. And thus a great session of the female reproductive system, which I got the pleasure of leading.

Here is Isatou Bah, also known as I.B. She is just fabulous. She works at ADWAC and is the national chair for the North Bank region for the Youth Action Movement. She is a mover and shaker and one of the few role models for these girls. She lead a session about Adolescent Reproductive Sexual Health, talking about preventing pregnancy, STIs, and the reproductive system. Isatou advocated for "proper condom use" not just use condoms. I volunteered my hand to demonstrate putting on a condom properly and disposing of it. Most of the girls were a bit taken aback. It is probable that they are sexually active, we can preach abstinence to a group of girls who have already had sexual relations. She is one of the few Gambians that get that and is not afraid to say and teach it. She is my role model!

The morning of say two we had relay races to get the blood flowing. The night before my club rented a DJ and we were all up until one thirty. Becca and I tried to fall fast asleep while the girls chatted until the wee hours of the morning. Some girls were very competitive, but some just fell over laughing. The linked arm relay was a great way to show how a little teamwork can go along way. The dust rose from their hurried feet while the sun began to threaten with another hot day.

Tida presenting her groups "Day in a life" calender. Becca is in the back listening. We took turns running the four sessions. She took this one and of course rocked it like always. We tried to get the girls to stand up and present as much as possible throughout the two days to help foster their public speaking skills.

Girls making "Day in the Life Calenders" for girls and boys in their communtiies. The group found that girls have more work and obligations than boys. This is no new revaltion, but we thought it would be a great excercise see and put in writing this fact. Becuase they have more work and chores, girls have less time to study, exercise, attend peer clubs, programs, and other meetings outside of their school schedule. Girls as a group are the most isolated in these communities.

Njongon girls mixing with the Kerewan girls ready to embark on a session about their roles in the community and taking care of their needs.

Tida laughing it off after leading the group in People to People. It went something like this: Hand to hand, ear to ear, lopi to lopi(mandika and wollof for butt), knee to knee, foot to foot. You can see very slightly the power of her smile, of her walk, of her charismatic intelligence. Her maturity beyond her years waiting to burst into a hopeful, promising future. She gives me hope, she makes me want to be a better woman.

People to People, a twister like game without the board. A great ice breaker and warm up game. The girls loved it. Keeping it light and fun makes the program go much smoother.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Mangoes and Heat-Rash

Posted by Carson

2 months and counting!! Every day and every week gets a little more challenging as the end of our service approaches. I know I'll miss almost everything here, but I'm so anxious to start the next chapter of our lives. I'm tired of the same old trials and tribulations that we've dealt with from the beginning. I'll miss it when I don't have it, but I can't wait to walk out of our house or apartment without being the center of attention. Of course, I also can't wait for all the amenities, media, colder weather, food and all that, but mostly I just want to be normal and ordinary. No more 6 year olds following me around like the paparazzi, shouting my name over and over as I go to the water pump. Yeah, I'll miss it too.

In the mean time...

It's that time of the year. Every day is hotter than the last as we ramp up to the rainy season. Volunteers farther up-country have it worse, but it's still unbearable in Kerewan. Just like last year, our candles melt in the shade. I've gradually cut out any work during the mid-afternoon, opting instead to lay around the compound sweating. We're in Kombo/Banjul for the weekend and it's still beautiful here. There's an ocean breeze and the nights are actually a little chilly! Sunday we'll be back in Kerewan and I'll be miserable for all but the first and last two hours of the day.

On the plus side, mangoes and cashew fruit are in season... with a vengeance. I eat six a day, consequences be damned! So delicious. And there're different sizes and types too! My favorite is the third largest, about the same as a supermarket mango back home, but tree ripened and picked by the local boys. Everyone sits around between classes or work and just eats mangoes right off the tree. I'm so glad we get one last fruit season before we leave!

Our plans for "reentry" are coming together. Rach and I are going to Ireland for 5 days on the way home for some decompression. Volunteers who've been there describe it as the antithesis of the Gambia. I think we'll rent a sports car and drive to a B&B. It's basically just a layover on our already paid for flight home, so it'll be a really cheap trip for us. Then we get ready to move to Washington D.C. in the fall. Rachel's following some great leads for research jobs and I'll be at Georgetown Law (we made our final choice!).

Monday, April 14, 2008

If all else fails, just breathe.

by Rachel

Disclaimer: This is my attempt to compartmentalize all the things that has made my experience here difficult. I want to figure out some way to leave all this behind when we board our plane home in two and a half months. I want to bring with me everyone and everything that kept me going and gave me unconditional love and acceptance. This is my way to get all these difficulties that weigh on my shoulders buried below the scorched earth. But in reality it is these difficulties that have taught me the most about myself and this world. So I apologize if this is hard to read, or if I offend, but it is my truth.

April 1, 2008
For the past two weeks I was submerged in everything I hate about The Gambia: sexual harassment, obnoxious and vile mocking from children, the suffocating and explosive heat, and institutionalized sexism. One layering one top of the other brought me to an unsteady mental space. My saving graces were small moments of good, friends, and chocolate cake.
I trekked up to Jonjonbureh (JJB), the island 250 K up river, to teach at another term of Face to Face. I worked with my same class of teachers in training from the Christmas term. This time the English group taught writing, specifically all the mechanics of sentences. Teaching writing to fifty ESL adults was ‘not easy’ (to coin the famous Gambian term). The majority of their writing was at a third to fourth grade level. The top ten can write pretty well. But none of them know how to use quotation marks or edit an incorrect sentence. I gave them ten writing assignments over the course of the two weeks. They never wrote so much and I never had to mark five hundred assignments in such a short time. I like this program because the work is stimulating and challenging. I came to the island in the dead of the hot season because of the work. I came to the popular tourist spot because of the work. I came to the town of ‘bumsters’ and vulgar men because of the work.

I hate tourists. I know it’s awful to say, but tourism makes my life unbearable at times and it fosters a culture of begging. Tourism is the top income generator for the country, but it also creates and fosters so many problems. Children understand that the only reason white people come here is to pass out sweets, pens, or money. Schools, villages, community groups just sit and wait for a white donor. Between development and tourism, this has become a country in waiting. Development is a sham; it fosters dependency on outsiders and discourages empowerment from within. JJB just puts on a show for the hordes of tourists wearing their short shorts in a conservative Muslim country. The kids come up and dance for you. They always beg for money. I was constantly toubabed and hissed at. It’s as though JJB has ceased to be a real community and morphed into one of those fake villages, where people just act for the visitors to show what a ‘real African village’ is like.

I hate the sex tourism. Those older European women coming down to rendezvous with a Gambian boy for a week or so. It is these women that promote a culture of sexual harassment and objectification with white females. All white women are assumed to be here for sex or marriage. So I walk down the street in JJB and men scream out me to marry them, calling me ‘boss lady,’ ‘nice girl,’ or ‘hey sexy.’ I tell them in so many words to get lost and then they stand up a pump their crotch. I past an eleven year old boy peeing on the side of the bush road as I walked to my class. He called out, “You want to sex me? Come and sex me!” I scurried away suffocating with shock and anger. I hear that is the city a bunch, but never up country like this.
One of my most difficult obstacles is figuring out how to work with institutionalized sexism. The education system is dominated my men. Men that are educated and entitled. There are some great ones that I work with. They are the gems that keep me going. But, mostly the dynamics of sex, race, and class color all my work interactions. The men at this teacher training program are headmasters, hold positions at the Dept of State for Ed, or work at The Gambia College. These are men with status. Men with status here do not listen to women, unless she is their direct boss, but even then. Men with status are entitled to this job and therefore do not have work for it. Men with status do not need to be held accountable for anything. So here comes a much younger white women trying to meet them in the middle with creating a student-centered lesson plan that requires more work from them. Criticism in any form is met with burning defensiveness. It gets hairy. Sometimes we are undermined. Sometimes they bring out, “well you people don’t understand.” I don’t blame them. If they don’t want us here, then fine. But this program wants us for our knowledge about student centered learning. What they don’t want is our criticism of how things are run and organized. Well, you can’t have one without the other. So heads butt, a lot.

I thought as a married woman, I would have an easier time working with the men here. In actuality, this is not the case. Many volunteers have been able to work well with the men by using the flirtation to their advantage. They have been able to be nice and welcoming to men who blatantly flirt with them. By socializing The Gambian way, they have been able to wrap the men around their finger. Thus, they can actually get somewhere working in these male dominated offices. More power to these vols, I just could never do that. I’m married. So I am just cold to all the men who want to belittle me. And for that, I’ve gotten nowhere working in these offices. I am realizing now that this is how I have dealt with institutionalized sexism. I just shut it out the minute I stepped into it. I walked away. I refused to figure out how to use it to my advantage. It was yet another obstacle that I did not want to overcome. Now, after almost two years, I get that. I get that I need to socialize with the men before I can actually work with them. I get that it’s just how this place is, male dominated in every aspect of society.

While negotiating through all of that shit, I was living in an oven. The heat. The unbearable, rather-shoot-yourself-in-the foot heat. Each day was between 105-120 degrees. It was more humid because we were surrounded by the river. The mosquitoes were relentless. I couldn’t sleep through the night without waking up in a puddle of my own sweat. The afternoon sun burned to the bone. My head was on the verge of combustion. I had to move is slow motion to exert minimal energy. Sweat rolled down by searing body from my neck to my belly to my behind to my ankles. I was a sloth dripping sweat going in and out of delirium. I could barely think, breathe, or move. I cursed the burning Sahara winds. I was a fugitive to the unyielding sun.

The first of my saving graces was just us four women, Colleen, Blair, Liza and myself on the island trying to get by. Peace Corps women braving the elements while saving each other in the meantime. We spent our days searching for cold bags of water, grading papers, supporting and processing the difficulties of working in the program, being teacher dorks, and cooking dinners of humus, tacos, dumplings, curry, and canned baked bean sandwiches. I would have gone crazy without them!

The moment that kept me going was when Carson surprised me with a really amazing chocolate cake for my birthday (March 15). He phoned in the order and went down to the capital to pick it up. He showed up the day before my birthday with a huge metal pot. Somehow that cake made the nine hours of travel in this hot season. The secret was freezing it the night prior, but still not even a dent in its perfect icing job. This cake was absolutely delectable by home standards. Rich, moist, dense chocolate cake with a chocolate thick fudge icing. I was so happy I cried. He told me I was too easy to please. I said to him well then keep the love coming. Him, us, mean the world to me. I love how we have grown here together. For a tough experience makes a good marriage stronger, better, and lasting. I feel whole.

My other saving grace was that the work was worth it all. My class was awesome. I knew all there names by this term, which helped with classroom management. We had two weeks full of big and stacked lessons. The class welcomed the challenge and worked hard. Of the forty-seven, fourteen were women. After every two hour class, I was spent. I was acting as a cheerleader most of the time to keep them going in the heat of the day. We went through all the nasty details of the English language. I even had trouble answering some of the questions: why was the verb ‘be’ so irregular, why can’t you say ‘borrow me,’ but you can say ‘lend me.’ Now I truly understand how it is to be an ESL adult learner. English sucks!

The moment that made those two weeks worth while was the praise I received from the class. They said, “Liisanding, you are a great lecturer. Very clear and to the point. You are kind and understanding. We rate you number one out of the rest.” I almost fell to the floor. I beamed. It takes a lot of energy to speak slowly and clearly enough, to word my instructions correctly, and have the patience while marking their papers. Their honesty and gratitude shone like the big dipper pouring the night sky. I was elated the entire ten hour ride that consisted of a flat tire, ferry mishaps, military checkpoints, and filthy hot wind, all the way down to the capital.
Now I am back in Kerewan. I can breathe. Mercifully the weather is not as bad as JJB. It is still hot, but not hot as the throws of hell. I am back in my routine. I savor my gems. Aja and I chat through the afternoon heat. She is already talking about how much she will miss us. She is one of my true friends here. No matter how limited our conversations can get, she gets me and I get her. I baby sit her one month old, Bamutar when she goes off the gardens. I go to the market, barter with the vendors. I fetch water, sweep the house, do the laundry. I go to the nursery school. Mba Suwareh, who is like my grandma, gives me a Wollof lesson. I watch Bruama teach his students how to do puzzles as they all bunch around on the mat. I go and paint learning aids on the Saaba nursery school. I meet with my girls’ club. Those girls never cease to amaze me. They are raising money on their own to get a DJ for the program this coming weekend. They are so motivated and driven. Like a said, a force on their own. I go and visit my toma, who can sit up on her own! I have never seen a baby with so many fat roles on her legs and arms. She is a honker, but so beautiful and charismatic.

As I roll with the beauty of this place, I realize that it’s the shit storms that force you to grow. I am here reacting to things I would never have had to at home. I surprise myself a lot here. I am edgy. I am angst ridden. I lay into people, tell them exactly how I feel. I am realist now. All that ideological hoopla, that kept me bright eyed and bushy tailed, is gone. I learned how to stand up for myself. I learned how to take care of my self. I have truly learned the Zen of patience. You have to pick your battles in life, or else you’ll fry. Life is not worth worrying about what others think of you. I have to know that here, in a culture where people tease, insult, and talk all about you as you are standing right in front of them.

What I do worry about is those that have opened their homes and hearts to protect and love me. All of their suffering, I have let it in and it chips away at me everyday. Honestly, I want to go home to get away from it. It is depressing. I would rather embrace the out of site out of mind theory. But I fear it will be with me, always. I want to go home because I miss home. I can’t stand being an outsider anymore. I want to go where I can blend in as I walk down the street. And just thinking that brings so much guilt. I can go back to a place where I am not harassed based on the color of my skin. I can go back to my community and my family. Carson can go back to attend law school. We can go back and rent an apartment, start a family. I can go back and get a good job. I can go back and go to school. I can go back. I can go back. I can go back.

This is complex, trying to compartmentalize two years living here. For this place, this experience is so complex. All of it webs together cloaking my shoulders, my conscience, my space. So day by day, I will be fetching water, praising Carson’s cooking, sweeping the floor, doing Pilates, going for runs, hanging out with my loved ones, savoring the moments that breathe life into this parched, dust shrouded hot season.