Saturday, June 07, 2008

Questions from Mr. Smith's Six Grade Class!

Mr. Smith is a good friend of ours. He had his sixth graders create creative and artistic letters to us talking about what they have learned from reading our blog and asking two questions. We were overwhelmed by their writing ability compared to their Gambian counterparts. Each letter/card was a work of art taking shapes of Africa, The Gambia, geometric shapes, some were interactive or 3D. We love reading them! Thank you all for your insight and good wishes. We are touched. Here are most of the questions asked. There were a bunch so I hope I got most of you. If you have anymore questions, feel free to email me! Also, you each are very lucky to have such a creative and enthusiastic teacher like Mr. Smith.

Life in The Gambia

What does a Dalasi look like? -Sarah

Notice the five dalasi that is shredded in the corner! Money here has a much longer life and will stopped being used only until it nearly crumbles away!

When crops go dry, do Gambians get water from the river? –Beckett
Half into The Gambia, the river is still salt water. So people don’t use it to water their crops. Where the river is not salt water, Gambians use it to water crops, do laundry, wash dishes, and for bathing. Here in Kerewan, there are deep wells, some as deep as 20 feet. Women fetch water from these wells to water their gardens during the dry season. But in the rainy season (June to September), Gambians rely on the rain to water their peanut and millet farms.

Do they have lions down there? –Beckett
One hundred years ago, lions lived in The Gambia. But now they either moved south or died because their habitat is gone. The Gambia is one of the densest countries in the world. There is no room for wildlife such as lions, elephants, or leopards. (There are still monkeys, bush pigs, and lots of birds.) Another reason why the wild animals are gone is desertification. Gambians need wood to cook and build houses, so they cut down trees. Now there are not many trees left. When that happens the land becomes like a desert. Dry with very few plants. Without trees, there is less rain. With less rain, people can’t farm. When people can’t farm, there is less food. So it very important to preserve and plant trees!

Were the children you taught English to enjoy you being there to help them or did they think of it as a pain? –Emy
English is very difficult for the students in all grades here. Imagine if you were raised speaking English, but you were taught only in Spanish at school. Very frustrating I bet.

Why is Gambia sometimes called The Gambia? –Naomi
You know, I ask myself that same question. Perhaps it’s because the country is named after The River Gambia. Let me ask you: Why is it The United States of America and not just United States of America?

Who is Alieu? –Victoria (who drew an amazing picture of Alieu), Issey
Alieu is my host brother, or host nephew rather. He is about two and a half years old. He is the son of my host sister, Aja, who has five other children. He is so cute and is now starting to talk. He says my name with such excitement whenever I walk into the compound.

What languages are spoken in the Gambia? –Aaron
There are 10 languages spoken in The Gambia: Mandinka, Wollof, Fula, Serer, Serehule, Johanka, Manjago, Jola, Aku, and the official language is English.

How do you live with those bugs? –Megan
Eventually you get used to it. It was difficult at first to see cockroaches coming out of our latrine at night or termites eating at our door frame. But now it is just part of life here. Even the flies and mosquitoes don’t bother us as much. When the mosquitoes come out in the summer in Boston, it bothers you at first, but you get used to it.

What are your favorite places in The Gambia? –Amanda
Our site, Kerewan, is near a tributary. In the evenings we like to walk to the river side to watch the sunset. Our small two room house is like our mini-America. We like to go to the city and eat at our favorite restaurant that serves crepes, pizza, and ice cream. We also like to go to Kartong, which is a deserted beach where you can sleep in tree houses at a local hotel.

How much of their language did you know before you traveled there? Can you speak fluently with them? –Ben
We didn’t know any Mandinka before we came here. The minute we arrived we underwent 10 weeks of intense language and technical training. We had language classes for four hours everyday. Now we are very proficient, not quite fluent.

Will you stay in touch with the people in The Gambia? –Lily
Yes! I can call my host family and some of my work counterparts have access to email.

Insight into this experience and Africa
What is it like helping people you don’t know? –William
At first, it was very difficult for me to work with people who are very different from myself. But as I learned the language better, their perspectives, and customs I was able to be successful in some projects. The real learning process for me was leaving my American ways of approaching or judging a situation to the side and truly understanding and valuing The Gambian way of solving problems.

Do you ever wish you were in the USA? –Megan
I have a moment everyday when I wish I were home in the US. I miss my family and friends. I miss eating salads, berries, cheese, ice cream. I miss be able to walk outside and not be a celebrity like I am here. I miss the cold weather and my bed at home. But then I realize that this experience is not forever, just two years out of my whole life. I then start to think about what I like about living here, like my host family, eating delicious mangoes, and taking a bucket bath under the stars.

How did it feel having your parents come from halfway around the world to visit you in Africa? –Sam
I felt so loved! It was so special to have my parents come here to see what my life is like. Although they have both done Peace Corps and traveled the world, they have never been to Africa before. It is so cool that I got them to come over here.

Do you like it better in Africa or here in America? Are there any reasons why? –Issey, Dan
I get asked this question everyday here. They say, “Jumma le diata, America woronto Gambia? Which is more sweet: America or Gambia?” I tell them that I like both equally. They then look at me in disbelief and go to tell me all the reasons that my country is more sweet. The main reason being more money, flashy cars, just a better life. The women like America because they hear of all these machines the wash dishes, clothes, iron, and cook food. I agree with them on that.
I can’t speak for anyone but myself. That said, there are some things that I like about The Gambia. I like how everything you do here is such an adventure. Traveling in an old, almost-ready-to-breakdown bush taxi, bartering at the market, teaching thirty nursery school kids how to line up, or planning a two day program with ever speaking English. These moments I feel so alive and humbled at the same time. I don’t get that in America. But America is home, and home will always be the best place for me. I love to travel and won’t stop after this experience ends. I appreciate America so much more now. I appreciate our public transportation system, food, health care, universities, A/C.

What do you think has been your greatest accomplishment? –Dina, Lilly
Wow, what a great question! I have been thinking about this lately, as we are leaving soon. Personally my greatest accomplishment is doing and completing this adventure with my husband,, Carson. This has made us stronger and a better team. Another personal accomplishment is the caring relationships that I have fostered with Aja and her six children and my neighbors. I have learned their language, customs, and social norms in such a way that they have accepted me into their community. I hold that very dear to my hear.
Professionally, my greatest accomplishment has been my middle school girls club. Once a week I meet with thirty ninth grade girls to talk about setting goals, their role in their community, sex education, HIV/AIDS, teen pregnancy, decision making, and their right to safety and empowerment. The girls create skits and put on debates for their school. We also have an annual two day leadership camp with another girls club from 60k away. The girls raised the funds on their own with luncheon sales and raffles. I am so proud of them. Now they know how to stand up for and want their right to education, making their own decision, making their own money, and choosing their own person to marry. All of which girls like you in America have the opportunity to do. So don’t let anyone and anything stand in your way. Girls around the world have the right to follow their dreams and be who they want to be!

What are your opinions of current day Africa in general? –Simon
This is a complicated question for me. The Africa that I know is somewhere in between those newspaper articles about the latest African dictators or the horrific images of a continent stricken from HIV/AIDS, malaria, famine, war, and genocide. The Africa I know is women carrying plastic buckets full of water on their heads for laundry, washing, or cooking. Women are the life of this place, they keep everything going. The Africa I know blames women for just about everything while the men are held accountable for very little. The Africa I know is fatherless homes, where men go to the city, to another West African country, or even to America or Europe to find work; because according to them, “anywhere is better than here.” I see a country in limbo between the traditional culture of thousands of years and the modern western culture permeating since colonization. The Africa I know are communities in waiting for something better, something they know as ‘development.’
Africa is dynamic, complex and difficult place. I have found such beauty and warmth in the people I have meet while living and traveling in Africa. Africa has been horribly mismanaged by the colonizers and now the current governments. The result of this is governments who cannot provide basic necessities for their people, like electricity, good roads, and proper education. Another layer added to all this is that Africa is developing in a globalized world, meaning their standards of development have to be just like the US and Europe. This is impossible. The US developed on its own terms, it developed its own way. Now Africa, whose societies are more communal and less individualistic that ours, is being forced to become something that it is not.

Do you think there is any need for America to step in and help the Africans? –Simon
Another great but complicated question! Honestly, I think the only time America should step in is in a time of great crisis, such as war, genocide, or massive famine. Any other time, Africa should be left to develop by Africans. There are so many foreign groups and organizations here that are giving so much money without any accountability, meaning no one is holding anyone responsible for how the money is spent. Now The Gambians are dependent on these foreigners for all sources of income and ways to solve their problems. I would never have thought this before I came here. Now I see that all that food aid, old clothes, and just loads of money have a good short term solution but a long term negative effect.
I feel that sponsoring someone’s education is a great way to help here. With education, you, Americans, Gambians, Africans, can grow and develop themselves. Also fighting to stop global warming is another good contribution. The effects of global warming will most likely hit poorer nations before we truly feel it in America. With desertification, drought, floods in Africa, people will not be able to farm and therefore not be able feed themselves. So do what you can locally, in Brookline, to stop global warming. Buy from the local farmers market, walk or take the train more. Ask about solar power and more efficient ways to use energy. What is your school doing to use energy more efficiently?

Are you treated any differently there because you are white? –Max
That is very insightful question. Yes I am and I hate it to be honest with you. I am treated like a celebrity. A white person is called toubab. So every time I travel or even step outside my home children and adults alike scream, TOUBAB! at me. So countless times a day I am reminded that I am different because of the color of my skin.
In my workplace, people assume that I have loads of money to give away, which makes sense as Gambians see hordes of white people passing by to shell out huge sums of money. This stereotype is all they know. So I have been working these past two years to educate people that I am here to transfer skills and be a part of the community. I am not just another white person coming in to tell them how to run their school, town, or country.
Culturally, I have an honorary male status. This means that I can eat with the men or join their circle during holidays. I prefer spending my time with the women. After this experience, though, I feel that I have a little more insight into how it is to be in the minority. It has been very tiring, maddening, and frustrating for us here in that sense. I can’t wait to be home to my family and friends who know me just for me and not just another “white person in Africa.”

Is the prominent religion in The Gambia Islam? –Max
Yes. Eighty five percent of the country is Islam, and the remaining 15 percent are Christian, which are mostly in the city. Look up The Gambia on the CIA fact book online to find more accurate figures.

How does teaching in The Gambia differ from teaching in the United States? -Jacob
In The Gambia, there are very little resources. In America, there is an abundance of resources in the classrooms, namely computers, paper, copy machines, crayons, glue, learning aids, textbooks, furniture, electricity. Here, teachers make do without any of that, and only a blackboard and chalk. Also, the majority of parents care about their children’s education. Parents are involved in the school and their children’s progress from the very beginning. In America we have a culture of literacy. So teachers in The Gambia have a lot going against them and do the best they can.

Is The Gambia one of the poorer places in Africa? –Eli
Yes it is. It is one of the poorest countries in the world. It ranks 155 out of 177 countries for food insecurity. Go online and find some other facts about The Gambia’s economy, GNP, infant mortality rate, illiteracy rate and then compare it to other African countries such as South Africa, Kenya, Senegal, Ghana, Egypt. Then go on to compare those numbers to America, France, England, or Germany.

Does the weather change quickly and how many degrees did the temperature drop? What do Gambians wear in the colder seasons? –Fred
The cold season does come quickly. The Gambia does not have middle seasons like spring or fall. It happens in one day when the wind picks up and changes direction. The humidity is gone and the nights are cool. The coldest it gets at night here in Kerewan is 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Now compared to American winters that is very warm. But compared to the hot season where the temperature rises to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, 60 degrees is quite cold. In the mornings I see Gambians huddled around fires wearing big puffy ski jackets. But during the day it sill gets very warm, sometimes up to 90 degrees. I have gotten used to the hot weather, so I also wear my fleece when it gets that cold. I wonder I will survive in a real Boston winter!

Peace Corps
How and why did you decide to do Peace Corps? Is it hard work in the Peace Corps? –Aaron, Emily, Mary, Erik, Joshua, Mikaela, Michelle, Beatriz, Ilana
Both my parents were Peace Corps Volunteers way back in the late 1960s. So it has always been a part of my life. Both Carson and I new we wanted to do Peace Corps sometime after college. So after we got married we applied! We were attracted to Peace Corps service because it was an amazing opportunity to live in a country, amongst the people, learn the language, and help out a bit. We knew we would have the chance to truly understand the world from a totally different perspective. It is difficult work to live in an underdeveloped country for two years. All those physical challenges, such as the bugs, heat, and no electricity fade away to the emotional challenges of being an outsider and being far away from what you always knew to be normal.
I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything. I have learn so much about myself and this world. I have been forced to react to situations I would never have in America, and because I this I am a stronger and more confident person.

Do you get paid for going to the Peace Corps? –Naomi
As a volunteer, we do not get a salary. We do get a living stipend each month to be able to pay for rent, travel, and food. Upon completion of our service you get a readjustment allowance which, I believe is 6,000 USD before the government takes out taxes.

When you leave The Gambia will you not be able to be in the Peace Corps again? –Lily

You can extend your two years of Peace Corps service to up to four years. Many choose to go to a different country for the other two years. I know of people who have served in four countries with Peace Corps throughout their lives.

How long do you plan to stay in The Gambia? How long have you been in Peace Corps?–Libby, Sappho, Jacob, Lilly
A Peace Corps Volunteer serves in their host country for two years. Carson and I will be leaving in three weeks! I thought these two years would feel like forever. But time goes by wherever you are. To be honest the days go by more slowly here, but the weeks melt away.

Do you think that this experience will help you later in life? –Bela
Definitely! Graduate schools and employers look very highly to Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs). Peace Corps also has scholarships for RPCVs at a lot of graduate schools around the country. Personally, I am more confident and know that I can work with groups of people of who are different from me. I will have more patience and sympathy for when things don’t work or in difficult situations. I also know that I want to work with advocating for girls education as a career.

Where are you going next? –Jasmine
We are moving to Washington DC. Carson will be attending Georgetown Law school and I want to work with an women’s or education policy organization doing research or advocacy.

How many places have you traveled with the Peace Corps?/Have you traveled anywhere else in West Africa –Ilana, Jacob, Jewel
Carson and I traveled to Ghana and Senegal. Ghana was beautiful. The roads were better and the bush taxis were more efficient. They even sold ice cream on the streets! Senegal is more developed than The Gambia. Dakar, the capital city of Senegal has skyscrapers, fancy restaurants, bakeries, and an ice cream parlor. It is like the Paris of West Africa.

Were you teachers before you joined the Peace Corps? –Aidan
I was a second grade reading tutor in southeastern Ohio for Americorps and Carson was a chemist. Upon arriving we had an intense technical training about teaching in The Gambia.

How old do you have to be to join the Peace Corps? –Bela
You have to have a college degree to join. I have fellow volunteers that are over 60 years old.

Why did you choose to go to The Gambia? –Mary, Sappho, Sara
We did not choose The Gambia. When applying we request a region that we would like to serve in. The region we choose was Africa, so there were many countries we could go to. Peace Corps matched our skills and availability with what a specific country requested, so that’s how we got to go to The Gambia. We had to look it up on a map when we got our invitation letter to serve!

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