Wednesday, June 25, 2008
We are home! Our experience already feels like a dream. Our trip to Ireland was absolutely gorgeous. It was 60 degrees, green, and the Guinness made you feel lucky to be alive. It has been pretty easy settling back into our comfortable lives of luxury: supermarkets, high-speed Internet, strawberries, avocados, driving, malls, credit cards, HBO, and sleeping in the A/C.
We are thankful that we have this blog to keep our memories alive. We feel as though we are still straddling two worlds, and The Gambia is fading fast. We called Aja a couple of days ago. It didn't feel like we were an ocean away. Just chatting about the weather, the kids, and how much we already miss each other. We hope our Mandinka stays sharp...
It took us no time to adjust to the cool mornings of 70 degrees. Whenever we are hot, it brings us back to those painful afternoons in Kerewan. I have no tolerance now for it; if I'm hot I run to the A/C, because I can! And don't tell the greenies, but I took the longest, most glorious hot shower!
With this adventure behind us now, we are in awe of how we made it out and still like each other. As we left, many people told us that we are the exception: a married couple completing a full two year service. A tough situation just makes a good couple great. But we couldn't have done this without the support of our family and friends. We want to take this space to show our deepest appreciation for your support, patience, listening ear, and humor. We can't wait to see all of you in person or hear your voices on the phone! It's our relationships that make all of this matter, so cheers to you!
Jan. 13, 2008
After the scars, we went way up river to most eastern city, Basse. It’s the wild west of The Gambia, where, even in the cold season, the afternoon is a blazing hot dusty mess. The main street is full of people, full of life, full of “others:” Sierra Leonians, Guineans, Nigerians, Senegalese, Jahonkas, Mauritainians. So we walk through the bustle in peace, in peace as just another “other.” We ebb and flow with the chaotic energy that cuts the exhausted sandy haze. We stop for delicious meat pies and frozen yogurt, true gems worth traveling 300 km up river for. MTV videos featuring beyonce, shaggy, 50 cent blare from the small TV perched on the counter next to the meat pie box. We watch, hypnotized by the flashy, loud, sex-ridden images – bombarded and overloaded.
The vibe of this far away town in tiny
We came to Basse for Christmas and to hang and visit our fellow PCV, Evan. Saying he’s a cool guy is an understatement. We chill in his round thatched roof hut during the day, moving as little as possible to evade the heat. In the evening we set off to the main drag, about a 2 km walk. He leads us on a detour to one of the three hills in Basse. A hill! It was glorious to walk on an incline more than ten degrees. I looked down and saw corrugate roofs dotted with trees and mobile phone towers sheathed in the dirty haze laying low on the horizon. I felt the unfamiliar: elevated, far away, hidden.
Later we stop to eat chicken and spaghetti and then head to one of the local bars. So there we were, Christmas Eve, me and the guys, drinking the cheapest brandy, gin, and local beer, so cheap you feel a headache coming on before you even fall asleep. The place was crowded with middle aged men and much younger women. The bouncer was a stern old man with a stick. We sat, chatted, raised our glasses to another holiday that doesn’t feel like the holiday should.
During the dry season fires in the distance are common, but as we looked up to a mushroom cloud of black smoke coming from the market, we knew this wasn’t the usual trash fire. This one was close and grew fast. A mob of people filled the pot-holed streets and sprinted towards the action. We got up, left our drinks, and joined the rush; anything for some unscripted excitement. The fire blew through a cassette shop, the next store over, and then to the open air stalls just behind. We stood there right in front, mesmerized with the flames, as the firemen hastily dug in the ground for more water. But it’s the dry season and everything is crisp and parched, even under ground. I kept asking how the fire began. Arson? A cigarette? The pummel of flames reflected a deep orange in the stunned faces. We then stopped to think for the first time since joining the mob running towards an out of control fire late at night, and immediately got the hell out of there.
We sauntered back to Evan’s place, shivering as the frigid cold of Basse’s nights in the cold season fell upon us. For us, it was so cold as we attempted sleep, that even jeans, socks, and a sweatshirt covered with a sheet couldn’t stop the heat from the day escaping our bodies.
Christmas day did not feel like anything special, except phone calls from home. We met up with other PCVs who were around for the holiday. We ate potatoes, turkey, some salad, and then Evan took us to a whorehouse. It was just a bar in a compound three blocks from downtown. We had no clue what nice little surprise Evan had in store, but as we sat down with our boxed wine, we noticed six rooms in a row. Some with doors open, some with doors closed. Young women and older men came in and out. It was all very matter-of-factly and understated. The bar itself was nice with truly cold beer and soda. Women and men were dancing to Shania Twain and other country greats, followed by reggae and other Bob and 50 cent wannabes. (The local music here is cool with the kora over some latin like beats, but when they try to copy “the west,” it just atrocious!) So there we were laughing, chatting, singing, all the while soaking in the comforts of a local whorehouse on that saintly day of Christmas.
Wednesday, December 19, 2007
Mom, don’t read this.
Sorry guys. I wish more than any of you that I had a single story to encompass the whole title. Instead, here’s a few of the more entertaining incidents in what I would otherwise maintain is a quiet life.
I almost stepped on a snake. It could have been a spitting cobra, but I can’t make that claim. I was running on a pretty wide utility track through the bush just as the sun set low. Almost to my turn-around point, I looked down to see the ground move. There it was, 12 inches from where I planted my right foot - a snake. Maybe two and a half feet long, slate grey with an orange underside; much like the spitting cobra on our “Harmful Snakes of The Gambia” poster.
As a rule, Gambians hate snakes. When they corner one in a clump of grass, everyone picks up a stone or stick and makes mulch. Consequently, there aren’t really many snakes around us. The last and only other time I saw a live one was during training when our group came upon a Beauty Snake (non venomous) eating a lizard. We all leaned in closer and closer until all of the sudden it decided that the threat of us outweighed the benefit of its meal. It uncoiled, hissed, made a wide circle and slithered into the grass faster than we thought possible. Everyone in the group jumped back but I jumped straight up and screamed, in a really high pitched voice, “Shit Monkeys!” Honestly. I think Rachel might have stepped forward to defend her helpless husband. Life and death situation and that’s what I yell: shit monkeys. This time around, on my own in the bush, with not a single other soul to witness my proximity to DEATH or bear testimony to my courage, and I calmly stepped away and breathed a manly, “Woah!” Honestly.
I was at the main office a few weeks ago, taking advantage of the open computers late at night. It was and time to eat. I stepped out onto the quiet street and walked a short way to one of the Lebanese owned fast food places on the main strip. As I walked in the door, an attractive waitress snapped at me “Ki Fii!”, Wollof for “Come here.” I don’t speak much Wollof, but I still want some credit for knowing a local language, so I replied with the Mandinka equivalent, “Naa naa bang!” “No, you come here.”
So it began. I quickly ordered my shwarma as the three waitresses gathered around testing my language. Flirting doesn’t really work for me. In fact, it makes me incredibly uncomfortable. This was compounded as I realized that I was the only customer in the place and so there were no potential distractions to pull them away from me. Amidst the interrogation, I briefly wondered, “why are so many waitresses working when there are no customers?”
The Lebanese owner who was manning the grill walked by, completely ignored me, grabbed the first waitress by the arm and whispered something in her ear. She walked back to me and asked if I was interested in something-something. Like I said, I don’t speak Wollof, but somewhere in my head a slow, heavy gear made a quarter turn with a loud clicking sound and some dim understanding dawned. I hate awkward situations so my eyes scanned the room. Shwarma almost done, check. Exact change in my pocket, check. Clear path to the exit, check.
“I don’t know what that means,” my voice cracked as if I were thirteen.
“Do you want sex” she coolly clarified.
“Ummmm, no, not today, but thank you for the offer,” I stammered as I less-than-deftly stood up, strode to the grill, snatched my food from the Lebanese pimp just as it hit the bottom of the bag and left my Dalasis in mid air. The next day my girl (her name is Kadi) waved amicably to me and Rachel and asked our friend if I was married. Thank God.
My mobile was stolen on the ferry on Saturday. How many times have I felt hands probing my pockets. One of the busiest travel days of the year leading up to Tobaski and I don’t bother to put it in my bag. Sheesh.
Friday, June 13, 2008
Aja’s Baamutar wears a single leather charm around his waist. The only time I noticed it was when she was putting a cloth diaper on. He glistened from freshly applied baby oil, smooth and untangled from the lack of jujus. I asked where his others where. She looked at me with her hard caring eyes and chuckled, “Mothers put these on their babies to keep them from getting sick and dying, but they still get sick, they still die.” She paused, perhaps to think about her lost child, Jaa, who died at the age of three (most likely from Malaria). Aja pointed her finger towards the hazed sky, pierced her face to clarity, “Allah dorong. God only.” Baamutar wiggled spastically as she tied that last of diaper. She picked him up, pushed his face to hers, stood him on her tired and stretched stomach, and let out a smile meant only for those moments for mothers and their newborns. Her eyes are the most hopeful when she plays with Baamutar.
The week leading up to our last moments in Kerewan involved many tears, prayers from Allah, and traveling gifts. Like a baby in its first year, we were tangled in the Gambian ceremonial goodbyes. The Saaba and Kerewan nursery schools gave both Carson and I full outfits. All the Kerewan nursery school staff cried and cried as they were thanking us for our work. Carson and I looked at each other shocked at the site of Gambian men and women crying. Grown men bawling, like my counterpart Bruama. I have always been told not to cry from Gambians and now I have seen enough tears to last another year.
In between the emotional send offs and from community members along the road, were the granting of Allah’s prayers. May God grant you a long and healthy life. May God allow you to arrive home in safety and good health. May God grant you a healthy family. God will repay you for all that have done and will do. God will protect you. Every prayer sung to us wove the fabric of our community for these past two years, a keepsake of their majestic acceptance.
Two words capture how one will miss you. The frequently used famo means I miss seeing you. But we heard a new one as we were saying goodbye. “Moo kidoota!” they kept saying, “People in loneliness.” It was quite ironic response when we told them we were leaving in a couple of days. Kerewan, like The Gambia, is full of people, too many people. I have never felt physically alone here, never truly able to be alone. But they meant loneliness in the emotional sense. The first I have heard of this notion here. They will miss us; they will miss the emotional connection however small or big. Or perhaps it is like the rehearsed prayers, the habitual response to some leaving for a long time. When Aja said it, I knew she referred to the former.
At midday the white Peace Corps SUV pulled out of the compound and I kept crying. That was it, we were going home. The whole neighborhood was in our house as we loaded up our bags and metal trunks. Aja just stood there against the wall and started cry. I tried not to look at anyone around me. I was about to loose it. When the car was all packed up, it was time. After two long years, it was time. I hugged everyone around me, my toma, Dabo, all the kids, Fatou who was bawling, and then lastly Aja. We looked at each other, crying too much to say a word. I gave her a hug and could only say, “M bee kumandi ning m bi taa fly la. I’ll call you before I leave on the plane.” I held her hand tight and Carson pulled me on the car.
My stomached dropped. I cried for Aja. She’s my person. Carson whispered to me, “We’ll be back, you’ll see her again.” As we drove over the bridge and further and further away, my readiness to go home came over me. But I kept going back to Aja’s pointed finger upward and her determined face to look through all of the jargon and superstition around her, seeing only God. To trust only what she has seen and done in her thirty years of back breaking living. She pointed to what keeps her living.
Seeing four 60-70 year old men wearing their Muslim kaftans, with the traditional Muslim cap, riding in a gleaming gold Jeep Cherokee blasting gansta hip hop music.
Muhammed, the five year son of city relatives walked around the compound hold a skinned, sheeps head by its nostrils. It oozed fresh blood and the eyes balls were still intact
While judging the regional girl’s scholarship pageant, the DJ blasted Britney’s, “Toxic,” for the intermission. At that moment I looked over and saw twenty men performing their five o’clock prayer.
On yet another interminably hot afternoon Carson says to me, “Don’t rub my back, it’s sticky and it will chafe.”
Our twelve year old host brother comes to the door asking, “Where’s the book of Obama?” In reference to the Newsweek with a picture of Obama on the cover.
Seeing a baby donkey just after birth trying to take its first steps while walking to school.
Having to stop for the herd of cows to cross while on my morning run.
Seeing a Fula nomad, wearing a turban, chya pants, and all walking his cow over the bridge while talking on a razor phone.
Play fighting with Amie while fetching water at the pump. This time her three year old son, Moo Lamin, came up defending his mom by kicking me in the shins and spitting on me. It was hilarious!
The first rain on June 1st! Carson and I ran out with the kids to play in the rain. We jumped in puddles, let our feet squish around in the mud, and eventually were soaked to the bone. Of course all the adults in the compound thought we were crazy… again. That day it was brutally humid with the temp spiking at 110. When the rain came the temperature dropped to 80 degrees and we were freezing!
Watching Carson come alive when he’s out of the stifling heat. It’s like Popeye after popping a can of spinach.
Thanks to Carson, our host brother Karama has memorized his multiplication tables. Most grade twelve students don’t even know them.
Lying on the cement bantaba (like a gazebo without a roof) at night with Aja and the kids watching the stars. The kids around me are almost all asleep with the bit of relief the night brings after yet another hot day. Sometimes I wish they would turn off the outdoor light so I could soak in all the constellations. But why turn off a light with the town’s power station is on?
At night on the bantaba Aja and I talk about anything and everything. Just a couple of days ago I explained how fast planes fly: rather it taking six hours to get to Dakar from Banjul, it takes only a half hour. It takes six hours to get to Europe, and another twelve to get to America. At the moment she understood how far America truly was. For an uneducated women, she is so smart and sharp.
Text number 1: “I’m not difficult to work with. My reason is that, I love you in every way. Since very day I saw you. I just don’t know why? And you are married. I was afraid of inconvenience in my own community.”
Text number 2: “Lisanding know that I have never seen a woman who won my emotion as you did. I just don’t know why? AND you are married. Both of maintain the respect we deserved. I, an ideal main of divine mission. My loving you is natural. Whether you like it or not. Greet me family back home.”
Text number 3: “Have patience. Be reassured that I’m one of the most trustworthy, faithful person you’ve ever met. Know that we all have a believe. BUT I love you in every way. AND I DON’T KNOW WHY YOU STAY IN MY HEART WHEN YOU KNOW THAT YOU ARE MARRIED.”
Monday, June 09, 2008
Saturday, June 07, 2008
I sit panting in the suffocating heat as it sits stale on my overheated skin. This is it, our last week in Kerewan. We’ve been waiting for this moment, ever since arriving late Thursday night to the sandy, incomplete, irrelevant city of Kombo two years ago. The secret to getting through this experience is knowing that you will be home in two years. So we all just stick it out, ride this complicated and uncomfortable adventure.
It hits after just six months here, when you realize that you will never truly be able to tell your story so that everyone you love and know will understand. It’s not shitting in a hole for two years or living the “authentic” Africa experience, it’s understanding that we, the donor franchise, the voyagers, the white people, the romantics of “development work”, our position on this continent is “irrelevant, impotent, and a contradiction” (quoted from George Packers The Village of Waiting). We spend the next year and a half trying to justify our existence in this country, to create a lifestyle that doesn’t feel fraudulent or absurd. In that time, while trying to do something that is “sustainable” and “builds capacity,” (all words that are used to revamp the flawed franchise of development, to somehow eradicate the dependency development has created on this continent), we are the ones who have truly developed.
Sometimes I don’t recognize myself. I feel vacant, as like The Gambian youth’s spirit and creativity is beaten out of them at home and in school, my spirit and idealist hope has suffered the blows of realism and defeat. The incessant harassment that never failed to remind me of my white privileged skin - whether it be children wailing Toubab, young men following me and asking for marriage, entitled educated men embodying every aspect of a sexist pig, women asking for the clothes off my back, and the constant charade of praise and love for the white person that in the end is sad and mocking - chipped away that naïve isolated idealistic liberal from Boston into a hostile, cold realist that would support a complete pull out of all NGOs on this continent to finally give Africa a chance to develop itself.
I get a nervous shiver up my tired spine every time I am left alone with my thoughts here. My entire world view has been turned upside down. I want to throw rocks at tourists who stampede through villages passing out bowls of rice to help with the food crisis, when if they stopped to think, seeds for dry land rice would have been an incomparable better idea. But there I go blaming others for my own discomfort in my skin.
In this jarring, mundane, depressing, dulling experience the gems kept my appetite for compassion and humility satiated. As I say over and over that I am ready to go, that it’s time, as I ride this glorious wave to home, I fail to let myself understand what leaving these gems truly means. Aja and the kids, my toma, Dabo, Mbaa Suwareh, the girls in girls club loved me for me, and not my white skin. They are my friends, my anchors to approximate normality in this absurd place. Their relationships allow me to feel less of a fraud or a charade, but a person who is living in a strange place in need of a family to trust and love. They were the only aspects of this experience that reaffirmed one of my core beliefs: true relationships make somebody matter in this world.
I recently figured out why this country works the way it does and it made me appreciate my gems even more. Accountability lacks in every corner that I look here, thus corruption both insidiously and blatantly seep into everything. No one held anyone accountable and passed blame on to anyone but the self. But I realized I only looked in the places where Americans hold accountability: the public life of work. Here, it is the exact opposite. Accountability exists inside the family. If a taxi driver does stop to greet and/or eat with his wife’s family as he passes through their village with a van full of twenty overheated passengers, then he is shamed and has to answer to his father-in-law. A teacher, posted 100k from her Mandinka village to a foreign Wollof village, misses weeks of work to attend a family ceremony or to take care of family business doesn’t even consider time off from work. Her family holds her accountable not the parents or community in the alien Wollof village.
When western development imposes accountability in the public sphere, Gambians laugh at such futility. One is a good worker if they sit all day or initiate after school homework clubs. Fulfilling the expectations of your family is work in itself. In America we don’t have to share our monthly pay check with twenty of our extended family members. Our individualistic society allows us to invest in our future. Gambia’s communal society never lets anyone fall through the safety net, but doesn’t let anyone pull ahead either.
This is not to justify corruption and inefficiency, it’s merely my belated attempt to understand it. Why here and not there? Why does an inept dictator steal the governments money to build fancy hotels and a zoo in his hometown? Because his home people will hold him accountable. Why are my attempts at teacher training met with plastic smiles and inane nodding of the head? Because since when does the white girl hold the man of the Sanneh family accountable?
With accountability in the corners of walled compounds, the culture of blame blankets the big fat notion of progress. When men can’t bring in enough money for the family, they blame the wife for being wasteful and stupid. When a women becomes pregnant outside of wedlock, her family disowns and curses here while the male impregnator continues without having to act the least bit responsible. The women bear the brunt of all societal ills, yet no one every stops to truly hear what they have to say. And the charade of “development” goes on in quarterly reports and fancy white NGO SUVs, while the people wait.
People in America tell me that I am so brave for doing all this. But, I am the one who can just wisp in and out of here free from the waiting game, with only my conscious holding me accountable for my actions. The brave ones are my gems who protected me from the defeats that they absorb daily. When I was being bothered, they were the ones who stood up for me. When I had a problem or needed to figure out a situation they were there to help. When I was in over my head, they were there to bail me out. They sympathetically listened as I attempted to hold full conversations in Mandinka. They looked past my inability to say the correct phrase and understood my compassion for them. They are the brave ones, because they did all this in face of familial accountability. They stood up for me to their relatives, to older men, for me. Now, for the first time I feel and understand the quiet female solidarity that exists in pockets here. I do see women blaming other women just like the men, but it’s the brave ones who risk empathy for the otherness.
I worry about this country. I worry that it won’t exist in fifty years with the rising sea levels. I worry of this culture in limbo between the desire to embrace all that is western and traditional culture that roots Gambian in a sense of place and history. As traditions wear thin to hip hop culture and accountability to the self, will The Gambia become like Nigeria, where no one and in no aspect of society is held accountable? I worry that the desert will over take my home here in the next ten years and forcing everyone to leave for a dwindling forest to the south. I worry about how no one here believes in this food crisis. When in six months the price of a bag of rice will be over 1000 Dalasi (half of an average civil servants monthly salary), people will finally believe in the crisis but it will be too late. I worry that the donor enterprise will come in and save the day per usual and Gambians will never learn to solve their own problems.
I want to somehow honor Aja, Mbaa Suwareh, Dabo, my girls club girls, my toma and her mother. I am humbled by their tenacity and sheer strength. I worry about them, and worry that when I go, I will vanish and be sucked back into the American bubble. For Aja is my person, my best friend here in The Gambia. She is the only one who truly understands my plight here, she gets my needs. I am indebted to her understanding. She kept me alive. Her and her six children, Lamin, Karamo, Binta, Fatou, Alieu, and Baamutar brought light, beauty and encouragement to this difficult experience. Most of all they brought me security. Mbaa Suwareh was like my Grandma here. She filled a void in me that I have had since my last surviving grandparent passed on five years ago. Her slow, crippled walk and her adorable lived face warmed my heart every time I saw her. She was the one who berated any child who dared to disrespect me. Funding her false teeth is one of my most proudest accomplishments. Dabo is the hardest working Gambian women I have seen. She is reserved and talks in circles. But when I came home crying from the gardens because the girls were harassing me, she took care of it. From that moment on no one every bothered me again. Havibg little Lisa in my life here brought a sense of belonging, though somewhat still marred by being an outsider, it was enough to keep me going. She is the fattest baby I know, but whose smile of recognition every time she saw me, makes both of us shine. My girls taught me to love every part of myself (although that is still a work in progress), how I look, what I do or say. Everything. As I advocated for their rights to empowerment, success, financial independence, and safety, they taught me how to appreciate mine. Their resilience and inklings of hope for their future, in spite of all they are up against, rekindled my hope and idealism for girls all around the world.
As the dark cloak of this big picture we have come to figure out snuffs our optimism leaving room only for frustration and angst, we cling onto our gems. They come in all shapes and sizes, all shades, each for different purposes. Some of my other gems include relaxing over a couple of beers and ice cream with our close Peace Corps friends, like Becca or Todd, Jim, Dan, eating cookies with Carson after yet another attempt of cooking dinner in the bush while waiting for BBC’s News Hour to come and racing to guess if it's Julian Marshall or Owen Bennett Jones’ voice that comes in after the trumpet fanfare, waking up to French pressed Pete’s coffee, and that first night of sleeping in the A/C in Kombo after months of hot interrupted sleep. We come to the end exhausted in every way possible, feeling as though we aged ten years too soon. But we lived through the raw absurdity of this place and never felt more alive. Now, holding those bag of gems close, it’s time to go home.
Life in The Gambia
What does a Dalasi look like? -SarahNotice 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!
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!
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!