27 December 2006

Dive! Dive! Dive!

My senior year of college I took an independent study course with one of my favorite professors, Professor Robinson, and a good buddy, Mike, who had also taken courses under Robinson. We were dissecting a WWII era German text, Dialectic of Enlightenment, which was trying to come to terms with Western culture’s obsessive drive towards pure knowledge. Do myth and the unknown always have to give way to assured knowledge, and how do we keep discussion open so the assured does not become the absolute. As we worked through the text I always felt a bit disappointed in myself as Mike consistently seemed able to go one layer deeper into the text than I could. It was like he was deep wreck diving while I was still snorkeling at the surface.

I often think of those sessions and feel glad for my time here in The Gambia. Facing some of the conflicts of Western society crashing into the rest of the world makes me feel like I am slowly, day by day, diving deeper. I am swimming towards the ship wreck by way of every day life.

Much of the move into the deep comes from a common experience to PCV life, the debates that we all have about how we should understand our role as cultural ambassadors and how our mission can coexist as a potential catalyst for cultural decline.

Our education group gathered in the capital for Christmas and of course there were many open discussions on our cultural role in The Gambia. There is a wide variety of thoughts and feelings on the subject and there are never clear cut answers. The variety of input is what makes the experience rich, and it creates our own dialectic within the small community here.

The variety is further expanded since, in my opinion, we all have multiple personalities: Who we were at home, who we are around other PCVs, who we are at site, and who we are becoming. Sorting through all these different people, I felt this was a good chance to introduce a few of the people who are playing a large role in my own development here. In doing so I hope to paint a better picture of our group as a whole, and perhaps to indirectly give some insight to how each of them are coping with the clash of cultures. (Note: Names have been changed for volunteer safety.)

Jane is an ICT volunteer who seems to do her best out of the classroom and interacting with the community. She has started a basketball team at her local middle school and the kids seem to love her for it. She is one of those people who has somehow maintained many of her Americanisms and truly brings cross cultural interaction. This has made her a popular figure in her community as well and she is the person who always seems to know where to go for all sorts of random things, she simply has made the right connections.

Tom is another ICT volunteer in the greater Banjul area who always seems to know the special under the radar events. He is an excellent photographer and probably puts himself out there so that he can find all the cool events to capture life’s little moments. His artistic spark really shines here, and he has a positive few of his own work giving the rest of us a lot of inspiration.

Rosie and Chad are the only PCV married couple here in The Gambia and there interaction always brings a smile to the faces of people in our group. Of course they both have strengths in PCV life. Rosie is a teacher trainer and her work has put her all over her general area, community from place to place. She has faced difficulty in a lack of support from her administration but still maintains a positive attitude and is constantly thinking of new ways to improve teaching skills. Chad is a math teacher and like many of us is a bit discouraged by the difficulty in not only the wide range of mathematical skill but also a lack of proper preparation in previous classes. Still he realizes our job is to help out as best we can and he hopes to switch roles out of the classroom and into more of a teacher training position, allowing him to reach a wider audience before his time here is over.

David is a science teacher not too far away from me and has found that his school would better benefit from him as a English teacher. Not only is the school short of English teachers, but his take on education as a whole is that the children are not taught English well enough to succeed in their other classes. If you do not understand the English instruction, you’ll never understand your subjects whether they be Science, Social Studies, Math, or any other subject. He has taken a very practical mentality, and realizes that our role here is to help out wherever we can and as best we can, rather than stick to a specific job description.

I know this is a bit of a disjointed text, but it should be. In PCV life you are constantly analyzing a flood of information that seems to be crashing in from all directions. When we all gather it is a good chance to compare notes and try to find some sense in it all. The diversity of our group truly makes those discussions rich and productive. So as long as I am in the water, I might as well keep diving for that ship wreck, one day at a time.

20 December 2006

And then there was shame.

Discriminatory harassment. They warn you about it, they train you for it, you mentally toughen up for it, and still you are not prepared. It is one of those things that hides its true strength in the unlimited shadows of time. It isn't until you've walked into the shadows and met the colossus in time that it creeps into your psyche and you come face to face with the true muscle of the towering beast: Its endurance.

There are days when leaving my front door borders on being masochistic. As I learn the meaning of targeted harassment first hand, it makes me fearful to visualize that knowledge on our own nation's past. We must always cultivate ourselves towards peace.

We are creates that, in one simple theory, learn through the process of scientific method. We observe, make predictions, test, and then make new predictions based upon the result.

For the foreigner living here this means every time you step our your door you might be rudely yelled at, questioned for everything, begged for material goods, grabbed, called names, pulled at, starred at, hissed at, or chased. Unlike the harassment that plagued our nation during the Civil Rights movement, the harassment here most of the time isn't even malicious, but rather it serves as a constant depressant. It seems to be particularly bad amongst children who are most often the targets of incoming tourists who throw them gifts making for a good Polaroid, but bad for development workers. Children see this happen, and follow the example throughout their childhood.

I recently received a letter from Rudi back in Bloomington who eloquently reminded me that while it is natural to learn through observance and testing, it is never the final word in how we should live our lives. Over the summer and into the fall she had an experience, which made her realize she had believed in one thing for so long that it no longer occurred to her to question it. When she did confront it, and think critically about the situation, she realized it was herself who was now being closed-minded. This experience most of us feel like they do on a constant basis, but I would challenge you all to ask if you actually have gone through with the process. For myself, I wish I had Rudi's strength, advice, and insight or at least her letter earlier. It might have caused me to look at the world around me again and re-evaluate, avoiding potentially damaging situations. Unfortunately, the day before her letter arrived I felt my own shame of a mind gone dark.

I became a slave to finality in scientific method as well. One too many times I have not been friendly to someone greeting me because I have learned that more often than not, the person will disturb me rather than have a legitimate reason for stopping me.

Walking home I was hissed at (the infamous "tssk" sound) by a young boy who then grabbed my arm and told me to give him 50 Dalasis. I was fed up with the whole situation and used some rather choice words from my English vocabulary to tell him to get lost.

He responded in kind with, "You don't want to give me money? You just think you're better than me because you're rich, that's why you aren't helping your brother. You go ____ off."

There was an ugliness felt inside of me that I hadn't felt in a long time. The ugliness was a muddle of shame, discomfort, hopelessness, and misunderstanding across worlds. I realize my outburst was detrimental to our Nation, my character, who I wanted to be, and thought I could be. In the end there I was simply adding to the muscle and the endurance of the beast rather than facing it in the shadows. I would be better to go back and be guided by Lincoln's better Angels of our nature.

This is a short post of frustration, self-reflection, and tougher times. As I have said, Peace Corps life often times brings about potent emotions that you must deal with and ultimately find your peace. If not, if we cannot critically struggle with the challenges, breaking harmful thoughts and reaffirming positive ones, then we will have failed.

We will move on to other thoughts since after all, it is Christmas and we all have more joyous times to look forward to. I myself will take a much needed few days off to recover mentally and physically. I suppose part of this post has just been a reaction to being particularly home sick and needing to vent overall discomforts. May joy come to you this holiday season. Sending good thoughts back home to all friends, family, and mentors.

---
---

Memories of CDs being played during childhood. A boys choir bringing smiles to our faces in a simpler time.

Christmas is coming, the geese are getting fat
Please to put a penny in the old man's hat;
If you haven't got a penny, a ha'penny will do,
If you haven't got a ha'penny then God bless you!


14 December 2006

Anansi Animation Project Pencil Tests

This week, two posts for the price of one!

Here are some pencil tests for the Anansi project. Our goal was to keep the drawings as simple as possible so that our animation task would be easier. Any comments on overall style or art direction are welcome.

Here is early Anansi and Tiger when we were just trying to get anything down on paper. These ultimately proved to be far too difficult for us to animate effectively. They have since been abandoned.






Next we move on to the concept idea I was working with of a Colorforms Anansi world. Here geometric shapes would be the norm, and the we would invite the viewer to try to make their own worlds at home.








The final sketches are more akin to what we will probably work with. Just a step up from stick figures, we will be able to animate these much easier and work up from there. Baby steps after all.

Merry Christmas.

13 December 2006

How we roll in The Gambia. A detailed view of a PC project.

The challenge.

As The Gambia moves to a universal education system, one of the principal challenges will be access to quality educational resources. In schools and at home there are few materials that allow students to read, study or practice what they are taught in schools. Furthermore, once a citizen has graduated from school their access to educational resources drops drastically. This scarcity of resources both during and after formal education obstructs Gambian citizens from exploring their intellectual curiosity, part of the groundwork needed in a democratic society.

The Anansi the Spider Animation Project hopes to address this problem at a foundational level providing a fun and engaging way to enhance reading, writing, and communication skills. The project will create a series of short (~15 minutes in length) animated cartoons that will tell African folktales in simple, clear and comprehensible language. To aid with English reading and comprehension the cartoons will also further explain difficult words, ideas or passages in local languages that range from Pulaar, Mandinka, Joola, and Wolof. The project will distribute the shorts through television, harnessing the power of mass media to cheaply and effectively transmit the educational resource to Gambian society.

The project also aims to unite mass media and Gambian society on a culturally relevant level not often seen in this part of the world. Creating the animated shorts that centre around the African folktale character of Anansi the spider, the project will reach out by beginning with a thematic and visual template already familiar to Gambians. The focus on locally produced and culturally relevant material greatly expands the project's potential impact in The Gambia, further developing national identity, history and pride.

To accomplish these goals the project will utilize a team of computer literate members of The Gambia YMCA to write, storyboard, animate, perform and edit the animated shorts. The YMCA currently trains a large number of students in computer literacy and media skills providing the foundation for many of the tasks that will be required to produce the animations. Most importantly, the project will be a creative outlet for many young Gambians who do not otherwise have the opportunity to use mass media to communicate their ideas out to the general public. In this way the project offers many of the team members inspiration and goals for a future in media communications.

The Goals.

1. To provide widely accessible quality educational resources for The Gambian, with a specific focus on English literacy.

2. To inspire other Gambia media producers to utilize mass media as a tool for the betterment of a democratic society.

3. To provide a creative outlet for young Gambians who are media and computer literate.

4. To combine modern animation techniques with local history and culture demonstrating to Gambian society the potential creativity and impact that are available in the world job market.

Where we are now.

The project is still in its infancy and most of the work being done is admittedly in the "proof of concept" phase. What has been done so far is promising and will provide a solid background to build off of.

Most importantly is that there is a lot of enthusiasm for the project. The team members are currently bringing up new cultural ideas, thoughts and directions that they think the project could go in. Particularly impressive has been the writing section that includes talented individuals who are meticulous in making sure that words are clear and communicate well in the local climate.

Audio recording and performances of scripts has gone well and there is a lot of interest in being voice talent. If the animations should fail, there is a lot of optimism that we will be able to turn the project into short radio dramas. In a way this does make more sense since everyone here has a radio, but few have television. One of our biggest challenges in final productions will be obtaining copies of license free sound effects and music which will run about USD $800. Anyone who has ever used pre-recorded material along with their own effects knows the benefits and ease of having a large library to choose from. There are currently a couple of funding proposals being written, from which some of this text was copied.

The animations are in their early phases as well and we are working on an overall art direction for the project. Since many of us are new to animation we are focusing more on creative, colourful, and exciting images rather than fully-fledged smooth animation. If you think of the kind of animation common to Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, that is probably what we will shoot for. Working to our favour, there are zero locally made cartoons and there are not any live or taped PBS Kids style educational programs. In any business you must know the market and for us the competition is non-existent.

What next?

Plug ahead with our "proof of concept," that is: Create a few shorts, test them with the public, and then see how we can better improve the project. There are a lot of elements that need to be thought out, but most of all is formalize the creative art direction and style that we want to follow. As it is now it seems that the stories will be of a humorous nature, often putting the characters in dangerous Looney Toons style situations where people can fall off cliffs, fall into fires, or be blown up by ACME TNT without dying.

As far as art direction is concerned that is a hot topic. One of my ideas is to utilize the palate that the children's' toy "Colorforms" used. For those who do not have a mental image of that, think of black backgrounds, with coloured geometric shapes put together in interesting ways to create the desired picture. With this template we could then invite Gambians to cut out and colour their own pieces retelling their own Anansi stories at home.

As a whole the possibilities are truly endless, and if this is my only project that succeeds, I will be overjoyed.

- - -

- - -

A moment.

The world had since put on tinted glasses. Life spoke to me in tones of dirt brown, rusted red, and Islamic green. The vivid point came up so quickly I almost missed it in the blur of the windowpane. When I did see the colors they popped out and held my gaze like tempting whispers from an unknown love. Exposed in the middle of the African dust and sand stood a solitary shrub speckled with bright pink flowers. Their brilliance was one of contrasts, bursting out their color on a world that had since gone sterile to my eyes.

The world is always full of color, you just need to make sure your eyes are adjusted. This Christmas please do not forget to fill in your own colors of friendship, family and caring for each other.

06 December 2006

Ch. 6 Where a price of 90 is agreed upon

The bicycle that was scheduled to arrive in early September finally came in late November. To celebrate the occasion Daboe and I agreed that it would be nice to go on a short ride into the Gambian countryside.

On a lazy Saturday evening we decided to make the journey. It was a day of no particular schedules and we acted the part. Most of the early half of the day was spent sitting around reading or chatting. Daboe wore a red-stripped polo and a white World AIDS Day ball cap and I was sporting a t-shirt and cargo pants.

As early evening approached I found myself lying comfortably on my couch half asleep.

"Ok, lets go," Daboe called into my house.

A slight pause and the statement registered as him saying it was time to ride. I rushed to put on my shoes, lock up the house, and gather my biking gear. Dashing out of my front door bicycle in hand I was just in time to see a slight blur of color out of my right eye. There was the red-stripped polo, the white cap, and feet pedalling away. Daboe rode right past our housing complex, around the corner, and out of sight.

I was unsure of what to do next. I stood outside my front door a bit out of breath, bicycle and helmet in hand, and obviously looking out of place. Had I heard Daboe wrong, was he referring to something else? How goofy must I look right now to the rest of my family who were sitting outside enjoying their day drinking tea. I thought it'd be best to start working on my bike and look busy, tweaking small levers on the brakes and gears.

Four minutes later I heard my phone ringing and rushed to pick it up.

"Yaya, where are you?" Daboe asked.

"I'm at home, where are you?" I replied, now feeling a bit out of the loop and foolish.

"I'm at the school waiting for you, let's go," Daboe replied without annoyance but a near laughing sigh.

I hopped on my bike and rode the hundred or so metres to the school and met Daboe on the road. As it turned out he consciously left early to drop off Amee and Buba at their Aunt and Uncle's compound, expecting I would soon after meet him there. A smile and my apologies later we were once again on our way for our evening stroll.

Strolls in The Gambia are never just out and about; there is always a purpose. Since the country is so small anywhere you go people know each other. Today we would visit a small village just a few kilometres away with the intention of finding some cheap charcoal.

Going down our highway in this area the road is more or less a real navigable paved road. However, our excursion quickly took us off the main road and onto a smaller village road that rapidly deteriorates into just a spectre of what once was at the height of colonialism. The skeleton of pavement is there but large potholes tear away any true usability, as if a herd of brachiosaurus dinosaurs had their Macy's Day parade down the street.

Our quest began with a sign of good luck as we approached someone riding with a load of charcoal on his bike. Now we could determine the current market value of charcoal and have a baseline from which to bargain. Here like anywhere else, knowledge is power.

"How is the evening?" Daboe asked.

"It is currently beautiful. Can your tubab give me a pen?" The man replied.

He was a younger man, probably still at the age where his father was instructing him to go out and fetch things like water, wood, or charcoal.

"No he doesn't have any extra pens. How much did you buy the charcoal for?" Daboe asked in a now business like tone.

The man, now realizing that Daboe didn't take well to the pen question, quickly replied, "90 Dalasis without a bag, 85 with."

"Thank you," Daboe replied and we were on our way again.

Shortly after the encounter we rolled into town. Daboe instantly recognized one long time friend and we rode straight for him. He was sitting on a bench under a large tree, a slight gut sticking out that gracefully filled out his flowing purple dress. He appeared rather jolly and his appearance perfectly matched his tone as I found out the minute he began the obligatory greetings.

After a lengthy exchange of asking about the family, work, and home the two men got down to business as Daboe now seemed on a mission to get this charcoal. The evening was driving on and if we did not start getting home soon we would be riding in pure darkness. The jolly friend point us to a compound just down the road and now like knights questing for the grail we were once again on our way.

As we approached the compound my eyes widened in horror at a sight I have learned to fear, a large group of females sitting and chatting with each other. Why is this sight so scary? It is the equivalent of the full on mega-family reunion where you only know one out of every five people and don't really care to figure out how you are related to them. In a few moments we would be carpet bombed with questions about our full names, where we're staying, which country I came from, our places of work, and other such personal details that back home I would reserve only for resumes or good friends.

"Hey tubab, come and greet," one woman yelled.

I ignored her, a rather large insult here, but as has become my custom.

Daboe recognized what was going on in my head and said, "Don't call him tubab. He has a name and it is Yaya."

"Oh... Yaya. Come here and greet!" She yelled again.

Now we walked over in tandem with a mutual understanding of how I wanted to be treated here.

We began to greet the lady, when it appeared as if a black hole had been created in the village right on the spot where we were standing. We began to suck in more and more of the women who were earlier sitting around and chatting, along with small children and other onlookers. Daboe and I were soon surrounded by a small crowd, busy repeating our names, where we came from, and all other such questions.

As the initial commotion died down Daboe took advantage of the momentary silent and opened up the opening salvo in the bid for our coveted charcoal.

"So how much is your charcoal here," he simply asked matter or factly.

"100 Dalasis," replied the woman who had initially approached us and had now identified herself as the woman in charge.

"Oh. I see," Daboe said with a hint of refusal. He sighed, "Well Yaya, what do you think?"

By now I knew where I fit into this equation and took my stance firing back a return offer.

"That is a tubab price!" I yelled in form more for Shakespeare than a West African village. "You know 80 is the price you want to give us."

"80!?" The woman shouted, all parties now in full theatrics. "No no, I don't agree. I'll do 90 for you with a bag included."

"Ah ha. That is better," Daboe replied. "We'll take it."

He handed over the money and we were one step closer to success.

Hoisting the large bag up onto his bicycle occurred to me that balancing the bag of charcoal as large as Santa's toy sack on Daboe's small bicycle rack would be quite the problem. If it wasn't properly secured our ride back would be painfully slow as any small bump in the road had to be negotiated with care or else we'd spend our whole night picking up bits of charcoal off the road. As it turned out, as I've seen many times here, Gambians have a knack for finding ways to solidly secure odd shaped objects to bicycles. Rubber straps, rope, nails, boxes, cloth, and small children all can be employed in creative ways when push comes to shove.

The way back the village road was still in its Macy's Day parade form, and our traveling was slow, but it became a good prelude to the freedom that was to come. The sweet is never as sweet without the sour as they say. After what seemed like an eternity we finally turned back onto the main highway road, now feeling like a small revelation in modern transport. In addition, we were lucky enough to be graced with a slight downward slope in the road. The two bicycles quickly picked up pace and soon there we were, racing down the road with ease, an American and a Gambian with charcoal in tow.

The air was cool and the wind swooped off our bodies as we rode into a burnt orange sunset. It was a moment of pure clarity and peace.

Over the rushing sound of wind Daboe yelled, "Now we are truly having speed!"

We looked at each other for a few seconds, large grins covering our faces, and like two men suddenly returned to the joys of childhood, looked out into the world in front of us and kept on pedalling.

29 November 2006

Fast Food

"The future lay in our hands, uncertain yet promising.”
From Goodbye Lenin

Small victories are important to mental health. They keep the future far from known but bright none the less.

This past Sunday I had a few minor commitments. It had been an arduous week of work and late nights and I was tired. The limit had been hit and it was time for a personal day off. You all have had those days, and it might not sound significant enough to write about, but when you are this far from home it makes a big difference. I spent it in my house doing what I have come to love most, reading. I rejected all phone calls, cancelled my commitments, and often spent hours drowning out the world with headphones on. It was good to catch my breath and get ready for the next day.

We have nerd allies here in Africa. Of note is the increasingly news worthy Ubuntu project out of South Africa. In particular the Edubuntu project for schools has grabbed my attention in a high school plagued with pirated Microsoft software. I received my free and shipped install CDs the other day and have been toying with Edubuntu since.

So what is Edubuntu? A Linux based operating system with a selection of some quality Open Source Educational learning software. Reading, chemistry, math, and geography software is all there in addition to the OpenOffice suite of applications. Has it been the saving grace that I hoped it would be? In a word, no. Edubuntu still has odd errors that pop up, incompatibilities, amateur software or manuals, and students are still puzzled by the modern GUI in any form Windows or Linux. I do believe it is a step in the right direction, and freedom of choice is always a plus.

Amee is starting Islamic school meaning he is mostly learning the Koran. There is a little English taught. I gave him some ABC stickers my sister sent me to which in a roar he started to sing his ABCS. They went, “A B C D E F G H U B T Y Zed.” Hey it’s a start.

With the younger boy Buba my relationship is funnelled through his inability to talk Mandinka or English. We have to communicate with by only saying each other’s names, sort of like a real life version of Pokémon. (Steevo and Molly I’m lookin at you.) Sitting in my evening slump of exhaustion he ran up to me on night laughing and yelling “Yaya!” We proceeded to play the –pick up the baby high in the air and fly him around- game for about 15 minutes and it was quite possibly the highlight of my day.

Kaddy came home from a wedding the other night, exquisitely dressed and with a glowing smile on her face. Life is much richer when those around you have so much to give.

Adaptation to daily chores is a nice feeling. I no longer feel my neck muscles pop when I carry my 20 litre water jug home. What this tasks consists of is walking about 100 metres (easy) to my school’s water tap, filling the jug, and then walking back with the jug on my head (the difficult part). It use to be it was a nervous teeter totter game, but not its just bam there and bam back.

I work with some great people at the YMCA. Amongst them is one of the most literate Gambians I have met, a young man named Sherife. He introduced my to Edubuntu, shares a love of Calvin and Hobbes, and learned to read and write so well “just because he likes to spend time alone reading literature.”

Sherife is interested in Macromedia Flash ActionScript (the programming language built into Flash) and I am interested in animation. Where do we meet? There are African folk tales about a spider named Anansi who is told to be the master of all stories. Sherife and I want to animate these stories in Flash and get them out to the public. Cartoons are not common here. Is this a great chance to reach out to the under stimulated Gambian children and teach them a thing or two. Simple language, easy graphics, fun characters. We need to find a delivery medium.

Finally, more than a small victory, it’s almost like Christmas when mail run comes. Thanks a million to Jacob (with help from Mary and Patrick) for everything including the so far wonderful book The Chosen, dad, mom, molly, Valerie, Aunt Judy, and others who sent some wonderful things in the mail.

- - -

This is still the most stressful experience I have ever been in, and daily I struggle. It all goes back to the relentless nature of it all which carpet bombs you every day with the fact that you have to adapt and compromise. But, as the quote at the beginning of this entry says, it is ultimately in our hands to find a way to at the least take small pleasures in life, building a promising base for the future.

O|-| 4n|) M0||y 4n|) W1||. 14 y0u c4n |234|) 7h15, y0u 4|23 n0w 1337.
573v30 y0u 4|23 4 – 3v3|2 1338.

- - -

Harper’s Index – Food in The Gambia
Current value of the Dalasi against the U.S. Dollar: 28
Price of 5 ripe bananas from the local market: 20 Dalasis
Price of 1 ripe apple from the local market: 15 Dalasis
Ratio of banana bundles to apples: 15 to 1
Average price of an egg sandwich and chocolate milk: 25 Dalasis
Average price of a similar meal at McDonald’s: US $4.29
Number of McDonald’s Restaurants in The Gambia: 0
Number of Peace Corps Volunteers who live in the greater Banjul area: 19
Number of those whose diet mainly consists of family food bowls: 10
Number of meals per day with rice or coos base: 3
Average number of days before a volunteer goes crazy from rice or coos: 16
Percentage of those who do not have alternatives once they go crazy: 42%
Average amount of whole fish eaten every day by Todd: 1
Percentage that Todd still hates fish: 100
Todd’s acceptance of PC Life to fish eaten ratio: 1

- - -

Hope you all had a wonderful and peaceful Thanksgiving. Much love to the friends and family back home from the West Coast of Africa.

22 November 2006

Pumpkin Pie

Rated PG-13
Now Playing
AMC East, AMC 15, Polaris

Y. Demba's new animated film Pumpkin Pie asks us to relax from the troubles of daily life and sit back to enjoy our lives as they are. It is not a cohesive story from beginning to end; rather broken up into eight acts playing as snapshots of individual moments. The acts represent a small segment of life, beginning curiously with death and ending with old age. By the time you leave the theatre it will have woven itself together as a whole that will make you once again believe in the beauty of America, in all its conflicted manners. It is a modern Fantasia redesigned to generate conversation on the colour, music, and enjoyment of home.

Conceived, story boarded, and written during Demba's time serving in West Africa, the film can be viewed as a loving requiem to what America was when he left, and what will not be as time inevitably marches forward. It is a tribute to that one instant in time when all is immortalized in memory. The experience will dig deep into your own memory bringing out images that will bring a smile at times, a tear at others, and leave you grateful for how much life there is to live.

Set against detailed watercolour backgrounds, the clean sharp lines of the main characters seem to leap off the screen magically interacting with the audience. Like Fantasia of old there is no dialogue in the film; 'dialogue' is created through a tight synchronization of sound to image. The interesting choice of minimalist composer Philip Glass lead the way for a spectacular success providing an upbeat soundscape that reminds one more the jump and vibe of Dave Brubeck than Glass's own Koyaanisqatsi.

The most stunning thing about the film is the variety of artistic techniques employed while still maintaining a cohesive art direction. The eight vignettes that segment the film each have their own style playfully using the animation medium to disrupt our sense of scale, time, or colour. By the second act you are likely to be subdued into a meditative trance of contrast: guided by the direction of the film, but allowing enough space to bring memories from your own life to the forefront.

The films greatest moments carefully walk with us hand in hand down the path towards vivid memories. Of note are act three, 'Adolescence' and act nine 'Aging.' Act three's best moment occurs as Demba sets us in the delicate world of adolescence toying with our sense of scale. It this act a young girl is preparing for school and her gleaming supplies of markers, books, and clothes glow with her own excitement. Everything seems larger than life as she walks out her front door. As she approaches school the perspective begins to shift as the student enters a world of increasingly gargantuan goblins and goons melded with the images of teacher that scold, peers that taunt, and general confusion of childhood socializing. The slow change in scale naturally brings you back to the ups and downs of youth, so hopeful in the beginning and pure terror by the end.

In act nine, 'Aging,' Demba plays with the sense of time to deal with the topic of transitioning to life after child rearing. Here a man walks out his front door for the morning paper, the urban landscape that at first seems a tangible entity suddenly becomes a rush of life that is alien and distant. He paces through the city block trying to interact with the world around him cars, bicycles, crowds of people, even a crawling baby, but he is unable to physically interact with the world. The frantic pace engulfs him, and just when you think he is lost in the blur of life the camera centres on his face staring up at the sky. The audience is then transported to a wonderful sequence of flying high above the cityscape, now slowed back down to a normal pace. In the final cut, the camera pans around a full 360 degrees to reveal the man who is hang gliding dreamily through the world, with a grin of bliss covering his face.

The film is less successful in places where it too heavily relies on the clichés of American life. In act five, 'Love,' the film uses colour to represent the relationship of a blossoming fresh love. In this act two seemingly unrelated people board a train falling for each other by the end of the trip. As the train leaves the station and heads into mountain passes the colour palate is drab and dull, but as the journey wears on and the two pass each other, have their first conversations, and finally arrive at their destination hand in hand, individual colours are introduced one by one filling out the entire act with a radiance that is all the brighter due to the earlier contrast. While the other acts similarly use common experiences and notions to illustrate emotion, the clichés here feel overworked to the point where it is easier to relate them to other films, TV, or books you have read rather than your own experiences.

Still, Pumpkin Pie like an old friend, is a film that leaves you with a sense of joy and desire to sit chat for hours. It is a tribute to our current lives in America that asks us to forget the current troubles and take pleasure in the good that is here now. Rather than being escapist, it reminds us of the wonderful freedoms of a life defined by choice, movement, and contrasts. You will walk out of the theatre with your friends or family recalling all sorts of stories resurfaced because of the images and sounds encased in these eight acts. It will bring out emotions and experiences of life fully lived, and in the holiday season, what more could you want?

Rating: B+

15 November 2006

5teveo, y0u 5uc|( m4n. D1gu571ng.

Having a bit of writer's block this week. The post is short and disjointed. Sorry!

First things first, Gambian English sometimes is horrifying, so I've made an effort to make sure my English grammar is correct. I realized I have time and time again made mistakes on this blog, and feel rather guilty. This is my humble self critique. Sorry again for any glaring mistakes you might find.

Without putting value judgments on these statements here are some of the issues we face as educators in The Gambia:
1. Materials. Peace Corps doesn't really give you anything and local schools don't have supplies to begin with. Along with frequent power outages, we often find ourselves unable to teach much in the computer lab.
2. Mass promotions (similar to the U.S. No Child Left Behind Act). When there is little incentive to do well and move on to the next grade, you will start to have a rather mixed bag of student quality.
3. There is a conflict of state programs to get women educated and their expected time commitments to the household.
4. Lack of opportunities post graduation. Related philosophical questions of resolving pre-destined life ultimately in the hands of a higher power, and therefore the benefits of striving for rewards during life.
5. Reading and writing skills seem much less of a focus than oral communication. If you think about the implications for this in the computer realm, reading manuals, instructions, on screen choices is difficult for many.

Comments: It runs a terrible risk of diluting the country with outside influence, but a university degree program in tourism and management (with a focus of business strategies) could be a great help to many students looking for a brighter (economically) future. Watching how this worked in Thailand it brought motivation to students, increased development, and overall economic growth. I did not have a chance to observe much of the negatives of the program, but cultural decline seems to be an obvious one.

Comments on teaching computing skills: With our entry level courses we must begin with concepts on computer theory that I myself never learned academically. My generation was privileged enough to be able to learn computing skills through trial and error experimentation. In the entry level courses here students often come in with questions such as "What does the keyboard do, Who invented the computer," and," What is a computer?" We have had classes on how to hold a mouse, differences between left and right click, input and output design, basic parts of the computer, and the GUI as a desktop metaphor. Still I think for some we are reaching too high and going over their heads. Simplify.

I am thankful for those things that finally fueled my fire for life. Understanding the similarity of Steevo and my high school experiences and the transformations he undertook freshmen year of college, feeling old age for the first time being bed ridden from slipped discs in my back, realizing I could overcoming huge challenges being under the surgeon's needle in Vienna, competing in Little 5, or being here now...

I am a bit troubled at the current moment feeling like for all my schooling I never became an expert on any one media related technical skill, rather possessing a brief survey of skills.

Thank you Dad and Jacob, but also curse you! I want to feel my feet clipped into pedals pretty bad right now. You both got me hooked on biking. I think I finally found my sport only to leave the siren's call.

I really like this commercial.

Anyone who knew me on the bike knows I wasn't exactly the same person. In fact there is a family story growing in fame in which I rather rudely insulted my Uncle Will while we were on a ride together. It seems that I became a man pedaling from anger on the bike, as it was my way of letting off steam and stress. Sorry to anyone who felt the wrath. Running in The Gambian heat I feel a hit of that stress relief, but nothing quite like my cycling days.

Finally GO BUCKS!

08 November 2006

Growing Up.

There are tons of family and friends that I can’t thank enough for getting me this far.

What's going on here, all these strange vivid moments? It finally hit me the other day and I have been wholly enjoying the moments ever since. I am growing up. I am transitioning to my next phase of life. Perfect, for that is exactly one of the things that I wanted from this experience. Might this sound trivial? Sure, to some, but for myself it's rather monumental.

What kind of vivid moments have they been? They are hard to describe, but powerfully identify life’s moments in space and time. I am reminded of Professor Bob Eno who once told us that in ancient Chinese philosophy there comes a time when you are able to understand your life in segments, and as you get older those segments start to become larger and larger. Perhaps that is what is going on. What I do know is that the brief pauses in time when I feel engrossed in thought give me a sense that all of a sudden I've been given a set of super powers, a 6th sense on how to look at my life.

For example there are times when I remember events no longer just for their happenings, but also in a weird visualization zoomed all the way in on the specifics then all the way back out again as if desiring to reveal the entire time line to me. The time line goes not only into the past but also a bit into the future, providing a clear and pleasant insight into what could be. Short events and broad periods of history flash in my head making me stop my daily activity and become lost in the moment: what must have been going through my dad's head sitting under a hot Thai sun for the first time, the depth of the decision by my mother to depart from her home land, a special childhood of international relations, early Christmas morning waiting anxiously with my sister in her room wondering what Santa had brought, a classically confused teenage growth, the wonderful youthful excitement of college. These things and much more have hit me in intensity revealing not just the event, but also the larger time line. I guess you could call it family history.

Other flashes of adulthood are proving to be just as vivid, and fittingly for myself probably began to surface once I returned to something out of my youth. Re-reading Calvin and Hobbes strips, I began to see them more from the point of view of the parents than of Calvin. This carried over to moments of my own joy watching Bubacarr finally start to comprehend the world around him, those little eyes revealing a deeper thought and a new pint sized realization about life. Likewise trying to teach Amee basic discipline has found myself in moments of an unknown intensity guided by words of honesty and sternness spoken in a voice that sounds practiced yet also floating magically like a conductor's baton.

All the other small things that come with growing up have also appeared, meetings with the Boss, managing a paycheck, dressing up, reporting to work, and what to do on weekends without homework.

Like I said, I can't exactly put it all into words, but perhaps what is here is adequate enough for a glimpse. Some parts of growing up are better left to the indescribable magic that they bring to each individual in their own way.

I think something I forgot when I left for The Gambia was that I left as Todd Diemer who felt on a complete high of achievement in life. When I arrived I spent a lot of time broken down because as a new social actor in a strange place, most of my mental energy was drained trying to be Yaya Demba, a mere Gambian baby. It was easy to forget behind the name Yaya stood a confident growing man who brought Yaya to the Peace Corps in the first place. What's in a name? It's hard to negotiate the two when the Todd from home and the Yaya who was a stranger seemed to be polar opposites of one another. Perhaps I'll have to go back and check on what the philosophers of language have to say about that…

This is all related to what I told my sister not too long ago. This experience has already made me get over some aspects of my past, be proud of others, get ready for the future, and face the present with no regrets but a willingness to make it work one way or another. Growing up? Probably. Would kill for a bowl of ice cream and cake? You bet.

---

In a Gambia specific note, here are some acronyms and phrases that are commonly spoken by PCVs here, but might sound crazy to people back home. If you hear us use these, don't think we have gone crazy; just remember how long we've been away, and that Gambian English is not the same as English. (For Education 2006-2008)

SoaP - Snakes on a Plane.
ET - Early Termination
WAIT - West African International Time
GMT - Gambian Maybe Time
It is here only - Good answer for just about any question. For example: “How is the moring?” – “It is here only.”
(x) against (y) - Gambian English for "from (x) until (y)." For example "from today until Friday..."
gele-gele - A hollowed out 7 passenger van typically holding 15.
The Doctor - Adam the psychiatrist, you will be greatly missed.
Wack-Evac - Having to leave country for severe mental health issues.
Now now - When something is happening at this very moment.
Jammeh said... - The President of The Gambia said...
ICT Volunteers - Volunteers who tend to have very poor language skills.
Gun Shot! - Language and Cultural Helper Muhammadou Bah singing the chorus to his favourite song.
Rowdy - As some would say.
It's nice to be nice - All over The Gambia said by bumsters.
Bumsters - Males who tend to harass you and are always on the look out for a female "companion."
G-Spot - The volunteer run monthly newsletter.

---

Finally, for those of you who have not had the pleasure Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt, it is a heck of a book. You should go visit your local library, borrow it, and read it. If you are too young to be reading that sort of thing, check your local listings for the next showing of Reading Rainbow. Get inspired.

---

Yes, we all technically could be wack-evaced, but that's part of PC life.

01 November 2006

Ch. 4 IN WHICH YAYA DISCOVERS UNIVERSALLY DEL.ICIO.US CANDY

Excerpt from Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman (Thanks Mom!)
"It is a small world. You do not have to live in it particularly long to learn that for yourself. There is a theory that, in the whole world, there are only five hundred real people (the cast, as it were; all the rest of the people in the world, the theory suggests, are extras) and what is more, they all know each other. And it's true, or true as far as it goes. In reality the world is made of thousands upon thousands of groups of about five hundred people, all of whom will spend their lives bumping into each other, trying to avoid each other, and discovering each other in the same unlikely teashop in Vancouver."

So it is only proper that at this young age the cast should still be growing, and likewise the extras are cementing themselves as nothing more than the background noise.

"So are you from the U.K. or what," the student inquired? His deliberate seating by my side cast an impending shadow of doom.

I was not in the mood for this, no not today. It had been a particularly angry day due to the heat, the kind of heat where you aren't just perspiring, rather the kind where you can wipe off the glaze of sweat as if it were a coating of jelly. "No," I grumbled, "I am from America."

"Uh huh," came the lifeless pre-programmed reply, "So which European nation do you come from?"

I sat for a minute making sure that his last statement registered correctly. "Well um... I'm not from Europe. I told you, I am from Amer-i-ca," I replied, my voice growing more disinterested with each syllable.

A silent pause graced the air giving me hope that the Peace Corps Gods were being merciful today.

"So then," a pause as if double-checking with the computer for a DOES NOT COMPUTE reply, "you aren't from the U.K.," asked the stranger?

"No," I mumbled.

"Oh you know, because you sound like someone from the U.K.," he replied with a renewed conviction.

I sat quiet. I was struggling to compare my Indiana home and this new position. I was searching for some sign that whatever Hoosier twang I had cultivated from my youth had in four short months been magically replaced with the accent and dry wit of an Englishman. No, definitely not there, I thought as I peered back at this boy, lost as to the right words to end the overstayed exchange.

"Listen I've got a lot of work to be doing," was my clichéd reply more pulled from the office cubicle of pop-culture than my own mannerism. With that I stood up and took my leave. Cultural insensitivity: 1, my patience: 0.

Stumbling back home I knew it was time for a rejuvenating siesta. Taking off my drenched button down long sleeve I chuckled as it brought back memories of an appearance rather fitting of an afternoon at the Kings Island water park. Lying down on a concrete floor using a mat as the only padding, you never are at rest; you merely find the best position that averages out to the least amount uncomfortable body parts. By the time you wake up you look more belonging of a cubist painting rather than composed of the natural curves of the human body. At any rate, Picasso-sleep is better than no sleep.

"M baang, m baang, M BAANG (no, no, NO!)," declared Amee with a scream! Being woken up to the sound of a restless six year old reminds one that this job is 24/7. Emerging like a slumbering troll from my house I quickly realize what is the matter. Amee is trying to fight off the other children from the food bowl. Like a knight holding off a fire breathing dragon he has the bowl in one hand viciously swinging it side to side as if saying, "Back foul beast," and slowly takes calculated steps backwards away from the advancing children. Of course he is supposed to be sharing this meal with the other kids, but when you are the largest kid on the block you want to have your cake and eat it too.

The small drama in front of me is broken by the mega phoned roar in the distance. "Alllaaaaaaahhhhh," blares the 5 o'clock evening prayer call. Gee, church bells sure are pretty I think to myself. The evening routine is about to begin, and with it comfort in knowing the pacing of the night. I grab my bucket and from our hundred-foot-deep well I fetch two large buckets of water for the more than necessary evening bath.

On my way inside I watch Darbo gliding in from work on his bicycle. Somehow always chipper after a long day of work he strolls in and lifts his boys high in the air as they yell, "Daddy is home, daddy is home!"

"Yaya. Good evening, hope there are no troubles," he asks of me, as is Gambian custom.

"There are no troubles. You are hard on the work today Darbo," I reply complimentarily and also with an admiration of his enthusiastic energy.

Out of the concrete house comes Kaddy to greet her husband and to begin cooking dinner, a task that will take over two hours and really be more work than anyone should be expected to do at the end of a long day.

"Do you want any help tonight," I ask Kaddy, knowing the reply?

"Oh maybe just with small things," she replies meaning maybe she will ask me to cut an onion or two. I resolve to someday find a way to force more help upon her.

Under the shade of a papaya tree and the clear view of a setting sun I take my bucket bath. There is a cool breeze skimming the skin so that under the shade and splashing water I feel a hint of cold. It's not North American autumnal cold, but it's probably the closest I'll get to it, now if only the trees were changing colours...

After the bath I return to the front porch for a bit of relaxation time. I pull out the copy of Angela's Ashes my dad sent to me from home, and furiously try to read as much as I can before the daylight fades on the horizon. The dipping sun is both a curse and a blessing for the loss of reading light will give way to the night sky which presents us with the calm and wonder of the celestial waltz.

"You know Yaya, these candies are the best," Darbo says with a smile, jolly rancher wrapper strewn by his side like wrapping paper on Christmas morning. He adds, "Next time you are having access to e-mail pleas tell your parents that."

I laugh and in earnest reply, "No problem, the next time I'm there, that's the first thing I'll do."

-Todd Diemer is a United States Peace Corps volunteer currently serving in The Gambia, West Africa. He has written no books and published no articles. For more information please visit http://foundtheriver.blogspot.com/

25 October 2006

Craving beer and a movie

Filling in what I left out last week, here is what my living situation is like.

I live in the "suburbs" of one of the largest cities in The Gambia. It's a 30 minute walk to the city centre (the market) and to many of the comforts you can find in The Gambia including: a bustling market, internet cafes, meat sandwich stands, cold cokes, a football field, and toilet paper. Note that there is a lack of other such amenities like reliable power, city parks, sidewalks, street stop lights, air conditioning, or movie theatres. In fact most of those things can't be found anywhere in The Gambia.

The airport is about 5 miles from my house and as tourist season has picked up I am constantly reminded of the comings and goings of a nation. Psychologically odd, especially on the days when we have new volunteers arriving, or old volunteers going home.

Off the main highway, it is a 300-meter walk to my house. A deteriorating paved road runs for about 75-meters giving way to the much more common sand and dirt road. My school, on the right hand side of the road, flanks the entire length of the walk. Encasing the road on either side and also off in the distance are scattered palm trees providing much needed shade. The landscape in the area is overall so flat that it would make someone from Kansas think they were from a mountainous part of the U.S. A large and newly opened power plant hums fairly quietly in the distance about 1.5 miles away from my home. As you approach the plant, the structure shatters the skyline looking like something more belonging of a colony on Mars than in an African village. It stands as a constant reminder of the painful reality here. Too often, NGOs or companies pour money into the country with no system in place to actually reach the common citizen. I know of one person in the entire village who has electric current, yet all have to suffer the noise and pollution of the plant.

My house is of typical style here. Erected from concrete walls and topped with corrugate roof, I am growing rather fond of it. Through luck of previous volunteers generosity and needs, I have acquired quite a few furnishings. I live comfortably with plastic chairs, shelves, a gas stove, cooking utensils, a wood bed and couch, and plenty of places to hand my drying clothes. In the back yard a large papaya, orange, and moringa tree give temporary shade from the increasingly oppressive sun.

My host father, Darbo Jammeh, is a security officer in the Banjul area. Kaddy my host mother works as a cleaner at my school. They have two children, Amee age 6, and Bubacaar age 3. Our compound is normal sized featuring two rows of houses. One row consists of Darbo's family, their brother, and myself. The other unit has 3 more families (essentially aunts and uncles). There are about 12 children total in the compound ranging in age from newborns to roughly 7 years old. You can imagine what it must sound like here when things go bad or someone has a "boo boo."

Our meals are all rice based with meat and vegetables on top. Heavy oil is used with all meals, so when I finally do return home getting back on that bike and back to some health will be priority number one. Having said that I do cook or go out from time to time which helps switch up the diet. It has been a neat experience to live on a seasonal diet, something that we quickly forget in the supermarkets of America. It helps give some indication to the rotation of the annual cycle that you miss otherwise due to the relative stagnation of weather change.

Drinking water comes from a tap at my school, is then filtered in a PC issue unit and bleached with a couple of drops from an eye dropper. Is putting bleach in your water disturbing, yes. Is getting tropical disease due to unclean water disturbing, yes. You compromise with the lesser of two evils.

Moments when the good and bad come together bring a classic Todd grin to my face. On a particularly bad day, as I fetched water out of our open well (for bathing and the like), Darbo picked up that something was bothering me. With a smile he walked up and declared, "Only in The Gambia could you be having an experience like this huh?"

It was only a matter of time, pictures...


A picture of my housing unit. My house is the far one on the right.



Darbo tired after a long day of work is being bothered by Bubacarr.



Bubacarr attacking me and my camera, Kaddy in the background.



Myself, a random dude, and Darbo relaxing after a lonnnng month of fasting.

18 October 2006

Pumpkins and fall colors

“Hold strong and be proud of where you come from. It is the continued journey to find the common good in humanity that has put you, and thousands of others, in this position.”

The Zhuangzi Zhuangzi
The Name of the Rose Umberto Eco
Sphere Michael Crichton
Playgrounds of the Mind Larry Niven
Attack of the Derranged Killer Monster Snow Goons Bill Watterson
The Elegant Universe Briane Greene
Flyboys James Bradley
A Christmas Carol Charles Dickens
Kinder und Hausmärchen The Brothers Grimm
Designing Multimedia Environments for Children Allison Druin & Cynthia Solomon
The Film Sense Sergei M. Eisenstein
Currently The Hobbit J.R.R. Tolkien

These are the books I have read so far. The list is meant to represent the hidden gems and overall randomness of the selection in the Peace Corps and my school library, and give an indication of where my interests currently lie. If you are thinking of sending books the list might give you a reference point if you do a Wikipedia or Amazon search for the authors. Other authors that I am keen of include: H.P. Lovecraft, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Douglas Adams. Of course personal favorites of your own are also more than welcomed. Enough self-serving material, onto the meat of it.

I realized that I still haven't posted what my assignment is here. Keeping in mind that two-thirds of the PC mission is cross-cultural exchange, this is what I've been up to technically.

1. My high school is a rather prestigious place and therefore we have a lot of solid materials (for West Africa). The campus is a nice mix of large trees covering stone benches, coconut trees, and dirt paths. We have about 50% reliability for power from a central station in the capital area. There are two computer labs to service 10th and 11th grade students. We have machines ranging from older Pentium IIs to roughly three year old Pentium IV machines. This is sublime equipment for most high schools in West Africa. We are sponsored by a small city in Northwest Germany so we get solid funding through that resource. I work with two Gambian teachers to try and teach basic computing skills of windows competency, word processing, typing, excel, and MS Access. Mr. Bah (my main counterpart) and I hope to start a computer club to cater to those who want more time of the computer. Currently classes are only 35 minutes once a week per grade, hardly enough time to teach a traditional subject, let alone a skill that rewards frequent practice.

2. The YMCA Digital Studio. We are starting to get our video productions unit online. This week I will start teaching some media theory classes as a general introduction to the history and lead up to modern video productions. Right now there will only be a few students in the class, as they are the ones who will replace me when I leave in two years, so this is much more of a hands on training session than a true class. There is tremendous burden due to a total lack of familiarity and access to concepts/materials that would help in explaining topics such as: advertising, camera basics, composition, scripting, scientific method, etc. However, this does allow us to roam free creatively unhampered by stereotypes and common templates. There is a high level of enthusiasm for the project from those who will soon be the students, and I will report more as we get the ball rolling full speed.

The fasting of Ramadan is almost over. I have been fasting, but still drinking water due to my quick decline into de-hydration sickness. I would say overall my body feels significantly fatigued. A large change, and mentally stressful, from the peak fitness I was feeling at the end of the college school year.

I showed my family a book of the different regions of the U.S. It was the first time they had a chance to see the geographic diversity of the landscape. In spite of the cold, my host father Darbo wants a mid-western farm.

There is a struggle living in a world you want to change but can't. When you step outside your door you begin to have children yell and point "TOUBAB!" (white person). It fades in the distance until you pass the next house, the wailing chorus once again opening in full. You can stop and explain to them you have a name, but the children just giggle and yell out more vehemently than before. Can you just ignore it? Some can, and some cannot. It's part of the ups and downs of being a Peace Corps volunteer.

11 October 2006

Down the rabbit's hole

Night time here can be a very lonely time, not that there aren't some truly amazing simple moments as well. Events like learning to make a new Gambian dish can be quite entertaining for the hands on value and bringing life back to the basics.

I find myself reading a lot more than ever before. Being an IT volunteer I am always trying to think of ways we can use computer technology to enhance learning. I was pleased to run across a book from 1996 entitled "Designing Multimedia Environments for Children." It gave a lot of history and theory explanations on many of the products I enjoyed as a child: Kids Pix, Hypercard, LivingBooks, Carmen Sandiego, and How Things Work, to name a few. Case studies from the book were strongest when talking about multimedia in an interdisciplinary usage in schools. For example, having students in their science class learn to research with books, draw on the computer, then program a simple hypercard stack to present their total work. Makes me wonder if people are doing similar things today with the iLife suite (movies, audio recordings, slideshows...)

At any rate the reading gave me a renewed familiarity of technology's ability to aid and inspire, rather than be confined to another subject one has to learn. I will do my best to incorporate these notions during my time here.

<->

Once you have actually seen a chicken running around with its head cut off, you truly understand where the phrase came from.

After years of avoidance I think I might finally be learning how to interact with kids. Not just on the fun side, but also parenting. Being a small part in my host chilldrens' lives, I am supposed to take a certain level of responsibility in teaching them discipline and manners. Gives a whole new perspective on the joy and hardship of parenting. To that end, thanks mom and dad, seems like you did a swell job.

27 September 2006

Lux Et Veritas

"We all sit under the same stars, what difference does it make by which means I find peace?"

Going to church in The Gambia, I was once again reminded of the powerful ability of religion to inspire people to find their own peace here on Earth. To make a mental and physical space in which one can find comfort.

A lone voie filled the room to what I figured would be a standard church hymn. Moments later two large djembe drums kicked in along with a full chorus in perfect harmony. Nature itself could not have produced something with such a diverse yet unifying blend. As I sat listening it became clear someone had taken time to make this idea work here. It was a mix of local languages, english versions of hymns, African beats, and Christian messages. I was awe struck. The last time something like this happened to me I was looking at the giant south tower of St. Stephen's slice into the Viennese sky, only to be further taken aback as I entered and was greeted by a procession of priests chanting in the smoky interior.

I am starting to do some A/V work acting as an instructor at the local YMCA. They have a really good set up, and it looks promising. Hopefully we will be ready for full classes by December. Merry Christmas to me...

Bananas are in season so I have been enjoying some awesome PB & banana sandwiches. The local PB has less sugar than Jiff or Skippy, but it is freak'n superb.

In other news, children still cry here for no apparent reason. Imagine the lifestyle that most parents of newborns experience during the night, and then multiply that by all day long...

If anyone has it in their hearts to send me a Rugby ball and pump needle I would love you forever.

16 September 2006

Immigration and Elections

Language here is a funny thing. In the big cities (where I will be spending the next two years) you never know what language you are supposed to use when greeting and trying to negotiate the markets. I'm never sure whether the person speaks Wolof, Mandinka, Pulaar, Jola, French, or English. Usually everyone knows at least three out of those six, but that also means that you have to be competent in at least three... Right now I'm trying to figure out how to best use my time to try and pick up a third language at a basic level. Many of the shop keepers here are either Senegalese or Mauritanian immigrants and when they see a white person they immediately go into French mode, then when they realize you are a PCV, they go into Wolof mode as it is probably the most common tribal language in Senegal. Fun.

The elections for the president of The Gambia are coming up this friday, and every day we see a lot of cars drive by supporting the current president Yaya Jammeh. He is expected to win in a landslide victory. I would suggest doing a Google News search or something of that sort to get more on the details of the democratic process here.

Swearing in was yesterday and we all had a blast. The desert was possibly the best part as there were cakes, brownies, and fruit with chocolate... mmmmmm. The speech that Rachel and I gave went over really well despite both of us being very nervous right before going up.

Tomorrow morning we all move out to site for 3 month challenge. This will be an interesting test for our group, best wishes to all of us.

I have a phone now, if you want to call the number is 001 220-783-4922. Keep me posted on what is going on back home!

08 September 2006

Picture

so quick post of me and my namesake the young yaya demba...



More photos from Neil, my training village mate should be posted by following this link:
> Photos

05 September 2006

And we're live from site...

These are the words of two months without electricity, running water, or modern communication. Sorry I haven't updated much (or as steevo put it, "as often as Goku beats a villain"), but I think you all will understand. We are in the bottom 1/3 of all Peace Corps countries that is classified as having no running water or reliable power in most of the country.

So the good news is that my permanent site place has been given and I am in the Western edge of the country, about 40km from the capital and 20 minute taxi ride to the beach. Those looking to see the Peace Corps life and an African adventure best come visit me, cause the trip is feasible. I will also have more regular access to internet now, so I hope to catch up on a ton of e-mails...

Thank you a ton for those of you who sent letters. It means a lot, and kept us sane during training. Jess and Rudi I got your letters but no current return address, where do you all live now? E-mail me the info.

Seeing in the dark You have to retrain your eyes here. On a moonless night the dark is indescribably restrictive. You have to learn comfort in using your hands to feel in the dark giving you a new set of eyes. Then there are the moonlit nights wher everything is lit up as if we had street lamps. It makes me wonder why we waste so much power back home with street lamps every 10 feet.

Boredom... We learned new ways to pass the time given that most of us were at least use to some access to call a friend, watch TV, read the news, or go to a park. When my dad sent me a package (thanks for that!) me and my fellow 3 village mates went crazy when we found intact the Sunday comics used as stuffing paper. Certifiably crazy by the end of training, I think we have accomplished our mission... Other things we do: chat in Mandinka, go on walks on the gambian highway (meaning 2 cars every 15 minutes), drink Attaya (sugar tea), read any books we can get our hands on, eat mangoes under a tree, watch the local kids play football, or simply taking it all in realizing we are in west africa.

Language My language skills have gotten progressively better. Nothing much to report here.


Model School As educators part of our training was to teach Gambians for two weks in a Gambian middle school. This was extremely challenging. Classroom management, language barriers, knowledge of their background, and confidence in ourselves were all big issues to overcome. The girls here are overall, very reluctant to talk.

Swearing in Speech Me and my fellow PC trainee Rachael were selected out of our group of 21 to write and deliver our swearing in speech that will be put on Gambian national television. A really nice honor, and we are excited to present it.

The Future... By mid-september we will be at our permanent sites for 3 months challenge. That is the time period when you survey your town and try to figure out how to best be of service to the community. Volunteers are not supposed to leave their sites and go to the capital during this period. It is common for early terminations during this time.

West Africa Things I have found in my house so far: ants, spiders, lizards, termites, leaking roofs, live rats on the ceiling rafters, 3 dead rats on the floor, and a lot of weird flying bugs.

Mustaches We all decided to grow mustaches for our swearing in ceremony. I look ridiculous right now...

Our motto Since philly when you are having a bad day it is common to hear, "sometimes there are snakes on a plane..."

Food bowls The food works out ok. We eat out of a communal food bowl...

Michigan?? In an odd twist of fate (for those who know my family) one of my best friends, Neil, happens to be a Michigan grad of '04. We often joke about going to the game in columbus or ann arbor when this is all over.

06 August 2006

My name is Yaya Demba

Hey all. I am tasting freedom now as I am on my first trip alone in a tiny little internet cafe (really just a shack with some computers in it)...

Training village is good, and my group of PCT's are absolutely hilarious. We have a good time talking with the locals and simply having fun with the language (Mandinka), trying our best to communicate but when the going gets tough we pull out all sorts of random english comments so we don't get frustrated. We have agreed that because of the increasing randomness of my comments and coping strategies that I would be most likely to be named "certifiably crazy" at the end of training, in a good way.

So you know you're in peace corps when you are visited by another group of trainees, and the first thing they say is "oh hey Neil (a fellow trainee), I heard you bought a pair of sandals the other day." And that was our entertainment for the evening.

All is well, i gotta go since the generator is putting out gas fumes that are making me light headed. Best.

oh and p.s. send me snail mail, we live for it here. my address is on my first post on my blog.

12 July 2006

Post birthday

So there isn't much point to this post, but here is the little guy now doing some wild things in this little country. Birthday went well a couple of days ago, with everyone singing a cheerful "happy birthday."

Friday we go to training village, that is when the real fun begins.

09 July 2006

Splash Bath City

We are here in Kombo (the greater Banjul area) doing our basic training. The landscape reminds me a lot of what the Esan region of Thailand must have looked like 25 or 30 years ago. Next Friday we will head out to our training villages to start intensive language and cultural training. I am headed to Bumari with our great language and cultural helper (LCH) Muhammadou. I am learning Mandinka, which is the most commonly spoken langauge in country wih 40% of the population belonging to that group.

Had my first Larium (anti-malarial) induced dream two nights ago... Something about baseball, 15 innings, africans, and beef being thrown were all involved, I'll let you figure out the rest of the details.

As I said earlier our group is diverse. We have people as young as me (I am the youngest, ouch), up to a third time PC Volunteer. People from Oregon to Atlanta, and West Texas to Montana; in other words a lot to learn from the fellow volunteers. We also have a married couple which is great.

Best wishes, please do write.