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.