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


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/