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.