30 December 2007

Harper’s Index: 2007 Year in Review

Total number of blog entries for 2007: 55
Intended number of blog posts per week: 1
Number of weeks missed: 5
Number of volunteers from the Education Group 2006-2008 that ET’ed or were administratively or medically separated in 2007: 0
Number to date: 2
Number of volunteers from the Education Group 2005-2007 who extended: 2
Number of recreational trips taken outside of The Gambia: 2
Number of recreational trips taken inside of The Gambia: 3
Number of trips inside of The Gambia that were to a previously unvisited village: 1
Perceived level of improvement in effectiveness as a volunteer as compared to 2006: 2.75
Perceived level of improvement in language proficiency as compared to 2006: 1.25
Estimated amount of times called "tubab" by children/teenagers: 5,568
Official population of Brikama in 1983: 19,624
Official population of Brikama in 2003: 88,870
Number of new volunteers within a 1.5 hour bike ride: 7
Number of new volunteers within a 10 minute bike ride: 4
Number of flat tires patched: 6
Number of replaced bicycle tire tubes: 2
Estimated amount spent on mobile phone credit in Gambian Dalasis: 2,860.00
Amount that would represent per month in US Dollars: 11.09
Percentage drop in the US dollar’s value since arriving in country: 28
Number of weeks the majority of banks would not exchange the US dollar due to its volatility: 5
Average amount of dollars spent per week for food, transport, and recreation: 17.45
Percentage chance of consumption of chicken in a given week: 20
Percentage chance of consumption of eggplant in a given week: 85
Percentage chance of consumption of carrot in a given week: 15
Estimated number of books read during the calendar year: 16
Number of books read from July 2006-December 2006: 17
Number of books that received a second reading: 2
New Peace Corps country directors: 1
New groups of Peace Corps volunteers: 3
New computers in my school's lab: 15
Average processor speed of those computers: 650mhz
Average amount in Dalasis for a bean sandwich, peanuts, and popsicle lunch at the school's canteen/market: 7
Amount of time in seconds to pour and tie a 1 Dalasi bag of peanuts: 9
Number of visitors from America: 2
Number of site mates who had visitors from America: 3
Estimated days until my flight to Indianapolis, Indiana: 192
Percentage chance that I will extend for a third year: 5
Percentage chance that I will be a mess of emotions when leaving The Gambia: 100
Estimated time in minutes that will be needed to finish a whole apple pie topped with vanilla ice cream: 3.5


We will remember 2007 as a year of incredible effort and stress, paired against joy and success that defied description. Truly, it was a year where there was beauty in contrast. 2008 awaits, Happy New Year to friends and family, new and old.

There are things that happen and leave no discernible trace, are not spoken or written of, though it would be very wrong to say that subsequent events go on indifferently, all the same, as though such things had never been.

Two people met, on a hot May day, and never later mentioned their meeting. This is how it was.

From A.S. Byatt - Posession: A Romance

23 December 2007


Dear Santa,

This year I believe I have been a good boy, at least as good as I could have been. There are certainly other volunteers who better describe what a “good volunteers” is, but I humbly propose that I fall somewhere on the positive side of that definition. No, I can’t have deep conversations with my community leaders in Mandinka, but I do take a particularly passionate attitude towards my technical work. That should count for some good, right? I suppose ultimately you are judge and jury as to whether or not I’ve been good.

What would be nice for Christmas? Of course there is a whole host of physical goods that I might find nice to grace my little corner of the country, some are even a bit selfless, but they would just be icing on the cake. Let me name them just in case: First and foremost, the whole family compound could do very well with a connection to the national power grid. Sure it would serve entertainment purposes for watching French dubbed versions of Roots on VCD, but it would have other uses as well. With power we could finally turn on Kaddy’s refrigerator which now has to share time with other appliances at her family’s compound. We could also add lights to our showering areas providing the family with an extra layer of security, or we could finally use some stronger wattage light bulbs so that we could read books late into the night without burning our eyes from weak 5W fluorescent bulbs. What other goods would be nice to have? Well my bike’s in rather bad shape, so some spare parts for that, and I can always use new ear plugs for the music of village life, a replacement for my mobile which is coming to the end of its life, some collections of TV show seasons to bring back laughter, oh and don’t forget a new matt to replace the aging and tattered piece that sits in my living room.

Those are all things that would be nice to receive, but what I really want are a few guarantees. I know this isn’t exactly your department, after all how can you put “Happiness” or “Success” in a small box with ribbons and a tag with someone’s name on it? But I figured that if you could give “Holiday Cheer” and “The Spirit of the Season” on TV shows, perhaps you can also gift other abstract ideas.

So here is my real Christmas wish list, asking for a few guarantees. One guarantee that all is well with my family and friends back home, and that in 6 months they will welcome home and understand someone significantly tested and changed. A guarantee that for the remaining months in The Gambia I am able to focus on work, family, and friends which make me happy, and be at peace and like water with those things that bring stress. Thirdly, a guarantee that I find the confidence to be a supportive older volunteer and naturally transform into the roles that entails. Finally, a short term guarantee that I hope you can present a little bit early. Could you please give my stomach, which has become weaker and weaker in recent weeks, strength to heal now and then survive till the end of my service?

We’ll be sure to go to the market and buy sour milk from our favorite Fula seller and NICE brand biscuits from the bitik so that we can leave them out for you on Christmas Eve.


p.s. Amee and Buba can’t write very well, but I’m sure they would enjoy some of your famous wooden toy cars, trains, people, or animals. You know, the kind of stuff people would depict you making in the early 20th century.

22 December 2007

17 December 2007

I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams

To my family, I wish I could be back home, but there are things to be done here before my time is over. With care and love, wishing you all a Merry Christmas.

“If you could ask for anything for Christmas, what would it be?” she asked. “Oh, and it can’t be any of that ‘Peace for everyone or a book for every child’ stuff,” she quickly added.

I wasn’t exactly sure how to respond, of course there were a million things that would be nice to have, but after a while in country one becomes content to deal with what they have so all those wishes don’t surface when called upon.

My eyes squinted a bit and shifted down and to the left as they tend to when searching for long hidden information. After taking probably one minute too long to respond, I said, “Well if it was something immaterial, then it would be nice to pick out a lot of favorite PCVs and put them in one place at one time.”

What I failed to grasp was that this already happened the night before at my very own home.

This past weekend my small concrete and wood home was transformed into a Peace Corps Christmas wonderland. Across my entire ceiling was a set of ornaments which gracefully alternated Santa figure - ball - Santa figure - ball. In the entranceway from my living room to my bed room was a large set of bells and ivy, quickly manufactured in a Chinese factory. My small laptop was playing Christmas music fit for a local Wallmart, but despite this was filling the air with sing along voices and holiday cheer. The entire house smelled of cinnamon and sugar, as they were the main ingredients in our holiday drink.

The task for the evening, decorate a small Charlie Brown Christmas tree as best as we could. By the end of the evening the tree was covered with a soft layer of cotton ball snow, a long garland made out of a glittery paper bag, a small matchbox present, old folders turned into gingerbread men, one Christmas star, and a hanging ball ornament created mostly out of a medical glove. It was classic Peace Corps, making the best with what we had, and it was absolutely awesome.

The party was well attended by some of my favorite people from my Education group as well as a number of my site mates. Of course, good company is what makes the holiday season so special and a special thanks and mention for my own memory should be given to all who attended. The day was a Christmas wish right there of our own making. The future was in our hands, uncertain yet promising.

Returning to the conversation with my friend I thought about my dead laptop battery, darkness in my bathroom area, and quickly fading 25 cent candle. At that point I added, “Of course, it would be nice to have current.”


Next up for big events, Tobaski, which is this upcoming Thursday. Our market is absolutely packed with double the normal amount of creaky wooden stalls and shops selling everything from small bracelets and earrings to large stereos and speakers. Walking through the market I have to twist and turn as if I suddenly had the flexibility of Gumby.

Traditionally families will make a set of clothing in the same style for the holiday, the word used to describe this tradition translates roughly “uniformity.” Daboe, Amee, Buba, and I have already made our outfits, a bright sky blue color, and I hope that pictures will come soon.

08 December 2007

Fingerprints in four sentences

I must be dreaming, thought Shadow, alone in the darkness.

I think I just died.

He remembered hearing and believing, as a child, that if you died in your dreams, you would die in real life.

He did not feel dead; he opened his eyes, experimentally.

- Neil Gaiman from American Gods

Buba, barely up to my thigh in height, runs up to me and wraps his arms around my knee. “Yaya, look my mother bought me new shoes!,” he exclaims.

“They look very new Buba. This one here is your new shoe?,” I ask pointing to his right shoe.

“Yes and this one too Yaya, see this one too!,” he smiles pointing to his left shoe, and then he runs off with an enormously wide grin on his face.


His morning breakfast was an egg sandwich so layered with oil that it seemed to swell out of the sides like a steaming tea kettle ready to burst. He had lost count of how many of these gooey concoctions he had eaten over his term of service.

There was a silence between him and the man he was sitting with, but not an uncomfortable silence, just an indicator to the fact that there wasn’t much else to say on the subject.

After the extended pause he said quietly and with a look of abandonment, “Yeah. I think the day I return home to America, that will be the happiest day of my life so far.”


He had spent his morning frantically dashing around his office complex assisting the entire staff to print and compile hundreds of documents that were barely complete, proofread, or organized.

The lines under his eyes revealed a stress that had been quickly engraved into his face.

He looked to his American colleague and said, “It just doesn’t make sense, they’ve had months to plan this and still they are unprepared up until the last minute; very stupid.”

It was time for him to think about why he was doing the things he was doing.


The old chain was pulled, warped, and tattered in such a way that it would make a medieval metallurgist throw up his hands in frustration. The new chain was a fine piece of craftsmanship, but something that one could find at any bike shop back home for $29.99.

The young bicycle repair boy, who must have been under the age of 13, stared at the new chain for a long minute, slowly nodding his head up and down in an approving fashion. He looked back up and exclaimed, “Wow, this, this is a chain!”


Your first time in any new place is difficult, let alone when it is a place of religious significance. I was happy but admittedly nervous to be invited to our local mosque for the first time, just five city blocks and a few goats, donkeys, and chickens down the road.

When I first entered the mosque I saw one elderly man slowly shake hands and greet everyone inside one by one, while another two equally respectable looking men merely greeted those nearby to where they intended to sitting. I saw this contrast of manners as I took my first steps into the mosque and thought, how am I supposed to infer the culturally appropriate thing to do from that?


There was life to be lived with the advice given, “Wherever you go and whatever you do, do so without fear but with confidence.”

It was nighttime, and despite the soft glow of the city, the stars were bright and maternally encapsulating.

On the rooftop, he was surrounded by those particular people that he could spend the day with saying nothing, and it would feel like the day had been spent in endlessly engaging conversation.

In spite of these facts, why was there an air of “sehnsucht?”

04 December 2007

Movie Review: Who’s Cutting the Turkey?

2007 20th Century Fox Spotlight
Director: Yaya Demba, Previous film credits: Pumpkin Pie
Playing: AMC West, Polaris Center, AMC 16 North
Summary: In a comedy of manners that gives a nod to the novel “Remains of the Day,” an old American expatriate suffers a stroke and is forced to come to terms with the fragility of his age and health. When his younger sister and son come to his home in southern Germany to help his recovery they attempt to convince him a life in America is a safer and happier place to live out his final years. He vehemently refuses and a timeless struggle is played out between the weakening body and freedom of one’s spirit.

Review: Gathering with your extended family this holiday season? Looking for a great family film that everyone can enjoy? Then run like hell away from Who’s Cutting the Turkey. Despite what you might think from the title, this film is one of the most depressing and honest looks at our relationships to our family young and old that I have seen in years.

Following the recovery of Jim (Jürgen Prochnow), an old clock-maker living in Freiburg, the film weaves through triumph and tragedy of recovery. The momentum comes when Jim’s son, Will (Tim Robbins) and younger sister, Mary (Ellen Burstyn), arrive in Freiburg to celebrate Christmas and help him with his recovery process. Upon seeing his condition they try to persuade Jim to come home so that they can keep a closer eye on him. He desperately refuses claiming he will be able to take care of himself and that they can’t take him away from the place where his best years of life were spent. His weakening condition and the time and distance of their homes force the three into a rushed discussion of his future.

The film’s biggest downfall is that it borrows a lot from the plot structure of many foreign films that are becoming increasingly popular. That is, there seems to be an entire lack of plot structure in the traditional sense. The film alternates between the challenging discussions about Jim’s future with more lighthearted excursions of Will and Mary into the town. In this less sensationalized view of the world, the film plays like a documentary of a tragedy that is more relatable to daily life than a Hollywood script. Somewhat frustrating but ultimately more intriguing for the viewer are the numerous points during the film where the characters’ dialogue should come to a firm conclusion, but instead the audience is treated to scene cuts that at first glance seem to offer no clear resolution.

This is a film that is being released during the holiday season, takes place during the holiday season, but will never become a staple of the holiday season. Don’t go to this film with your family, especially if your parents are in the mix. You’re better off seeing any number of the B-rate Christmas films like The Santa Clause 4: The Elves Rock! and going home with a smile on your face than seeing a film that moves you but doesn’t fill you with that holiday cheer. The film is open ended, asks questions that won’t be answered with one viewing, and you will most likely leave the theater with that empty feeling that comes after an emotionally demanding experience. With that in mind, Who’s Cutting the Turkey is a must see for those who enjoy a film that makes a difference and forces one to reexamine their moral codes, and for that reason it might just be the best, worst holiday film this year.



What do PCVs do to keep their mind off crying babies, skin rashes, and oily rice bowls? They make up movies in their head and like pawns, characters are moved across their imaginary theater stage. Without further ado, here are the thoughts and sketches that are behind the above fake film.


The film takes place over the course of the Advent season, roughly two and a half weeks before Christmas. The film opens with snowy and festive scenes of celebrations for of St. Nicholas day. The film cuts to a more bleak and sterile interior of a hospital where Jim awakes under the watchful care of nurses.

Jim has suffered a major stroke immobilizing him. The doctor’s prognosis is that Jim might not fully recover and it would be surprising if he will ever be able to work with his hands or move freely around town again. The doctor claims that the first three weeks of the recovery process are critical and Jim’s progress during this time will allow him to make a more accurate prognosis.

Upon hearing the news Jim’s son and younger sister rush to Freiburg to meet him and help him with recovery. They meet him on the first day that he is able to make slight movements to his body.

The film follows Jim’s recovery process as the family tries to bond together through adversity and celebrate Christmas as a cheerful celebration of life and togetherness.

Throughout the initial days Jim shows much progress and he is able to move around his bed and eat slowly by the time Will and Mary have gotten their bearings in Freiburg. He goes home in a wheel chair, but once he returns home his recovery is stunted and it remains unclear whether or not he will make any more progress.

The fragility of his condition prompts Will and Mary to begin talks of Jim’s return to America so that they can keep a better watch on him.

The coming of Will’s family exposes Jim’s weakened state as he is unable to even get out of his chair and hug his family. As the film moves on the discussions between Jim, Will, and Mary about his return becoming increasingly heated. In the end Will is forced to make a statement, “Dad. You can barely lock your door, turn on a stove, or brush your teeth. What do you want me to say? If you stay here alone we’re all going to be worried sick. If you aren’t going to get any better then you’ll have to come home.”

Jim makes further progress regaining some motor skills in his body but there is great effort displayed in the simplest of tasks like brushing his teeth or using a phone. The doctor reluctantly informs the family a few days before Christmas that Jim’s progress seems to be plateauing and it is unlikely he will be able to take care of himself.

The film comes to a close during the Christmas dinner. Jim thanks his family for coming together under such stressful conditions. Thanks God for a good life and painfully picks up knife and fork and cuts the turkey. It is unclear from the contrasts of his words and actions if he intends to return to America or despite the family’s plea, stay and fight on.

If he decides to stay it means that this is the last time they could all be together.

Freiburg:The historic city is southern Germany’s Black Forest region, the city has roughly 220,000 residents and is best known for the Albert Ludwig University, one of the oldest in Germany dating from 1457. In the middle ages the city remained catholic and remained against the reformation. The city sits in the bottom of a hill valley and is surrounded by wooded rolling hills on all size. The city invests heavily in green technology. The city center holds the Münster, the city’s cathedral started in 1200, as well as the city marketplace which is a popular tourist destination. The city serves as a starting point for many tourists wishing to see the Black Forest region and is well known for its wood carving, particularly the cuckoo clock, which is said to have had its start here.

These characters don’t like to move much physically or mentally, they are stubborn.

Traditionally the three do not see each other due to logistics.

Jim Meyer: The film begins with him suffering a massive stroke. He is treated at the medical facilities in his city of Freiburg in south western Germany. His health has forced him to choose between going home to America and staying where routine makes life simple for an old man. The repetition is medicine for the numbness of losing his wife, structure where there is otherwise a missing half. Became a (cuckoo) clockmaker famous to the region during his final period of stay in Freiburg. Married a native of Freiburg after meeting her while studying abroad. Born in 1936, visited Freiburg first as a student in 1957 as a Junior in college.

He married Eva, (b. 1939 Freiburg) who grew up in the ashes of post war Germany. As it struggled to rebuild her father taught music at the Freiburg Musik Universität, mother stayed at home. Growing up Eva grew up with a Germany that was trying to find something to be proud of and found that in it’s natural beauty, typified by the Southern Germany foothills as well as Austrian alps. At the age of 18 she was already working as a secretary for a small tourism company in Freiburg, at this point she met Jim who was then an exchange student at the University.

Jim married Eva and lived happily in Germany working with Eva in the tourism industry which took them around southern Germany. Jim picked up an interest in woodcarving, particularly the famous cuckoo clock style of the Black Forest region, and quickly excelled at the art. Eva’s parents died at an early age (in 1959 - Father and 1964 - Mother) and she was an only child, leaving no extended family in Germany. Jim loved Germany but thought their children should grow up in America because it would offer long term benefits on an international level. Jim also believed that America was the glory of the world after rebuilding Europe. He felt strongly that his son, William, should have a US education as well as get to know an extended family which only existed in America. Eva reluctantly agreed but did admit that she wanted to see and understand America at some point in her life, so took the move as temporary. They left in 1965 when their only son, William, was to be born in Jim’s home city of Philadelphia. There Jim lived a modest life running a small arts and crafts shop doing some small import and export business with Germany. His wife helped out and together they made a simple living until 1987 when they moved back to Freiburg because William was finished with college and Eva had become increasingly homesick.

Once back in Germany Eva began teaching in the local elementary school, specializing in English instruction. Jim went to work for a number of companies including numerous restaurants and travel agencies but finally felt the urge to get back to wood carving. In 1998 he joined a small woodworking and crafts shop just outside of the Freiburg’s main market specializing in cuckoo clocks. The old man of the shop he was in charge of adding detail and finishing works to be sold mostly to tourists.

Eva died in 2005 at the age of 66 and seemingly fair health. This rocked Jim who continued working heartlessly for 6 months and then suddenly quit claiming increasing depression. Going into retirement at the age of 71 he was well over the retirement age. He spends much of his days in routine. He is the old man who wanders the city taking a morning walk, buying his afternoon fruits and vegetables from the market, cooking lunch, watching TV, reading a book, and going to sleep after some tea. He lives for his Sundays Saturdays when he still goes out to the local market where he sells and trades wooden goods and chats with the young students and citizens of the city. He feels the end coming and never found a way to replace Eva.

He wants to remain in Germany because it is the place where his dreams for a beautiful wife and life became a reality. The image of a perfect life is glorified and frozen in a single state of mind, and as the end draws near he doesn’t want to die with that as a mere memory, but as a living image that surrounds him.

JIm’s younger sister, Mary Benjamin (Age 62), has three children, husband deceased the year before. Lives outside of Richmond, Virginia where she has spent her entire life. Is horrified at the thought of her own aging and is beginning to live life as if tomorrow were her last day. While she is careless with her own body, Jim’s health seems to be of major concern and she feels her brother should come home because a man should not spend his last days dying alone and far away from family. She has discovered all sorts of new ways to live life and doesn’t want him stuffed up in this old tired place that is all about history rather than moving forward. She hosts alcoholic dinner parties where she always takes one sip too many, drives a convertible at faster speeds than her reaction time can allow, is developing a weight problem from indulgent eating, and is constantly in financial trouble from living in luxury (despite what should have been a big insurance gain from her husband’s death). Her husband’s death left her with a spiritual hole that she is trying to fill with a hunger for material pleasures.

She wants to convince Jim that he should go home because it would make her mentally feel like she’s been a good sister. She would tell him how to live a more full life and where to go do it, just like she is doing. However, she is unwilling to offer much financial or social support because it would hinder her carefree life style. She is something of the classic and ignorant American who believes that the American way is the only way to get things done and the best possible way there could be.

William Meyer (Age 42), Jim’s son: Bewildered at his lack of influence on his father he plays serves as a sort of translator for the audience asking questions and pleading for “logic,” when he has no way of really understanding what aging is like.

The son loves the idea of Germany as his heritage but feels deeply American and sees Germans as “foreigners” rather than family. Is opposite of his mother and father who were talkers and socializers, he is more introverted and calculating. Created a life for himself in America with his wife (Katy) and two children (Claire, Rachel) in Philadelphia as the manager of a local beer brewing company. Isn’t angry with his parents for a modest and sometimes financially poor childhood but firmly remembers the harder times and demands economic stability for his own family.

Finds devotion to one thing a great virtue. He is a determined business man who divides his time for maximum efficiency. When around his family he is always up for a jolly time but when it is time for work he is by the books and focused. He seldom mixes the two.

Is now financially well off due to expansion of the brewing company throughout the East Coast. He achieved his position by brute force of good schooling, slaving away at the lower levels of the workforce, and once in the position, marketing the brewing company tactfully and strategically. Has stayed on with the same company for most of his career.

He is coming to terms with the last good years of his youthful adulthood and the transition into the maturity of adulthood. He has two children, two girls both in school age 15 and 12 and it will soon be time for him to become a friend and mentor to them rather than an regulator of rules and punishments.

His father’s stroke awoke a new sense of emergency in him. With his mother he was not prepared for her death and suffered greatly. Sees his father’s stroke as a warning that he needs to act now before it’s too late. Subconsciously wants his father in a place where there is constant surveillance and in a place where he can check in every once in a while. Like Mary is unable to see himself making a larger commitment to helping his father on a daily basis.

Will has spent most of his life in America with only short summer trips to Germany, his German is far from perfect and many of the interactions are a struggle, especially as he is expected to baby his Aunt Mary around.

26 November 2007

Three short stories, three different people

“For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.”

Note: This past weekend was filled with events including Thanksgiving, Peace Corps Gambia’s 40th Anniversary of uninterrupted service, and a very productive All Volunteer meeting. To get a good general view of what this entailed, check some of the Blog links to the right over the coming weeks (Or the master list, especially good reads will probably come from still energetic and chipper first year volunteers' Blogs).

I’ve mentioned before that there are times when it feels like I’m three different people. One person resembles how I was in the months leading up to departure, the other who I am as a member of my community, and lastly who I am in the bubble of Gambia PCVs. It’s rare to see the three of these combine into one greater whole, but hey if those evil construction Transformers could do it, why can’t any of us?

* One *

I have a buddy named Marc who my good friend Patrick (Hope all is well in Chicago...) introduced me to our last year of college. Marc was an exchange student from just outside of Munich and he always seemed up for seeing how far we could push American cultural norms. I remember one of his last nights before he returned home was one of those bitter cold winter nights that cries out for a warm log fire, hot chocolate, wool blankets, and the company of good friends. However, being college students, we were of course out getting drunk. For once we weren’t partaking in price to performance drinking consisting of guzzling trouble sold in square packs of 30 cans, we were instead being civilized and drinking in style. We were having a fine time at a “dress to impress” themed party and I think we had done rather well for ourselves in a solid set of suits made for far more important situations. As time wore on Marc began to feel like on his last night he should get out and see more, do more. He wanted to go out to the bars. But Bloomington bars are often filled with beer spilling, rude, undergrads dressed in anything from stuff that’s been sitting under the “to clean” pile for months to carbon copies of twenty-something magazine advertisements. We would stand out a bit in business suits. Unfortunately with the frigid temperatures it was too far to walk back and change, so Marc looked over at me and said, “Oh hell, let’s just go like this. We’ll have some fun with it and say that you just got out of a business dinner/interview for a German exchange program. You were accepted on the spot and we decided to just go celebrate right away.”

You know, that’s not such a bad idea I thought. Let’s do this thing after all, why not. I miss this sense of confidence towards the accidental and unplanned.

* Two *

Daboe and I were in the market the other day getting our clothes for Tobaski tailored. Tobaski is an important holiday in Gambia and the common practice is to get new clothes made and often families will get something made together so the whole family is wearing the same style clothing when they go to prayers.

Daboe and I had been bartering with the tailor who wanted us to have all our the measurements taken within the next couple of days otherwise he would become to busy with other work. Daboe and I realized that both of our schedules were going to be extremely busy and we had no time to bring the children, Amee (Age 7) and Buba (Age 2) to the tailor for measuring. I remembered that maybe there was a small portion of time when I was free and openly announced it thinking that maybe Daboe would be able to find time off work or know if Kaddy would be free to come with me. However, upon hearing my statement the tailor quickly said, “Oh well then great. Yaya at that time you will come with the two children and I can measure them then.”

Daboe and I gave a look to each other that for about a millisecond displayed a concession that this was our only choice in order to to get the clothes done. In the second millisecond our faces immediately switched to distinct looks of, “I know Yaya is integrated with the family but there is no way he’s going to be able to bring two children into the heart of a bustling urban market.” We held that glare for another second then Daboe looked back to the tailor and said, “We’re going to have to get back to you.”

These relationships and moments are what I like best about site.

*Three *

After our 40th Anniversary celebration the local brewing company agreed to host a small gathering for Peace Corps volunteers at their headquarters in the Kombo area. After 17 months in country Jul Brew tastes delicious but it might be better described to the reader back home with the description Jacob gave it on his trip to The Gambia. “Drinkable,” I think was the adjective he used. Jul Brew comes in a bottle that has a green color that for whatever reason reminds me of recycling. We were treated to two large refrigerators of recycling colored goodness hosted under a small patio area, filled with public park style tables, lit with fluorescent lights, and completed with music from a small portable speaker system connected to an iPod. There are small shrubs and bushes that surround the patio area and the factory is far enough away from the main road that you don’t hear too much highway traffic. I always got the feeling that the owner wanted it to at least somewhat resemble a small beer garden.

I miss people from my Education group and this was the last time I would see most of them until our Close of Service conference in May of 2008 (Shortly after which we will start to go home, one by one). I have a renewed sense of caring for these people and desire to strengthen friendships with them while we still have the chance. They became my focus for the evening, one in which many people were able to mingle and greet all, and for better or worse I held a mental checklist for my group specifically and tried to stick to just that small snippet of the great PCV population.

Somewhat brutally honest but our time and choices are limited. The pay off is that since group mates are most often the people one knows best, even small chats can bring you rather far in the relationship. I appreciate more and more the good people that they are and how close we’ve come.

* Transformers? *

For our 40th Anniversary Commemoration a few people in my region gathered to put together a theme for our outfits that we would wear to the event. Usually volunteers will do something like this for Peace Corps meetings but the designs will usually be more simple or traditional. But because this was the 40th Anniversary I think we all wanted to take it to that next level. A number of my site mates and I went to work and searched our market for something that would represent us as a region. We found a great blue fabric with forks and spoons scattered throughout, symbolizing not only our unquestionable cool factor but also that we don’t eat with our hands like the upcountry folk (Or as popular misconception might place on them). We all went to our respective tailors to turn the fabric into something great. I smiled and laughed for a long time when I decided to try and turn our burning blue fabric, accented with neon green forks and spoons, into an American style sports coat. In the end five of us showed up to our Anniversary decked out in some of the best outfits I’ve seen in my year and half here (No bias of course). There two classy professional business outfits and three incredible dresses that could probably even be used back home. Hopefully I’ll be able to track down some photos of the outfits soon.

This combination of people is what brings out the most happiness in my life.

20 November 2007

This American Life


Episode #319: From WFMB in Brikama this is a special international edition of This American life. Today we’re talking with a number of people who come from a large but often quiet segment of the US population, Peace Corps volunteers. We’re here in The Gambia because this week the country is celebrating it’s 40th Anniversary of Peace Corps cooperation.

Our show today in four acts, chronicling 40 years of impact the Peace Corps has had in this small West African country, past, present, and future.

... ... ...


Act 3: What are we doing here?

Helping change lives is all well and good, but what happens when a development agency stays in one place for too long? Should there be a count down timer that alarms as if to say, “Sorry but your time is up. Get out or else?”

As the current volunteers gathered for the anniversary we spoke with a number of volunteers who brought up these issues. What inner revelations and tranquility would be hiding in these people? Most of them seemed to be justifying their experience with a larger picture greater good.

Surprisingly we found that while most volunteers were highly opinionated on this topic, when prompted to simply talk about their experience the much more everyday was what came up first and foremost. That is to say, life goes on, no matter where the location.


Sorry about my home being a mess. The past few days I’ve been a bit under the weather.

So go ahead and define under the weather for us.

(Laughing) Well, I’ve spent the past four days getting rid of every last bit of food and water in my system. I’ve become very close with my pit latrine.

Health gets a bit tricky when you’re all the way out here. I live about 75km inland and about 15km from the main highway. It’s a pretty rural community that survives mostly on simple crops and selling cows’ milk.

If you did a Google search on Gambia you’d probably get some semblance of my surroundings. It’s pretty remote here. It’s a bit hard to accurately describe to someone who’s never been this far out. It’s hard to describe sensing personalities of large cattle,stars which actually twinkle, or the slowness of watching growing cassava or corn.

This is the sort of world that many people envision when they join the Peace Corps. A rural, simple, and distanced lifestyle free of all distractions of American life. The ideal picture as David puts it. However, what happens when you need that connection with the world? What about those times when you are “a bit under the weather?”


I think the worst aspect of the past few days has been dealing with all those little things about life here that usually don’t bother me. We’re trained to put up with a lot of cultural differences and after a while they start being more like cultural norms.

But when you are sick all you can think about is what is hurting and why. You start to go a bit crazy and knowing that you’re this far out, you just have to take it. Any trip that would be worth your time in terms of medical attention is too difficult and too draining to even consider.

It began right as the first prayer call was being sounded around 5:30 in the morning. I woke up with an acing stomach and a pounding headache and my body automatically went in a b-line towards my pit latrine.

(SIGHS AND PAUSE) I was probably there a good hour or so when I finally crawled back into my house and collapsed onto the concrete floor. I think I was praying for any sign of improvement when there came a banging at my door.


It was my host mother wondering what was the matter. I hadn’t opened my front door yet, and that caused my host family to worry. Usually I’m up early and out the door for breakfast, a run, or to go to the market. Something gets me up and out.


So there I was lying prostrate on my floor sweating and in a haze. Your body just gets worthless when you’ve lost so much fluid in a short period of time. And, the thing is, I usually love my family’s sense of care and urgency for my well being. It’s just hard to appreciate that care when you’ve got a million woodpeckers chipping away at your head.

I remember at this point trying to stand but about halfway up I felt more food coming up so I did a sort of controlled fall down on all fours. (PAUSE) Looking back I wish I had a picture of it. I crawled like a baby to my door and just like a house pet sort of clawed my hand at the door handle.


I fell down on my back and rolled over like an oaf. My door swung open on its own gravity and there was a rush of light that burned my eyes a bit. There was my host mother standing in my doorstep with a concerned look on her face. She loudly asked, “Ousman, you are sick?”

And at this point did you even have the strength to respond to that question?

Well what you have to understand is that here it’s perfectly fine to state an obvious fact. Sp I’m still not really sure if she was just stating the obvious and I didn’t need to reply or if she was asking the question, but I’m sure I looked the pretty messed up. Just in case I did the universal sign of sickness: groaning and nodding. But the extra motion caused a bit more food to make its way up.

I closed my eyes and heard her say that she was going to help me fetch water. That’s about the last thing I remember for a while. I think that must have been when I passed out.

Far away from any medical help David was pretty much stuck to get better the all natural way. At this point he’s strewn out right next to his front door, he’s dehydrated, he’s sweating and still losing water, he’s suffering from a migraine headache, and he’s in and out of consciousness. But life indeed does go on.


I don’t know how long I was asleep but I was woke up with a rush of lightheadedness and by the most pleasing sound in the world: Banging fists on metal and people yelling your name.

My coworkers from the local clinic had heard the word that I was sick and were coming to check in on me. “OUSMAN, OUSMAN,” they yelled despite the fact that they were standing right in front of me. There’s something about the internal volume here that always seems turned up to about 105 decibels. “OUSMAN, OUSMAN, HOW IS IT MAN? YOU OK?”

I told them I was feeling “sick small” and I did a weak smile trying to say thanks and please I can’t really translate anything more than that right now. There was a pause. It was long enough that I thought I would fall back into my haze and maybe just maybe find more peace and less pain.




... ... ...

Please listen to the original This American Life if you haven’t already. This rushed reproduction doesn’t do it justice. It might turn into the highlight of your week and comes in handy Podcast and/or Broadcast form.

Why does this week’s post seem meandering and out of focus? It was written in bursts and I mostly wrote what first came to mind, sort of like an interview should be. We’re also preparing for our Peace Corps Gambia 40th anniversary celebration, Thanksgiving, an all volunteer meeting, and of course I’m busy with work. I wanted to write up a much more detailed “Movie Review” of a fake movie that is brewing in my head (See the “Pumpkin Pie” post from last Thanksgiving). Last year the movie review proved to be so much fun and a creative challenge that I had to give it another go. Blog intertextuality rules, more to come.

13 November 2007

A Harmony of Voices

Delegates met to discuss gender issues and the future of African YMCAs

The week of November 5th through 9th the author spent with the crew of the YMCA Digital Studio recording the Africa Alliance of YMCAs 30th Anniversary celebration and gender workshop. The even was set in an overtone of pride in prolonged unity. The following are excerpts from moments that exemplified this impression on the author.
Photo Credit: Daniel Anundi, YMCA Digital Studio

In a continent where long distance travel often conjures up images of an epic adventure into the unknown, small miracles do happen. The 2007 African Alliance of YMCAs 30th Anniversary conference and gender workshop was able to bring together representatives from 15 African nations from Ethiopia to Zambia as well as representatives from four other nations as different as Norway and Bangladesh.

A group singing to a Nigerian song.

It is a curious consequence of history that these people from thousands of miles apart would be able to communicate with one another so well. Hold overs of the colonial era, the majority of the delegates had a commonality of English with translations in French provided for key meetings and lectures. However, it was not these Western languages that brought the range of people together with a common message, it was their music. Unity from music not only in the way that the Swahili or Wolof words created weight and form to the songs, but also in the tone, sway, feeling, and joy of the music that so many find this continent is rich with. I would see someone from Madagascar emphatically singing along to a Sierra Leonean song and I knew something must be right in the world. Listening to the music helped me redefine what unity as an idea or emotive quality can aspire to be.

The representatives were also unified religiously by a common belief in Jesus Christ. Those hailing from predominantly Muslim countries showed a particularly strong devotion. Their separation from mainstream society ties their mentality to the quintessential Christian figure, the martyr. Not that these people are actively persecuted against, but they are masked under the shadow of a cultural giant and their minority in society engages them as modern representatives of their savior.

Through the languages, musical connections, and religious unity the week was filled with genuine debate over how to move forward with the African Alliance of YMCAs as well as better integrate women in the organization.

Perhaps most encouraging from these debates was a shared feeling of faith that progress will happen once Africans have the confidence to put the future in their own hands (uncertain yet promising). From many of the representatives that hail from countries that have made significant progress in the last generation (South Africa as perhaps the best example of this), the desire and burning for a better future was clear. Their hard word, mixed with a little bit of luck, was bringing about visible change that they proclaimed through a patriotism and hope for their country that is utterly devoid from my generation of Americans. As we grow we must come to realize that we owe it to our home to create the conditions that foster a similar pride.

The author presenting the Digital Studio to delegates.

The warm and forward moving atmosphere of the conference also fell upon the crew of the Digital Studio. Never before had the crew undertook a week long on location shoot, nor sorted through dozens of hours of footage, or feverishly worked to meet a deadline for one final edit, but none of the crew broke with professionalism or dedication to the work at hand. During the week I saw the crew come of age before my eyes and I couldn’t be more proud of the work they accomplished. The long hours brought us together as only intensely stressful situations can, and I think I will remember the jokes, expressions, and quieter moments for the rest of my life. We were a team.

With so many voices, ideas, and beliefs being offered it is amazing that the resulting mix was harmonic. But with the right set of people in the right place and time, miracles of unity can happen.

04 November 2007

Don’t fall through the stars

A few days ago I had the pleasure of employing the power of the Internet to connect two friends living in far off and remote lands. I had a great but brief conversation with my old friend Laura, a fellow PCV currently serving in Mauritania (See blog link to the right, she has some great posts as of late). The end of the conversation died an unnatural death when my Internet connection gave out, but oh well this is West Africa and those things happen. One of her last questions she was able to send off was, “So, how the heck are you staying so busy?”


This past weekend I spent with the crew of the YMCA Digital Studio taping a music video for a superb Wolof hip-hop group named Poetic X. It’s interesting to see West African culture move to America, morph to inner city culture, and then move back home to West Africa. Many local artists who pursue rap or hip-hop merely copy what they hear on US tracks. Copy cat rapping is a dime a dozen here, and in my opinion a kid in Gambia rapping about, “guns in the streets, hoes, and social inequality” doesn’t sound very authentic or effective. Because their sound and message was so different from a US style is one of the reasons that meeting the members of Poetic X has been such a pleasure.

The song that we made a video for, “Wulajanara,” (Trans: A place that is distant) features a famous female lead signer for the chorus (I only know this because Daboe instantly said, “Hey I know that singer!”) while the verse lyrics focus on the importance of marriage as a bond between the man, woman, and Allah.

A small digression. In historical Gambia many people were forced into marriages based upon tribal or Kingship desires. People would marry for the economic or status improvement of their family. Often these marriages were forced upon man and more often woman by a father figure who was strategically trying to improve his position. As Gambia has Westernized many have cited this practice as a reason for the increasing rates of divorce. The old forced marriages are having trouble as people embrace personal independence. Specifically as men and women begin to see each other as equals and individuals who have the ability to choose their own fate, they see forced marriage as a burden and risk rather than an advantage. A family that is built on promises not between the people but between a social gain will struggle to stand.

So how is the artistic and social community approaching this collision of worlds and mentalities? The song “Wulajanara” from Poetic X and video we have just made is one response to it. It’s the voice of a younger generation who are asking their peers to think before they marry. It’s young people deciding issues that they fear for and hope to change and finding methods to get their opinion out there. They ask us to decide if our own marriage is (or will be) built for the health of the new family itself with Allah providing the groundwork.

We hopefully will be able to edit and distribute the video to some meaningful extent. The fact that this kind of work is even going on at our lower level demonstrates a significant evolution of media in The Gambia. Increasingly there are institutions and production houses in country that are going to let the public at large bring their ideas to light. Gambia could be on the verge of the birth of a quality locally driven media market. Seeing these trends first hand makes me appreciate all the media theory and history courses I took at Indiana University, for one can visualize the pieces falling into place and reasonably predict what will happen next.

In particular to our work, I served mostly as a supervisor on this project. Three of the people that I’ve worked with to train took the helm of the project and have done an excellent job with it. Their success has been one of the most successful parts of my service, that is knowing that I played a part in helping people bringing their own visions to life.

No, I’m not teaching sexual health, I’m not building wells, and I’m not improving crop techniques. These are all things that people might think of when they think of the traditional Peace Corps volunteer’s role. Peace Corps asks us to adjust to our host environment and find where we can be most useful and that is what I’m trying to do. To all fellow volunteers currently in the field, keep up the good work, our collective whole and the contrasts that entails makes us the positive change we all hoped we could be.

29 October 2007

Would you like to see a menu?

When I was a boy I was extremely picky about my food. “No Dad, I want my toast sliced diagonally not in rectangles!” I would wine and complain.

When I was a boy and living in Malaysia I loved the omnipresent durian fruit but hated raw carrots. As a boy in America I would demolish fresh grown Indiana corn but completely ignored leafy green salads.

During my youth my father would tell me, “Someday,” he paused checking the likelihood of the ensuing statement himself, “Someday you’ll grow to enjoy this stuff. Just you wait and see.”

I scoffed at my father’s prediction and continued my distaste of salad into my teenage years in where, conversely I loved strawberries and cream ice cream. Then I connected a few dots of evidence and realized I was lactose intolerant. Then I didn’t like ice cream so much.

As a college student volunteering abroad in Thailand I craved spicy vegetable and noodle soup but altogether ignored any plate with fish on it.

Looking back on my history of food choices I see a common human trait, adaptation and change. Partially because of a personal multicultural and multinational background and partially due to the melting pot that is American, we are privileged to have the choice and variety to even cultivate these preferences.

The average Gambian, in particular those living in remote areas far away from any urban center, do not share the same privilege of choice that many Americans have. The lack of choice keeps the culinary dimension of adaptation and change in a muted state.

When I was a PCV in The Gambia I tried introducing my host family and friends to a number of Western dishes. Hesitant from the stories of past PCVs failing miserably in this endeavor, I stubbornly decided to give it my best shot anyways. Surely there would be something that would be good enough to warrant a change in Gambian taste buds. I tried everything from fresh salad to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Cliff bars to mashed potatoes, meals of spaghetti to chicken noodle soup, and was met by reactions ranging from quiet indifference to chocking and forced swallows of death.

My buddy told me, “That’s nothing. You know how my family always makes the sugary rice porridge? They make it so much I’m beginning to think they’re having a passionate love affair with it. So I think, this is one thing I can Americanize and they will still love. I made the same dish only replaced oatmeal for the rice and added cinnamon and fresh cut apples. You know what happened when I served my family? My little host brother took one bite and instantly threw it all up.”

With a passive acceptance of past failures and I decided that if I couldn’t change the food itself perhaps I could at least put an American spin on the presentation of a meal and pray for an agreement of the mouth and stomach. Fear of continued failure ran high as memories came flooding back; have you ever met someone who was picky about how their steak is cooked? What about their eggs or what goes on their Hamburgers? I knew I had better rely on an old saying, “Keep It Simple Stupid,” simple and it just might work.

So, when I was a PCV and wanted to celebrate Halloween I served my family watermelon scooped out of the round green fruit ice cream style. This was in opposition to the Gambian norm of eating watermelon sliced into wedges, but hell, I didn’t care, I was on a mission to force the acceptance of a new presentation. But that was not enough, I wanted to celebrate Halloween as an American, so I scooped out the inside, carved a picture on the side, stuck a candle in the center, and lit it up. Minutes later everyone in the compound was enjoying scooped watermelon illuminated from the soft glow of a “skull and cross bones” patterned light.

When I was a PCV, I didn’t forget some of the things I did as a boy to celebrate the fun of the holidays.

To all friends and family,
Happy Halloween 2007.

22 October 2007

Strangers from another planet

12 days of recapturing a lost life showed me a path towards a new one. Remnants of an old self which has become foreign met the new and the increasingly everyday, the resulting mix a brew that is ripe for reflection and divergent roads.

Jacob and Dan spent 12 days in The Gambia and I think for the three of us the time mixing three distinctively different lives grounded us in our shared history and then asked for assurance in the direction we were going in life. Jacob patient and calculating, working database support in order to plan for the future and take care of student loans. Dan keeping a sharp focus on the music industry, vying for that one opportunity that will allow his years of Cello and Guitar playing to shine. As for myself, well, I guess I would say I’m still out trying to prove to myself I am capable of the once unthinkable.

The details of trip are a blur now. We spent time in the urban area relaxing on the beach, met a lot of fellow PCVs over unsatisfying JulBrew beer, went to the top of Arch-22 overlooking Banjul, traveled the moon-like roads of the South Bank highway, hiked with Chad to a bluff that overlooked the Gambia River valley, broke fast with spaghetti, eggs, bread, and oil, cooked Chicken Domodaa on a charcoal fire, took countless trips into the busy Brikama market, brewed Attaya tea, had a beach party with fellow teachers from my school, saw Jaliba perform at a local venue, and sat out on a concrete floor and played with Amee and Buba.

Of course through all of this the three of us joked and talked about our past escapades and future hopes. For the first time in The Gambia I laughed so hard that my stomach cried out in pain. Refreshing. Despite our different paths in life we shared a commonality of life in ones’ 20’s. Slowly finding what brings joy to life but definitely still wandering the empty space between the stars. Our chats reminded me of some advice my Aunt has bestowed upon me, “Some times its best to remember that the master plan is usually unclear. To some extent, no matter our age, we are all winging it.”

During the visit I also felt very much on display of my adaptation and socialization into Gambian society. Having an outside view critiquing my actions there was a distinct sense that I was not giving nearly enough. The shell that protects me from going insane with being out of my element has perhaps become a bit too opaque and thick. It reminded me that overall I am an introverted person, uncomfortable in a situation with a lot of people that I don’t know. For that reason life here, where greetings, visitors, and socializing with anyone and everyone is expected, is difficult. Because of the shell it can even be difficult communicating with fellow PCVs, despite our shared cultural background.

Specifics of the shell? A case in point would be my attitude to strangers and children. Dan and Jacob repeatedly would greet and chat with strangers or children in situations when I would have given a Scrooge-esque grumble or passing wave. Our large car park is often a breeding ground for endless hours of waiting. Endless hours of waiting while bored Gambian 20-somethings start conversations about America, why Gambia is nice, and the gamut of typical greetings. Dan handled this situation with a calm and openness that has been missing in action from my being. My neighborhood street plays like a broken record of children screaming my name, and during their visit Jacob and Dan’s name. I’ve internalized this as an annoyance but Jacob smiled, waved, and kindly approached most if not all of the kids. These contrasts played out time and time again during the 12 days. Beauty in contrast? Hope for thoughtful results.

As a result I had to ask, have we become so jaded and tired as to hide ourselves in a blackened shuttered hole?


But don’t forget that the visit also brought laughter of abdomen burning levels, so here’s a simple little comic book collage featuring some highlights from the trip.

Featured: (from top left to bottom right) Dan pounding rice and peanuts for an evening dessert, Jacob fetching water from my open well, Carson and Dan posing for the camera after eating delicious Mango smoothies in Banjul, myself and Dan well on our way to being giddy, Chad, myself, and Dan after a long hike and weed whacking adventure to the “King’s Hill”, and finally Jacob and Dan being silly at the beach before digging into a plate of french fries which might have been their most enjoyable meal the whole trip.

06 October 2007

Ch. 23 Where a few mysteries are explained but the conclusions are left to the reader

In Thomas Mann´s book Tonio Kroeger, the protagonist goes through a series of definitive moments that shape his life. The moments are spread across his life but are described in detail, without showing the direct impact on Tonio. It is left to the reader to fill in the missing gaps of time and discern why the change was made.

These detailed moments of growth are the book´s leitmotif and are often highlighted when Mann writes, Damals, lebte sein Herz. This could be translated to, ¨At those times, his heart was truly alive.¨ The language isn´t done justice in the English translation and it should be noted that the surrounding text is what clarifies the phrase. When reading the passages in full the once vague phrase expands to include extremes of loss, pain, joy, desire, hope, and yearning.

I put the phrase on my Blog header before leaving home over a year ago. I never realized how much those few words would best describe my time in The Gambia...

To all those volunteers who have been beacons of friendship, kindness and understanding, and to the supportive people back home, you know who you are, my heartfelt thanks. 9 more months living the leitmotif.

* I know Ch.22, the previous post, was going to be the last for some time, but some mornings filled with emotion simply cannot be denied and they demand to find their outlet.

01 October 2007

Ch. 22 In which small details set up much bigger events

There is a garden worm which is desperately crawling across the road. Its head leaps forward, stubbornly demanding the rest of the body to follow. A push and a drag and the worm slowly moves to its ultimate goal. I look at the worm and it makes me realize that I’ve fallen in love once again with what keeps me going here, professionalism and determination to do our job. I realize that I’ve taken it to the extreme and am being hermitic with the idea, I realize I am not balancing devotion with breaks for the mind. (Es steht klar auf Deutsch wenn man eine Ganzheit sagen würde.

And then the detailed memories come back.

It’s the third grade and I still feel like a foreigner. The transition from an International School in Malaysia to a small midwestern Catholic school leaves me wondering why American schools are so rigid and made up of the same type of person. I can’t take it anymore so by the end of the year my parents enroll me in the local public school where I meet Jacob. Jacob invites me to his house for a birthday party sleep over and while driving to his house I wonder why he lives so far away I wonder how it is that we go to the same school. The home is filled with other students from our grade at the public school and I feel out of place as friendships and clear lines are already drawn for who is best friends with who. The day wears into night and I have my pajamas in a small backpack and I’m not sure if you’re supposed to put them on at a certain time or if I was even supposed to bring pajama’s to an American sleep over. I feel completely out of place and am happy that at least I was invited to the party.

Dan I don’t really get to know until high school. It’s early freshmen year I’m 5’9” and due to lack of self control and the availability of fast food I weigh 200 pounds. This affects my high school career. For those of us with low self esteem there are still welcoming people and Dan is one of them. Dan has had a few girl friends and I am of course jealous. We are at his house with our mutual friend Cameron and we talk about whether or not one can have an opinion on a subject, like women, without having had experience. For some reason we stand firm in our views and we argue to the point of shouting and spiteful tones and I wonder how we ever got so violent about a small matter. But we are teenagers, and we are merely growing up through misunderstanding and argumentation over points that will seem silly years later.

I’m in the Gambia and I’m thinking about these things as I go to the airport with a good friend of mine from a few villages away. We are going to meet our site mate at the airport to welcome her back from vacation. Other PCVs ask with confused faces why we are doing this and I wonder what ever happened to friendliness. We enter the airport climb the flight of stairs to the wonderfully air conditioned restaurant that looks out onto the airstrip. She and I are both fasting for Ramadan and all around us are people merrily eating from little frosted cups of strawberry, chocolate, vanilla and mint flavored ice cream. We become a bit delirious and talk about the health benefits and delicacy of a boiled egg sandwich and wheat bread and we both laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation. We wait for the airplane and both agree that there are meals we will truly appreciate when we return home.

We wait for about 30 minutes and a restaurant employee walks up to us and informs us that if we aren’t going to buy anything then he’s going to have to ask us to leave. We stand up, sigh, and start our exit from the the air conditioned respite. I think that he might have had mercy on us if he knew we were fasting but then I wonder if he would ever even think to ask two foreigners if they were fasting. I want to make a point of it but my mind is too tired to even start the process of argumentation.

I settle for something simpler and reflect on the day. I reflect on this life that I’m living and I can’t help but be a bit nervous as to what Dan and Jacob will think when they arrive here in a few days. I can’t help but be nervous but I also can’t help but feel incredibly excited for the much bigger events to come.


Two of my best friends from childhood, Dan and Jacob, are coming this weekend. It will be a continuation of a story that has been now going on for some 15 years. I’m going to take this opportunity to take a break from blog posting and recharge my brain for writing. Expect postings again around the week of October 22nd-28th. Best wishes to all, Todd.

26 September 2007

Time and trash water

It’s rather akin to the type of deception and slowing of time made hilariously famous in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off when the parking garage workers roar through the streets of Chicago in a blazing red Ferrari.

What effect can the same passage of time have on an individual? The common cliche is that to an Olympic sprinter a hundredth of a second is everything but to a child dancing in the autumn leaves it is absolutely meaningless. The concept of time, a trinity with speed and distance, is often thought of in mechanical units. Yet, this trinity also has an emotive quality as well.

650 BCE - Use of water clocks in Assyria

I had the distinct impression that time had entered our lives and gotten away with murder. This was three weeks back, when visiting three of my closest PCV friends in The Gambia. We looked as if we had been dragged along as Time played a game knowing full well the conditions for victory. This knowledge was of course to our eyes, buried in the sand.

321 CE - Constantine’s calendar uses 7-day week

There was a moment when the three of us were all quietly sitting together, lost in our own thoughts,that this impression was most vivid. I scanned the room and was met by faces that all looked tired, weathered, and aged more than the 14 months that we have known each other and The Gambia would otherwise suggest. It’s as if the weight of this direction in life had brought exhausting extremes of joy, failure, kindness, loneliness, and experience.

When I returned home I looked at a photo album containing pictures from the last few years of my life. I closed the album and looked in the mirror. The change was undeniable.

1202 CE - Mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci introduces Arabic numerals to Italy

If I let myself indulge in a pleasant fantasy, I would find myself studying the standardization of time in the Western sense and how it shaped our thinking of the world around us.

Cross cultural realizations; Americans perceive speed, as controlled by our own actions (Cars, Internet, Microwave ovens, Satellites), from a historical framework that has been growing for centuries. Sail ships, the pony express, steam engines, railroads, telegraph, automobiles, aircraft, electronic communication, the list is endless and increasingly moving towards speeds that can only be comprehended by the average person as abstract concepts. Microseconds not miles.

In the particular case of cars we live in a society that was eased into moving and controlling the high speeds that they provide. First eased in under the simple thought of excessive speed with steam ships and railroads and then to the autonomy of the motor vehicle.

1858 CE - First transatlantic telegraph cable

I still am not sure what the sequence of events that introduced automobiles to The Gambia was, but it seems a bit of a precarious position to force such a massive change on a society without proper preparation or education. It feels like it all happened at once, no slow historical precedent or socialization. It’s possible the general public has only been exposed to motor vehicles for the past 40 years. In terms of how one might contemplate the relationship of time, speed, and distance, the sudden availability of broken down boxes of Steel and Speed is rather like giving a four year old a old unreliable bike that has no training wheels and expecting him to ride it like a Tour champion. Impossibly high learning curve as cultures clash.

1961 CE - Soviet cosmonaut orbits the Earth

What are some observations on the result of this sudden jolt of speed?
Safety, many vehicles lack working speedometers and I fear the drivers rely solely on intuition to gauge their “safe” speed.
Appropriate warning, it is common to hear a passenger request, “Drive give me here” (Stop! I want to get out now) about two seconds from when the car would otherwise have passed the desired intersection. The driver has to slam hard on the brakes, dealing with an angry passenger yelling at him (female drivers are a rarity) for missing their stop. Brake lights tend to be broken on many vehicles...
Faster = has the right of way, pedestrians, donkey carts, bicyclists, older people with canes, all are supposed to yield to a person in a car. Why? The faster you go the more right of way you get. I’ve seen this cultural norm push old women into ankle deep muddy trash water*, boys on bicycles with no brakes run into each other and crash, and cars pulling risky two lane passing maneuvers on streets crowded with people going home form a football match. Sound familiar? As I last recall aggressive and foolish SUV drivers were experts in these arts.

* This term was coined one lazy Sunday afternoon in college when my roommate Matt Meyer and I were in our back yard setting up a Whiffle Ball field. It had rained hard the night before filling up anything skyward pointing concave object to gather liters of water. We weren’t paying careful attention to our surroundings and knocked over an entire trash can which contained a number of old pizza boxes, beer bottles, moldy notebooks, Campbell’s Soup cans, and a whole load of rain water. What crashed, spilled, and flowed out of the trash can went all over our legs and shoes and was distinctly foul. After that second pause to accept the reality of the situation I yelled out in anger/frustration/laughter, “Damn it, trash water!?” Matt started laughing hysterically at me, himself, and the situation and it stuck ever since...

19 September 2007

Just read the last post...

...it was supposed to be this week’s post, but caught up in the chuckles and jokes when writing it, I couldn’t help but unleash it into the wild. Open the “Top Gun” link for the first time (or again) and witness some pure 80’s magic.


We’re about a week into Ramadan and I find a lot more people display a greater interest in astronomy than during the other 335 days of the year. The moon is visibly growing, a reassuring if not completely expected symbol of the passage of time, and I’m sure its dependable cycle strengthens confidence in the permanence of life, religion, and God.

I of course still look at the stars and planets for their beauty. As the rainy season dies, the sky becomes filled with heat lightning. Flashes of light on the horizon, clear open skies, a brilliantly lit moon, and a chorus of stars twinkling with different magnitudes still make the evening sky a source of awe and wonder.

We broke fast last night with some cream of potato soup that I made. Yes, I still am limited by the skill set of the college male cook, but despite this the meal was pleasantly tasty. Kaddy and I shared a bowl so that we could add a ton of pepper (Thai style I thought to myself), while Daboe, who prefers a more plain taste, kept a separate bowl of mild soup.

Two of the new education volunteers in the area and I are fasting this month. A few mornings ago we chatted before we all ran off to our respective work places and agreed the worst thing about the fasting is: The early morning eating. Waking up at 5am and trying to stuff our stomachs puts us in a difficult spot. Eat and drink too little and the day is endlessly irritating. Eat too much and you not only feel sick, but you can’t even attempt to go back to bed for those 45 minutes of so before you have to wake up for the second time and truly start your day...

Prayer calls seem to have tripled in their intensity. They seem to have gained an omnipresent voice, which might just be the point of it all.


There are some things that speak to you at just the right time...

...and there are some passages from The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro which struck me as fine examples of artistic brilliance. Of course they need to be fully appreciated in context, but perhaps this will compel one to find their local library and read the book for themselves. Special applause to Mr. Ishiguro who was able to control the tone and psychology of his main character masterfully.

“As I say, I have never in all these years thought of the matter in quite this way; but then it is perhaps in the nature of coming away on a trip such as this that one is prompted towards such surprising new perspectives on topics one imagined one had long ago thought through thoroughly.”

“I set off again, maintaining for some reason - perhaps because I expected further farm creatures to wander across my path - my slow speed of before. I must say, something about this small encounter had put me in very good spirits; the simple kindness I had been thanked for, and the simple kindness I had been offered in return, caused me somehow to feel exceedingly uplifted about the whole enterprise facing me over these coming days. It was in such a mood, then, that I proceeded here to Salisbury.”

“One could presumably drive oneself to distraction in this way. In any case, while it is all very well to talk of ‘turning points’, one can surely only recognize such moments in retrospect. Naturally, when one looks back to such instances today, they may indeed take the appearance of being crucial, precious moments in one’s life; but of course, at the time, this was not the impression one had. Rather, it was as though one had available a never-ending number of days, months, years in which to sort out the vagaries on one’s relationship...”

Cheers, as one might say across the pond.

15 September 2007


Make it, mod it, hack it, wing it: We live in the age of DIY. So, with a little help from my fellow Education PCVs, we present the first annual How To Guide. Think of it as your manual for life in 21st century Gambia - advice on how to make big books, beat intestinal worms, and captain a softball team are all inside. From the Education group of 2006-2008 including two adopted members, extenders from the 2005-2007 group.

Bonus: Ed. Volunteers, see if you can find yourself. About 12 people were used.
Illustrations by Yaya.


How to: Extend for a Third Year
1 > Have a good reason. Strong projects, marriage, a new country of service, or specific aspects of your service that you feel are missing are all valid reasons. Avoid reasons that you forcefully have to justify such as: fear, not knowing what to do next, possibility of relationships/weak relationships, or laziness.
2 > Tell your APCD and CD! This can be an often forgotten fact as you involve fellow volunteers in the decision making process. Disaster could result from failure to adhere to this step.
3 > Get to know the group that came after you. They are your new family and you’ll need their help in many of the same ways that you needed the help of your own group.
4 > Take your month leave to go home, eat some Wendy’s, take a stroll through a neighborhood park, and relax. This is a deceptively difficult step since most people have a list of things to do that would take more time than what is actually alloted to them. Plan the trip well and be sure to include a few days of doing absolutely nothing, be prepared for them to end up being busy anyways.
5 > Get on the plane to return to The Gambia. Enjoy your last chance for the next 11 months to be sitting in air conditioning, being waited on by someone, and watching television. Travel back to site in a gele-gele and do your thing.

How to: Make Big Books
Qualified as ‘masters’ on the ABBA (American Big Book Association) Exam Becca and Rachel have made a name for themselves by creating the most colorful, detailed, and interesting big books. Their biggest piece of advice? Shade the backside of your tracing paper (the side that rests on your final book), that way when you trace a nice clear thick line will appear on your final book.
1 > Find time to create! Most people underestimate how long taking a big book will make, especially if it involves a lot of characters and detail. Allow at least one hour per page.
2 > Search for good source material. Unless you are the next Theodor Geisel or Mercer Mayer don’t rely on your own artistic skill. Mix and match pictures from books even if the style is somewhat different. As long as your final book is consistent it will work.
3 > Trace the source material. Don’t forget to trace the words if there are special fonts or effects required by the text.
4 > Transfer your traces to the big book.
5 > Stop. Take a break and chat with whomever is in the room with you. Your hands and mind need a break. Eat a snack and have a drink. The break will also allow you to see if you’ve left anything out. Suggested food and drink: Peanut butter and bread (You need your protein) and Foster Clark’s drink mix (You need your fruit flavor, vitamin C, and sugar).
6 > Colorize and fill in the pictures. Be creative, add landscapes, minor characters, hidden secrets, and color. Don’t detract from your original message too much unless your job is to create the next “Where’s Waldo” (In which case go crazy and add people dancing to boom boxes, Ancient Egyptian pharaohs , or a witch cooking with a bubbling cauldron).
7 > Present your big book to your school, community group, APCD, or other appreciating person.

How to: Successfully Switch Sites
1 > Have a good reason to leave. Too many volunteers aren’t willing to give their site a chance. Your site is what you make it, and you have to give it time to make it something you like. If it still is horrible after 9 months to a year, then and only then seriously consider switching.
2 > Talk to your APCD and make a good case for your move. Include cultural and work related issues since that makes up 100% of a PCVs job. Hint: Strong prepared arguments are best, ‘It just sucks, the people aren’t good’ probably won’t be convincing but ‘I think I could be more effective running after school programs at a school with a feasible science lab’ probably will.
3 > Move to your new site. Remember to do all the cultural things associated with a new member of a community. Give Kola nuts to the Al-Kalo (Village head), community leaders, the Imam, and host family heads. Go and greet your new host community members.
4 > Don’t be afraid to give up your previously learned language. If your new village is predominantly of another ethnic group learn their language as soon as possible. Bonus: If you can learn to adequately speak more than one language people will think your mind is ‘that much sweeter’ and you’ll probably get an according increase in the amount of marriage proposals.


How to: Beat Intestinal Worms
Sarah has overcome everything from the flu to worms. She fears nothing and now can kill off disease by just staring it down.
1 > Remember that early on you don’t have Thundercat strength quite yet, so don’t rush into things. Most village food contains some bacteria or parasite, but until your body adjusts you can't kill them off naturally.
2 > Watch for symptoms. If your stomach is running too much or if it is running not at all, you probably have worms. Start to read books like “Where there is No Doctor” and become appropriately paranoid.
3 > As the pain increases don't give up! Listen to your PC medical officers and let them try traditional medicine first.
4 > If all else fails drink your worms under the table and out of your system. Hint: Worms apparently hate alcohol. Start downing beer like a college Freshmen and don't quit drinking until the worms pass through and you’ll have the strength of ten Grinches, plus two. Go out and celebrate your victory, Thundercats Hoooo.

How to: Be the Farthest Up Country, Have the Most Fun, and Have No One Know What the Heck You’re Up To.
1 > Be in a village far up country which will detract all lazy unadventurous Kombo volunteers from visiting. If this can’t be done try and find a site that is far off the main highway and hard to get to. Both these will maximize your seclusion factor and add to the mystery.
2 > Find your niche in the community and go out enough that when you walk the streets it seems like everyone greets you and recalls a story of their favorite experience with you.
3 > Have just enough people visit to show them how much fun you are having, but not give any details that would demystify the experience. Don’t let the visitor linger too long or they’ll discover too much!
4 > Let the mystery of your happy existence in The Gambia spread through the PCV gossip network.
5 > Live like a King, with everyone scratching their heads as to how you do it.

How to: Dress for Success
Dan has pulled off some of the most creative, attractive, and hilarious outfits throughout his year and a quarter in The Gambia. His stylistic epiphany apparently came during In Service Training when he realized that Gambian clothing was missing one important thing, America. So he combined Gambian style clothes with American Flag patterned fabric and came out with spectacular results.
1 > Buy fabric that speaks to you. Ideally you should pick something that speaks not only to your personal tastes but also to your country; spend the time to find cloth that is patterned with the American Flag, patriotic colors, George Bush, army camo, etc.
2 > Find your favorite tailor and tell him to make the outfit a ‘bit on the large size.’ This ensures that the outfit would best fit in an MC Hammer video making it awe inspiring on the streets of The Gambia. If you accurately tell your tailor ‘I want this to be oversized’ you risk receiving clothing that is large enough to be used as a small circus tent.
3 > Pick a venue and/or event to introduce your new ensemble. Wear like a suit made out of pure American pride. Smile and wave as you walk past people with gaping jaws of admiration.

How to: Live in Kombo and Still Save Money.
Terry is one of the most successful volunteers at keeping tack of his funds. No tricks here, just simple common sense. Live within your means, find the best deals for common items, and don’t give into the vices of the city.
1 > Survey the grocery stores and find the best deals for common items that you will be buying frequently. Stock up if you find particularly good values. Hint: Don’t forget to check Serrekunda market, sometimes items there can be bought in bulk for cheap. Have a plan when going in, wandering can be discouraging and distracting from your mission.
2 > Fail to plan and you plain to fail. Make a plan for how you want to spend your money. Include some discretionary funds for that occasional ice cream or night out for beers that you know you will be craving at some point or another. Follow how you are doing week to week recording your progress. At the end of the month compare the actual spent with your plan. Simple economics, period.
3 > KISS. Keep it simple stupid, don’t forget you are a Peace Corps volunteer. Do you really need that refrigerator, leather couch, Chinese dinner, or 60 watt light bulb?
4 > Cook for yourself instead of going out. With a little planning a crafty volunteer can usually make a better meal than local restaurants and save a significant amount of money. If you don’t know how to cook, learn quickly and don’t be afraid to experiment. Tip: Even if you are a poor cook you can start with some easy basics. Try vegetable soup mixes combined with chopped fresh vegetables and bread make a hearty easy meal.

How to: Show Gambians How to Rock Out Like an American
1 > Live in an adequately small village where your actions will be seen and heard by the entire community.
2 > Fly a huge American flag over your hut so that anyone in a 2km radius can see it clearly.
3 > Wear large sunglasses that depending on your expression can either make you look like you’re from “Top Gun” (Note: Soundtrack personnel included) or a bad-ass police officer.
4 > Go out to the fields and show Gambians how farming gets done in good old Iowa.
5 > Visit America to remind yourself where you came from, and don’t forget to pick up new shades. Come back and continue to rock out.


How to: Prank Your Site Mate’s House
1 > Know your enemy. Find out what kinds of things a volunteer hates to love and loves to hate. This way the prank is aggravating enough but won’t get you killed. This is your site mate after all, you have to live with seeing them again.
2 > Get to know your site mate’s host family. Familiarity with who you are will allow you to get away with a whole lot more than if you are a stranger. Hint: Keys to doors or special entrances to homes are often kept with the family.
3 > Pick a time to pull the prank when you have adequate time to pull it off. Well planned pranks that take time to develop are usually the most rewarding and can be easily executed when the site mate is on a long vacation.
4 > Pull your prank. Example: Paint their house to look like a Kindergarten classroom including ABCs, a yellow brick road of knowledge, and animal pictures.
5 > Sit back and wait for the inevitable payback.

How to: Send a Baffling Text Message
1 > Live life for the inexplicable crazy moments, write them down, keep them in your head, or take a picture so that accurate details are captured.
2 > Open a new text message. Write the message based on one of your specific experiences and be as detailed as possible. Don’t give any hint as to the reason or meaning behind the message. Don’t write a question or imply any response is needed at the end of the text.
3 > Choose to send the message that you rarely talk to otherwise. The recipient’s confusion and lack of context to your message will create vivid pictures far off the actual mark.
4 > Sit back and wait for a puzzled reply.

How to: Captain a(n unsuccessful) WAIST Softball Team
1 > Select your team. No luxury of MLB scouts or talent here, these are PCVs we are talking about. Put names in a hat and pull at random. Better yet start the competitive spirit early and have potential team members play a massive rock, paper, scissors tournaments to weed out the elite from the unlucky.
2 > Get uniforms. Nothing fancy, this distracts from your game play. Simple fabric or tie and dye that can be obtained anywhere in country is fine. You need uniformity here not the latest sports wear from Nike.
3 > Start casual drinking approx. one hour before game time (even if game time is 8am). Create and open and fun atmosphere where it is OK to make mistakes. People go to WAIST to have fun, not to be yelled at.
4 > Don’t show up for your team’s final game. Tell people you were too hung over to make it, even if you weren’t, this is the most plausible and excusable justification. And hey your team might not care, without your leadership it’s likely they will win their only game of the tournament.

- 2007 HOW TO GUIDE: PCV Gambia Edition
All Respect given to the real Wired Magazine and their work

12 September 2007

Next Stop: Jurassic Park

Bringing your Computer Lab into the 21st Century

I’ve been meaning to print the following essay in the Education Newsletter, but my co-editor and I haven’t found a good place to fit it in. Since it might not ever make it in the newsletter, I thought I’d post it here on my blog. The essay was originally written to give an overview of current trends with ICT education in The Gambia, and was intended to help new volunteers create relevant and timely courses. The theory behind it might be useful to anyone doing ICT development work, so hopefully it’ll reach a wider audience.

As an educator we must remember to look at the overall trends. It seems as though the age of the personal computer is over and we have come of age in the world of the networked computer.

Footnotes for the American (or non-Gambian) reader are appended to the end of the article.

The upcoming year could bring about a sea change in computer education in The Gambia. With more reliable NAWEC (1) power reaching farther regions of the country, we now have an opportunity to create up-to-date and quality labs.

However, increasingly it will not be enough to teach the computer as a standalone box. If we observe the world around us it is the network which serves as the de facto reason of why one should learn to use a computer. By educating Gambian students about the computer and the network, we are no longer merely resurrecting the dinosaur, but also rebuilding the whole of Jurassic Park (2). Teaching the computer as a communication medium rather than as an independent box ensures that our students receive contemporary computer literacy training.

But how do we accomplish this as we transition from a world of struggles over FOIL (3), solar, or connection to the national power grid? Obviously getting the lab power is essential to the hands on experience, but even before that we can prepare our students for when the entire spectrum is available. Here, I have given a few suggestions of what you can accomplish in your lab without power, with power but no network, and finally with a network.

When dealing with a no power situation, try using physical models of a network that describe the basics of why a network allows for reliable and efficient communications. This could be done using drawings, or physical objects such as bottles tied together with string. Try creating small circles of students with their arms tied together to the person to their immediate right and left. Tell students to pretend that they are a computer. Try sending a piece of paper that represents the data/message to be sent. “Cut” the network by removing some of the students. Is the network still functioning? Next have them hold hands with someone to the right of them and also to someone across from them. Now “cut” the network. Can the message still be delivered?

If you have a computer lab with power your options are vast indeed. However, I often see lab classes limited to teaching Microsoft Word or Excel; do not sell yourself short of the entirety of what computers can do! Starting with network foundations can be simpler and an easier introduction to computers.

For instance you could build a small school website. Simple HTML web pages are easy to code and take up very little space. Uploaded to every machine in your lab it could efficiently simulate an online experience. Try building a homepage with a few links to various eBooks, information about Gambia, or better yet interactive Flash based games to create a sense of confidence through explorative learning.

You could also download software that answers the inquisitive mind of students who are going online. We currently use numerous free and educational programs that go across a variety of subjects and disciplines including dictionaries, software for science, math, SES, and many others (4). These programs go a long way to familiarizing students with not only using a computer but also with what a computer can do.

The best thing about these methods is that if they are set up correctly the student interacts within a simplified and controlled world. That is you can forgo the pains of teaching complexities of the Windows OS (5) and start with something much simpler, giving the student a true feeling of control over the computer.

Finally, if you can get access to the internet a whole new world of possibilities opens itself. I would still suggest beginning your courses with an online simulation as described above, so that the range of complexity of sites they visit can be monitored. After that the world is at their finger tips, and without careful guidance students can quickly find themselves lost in the bottomless sea of information.

In order to keep students on track, be sure to introduce the online experience through specific user forums and discussion groups that can ease students into the conventions and standards of the online community. This controlled method of communication could be well paired with weekly questions from a World Links School (6) or outside source or even with internal school discussions. Cross cultural discussions with specific questions would give many Gambians a more complete and accurate view of the lives and ways of people living in another country.

We must be sure to teach relevant computer skills to our students. The computer and the network now act in unison to bring the world together; this is the most powerful application of computers today. If we fail to show the power of this then our students, the backbone of The Gambia’s future, will fall further behind in the world of IT.

Feel free to E-mail, text, or call me about software or ideas mentioned in this article.

(1) NAWEC - National Water and Electricity Company. Over the past year has brought energy to key cities up-country as well as improved reliability in the urban areas.
(2) Reference to an article all ICT volunteers are given during training entitled “Resurrecting the Dinosaur,” in which The Gambia’s first ICT PCVs described repairing and making old and outdated hardware operational.
(3) FOIL - Fuel Oil, gas in American English. The fuel for generators, and therefore is what many schools and organizations across the country have come to rely on.
(4) Much of this free software has been found with the help of the Website Educational Freeware (http://www.educational-freeware.com/) a great resource for any ICT development worker.
(5) Rather than being an attack on Microsoft, this should read, “complexities of any modern operating system.” The desktop metaphor we are so familiar with in the United States simply does not translate smoothly to West Africa.
(6) World Links - Peace Corps sponsored global pen pals and school collaboration agency.