31 January 2007

Ch. 9 Where tribute to Frank McCourt is twice paid

It’s a few days after getting violently sick and I sense that I’ve gained a new perspective on life. The dark shadows that have plagued my time here are passing. Anger and frustration give way to new emotions that have been lost since I left America. I wonder why I’m smiling and laughing more and I wonder if I am slowly recapturing the hope and joy that I found in life not so long ago.

I look around my house and I am so embarrassed by the biological disaster it has become that my cheeks burn red. I know the first step to coming back to life is to make my home and myself presentable again. My whole body aches from being chained to a routine of running between the pit latrine and laying in bed dazed and apprehensive of the next rush to the bathroom. I feel embarrassed to walk back to my pit latrine area which looks like a marshland created from the results of my sickness. I take a deep breath and start pouring water out of my bucket onto the floor. I grab a brush and start to scrub.

I know I’m a lucky man every time I come across freedoms that I have not explored. After being sick I understand how much freedom over my own life I was not taking advantage of. One thing I know will change is my dietary health. I ask Daboe to take me into the inner crevices of the local market so I can see it from a Gambian perspective. I want to know more about the foods available here and I want to see if I can start to cook more. My mind starts to wander to the recipes of my old roommate Steevo as I walk through the market. Items that I rarely see in the family food bowl or on the outskirts of the market pop out upon first sight. Varieties of beans, fresh lettuce, tomatoes, cassava, chicken, spaghetti, catfish, and a whole host of small spices and flavourings. I notice all are a little bit more expensive than the standard fare of potatoes, onions, small fish, and rice, but I know that Peace Corps provides us with the money to enjoy a little nutritional variety.

The first meal I cook is something that any of my college roommates would recognize as a Todd meal. I know I’m no culinary artist so I slop together a sandwich surprise of potatoes, onions, garlic, tomatoes, and peppers. My first bite is like a bit of heaven as I forgot how nice it is to cook your own food and know what went into the meal. I tell myself to keep trying new things and I don’t worry one bit about the quality because I know after being a college cook I can only go up in ability. I laugh at myself because I know I’ve got nothing but time to practice the art.

The next time I’m at the market I smile and think about Frank McCourt and know there is always comfort in “the world’s cheapest food,” bananas. I buy some peanut butter and indulge in the basics of a PB & Banana sandwich and I feel like the little boy in Malaysia again.

The hot season starts to creep back into our lives and I fear the pleasant fantasy of consistent 70 degree nights will go away soon. During the middle of the day we feel the oncoming hot season and lay around outside because there’s no where else to go to escape the heat, and I don’t know how people survive without air conditioning for their entire lives. Muslim New Year is approaching and Daboe has decided part of the celebration is to get our hands dirty and fix the concrete around our well. The existing foundation is crumbling away and there is just a small island of jagged and cracked stone remaining. He says that the concrete has to be fixed because it would help reduce the chance of someone tripping and seriously hurting themselves. I think about all the people who walk away from the skeleton of a foundation, balancing buckets on their head and realize just how dangerous it could have been to anyone not being mindful of their step.

It shortly after noon and the sun is beating down and despite this everyone is still ready to work. I look around at all the women who are for once able to relax and watch someone else do the work. I look at all the little children who are playing with the cement and wonder how popular play dough would have been here. I think about the opportunities for creativity and expression the kids could have if only the materials to do so were here. I feel the dark shadow coming closer as I think I will never understand what it’s like to grow up here and how the children challenge their minds. I see Daboe and the two boys who are old enough to help are ready to go, shovels in hand. One of the boys, Alieu, is only 9 and does so much work for the family I feel like he should get more respect but he’s only a boy and that means it’s his duty to be bossed around to do all sorts of chores. The other boy, Lamin, is older and is quieter. He does his work and then goes out to have his own life. I think it must be nice to be that young but not be bottom of the ladder like Alieu. But I know that it’s just the way things are here and I there’s nothing I can do about someone’s age.

There is a ring of concrete blocks that surround the well and by the end of the day we need to have cemented them together, filled the inside of the ring with gravel, and cement over all the gravel leaving a smooth and solid surface for people to stand on. I realize that this is my first time laying cement and I suddenly feel young again. The day is hot but the four of us feel content to be working. Alieu wants to show his maturity and keeps asking to borrow one of the two shovels. I know that he can do the work, but something inside of me also wants to show my commitment to the common good. We spend the day playing musical chairs with the shovels.

The women keep yelling that Oh Yaya, he likes to do work, and we see that now he is working. I want to shoot back at them that American’s know hard work as well as any Gambian. I want to tell them Yes, that I have held a shovel before, that I have built things before, and no, not all white men are weak and foreign to a hard day’s work. But I don’t. I don’t because I look down at my hands and I remember how they looked when I first arrived in The Gambia. I don’t because I remember how all the mothers in my training village would grab my hands and laugh at how smooth they were, delicate and barely a day old they would say. I look at my hands now and see the calluses, scars, cuts, and age in my hands and I know that I’m not in the right to say anything. Definitions of hard work are different for everyone and what do I know when I’m just a 22 year old Midwestern boy who’s never worked on a farm in his life.

The work is finished, and I tell Daboe that I don’t know what it is but I am finally starting to smile and laugh more. He looks back at me and says that it was the sickness. The sickness with all the vomiting and the diarreah; you were getting rid of the last bit of America in you. Now you are a true Gambian. He says that you smile because now you are one of us and understand that here we are all poor, but still happy. He says it’s the way things are.

I can’t agree or disagree so I simply smile some more and feel the dark shadows leaving my presence.

So I can’t really write like Mr. McCourt, but I thought I’d give his style a try. Quick and blunt statements told in the first person and during my reading they certainly made an impact. I admired the pacing of his two books Angela’s Ashes and the slightly less engaging ’Tis. If you are curious for more, check them out and let me know what you think.
You know you are in the Peace Corps when: Your Uncle sends you an independent local newspaper and you laugh out loud repeatedly at the witty Holiday season movie reviews even thought you have no idea what any of the movies are about.

Want to be a part of this ongoing saga? Then join the author in The Gambia, West Africa from now until July of 2008! First 3 will receive a gift box filled with tons of fabulous prizes!

24 January 2007

Our own personal Cheers! (Dust, Dairy and Donuts)

In the center of town there is a small breakfast stand in which the rest of the outside world seems to stop.

Downtown essentially is a large right triangle, the hypotenuse running from north-west to south-east, the base side travelling east and west, and the height side north and south. It is the height side of the triangle that serves as the main artery into the wonders of the Greater Banjul area. Its importance as the main transportation-way has dictated this 2km or so stretch of road to host the majority of Westernization. A few banks have constructed branches here, a few restaurant shacks serve basic food, Pentium II class internet cafes reign supreme, and there are two gas stations which play host to so much traffic that they each warrant a mini-mart.

This stretch of road is also host to the major car park and transportation hub for the entire south bank of the river Gambia. Anyone who is familiar with travel on the south bank knows their journey begins here; a place that would make even the most hardened veteran of Mos Eisley space port shudder (If you understand that you are cool, but also officially a nerd.) This 500meter by 500meter parking garage is our center stage that day in and day out parades itself with a cast of characters including: Dust, smog, yelling, street vendors, pick pockets, dogs with rotting ears, hundreds of transit vans, up to thousands of people, and endless unforgiving heat. The heat generated by this flurry of activity is debilitating, and made al the worse by the common law of transportation here: If it ain’t full, it ain’t leaving. Pick your seat and be prepared to wait there for anywhere from 15 minutes to 2 hours. During the 11 months of the year when it is likely to be hot during most of the day time, the wait time in the car park can cripple an otherwise patient and hardy traveller.

All of the traffic and commotion is set against the backdrop of billowing dust that can be so choking that one would be sure to conclude there is some evil trickery at play. Then you look around you and you realize it is no trick, it’s just simple mathematics. You take poor soil quality and add donkeys, horses, chickens, goats, construction trucks, cars, taxis, market goers, and bicycles and you are sure to get the desired smoggy effect. This area is a living nightmare for someone with sinus problems.

In the middle of all this hustle and bustle is a small breakfast stand which is shielded by thin draped cloth curtains. This most simple of decorations is deceiving in its protective powers, for stepping behind the curtains is akin to stepping off your own personal lunar-lander and stepping into an alien world of comfort. The world inside is familiar in sight and south to the outside world, but brings about a relaxing feeling to mind and soul that does not exist a few centimetres in the other direction.

The breakfast stand seats around 9 to 12 in around a wooden horseshoe shaped table top. In the center of the shoe stand he store owner and his son, dutifully working away at their chosen art. In this store you don’t find opulent choices or delicacies, there are no pancakes, sausage, or donuts. Instead you have two choices 1. Do you want your eggs on bread or on a plate with bread on the side? 2. Do you want milk, tea, coffee, or hot chocolate? Curiously the eggs are stamped with the letters NL on the top with some numbers following, these eggs are imported from Holland. Why The Gambia can’t provide its own eggs is absolutely beyond me given that almost every family compound has at least 3 or 4 chickens running around. At any rate my buddy and I always go for eggs on the bread with a warm cup of hot chocolate and they are sublime. Not that the food is particularly healthy. The eggs are fried in a pool of oil, the only vegetable you et are small bits of onion, and the milk comes from a can that says “high fat/high sugar.” The owner, like many of the other shop owners here, seems to be foreign. He speaks Wolof, the common language of Senegal and always has his radio blaring French from the Senegalese national station. Good thing for us we speak English and Mandinka…

What makes this place so special is that it has become no only a source of tasty breakfast buut it is also an open chance to talk freely about the week, the highs and the lows. On weekends one of us will send the other a text message asking something along the lines of “egg? 9am?” That serves as an open invitation to a guaranteed solid discussion. Sometimes silly at other times serious, here are a few condensed thoughts or notes from our time eating egg sandwiches:

> So I am convinced that our method of child rearing in the US is completely different from that of The Gambia. Beatings serve as the end all be all method of doing things here.

> Do you have and close Gambian friends? I mean ones you could trust anything to? No? I did, somewhat by inheritance from the last PCV who was at my site. He was absolutely hilarious to chat with. Last he went into the hospital in Banjul. He died there yesterday.

> Have you ever seen someone play Dungeons and Dragons? Reading that book you gave me made me feel like I was watching a big group of gamers sit around and play D&D. So nerdy.

> The last time I was here they mistook “full bread” for “4 egg” and the whole place made fun of me for being the tubab who was too fat or hungry to be satisfied with 1 or 2 eggs.

> The system just isn’t ready. I gave the term 1 math test to all of my students last week. One class had only been reporting to school for 3 weeks before the test, a full two and a half months late. That whole class failed the test, along with 80% of the other students. We need a new strategy.

> Being sick here I was hit hard with the “freshness of it all” feeling. Everything was so painful and lifeless during the sickness that when I finally emerged from my concrete cell of a home the whole world seemed to bloom before my eyes. It was wonderful in that “I can appreciate the small things again” sort of way. It was almost worth it being sick for that experience… Almost.

> Yeah I know the feeling. I accidentally went off on someone the other day too. Sigh. It’s not easy here in The Gambia.

> You know… These egg sandwiches are just about one step below Godliness.


Newsflash: Local papers have reported that President Jammeh has achieved divine power and can cure people of HIV/AIDs.

17 January 2007

Fig newtons on Grandma's patio and other such reflective thoughts

If I were Bill Watterson this strip-in-progress would be hilarious. As it stands I must be content knowing that I am learning an art skill and it all has to start somewhere. There are 3 revisions, the last being the closest to what I would have wanted if I had sketch paper and more talent.

So what is this? Early sketches in my head of the oddly funny moments that we live here in The Gambia. Sketches later visualized through pencil in hand, albeit with limited talent, but I hope you get the idea.

This particular strip was built from a story my friends Rachel and Carson (See Blog link to the right) retell about their experience in training village. In village they once saw a father terribly beating his young boy with a thick tree branch for who knows what. After the beating the child, who was still in diapers, somehow had the courage and mischievous impulse to sneak up and snatch the branch out of his father's grip. The next thing Rachel and Carson knew was that all hell had broken loose, and this little baby was running blissfully around the compound in his new found power. Not too far behind and in pursuit was the angry father who had clearly been caught off guard. The story, as they tell it, ends there as the child ran out of sight most likely to hide, but you have to hope that the bravery displayed by the child somewhat eased the resulting punishment the father would surely give out.

Funny story? Probably not for those back home, but the absurdity of it all would make any of us laugh in disbelief and awe of the child's actions. Defiance like that only comes about so often. The scene was simply too perfectly exaggerated, and I couldn't resist an attempt at my own caricature.


Buba is transitioning from a infant or baby to a child. When I first arrived at site he was taking his first steps and only capable of mumbling incoherent grunting or wailing sounds. Over the past few months his Mandinka vocabulary has grown considerably to a few dozen words and everyday he adds to his repertoire. Even more telling of his transition is the look in his eyes. Just the other day, for the first time I saw something different in the way he was looking at the world. Focused and discriminating his eyes display new thoughts like, "I want that object to do..." or "I want to go over there because..." It's a neat period in his development as you can literally watch his eyes as they go in and out of infant and child mode. At times the transformation appears extreme enough to make even Dr. Jekel blush. All you have to do is pay close attention to those eyes.

This time of year we are being hit with winds and sands from the Sahara. Every morning from about 4am to 11am we are bombarded with heavy winds that are just shy of anything truly fearsome. The winds exist as more of a nuisance, blowing sand in your eyes as you try to make your way to work, school, the market, etc. Worst of all is the dust that blows inside of my home. A perfectly clean home at 7am is covered in a thin layer of dust by twilight. Daily cleaning turns me into a real life Cinderella (more fitting in the original German: Aschenputtel) as I sweet soot, ash, and dust off everything from bed sheets, to clothes, to pots and pans. On the bright side it is quite the sight to see the moonrise or set shaded orange in a dust filled fog.

My host family consistently gains my respect for their willingness to try new things. Kaddy's parents recently paid some outrageous amount to put some poles in the ground, electrical wires strung, and meters installed; they now have power in their compound, and I think everyone in a 2km radius is envious. Daboe and Kaddy had a fine idea of seizing the electrical opportunity and buying a refrigerator. Every other day or so Kaddy goes to her family's compound and makes "Iceys" which are more or less small plastic bags filled with a slushy-esque treat. She will then go to our school and sell them to hungry sugar deprived students, coming home with a solid profit from the whole enterprise. The upside is that Kaddy is consistently bringing home a decent profit and in addition, bringing home a few extra Iceys for all of us to enjoy.

School has restarted after a long Chirstmas, Tobaski ('id al-adha), and New Year's celebrations. Most of our students went home for the holiday break, and as is custom here have slowly reported back to school anywhere from 3 to 5 days late. Fun fact from my Tobaski celebration: I witnessed my first live slaughtering of a ram. I would put it at an 8 out of 10 on the disturbing-o-meter, 4 for the actual slaughtering of the animal and another 4 for the way the kids were mesmerized by the violence on display much like a child in the U.S. is enchanted by on screen violence. Or in the horrible lure of a oncoming train wreck, but that's all best reserved for a psychologists Blog; Laura I'm looking in your direction.

Let us close with some words derived from a green-is-good mentality. I hope these words are not lost when I return home to the States, so someone please remind me. One of the most common topics that Daboe and I have been talking about recently is the convenience of travel, specifically with a car. He longs for the ability to easily travel and show his family places around the country, but the cost remains prohibitively high. At times I forget that I was privileged (Or perhaps from this perspective, spoiled) enough to have had the luxury of an automobile during the last six years of my life. Returning home I hope I can still appreciate automobile travel, and be glad that my family has vehicles at all. Perhaps McLuhan's, "The Medium is the Message" can also be applied to transportation as well. My experiences in Vienna and in The Gambia do feel very much tied to the means in which I was/am able to traverse distance and time. On that note, get out and do some walking, bicycling, riding, and driving in varying amounts. Start to see the world in multiple temporal and spatial realms; you'll enjoy the trip I know I have. (Regards to Professor Robinson; Paul Virilio might finally make some sense.)

12 January 2007

Molly remember when...

We got food poisoning a few years back during Christmas break? Well it happened again, only in The Gambia.

Things you worry about when you are sick: How will I get my water? How do I explain my symptoms to my family? Is this ever going to end?

Sounds of village that suddenly become 1,000 times more annoying: goats, chickens, roosters (think 5am calls), children, crying (all that noise, Noise, NOISE), women yelling, beatings, pounding of rice, prayer calls, loud speakers in general, and donkeys (if you have ever heard one of these foul beasts you know what I mean).

Regular posting should continue next Wednesday barring any further disasters.

In leaving here is a fun picture (in case you missed it) from Rachel and Carson´s blog. It is from our swearing in ceremony.

10 January 2007

Out of office auto reply.

So I´m pretty sick. With any luck I´ll be able to post this week´s message tomorrow.

03 January 2007

Excerpt from The River's Fables: Traditional Stories of The Gambia

To be published: Fall 2007
Ohio State University Press
Copyright MMVII


From the summer of 1971 to the summer of 1974 I served as director of UNESCO in The Gambia, West Africa. At the time I was observing a nation building itself out of post-colonial rule. I was director of the physical construction and development of curriculum for the very first institutes of higher education in the country. Now, some 25 years later, I returned to The Gambia and was able to see the fruit of that labour. What I found in The Gambian schools of today was a generation waiting to burst out onto the international scene. The current students were bright and creative, scratching for the opportunity to share their talent in the global community. However, I also saw an increasing lifestyle defined by modern media that was threatening to disconnect this generation from the cultural stories of the past.

This volume is intended in a small way to help preserve and share the traditional stories of The Gambia. The stories have been taken from a wide variety of ethnic groups, and where appropriate similar stories from different ethnic groups have been blended together into one. In my translations I have opted for the use of modern English hoping that it will enable a wide audience to share in the enjoyment of these stories. Due to the lack of a written lexicon in the native languages, we are unfortunately unable to preserve the original stories on paper. In the effort to preserve their original state, we have spent many hours digitally recording and storing these stories, preserving them in their native languages.

I hope you enjoy this glimpse into the myths, thought, and tradition of the people of The Gambia. Happy reading.

~David Kearns
January 2007

Why the hen digs
Before the time of man, the hen and the elephant lived peacefully in the bush. Both were farmers and relied on the yearly crop for their own survival.

There came a time of plentiful harvests and both found that they had much more food than they normally consumed. Elephant had no control of his hunger and his desire for food made him eat every last bit of the year's plentiful crop.

The hen saw the elephant eating all the food, and realized that it would be better to save some food from this year in case next year the harvest was not as plentiful. Hen thought of a simple way to store his food, and simply used his feet to dig some holes in the ground. He then put the food in the holes, covered them, and the food was buried underground.

The next year the harvest was not only smaller than the year before, but also because of poor rainfall the crop was next to nothing! Elephant worried this crop would only be enough to feed him for a couple of months, and began to cry in his sorrow. Hen, smiling, knew despite the difficult harvest this year, he could combine his crops from this year and last and would then have enough food to eat. Hen then began scratching the ground looking for his buried food.

This is why whenever you see a hen pecking for food, his feet are also scratching at the ground, digging to find his buried supply.

Be never too big
A long time ago deep in the bush, elephant and bird were close friends.

One day while walking through the bush, bird said to elephant, "You are my best friend. I promise to help you in case you are ever in danger."

Elephant was a bit selfish and thought; bird just wants me to promise the same thing to him. I am large and powerful and could easily help bird whenever he is in trouble, but how will bird ever help me? Elephant therefore did not return the promise to bird. In silence, the two went on their way through the bush.

The next day elephant was relaxing under a big tree while bird rested on a high branch.

At this time a hunter was also making his way towards the elephant. The hunter knew the fame and riches that could be had if he killed the elephant, and decided this was his chance to do it. The hunter slowly made his way towards the elephant hiding in bushes to avoid detection.

Since bird was high up in the tree, as the hunter crept closer and closer to elephant bird was able to spot him. However, bird kept quiet. Bird watched as the hunter took out his gun and shot the elephant, mortally wounding him.

Bird then flew down to elephant and asked, "My dear friend what is the problem?"

Elephant in pain replied, "I have been shot. I think I am going to die."

Bird looked up at his friend and said, "Elephant, I must let you know. I saw the hunter coming. I could have told you to move, saving your life. But yesterday when I told you that I would help you if you were ever in danger, you felt too good to do the same for me. I wanted to be true to you, but you were not willing to be true to me. I am sorry."

To this day, friends always should remember elephant and bird. You should never feel too big to help another. The person you might help today, is the same person who might help you tomorrow.

The three sons
A long time ago in a small village lived three unhappy fathers and each of their three sons. All three fathers were terribly unhappy because each of their sons was known as the town fool. Each proved their foolishness every day, yet each had one story that would define their foolishness for the rest of their lives.

The first son was sent by his father to retrieve some baobab fruit from a nearby forest. After walking through the forest the son found a large baobab tree and began throwing sticks at the fruit trying to knock them down. His aim was poor and he was unable to hit down any of the fruit, so he realized he would have to climb up the tree to retrieve the fruit. He climbed up the twisting branches and came to a bundle of five delicious looking fruit and said, "Ah, these are the fruit that I want. These will make father happy."

The son made special note of which fruit they were, and where they were in the tree. He then climbed back down to the ground. Once more he picked up his stick, looked for the spot on the tree where the five fruits were, and began throwing his stick in the direction of the fruit. The son spent all day throwing and throwing, but his aim was still poor, and by sundown came home empty handed.

The second son was sent by his father to get bark from a tree so that it could be stripped and made into rope. The son went out into the bush and without too much difficultly found the right type of tree. He then began peeling away at the bark, and once he had enough bark he began to strip it into pieces and tie it into rope. Nearing the end of the day, he sat on his giant pile of rope proud of a hard day's work. He then realized he had little time to get back home before dark. As he looked down at his rope he thought a horrible thought and shouted, "Oh no! I'll never make it home trying to carry this big pile of rope. I need some way to put it into a large bundle, but how am I ever going to tie up all this rope into a bundle?"

The third son was sent by his father to find a large branch in the forest. The father wanted to make a small shelter and needed some wood in a Y shape for the frame. He sent the son out to find some wood with a strong straight base, but a split in the branches matching the Y shape he needed. Along the road to the forest the son became tired and looked down at the road, which at this point split in two directions. He thought to himself, "I know, I'll just cut a Y shape out of this road and bring it back to father. That will make him happy!"

The son went to work cutting and cutting with his axe, but at the end of the day came back with only a blunt axe to show for his effort.

Now each of these three sons was foolish, but within the village it is often asked, which one is the biggest fool?

New Year's was a quiet affair and I was in bed by 9:30. Lots to improve upon, goals to achieve, and service to complete. The time is now. Here's to 2007.