28 February 2007

Public Health, now occurring once a month!

After a weekend in Dakar where my life seemed to go back into its Western routine and a recent visit to my site by my Peace Corps medical officers I have refocused a bit of thought onto my own personal health. Those feelings happened just in time for another one of our national days of health education…

A few years back I was taking a course with the excellent Professor Carmichael of Indiana University. The class was on epidemics throughout history, and while not quite as solid as her Black Death course, I still found myself swallowed up in the material. The question I asked myself most in the class was how much do you inform the public about disease when you yourself are unsure of what it is and furthermore how sure do you have to be to enforce preventative measures? For a while I toyed with future paths in public health administration, but never went beyond some late night chats with my parents about it. Interest has again resurfaced again seeing the small impacts positive public health messages have had here in The Gambia. It is a geographically tiny nation, and therefore it is a place where so much progress is possible with the right kinds of policy.

Once every month the whole of The Gambia participates in President Jammeh’s “Clean the Nation” campaign. It is his attempt to bring together the nation under the notion that a strong and proud nation is a clean nation. It usually happens on a Saturday morning, once every month, unless of course the President’s will does not wish it. There doesn’t seem to be a set schedule of when these days occur and I never know they are coming until the evening before or the morning of. This is only significant because during a clean the nation day all business and life comes to a halt from 9am to 1pm just like if it were a national holiday. During that four hour period life in The Gambia shuts down so that all of the citizens of this small democracy can, quite simply, clean their nation.

The four hours of clean the nation sees the whole country mobilized not through any special propaganda or extreme measures; rather it is the turning gears of citizenry that puts the work in motion. The good citizen spends at least a little bit of time making his or her physical environment more tidy, clean, and habitable. Of course there is much work to be done since many such assailants on cleanliness present themselves. The top three offenders are animal droppings, trash, and dust/dirt.

Since many of the citizens of The Gambia are living in an agriculturally based society, the landscape is decorated with animals that contribute to farming productivity. Donkeys, horses, cows, chickens, goats, dogs, cats, bulls, etc. all have their place on the land and all have their own production of waste. With all the possible parasites, attraction to flies, or other such dangers that attach themselves to animal remains this poses a significant public health risk. Furthermore, many small children simply do not have presence of mind to avoid such hazards; running through the fields of knee high grass one does not pay much attention to what is on the ground. Nature does wash away the majority of the problem, but it takes the hard work of shovels and sweat to get it off the paths and streets. Probably the least overwhelming it is still nice to see animal droppings being cleaned up on clean the nation day.

Next on the list of usual suspects is human created trash. Trash here has no home, no where that it can go and be hidden from society. Back home most of you deposit your trash (which should be separated into Recyclable and not mind you…) into your bin, wait for a certain day of the week when the trash man will come, set it out on the curb, and then never think of it again. It is gone, disposed of, finished. Of course it does go somewhere, and I’m sure many of you have at one point or another visited your local landfill and seen the mountain of build up. Well, imagine that same mountain of expendables and scatter them across the countryside, that is more or less what we have here in The Gambia. It is everywhere and old food attracts scavengers, old plastics, cans, and bottles create a nice place for mosquitoes to breed, and old vehicle frames, broken chairs, or spare bicycle parts sit and create a museum of rust and dilapidation. What is done with these objects in a country without modern “trash removal?” On clean the nation day we gather them all up into big piles and then set fire to them. From 9am to 1pm many of the areas of the country seem to rain fire. I suppose it’s a scene that would make any rioter proud, and it does get rid of much of the waste, but it leaves the citizens chocking under poor air quality. I don’t even want to imagine the kind of toxins that must be released during the process of burning old batteries, plastics, paint, or metals.

Finally, there is the dust and dirt. This is prevalent throughout any day of the year as I have noted in earlier blog entries. The dry season sees tons of dust flying around invading your respiratory system and in the rainy season everything goes to mud giving ample room for parasites and mosquitoes to live and breed. While most of what you would consider our yards are simply a sandy dirt mixture every morning someone sweeps the ground and packs the dirt away all in an effort to minimize the excess dust that can enter our lungs and homes. During clean the nation day a special emphasis goes into making sure that every square centimetre is nice and brushed.

All in all “Clean the Nation” day is an event that monthly brings about national pride to many Gambians. It is a chance to feel like everyone is working together for a common good. While there are some questionable aspects to the methods of trash removal, getting health and a clean environment in the nation’s consciousness is a positive step. It is an idea that I wouldn’t mind being seen transferred back home. Sure there are plenty of small independent initiatives, such as groups and organizations adopting a street or city block to clean and care for, but nothing quite as regular or as large as how the Gambians get down to the dirty work. I would love to go back to a big city in America and find myself in a quiet residential neighbourhood that took the same kind of pride in the land they call home. Imagine how much nicer a city block could be in a place like Chicago if once a month all the residents got out of bed and did a little bit of house cleaning.


Mariama was a wonderfully pleasant Dutch lady who I met on my way home the other day. She boarded the gele-gele on the way to Brikama and overheard me speaking to a man in Mandinka. She then joined the conversation greeting me in Mandinka, further more asking her children of mixed parenthood to also greet in Mandinka. The whole bus erupted in confusion, laugher, and joy as two tubabs were sitting chatting away about the home people, how the work was, if our home was still standing, what is our father’s name, etc. It was a classic Peace Corps moment that I was glad to experience in a small part for myself.


With the gracious gift of rechargeable batteries (Thanks Dad and Valerie) I have been able to start taking some snap-shots again. I recommend for all future Volunteers in The Gambia who want to take pictures to be sure to bring along some rechargeable batteries, it makes life a whole lot easier. Perhaps someday I will gain the photography skills that my dad once displayed. I have uploaded some new photos to my Flickr Account, hope you enjoy them!

21 February 2007

Quick post after being in Dakar

Last night we returned to The Gambia after a wonderful weekend in Dakar, Senegal. PCVs and ex-pats from Mali, Mauritania, Senegal, and The Gambia were there for the West African Softball Invitational (WAIST). Our team got to the quarter finals, but then lost to a Senegalese team. Notes from the weekend:

1. Things are ¨easier¨ in The Gambia in terms of soil. The instant you cross the border into Senegal and the farther north you go the forests quickly disappear. Our terrain is much nicer than most Gambians think.

2. We had the opportunity to meet other PCVs from The Gambia and get to know them much much better. Usually we are limited to our training group or our assignment sector (Education for me). I had the chance to stay with two other hilarious education volunteers Taylor and Ernie, who are unfortunately closing service in June, and therefore, I won´t have much of a chance to see them again. Overall we bonded as a whole group, and it was nice to have a feeling of ¨PC The Gambia¨ as a whole rather than a disjointed patchwork of people. Our attendance was only about 1/3 of our volunteers so hopefully next year we can get more to come and enjoy the event.

3. Our homestay, Gerry and Rose were the best we could have ever asked for (Thanks!), and they provided us with a friendly atmosphere, wonderful lodging, hot showers, soft beds, great food, television, and even some video games. Their son destroyed us in no less than 5 different XBOX games. Strange how your video gaming skills go down when you live in an African village.

4. Got a chance to catch up and compare notes with Laura (Doing her service in Mauritania) and it is clear that our experiences have some similarities but overall are completely different. It seems as though they are much more spread out across the country and the PCVs truly take advantage when they have an opportunity to go out and have fun together. It was that sense of community that I was lacking in The Gambia until this trip. She goes home for a visit in a few weeks and I can´t help but be a bit jealous.

5. We had balanced diets and variety! We ran the gamut of food: French pastries, Ethiopian, ice cream, chocolate, hot dogs, Indian, Korean, American, and tons of great homemade food (Thanks to our homestay). I think my stomach felt normal for the first time in a long time.

6. Dakar has the feel of a large city without the infrastructure. Numerous districts, areas, tourist sites, and so on sprawl out with the city but there was never a plan for transportation. Traffic jams plague the city. On the other hand it has the feel of a big city so much more than our urban area, complete with public parks, expensive taxis, pick pockets, cool markets, an international flavor, and 747 jets flying overhead. I definitely want to go back again next year.

7. The transport there is a physically short distance compared to what many of the other volunteers from other countries had to do. However, it is still complicated and difficult as you transfer from taxi, to gele-gele, to a river Ferry, to a station wagon ,to more taxis and will traverse language barriers going from Mandinka and English to Wolof and French.

8. Coming back home I think we all had the classic experience of feeling glad to be somewhere familiar again. It gave us all a good perspective on what we like and don´t like about our own situation as volunteers and representatives of our country.

All in all it was a great experience and to all future W. Africa volunteers I highly recommend the trip.

Best wishes to all and Ernie and Talyor don´t forget I will give you 100 Dalalsis if you...

14 February 2007

Animals and Presentations. A short story and a news clipping.

Note: The post this week is a bit small. I am in a rush to get myself ready to head to Dakar, Senegal for a softball tournament, as well as try and secure some plane tickets to Europe. Hope all is well back Stateside.


Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I vow to cultivate loving-kindness and learn ways to work for the well-being of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I vow to practice generosity by sharing my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in real need. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others. I will respect the property of others, but I will prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other species on Earth.

-Thich Nhat Hanh from Living Buddha, Living Christ

He hadn't been sleeping well. The dog in the compound down the street had decided the inhumane hours of 3am to 5am were the best times to howl and moan as if he were undertaking some ghastly werewolf transformation. His nights had been ravaged and he was running on empty. The exhaustion made the rustling in his backyard all the more startling as he stumbled outside to relieve himself. Peering through misty eyes he saw a small figure scuttle across the ground, underneath his thatched bamboo wall and into the darkness. You could say that moment was the catalyst that brought about the downfall of the kingdom.

"Darboe, I think we have some mice or some rodent living in our backyard," Todd explained the next morning. His eyes were a pale red and bloodshot from the lack of sleep. The only thing keep his spirits up was the wonderful aroma and caffeine of the spiced tea he was drinking. He reminded himself he would have to send written thanks to the wonderful gal who sent the tea to him, but for now he refocused on Darboe who was already half way through his response.

"... They're going to pay for eating all of my Cassava plants! I've got the trap ready look here," Daboe exclaimed holding out a large cage of steel.

The rusted cage of metal was the classic mousetrap, and by that I do not mean the children's game. A small piece of food hung as bait and a when the unfortunate creature reached for the morsel of food a large heavy door would swing down and seal his fate.

"We will put this in your backyard tonight, and then they will stop disturbing your backyard and all of my crops," Daboe further explained.

As the sun rose throughout the day and the heat began to swell, Todd's lack of sleep was beginning to catch up to him. The last thing he needed was another night of restlessness caused not only by the howling of the dog but also fear of mice running around his back yard. His face contorted as a horrible image filled his imagination, walking outside in the middle of the night only to be surrounded by dozens of mice swarming around his legs. The fear was perhaps caused by the vilification of the mouse king in The Nutcracker, or perhaps it was all those classes on plague and disease but rats, mice, and other rodents always brought to him an uncanny discomfort. Todd winced and knew the mice had to be stopped. He sighed and felt glad that a trap would be set later that night.

As evening fell he flipped the pages of a book his father had sent him, inattentive to the words, just trying to pass away the time until he could attempt to find peace in slumber. He became more focused flowing across the peaceful words of Thich Nhat Hanh and guessed at what would happen to the mice later that night. Surely Daboe wouldn't just let them go, they would simply return and continue feasting on his crops. No, Todd thought, no Daboe would do what anyone else would; he would send them back to meet their maker. At this thought Todd re-read the passage in his book and found it hard to imagine living in such peace that you strove to never bring any harm to anything or anyone. He had to temporarily reconcile by admitting that it is desirable enough to be on a path towards a goal, rather than actually achieving it.

When the waxing moon finally came out it illuminated the compound with a pale glow. The trap was set and the downfall of the kingdom of mice was about to begin. It took only four minutes before we all heard a tell-tale rattle of the cage. The first victim had been caught.

Todd and Daboe marched through the house towards the backyard, ready to begin the battle for the Cassava farm. As they reached the cage their eyes confirmed what the ears already knew, the capture of a large greyish-brown mouse, almost too big for the cage, and desperately hunting for a way out. It was squirming about grabbing, clawing, scrapping any means of escape.

Daboe brought the cage to the front porch and under the quiet of the moonlight a small crowd of the compound’s children gathered in anticipation. The mouse was feisty and seemed to have an intuition at what was going on, for it was grabbing and clawing at the metal grating with a rapidly swelling vigour. The crowd jeered, smiled, and poked in their temporary gain of the power of the Gods.

Daboe grabbed the mouse’s tail firm and yanked it out of the cage. At this moment all the children gasped in glee, the bloodshed would only be moments away now. Todd, unaccustomed to the sight stood behind the railing of his home watching with a blank stare revealing not emptiness rather an inner conflict of emotions. Daboe pulled the mouse out of the cage and started swinging it in a windmill pattern, around and around until the small creature was dizzy and confused. However, it was not about to give up so quickly and began squirming again, so Daboe gave it another round of windmills, this time adding some hard crashes into the solid dirt. Daboe’s motions were quick and required caricatured swings in order to achieve the desired effect. The flailing antics caused all in the compound to start laughing, pointing, and giggling wildly at the entire scene. The laughter was contagious, and even Todd, hiding behind the safety of his railing couldn’t help but break a smile.

After the second round of swinging Daboe grabbed a knife and called over one of the young for help. He and the boy, Lamin, held the mouse down, grabbed a knife, aligned it with the neck, and began to slice. It was over in a couple of seconds, a small puddle gathering around the neck of the animal.

For the next two nights this episode was repeated no less than six times, and by the end became eerily efficient.

By the end of it all Todd found himself lost in a random thought. If this was the way things are in more rural life, violence being a standard component, how much is the media to blame when a cartoon coyote gets blown up by a roadrunner? Is the comparative real world example much worse?


6th February, 2007

UNICEF in cooperation with the Government of The Gambia launched a water sanitation new country programme intended to help reach the UNDP Millennium Development Goals. The event was attended by the Vice President, although spectators were upset with the absence of President Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh who had been invited.

The programme was highlighted by many invigorating speeches, musical acts by local schools, a performance by Gambian Good Will Ambassador Jaliba Kuyateh, and a special dedication of a community water pump.

UNCIEF along with the GoTG have been working hard to make small impacts at community level to improve the conditions for all Gambians. The water sanitation project was started after a 2005 outbreak of Cholera in Ebo Town afflicted more than 40,000 people. Through global partnerships with UNICEF, the UN organization was able to organize the installation of treated wells, pumps, and community water taps.

On hand to cover the event were The Observer and The Point Newspapers, GRTS, and the YMCA Digital Studio.

07 February 2007

Like still water.

This is a world of contrasts. Walking home from work on my little dirt road I was first passed by a donkey cart carrying twigs and branches to be used as kindling, then one minute later a turn of the century (Yes I am referring to 2000-2001 era, and yes I think it’s now appropriate to do so) Mercedes no doubt with full A/C on, rolled past me kicking up dust in my eyes.

So in the spirit of contrast here is a work related Gambia Multiple Choice Question. Match these computer lab set ups with their respective institutions.

A. 1 central server that powers 25 work stations. Operating system, Ubuntu Linux 6.06 LTS release. Each workstation has a solid keyboard and mouse with a 15” LCD panel screen.

B. 10 un-networked workstations. Operating system, Windows 98. Each workstation has a working keyboard but the balls in the mice are degrading in quality. Various late 90’s 14-17” CRT monitors.

C. 1 server with 6 workstations, wirelessly networked. Operating system, Windows XP Service Pack 2. Each has a functional keyboard with new (but low quality) trackball mouse. 15” LCD panel screens.

1. The Gambia College
2. Marakissa Nursery School
3. NICE Internet Café

Correct Answers:

A. -> 3
B. -> 1
C. -> 2

“That’s the problem in The Gambia, where you expect the best it is the worst, and where it is the best it should be the worst.” – One Gambian’s answer to why such a world of contrast exists here.

One of the most frustrating things about ICT work in The Gambia is that donations and good will from NGOs lacks any coordination at a foundational level. That is how you get a nursery school with modern computers and The Gambia College struggles with Windows 98. This discrepancy exists despite the fact that it is The Gambia College is the place that trains all future teachers of The Gambia.

Now let’s take a look at computer lab –A-. In this case a Norwegian NGO has donated a complete set up for a new place called NICE Internet Café which bills itself as an institution that promotes “Energy Communication Education.” It’s a new operation and I their philosophy which is to create a computer lab completely powered by sustainable energy and software. The entire NICE building is powered by a large solar array which provides more than enough power for each day commercial of use. In addition they have chosen to use Ubuntu Linux meaning that all the software is free and updatable without any worries of Microsoft asking for serial numbers or piracy issues. I think Ubuntu is a project that has endless applications in the developing world, but as I stated in an earlier blog, I am not quite convinced that it is ready for the mainstream. Too many issues with limited off-line support documentation, installation of software, a cryptic filing system for the underlying system, and a heavy reliance on command-line tweaks to software still plague Ubuntu that is oh so close of its motto: “Linux for human beings.” It is close but no cigar, and in an environment when you need a darn good reason to go against the standards of “the big guy” close doesn’t make it.

The situation at The Gambia College is a real shame, and either the Government of The Gambia or a willing NGO should step in and make a donation to upgrade their system. There are plans to upgrade the computing system there, but they have been slow in coming and seem to focus mainly on server support. I think within the next year they hope to be able to give all staff and students a @college.gm e-mail address amongst other things. A focused upgrade to their labs where they instruct the teachers is also badly needed. A good PCV is on the job trying to coordinate all these things, but as everything else here it comes slowly slowly.

And then there is the nursery school that my counterpart, another PCV, and I have been working on setting up. The school is sponsored by a German city which has donated 7 recent laptops all sporting snazzy wireless networking cards. We have had a nightmare setting it all up, as is the Dao of Windows, but the fact that they have these machines at a nursery school leaves one feeling that they will be underutilized at such a low level institution. Yahoo! Mail here we come…

What does this all add up to? Like the Gambian’s quote above, I think I can sum it up in one word: Frustration. Where is the support for the larger institutions whose efforts will trickle down to the whole country? How much more effective would new computers be at The Gambia College versus a nursery school? Where is the top-level coordination to ensure that this doesn’t happen? Why do we have to continually “obtain” copies of Operating System, Office Software, and anti-virus packages when there are free alternatives? How can we promote close but no cigar Open Source software like Ubuntu Linux? Why isn’t Ubuntu Linux ready for the mainstream?

These are questions that are hard to answer and I feel like when asking them in rapid fire we risk a bunch of finger pointing. I leave with these questions open as I, along with the rest of the country, am still working on answers. I suppose that is why we are here as volunteers. And that my friends, is a focused look at a tiny part of ICT in The Gambia.


The most incredible things happen in the world of contrast. When you are the most frustrated with the environment here, the magic seems to happen. I had a wonderful cross cultural experience the other day, the kind that I have been longing for since I came here, the kind I know is possible when one finds themselves abroad, and the kind that has been somewhat lacking during my time in The Gambia.

My evening runs have become a test of patience and mental focus, as the harassment I receive would otherwise overwhelm what is supposed to be a stress reliving activity. That means that I usually focus on my running and ignore the world around me. This past day I heard someone behind me yelling, "Hey man slow down, let me catch up to you. Hey! Please! Wait for me." I looked behind me and saw that it wasn't that I was going fast as much as he had a lot of ground to catch up. As he approached me his dress made him stand out from the rest of the typical, "Hey tubab, talk to me," type of disturbance, he was wearing running shorts and a running jersey.

We ended up running together for quite a while and his story was the type of inspirational material that would work well as an ABC after school special, if there was an ABC here. Like many Gambians will tell you, Sarjo said that life is not easy in The Gambia and his family is very poor. After compulsory school he decided it was time to try and help economically support himself as well as his family. He went into learning electrical systems and now is beginning to work on repairs in his village. He has been running in competition since 2000. Reading what little material he could find, he created his own training program that includes such rarities as an understanding of rest days and a healthy diet. He isn't able to travel far due to money constraints but he tries to enter as many competitions within The Gambia as he can. It was slow going at first, but recently he placed rather high in a competition and won a bag of rice and 500 dalasis. What did he do with the winnings? Like any good son who is thinking the whole before the self he gave the rice to his mother as well as a little bit of money.

I think one of the most fascinating things about the encounter was the honesty of his speech despite a lack of confidence with his English. When he spoke I could tell by the pacing of his speech and the way I could never interrupt him that he was nervous to trying English in such a casual setting. He would take time to formulate what he wanted to say in his head, and then just blurt it all in one long string of words. Despite his lack of confidence, he conversational English was quite good in my own humble opinion.

This kind of drive and determination I find lacking in many of the men his age, who seem to be more content listening to reggae and drinking tea than working for the betterment of their family, community, or country. If that sounds harsh, ask a Gambian who is older and I think they would say something similar. However, the picture does become a bit of a more ambiguous when you consider for the ever increasing mid-twenties crowd there aren't really a whole lot of job opportunities to be had. This is something the government will have to look into as a huge population boom has occurred here in the past 20 years or so.


Check out some photos from my buddy just down the road. A couple of us on our Christmas tour of the beach are there.