28 March 2007

Classic textbook maneuver

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

Excerpt from “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman

The day was hot, but ripe for adventure
Daboe and I crammed into the car awaiting the national football match
It would be my first time visiting the national stadium
Independence Stadium, a monument of Gambian footballing pride
Gambia against Guinea and it seemed that the whole country packed into that little stadium

Approaching the stadium we saw a sea of 65,000 people
Waving and pulsating, entering a stadium stating MAX CAPACITY 40,000
The rush to enter the stadium left the world in a blur of colors

The consequences of our tardiness sunk in
Our paces steadily increasing to a jog into the stadium grounds
Barbed wire fences, screaming and pushing were our greeters
People, mostly young males, were desperate to get in and were climbing over fences
It appeared as if the authorities sold too many tickets

Not that I was able to see the barricades come crashing down
But I had the feeling that this was as close as I might ever come
I told Daboe I had never seen a crowd so unanimous in their anger and desire

But alas, all the entrances were bolted, closed, and blocked
Held firm by armed guards from the army and police
I felt bad for the men in uniform as they shouted at their countrymen, GET BACK, ALL OF YOU GET BACK

But still the crowd surged forward, trying to break through the doors
Pushing and shoving until we reached the tipping point
And as we toppled we fell right into the guard’s retaliation

Using their belts as whips they lashed out at the crowd
Creating panic to some and boyhood glee in others
But the crowd burst forward once more, teasing the guards,
playing a game of chicken with the guards
The crowd volleyed their movements between inching closer and being driven back

We became a moving mass of desire
Desire to see a football game,
desire to be part of national pride and identity,
and we moved as one, one goliath figure that would not stand down
Pushing and shoving together, bound to one another by our desire

Against the bared doors the crowd was a wild mass of raw determination
My arms felt trapped, my body squeezed
I felt a hand in my pocket

I couldn’t react quickly enough
By the time I turned to see a face
The thief was long gone

It was a classic textbook pick pocket
A cell phone lost to the crowd of determination
A lone act in a sea of desire

We were locked out of the stadium the entire day
Our fashionably late arrival to blame
The Gambian national team lost the game, 2-0 on silly mistakes
Eating our rice porridge dinner we remembered what is important in life
That we had our health and food was in front of us

Sports and material goods would come another day
For now we had the simple joy of a quiet dinner
It was a humbling moment on a long journey to discover ourselves.

21 March 2007

The good, the bad, and the horrifying.

“This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
PSALM 118:24 NIV

I’d say it’s about time for a general update on all the little things. After all, daily life does have progress worth noting, its just that it happens so slowly that it is easy to miss. Let us be happy for what is here and now.

Thoughts on the work situation: Spiders, sickness, and students’ smiles.

The YMCA Digital Studio has been providing me with a constant stream of work.

Unfortunately, the Anansi the Spider Animation project is on standby as my co-worker has come down with some medical issues. Before he became ill, we did see a lot of progress on finishing the first test episode. The voice over audio was recorded, some of the sound effects chosen, backgrounds painted, and about 90% of the animations were complete. During the process we realized how monumental a task animation was, and decided it would be a good idea to recruit anyone and everyone who was interested in learning computer animation. To that extent I will begin teaching an introductory class on Macromedia Flash starting this week. Giving students a path to express themselves creatively is one of the things I came here to do, it took about 9 months to get to this point, but hey I’ll take it.

On a side note, one of the frustrations in creating the episodes is that quality royalty free or fair use sound effects and music are terribly difficult to come by. For at least providing us with some avenues of choice, we have to give thanks to the Creative Commons foundation for the work they do with licensing work for fair use. They provide a way for artists of any type to license their work so that it reserves some or all rights, but allows people using it for fair use to go ahead and enjoy.

We also finished two short promotional/documentary pieces, one for the YMCA basketball team and the other covering a UNICEF launching of a water sanitation project. The next step for us is to put together a portfolio and distribute it to NGOs and businesses. Our hope is to sell ourselves as a complete multimedia studio and start being employed to create promotional advertisements or documentaries.

Work at the high school.

Our first term we struggled with secretarial tasks that bogged us down with so many papers to copy, type, and correct that we were unable give our energy to classes. Students would come into the classroom and at the same time teachers would come running in desperately asking us to type a report for them.

Our first step in solving the problem was refurbishing the secretary’s office so that they had the full capability to create all the documents that otherwise would have come our way. In addition, we gutted one of the unused rooms in the administration block, tidied it up, and turned it into a small teachers/secretarial lounge where anyone who needed a computer for small tasks could use one.

Then we finally had time to teach the classes. We only see each group of students once a week with each class lasting only 35 minutes. A lot is lost in the week between when we see the students so we counteract that by teaching only one concept a few weeks in a row. When we were trying to teach a wide survey of computer topics the students would become confused and lost week to week, forgetting everything we had taught them. It becomes a bit boring for us to be teaching the same thing week in and week out, but by pounding in only one concept in this manner, the students truly do learn it. The smiles on their faces as of late, showing that they understand and know they have power over the computer, is a wonderful thing to see. What kinds of concepts are we teaching? Well for example, right now we are working on how to format text in a word processor.

Think in small victories and approach the problem one task at a time is how the administration always told us to think of our work.

Thoughts on general life: Cold and ice.

We were entering into the thick of the hot season, suffering becoming daily routine, when all of a sudden we have been graced by a short reprise of the cold season. The past six days or so have once again returned The Gambia into “heavenly weather” mode and there are nights when you truly need to have a blanket wrapped around tight to keep warm. It reminds me a bit of the opposite effect of an Indian Summer. A short reminder of what delightful weather can be, right when it’s turning sour.

I have been helping Kaddy as much as I can to make the flavored ice treats, and during the Middle School lunch break helping her sell them. It’s a great way to hear all sorts of new language as the women joke, sell, and gossip about anything and everything going on in the school or their own lives. Of course I understand only a small fraction of what is being said, but if I learn just one new word a week, then progress is made. Probably the best thing I have learned through the process is a sort of official slang for what I can best translate as, “Leave me in peace gosh darn it.”

Overall my language skills have seen small improvements, but by no means am I confident in holding meaningful conversations. It seems like I am discovering my own brain’s strengths and weaknesses of learning language. As with learning German, I find myself not doing enough active speaking, rather only actively listening. The result is that when learning a language I gain solid skill in understanding a conversation, but am unable to say much in return. I think a sad point of my PC service has been that I have not given as much energy or progressed as much with language as I would have hoped during pre-departure.

Thoughts on the horrifying: Mice and moving walls.

The field mice that were mentioned in an earlier blog as the recipients of a rather cruel death by circular arm swings have come back in force. It seems like for every one mouse we get rid of two come back, and during the night time you hear them scurrying about the backyard area searching for who knows what. They have so far left the precious cassava crop alone, so there hasn’t been any re-runs of wrath and punishment. However, something tells me that in only a short time war paint will be applied and the hunt will begin.

Have you ever seen a scary movie where a pit of snakes engulfs a floor making it seem from a distance that the ground itself is alive? Or perhaps a swarm of bees so thick that it appears as if a black wall is approaching you? That’s exactly the feeling I had the other day from waking up from a peaceful nap.

As I rubbed my eyes open I looked into my bedroom at the white wall that usually is colored by a few magazine cut outs I have taped up. Then I saw a few dozen ants crawling around the higher parts of the wall and though to myself, “Uh oh, this can’t be good.” What looked like an inconvenience at first turned into a rather horrifying moment as my eyes began to scan the rest of the room that revealed my floor and half way the four walls was pulsating from the movements of hundreds of ants. The scene was not quite the scary movie scenario, but equally traumatizing. Luckily modern science has invented ant/bug spray and my inner Buddhist went quiet as I unleashed a whole can of spray on the infestation. Final result? The whole house reeked of that terrible chemical smell and it took a while to sweep up the freshly spawned graveyard.

When I asked Daboe what the heck it was all about he simply said, “There’s not much you can do. Every once in a while they’ll bring their eggs in the house because it’s cooler there, and when they are ready to hatch all the ants come in to get the eggs and disturb you. It all only takes a few days for them to come and go so it can be easy to miss.”

I suppose my weekly sweepings under all the buckets, large furniture, and trunks is not enough? On the other hand the whole episode is better than what my dad once told me about his Peace Corps days. Something about not checking his shoes before putting them on, only to unhappily discover that during the night a scorpion had taken residence inside of one.

Happy Birthday Dad.

14 March 2007

How is the morning?

He couldn’t really help it. He had been brought up on the romanticism of the Disney classics, a place where dreams did come true and beauty was established through the phenomenal. It was Andrew’s peculiarity that these images had served as the archetype for all of the major events of his life, and this, his marriage proposal would be no different.

So Doreen found herself on a spring morning in the quiet of the south side park. Sitting on a bright red checkered picnic cloth under the shade of a giant oak tree she was trying her best to conceal the staggered pounding of her heart. At any moment the question would dance into the morning air, this was the moment she had been waiting for. Five fabulous years with Andrew by her side were about to be offered as a mere prologue to a lifetime of bliss.

She took a deep breath and forced a nervous smile at him. Every pause in their conversation provided an opportunity for the big question to reveal itself. Every pause lingered over the cool grass leaving her trembling with anticipation.

Do it now. The voice inside his head rang. He gulped, slowly closed his eyes, and opened his mouth, but he found his throat unwilling to cooperated and instead choked out an incomprehensible set of syllables. He let out a loud self conscious cough in an attempt to mask his folly.

He felt a tingle surge through his entire body. His face was glowing bright red, he opened his mouth one more time, and this time the words came, “Dooreen the last five years of my life have brought me nothing but endless joy. I can’t imagine anything better than to share the rest of my life with you,” he paused to gather himself, “Doreen will you mar--“

“Hey! Hey, Andrew,” an oncoming man yelled with a wide grin. And then he began his greeting, “Are you fine? Where are the home people? How is your brother? Are you hard on work? I hope there are no troubles. You look hard on it. So, I hope you are fine?”

Modern science is still trying to explain how at this precise moment Andrew’s entire body turned into a human black hole, rapidly slumping and deflating into itself.
Greeting takes precedence over all else.

Learning the supreme importance of greetings in The Gambia is one of the first lessons in socialization here. However, by no means does one learn the ins and outs in one day or even six months; I still struggle with the finer points of the ritual. Of note is that greetings seem to take importance over anything and everything, including (as stylized above) a marriage proposal. Kaddy once told me that you could be at your parent’s funeral crying your heart out, and it is still important to greet, as greetings are an affirmation of caring and friendship for those suffering.

When writing the above story, I wanted to share it with Daboe to ensure I wasn’t being culturally insensitive and for general readability. From the moment I asked him if he would listen to a short story, to the time the actual short story was read, we were visited by two guests both of whom required extensive greetings. In the end I think it took over an hour to have the chance to read 300 words.

Greetings are the doorway to knowledge of whether or not a person is a good human being. There seem to be a few rules governing how to make a good impression. Above all else you simply must greet in some shape or form, if you do not greet that is one of the biggest insults of all. Secondly is the amount of time that you take in greeting. If you have never met the person, it is important for a long series of questions about their home, where they come from, their name, who their parents are, etc. and often the same questions will be repeated over and over. Finally, once acquainted with each other it is important to remember their name so that the next time you greet you can no only say hello, but call out their name.

Physically there are also a few rules, including the handshake as the most basic forms of respect that can be shown. When first meeting someone or if it is someone of importance you should shake their hand. If you already know them a handshake is not as necessary, but serves as positive reinforcement of your honorable character if you take the time to habitually shake. To make the shake even more respectful you can place your hand over the heart after the handshake. Should one find themselves in a rush, too far away from the person you are greeting, or unable to reach them for whatever reason it is acceptable to clasp your own two hands together high up in the air visually representing the handshake between two people.

What kinds of things are asked in The Gambia? I can only accurately speak for the Mandinkas, but I think the following list is fairly common to all the languages here. They all begin with the universal Islamic Salaam Maleekum. Greetings include: Do you have peace? Hope there are no troubles. Where are the home people? Where do you originally come from? How is the work? Where is your father/mother? What is your name? What is your occupation?

Overall, these rules are not too difficult to follow and vigilantly practicing them can take you from a near devil like figure to a saintly man of peace. It’s a bit of a shame then that I seem to constantly fail at one or more aspects of greeting. My failings are mostly from carrying Western mentalities with me, such as time is money. Often I am rushing to get somewhere and as a result do minimalist greetings, which gets the job done, but by no means makes me a “wonderful man” within the community. Furthermore, if anyone ever begins the greeting with “tubab” instead of “hello” or “Salam Aleekum” I will never greet back. This is a bit of a tricky point because for the ones shouting tubab the word is usually not said as an insult, but I take it as a robbery of my individuality turning it into an insult. Since my lack of response to the tubab greeting further gives the impression that I do not like to greeting, digging one layer deeper into my hole. Lastly on the list of my failings at greetings is the flaw that I am horrible at remembering names, so many times I find myself unable to greet and say their name, the greeting equivalent of icing on the cake.

Living in a more urban area presents a particular challenge for greetings because there is such a wide variety of ethnic groups and nationalities here. You wade through English, French, Wolof, Pulaar, Mandinka, and a bit of Joola. When greeting in the native language of the speaker you immediately gain a lot of respect. The trick then is to decide which ethnic group the person belongs to and greet accordingly. After some time in The Gambia you gain the ability to take an educated guess at ethnic groups, and therefore greet in the proper language. It’s one aspect of my time here I have been working on a lot in recent months, and I can now get by with greeting in all of the above languages.

I’m still not exactly sure who is supposed to begin the greeting process, but as a foreigner I think Gambians expect you to begin the conversation meaning that your guess at their ethnic group is even more important. When someone else does begin the greeting it is always a bit of a relief since I simply have to listen to the language that they choose.

One of the most frustrating things is trying to greet in a native language and the person angrily says back, “I can speak English. Why don’t you greet me in English?” Admittedly this rarely happens and it throws you off guard because more often than not the response is, “Oh my god, this tubab can speak (_fill_in_language_here_).”

Finally as a footnote, one area where it is completely acceptable to cut greetings short is cell phone conversations. It’s an aspect of life that has adopted the Western mentality that time is money, and when you excessively greet you take up minutes, and you take up credit, meaning you take up money. Wasting credit can quickly add up to a life with one fewer bags of rice, or kilo of potatoes, etc.

To sum it all up, I think it’s important reiterate the overall importance of greeting. When we first started language training, greetings were the first thing we learned and continually practiced. I can vividly remember my language trainer saying, “Today we will work on nothing but greetings, greetings, greetings, greetings. Why? Because they are the most important thing you can know here. Let’s begin.”
New photos are up on my Flickr account.

07 March 2007

And float in space and drift in time.

I once knew a moment so pure it was bound to collapse under its own goodness. It was a river of warmth for her that I felt on those cool autumn nights, and it was under the purple tinged skies that delight and pleasure in life was quietly understood by the two of us. On the soft green grass we would lie together arm in arm smile for no particular reason other than the moment was alive with our presence. It was a moment so pure it only lives through whispers and dreams.

It was a moment so pure that it could only be broken by something so harsh, the harshness of the bells. Those irritating ringing bells, cling clang, wailing throughout the night air. Cling clang, and they beckoned me to their sound. The bells serving as the introduction and the chanting as the chorus. The chanting of all those monks sitting perfectly aligned in a row, and under the dim of the moonlight colored robes tinged blood-red. Those monks, they looked so peaceful, so tempting, like they had some quality unattainable by the rest of us. Clang, the bells went off one more time, and I got up from the green grass, got up from the comfort of her graces and I went for the bells vibrating through my entire being.

I went for the bells wanting what they were hinting and what the monks were emanating, I wanted to walk their mysterious path of life. Like a jealous little boy I went for them without much of a second thought. I walked through their temple, gleaming in golden spires stretching for the sky and soothing streams of fresh water. I found myself lost in the spirit of that temple. A cling of the bells, and I was no longer in control, feeling my way through a space where all time seemed to stand still.

It was at that moment when I felt my soul begin to burn as I saw those eyes. I saw the eyes of one lone monk sitting absolutely still at the very end of the row. His motionless eyes didn’t shed a blink for what seemed like hours, and as he stared at me I felt he was glaring into my very soul. The eyes were screaming at my being, rhythmically speaking into my ear, “Join us. join us.” Clang, the bells went off once more and I realized I was running with fear as my only guide. I ran. I ran out of that temple of gold until my breath staggered and my feet brought my entire body crashing to the ground.

I stood up and found myself once again under the calm of the purple night sky, staring down at the place where she once was. I felt empty staring at the place where I was once lying with the girl who had brought so much goodness to begin with.

I felt deceived. Deceived and direction less at who was at fault, but I could only look inside and feel a burning weakness.

So I did what anyone would do, I sat on the ground and let a tear fall from my eye. I saw one single tear fall onto the ground where a soft impression of where we once lay was still faintly painted on the grass. It soaked into the ground providing me with a temporary mirror. I saw a face that was devoid of emotion, completely hollowed out. The tear then began to split apart and fade shattering out into the world, moving uncontrolled and directionless, moving out like fragments of stardust.

Regards to Neil Gaiman and H.P. Lovecraft.

So that’s a written account of a dream I had this past week. I woke up thoroughly disturbed asking, “What the heck was that all about?”

My guess leads me to remember that Larium is a powerful drug, and taken for a period of 8 months straight starts to affect your psyche in strange ways. My friend Neil recently had a horrifying hallucination during the middle of the night in which he saw an intruder in his house hovering over him grinning an evil Cheshire grin only to disappear into nothingness.

Ah modern medicine…

I suppose Freud, unaware that the patient was on long term medication, would have a field day with such cases.

It all comes full circle though as this week’s post is about relationships in Peace Corps, or perhaps only in PC The Gambia.

I had a hilarious encounter the other day at my local shop that was all about local love. The cast of characters included three of my neighbours, the local shop keep, a young man, and a young woman. Somehow it all came together beautifully despite roaming between four languages, English, Wolof, Mandinka, and Gambian English (I am convinced this is its own language). The man, young in life and still finding his way, was asking for the love of the woman because he was getting to the age where he thought it appropriate to have a wife. She wouldn’t accept the offer unless he essentially showed her the money. So they went back and forth with him claiming at first that he didn’t have the money, then conceding that it was there, then trying to convince her that he had bought her small gifts in the past (tea and things of that nature), and then finally as a gesture of his monetary support buying her a loaf of bread and chocolate spread. At this point she simply told him she’d consider, grabbed her bread and went happily along her way.

Throughout this whole conversation I was laughing, smiling, switching sides of support, and trying to get in a bit of Wolof when I could (A rather useful language in West Africa). In the end, I was confused as to whom the victor was, but it seems the short term battle goes to the female lead. We will see about the war.

So that is a small taste of the local situation. What about PCVs? I feel like we run the spectrum of solid relationships, to terrible break ups, to maintaining a holding pattern, but needless to say the increased pressure of life abroad, combined with an high population density of PCVs in The Gambia means that just about anything is possible.

The increased stress abroad really shows you what your relationship is made of, or if you are in the observing position the dos and not to dos of dating here.

For our Education ’06-’08 group we have the wonderful situation of having a married couple along for our tour. Seeming to have a great relationship when we all first met in Philadelphia they have really provided a fun and upbeat energy to the whole group, and their caring for each other shines through onto all of us. I think we all have learned a lot about paths to happiness from their example.

On the other end of the spectrum you have a lot of the same problems that you would have back home, only when they are compounded with travelling difficultly (many relationships here are more or less long distance because of travelling time) and stresses of Peace Corps life they cause relationships to crumble. It’s a sad fact because many might otherwise be able to be worked out under different conditions.

I think those fears leave a lot of us at bay, feeling like we have too much on our plate already and that a relationship would just make our goals of doing solid development work too difficult to achieve. Then again, with every new group that comes into country new possibilities open up, and sometimes things just land in front of you.

In any event if we are ever short of emotional distress we always can rely on our good old friend larium.