25 April 2007

You say it’s your birthday

The world jumped into focus and everything looked suddenly bright and fresh and clean, as it does on an early morning with the sun on the trees, and there was newness everywhere, a feeling that I had been away a long time in a dark place and was now returning home to sunlight.
-Chaim Potok from The Chosen

This past week there was a new baby born in my compound. Last Friday was her naming ceremony, in which a large gathering of family friends, neighbors, and well wishers come to the house to hear the baby’s name be given by a village religious leader. Everyone then enjoys the day together chatting, eating, and enjoying.

For the first five days of my life I had no name. For children in other countries, I have heard, it is quite different. Those children might know months in advance of their birth what their name is going to be. Their parents might have built up expectations around that name, hopes and dreams of what kind of person the baby will become based on other people with that same name. They live with that burden, the burden of comparison before birth.

In my small country in West Africa I, like many others, did not carry the same burden as our Western friends. Like I said, for the first five days of my life, I didn’t even have a name. I cried, sucked, smiled, and gaa-gaaed through life purely as “child” or “baby.” My burden was patiently waiting to know who I was to be. I waited for a name to be bestowed upon me, completing my humanity and essence. I waited for my naming ceremony, our little country’s ceremonious way of naming a child that, in my opinion, gives the ritual due significance.

I awoke on that fifth day crying to the pounding sounds that shattered my peaceful slumber. Ever since entering the world my body has had to adjust to a sonic Gatling gun of noise that was once muffled in my mother’s protection. On that day the pounding of rice drove into my tiny skull thump, thump, thumping away in rhythm. I was tired from my busy fourth day of life, which mainly consisted of eating rice porridge, crying, and watching a carousel of people come in and out of my home. They would all follow the same pattern: Hold the baby (that’s me!), blurt out some random gooey words that belittled any intelligence, make some funny faces, smile at my mother, and then walk out with a content grin on their face.

So I was crying. But it was not the day to cry, although apparently someone had failed to give me the memo which would have read “It’s the day of your naming ceremony, NO CRYING ALLOWED”. I had to figure that out on my own when I was brought out into the bright morning sunlight and placed in my fathers arms. We sat on a large mat patterned in blue, yellow, and white boxes and lines, and together we sat surrounded by a large group of elderly looking men. For the next 30 minutes, I saw a steady stream people coming into our compound. Some younger and fit, all smiles for the ceremony. Others older, withered, slow in their step, and with an obvious weakness would wave their hands at the entire group and shake hands with my father. They then would walk to the nearest chair and in exhaustion collapse in slow motion into the chair’s soft cushions.

By this point I knew it was an important day. The crying had stopped. The pounding was finished. My father and I were surrounded by smiling faces, men clothed in long gowns of bright orange, green, and yellow, the women elegant in their patterned flowers and tones of purple, red, and green. The women were preparing food for the big lunch that was to come. Tomatoes, cassava, lettuce, fish, and a whole host of herbs and spices were being washed, cut open, dried, or roasted. The men were now gathered around me and praying together, slightly off beat with one another sounding like many more than were there. All with their palms towards the sky, they looked deep in concentration as if appealing to something that was beyond their capacity; was this religion I thought?

After the prayers were completed one of the elders grabbed a large white blob of dough, which had been resting on a large sheet of thick brown paper. They broke the dough off into smaller pieces giving each of the men a piece, but I noticed only giving to a few of the women. I watched the men carefully as they ate their dough. At first I didn’t think it was food, for the way they seemed to be playing with it in their hands. In their right hand palm they would hold the dough, slowing rolling it with their fingers, mashing and reshaping it over and over again. Whenever I did that sort of thing with food my mother would put on her angry face and start yelling incoherently at me. Placing the dough in their mouths they would slowly chew it, but so slowly that it rather seemed like they were letting it dissolve. The other children were jumping at their parents, begging them to spare a small morsel of the dough. That is how I knew the dough must be loaded with sugar.

After the dough was passed out I finally had my opportunity to become a full member of the world. A man wearing slightly better clothes than the rest approached me slowly and reverentially. He stood towering above my small frame and covered in his shadow he stared down at me and began to pray. He seemed to be following a pattern whereby he would say a few lines, pause for a breath, then continue on enchanted by a connection with peace. Words came out as pulses of life, followed by pauses of composure, all spoken with firmness of purpose; this was the man who was giving birth to my name. Then almost out of thin air he said two short words, which I assume must have been my name, for the whole of the compound erupted in cheer and elation. So loud was the good will that I wasn’t able to make out his final words, but apparently everyone else did because together they final prayer after the man was finished.

So there it was, my naming ceremony. Five days into life on this great Earth and I was given completeness in the world. My nature was always there, and now people had a way to reference it. The rest of the day must have been rather spectacular, for later that night I found many people still sitting around the compound smiling, eating, and chatting the night away. Of course, I missed all of this for something much more pleasing to my infant five day old body: Sleep.

18 April 2007

One fish, two fish, three fish, blue fish

In his slumber he awakes disoriented. He has tossed, tumbled and twisted in bed until he feels as lost as a child in a haunted wood. When he wakes up and wipes the crust away from his eyes he sees a shadowy figure filling the entire space between the mattress and the mosquito netting. The three foot tall phantom resolves into a small dwarfish figure who is smiling confidently as he swings his arm in attack at the slumbering man. Its not a harsh slap, rather one as if to say, “Wake up you dolt, we have much work to attend to.” He closes his eyes to internalize what has happened and when he opens them again the figure is gone.

- Larium induced dreams and memories

I don’t know when my hatred for fish began, but I suspect it was all the way back during my days in Malaysia. At the young age of 5 Kuala Lumpur, the capitol, was a wild palate of unplanned urbanization. I suppose my distaste for fish could have come from the smell in the alley way flea markets. In the crowded and often dirty corridors of the city, I often found myself clinging to my mothers hand as we walked past barrels of fish covered in a mist of swarming flies and pungent odors. But when I really think hard about my distaste for fish I am reminded of one precise moment in time. During that almost fabled time in my youth I would happily snack away on little fried fish that were no bigger than a toothpick. My mother would often cook them along with eggs, fish sauce, and rice to make what I remember being a rather delicious meal. Then one day I took a closer look at the food I was eating and starred straight into the eyes of the fish. It was then, looking reflection of human eye into fish eye that something struck me as thoroughly disturbing. I think it was the first time I realized I was eating an animal. Not that I claim to be a vegetarian but something about this realization destroyed my desire for fish.

Where food is scarce, wasting is especially rude for every ounce that doesn’t go to good use could help a malnourished child not get sick. Therefore, my overall dissatisfaction for fish is a bit hard to explain to Gambians. Sure, people have their likes and dislikes, but to not like fish, which is as basic to life as American’s “bread and butter” is a rarity.

Living in a town that is not far from two ocean fishing communities, I quickly realized that fish is the most economical way to put some protein into the diet. Begrudgingly I have grown to accept this as a way of life in The Gambia, but by no means should you expect me to come craving a fish and rice dinner.

This past weekend I made a trip to the fishing village of Tanji, halfway between my home and the capitol, and once again was reminded of the difficulties of having culinary scrutiny.

It was a rather fine weekend and Daboe had invited me to join one of his friends from work to go enjoy a lazy day in Tanji visiting his friend and picking up some fish. As we crossed out of the congestion of the city and broke onto the open roads Daboe’s friend pulled over and said, “Ok Daboe, driving lessons begin now.” Driving is so integrated into the American way of life, as well as feeling long enough since I started driving, that it was easy to forget that there are places where driving is still rather new and people of all ages are learning to handle a motor vehicle. The roads we were driving over were relatively flat and straight, a great place to learn to drive. However, the road did feature one big proverbial and literal road block: Speed bumps. It is hard to explain and much harder to put into practice the fancy footwork that is required to get a manual transmission to go smoothly over speed bumps. Moreover, it is almost impossible when the learner is trying to learn this skill in a car with an aging transmission and a poor suspension. It was quite the challenge and Daboe did his best. I can’t say that we had the most smooth ride of my life, but remembering how difficult it was for me to learn a manual transmission I have to give my hats off to his effort.

The landscape of the road to Tanji passes some smaller communities far enough away from the main tourist attractions to give a visitor the sense that they are in the “real Gambia,” but still close enough to civilization that most volunteers would not consider it an authentic experience. There are numerous small village museums, wood work shops, as well as mom and pop bar and restaurants. Construction was ongoing in the area and most unfamiliar were the two and three story buildings that were slowly but surely popping up around the landscape, showing a move to slightly more advanced architectural design. It was also amazing to also see how much of the land is unused and made me wonder why the tourism authority hasn’t gone to more trouble to market different sections of the coastal area. It only takes about one hour to get from Banjul to the southern edge of the Gambia, so why not have more than one tourism area?

When we finally arrived in the fishing village the pungent odor of fish immediately enveloped our bodies. Walking through the fishing village as the days’ boats were coming onto shore gave me the feeling that we were entering a world with its own enclosed ecosystem. Something small and specific, a world meant for insiders, and we were merely peeking through the looking glass. People moved about greeting others, avoiding some, bargaining hard with some people, while seeming to give free fish to others. It all played out on a rather picturesque stage of a cool ocean breeze, golden sunset, and buckets and boats in hues of red, orange, blue, and green. One of the boats stood out for proudly displaying a huge American flag painted onto the front of it. Next to the flag “Scream’n Eagle” was painted on, the name of the boat I’m guessing. As much as people talk about wanting to go to America, I don’t often see physical signs displaying a love of America, and the painted boat took me back home to the days of seeing WWII era planes in numerous history museums.

We took a small break to simply sit and enjoy the scene while Daboe’s friend went looking for a few more specific fish that he wanted to buy. When he came back he was carrying two big handfuls of smoked fish which he announced with a huge grin, “I have brought us some fish, now we eat.” Of course being the foreigner, he gave me one more fish than he gave himself or Daboe and told me that I should truly enjoy the food of the Gambia. What do you do when you are Todd and in a situation like this? Swallow your dislike for fish and chow down. Bones and ripped chunks later my stomach and taste buds were feeling rather upset, and half way through the second fish I had to ask Daboe to help me finish it off. I had done the best I could to look like I was enjoying the fish, but in the end I think I ended up with an upset stomach and appearing rather rudely to turn down the gift of smoked fish.

When I come home I think I will devour a nice big hamburger and french fries.

11 April 2007

The Gap (Not referring to the company that had those cool swing/khaki pants commercials 9 years ago)

This week the post is small as a result of exhaustion. Wee been preparing all through Easter break for a massive YMCA Digital Studio/Computer Training Centre marketing day, and I feel much like I would in the build up to a finals week exam. Or perhaps that isn´t quite fitting, it´s more like the final stages of testing a public beta of a massively multiplayer online video game right before unleashing the colossus out into the world*.

In an effort to promote the digital studio production capabilities as well as the entire IT department (computer training classes, internet cafe, and kids' ICT summer camp we are hosting a marketing day at one of the ritzy hotels along the coast. I have been preparing a demo video of our work so far, as well as trying to prepare a 30 minute speech and presentation of what we do. We will be marketing to a large number of NGOs hoping to build partnerships, and I feel overwhelmed at the showmanship, charisma, and general public speaking ability that will soon be required ot me as well as the netire staff.

Partially to take a short break and enjoy the holiday and partially to help prepare for the event I spent Easter visiting with one of my colleagues from the Computer Training Centre. He´s West African but not from The Gambia and we had an enlightening discussion on what it´s like being here as a foreigner, African or otherwise. One of the statements he made during the conversation will stay with me for a long time, and it was one in which I had no words of comfort to offer, ¨The most frustrating thing is traveling to Europe or America to do work with one of our YMCA partners. You know why you are going and you know you will be coming back home, but inevitably you almost always are delayed for a few hours or an entire day because the border patrol thinks you are smuggling drugs. I wish they would try and take it on a case by case basis, but I know that stuff is all figured from statistics. All I can do is do my job well, go home, and hope that respectful citizens will stimulate change.¨

I also discovered that he is one of the first people I have met in The Gambia who not only knew what Thai food is (or Asian food for that matter), but claimed it was one of his favorite kinds of food, especially if it is Phet Maak**.

The next day we had a chance to tour the hotel where the marketing day wil ltake place, and I must admit I was taken aback by the first class facility. Situated on a small cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean the entire design transported us to a sort of Gambian fairly tale village. The hotel, I decided, was a showpiece for the phrase, ¨You can do anything anywhere, as long as you´ve got the money honey.¨

Walking through the reception and guest rooms we were greeted by a soft orange and red atmospheric lighting, hard wood floors, air conditioning, plasma TVs, and a whole host of colorfully painted and textured walls. I found the solid execution of design impressive, which I can best describe as a mixture of western minimalism architecture and furniture design accented in West African colors and textures. It is probably what a lot of tourists want in their time here, a feeling of West Africa but still with western comforts. If that was the intention of the designers then I would have to shake their hands and say, ¨A job well done lads.¨

Of course the tour of fairy tale village reminded me once again of the huge gap between rich and poor here in The Gambia and the world at large. I´ve written about this feeling before, but it bears repeating because it is so easy to situate in one area and lose perspective. In my village I do consider myself rather lucky to have solar power and a chest high fence that offers some protection (what might be considered middle class), but then I went to see a new volunteer in my area who said of her abnormally comfortable home (super high class), ¨This place is nicer than my home in America.¨ Her house is about a 10 minute walk from mine and during the course of that walk I pass a few compounds without any protective fence and a constructed of simple mud brick and thatched roof. Going from the tour of the hotel to just my little section of village I went from the pinnacle of Western posh society to al llevles of Gambian society, contrasts alive and well.

Destructive desire and jealously can become consumption of one´s being. To be content to living within your own means and recognizing the gifts that you do have is the key. It is often forgotten by some in The Gambia as well as all over the world. I´m not sure if I will ever become comfortable with a common phrase that I hear in The Gambia, ¨You have money, take me to America where it is Babylon. There it is easy, not like here in The Gambia.¨

*For non gamers or n00bs, a similar feeling might be the public opening of a new restaurant that you´ve put all of your hopes into. Nerves are high and long term commitment is sinking in.
** Note for non-Thai speaking people, this means very spicy. Left in the original Thai to signify not just very spicy rather Thai spicy. In other words, turning up the volume meter to 11.

04 April 2007

Ch. 10 Which is mostly about signs

It's the end of a long day of work and it's also the beginning of the hot season. My transport arrives and I cram into the gele-gele van and begin the hour sauna ride back home.

There is a young boy next to me who is dressed in his white top black pants high school uniform and he is surrounded by a few of his classmates. It's the last day before Easter break and you can tell there is an air of excitement within the boys; no one likes a break better than school aged kids.

He looks over at me and says hello and asks if I am a Christian. I think he is assuming that I am Christian since most Gambians think foreigners are and when I tell him I once was a Christian there is a hollow and troubled look on his face.

You know you should be a Christian he says. He tells me that if I left the faith that means I must not know God and that if I truly knew him I would return to Christianity.

I am unaccustomed to of this type of conversation with a Gambian, and I wonder if this kid's life is hard being enclosed in a country that is 90% Muslim.

I tell him there have been many great teachers of peace and humanity and that Jesus was one of them. I tell him that all of the teachers must have known something of God, and that there might be a common thread to link them. I tell him until I feel from God otherwise I will respect that plurality by trying to uncover that thread.

Before I can finish those statements he repeats that I have not opened my heart to God. He tells me until I do and return to Christianity I will never get into heaven. He asks me if I know of God's heaven and if I want to go there when I die. He says this all in near perfect English, and I can't help but let my mind wander to questions of what school he attends, who his English teachers are, and how I can obtain their English lesson plans.

I am pulled back into the conversation by his echoes from the Apocalypse of John. He explains to me that now is the worst time in human history and if we don't find faith we are all doomed. He tells me people are doing wrong and behaving poorly onto each other more than ever before in human history. I am unconvinced of the scope of his claims, but can't help but be intrigued by his devotion in the midst of the majority religion.

We come to the end of the trip, and as we get out of the van he tells me he will pray for me to find Jesus in my life.

I walk home being mindful of the breaths and steps that I take.


It's the next day and I'm riding my bicycle down the same roads I traveled on the day of revelation. I think about the lack of directional choices in the Gambia and I wonder what Mr. Frost would have done with only one road in the wood, and I am reminded of the smallness of this country. One highway on the south bank and one highway on the north bank.

Daboe is riding with me and we are on our way to buy sour milk for our porridge dinner and a bag of rice. Both of our hearts are a bit sunk because we know that the price of rice has gone up 50 Dalasis. We know that no matter how hard we bargain we will not be able to get the old cheaper price, and that is the way of life here, prices go up. We ride down the road towards the market and despite the distaste of the price increase something else doesn’t seem quite right.

We come to the market junction and the eureka moment hits me and I see development standing tall and proud. Here is development smiling back at me in the form of a large metal sign post gleaming in the afternoon sun. It is so simple that it was easy to forget but gladly accepted, a street sign. On the top is a large pizza box sized advertisement for GT BANK and below it are two signs pointing in opposite directions: Banjul this way, Trans-Gambia highway this way. I look at the street sign in its freshness and function and I grin in content when I see that the bottom of the pole has been vibrantly painted in the colors of the national flag.

I tell Daboe I am impressed by the development and consideration of aesthetics and he tells me that it is very nice and must be new since you can still see the concrete drying.

It's later that day and the more we ride the more signs we see. We realize there are new signs all over for village names, speed limits, yields, children's crossings, and genuine octagonal bright red stop signs. I'm a bit speechless and remember my thoughts hen I first arrived, I remember thinking two years is too short a time to ever see tangible signs of development.

Then I stand in front of the bright red stop sign, its shadow covering me in geometric perfection, and I realize I will never understand The Gambia. I realize how much of a foreigner I still am, and how many positive and negative experiences still await me, and how much those experiences will not make one drop of sense.

We ride back to our neighborhood feeling like things are changing for the better, and I almost have to stop in disgust when we pass our village sign, less than 24 hours old, crudely defaced by a amateur and rushed bathing of white paint. I feel civic responsibility shattered and I want to “go native” and beat whoever did this. I look at the defaced sign and I look at the wide endless road and I wonder if this is what The Gambia wants, contrasts and contradictions.

I think back to my time at University and I remember Professor Robinson teaching us about the mentality behind the creation of the German autobahn. I remember its intention to compliment the natural surroundings, to beautify the landscape. I remember that it was supposed to be a civic project so unified with nature that it became an essential feature of the landscape itself.

I wonder how much people today consider the road in this way and I wonder if aesthetics are included in Westernization.

I look back at Daboe who tells me he didn't even notice the sign or the defacement of it.

Then I look out on the tin roofs, burnt desert yellow grass, and the old man riding by on a shambled bicycle, and I wonder who would worry about the essence of a road when the price of rice has gone up by 50 Dalasis a bag.