21 May 2007

Are you Peace Corps The Gambia - Education 2007-2009?

Are you slated to arrive in The Gambia on June 14th 2007? Are you with the Education group for 2007-2009? If so, welcome to The Gambia from a soon to be 2nd year PCV. I thought I might post some of my thoughts on what you all should consider bringing to The Gambia. Of course, your mileage may vary, but hopefully this list might help make some decisions.

ICT Volunteer Specific
1. I would seriously consider bringing a laptop. Why? All the reasons back home for having a laptop still hold true here: official reports, entertainment, movies, music, photos, games, and more. For work in computer labs, having a machine that can burn copies of Windows, (Edu)Ubuntu Linux, Office, Open Source Software, etc. is invaluable, especially since burners here are not common and often break. Laptops can get damaged, stolen, or returned in poorer condition than they arrived but those cases are not the norm. Most volunteers, with some careful attention to safety and electricity, do just fine having a laptop and it is much more of a help than a burden. I wouldn't bring a new top of the line laptop, but if you have something less expensive or a year to a few years old that would be ideal. Something that if you did lose it would not be the end of the world.

2. CDs full of OpenSource software or otherwise obtained useful software Applications (Office Suites, Anti-Virus software and the latest definitions, Register Mechanics, Defragmenters, diagnostic tools, etc.) Other software to consider would be educational CD-Roms. All those mid-90's Encyclopedias and interactive storybook/educational CDs would work well here and packing a few extra CDs won't take up much space.

3. You might find yourself teaching in a middle/high school and in that case educational software is a must. I use a lot of software I have found on http://www.educational-freeware.com/ and it might serve as a good resource for you.

4. Some of you will end up at higher institutions or government agencies. I am not working in this field so I'm not exactly sure what goes on but it sounds like a lot of database and programming work. Whatever you might need to get this job done is important to bring!

5. Various portable Apps, Thunderbird and Firefox being the most useful. If you don't know what these are do a google search for portable apps and download what you need. Set them up before leaving home. Having your e-mail in one place offline or online, especially for upcountry volunteers, is a big help.

A general note: Most of us work in conditions that don't guarantee power or consistent classes. In addition, students by and large have never seen electricity, a mouse, a monitor, etc. You have to get into the mindset that for those who have never seen an office desk space the metaphors that we use in the Macintosh and Windows desktop don't translate well here. Try and think of creative ways you can overcome these challenges and bring software/teaching aids/materials that might help you in your time here.

General Notes
1. A USB Flash Key (The bigger the better). For volunteers in any sector this is an invaluable tool to have. A lot of good resources are only available when you come down to the urban area, and having those materials packaged and ready to go at your permanent site is quite helpful.

2. Rechargeable batteries. If you are planning on having a camera/radio/electronics, these are much easier than trying to get local batteries. Local brand names are expensive and local brands are horrible (i.e., One friend bought local batteries and was able to take two photos before his camera died).

3. A couple of good books. The first months of training village might feel like there is absolutely nothing to do at night but stare at a burning candle, and a good book can really help with this. Hopefully, others will have brought books and you can share.

4. A few juice flavor packets like Crystal Light. These are really popular with volunteers, and while you are given Gatorade, some different flavors in life are always nice!

5. A couple of Cliff/Power/Energy bars. For those days when you feel like rice isn't giving you enough nutritional balance (Don't worry over time you'll figure this out.)

6. Duct Tape. A million uses.

7. A few cassette tapes with your favorite songs. CDs don't survive on the crackled broken roads, and radio is slowly getting better, but doesn't reach the rural areas. You'll be spending a lot of time in transit in Peace Corps vehicles and having some good old fashioned American music will be a nice contrast with The Gambian landscape.

8. Positive attitude! You'll hear this a million times but it remains true. Many volunteers here get bogged down over time and don't maintain, so the more positive people we have the more we can turn things around.

I would also recommend a few days before you leave to pack yourself a care package of your favorite easy to make packaged food/spices/candy/juice mixes/cereal/etc. In addition put in a good book you've been meaning to read or some magazines that you always enjoy taking a look at. The package will most likely arrive about one month into your training, a time that can be difficult, and a few comforts from home might be just what you need to perk you up.

I might be one of the people to meet and greet you when you step off that plane at Banjul International Airport, so hopefully I'll see you all there safe and sound. Don't be surprised if all is a bit hectic and crazy when you step off the plane, follow what your APCD Yamai says and what the other volunteers who are there say and everything will go smoothly.

Be sure to enjoy your time in Philadelphia. I highly recommend going out for a couple of beers with your fellow volunteers and having a chance to chat in an informal way in a familiar setting. Starting the friendships now will give you stronger experience down the road, important in a place where friendships are a corner stone of mental health.

Best of luck, enjoy America, and see you all soon!
Baraka (Mandinka)
Jere Jeff (Wolof)
Jaa rama (Pulaar)


And a small post on the weather

It's consistently about 130 Degrees Fahrenheit upcountry. The evenings are a container for the day's relentless temperature.
In the coastal regions we are still enjoying mild weather. Yesterday we were treated to something that I haven't seen in about 8 months, rain. It wasn't hot, it wasn't cold, but the air was filled with that thick warm smell you only get after a rain. I yelled in Thai fohn tohk, and with a big grin on my face I looked up at the sky at the small rain drops falling down on our corrugate tin roofs. The clouds had no definition, only a solid gray mass. Crickets chirped in the distance. The kids waded through small puddles splashing water on each other with small broken plastics cups, cracks running down their sides. It was our first rain in a long time. It began with a pitter patter on the roof then closed itself off teasingly. Then the rain came in a steady drizzle that maintained its presence for more than 20 minutes and brought us all a little closer to a heaven that can be contained in this world. Then the rain died away to the power of the hot season. Children continued to cry without end. This was my Sunday the 20th of May 2007.


And off on a short vacation I go.

On Thursday I will leave for a much needed vacation to visit the family. I’ll resume posting after June 2nd. Cheers to life on the road…

16 May 2007

We’re training.

The education group of 2006-2008 is currently busy with our In Service Training. It’s a chance for our group to come together, share ideas, listen to new ideas, receive updates on our work and Gambian education, and catch our breath from a long haul of work. In the rush to prepare for the week of training there wasn’t much time to prepare a Blog post this week.

To make up for the lack of Gambia content here is a small snippet of a rough draft to a short story I was working on a while ago. I’m not sure what the goal was exactly (In a way its just thoughts and images put together), but perhaps lost in the world of The Gambia I wanted to write that reminded me of the complexity and strangeness of America as well.

My friend Sheriff, who I work with at the YMCA, is dedicated to improving the literature and literacy in The Gambia. He seems to always find the right connections to make this happen, and he and I recently met someone doing their PhD on Gambian literature. She told us that there is a literary festival coming to The Gambia in July. Quite possibly the first large scale showcase of world and Gambian literature we have heard of here. We were both rather thrilled with the idea. With these thoughts and events in mind, I thought all the more reason to post some of the scribbles that were written during my time here.

A Homecoming for Clarity

When I was a child I had an imagination that never let my mind rest. I lived in my own world that was filled with daily episodes of epic space battles, greedy trolls, magical castles, or fanciful journeys. My mother often would walk past my room and stop to peek in, and her face would squeeze into a mixture of pain, worry, and doubt. She would raise her raise her right hand, take in a deep breath, and just barely open her mouth to ask a question, and then her entire body would relax again and her mouth would close shut; it was as if her body reacted to the strange sight first and her mind stopped her from going any further.

I suppose she had reason to worry, or at the very least have questions. When I try to imagine the scenes she must have walked in on I think I would be a worried parent as well. I would lie flat on my bed, hands in the air creating patterns and shapes that helped fill in what my imagination could not. The whole world was created before me and it was easy to eventually let my eyes and hands fall back and let my mind take over for the rest. So it must have been that there would be a small boy on his bed, perfectly content, but starring off into space as if his brain had just gone dead. When I was a child, the world was painted in vibrant colors.

When I was 18 and I would gladly say now, still in my youth, I spent my weekends drinking away my cares. It’s not as if I had much else to do. It was 2004 and it was America, and in my little frame of the world I didn’t have much responsibility to weigh me down. Keeping my grades at a B average and keeping my spot on the school basketball team were the two things I wanted to keep, and keeping them was easy. Life simply breezed by and unchallenged with difficultly or strife, I watched it move through a window that was becoming smudged and tinted.

When I am honest with myself, I think I can say that period of my life is when I started to shut off to the world. I no longer observed what was going on around me, I just looked at the world as a person might look at paintings after spending four or five hours wading through a museum. I saw what was going on around me, and sometimes even told myself, “Oh that is nice,” or, “I don’t quite the emotions I get from that scene,” but I never internalized it. I never used it as a basis to keep my thoughts and imagination alive.

To make matters worse I was soon after in college. It was a small college in northern Wisconsin, far away from any big city or big attractions. That meant two things, bitter cold winters and absolutely nothing to do but stay inside. I would walk down the dark corridors of our two story dorm building and look at some of the other kids in their fluorescent lit rooms. I would pass rooms of people I didn’t like and stop at others I did. Jim, a guy I was taking Introduction to Western Philosophy with, often was glued to his room staring at a computer screen. He spent those winter nights playing God knows how many hours of one of those online games where you can become someone else. His world was no longer one of the movement and life, it was a static mechanical world, but one in which he seemed perfectly happy.

Then there were the rest of us. The rest of us who thought we were living life to its fullest. We were the ones who took our weekend high school drinking and made it an institution; we made it a definitive characteristic of our very being. We were the ones who would spend a January night, when the breeze of the winter air could tear and rip at your face, inside a small box dorm room drinking the kind of alcohol you can only find at the corner Save-A-Lot drug store.

I think back to that time and I don’t know if it was the way America had brought me up in ease, the, the amount of alcohol rotting away at my brain, or my own faults, but I do know now that it was the time when I fully stopped observing life and merely looked at it.

So the years of college were blurred, and it’s hard now, looking back, to think of how I could have changed that. I went through a hard three years hoping from one restaurant job to another, and ultimately those years too were blurred. It wasn’t until I spent those four weeks in the hospital, feeling every muscle in my body scream out in agony, that I began to see again.

09 May 2007

Encyclopedic Knowledge

Most of us go to one every day, more than once a day. I’ve mentioned their precense before, and I’m surprised it took so long to give a more detailed description of an institution that is essential to our daily lives, the bitik. A bitik serves as the one stop shop for many people who want a quick solution for breakfast, matches to light a candle, or soap to wash clothes.

So what exactly is a bitik? Well, Todd’s Encyclopedia of World Travels, famous within the foundtheriver.blogspot.com readership has this entry:

Bitik - Redirected from Boutique.

Common in West Africa, a bitik is a small store or shop that sells common household needs and foodstuffs. The name originates from the French word “boutique*,” but has since undergone a Gambian-ization and in Gambia is pronounced bih-tih-k. Bitiks are often run by foreigners or people belonging to the Fula and Wolof ethnic groups. Most commonly Fulas are bitik owners and often come have emigrated from other West African countries such as Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea, and Sierra Leone**.

Construction Bitiks are designed similarly to standard Gambian homes. Concrete blocks, wooden roof support, and corrugate tin forms the outer shell of the building while large double wooden doors open outwards, inviting customers to come inside. Inside of a bitik is usually dark and at night a small lantern, candles, or powered lights create a dim glow from within the shop. The customer stands in a small rectangular area, often with the comfort of a wooden bench for relaxation. Communicating with the owner happens between a wall of mesh wire screen that usally stands approximately 6-9 feet tall. The screens vary in thickness and quality and are meant as a security measure. Physical transactions occur through a small square opening in the mesh wire.

The bitik owner does most of his food preparation and money collecting on a long counter that faces the customer. On the counter are common foodstuffs (bread, bread spreads, eggs, etc.) ). Behind the bitik owner are tall shelves containing the rest of the items the bitik sells.

Featured Products Bitiks contain a large variety of ordinary household goods. Essential everyday items such as soap, thread, candles, matches, razor blades, and plastic bags are common, but bitiks each have their own personality often described by the variety of random grab bag style merchandise they carry. The grab bag items can be things such as balloons, pens, incense sticks, or envelopes.

Foodstuffs that are commonly available in bitiks include perishables such as loaves of bread, eggs, and potatoes, and permanent fixtures such as macaroni, tea, sugar, salt, oil, powdered and canned milk, mints, candy, peanuts, or tomato paste. A variety of bread spreads are available and highly popular with customers. Spreads include chocolate spread, margarine, and mayonnaise.

Most products come and go in a constant flow. There is no back storage or stock room. Rather, items are replaced when they run out. Customers often return home angry or upset that their certain product was not available at a certain time. This is most common with bread which is replaced throughout the day at certain intervals.

Classifications Bitiks come in, for lack of a better term, various skill levels of service. A level 1 bitik is the simple neighborhood bitik which holds only the essentials as listed above. Moving up to level 2 will include basic sandwich creation including the ever popular potato, MSG, mayonnaise, and bread sandwich. Next are level 3 bitiks which are more like small neighborhood diners. These bitiks often are fully featured sandwich shops preparing eggs (fried or boiled) or potatoes, as well as other foods of the owner’s choosing. Sometimes they will also have a local lady selling fried beans to be put into the bread. Level 3 bitiks often also make coffee, tea, hot chocolate, or an assortment of other warm drinks. Finally there are level 4 bitiks which are the same as level 3 but add a refrigerator. These are mostly found in the urban areas and offer cold drinks (small water sachets, Fanta, and Coke being most popular), juices, or yogurt.

A level 1,337 bitik with a staff of eternity and magic belt of protection is extremely rare to unheard of because the owner would be required to be an uber nerd, which does not exist in The Gambia***.

Culture Not unlike the Coffee House Culture that has sprung up in Western metropolitan areas, bitiks have created a culture of their own. Their location, time of day, and respective owners reflect what types of customers frequent the bitik and therefore the cultural aura surrounding the shop at that given time. For example, in the mornings it is common to see school age children buying bread for a breakfast snack. At this time the culture is one of chatter of the day’s gossip, thoughts on tests, or complaining about impatient computer lab teachers. In contrast, around twilight bitiks are frequented by groups of young males smoking cigarettes. These men are usually finishing a day of watching football at the local field and unready to go home to inquiring families. A culture of resistance to the home and slow movement characterize these times.

Waste Management Known or unknown to the recycling world of Europe, much of their paper waste comes to Gambian bitiks to be used as wrapping paper for the various items. The paper is probably originally deposited in bins labeled “Recycling,” with the users expecting that the paper will go to a factory where it will be restored and used again. Instead, the paper comes direct to the Gambia where it is ultimately burned. The paper waste comes in the form of old phonebooks and newspapers. A bored customer can read news from a few months ago or look at advertisements to homes and cars that won’t be available in the Gambia for an unforeseen amount of time****.

Price Structure Bitiks create their own price structure. There are some items that are so common that the price is known country wide. However, with less common items it is left to the discretion of the owner to set the price. This can result in items that are over priced, but will always be bought because the customers are in dire need of the item (candles, sugar, and tea are often victims of price hikes).

* Thanks to Laura Smith during WAIST for this clarification.
** For example the 3 bitiks I visit most commonly in The Gambia are all owned by Fulas, two from Guinea and one from Gambia.
*** Does not exist yet. For a further description of this type of nerd please read the entry in Todd’s Encyclopedia of World Travels entitled “Steevo.”
**** Provided you can read whichever Scandinavian language the recycled paper comes in.


Last night while sitting on my mat the night was cool and rewarding after one of our first truly hot days. The stars were out, Venus shining particularly brightly in the early dark just after sundown. The moon is waning so it would be a while before its glow blurred out the rest of the stars.
Daboe and I were talking about the pains of Monday and I felt rather normal, as Mondays are horrible anywhere in the world. Here we have come to call them “Sanji Follo” or “the coming of the rainy season,” meaning it is when everything is new again and you see an unending field of work ahead of you.
I was drinking hot tea and having my bread (both bought from the bitik) when Buba, aged only 2 years, came up to me and grabbed my copy of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King that I am currently reading. Instead of slamming it on the ground, throwing it, pulling at pages, or trying to draw on the pages, he picked up the book and opened to the maps at the back. He stared for a moment as if truly reading them. He then took about 100 pages in his hands and used his little thumb and forefingers to flip through the pages in rapid succession. It’s something I usually do with books unconsciously, as if scaning for the thickness and contents. I couldn’t withhold my joy watching and realizing how his hand-eye coordination and dexterity just took one giant leap for Gambian kind. It made a lot of the frustration and anger that I’ve been having melt away. Small victories.

02 May 2007

Red, orange, and golden leaves of change

This past weekend author of Found the River was once again sick with a stomach virus. We took the opportunity to spend some time at his bedside for a candid and somewhat drug induced interview. Of life past college and adjusting to Peace Corps were the topics of the day and might serve as a guide for anyone who finds themselves in a similar position. Here are excerpts from that interview.

Almost one year ago you were attending your graduation ceremony at Indiana University. At the time how did you feel about your future in the Peace Corps?

At the time I was coming off of the complete high of finishing school and wasn’t realizing the weight of Peace Corps life. It was a wonderful senior year at IU, and I was honestly looking forward to rewarding myself to a small summer vacation. However, as time wore on and friends started to leave for their own jobs and new lives I could feel the longing to move on myself. I felt ready to get out and go, I felt as if I had taken myself as far as I could in Bloomington and the time was right to try something completely new. Of course I was sad to leave my family, a feeling that has grown exponentially since then.

Missing your family would obviously be a big challenge to life abroad. Can you describe some other adjustments you have made?

I would say the biggest shift is moving from a lifestyle where there was an even match between work and play to a lifestyle where work takes priority. When I was in school I worked hard on my school work, but being a kid in college also means that you are going to go out and have some fun as well. I could feel a draw to both sides of the coin and made the balance work. Here my social life is really limited, and in a lot of ways it revolves solely around my host family. They are my best friends and the people I go to for personal problems and general release. Having said that I do spend more time mentally concentrating on my work and the people I am working with. This is due in part to time commitment. Everyone in my family, myself included, works incredibly hard, and the few hours of the evening we are all at home together won’t match the hours [chatting, being, and working with others] that we commit to our jobs. I know this isn’t the same for all PCVs in The Gambia, but it’s how my life has shaped up here.

But a lot of Peace Corps is supposed to be about cultural exchange, do you feel like you are accomplishing that in the work setting?

Of course, working with people you get to see another side of their habits and commitment that you can’t see sitting in a family compound. Some of the most solid cross cultural moments I have had have been in the workplace.

Care to describe one of them?

Sure, I remember a time earlier this year when there was a passing period or free time for a lot of teachers. We found ourselves sitting under a patio when our school librarian brought out a new second-hand cell phone he had just bought. As people admired all its snazzy features a few people called him so that they could hear the ring tones, and we got into a big discussion about which network carrier each person had. The nation has two major carriers and the staff was split about 50/50 between the two, and our discussion quickly turned into a heated debate as to which carrier was better. Voices started jumping in support of one or the other, advertising slogans were used, jingles sung, prices compared, services judged, and everyone was laughing and smiling and yelling over an otherwise mundane aspect of daily life.

It was the kind of cross cultural experience that you wouldn’t read about in National Geographic or on a brochure for Peace Corps, but is rooted in daily life activities and finding joy in the company of others.

That brings up an important aspect of your service, technology. Working as a communications technology volunteer what resources do you find most valuable to have?

Before we came we were not told much of what we should bring. We were told that as volunteers we would have to improvise and that much of the IT situation here was undetermined and new. While this certainly holds true, I think a lot of us would have been happier having a few resources available.

A lot of IT volunteers here live and die by their Flash drives. It’s the only reliable way to get things around country since floppy disk drives have a lifespan of about 2 minutes and CDs seem to last anywhere from a couple of months to a year. In addition to that a lot of us did not bring software. We don’t have reliable access to the internet, and a collection of software would be wonderful. All those technical programs that you might use back home (Read: Virus scanners and definition updates, registry cleaners, back up creators, utilities, diagnostics, etc.) are invaluable to have here ready to go. The internet is getting better here, but is no where near US levels, so having a bunch of programs ready to go before you begin puts you a foot above the rest.

In addition to that is software that benefits the students. About half of us are working at upper level institutions teaching higher level computing where simple software packages don’t work. However, for myself and others, we are working with beginners to the computer. Many of our students have never seen a mouse before and are afraid to touch the keyboard. It helps to have simple games, programs, and other methods of breaking them into computer usage. Time and time again I have loaded up old games like Lemmings or Number Munchers, simplifying the computer to a few buttons and it works wonderfully as demystifying the machine. My biggest goal in the computer classroom has been to erase the image of the computer as a magic box, and part of that is giving them the feeling of control over the computer. I can’t describe in words my frustration when a student is working in Windows and suddenly an error message pops up out of nowhere, it leaves them directionless and feeling like the computer is guiding them, not the other way around.

It sounds like there are a lot of stressors there. How are you coping with all that?

As it commonly goes, there are good days and there are bad days. It helps to remember that everything was not peachy back home either. It is often easy to glorify your life back home and forget that life in any place is not going to be a cakewalk 24 hours a day 7 days a week.

Probably some of the most stressful moments are being sick because you have to sit and suffer with no idea of when it will all end. Worse yet is when some awful doppelganger is interviewing yourself for an internet journal.
Having said that, it is difficult, and my stress levels here are high. I try and visit with other volunteers when there is time; sometimes just talking to another American helps. Other than that working out often helps, I’ll ride my bike out to the beach and try and shut out what is frustrating me that day. Of course I also read much more than I ever did before, it offers temporary escape when you are lacking the internet, tv, radio, newspapers, etc.

So honestly, do you miss TV and radio?

I miss some of the shows that would make me laugh. The Simpsons, Aqua Teen, Daily Show they made me smile, something I don’t do as much here.

You’ve been in country for almost 10 months. Any thoughts on how best to maximize your remaining 26?

I keep reminding myself to stay positive. So many things can take longer than you expect them to, that it’s hard to take a step back and look at the overall picture. I think when I take that giant step back I see that I am doing best when targeting a few people. I want to try and focus more on those people that I am able to reach either in the classroom, or with my work at the YMCA. It might sound unmotivated or unsuccessful to someone outside of the situation, but trying to reach everyone here is draining and ultimately leaves the PCV weak. I have to put my energies where they are able to function at their maximum. It’s like I’d rather give a steady flow of support to a few people that will show enthusiasm, thereby restoring my water, rather than a steady trickle from thousands of holes that will never come back.

Tour de France and Rugby World Cup are both coming up. Seeing how both these sports mattered a lot to you, any early picks and predictions?

No idea with the cycling, I haven’t read enough background online or otherwise (Perhaps someone at home will send a magazine or two…) Rugby World Cup? Obvious choice is New Zealand, they have two starting XVs that could probably win it all. World Cup Final: New Zealand A Side vs. New Zealand B Side? I would love to see Ireland put together some consistency and get to the finals, but their 6 Nations run didn’t give me much confidence.

Anyone who has further questions are invited to post on the comments section of the Blog, and the author can retrieve and answer them when he has recovered. Till then thanks for chattin. Any final words?

Yes, tell Steevo sorry for the phone reception being horrible this weekend, hey it’s Africa. Also let him know he’s a true n3rd and his pain will be legendary when I return home.

Thanks for the interview.