27 June 2007

Ch. 16 Where we once again meet the hero Lovecraft

"They did not know that beauty lies in harmony, and that
loveliness of life has no standard amidst an aimless cosmos save
only its harmony with the dreams and the feelings which have
gone before and blindly moulded our little spheres out of the rest
of chaos. They did not see that good and evil and beauty and
ugliness are only ornamental fruits of perspective, whose sole
value lies in their linkage to what chance made our fathers think
and feel, and whose finer details are different for every race and
culture. Instead, they either denied these things altogether or
transferred them to the crude, vague instincts which they shared
with the beasts and peasants; so that their lives were dragged
malodorously out in pain, ugliness, and disproportion, yet filled
with a ludicrous pride at having escaped from something no
more unsound than that which still held them. They had traded
the false gods of fear and blind piety for those of license and
-H.P. Lovecraft

The school year is coming to a close and I can feel transition racing towards me on a hulking coal powered train. I first became aware of the moving mechanical beast in the split second before impact: Keep my eyes open and look at the scenery around me or just jump right onto the speeding train and ride. It is rather odd that in more sedate moments our decisions can linger and sway like an infant tree in a raw howling wind, but in moments of sheer panic the human brain can display an amazing capacity to facilitate abrupt choice.

Summer projects are looming and I don't know if I should continue improving my computer courses by teaching summer classes, or if I should change my focus and try something completely new. I think back to my time teaching English is Thailand and my time teaching English here and my mind wanders to thoughts of the fun I have teaching anything to Amee and Buba. I look at all the other projects that PCVs in the area are involved in and I know that good things are happening in our little pocket of the country. I want to join in those efforts, but I know that I am also on the verge of producing a rarity in The Gambia, genuinely quality instruction on computers. The choice lingers and I wonder if I should choose fresh freedoms over refinement and I wonder if I'll be asking these questions for the rest of my life.

In my younger years, I had a friend who always told me that life is about adapting to change, there was nothing more complicated to it than that. This did not change the fact that the train was still steaming down the tracks and the conductor is blowing his whistle as if in inquiry to my idle stance. "What do you think sonny? My clock is ticking," I hear him saying in my head.

It's a Friday in June and I find myself stuck doing the same old computer stuff. My counterpart comes to see me in the morning and he tells me that one of our fellow teachers needs IT help in his home village. He tells me that the community group there needs a computer lab set up and that most of the hardware is there, all we have to do is reinstall Windows with English as the default language. I sigh and I know that this means old 486 PCs and limited resources. This will be a day of broken disks, watching progress bars tick from 5% to 6%, and of system updates snacking away at our time as if it was made up of some gooey chocolate bar. I know we probably won't see much progress on the first day, and I shudder to think that I will jump into more computer support instead of teaching or branching out.

Then I begin to look at the day from a cultural point of view. I see the branches literally sprawl out in front of me, my eyes were once again closed. I begin to see possibility in interacting in a new community and I feel a bit better. I tell my counterpart sure let's go and even break a smile at the prospect. He can tell that a change has occurred and he smiles back and tells me that a few of the other younger teachers will be there and we'll have a good chance to chat. We both get more excited to go out for the day and begin to pack our things.

A tested confidence in what one is doing is the building block for life. That friend, who now only lives in memory and faded moments, was largely successful because he adapted to the change and took lessons from how he adapted. He refined his results and began to make better and better decisions, it seemed almost text-book. He began to live with a confidence and glow to life. His moments of sheer panic were no longer uncontrollable specters floating through his brain, they were fully opaque figures he interacted with a passing ease.

Lamin is the geography teacher at the school and it is his community that needs IT help. The air is deceptively cool so we decide to ride out to the village on bicycles instead of taking public transport. The wheels begin to spin and we are lucky enough to pass the Peace Corps van rushing by bringing a gust of wind. It's full of the new Education training group heading out to training village, and my mind races back to a similar trip my group took all of one year ago. I smile and wave and I can't help but feel, for the first time, like an old volunteer. I get in one good look at the new group as the bus rolls by and in that instant I see great potential for the country. I see the potential and I find comfort and strength for all trainees in their impending arrival at permanent site.

The ride out to the village begins slowly enough but as we leave town and into the open roads the wind begins to increase to a bear's roar. Pedal strokes become worthless as the wind off the Atlantic strikes back at every inch of progress we make. There isn't much we can do to but laugh at our luck and take the delay as a long overdue opportunity to chat. Lamin explains that the area we are riding through is now used for military training grounds and it's always a bit scary when they are doing live ammo practices. He says that there are always radio and television announcements before they begin, but still people are caught off guard by the noise. He explains that most of the area was acquired by the government and people have been asked to leave their land for the better good of the nation. I tell him that the same thing happened in America on a large scale when the national Interstate system was being constructed, and I can tell that in that instant America a little bit more demystified.

We arrive in Lamin's home town and we get to work on setting up the computer lab. Windows CDs go in, cables are pulled, UPS switches fluctuate with the tides of the national power company. It's all too familiar and I can't help but slide back into thoughts of dooming myself to regularity. Earlier cultural hopes are dashed and I wonder if I am living life without appropriate enmity for the mundane.

My friend is now in India. He takes snapshots of the absurdly rich and the desperately poor as a freelance photographer. It's not something I would have guessed he would have done knowing him in our youth, but he adapted. He went out looking for things he was skilled at, and perfected his trade. His brain now lives for the moments of sheer panic. It lives for those moments that only happen for 1/500th of a second. He's asking me now, "I am going to push this button now, you tell me what will my results look like?"

It's not long after when one of our fellow teachers arrives. His arrival adds a new dynamic. It revives the day as a new opportunity to learn where I am and who I am with. He tells us he's here to brew tea and chat, and that we should not stress so much about the work. We are caught in the middle, but continue to plug away at the computers, Western work ethic structuring our day with its rigidity. Brewing his tea, the new arrival again breaks our blindness and reminds us that we are in mango town and tells us once again that if we don't stop the work to eat some mangos then we will be wasting the entirety of a perfectly fine day.

Its as if the grey clouds dissolve into nothingness and the skies reveal an entirely new day. The day finally transitions into one of freedom, one that is observant of the scenery around us. The day goes from routine to amusing in the instant of change of mindset, in that split second of time when everything is possible. We slowly ween off the work and we open up to discussion now between friends rather than co-workers or business men. It's not that we talk about anything deep or life altering that makes the day so amusing. It's that we talk about the everyday, the normal trials and tribulations of young people in The Gambia, that makes the day so great. It's that the conversation divulges into common male topics of loneliness for girlfriends, sports, or jokes about each other's appearance that makes the day hilarious. It's all a bit too much, but the freedom from choice is lingering and it made the day all the better.

"It's only a skeleton of a moment, too quick for our perception to flesh out," he tells me, puts a hand on my shoulder, and walks away.


A top 40 radio style shout-out to friends and family.
Naima in Charleston, singing career? Updates?
Jim in Vienna, thanks again for the hospitality, good luck with the move to WI.
Steevo in Chicago, King Leonidas or Death Knight Arthas?
Courtney in West Africa, stop reading this and get back to being a volunteer!
Matt in Montana, how did you end up in Montana?


And a random picture of me at a First Communion party... This country is 93% Muslim right? Kaddy is on the left in blue.

20 June 2007

"Transform and roll out!"

New Education volunteers have landed in The Gambia and all is well in the capital area. They are not only coming with teaching experience, but also the right attitude for service. That is, they are energetic about their new found possibilities with technical work, but do keep their potential success in perspective in relationship to the challenges they will face. I think most impressive is that they already show the ability to roll with the punches.

I was able to stay with them from Thursday, when they arrived in country, until Monday evening. It was one of the best things I could have done for my service, especially since I felt like the PCVs who were there for us in the beginning were some of the best people I have met in The Gambia, period (Thanks Colleen and Zac!) There is no better feeling than trying to repay a more than welcome favor.

Most of what Hannah, another volunteer from my group, and myself did was to comfort and advise the new trainees as they get ready to head out to training village. Training village is an intense two month experience where you are expected to learn more from your time observing village, rather than in a classroom setting. One of the most fun things was being asked on the last day to help give the demonstration on "How to take a bucket bath." Usually one of our Language and Cultural helpers is in charge of this, but this time around they said that it'd be better for a volunteer to do it, to de-mystify any perceived difficulty in an American doing it. It was funny to step outside of myself and observe how I was giving the lesson. I was missing all the finer points due to my natural routine and comfort with the bucket bath. I was going through the motions without explaining all the things that I should have been pointing out. For instance, placing the soap into a small container so that it doesn't get dirty, rinsing the soap off at the end, cleaning your scrubby and hanging it to dry, or scrubbing the feet thoroughly.

We were asked a whole range of questions but one that kept coming up was, “Have you done much traveling?” I have always known that I haven't done much traveling since I've been in The Gambia, and I always felt I had to defend myself somehow. Most volunteers take time to visit a number of West African countries. It was during the training, with the repetition of the question, that I came to terms with the answer. I remembered one of the big reasons why I came here in the first place, the human element. I wanted to come and make a strong bond with a group or family of people. I realized then that this feeling tied directly into how I have handled myself in relation to traveling, I stay at home to enjoy the relationship with my family. If I was traveling all the time, that relationship would be lost. They don't travel much, so I don't travel much.

Being with the trainees was also great to catch up with some of the PC Gambia Language and Cultural Helpers, who saved us from early terminating in our first months in country, and catch up with how much has changed in the past year. Brewing tea and sitting out late at night, after everyone else had gone to bed gave me the opportunity to catch up with Muhammadou, who was in my village during training. We talked about everything from nicknames for the cities in the upcoming mud of the rainy season, to the saturation of basic IT skills in The Gambia, to new ways that Peace Corps is trying to adapt to American language learning styles.

I think it was also a great experience for those of us who were able to take a step back and realize how much we were doing in the country. Yes, most of us are only reaching 10 to 25 students on any serious level, but when looked at number of students times the number of volunteers in my group, we are affecting at least 300 people significantly. We never know how many others we might be having at least a small to medium impact on as well, thousands? When explaining to the new trainees what kinds of projects we were all involved in, I was also quite proud to hear the diversity of things that everyone in my group is up to. It goes to show you the improvisation and adaptability that we have all gained during our year of service.

Given that the new group is coming in with a lot more technical skills than we did, I see tremendous opportunity for what is now possible. I was really impressed with the whole experience and it made me a better volunteer for it. A new culture of realistic hope might be growing here in country amongst the PCVs. Yes, huge frustrating challenges block our path, but complaining is slowly giving way to constructive talk that builds bridges over the other side. Perhaps it is just the one-year mark of optimism I am going through.

On my way home I looked at the calendar for the past two months, saw that I was gone in May for In Service Training, then gone at the end of May for vacation, then gone in the middle of June for the new trainees. It was sad to be gone from home so much during that period and it left me itching for, "the home people." By all means was the time away worth it, for it made me realize what I missed. The sweet is not as sweet without the sour after all. Returning back to my house to see a smiling family was the best feeling in the world.


PC Gambia Cultural Note: The movie The 300 recently made its way to DVD/VCD and has made many a male PCV rather happy with its all American violent yet invigorating style.

12 June 2007

Left hand blue. Right leg green.

New volunteers are arriving Thursday night. I'll be helping out with the first week of their training and in the rush to prepare for their arrival there isn't much time to write. So I thought I'd let you all do the work this week. The following are directions for how you, gentle reader, all the way back in America can enjoy an evening Gambian style.

1. Open all doors and windows to reach the appropriate temperature inside the house. Close curtains so there is some shade. Try to not open too many doors that open out onto busy streets, the Western street noise will ruin the experience.
2. Download or buy a CD from Gambian artist Jaliba Kuyateh. This will be used later.

1. Start playing the Jaliba CD on your home speaker system. If you have an EQ turn down the bass to simulate playing on a small portable stereo system.
2. Place a large matt/rug on the ground and sit/lay down.
3. Do no turn on any lights as the sun goes down, instead light a candle or two when absolutely necessary.
4. Begin to cook Saatoe. See as follows:

Directions for Saatoe for 2 to 4
2 cups white rice
1 cup plain peanuts
1 cup sugar
1 cup milk or yogurt

1.) Pound the rice and peanuts into a fine powder.
2.) Boil about 6 cups of water.
3.) Place the powder into the boiling water being sure to stir until the boiling takes over the stirring.
4.) Let simmer until the water evaporates and the water/power becomes thick and porridge like.
5.) Pour into a large bowl and let cool.
6.) Once cooled pour in sugar and stir.

Night time
1. Place the large bowl of Saatoe on the mat and put spoons depending on number of eaters.
2. Pour milk/yogurt on the Saatoe and have everyone eat from the same bowl. Add milk/yogurt as needed for flavoring.
3. After dinner pour water from the tap into a large bucket and wash pots and utensils with the water from that bucket.
4. Read or chat by candlelight.
5. Be sure that you do not give in and use the A/C, it's all part of the experience. If there is too much outside noise turn the Jaliba CD up. When the CD is finished have it play again on repeat until you go to bed.
6. Download sound effects for donkeys and before you go to bed play the sound effect 3 to 4 times.
7. Before going to bed be sure to roll up your mat or rug, blow out all candles, and lock all doors. Go to sleep without A/C.


06 June 2007

Life travels into the north and then back south again.

I just returned home from a wonderful trip to see my family and some beautiful cities in Central Europe. The effect of the trip is still sinking in, but I have the impression that it will profoundly effect my Peace Corps experience. Being back in a Western culture grounded me once again in the myths and foundations that I grew up with, and seeing it in all its affluence made me more determined to respect the great potential for good one person can aspire to.

Above all walking around the airports, cities, subways, restaurants, parks, government buildings, etc. reminded me of some of the more noble aspects of development in Western society. The incredible work ethic, planning, skill, and community needed to organize and build the cities and structures that we have surrounded ourselves in, is essential to Western experience. Above all else there is the drive to move forward, to constantly challenge what we are capable of achieving, is a trait often lost to volunteers in The Gambia when we are chugging away at problems with bargaining for a good price on bananas. We lose one of our basic Western qualities, the constant desire to drive forward, because we focus only on the experience of being pushed back by the little things.

When I first stepped into the Banjul International Airport, roughly 10 months after I first got off the plane to start my Peace Corps service, I was overwhelmed with the speed of motion and the robotic inorganic direction in which everything flowed. People rushing around receiving tickets, tossing bags, and presenting passports was disorienting in its mechanical efficiency. In village we live on human time, the time of doing things without the fear of the hourglass.

Arriving in Brussels and then Vienna and Prague I almost instantly felt capable of socially acting in the setting but still oddly out of place. Everything was so familiar from my time studying in Europe, I could fairly easily navigate the physical environments of BMWs, marble floors, flush toilets, subways, and vending machines. Life in Europe came rushing back to me in huge waves of familiarity, and by the end of the week I was far out to sea. However, I also felt this incredible discomfort originating from comparing the European existence to one that I would have been experiencing a week ago in The Gambia. Not that one was better or worse than the other, the discomfort was from the knowledge of the mobility that I was being afforded. Knowing that in terms of being "Gambian" and blending in culturally I was on a one way street. I was on the trip, I would see things and thoroughly enjoy them, but always knowing this was a privileged situation I could not share with anyone else. Knowing that I was leaving all of my family members back at the cross roads and they would remain rooted in The Gambia, outside of my European experience. This was the discord that lead to discomfort.

Upon landing back in The Gambia I realized how much my life was rooted here. There was an overwhelming sense of being back home arriving back in my compound. I suppose that's the reality of Peace Corps service, or life in any singular place for a sustained duration. It does mold itself as a place of comfort and belonging, whether or not you actually would consider it to be a permanent home.

The events after my landing firmly reinforced the feeling of being home in The Gambia. Riding in a gele-gele, we were stopped numerous times by people requiring to exit exactly at their street junction, stopped by quasi threatening police check points, and finally stopped to help another gele-gele cool it's smoking engine with a jug full of water. As I arrived back in my town, went to get an egg sandwich from my regular guy and had a long Gambian greeting with him as well as a delicious egg sandwich. The roads were still dirty, the friends still cheerful, and the egg sandwiches still served with hot cocoa. All in all I was back home. I was back home with a new perspective on where I came from and where I should aspire to go. Back home with a renewed sense of a drive forward to better myself and my community.

That’s when the new feelings I’ve been having about Peace Corps began to come to me. It’s not just cross-cultural exchange or technical skills that make the organization worthwhile, it’s also the fact that the Peace Corps builds better Americans period. Builds better Americans by making them more adaptable, more humble, more caring for our fellow man, and ultimately more desirous to change things, to bring the human race forward.