20 July 2007

I need sleep...

So I just returned from a Safety and Security training trip into Senegal. What is that you ask? It is a time for responsible PCVs (That's me and one of my site mates) who are the Security leaders of their region to check out their volunteer consolidation checkpoint in Senegal in case something is disturbing the peace within Gambia.

All in all great short little trip. Saw some monkeys, chatted with PCVs from Senegal that I met at WAIST, got to know my site mate better, spent a taxi ride watching music videos on a Gambians portable DVD player (How weird is that?), and worked on some French and Wolof skills. I also wasn't able to sleep from excessive mosquito bites (Senegalese ones are vicious...)

I also wanted to put a quick post up saying that I'll be gone for this upcoming week doing more training for the new Education group. I am looking forward to seeing them all again and their progress, but am absolutely exhausted right now so will have to dig deep for some extra strength.

Miss everyone at home. Sending my thoughts. Remember, beauty is in contrast.

Because I was sent this link randomly and realized 11 years after I first heard those opening notes, how much I still enjoy listening to the band.
"One life
But we're not the same
We get to
Carry each other"
-U2 One

18 July 2007

Riding Spinners and other throwbacks to a life long ago spent on two wheels

Niche groups exist everywhere but by definition they are masters at hiding in the little pockets of society, undiscovered to the untested eye. Here in The Gambia I never thought that I'd come across Professional Cycling in any other form than clips and reports on international television. This proved to be a inability of mine to see my surroundings, rather than an actual lack. Over the past year the country has revealed its dedicated few, riding out on the quiet roads of the Western Region of The Gambia. Their days are spent spinning away at seemingly endless kilometers of landscape dominated by gently swaying palm trees, exotic silky blue colored birds, and small boys whipping their donkeys down the road. This is a group of professional cyclists in The Gambia.

Out on a simple ride on the countryside I came up behind one such cyclist and smiled broadly at the chance to catch up and chat. I pedaled up to his side and offered a greeting.

A thought experiment: Imagine you are a Gambian who has been on the road training for a few hours, about the time when the eyes start to blur and focus solely on the road. A figure passes you which is not accompanied by the standard clank and dings of a normal Gambian vehicle, rather by a whirring sound of spinning gears. On the bicycle is a foreigner wearing a bright white Trek helmet, sweating profusely, and moving his mouth in communication but not speaking English or French. Are you seeing things, weird individual visions meshing together in an inexplicable soup?

My guessing skills were off and starting to greet in Mandinka didn't work, the guy was a Fula from the urban area. So we ended up going through the normal routine of "Jam Tans" (Peace only) and then got down to the real business. The following is a simplified and condensed version of how the conversation went. Translations as needed are put in parenthesis with footnotes at the end.

Rider: How are you?
Myself: Fine. Nanga def (How is it? Wolof)
Rider: Mangi fi rek. (Peace Only) You can try for Wolof? That is nice.
Myself: Do you hear Mandinka?
Rider: No, Wolof and Pular only. I am a Fula.

Awkward Pause. Children screaming "tubab" in background. Cattle grazing on freshly growing grass, growing only because of our first rains.

Rider: So you only have a bumper*? You don't have this type of bicycle?
Myself: No only this kind. In my home, I am having your kind of bicycle.
Rider: You want my kind? I will sell it to you, 1,500 Dalasis.

Another pause. I think it over, not a bad deal really.

Myself: I will try for buying it, later small small. (Later small small. A non-commital way to say that you are interested and will see by the grace of God). Your shirt is very nice**, do you ride for a team.
Rider: Yes, my team is very nice. This weekend. We are having a race in Kombo. Westfield to Banjul starting at 9am, you should try for it. It will be very nice.
Myself: You have races here in Gambia? I did not know, that is very nice. I will try to come see you race. I would like to meet your team.
Rider: Yes, this weekend. 9am. Next week we are having a race on the North Bank, Barra to Kerewan. You should try for that also***.

I smile and nod and there isn't much else to say so we pedal. He is in much better shape then I am and I curse the day that I left cycling.

The whole thing was sort of brief and language was a mashed together into some awful combination that didn't resemble anything in particular. So we let the riding do the work, a universal like music, mathematics, or a smile. I point to his back wheel and position my bike right behind his and for the first time in a year enjoy the pleasure of riding with someone else. We begin to rotate who takes lead and quickly move into a rotational pattern that works with mechanical efficiency. It makes me smile, it makes me miss sport, and it makes me miss riding in a large group.

In the end nothing was said, nothing had to be said at this point. Cyclists have a language all their own.

* Bumper. I've never heard this before but I suppose its slang for a mountain bike.
** The man is wearing a true cycling jersey colored in African green, yellow, and red colored stripes that says Gambia large on the back and front with some sponsors on the back.
*** I just wanted somewhere to put: Steevo, you 5uck man. :) Good luck job hunting.


I love this island but this island killing me.
Sitting here in silence man I don't get no peace.
The waves upon my shore take me away piece by piece.
Going to leave everything I know going to head out towards the sea.

Get miles away.


Many of the education group of '05-'07, who helped make us what we are in The Gambia, are now finding themselves on airplanes headed back to the wild world of the United States of America, back home.

As my group transitions to year two volunteers there is definitely a sense of growing up. Time to prove oneself to the country and the inner drive to maximize one's abilities. I can't help but once again thank the outgoing group for their leadership, direction, and advice, and hope that we can provide the same to all others still in country.

I think we have the skill set and I think we have the attitude to make the most out of the entirety of the volunteers' skill sets. In particular, there are some volunteers who I admire because they present themselves to be true Confucian masters for their ability to fluidly change roles throughout life. From the volunteer at the community level, the teacher or mentor, a friend to a fellow PCV, a son or daughter who left home so long ago.

I recently visited a good friend of mine about half way up country who best exemplifies this mastery. His work as an ICT Education volunteer saw him seize opportunities not only at school computer labs but also branching out into other fields including working for one of the nation's best medical training facilities and numerous government offices. At the same time he is a hands on, fix-em-up guy who has helped out numerous other volunteers with alternative electrical systems and has the creative mind necessary to make a lot happen from a little. On top of all of that he has a great relationship with his host family and community, and is still able to switch into American mode to cook, laugh, and relax with other PCVs in the area. Fluid changes from one role to the next, brilliant.

Yes nerdy book request here only. Hyperion - Dan Simmons.

11 July 2007

Reach out your hand if your cup be empty, if your cup is full may it be again.

We had our first rain! While it made transport impossible for part of the day, it was really nice to hear the pitter patter on the roof of my house and feel the cool breeze.

A few of us in the area got together for my birthday and we did it up in random Gambia style including giving out a bunch of pieces of date flavored cake, finding a bakery and chatting with the bakers, and greeting endless people. Thanks to all who made it great.

After talking with the others I have come to the conclusion that many of us are working on vastly different scales emotionally and work related. While my biggest problems are crying children making me go insane, others are dealing with issues of human rights violations. While my work is focused on the microscopic level of a few classes others are reaching out to their entire community. Not that one approach is necessarily better than the other, but I do admire those who are able to survive despite unbelievable challenges. One of the best aspects of my service has been meeting other PCVs who represent that group.


At the end of each school year every school in The Gambia holds an event called something like the Speech and Prize Giving Ceremony. It's sort of a combination of graduation speeches, variety talent shows, and sporting MVP awards. After a prolonged final exams schedule, we finally closed the books on our own 2006-2007 school year, and were finally able to hold our Speech and Prize Giving Ceremony.

The ceremony took place inside of the school's assembly ground, which consist of a large open space, about half the size of a football field and covered in dusty dirt, and a concrete stage, about half the size of a basketball court and covered in cracks and chipped blocks. Corrugate tin shades the activities on stage, and there is a walled in backstage area for all sorts of costume changes, final preparations, and special guest speakers.

The audience section is made more cozy with a huge brown mustard colored tarp that hangs lazily on rusted metal girders, and in the gusting winds it shakes and creaks but does not give way. The waning metal support does its job the entire day, and the otherwise menacing wind is tamed into a natural air conditioner. Benefactors of the breeze sit under the tarp and metal on weathered steel and wood chairs, recently taken from the classrooms which served students all year long.

This sketch is how I, the teaching staff, administrators, students, Kaddy, Amee, and Buba found the assembly grounds on the 7th of July, 2007.

Harmony through contrasts is how I might describe the attendees. Like I've always written, my area of The Gambia is a mix of both cultures; traditionally rural and rapidly Westernizing. Here were old men serious in their traditional flowing gowns, children in dirty ripped clothing, students in black and white school uniforms, the vice principal wearing Indiana University crimson colored suit and tie, graduating senior girls in jeans, teenage boys in football jerseys, and a full range of other people that filled out the circus of colors.

The highlight of the day was surely the play by the hidden jem of the school, our drama society. I had no idea how dedicated, sharp, witty, literate, and energetic this group is, and I simply have to try and get involved in their activities come next school year.

The play itself was about the morality of commitment to marriage. Subplots of gossiping sisters and mothers led to messages of a live and let live mentality which is rarely seen in The Gambia, parents word and advice is paramount. Written by students under the supervision of the vice principal, the play included a whole host of local characters, caricatured just enough to make the whole thing absolutely hilarious. These included a local medicinal healer, a group of old men serving as the village council, a couple of bumsters, and a lot of crying children. Humor makes the serious light hearted enough to openly talk and discuss without compromising the reality of the issue at hand. The whole thing reminded me so much of the power of a well used stage when performing to an illiterate audience.

In particular this drama brought up a whole host of social taboos that I rarely, if ever in my year here, have seen or heard openly discussed. These included the following, with notes in parenthesis as to what I take the social norm to be:

> Kissing on both cheeks to show love. (Kissing in public or any affection shown seems strictly verboten.)
> A wife defending herself and fighting back. (It seems men have all the power in relationships.)
> Polygamy as something to consider economically and emotionally. (Traditionally it is a status symbol.)
> Cheating on a spouse. (As in the States, I think this happens behind closed doors, but obviously is not talked about.)
> Concern for a child's mental health. (Rather than beating as a universal solution to any problem.)
> Marabous as ancient healers who are not as relevant today. (They are transitioning as confidence in Western medicine grows.)


Drawing circles. Who knew this could be the magical first step to teaching the kids to hold a pencil well. Admittedly it was only the first step into the labyrinth, but it was an important first step none-the-less. I've been trying for months to get the kids to work with some sort of structure with a pen and paper, and after much discussion with other volunteers (Thanks Rachel, Becca, and Colleen!) I had the students following baic shapes including circles, lines, and squigglys (Yes, that's a word now.) The big road block before that had been simply giving them the confidence that they could do it, meaning holding the pen in their hands and literally guiding their hand in mine through the motion. Mentally, the feeling that they couldn't write is the result of years of hearing, "This boy, he isn't able, he cannot" which is sort of the local way of saying he hasn't had any schooling on it. All the kids need is some positive reinforcement. I also realized I've always had backup support waiting to be called upon in the form of two older brothers (10 and 11ish years old) who can draw well. Their example and skill creates a healthy dose of competition between them that radiates to the younger kids and gives them something to aspire to.

Amee's favorite thing to draw the past few days has been a simple car. He's able to do the wheels and some of the bottom frame by himself, but I usually have to help him complete the top half of the vehicle. It's a bit testing to draw the same thing time and time again, but I couldn't be happier than to guide his hands through another door handle, glass window, or trunk.

05 July 2007

One year.

"The places you choose to go in life, go there without fear, but with courage, compassion, and honesty in yourself."

No time for a posting this week, as we celebrated the 4th of July by gathering all together for an all volunteer Peace Corps Gambia meeting. We then cooked hamburgers, ate potato salad, and drank a couple of beers. The whole experience of eating that kind of food and being with so many Americans grounded ourselves in good old American culture; it was nice for the refresher.

Tomorrow our group will celebrate our one year in country anniversary. Time does go by fast. Living up to the PC stereotype I finally feel like I am able to start truly helping my community and feel the goodness possible in year two.

I also have a tremendous sense of hope growing inside of me that I will be able to use this second year to reach out and help fellow volunteers in my area as much as possible. We live in a very unique situation in that there is a heavy mix of people urbanizing from the rural areas and some of the infrastructure and economic development of the Greater Banjul Area. This means that we have a population made of of people who are on the move: people who bring a variety of skills from all over the country, centralized them in one area, and are figuring out avenues to make their futures happen. We can see it all over the town, and it makes life as a PCV more encouraging for displaying physical evidence of life in motion. For those of us in the area, living within this framework, we have so much potential to do good. The success of those around me and their happiness is almost as important as anything else, for that culture alone will permeate throughout the years.

Good people making small but real gains, there to help and support each other. Here's to year two.