29 August 2007

Schubert- Impromptu, G flat major, op. 90, no. 3

The above piece reveals no particular meaning here unless you want it to. It was merely playing in the background as I wrote this blog entry. The music is burned into memory as the background music to one of my favorite movie scenes of all time. Rent the film GATTACA and look for the piano concert/detective interrogation scene.

It was a night that ended with a stumbling tip toe through a room of overstuffed travel bags and metal boxes. The grand finale being a climb to the top bunk of one of the PC Gambia hostel beds. As I lay in the bed, disoriented and exhausted, I felt happiness for being alive. And then I promptly passed out.

I realized that in all of my blog postings I’ve never said much about what life is like when a PCV stays at our hostel in the Kombo area. It’s an experience that every volunteer, even those who hate the city and are hermits in their village, have to have at one point or another. This past weekend, to celebrate the swearing in of the 20 new Education volunteers, I once again found myself checking into a bed at the PC hostel. I have mixed feelings on the hostel. I often want to get back to site when I’m there and therefore don’t stay there very often or for very long, but I do enjoy it because I always run into someone that I haven’t seen in a long time. This of course leaves possibilities wide open for meeting new people, learning new things about old friends, and in letting improbability in general rule the day.

The hostel is somewhat like a large collegiate greek house. Two stories high and filled with large open rooms, the hostel greets its guests with a rectangular garden in the front yard, a bare dirt back yard, and a quiet roof patio. There are about 8 rooms each with a number of bunk beds so that the rooms can hold anywhere from 4 to 8 people. Some of the rooms are air conditioned, some are not. There is a refrigerator, stove, oven, full set of kitchen appliances, and a charcoal grill. The hostel also has a much used TV and DVD player, a smorgasbord of card and board games, and a small library that at any given time can have a plethora of gems or nothing at all. Outside hangs long laundry lines that are softly shaded by large mango and banana trees. There are chairs and tables outside where PCVs often have breakfast, lunch, or a quick and quiet read.

Close to the hostel there is a small restaurant/bar where you can get cold Fantas, Cokes, JulBrew, and Guinness. It’s a bit of a hole in the wall sort of place, about the same size of your average small town coffee shop, and it’s only open in the evening. For food they sell a volunteer favorite dish of beans and cassava for dirt cheap, variations coming with only beans or cassava, a soup, or all of the above with fish. The atmosphere is usually laid back and there is a good mix of volunteers and Gambians making the place feel Gambian with a small dash of America for comfort.

This bar is where I found myself after a long day of celebrations with the new volunteers. I was in good company with my site mate buddy who I always get egg sandwiches with and one of my favorite PCVs of all time, a third year Education volunteer who helped trained us, and as I write this is enjoying her first week of home leave given to any volunteer who extends for a third year (btw, if you are reading this e-mail some updates on America now now, and don’t forget Short Circuit 2!!)

Swearing in nights are always funny in that in the beginning there is a sense that everyone should stay together, and rightfully so a sense of common accomplishment should be created. However, inevitably the group fragments along the lines of what people are interested in doing to celebrate that accomplishment. Some go out for ice cream, some out for an exotic dinner, some huddle in the office to e-mail people back home, some go dancing, some go drinking, a lot do a mixture of all of these things in one night. At any rate, the unity breaks up at one point or another, and it is at this point that the three of us decided to duck out and hit the beans and cassava bar.

It was one of those nights where conversation flowed endlessly and drinks along with it. The kind of night that lets you forget about the world around you and for one brief moment of time the laughter and joy in life is concentrated around the small table of your existence. Looking back on where we’ve been in the past year, and what we can achieve in the next was great for me and my site mate. Even better was being able to chat with someone who had been through all of year two and was coming back for more. We all had some transitions going on and all of us left the night ready to find out which of those transitions we wanted to take on and face up to in one way or another. In the end, the best thing about the conversation was that it was able to weave in and out of our experiences as PCVs and in past times. It was as if each of us were able to link on to our common threads of life and find the right intersections that would help put each other on the right path.

It was a night that would have, a stated above, a stumbling tip toe around new volunteers’ bags which were packed for their permanent site, and a confused climb back into bed where I could lay and reflect on it all. As far as alcohol is concerned it’s only the second time in Gambia that I’ve been suffering from that level of drinking, but not too shabby if it only happens once every swearing in...

22 August 2007

The moon is up and over One Tree Hill

I had a couple of people from my group visit me two days in a row and it was a nice compliment to rebuilding my mental health. I'm pretty much sky high right now when compared to the last few weeks. I can't help but smile and laugh at all the good memories formed in just 48 hours with these amazingly people. Our group doesn't have many rock stars, people who would create wild incoherent nights out at the bar, but we do have a ton of solid people that if you spend the weekend with them and get to really chat, you can't help but feel fully alive. Thanks to you two, and yes now you both know that I talk in my sleep and say embarrassing stuff...

And since there's not much to say and my camera died, I've gone out and stolen some pictures from other PCVs. Enjoy!

Fun times with Mr. Kamara, the school's wood working teacher from Sierra Leon. Here we are at the school's graduation/speech and prize giving ceremony. We're most famous for watching terribly dubbed over Chinese movies and making delicious spicy food (Gambian style has almost zero spice).

A rather expressive picture of me and the co-editor of the education newsletter. We're rocking out at model school helping the new trainees. She has an amazing ability to stay positive and improvise on the spot and makes up good nicknames for people. Note the bit of landscaping, real sidewalk, and corrugate tin roofing.

And congrats to all the new Education volunteers, you've made it.

19 August 2007

Where do you want to be?

It’s all about pulling weeds. The rainy season is here and our gardens are in full bloom with maize, cassava, and okra. The garden is also in full bloom with an overgrowth of weeds. Boys who were hired to come and pull the weeds decided that in the battle of Irresponsibility vs. Money, irresponsibility won with a haymaker induced K.O. That is, the boys never came and the garden went an extra week without weeding. This past weekend Daboe had seen enough and knew that the garden wasn’t just an ugly sight, it was becoming a killing zone for his crops. So we headed out in our work flip flops, old clothes, and hoes (the garden tool, get your mind out of the gutter!) and started pulling, digging, and uprooting all the threats to the soon to be delicious food of the future.

The actual task is pretty simple, pull out the weeds, rake clean the grass, and pile it all up into a nice little compost heap. The tricky part is not getting into so much of a rhythm with the hacking and slashing that you accidentally cut down the maize or okra (cassava is big enough that you’d have to be blind to miss). When I first started weeding I was falling into the trap of repetition and had quite the embarrassing moment when Kaddy, becoming aware of the damage being done, ran to the garden and more or less forgivingly yelled, “My okra!? It’s being ruined! Yaya, please be more careful...”

Like other times that I’ve ended up helping out around the compound, it seems to bring a certain clarity to life. Perhaps it is a remnant of my childhood, my father and mother making sure that my sister and I understood that helping around the house is not a favor, its an expected part of being in a family. Helping should be automatic, and as a result something about working with another family member feels right and lets my mind be at ease. A mind at ease is a mind that can be in the present moment and work things out, clarity realized. I was in the garden physically acting without effort and mentally in a world of open skies with near endless visibility.

That time in the garden was when I was able to begin working out my recent bouts of frustration and near depression. Self aware that I am a person who easily gets wrapped up in the singular, whether that be an upcoming event, task, or emotion. In this case I was wrapped up in a certain loneliness and frustration from feeling like life’s apple was lacking a core. That is the energizing, sweet, and refreshing aspects of life, usually created from the spirit of great friendship, love, and caring were sorely lacking. The simple truth is that a lot of PCVs feel this at one point or another, it’s a horrible feeling of longing, but we have to get over it or face a draining and relentless suffering for an entire two years. This is desire causing suffering in a pure form.

I worked it out slowly by understanding the problem comparatively. What was lacking in my take on the situation was that I was missing that while a lot of us do suffer from this incompleteness, we should not forget that there should also be excitement for the potential. Potential to build futures beyond our lives here (its easy to forget that we do go home after two years and that there can be continuity between Peace Corps and life back home); potential for friendships that will grow to fill the gaps and holes of today and pass the test of time, living on in joyful memories and realities. We often are so consumed in basic survival mode that this is easy to forget, focusing on what is obvious, meaning focus on what we lack. It took a couple days of weeding in the garden and a good long evening chat with my site mate (thanks by the way, I’d put your name here except I don’t know if that’s ok!) to realize this. As I’ve come to believe in time and time again here, beauty is in contrast, and the realization of these two outlooks typifies that expression. They both exist and if you fall too deep into the singularity of one, down a blinding and dangerous rabbit’s hole, it can be impressively damaging. When consumed by the two instead of the singular, life reveals its colors again. Something missing that does create incredible lack now, but leaves open the the future in our hands, uncertain yet promising.


Thanks to all who have kept in contact as of late. I’ve gotten some rather splendid e-mails that have made me laugh, smile, feel connected, and have empathy for where we are all going in life abroad, in America, and in the soft fields of imagination. One e-mail in particular was perfect for my mental health right now, a reminder of my past strengths in creating group unity and support and to not forget to put it to good use here (Doug, I wish I knew you throughout all of college, your mentorship would have been invalualbe).

And yes Naima, we will be watching all the Kurt Russel movies.


The 2007-2009 Education group swears in this week. On Friday, my group will officially be 2nd year volunteers and part of the old crowd. Agonizingly slow minutes turning into months that pass by with a baffling haste.


Then there was humor in life. Just a reminder that in some cases, we simply don’t have any control, take life as it comes and make the best of it all.

“God does not play dice with the universe; He plays an ineffable game of His own devising, which might be compared, from the perspective of any of the other players*, to being involved in an obscure and complex version of poker in a pitch-dark room, with blank cards, for infinite stakes, with a Dealer who won’t tell you the rules, and who smiles all the time.”

* i.e., everybody

From Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’sGood Omens.

15 August 2007

Morsels of memories

Intense dreams have returned. Perhaps as a result of a more active and restless mind, or perhaps because of restlessness from the returning humidity at night. As my friends and family back home prepare for the coming chilled winds, changing colors, and pumpkin pie of autumn we prepare for the worst segment of the year here: the end of the rainy season. By the end of September the rains will go away but the humidity will remain. Days, like cheap wax candles sold at bitiks, will melt away sluggishly, slowing time as if some cosmic pause button has been pressed. Then we will hit the month of Ramadan and just about everyone will be in a state of frustration and weakness from the days of fasting in 100% humidity. Into the quagmire we go... I suppose its the one time of year when you might legitimately say, “It’s not easy here in The Gambia.”

For now the intense dreams have made a startling comeback. The downfall of failed relationships, street life and markets in Eastern Europe, roaring downhill in a bicycle race, these are just some of the more normal subjects that have popped up. Of course there are still all sorts of strange ones as well that shift from making ice cream, to ghastly figures surrounding me, to living rooms shaded in bright neon colors. The common thread that links them is that they have ended inconclusively. That’s how most dreams end anyways, without a clear end, but these have been particularly vivid and as a result particularly frustrating in their lack of finality.

Right now I need something to grab onto and steady myself in The Gambia. Dreams that leave one wanting aren’t exactly high on the priority list. I can only sigh and look at the time that lies ahead.


“Well then he should be beat!,” I yelled.

Only this time it wasn’t with my typical American bred reserve with the words, I meant it.

The situation was explained to me as such: One of the kids was running around at twilight, disturbing everyone preparing for their evening prayers. Then he said something to our grandmother that was a distinctive insult and severe show of disrespect.

So I said the words, confirming the punishment already being administered. A whap in the background and a yelled cry confirming the result. It was the first time I said those words and I felt the change in my body when saying them. A clenching and push in the gut revealing a confidence and belief in what one is saying. It was the first time it came out feeling like a statement from myself rather than a begrudging cultural concession.

After I said it I felt a shame and withdrawal coming from the depths of my body, 23 years of teaching being challenged with a few words. It forced me to remind myself of my own upbringing and keep in mind there are alternatives. My job here and throughout life is to keep the lessons of my parents in mind and at least give them a chance to the future. Show the alternatives in a constructive manner and open other eyes. It was from then on out that I have displayed a renewed energy towards a hands on approach to working with the kids. Using the consistency in action, words, and firmness to make a point rather than a fist and fear.

I forgot how much it takes out of a parent, relative, or friend to hold firm when teaching a lesson. The looks I have gotten from the kids when telling them what to and not to do have been heart wrenching. “Why are you being so mean to me? I didn’t do anything wrong. I refuse to obey you. I am openly defying you to test how far you will hold your ground. You don’t want to see me cry do you?”

If you are a parent then I’m sure you can appreciate these difficulties. For someone encountering these problems for the first time with any prolonged duration, they are indeed exhausting.

Change and growth in West Africa.


The new Education group is finished with their segment of training that takes place upcountry in small Gambian villages. They are now visiting their permanent site and we are graced with three new volunteers in the area. The next month or so will be spent helping them make adjustments to urban life and simply making sure their mental health stays well. Sometimes hard to do when your own state is a bit topsy turvy but one can hope for the best.


Here is a small piece I wrote and presented to the new Education group during a training session in which they meet their Gambian counterparts. It is supposed to be a reflection of what ICT volunteers do in the field and therefore give some guidance to new volunteers as to what they can expect.

As Peace Corps ICT volunteers in The Gambia our mission is to help develop the infrastructure and education of information communication technology. That could mean anything from setting up computer labs, developing income generating and sustainability ideas, or teaching literacy classes. In addition we strive to solidify ICT education in The Gambia, making it an integral part of the education system. To that extent we work with DoSE to assess and modify the proposed ICT education curriculum, and work with institutions of higher learning to develop and improve their ICT curriculum.

Furthermore, as PCVs it is our mission to overcome what has been called the bush taxi problem. That is, bush taxis exist and thrive despite old and incomplete raw materials based on a distinctive need for transportation throughout the country. The same should be said for the ICT industry, we should assess why it is needed and desired and focus our development efforts to target these needs and desires. Without this we will waste time and effort fulfilling a undesired need, in other words creating an unsustainable enterprise. This creates dependency and a lack of internal confidence that will severely block the development of an industry that demands a highly skilled and technical workforce. With this problem in mind an ICT volunteer’s mission is to understand why ICT materials are needed, how best to meet that need, and how to sustain that need.


I would like to return to writing some fiction but as of late my mind is a bit too wandering to keep the groundwork ready for such an endeavor.

07 August 2007

Ch. 21 In which much is said with few words

There are still moments when I am speechless. The rains remold the landscape and bring about a fresh sandy mixture that is more like the ground of a soft quiet beach than the bleak hard dirt of West Africa. I see a large group of children playing and I don’t think to even glance at what game they are busy with. Amee shouts my name and asks me to look at what he is doing and I hear an excitement and tone in his voice that is often absent. I look down at the group and see they are digging, pouring, and shaping the sand into small sand buildings. They are busy making mountains, palaces, complexes, and homes and I can’t help but laugh and smile as memories of childhood come flooding back. I feel the thrill of watching young imaginations at work and I know I can’t say anything so I simply give the most honest smile I have ever given in The Gambia.

Then it all comes crashing down. We’re now into year two and inexplicably my optimism and cheerful attitude of June and July have given way to silent moments of dissatisfaction and contemplation. I give opportunity to opening my thoughts and finally allow myself the fore-promised chance to evaluate my service. I remember the chart that Peace Corps famously parades around trainees. I remember that there is a curve that undulates up and down along a two year path, supposedly representing your mood and general happiness, and I remember right after the year mark many volunteers take a dive into the deep bellows of unhappiness. I think about this as I evaluate and there is comfort in knowing that I am walking down a similar path as many before, a path so well tread that it has been statistically analyzed and put into a nice neat little graph for all volunteers to see.

There’s nothing in particular wrong but I decide part of it must be the lull of summer giving off a stench of incompleteness. I describe the overall tone to a friend and the best I can do is talk about tables. I talk about my time right now being like a table with three legs, totally functional but if pressure is applied it fails to hold up to the task.

I walk out in the community and end up greeting a large set of people as usual. I greet until I meet someone along the way that I have a rather superficial relationship with. He wants to greet as if we’ve been best friends since we were children. He makes the greeting uncomfortably repetitious and overly friendly continually proclaiming the common phrase, “Boy, it’s been a long time... I miss you too much,” that hits a nerve of irritation with people I don’t know well. I feel frustration sliding in and I know the table is leaning and falling under its lack of support. It’s not a fault of the man greeting its just a sign of my general imbalance right now, character flaws and all.

These small episodes and larger ones play out throughout the days and I feel the lack of comfort and the missing elements eating away in the back of my mind. I think about the table standing there unfinished, and wonder if I will regain that last leg anytime soon. Sometimes I wonder if I ever rebuilt it completely after going through training or if it was only a temporary illusion of my former self.

In the meantime there is respite in the silence. It gives me the environment to think clearly and it gives me time to say my thoughts through actions rather than words. I know that I’ve been gone from my town for a long time and I know I long for the chance to reconnect with my host family. The mysteries of life work their magic because it is in the middle of these thoughts that Daboe tells me that he needs help once again fixing our well’s concrete platform. We decide a weekend day to get to work and I know it will be a day of little talk but with everything said.

The day arrives and it turns out to be one that is incredibly hot. Most of our rainy season days so far haven’t been nearly as bad as the year before. I wonder if this is a side effect of being in country for so long or if its just an easy rainy season so far. But this day, this day is particularly hot. It’s hot and unpleasant and somehow that makes the work seem more meaningful and bonding. It’s a simple job we take on. We mix sand, concrete, and water, and plaster the rocky surface of the well’s platform. Its a simple job that takes time, so we stay out in the sun letting the common work do the talking. Letting the sense of community and family take over and once again I feel like I’m truly part of the family.

We come to the end of the work and Kaddy has made some mango porridge as an after work treat. We all sit together and take spoonfuls of the porridge with a smile. The soft and sugary bites are absolutely delicious and there is comfort in these quiet moments.

It’s the next day and I sit and read a half dozen Newsweek magazines. It’s another day and it seems as if the three legged table is coming back to haunt me.

It’s easy to get lost in the patterns of the covers. Lost in the reflections of the temperament of the American nation: National Security, Are We Still Safe?; Foreign Powers Rising, Are They a Threat?; Ecological Crisis, Who is Doing What? It’s sort of like CNN Headline News for most volunteers, and we know that there is not enough depth and contrast in the magazine, but we have to concede that it’s the only source of news we receive regularly.

I sit and read the stories that are accented with pictures of famous people in striking poses. Pictures taken by photographers trying to capture these people at their best and most identifiable. I become a bit lost in it all and begin to mindlessly flip pages reading article after article.

My trance is broken by a familiar shadow. Daboe is looking over my shoulder at the articles and pictures. The page rests on a picture of Bill Clinton offering an outstretched hand of support at a campaign rally. Daboe can tell something has been wrong with me as of late and he characteristically offers a few words that go a lot further than their letters suggest.

Like the sages of old he takes command and calmly speaks over the haze of Newsweeks, “Hey, a lot of big names in these books. A lot of people trying to get things, popularity, fame, money, power. But you know Yaya, don’t forget that sometimes it is enough to be a good father and love your children.”

Staring at nothing cause I can’t make up what it is. / Searching for something but I just don’t know what it is. / All we need’s a little more to send a little message to ya. / Gonna get out of here...
- Thank you Uncle Will for reminding me sometimes you just have to rock out and grin with confidence at the world in front of you.

01 August 2007

There once was prose and style

There is a literary and musical effect produced from repetition of theme, a leitmotif. In The Gambia sometimes PCVs feel as if we are a living through a narrow set of leitmotif streams. This is not to be confused with deja vu, with its vague parries into consciousness, rather these familiar tones strengthen themselves each time the sounds are weaved in and out of the story. This concept is littered throughout my blog in memories from the past and the events of life in West Africa. One I continually return to is keeping my eyes open to the surrounding world, letting new stories and insights peek out of their quiet holes into ones' own reality.

An insight: My new site mates were baffled to hear that I had never seen the rope game that girls play together. The game consists of a long circular piece of cloth (think a long tied together jump rope) being held leg high by two girls, while another skips one foot after the other from one side of the loop to the other. When my site mates asked me about this game I replied that I didn’t think I had ever seen it before in my one year in country. In turns out in fact the next day I was looking for it, I had my eyes open. It dawned on me that I had seen the game countless times, I just never saw it with the eyes I chose to look at the world through.

A story: Sometimes it is just a brief exchange that tells the whole story. A freeze frame of time that is priceless in its simplicity of message. The image here is of an unknown foreigner being chased by bored and persistent boys in the bustling market streets of Brikama. Walking past her in only a few seconds, exchanging a glance lasting only a split second, a glance of common frustration and empathy for the inescapability of the moment. A glance that lasts a split second, we went going about our own ways.

It has been two years since I spent a summer in the northeastern region of Thailand, but many of the images still remain vivid and comparable. The Gambia that is forming as fragment of memory reminds me in many ways of the Thai landscape, but The Gambia of every day existence stands many more miles apart than two continents and an ocean can describe.

Now that the rains have arrived the grass has turned a familiar Thai-rice-field soft neon green that was so characteristic this time of the year in Esan. Mangos are abundant and flourishing in Gambia as they were in Thailand. Of course the mango and sticky rice dessert delicacy of Thailand is sorely missing but as they say, "It's not easy here in The Gambia."

The situations I find myself in are also strikingly similar. Following the lead of the language exchange I did with my colleagues in the Academic Resource Development Centre, I will be spending the next month in The Gambia teaching English to disadvantaged students trying to get into High School. My mind quivers and slips out of focus when I realize the amount of work that lies ahead, but I chose to be teaching, and like I've said previously try to be strong and confident in the places you choose to put yourself in.

Then there are the things that I haven’t gotten over in a year. Things that I might never get over that simply bring me away from comparison to Thailand or anywhere else I’ve been. Non-comparatives like daily harassment in the streets. Non-comparatives like watching people suffer disease because they can’t buy the soap to keep their bodies clean. Non-comparatives like the joy of finally seeing one of the kids see the lines on a page translate into letters. I suppose in the end it’s good that these experiences can’t be directed and poured in any neat bucket of history; they are what make us grow.

I’ve recently been on a kick of reconnecting with some of the interests of mine that have been lying dormant back home. Paying attention yet again to fantastic sound design in movies, laying back and letting music guide my thoughts, or the re-emergence of peanut butter and banana sandwiches in my diet. It’s been great at the one year mark, not only for my sanity, but for reminding me what it’s like to be an American. Forgetting that I’m missing out on 1/3 of the Peace Corps mission.

Of course reconnecting with back home makes me wish I was spending more time writing and reading, admiring those timeless authors of Western myth and history, but my brain is admittedly tired. PCV service is a draining experience where you have to constantly evaluate your surroundings and how you’re handling them. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll still be able to fully enjoy things like a good wheat beer when I return home.