26 November 2007

Three short stories, three different people

“For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.”

Note: This past weekend was filled with events including Thanksgiving, Peace Corps Gambia’s 40th Anniversary of uninterrupted service, and a very productive All Volunteer meeting. To get a good general view of what this entailed, check some of the Blog links to the right over the coming weeks (Or the master list, especially good reads will probably come from still energetic and chipper first year volunteers' Blogs).

I’ve mentioned before that there are times when it feels like I’m three different people. One person resembles how I was in the months leading up to departure, the other who I am as a member of my community, and lastly who I am in the bubble of Gambia PCVs. It’s rare to see the three of these combine into one greater whole, but hey if those evil construction Transformers could do it, why can’t any of us?

* One *

I have a buddy named Marc who my good friend Patrick (Hope all is well in Chicago...) introduced me to our last year of college. Marc was an exchange student from just outside of Munich and he always seemed up for seeing how far we could push American cultural norms. I remember one of his last nights before he returned home was one of those bitter cold winter nights that cries out for a warm log fire, hot chocolate, wool blankets, and the company of good friends. However, being college students, we were of course out getting drunk. For once we weren’t partaking in price to performance drinking consisting of guzzling trouble sold in square packs of 30 cans, we were instead being civilized and drinking in style. We were having a fine time at a “dress to impress” themed party and I think we had done rather well for ourselves in a solid set of suits made for far more important situations. As time wore on Marc began to feel like on his last night he should get out and see more, do more. He wanted to go out to the bars. But Bloomington bars are often filled with beer spilling, rude, undergrads dressed in anything from stuff that’s been sitting under the “to clean” pile for months to carbon copies of twenty-something magazine advertisements. We would stand out a bit in business suits. Unfortunately with the frigid temperatures it was too far to walk back and change, so Marc looked over at me and said, “Oh hell, let’s just go like this. We’ll have some fun with it and say that you just got out of a business dinner/interview for a German exchange program. You were accepted on the spot and we decided to just go celebrate right away.”

You know, that’s not such a bad idea I thought. Let’s do this thing after all, why not. I miss this sense of confidence towards the accidental and unplanned.

* Two *

Daboe and I were in the market the other day getting our clothes for Tobaski tailored. Tobaski is an important holiday in Gambia and the common practice is to get new clothes made and often families will get something made together so the whole family is wearing the same style clothing when they go to prayers.

Daboe and I had been bartering with the tailor who wanted us to have all our the measurements taken within the next couple of days otherwise he would become to busy with other work. Daboe and I realized that both of our schedules were going to be extremely busy and we had no time to bring the children, Amee (Age 7) and Buba (Age 2) to the tailor for measuring. I remembered that maybe there was a small portion of time when I was free and openly announced it thinking that maybe Daboe would be able to find time off work or know if Kaddy would be free to come with me. However, upon hearing my statement the tailor quickly said, “Oh well then great. Yaya at that time you will come with the two children and I can measure them then.”

Daboe and I gave a look to each other that for about a millisecond displayed a concession that this was our only choice in order to to get the clothes done. In the second millisecond our faces immediately switched to distinct looks of, “I know Yaya is integrated with the family but there is no way he’s going to be able to bring two children into the heart of a bustling urban market.” We held that glare for another second then Daboe looked back to the tailor and said, “We’re going to have to get back to you.”

These relationships and moments are what I like best about site.

*Three *

After our 40th Anniversary celebration the local brewing company agreed to host a small gathering for Peace Corps volunteers at their headquarters in the Kombo area. After 17 months in country Jul Brew tastes delicious but it might be better described to the reader back home with the description Jacob gave it on his trip to The Gambia. “Drinkable,” I think was the adjective he used. Jul Brew comes in a bottle that has a green color that for whatever reason reminds me of recycling. We were treated to two large refrigerators of recycling colored goodness hosted under a small patio area, filled with public park style tables, lit with fluorescent lights, and completed with music from a small portable speaker system connected to an iPod. There are small shrubs and bushes that surround the patio area and the factory is far enough away from the main road that you don’t hear too much highway traffic. I always got the feeling that the owner wanted it to at least somewhat resemble a small beer garden.

I miss people from my Education group and this was the last time I would see most of them until our Close of Service conference in May of 2008 (Shortly after which we will start to go home, one by one). I have a renewed sense of caring for these people and desire to strengthen friendships with them while we still have the chance. They became my focus for the evening, one in which many people were able to mingle and greet all, and for better or worse I held a mental checklist for my group specifically and tried to stick to just that small snippet of the great PCV population.

Somewhat brutally honest but our time and choices are limited. The pay off is that since group mates are most often the people one knows best, even small chats can bring you rather far in the relationship. I appreciate more and more the good people that they are and how close we’ve come.

* Transformers? *

For our 40th Anniversary Commemoration a few people in my region gathered to put together a theme for our outfits that we would wear to the event. Usually volunteers will do something like this for Peace Corps meetings but the designs will usually be more simple or traditional. But because this was the 40th Anniversary I think we all wanted to take it to that next level. A number of my site mates and I went to work and searched our market for something that would represent us as a region. We found a great blue fabric with forks and spoons scattered throughout, symbolizing not only our unquestionable cool factor but also that we don’t eat with our hands like the upcountry folk (Or as popular misconception might place on them). We all went to our respective tailors to turn the fabric into something great. I smiled and laughed for a long time when I decided to try and turn our burning blue fabric, accented with neon green forks and spoons, into an American style sports coat. In the end five of us showed up to our Anniversary decked out in some of the best outfits I’ve seen in my year and half here (No bias of course). There two classy professional business outfits and three incredible dresses that could probably even be used back home. Hopefully I’ll be able to track down some photos of the outfits soon.

This combination of people is what brings out the most happiness in my life.

20 November 2007

This American Life


Episode #319: From WFMB in Brikama this is a special international edition of This American life. Today we’re talking with a number of people who come from a large but often quiet segment of the US population, Peace Corps volunteers. We’re here in The Gambia because this week the country is celebrating it’s 40th Anniversary of Peace Corps cooperation.

Our show today in four acts, chronicling 40 years of impact the Peace Corps has had in this small West African country, past, present, and future.

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Act 3: What are we doing here?

Helping change lives is all well and good, but what happens when a development agency stays in one place for too long? Should there be a count down timer that alarms as if to say, “Sorry but your time is up. Get out or else?”

As the current volunteers gathered for the anniversary we spoke with a number of volunteers who brought up these issues. What inner revelations and tranquility would be hiding in these people? Most of them seemed to be justifying their experience with a larger picture greater good.

Surprisingly we found that while most volunteers were highly opinionated on this topic, when prompted to simply talk about their experience the much more everyday was what came up first and foremost. That is to say, life goes on, no matter where the location.


Sorry about my home being a mess. The past few days I’ve been a bit under the weather.

So go ahead and define under the weather for us.

(Laughing) Well, I’ve spent the past four days getting rid of every last bit of food and water in my system. I’ve become very close with my pit latrine.

Health gets a bit tricky when you’re all the way out here. I live about 75km inland and about 15km from the main highway. It’s a pretty rural community that survives mostly on simple crops and selling cows’ milk.

If you did a Google search on Gambia you’d probably get some semblance of my surroundings. It’s pretty remote here. It’s a bit hard to accurately describe to someone who’s never been this far out. It’s hard to describe sensing personalities of large cattle,stars which actually twinkle, or the slowness of watching growing cassava or corn.

This is the sort of world that many people envision when they join the Peace Corps. A rural, simple, and distanced lifestyle free of all distractions of American life. The ideal picture as David puts it. However, what happens when you need that connection with the world? What about those times when you are “a bit under the weather?”


I think the worst aspect of the past few days has been dealing with all those little things about life here that usually don’t bother me. We’re trained to put up with a lot of cultural differences and after a while they start being more like cultural norms.

But when you are sick all you can think about is what is hurting and why. You start to go a bit crazy and knowing that you’re this far out, you just have to take it. Any trip that would be worth your time in terms of medical attention is too difficult and too draining to even consider.

It began right as the first prayer call was being sounded around 5:30 in the morning. I woke up with an acing stomach and a pounding headache and my body automatically went in a b-line towards my pit latrine.

(SIGHS AND PAUSE) I was probably there a good hour or so when I finally crawled back into my house and collapsed onto the concrete floor. I think I was praying for any sign of improvement when there came a banging at my door.


It was my host mother wondering what was the matter. I hadn’t opened my front door yet, and that caused my host family to worry. Usually I’m up early and out the door for breakfast, a run, or to go to the market. Something gets me up and out.


So there I was lying prostrate on my floor sweating and in a haze. Your body just gets worthless when you’ve lost so much fluid in a short period of time. And, the thing is, I usually love my family’s sense of care and urgency for my well being. It’s just hard to appreciate that care when you’ve got a million woodpeckers chipping away at your head.

I remember at this point trying to stand but about halfway up I felt more food coming up so I did a sort of controlled fall down on all fours. (PAUSE) Looking back I wish I had a picture of it. I crawled like a baby to my door and just like a house pet sort of clawed my hand at the door handle.


I fell down on my back and rolled over like an oaf. My door swung open on its own gravity and there was a rush of light that burned my eyes a bit. There was my host mother standing in my doorstep with a concerned look on her face. She loudly asked, “Ousman, you are sick?”

And at this point did you even have the strength to respond to that question?

Well what you have to understand is that here it’s perfectly fine to state an obvious fact. Sp I’m still not really sure if she was just stating the obvious and I didn’t need to reply or if she was asking the question, but I’m sure I looked the pretty messed up. Just in case I did the universal sign of sickness: groaning and nodding. But the extra motion caused a bit more food to make its way up.

I closed my eyes and heard her say that she was going to help me fetch water. That’s about the last thing I remember for a while. I think that must have been when I passed out.

Far away from any medical help David was pretty much stuck to get better the all natural way. At this point he’s strewn out right next to his front door, he’s dehydrated, he’s sweating and still losing water, he’s suffering from a migraine headache, and he’s in and out of consciousness. But life indeed does go on.


I don’t know how long I was asleep but I was woke up with a rush of lightheadedness and by the most pleasing sound in the world: Banging fists on metal and people yelling your name.

My coworkers from the local clinic had heard the word that I was sick and were coming to check in on me. “OUSMAN, OUSMAN,” they yelled despite the fact that they were standing right in front of me. There’s something about the internal volume here that always seems turned up to about 105 decibels. “OUSMAN, OUSMAN, HOW IS IT MAN? YOU OK?”

I told them I was feeling “sick small” and I did a weak smile trying to say thanks and please I can’t really translate anything more than that right now. There was a pause. It was long enough that I thought I would fall back into my haze and maybe just maybe find more peace and less pain.




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Please listen to the original This American Life if you haven’t already. This rushed reproduction doesn’t do it justice. It might turn into the highlight of your week and comes in handy Podcast and/or Broadcast form.

Why does this week’s post seem meandering and out of focus? It was written in bursts and I mostly wrote what first came to mind, sort of like an interview should be. We’re also preparing for our Peace Corps Gambia 40th anniversary celebration, Thanksgiving, an all volunteer meeting, and of course I’m busy with work. I wanted to write up a much more detailed “Movie Review” of a fake movie that is brewing in my head (See the “Pumpkin Pie” post from last Thanksgiving). Last year the movie review proved to be so much fun and a creative challenge that I had to give it another go. Blog intertextuality rules, more to come.

13 November 2007

A Harmony of Voices

Delegates met to discuss gender issues and the future of African YMCAs

The week of November 5th through 9th the author spent with the crew of the YMCA Digital Studio recording the Africa Alliance of YMCAs 30th Anniversary celebration and gender workshop. The even was set in an overtone of pride in prolonged unity. The following are excerpts from moments that exemplified this impression on the author.
Photo Credit: Daniel Anundi, YMCA Digital Studio

In a continent where long distance travel often conjures up images of an epic adventure into the unknown, small miracles do happen. The 2007 African Alliance of YMCAs 30th Anniversary conference and gender workshop was able to bring together representatives from 15 African nations from Ethiopia to Zambia as well as representatives from four other nations as different as Norway and Bangladesh.

A group singing to a Nigerian song.

It is a curious consequence of history that these people from thousands of miles apart would be able to communicate with one another so well. Hold overs of the colonial era, the majority of the delegates had a commonality of English with translations in French provided for key meetings and lectures. However, it was not these Western languages that brought the range of people together with a common message, it was their music. Unity from music not only in the way that the Swahili or Wolof words created weight and form to the songs, but also in the tone, sway, feeling, and joy of the music that so many find this continent is rich with. I would see someone from Madagascar emphatically singing along to a Sierra Leonean song and I knew something must be right in the world. Listening to the music helped me redefine what unity as an idea or emotive quality can aspire to be.

The representatives were also unified religiously by a common belief in Jesus Christ. Those hailing from predominantly Muslim countries showed a particularly strong devotion. Their separation from mainstream society ties their mentality to the quintessential Christian figure, the martyr. Not that these people are actively persecuted against, but they are masked under the shadow of a cultural giant and their minority in society engages them as modern representatives of their savior.

Through the languages, musical connections, and religious unity the week was filled with genuine debate over how to move forward with the African Alliance of YMCAs as well as better integrate women in the organization.

Perhaps most encouraging from these debates was a shared feeling of faith that progress will happen once Africans have the confidence to put the future in their own hands (uncertain yet promising). From many of the representatives that hail from countries that have made significant progress in the last generation (South Africa as perhaps the best example of this), the desire and burning for a better future was clear. Their hard word, mixed with a little bit of luck, was bringing about visible change that they proclaimed through a patriotism and hope for their country that is utterly devoid from my generation of Americans. As we grow we must come to realize that we owe it to our home to create the conditions that foster a similar pride.

The author presenting the Digital Studio to delegates.

The warm and forward moving atmosphere of the conference also fell upon the crew of the Digital Studio. Never before had the crew undertook a week long on location shoot, nor sorted through dozens of hours of footage, or feverishly worked to meet a deadline for one final edit, but none of the crew broke with professionalism or dedication to the work at hand. During the week I saw the crew come of age before my eyes and I couldn’t be more proud of the work they accomplished. The long hours brought us together as only intensely stressful situations can, and I think I will remember the jokes, expressions, and quieter moments for the rest of my life. We were a team.

With so many voices, ideas, and beliefs being offered it is amazing that the resulting mix was harmonic. But with the right set of people in the right place and time, miracles of unity can happen.

04 November 2007

Don’t fall through the stars

A few days ago I had the pleasure of employing the power of the Internet to connect two friends living in far off and remote lands. I had a great but brief conversation with my old friend Laura, a fellow PCV currently serving in Mauritania (See blog link to the right, she has some great posts as of late). The end of the conversation died an unnatural death when my Internet connection gave out, but oh well this is West Africa and those things happen. One of her last questions she was able to send off was, “So, how the heck are you staying so busy?”


This past weekend I spent with the crew of the YMCA Digital Studio taping a music video for a superb Wolof hip-hop group named Poetic X. It’s interesting to see West African culture move to America, morph to inner city culture, and then move back home to West Africa. Many local artists who pursue rap or hip-hop merely copy what they hear on US tracks. Copy cat rapping is a dime a dozen here, and in my opinion a kid in Gambia rapping about, “guns in the streets, hoes, and social inequality” doesn’t sound very authentic or effective. Because their sound and message was so different from a US style is one of the reasons that meeting the members of Poetic X has been such a pleasure.

The song that we made a video for, “Wulajanara,” (Trans: A place that is distant) features a famous female lead signer for the chorus (I only know this because Daboe instantly said, “Hey I know that singer!”) while the verse lyrics focus on the importance of marriage as a bond between the man, woman, and Allah.

A small digression. In historical Gambia many people were forced into marriages based upon tribal or Kingship desires. People would marry for the economic or status improvement of their family. Often these marriages were forced upon man and more often woman by a father figure who was strategically trying to improve his position. As Gambia has Westernized many have cited this practice as a reason for the increasing rates of divorce. The old forced marriages are having trouble as people embrace personal independence. Specifically as men and women begin to see each other as equals and individuals who have the ability to choose their own fate, they see forced marriage as a burden and risk rather than an advantage. A family that is built on promises not between the people but between a social gain will struggle to stand.

So how is the artistic and social community approaching this collision of worlds and mentalities? The song “Wulajanara” from Poetic X and video we have just made is one response to it. It’s the voice of a younger generation who are asking their peers to think before they marry. It’s young people deciding issues that they fear for and hope to change and finding methods to get their opinion out there. They ask us to decide if our own marriage is (or will be) built for the health of the new family itself with Allah providing the groundwork.

We hopefully will be able to edit and distribute the video to some meaningful extent. The fact that this kind of work is even going on at our lower level demonstrates a significant evolution of media in The Gambia. Increasingly there are institutions and production houses in country that are going to let the public at large bring their ideas to light. Gambia could be on the verge of the birth of a quality locally driven media market. Seeing these trends first hand makes me appreciate all the media theory and history courses I took at Indiana University, for one can visualize the pieces falling into place and reasonably predict what will happen next.

In particular to our work, I served mostly as a supervisor on this project. Three of the people that I’ve worked with to train took the helm of the project and have done an excellent job with it. Their success has been one of the most successful parts of my service, that is knowing that I played a part in helping people bringing their own visions to life.

No, I’m not teaching sexual health, I’m not building wells, and I’m not improving crop techniques. These are all things that people might think of when they think of the traditional Peace Corps volunteer’s role. Peace Corps asks us to adjust to our host environment and find where we can be most useful and that is what I’m trying to do. To all fellow volunteers currently in the field, keep up the good work, our collective whole and the contrasts that entails makes us the positive change we all hoped we could be.