30 December 2007

Harper’s Index: 2007 Year in Review

Total number of blog entries for 2007: 55
Intended number of blog posts per week: 1
Number of weeks missed: 5
Number of volunteers from the Education Group 2006-2008 that ET’ed or were administratively or medically separated in 2007: 0
Number to date: 2
Number of volunteers from the Education Group 2005-2007 who extended: 2
Number of recreational trips taken outside of The Gambia: 2
Number of recreational trips taken inside of The Gambia: 3
Number of trips inside of The Gambia that were to a previously unvisited village: 1
Perceived level of improvement in effectiveness as a volunteer as compared to 2006: 2.75
Perceived level of improvement in language proficiency as compared to 2006: 1.25
Estimated amount of times called "tubab" by children/teenagers: 5,568
Official population of Brikama in 1983: 19,624
Official population of Brikama in 2003: 88,870
Number of new volunteers within a 1.5 hour bike ride: 7
Number of new volunteers within a 10 minute bike ride: 4
Number of flat tires patched: 6
Number of replaced bicycle tire tubes: 2
Estimated amount spent on mobile phone credit in Gambian Dalasis: 2,860.00
Amount that would represent per month in US Dollars: 11.09
Percentage drop in the US dollar’s value since arriving in country: 28
Number of weeks the majority of banks would not exchange the US dollar due to its volatility: 5
Average amount of dollars spent per week for food, transport, and recreation: 17.45
Percentage chance of consumption of chicken in a given week: 20
Percentage chance of consumption of eggplant in a given week: 85
Percentage chance of consumption of carrot in a given week: 15
Estimated number of books read during the calendar year: 16
Number of books read from July 2006-December 2006: 17
Number of books that received a second reading: 2
New Peace Corps country directors: 1
New groups of Peace Corps volunteers: 3
New computers in my school's lab: 15
Average processor speed of those computers: 650mhz
Average amount in Dalasis for a bean sandwich, peanuts, and popsicle lunch at the school's canteen/market: 7
Amount of time in seconds to pour and tie a 1 Dalasi bag of peanuts: 9
Number of visitors from America: 2
Number of site mates who had visitors from America: 3
Estimated days until my flight to Indianapolis, Indiana: 192
Percentage chance that I will extend for a third year: 5
Percentage chance that I will be a mess of emotions when leaving The Gambia: 100
Estimated time in minutes that will be needed to finish a whole apple pie topped with vanilla ice cream: 3.5


We will remember 2007 as a year of incredible effort and stress, paired against joy and success that defied description. Truly, it was a year where there was beauty in contrast. 2008 awaits, Happy New Year to friends and family, new and old.

There are things that happen and leave no discernible trace, are not spoken or written of, though it would be very wrong to say that subsequent events go on indifferently, all the same, as though such things had never been.

Two people met, on a hot May day, and never later mentioned their meeting. This is how it was.

From A.S. Byatt - Posession: A Romance

23 December 2007


Dear Santa,

This year I believe I have been a good boy, at least as good as I could have been. There are certainly other volunteers who better describe what a “good volunteers” is, but I humbly propose that I fall somewhere on the positive side of that definition. No, I can’t have deep conversations with my community leaders in Mandinka, but I do take a particularly passionate attitude towards my technical work. That should count for some good, right? I suppose ultimately you are judge and jury as to whether or not I’ve been good.

What would be nice for Christmas? Of course there is a whole host of physical goods that I might find nice to grace my little corner of the country, some are even a bit selfless, but they would just be icing on the cake. Let me name them just in case: First and foremost, the whole family compound could do very well with a connection to the national power grid. Sure it would serve entertainment purposes for watching French dubbed versions of Roots on VCD, but it would have other uses as well. With power we could finally turn on Kaddy’s refrigerator which now has to share time with other appliances at her family’s compound. We could also add lights to our showering areas providing the family with an extra layer of security, or we could finally use some stronger wattage light bulbs so that we could read books late into the night without burning our eyes from weak 5W fluorescent bulbs. What other goods would be nice to have? Well my bike’s in rather bad shape, so some spare parts for that, and I can always use new ear plugs for the music of village life, a replacement for my mobile which is coming to the end of its life, some collections of TV show seasons to bring back laughter, oh and don’t forget a new matt to replace the aging and tattered piece that sits in my living room.

Those are all things that would be nice to receive, but what I really want are a few guarantees. I know this isn’t exactly your department, after all how can you put “Happiness” or “Success” in a small box with ribbons and a tag with someone’s name on it? But I figured that if you could give “Holiday Cheer” and “The Spirit of the Season” on TV shows, perhaps you can also gift other abstract ideas.

So here is my real Christmas wish list, asking for a few guarantees. One guarantee that all is well with my family and friends back home, and that in 6 months they will welcome home and understand someone significantly tested and changed. A guarantee that for the remaining months in The Gambia I am able to focus on work, family, and friends which make me happy, and be at peace and like water with those things that bring stress. Thirdly, a guarantee that I find the confidence to be a supportive older volunteer and naturally transform into the roles that entails. Finally, a short term guarantee that I hope you can present a little bit early. Could you please give my stomach, which has become weaker and weaker in recent weeks, strength to heal now and then survive till the end of my service?

We’ll be sure to go to the market and buy sour milk from our favorite Fula seller and NICE brand biscuits from the bitik so that we can leave them out for you on Christmas Eve.


p.s. Amee and Buba can’t write very well, but I’m sure they would enjoy some of your famous wooden toy cars, trains, people, or animals. You know, the kind of stuff people would depict you making in the early 20th century.

22 December 2007

17 December 2007

I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams

To my family, I wish I could be back home, but there are things to be done here before my time is over. With care and love, wishing you all a Merry Christmas.

“If you could ask for anything for Christmas, what would it be?” she asked. “Oh, and it can’t be any of that ‘Peace for everyone or a book for every child’ stuff,” she quickly added.

I wasn’t exactly sure how to respond, of course there were a million things that would be nice to have, but after a while in country one becomes content to deal with what they have so all those wishes don’t surface when called upon.

My eyes squinted a bit and shifted down and to the left as they tend to when searching for long hidden information. After taking probably one minute too long to respond, I said, “Well if it was something immaterial, then it would be nice to pick out a lot of favorite PCVs and put them in one place at one time.”

What I failed to grasp was that this already happened the night before at my very own home.

This past weekend my small concrete and wood home was transformed into a Peace Corps Christmas wonderland. Across my entire ceiling was a set of ornaments which gracefully alternated Santa figure - ball - Santa figure - ball. In the entranceway from my living room to my bed room was a large set of bells and ivy, quickly manufactured in a Chinese factory. My small laptop was playing Christmas music fit for a local Wallmart, but despite this was filling the air with sing along voices and holiday cheer. The entire house smelled of cinnamon and sugar, as they were the main ingredients in our holiday drink.

The task for the evening, decorate a small Charlie Brown Christmas tree as best as we could. By the end of the evening the tree was covered with a soft layer of cotton ball snow, a long garland made out of a glittery paper bag, a small matchbox present, old folders turned into gingerbread men, one Christmas star, and a hanging ball ornament created mostly out of a medical glove. It was classic Peace Corps, making the best with what we had, and it was absolutely awesome.

The party was well attended by some of my favorite people from my Education group as well as a number of my site mates. Of course, good company is what makes the holiday season so special and a special thanks and mention for my own memory should be given to all who attended. The day was a Christmas wish right there of our own making. The future was in our hands, uncertain yet promising.

Returning to the conversation with my friend I thought about my dead laptop battery, darkness in my bathroom area, and quickly fading 25 cent candle. At that point I added, “Of course, it would be nice to have current.”


Next up for big events, Tobaski, which is this upcoming Thursday. Our market is absolutely packed with double the normal amount of creaky wooden stalls and shops selling everything from small bracelets and earrings to large stereos and speakers. Walking through the market I have to twist and turn as if I suddenly had the flexibility of Gumby.

Traditionally families will make a set of clothing in the same style for the holiday, the word used to describe this tradition translates roughly “uniformity.” Daboe, Amee, Buba, and I have already made our outfits, a bright sky blue color, and I hope that pictures will come soon.

08 December 2007

Fingerprints in four sentences

I must be dreaming, thought Shadow, alone in the darkness.

I think I just died.

He remembered hearing and believing, as a child, that if you died in your dreams, you would die in real life.

He did not feel dead; he opened his eyes, experimentally.

- Neil Gaiman from American Gods

Buba, barely up to my thigh in height, runs up to me and wraps his arms around my knee. “Yaya, look my mother bought me new shoes!,” he exclaims.

“They look very new Buba. This one here is your new shoe?,” I ask pointing to his right shoe.

“Yes and this one too Yaya, see this one too!,” he smiles pointing to his left shoe, and then he runs off with an enormously wide grin on his face.


His morning breakfast was an egg sandwich so layered with oil that it seemed to swell out of the sides like a steaming tea kettle ready to burst. He had lost count of how many of these gooey concoctions he had eaten over his term of service.

There was a silence between him and the man he was sitting with, but not an uncomfortable silence, just an indicator to the fact that there wasn’t much else to say on the subject.

After the extended pause he said quietly and with a look of abandonment, “Yeah. I think the day I return home to America, that will be the happiest day of my life so far.”


He had spent his morning frantically dashing around his office complex assisting the entire staff to print and compile hundreds of documents that were barely complete, proofread, or organized.

The lines under his eyes revealed a stress that had been quickly engraved into his face.

He looked to his American colleague and said, “It just doesn’t make sense, they’ve had months to plan this and still they are unprepared up until the last minute; very stupid.”

It was time for him to think about why he was doing the things he was doing.


The old chain was pulled, warped, and tattered in such a way that it would make a medieval metallurgist throw up his hands in frustration. The new chain was a fine piece of craftsmanship, but something that one could find at any bike shop back home for $29.99.

The young bicycle repair boy, who must have been under the age of 13, stared at the new chain for a long minute, slowly nodding his head up and down in an approving fashion. He looked back up and exclaimed, “Wow, this, this is a chain!”


Your first time in any new place is difficult, let alone when it is a place of religious significance. I was happy but admittedly nervous to be invited to our local mosque for the first time, just five city blocks and a few goats, donkeys, and chickens down the road.

When I first entered the mosque I saw one elderly man slowly shake hands and greet everyone inside one by one, while another two equally respectable looking men merely greeted those nearby to where they intended to sitting. I saw this contrast of manners as I took my first steps into the mosque and thought, how am I supposed to infer the culturally appropriate thing to do from that?


There was life to be lived with the advice given, “Wherever you go and whatever you do, do so without fear but with confidence.”

It was nighttime, and despite the soft glow of the city, the stars were bright and maternally encapsulating.

On the rooftop, he was surrounded by those particular people that he could spend the day with saying nothing, and it would feel like the day had been spent in endlessly engaging conversation.

In spite of these facts, why was there an air of “sehnsucht?”

04 December 2007

Movie Review: Who’s Cutting the Turkey?

2007 20th Century Fox Spotlight
Director: Yaya Demba, Previous film credits: Pumpkin Pie
Playing: AMC West, Polaris Center, AMC 16 North
Summary: In a comedy of manners that gives a nod to the novel “Remains of the Day,” an old American expatriate suffers a stroke and is forced to come to terms with the fragility of his age and health. When his younger sister and son come to his home in southern Germany to help his recovery they attempt to convince him a life in America is a safer and happier place to live out his final years. He vehemently refuses and a timeless struggle is played out between the weakening body and freedom of one’s spirit.

Review: Gathering with your extended family this holiday season? Looking for a great family film that everyone can enjoy? Then run like hell away from Who’s Cutting the Turkey. Despite what you might think from the title, this film is one of the most depressing and honest looks at our relationships to our family young and old that I have seen in years.

Following the recovery of Jim (Jürgen Prochnow), an old clock-maker living in Freiburg, the film weaves through triumph and tragedy of recovery. The momentum comes when Jim’s son, Will (Tim Robbins) and younger sister, Mary (Ellen Burstyn), arrive in Freiburg to celebrate Christmas and help him with his recovery process. Upon seeing his condition they try to persuade Jim to come home so that they can keep a closer eye on him. He desperately refuses claiming he will be able to take care of himself and that they can’t take him away from the place where his best years of life were spent. His weakening condition and the time and distance of their homes force the three into a rushed discussion of his future.

The film’s biggest downfall is that it borrows a lot from the plot structure of many foreign films that are becoming increasingly popular. That is, there seems to be an entire lack of plot structure in the traditional sense. The film alternates between the challenging discussions about Jim’s future with more lighthearted excursions of Will and Mary into the town. In this less sensationalized view of the world, the film plays like a documentary of a tragedy that is more relatable to daily life than a Hollywood script. Somewhat frustrating but ultimately more intriguing for the viewer are the numerous points during the film where the characters’ dialogue should come to a firm conclusion, but instead the audience is treated to scene cuts that at first glance seem to offer no clear resolution.

This is a film that is being released during the holiday season, takes place during the holiday season, but will never become a staple of the holiday season. Don’t go to this film with your family, especially if your parents are in the mix. You’re better off seeing any number of the B-rate Christmas films like The Santa Clause 4: The Elves Rock! and going home with a smile on your face than seeing a film that moves you but doesn’t fill you with that holiday cheer. The film is open ended, asks questions that won’t be answered with one viewing, and you will most likely leave the theater with that empty feeling that comes after an emotionally demanding experience. With that in mind, Who’s Cutting the Turkey is a must see for those who enjoy a film that makes a difference and forces one to reexamine their moral codes, and for that reason it might just be the best, worst holiday film this year.



What do PCVs do to keep their mind off crying babies, skin rashes, and oily rice bowls? They make up movies in their head and like pawns, characters are moved across their imaginary theater stage. Without further ado, here are the thoughts and sketches that are behind the above fake film.


The film takes place over the course of the Advent season, roughly two and a half weeks before Christmas. The film opens with snowy and festive scenes of celebrations for of St. Nicholas day. The film cuts to a more bleak and sterile interior of a hospital where Jim awakes under the watchful care of nurses.

Jim has suffered a major stroke immobilizing him. The doctor’s prognosis is that Jim might not fully recover and it would be surprising if he will ever be able to work with his hands or move freely around town again. The doctor claims that the first three weeks of the recovery process are critical and Jim’s progress during this time will allow him to make a more accurate prognosis.

Upon hearing the news Jim’s son and younger sister rush to Freiburg to meet him and help him with recovery. They meet him on the first day that he is able to make slight movements to his body.

The film follows Jim’s recovery process as the family tries to bond together through adversity and celebrate Christmas as a cheerful celebration of life and togetherness.

Throughout the initial days Jim shows much progress and he is able to move around his bed and eat slowly by the time Will and Mary have gotten their bearings in Freiburg. He goes home in a wheel chair, but once he returns home his recovery is stunted and it remains unclear whether or not he will make any more progress.

The fragility of his condition prompts Will and Mary to begin talks of Jim’s return to America so that they can keep a better watch on him.

The coming of Will’s family exposes Jim’s weakened state as he is unable to even get out of his chair and hug his family. As the film moves on the discussions between Jim, Will, and Mary about his return becoming increasingly heated. In the end Will is forced to make a statement, “Dad. You can barely lock your door, turn on a stove, or brush your teeth. What do you want me to say? If you stay here alone we’re all going to be worried sick. If you aren’t going to get any better then you’ll have to come home.”

Jim makes further progress regaining some motor skills in his body but there is great effort displayed in the simplest of tasks like brushing his teeth or using a phone. The doctor reluctantly informs the family a few days before Christmas that Jim’s progress seems to be plateauing and it is unlikely he will be able to take care of himself.

The film comes to a close during the Christmas dinner. Jim thanks his family for coming together under such stressful conditions. Thanks God for a good life and painfully picks up knife and fork and cuts the turkey. It is unclear from the contrasts of his words and actions if he intends to return to America or despite the family’s plea, stay and fight on.

If he decides to stay it means that this is the last time they could all be together.

Freiburg:The historic city is southern Germany’s Black Forest region, the city has roughly 220,000 residents and is best known for the Albert Ludwig University, one of the oldest in Germany dating from 1457. In the middle ages the city remained catholic and remained against the reformation. The city sits in the bottom of a hill valley and is surrounded by wooded rolling hills on all size. The city invests heavily in green technology. The city center holds the Münster, the city’s cathedral started in 1200, as well as the city marketplace which is a popular tourist destination. The city serves as a starting point for many tourists wishing to see the Black Forest region and is well known for its wood carving, particularly the cuckoo clock, which is said to have had its start here.

These characters don’t like to move much physically or mentally, they are stubborn.

Traditionally the three do not see each other due to logistics.

Jim Meyer: The film begins with him suffering a massive stroke. He is treated at the medical facilities in his city of Freiburg in south western Germany. His health has forced him to choose between going home to America and staying where routine makes life simple for an old man. The repetition is medicine for the numbness of losing his wife, structure where there is otherwise a missing half. Became a (cuckoo) clockmaker famous to the region during his final period of stay in Freiburg. Married a native of Freiburg after meeting her while studying abroad. Born in 1936, visited Freiburg first as a student in 1957 as a Junior in college.

He married Eva, (b. 1939 Freiburg) who grew up in the ashes of post war Germany. As it struggled to rebuild her father taught music at the Freiburg Musik Universität, mother stayed at home. Growing up Eva grew up with a Germany that was trying to find something to be proud of and found that in it’s natural beauty, typified by the Southern Germany foothills as well as Austrian alps. At the age of 18 she was already working as a secretary for a small tourism company in Freiburg, at this point she met Jim who was then an exchange student at the University.

Jim married Eva and lived happily in Germany working with Eva in the tourism industry which took them around southern Germany. Jim picked up an interest in woodcarving, particularly the famous cuckoo clock style of the Black Forest region, and quickly excelled at the art. Eva’s parents died at an early age (in 1959 - Father and 1964 - Mother) and she was an only child, leaving no extended family in Germany. Jim loved Germany but thought their children should grow up in America because it would offer long term benefits on an international level. Jim also believed that America was the glory of the world after rebuilding Europe. He felt strongly that his son, William, should have a US education as well as get to know an extended family which only existed in America. Eva reluctantly agreed but did admit that she wanted to see and understand America at some point in her life, so took the move as temporary. They left in 1965 when their only son, William, was to be born in Jim’s home city of Philadelphia. There Jim lived a modest life running a small arts and crafts shop doing some small import and export business with Germany. His wife helped out and together they made a simple living until 1987 when they moved back to Freiburg because William was finished with college and Eva had become increasingly homesick.

Once back in Germany Eva began teaching in the local elementary school, specializing in English instruction. Jim went to work for a number of companies including numerous restaurants and travel agencies but finally felt the urge to get back to wood carving. In 1998 he joined a small woodworking and crafts shop just outside of the Freiburg’s main market specializing in cuckoo clocks. The old man of the shop he was in charge of adding detail and finishing works to be sold mostly to tourists.

Eva died in 2005 at the age of 66 and seemingly fair health. This rocked Jim who continued working heartlessly for 6 months and then suddenly quit claiming increasing depression. Going into retirement at the age of 71 he was well over the retirement age. He spends much of his days in routine. He is the old man who wanders the city taking a morning walk, buying his afternoon fruits and vegetables from the market, cooking lunch, watching TV, reading a book, and going to sleep after some tea. He lives for his Sundays Saturdays when he still goes out to the local market where he sells and trades wooden goods and chats with the young students and citizens of the city. He feels the end coming and never found a way to replace Eva.

He wants to remain in Germany because it is the place where his dreams for a beautiful wife and life became a reality. The image of a perfect life is glorified and frozen in a single state of mind, and as the end draws near he doesn’t want to die with that as a mere memory, but as a living image that surrounds him.

JIm’s younger sister, Mary Benjamin (Age 62), has three children, husband deceased the year before. Lives outside of Richmond, Virginia where she has spent her entire life. Is horrified at the thought of her own aging and is beginning to live life as if tomorrow were her last day. While she is careless with her own body, Jim’s health seems to be of major concern and she feels her brother should come home because a man should not spend his last days dying alone and far away from family. She has discovered all sorts of new ways to live life and doesn’t want him stuffed up in this old tired place that is all about history rather than moving forward. She hosts alcoholic dinner parties where she always takes one sip too many, drives a convertible at faster speeds than her reaction time can allow, is developing a weight problem from indulgent eating, and is constantly in financial trouble from living in luxury (despite what should have been a big insurance gain from her husband’s death). Her husband’s death left her with a spiritual hole that she is trying to fill with a hunger for material pleasures.

She wants to convince Jim that he should go home because it would make her mentally feel like she’s been a good sister. She would tell him how to live a more full life and where to go do it, just like she is doing. However, she is unwilling to offer much financial or social support because it would hinder her carefree life style. She is something of the classic and ignorant American who believes that the American way is the only way to get things done and the best possible way there could be.

William Meyer (Age 42), Jim’s son: Bewildered at his lack of influence on his father he plays serves as a sort of translator for the audience asking questions and pleading for “logic,” when he has no way of really understanding what aging is like.

The son loves the idea of Germany as his heritage but feels deeply American and sees Germans as “foreigners” rather than family. Is opposite of his mother and father who were talkers and socializers, he is more introverted and calculating. Created a life for himself in America with his wife (Katy) and two children (Claire, Rachel) in Philadelphia as the manager of a local beer brewing company. Isn’t angry with his parents for a modest and sometimes financially poor childhood but firmly remembers the harder times and demands economic stability for his own family.

Finds devotion to one thing a great virtue. He is a determined business man who divides his time for maximum efficiency. When around his family he is always up for a jolly time but when it is time for work he is by the books and focused. He seldom mixes the two.

Is now financially well off due to expansion of the brewing company throughout the East Coast. He achieved his position by brute force of good schooling, slaving away at the lower levels of the workforce, and once in the position, marketing the brewing company tactfully and strategically. Has stayed on with the same company for most of his career.

He is coming to terms with the last good years of his youthful adulthood and the transition into the maturity of adulthood. He has two children, two girls both in school age 15 and 12 and it will soon be time for him to become a friend and mentor to them rather than an regulator of rules and punishments.

His father’s stroke awoke a new sense of emergency in him. With his mother he was not prepared for her death and suffered greatly. Sees his father’s stroke as a warning that he needs to act now before it’s too late. Subconsciously wants his father in a place where there is constant surveillance and in a place where he can check in every once in a while. Like Mary is unable to see himself making a larger commitment to helping his father on a daily basis.

Will has spent most of his life in America with only short summer trips to Germany, his German is far from perfect and many of the interactions are a struggle, especially as he is expected to baby his Aunt Mary around.