It’s a few days after getting violently sick and I sense that I’ve gained a new perspective on life. The dark shadows that have plagued my time here are passing. Anger and frustration give way to new emotions that have been lost since I left America. I wonder why I’m smiling and laughing more and I wonder if I am slowly recapturing the hope and joy that I found in life not so long ago.
I look around my house and I am so embarrassed by the biological disaster it has become that my cheeks burn red. I know the first step to coming back to life is to make my home and myself presentable again. My whole body aches from being chained to a routine of running between the pit latrine and laying in bed dazed and apprehensive of the next rush to the bathroom. I feel embarrassed to walk back to my pit latrine area which looks like a marshland created from the results of my sickness. I take a deep breath and start pouring water out of my bucket onto the floor. I grab a brush and start to scrub.
I know I’m a lucky man every time I come across freedoms that I have not explored. After being sick I understand how much freedom over my own life I was not taking advantage of. One thing I know will change is my dietary health. I ask Daboe to take me into the inner crevices of the local market so I can see it from a Gambian perspective. I want to know more about the foods available here and I want to see if I can start to cook more. My mind starts to wander to the recipes of my old roommate Steevo as I walk through the market. Items that I rarely see in the family food bowl or on the outskirts of the market pop out upon first sight. Varieties of beans, fresh lettuce, tomatoes, cassava, chicken, spaghetti, catfish, and a whole host of small spices and flavourings. I notice all are a little bit more expensive than the standard fare of potatoes, onions, small fish, and rice, but I know that Peace Corps provides us with the money to enjoy a little nutritional variety.
The first meal I cook is something that any of my college roommates would recognize as a Todd meal. I know I’m no culinary artist so I slop together a sandwich surprise of potatoes, onions, garlic, tomatoes, and peppers. My first bite is like a bit of heaven as I forgot how nice it is to cook your own food and know what went into the meal. I tell myself to keep trying new things and I don’t worry one bit about the quality because I know after being a college cook I can only go up in ability. I laugh at myself because I know I’ve got nothing but time to practice the art.
The next time I’m at the market I smile and think about Frank McCourt and know there is always comfort in “the world’s cheapest food,” bananas. I buy some peanut butter and indulge in the basics of a PB & Banana sandwich and I feel like the little boy in Malaysia again.
The hot season starts to creep back into our lives and I fear the pleasant fantasy of consistent 70 degree nights will go away soon. During the middle of the day we feel the oncoming hot season and lay around outside because there’s no where else to go to escape the heat, and I don’t know how people survive without air conditioning for their entire lives. Muslim New Year is approaching and Daboe has decided part of the celebration is to get our hands dirty and fix the concrete around our well. The existing foundation is crumbling away and there is just a small island of jagged and cracked stone remaining. He says that the concrete has to be fixed because it would help reduce the chance of someone tripping and seriously hurting themselves. I think about all the people who walk away from the skeleton of a foundation, balancing buckets on their head and realize just how dangerous it could have been to anyone not being mindful of their step.
It shortly after noon and the sun is beating down and despite this everyone is still ready to work. I look around at all the women who are for once able to relax and watch someone else do the work. I look at all the little children who are playing with the cement and wonder how popular play dough would have been here. I think about the opportunities for creativity and expression the kids could have if only the materials to do so were here. I feel the dark shadow coming closer as I think I will never understand what it’s like to grow up here and how the children challenge their minds. I see Daboe and the two boys who are old enough to help are ready to go, shovels in hand. One of the boys, Alieu, is only 9 and does so much work for the family I feel like he should get more respect but he’s only a boy and that means it’s his duty to be bossed around to do all sorts of chores. The other boy, Lamin, is older and is quieter. He does his work and then goes out to have his own life. I think it must be nice to be that young but not be bottom of the ladder like Alieu. But I know that it’s just the way things are here and I there’s nothing I can do about someone’s age.
There is a ring of concrete blocks that surround the well and by the end of the day we need to have cemented them together, filled the inside of the ring with gravel, and cement over all the gravel leaving a smooth and solid surface for people to stand on. I realize that this is my first time laying cement and I suddenly feel young again. The day is hot but the four of us feel content to be working. Alieu wants to show his maturity and keeps asking to borrow one of the two shovels. I know that he can do the work, but something inside of me also wants to show my commitment to the common good. We spend the day playing musical chairs with the shovels.
The women keep yelling that Oh Yaya, he likes to do work, and we see that now he is working. I want to shoot back at them that American’s know hard work as well as any Gambian. I want to tell them Yes, that I have held a shovel before, that I have built things before, and no, not all white men are weak and foreign to a hard day’s work. But I don’t. I don’t because I look down at my hands and I remember how they looked when I first arrived in The Gambia. I don’t because I remember how all the mothers in my training village would grab my hands and laugh at how smooth they were, delicate and barely a day old they would say. I look at my hands now and see the calluses, scars, cuts, and age in my hands and I know that I’m not in the right to say anything. Definitions of hard work are different for everyone and what do I know when I’m just a 22 year old Midwestern boy who’s never worked on a farm in his life.
The work is finished, and I tell Daboe that I don’t know what it is but I am finally starting to smile and laugh more. He looks back at me and says that it was the sickness. The sickness with all the vomiting and the diarreah; you were getting rid of the last bit of America in you. Now you are a true Gambian. He says that you smile because now you are one of us and understand that here we are all poor, but still happy. He says it’s the way things are.
I can’t agree or disagree so I simply smile some more and feel the dark shadows leaving my presence.
So I can’t really write like Mr. McCourt, but I thought I’d give his style a try. Quick and blunt statements told in the first person and during my reading they certainly made an impact. I admired the pacing of his two books Angela’s Ashes and the slightly less engaging ’Tis. If you are curious for more, check them out and let me know what you think.
You know you are in the Peace Corps when: Your Uncle sends you an independent local newspaper and you laugh out loud repeatedly at the witty Holiday season movie reviews even thought you have no idea what any of the movies are about.
Want to be a part of this ongoing saga? Then join the author in The Gambia, West Africa from now until July of 2008! First 3 will receive a gift box filled with tons of fabulous prizes!