08 July 2008

Feel sad you should not

It was sort of like the cremation of Anakin Skywalker in Return of the Jedi. (Ok, insert nerd accusations here.) Mixed feelings of closure, sadness, life lived, and a hint of relief.

Standing next to a raging fire Daboe and I talked of unrelated topics, the planting of squash in The Gambia and the harvesting of pumpkin in America. We stood in front of the last two years of my life burning happily, a pile consisting of letters, cards, study notes, personal scribbles, newspaper articles, magazine cut outs and more. As orange flame swayed in the wind and turned pages to white ash, Daboe poked and turned the pile with a long cassava shoot. With each effort pages hiding from flame would reveal themselves, a letter from an ex-coworker talking about travels in Thailand printed in courier font, a box diagram depicting Mandinka prepositions, a greeting card from a friend in deep transition hopeful and decorated with art from StoryPeople.

These were fragments, snapshots of my life over the past two years all dissolving into dust. Closure, sadness, life lived, and relief indeed.

As I prepare to come home, one of the last things I will do is celebrate my 24th birthday. When I reflect on my adult life this scenario repeats itself, not by design but by coincidence. The last time I had a birthday stateside was when I turned 20 and I was preparing to go abroad for the first time in 12 years as a student in Vienna. When I compare the person then to the person now it is hard to believe so much has passed. Upon turning 24 I will have become in love with a time and place in Europe, an avid cyclist, reconnected with the land of my mother, a college graduate, accepted into a new family, and soon to be a returned Peace Corps volunteer.

On Sunday I will leave The Gambia and cease to be a PCV.

30 June 2008

Ch. 62 Where a movie is watched, a home is built, and they visit new ground

She says that the toys are alive, look and see. She tells the group that the toys are alive and when the people come they return to looking dead and lifeless, like toys. She tells the group to watch and see. Under the shade of a fruitless mango tree on small wooden benches sit my neighbors: three middle aged women come to fetch their evening buckets of water, five children frantically playing games before the last sunlight dies out, and my kids Buba and Amee. Kaddy and I stand behind the group and she translates the plot line to the group in Mandinka. The hodgepodge group huddles around a tiny 13” MacBook screen to watch the film Toy Story.

Kaddy has seen this film before and enjoys using her better understanding of English and storytelling to explain the events in Mandinka. I watch her explain to the group and watch the glow on her expressions, the laughter in her belly, and the broad smile on her face and know that she is truly in the moment.

I look in the background and I see Daboe sitting patiently on his own bench. I know that he might like to watch the movie but I know that his mind is on other things. I watch him as he directs the children to take their evening baths and I watch him as he performs the evening absolution, cleaning his face, ears, hands, and feet. He pulls out a small plastic yellow and tan mat decorated with a picture of a mosque woven into the middle of a crosshatch pattern. He stands on the mat, faces eastward, and begins to pray.

I look to my right and I see my host sister Maa pounding the evening rice. She is pounding rice and peanuts into a fine powder and I know that means we are eating Saatoe. I know that we are having it as a special treat tonight and I can’t help but feel as though my host family is trying to spoil me before I leave. The whole family loves the food and I know that I love it too and I feel as though I am part of the family.

I look in front of me and I see the character Woody fall onto a bed and fall lifeless. I see the children and women around me laugh and smile in delight and know that they understand what Kaddy has explained to them.

~

It’s the next day and it’s the afternoon with nothing in particular on the agenda. Amee and Buba are both home and they ask me if today we can build things. I remember the insightful gift that was sent by my parents and I tell them yes we can build things. I pull out a large red topped tupperware box and on my large mat I pour out a host of multicolored building blocks.

Amee tells me that I should build a chair and I tell him he can make one himself. He looks bewildered and I know he has seldom been given confidence to experiment in life. I know that this environment does not lend itself well to experiments, I think about the cost of failure in hunger, health, money, and lives, and I feel sad knowing that this is the place where the benefits of experimentation could be seen most.

I tell Amee that I will build something first but then he has to copy me. I place 4 small round pillars on the mat, then two long blocks across and Amee looks at me inspired yet confident. He copies my construction plan and makes his own less precise version of the chair. I look at his design and smile knowing that despite its rough edges he has improved since our last game. I add four more blocks perpendicularly across for a seat and add a few elongated pyramid shapes for a back rest. I tell Amee that I am finished then Amee does the same and looks up at me for approval. I tell him he’s done very well and that his chair is nicer than mine. He lowers his head to his left as if to inspect his workmanship and looks back up at me with a satisfied grin.

~

The weekend arrives and I know that I have few opportunities like this left in The Gambia. I know that we have been trying to go as a family to the beach and I know I want this to happen before I leave because Maa is 12 and Amee is 6 and both have never been to the beach in their life.

Amee is walking with Maa on the beach for the first time ever in their lives. Bouncing on the waves is a large group of fishermen on narrow boats coming in from the afternoon catch. A group of women sit on the beach scaling and cutting fish into large wicker baskets. To our left a group of old men silently thumb through their prayers beads and make their way to a holy prayer site farther down the beach. The waves crash a beautiful white as the sun shines blindingly on a deep but narrow diagonal strip of the Atlantic Ocean. Amee puts his hand on his mouth, his cheeks perk up and give a hint of redness, and he looks at his father and myself. There is an absorbed look to his eyes and I know that we are opening new worlds and possibilities.

Amee shifts his eyes directly to his Dad and gasps out the word, “Baa!” He yells, “Dad!” and we both wait curious for his next comment but it never comes. Amee waits a second, his mouth drops, and he looks back the ocean in bewilderment. I look at this little curious boy and I see him speechless for the first time ever in my two years knowing him.

It’s the end of my service and I hope these are the things I will remember The Gambia by.

23 June 2008

Our responsibility

Max Weber on the political vocation

Die Politik bedeutet ein starkes langsames Bohren von harten Brettern mit Leidenschaft und AugenmaƟ zugleich...

Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It requires passion as well as perspective. Certainly all historical experience confirms–that man would not have achieved the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible. But to do that, a man must be a leader, and more than a leader, he must be a hero as well, in a very sober sense of the word. And even those who are neither leaders nor heroes must arm themselves with that resolve of heart which can brave even the failing of all hopes. This is necessary right now, otherwise we shall fail to attain that which it is possible to achieve today. Only he who is certain not to destroy himself in the process should hear the call of politics; he must endure even though he finds the world too stupid or too petty for that which he would offer. In the face of that he must have the resolve to say ‘and yet,’—for only then does he hear the ‘call’ of politics.

-Max Weber, Politik als Beruf (1919) (lecture delivered before the Freistudentischen Bund of the University of Munich)(Scott Horton transl.)

Reprinted from Harper’s Magazine June 2008

The Gambia is a country where due to a number of issues, basic information about and involvement in politics is hard to come by for the average citizen. In a country where a large population lives out of range of reliable cell phones, radio, television, newspapers and transportation, receiving political information is a near impossibility. Add to that difficultly in communication, whether it be crossing multiple languages and the low rates of literacy, it is hard for politicians to reliably spread their message. These realities leave a population unable to feel well integrated into the overall system.

This comes in contrast to the Western world and the United States in particular, where we are literally over-run with media. Overrun with so much media that we rarely have time to properly digest any of it. This macrocosm of information dissemination creates a different problem from the Gambian situation but with a similar result. Despite the abundance of basic information, we still lack understanding of the information or involvement.

The blame could be placed on the lack of depth that our news media seems to give to politics. It could be placed on the news ticker readings of CNN, could be blamed on the reliance on quotable zingers instead of in-depth review, or could be blamed on the popularity of Web 2.0 easy-to-read large font headlines.

However, we should not be so quick as to take some of the blame off ourselves and our own motivation. We could look at what might be the root. How willing are we as the average citizen to re-engage the world of politics? How much are we willing to trust that our involvement will lead to governance that returns back to the ideal, "Of the people, by the people, and for the people?" We must adjust our priorities and take time to read deeper into the issues that for better or worse will put a politician into power. We must be willing to openly debate their meaning, and respectfully compromise when someone has made the better argument. And finally, we must be willing to believe that if enough of us do this, the more important and pressing issues to everyday citizens will find their way to the surface and become the new talking points.

16 June 2008

Uncertain yet promising

“But this stuff is too much I think,” my neighbor Yama tells me.

Lying in front of us is a mishmash of household items: Rusted corrugate tin, blankets, small wooden stools, 20 liter plastic water jugs, clothes, and a mangled car tire. Our compound-mates, Daboe’s brother’s family, have completed their own compound and are moving out. What was a compound of 27 upon my arrival is now a compound of 8. I believe this is a reflection of the social mobility of the urban region of The Gambia.

Throughout the day the children have been loading everything from bed frames to firewood onto a donkey pulled cart, brining load after load of a lifetime worth of stuff to its new home. If you’ve ever gutted a house, you are aware of just how much stuff can pile up.

As they load the carts, the children are all singing. Singing upbeat workmen’s songs of motivation and hope. It makes me think of American settlers moving Westward, putting everything on display on the back of a cart and praying for the best, praying for guidance as the next chapter of a life begins, uncertain. I listen to the children sing and believe that it is the sound of their hope that sometimes helps us adults move forward.

09 June 2008

“Who is this person we are meeting for the first time?”

I bring all of this up to say that if you're someone who wants to make radio stories (or do any kind of creative work), you're probably going to have a period when things might not come too easily. For some people, that's just a year. For others, like me, it's eight years. You might feel completely alone and lost during this period ... And there are things you can do during this period of mediocrity that will get you to the next step, that will drive you toward skill and competence.
-Ira Glass from This American Lifeinterviewed here.


In my two years in The Gambia, I never acquired a satisfactory strategy for dealing with the barrage of everyday stressors. We are often searching for those appropriate outlets that would allow us to channel our frustrations and anger. Constructing a mental time bomb, I bottled feelings and emotions inside and, as some of my group mates will tell you, I’ve finally cracked. Flowing out uncontrolled, like an over pressured garden hose, feelings let themselves out in an unbalanced and wild manner.

I see myself snapping at and devaluing students who have failed to take responsibility for projects, visibly ignoring the man who’s been hissing to get my attention, or worst of all, giving up on people/projects upon unpredicted and inconsistent particulars. It’s all a bit shameful when taken at once in a rapid fire list. Perhaps it’s just two years on Mephaquin.

As I get to the end of my service, this is not what I want to remember, but it is most definitely flowing my current thoughts and actions down streams that drown.

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Posted are my responses to the Education Newsletter’s survey of my group at our Close of Service.

1. What’s one thing every volunteer should have?
Easy to make cinnamon rolls
2. Most creative way to satisfy hunger?
Any vegetables you can find and jimbo (MSG) in a pot
3. What is one skill/ability that you have lost?
Have become way more serious here then I was back home
4. What will you be remembered for?
Ridiculous smiles in pictures
5. The song/album ________ was the soundtrack to my service.
Gomez - “Get Miles”
6. The name of your ideal pirated from China 40 in 1 DVD collection:
Super Anime Robot Explosion
7. One love, one hate, one desire.
Love – that everyone in our group had no real skills but we still rocked this
Hate – extensive greeting
Desire – let my guard down

02 June 2008

Ch. 54 In which relationships are set in stone

Daboe writes a letter to my family in America. He writes it with such heart and effort that I can’t help but feel like my family here has espoused me into their lives. Daboe talks about how much the children have become used to my presence, how much we have opened to and shared with one another, and how there will always be a home for me in Jammeh Kunda. I think back to my original goals for joining the Peace Corps and I feel as though much of them are made complete by the meaning held within this letter.

The next morning I am walking to down my dirt and sand road to my school. 250 meters ahead of me is the paved southern bank highway which serves as the main pathway for most students. My vision is crowded with a sea students in their school uniforms, white shirts and navy blue pants or skirt dresses. There is little chatter from the crowds, everyone is still waking up. Pockets of noise erupt and break the silence between small groups of students, informing one another of recent gossip or teenage tales of success or betrayal. I see smoke billowing out of each compound and I smell the muted scent of rice porridge and I know that breakfast is almost ready for those still at home. I am in the moment and take it all in as the stylized picture of the early morning in The Gambia.

In the background, I hear a voice yelling my name and I turn to see Amee and Buba running towards me. Buba is still growing and his run has traces of a duck waddle, back and forth, back and forth, he bounces. I ask Amee where they are going and why they are alone and he tells me that they are going to their grandparent’s compound down the street and that it’s not far. I know that it’s only a few city blocks to the house but despite this I feel a hint of fear that they are going places alone. I look at them and they still seem like such small children, I still see them as I was introduced to them 2 years ago. Buba runs up next to me and grabs my hand and I look down at his face. He gives me a look that I can’t quite describe, not asking for help, not asking for assurance, rather, seeming just to say I want to walk beside an elder, that’s ok right? The kids are in no rush and approach the swelling waves of students with some apprehension. Amee, Buba, and I walk down the street in a shuffling turtle paced stumble and I can’t help but feel like this scene looks awkward and undesirable to the students ahead of me. I remember being a high school student and remember showing caring for family members was something a teenager seemed to be too cool for.

Still, the three of us shuffle down the street and all feels completely normal. I live in that present moment and I am content with what I have become.

23 May 2008

The FACTOR Program

As a child, my father often joked with me that I had a serious case of schadenfreude; taking pleasure in another person’s misfortune. I suppose that’s why I was in hysterics when one of my group mates told me about his FACTOR program.

At his middle school the spoken English and literacy rates are abysmal. This is not to say that the children are slow learners, rather it is a reflect of the fact that their education up to this point has been of dubious quality. Despite this, my friend has been posted to teach grade 7, 8, and 9 science classes. But how can one teach about biological diversity, gravity, or chemical reactions when the students struggle to read or comprehend English at a 1st or 2nd grade level? One of the most common questions we, as teachers, ask is, “Do we teach to their ability or do we teach to their grade level syllabus?”

“So, I decided it was time to tackle this problem. Teach the syllabus but try and improve their English by other means. I needed something with a catchy acronym, since all good things in life need a catchy acronym. Hence, FACTOR,” he said without a hint of sarcasm or cheekiness.

“Which stands for?” I asked inquisitively.

“FACTOR: Force a child to read,” he said plainly but with a slight smile of satisfaction. “You see, once a week I take them to the library, which otherwise would remain dusty and cobweb filled from underuse. I take them to a section of books that I think is at their level, which usually means picture books with a couple of sentences per page, and I make them read to one another. I force them to read together for 35 minutes. It’s a bit hectic with 50 children all mumbling aloud to one another, but it might be the only time during the school day when they are actually learning anything.”

I’m sure he does darn well as a science teacher, but how much more effective could he have been in improving his students’ education if he were left to FACTOR his whole school? I doubt he would even desire the position of administering forced reading to all, but I think it’s clear the long term impact it could have.

I couldn’t help but laugh. Laugh at the absurdity of the situation he has been put in, and the name he had chosen to improve the situation. Getting (forcing) a child to read in a library is something that we might have to do in America as well, but to give it such a name as Force a Child to Read gave the whole program such a policed and regimented feel that made me think of some sort of horrible punishment being struck upon these children. I imagined kids being led down the the library kicking and screaming in refusal. I imagined his face with a paternal look of tired frustration, as if to say, “You’ll thank me later for this...” Therefore, my laughter. Schadenfreude.

In reality, everyone in my group has been duly impressed with his work. The children are learning and they are doing so quite willingly. In fact, one might even say they look forward to reading time. My group mate has demonstrated an immense amount of patience and resolve to get students to read on a regular basis. Moreover, by bringing them to the library week by week, he is creating the habit of utilizing a place of education. With that success in mind, Mr. EA, FACTOR on.

19 May 2008

The Art of Conversation

When facing the prospect of spending periods of time with people in a car, going on a group bike ride through the country side, or sitting in a large group with no activity to occupy the time, I’ve often said in a sarcastic tone, “Well, we’ll just have to sit together and practice the fine art of conversation.”

I have said this phrase any number of times here in The Gambia, first as we were thrown into the media desolate area where our training took place. Later in my service lack of power, spans of free time, and a national culture of chatting have led me to repeat this phrase with a metronomic consistency.

I caught up on emails this weekend and upon reading a couple of short stories a good friend of mine sent me from her Graduate portfolio, it dawned on me that I would consider her a good friend despite the fact that we have barely ever participated in the fine art of conversation.

This contrast struck me particularly strongly in the face of such consistent conversation here. I reflected a minute and realized that even here, my own conversational willingness, is far from at national norms. Through heavy reliance on text message and email, I still remain rather impersonal and disconnected. In fact, I find I prefer text messaging someone to calling them. Yes, it is more economical to do so, but it is probably more deeply rooted in an avoidance to taking the conversation to a more personal level. I believe it is a reflection of an overall introverted personality.

The more I thought about my use of an electronic proxy to engage in conversation, the more I realized how many cherished relationships I have that have grown entirely without any physically close conversation. A friend I met studying abroad who kept in touch well after the program, or a friend from high school that only became close with personal and sincere emails. I don’t know if that’s something to applaud as a success of our technology or fear as a sign of a coming disunion between meaningful communication and personal interaction. Of course, these are fears that have preoccupied social critics since the dawn of electronic communication.

After two years many of my family and friends have stayed in touch with me through this Blog and e-mail. I would say that some have become aware to a side of my personality that was previously hidden; the same seems true in reverse. Where does our relationship lie now?

12 May 2008

Building Blocks

Community and togetherness are an integral part of society here. It is not uncommon for neighbors and family to stop by requesting to borrow a wheel barrow, stop for lunch unannounced, or a act as a temporary babysitter.

It is then a curious peculiarity of society in The Gambia that the pinnacle for a family compound is to have a high protective wall of stone surrounding the entire property. This shuts a compound off from other community members visually and mentally, as what would otherwise be a unconcealed peek into the comings and goings of the family, becomes as much of a mystery as why the child next to me has been crying for the past 40 minutes.

Remember when American homes had front porches? Or when you desired to know everyone in your neighborhood? Or when people became wealthy enough to buy everything they could ever need for themselves? The result of these factors has led to a move towards a secluded lifestyle, which I think some would argue has gone to an extreme in America.

In the recent months Daboe, little by little, has been buying and making a small collection of concrete blocks in an effort to bring the compound to the higher standard. What previously was a chest high concrete wall would soon be taller than most NBA players.

This is how it goes. Every few weeks there would be a new pile of sand sitting in the middle of the compound. It is then mixed with water and concrete until it has a fine batter like quality. It is then poured into a building block cast, and then set out to dry in the West African sun.

So it has been for about the past 5 months, a few hundred blocks being molded at a time. This past week construction on the actual wall finally began, and what once was an open view of my neighbors is quickly being cut off in favor of increased security and comfort.

I arrived home from our Close of Service Conference this past weekend and saw men hard at work raising the wall roughly 1.5 meters higher than it was before. I couldn’t quite believe my eyes. Time and time again as a volunteer I have asked people if they would make long term plans and then be vigilant to stick to them. I figured that with such a large project as this I would never see it get off the ground, literally. It was therefore a pleasant homecoming and a reminder that good things can happen, with clear goals, a positive attitude, a little effort, and the right people.

31 March 2008

Americana

I think a unique aspect of recent Americana has been the dissolution of the American home as a fixed physical place. In The Gambia families can live in a single home,a family compound as it is commonly referred to, for an indefinite amount of time. While the practice of moving between homes is common, especially amongst children, it is usually from one place of permanence to another. For example, over the course of their youth a Gambian might move between compounds owned by their biological parents, uncles and aunts, and grandparents.

It seems that home in American has transformed over the past few decades from a permanent state into a fluid state, shifting the majority of Americans at least once during their youth. Not only are we, like Gambians, moving between homes but we are also lacking the permanence that comes with generations residing in one home. There is a disconnect between the reality of home and home that gives you a warm and fuzzy feeling when you think it.

This phenomenon is particularly pronounced with people in their 20s as they move out of the bubble of collegiate life and try to start their own lives. At the same time, parents are often transitioning to a life with an empty nest and are moving out of the homes that the children were brought up in. Our permanent homes existing merely as a memory of time past.

Having said that, I am currently planning my own future which involves a move to Chicago in about 3.5 months. Most of my immediate family have moved to new locations since I have been in The Gambia, and it is an odd feeling to know that all of the homes I will return to I have never lived in. I imagine as a returning Peace Corps volunteer I will live in a quiet world of contrasts, emotions that won’t have appropriate outlets. One of the big contrasts will be trying to understand the shifting idea of home. During most of my stay here I have lived in the Jammeh family compound, a place where my host family has lived for 11 years. If I were to travel to visit Daboe or Kaddy’s parents home we would be traveling to a place that has generations of family history.

This will be a positive experience. I think all the change we put ourselves through is part of the enduring American spirit. We put ourselves intentionally in new and different situations in order to keep ourselves innovating. I hope as a nation we are able to keep adapting to new environments as we move into an age that has been labeled “uncertain and weakening.”

15 March 2008

Lacking the words and therefore a title

I’ve got about 4 months left in country and I’m in a strange place mentally. It’s a mix between finding my place here and becoming increasingly anxious about returning home. Still, I lack the right words, inspiration, or style to express what has been happening, but here is a try.

Recently work has been showing success, I feel like I’ve made some solid progress with my counterparts and students and now it’s just a refinement point. I can look back with some satisfaction on that aspect of service.

In the household I’ve been spending a lot more time with my host family, enjoying the bond we’ve formed over the past months. We’ve been trading cooking ideas, watching a number of cartoons, and I have been making more of an effort to do basic tutoring for the school going children.

A few days ago I asked Amee a question that I in my youth, I never thought carried any true weight or meaning, “What did you learn in school today?” He looked at me funny with inquisitive eyes as if to ask, “My what a strange question you’ve asked,” then he perked up and recited a prayer passage that he had learned. When he was done there was a smile on his face that glowed of pride and a successful completion. When I was younger, “What did you learn in school today,” seemed to carry little weight because it seemed like the thing that a parent does out of repetition of a social norm. Now, I see it carrying weight because it is a thing that a parent should say. Showing interest in what the child is doing and showing an interest in what they are putting energy into is a way of showing caring.

On the other side of the strange mental world I’ve entered is the closeness of home. I increasingly fear it, while at the same time can’t wait to get back. All the common fears of returning after a long journey are there, amplified in conjunction with the acceleration towards July. I fear silence from a lack of common discussion points, emptiness, feeling unfit to handle the speed and pace of home, inability to reconnect with old friends, and what to do with my future.

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In late February we added a new family member in our compound, Paa Malik Jammeh. Kaddy gave birth at the RVH hospital in Banjul. He is healthy and doing well. The following is a picture of myself, Kaddy, and the baby.

15 February 2008

Put me in coach

Daboe was gone for the weekend. This much should be noted, because it broke from a reliable months long notion that, along with the evening came his defining presence.

Daboe is the father figure of the compound and therefore has the power to set the tone of the evening. It’s not a power created out of repetition and consistency of a message. Rather, most nights he is quiet and reflective, letting the light of moon and stars and pure chance direct the mood. When he does exercise command, the power and impact of his words is a direct result of his typical lack of vocalization. Not that this power always comes in a disciplinary tone or is always directed towards children. in fact I fondly remember the first night he said, “Yaya, today the men are cooking the porridge. You will learn. Let’s go.” The evening and into night ended up not only being a simple and fun lesson, but brought out a joking relationship between him and Kaddy that I had never seen before. A relationship that played and poked with gender roles, accepting the traditional but stretched and pulled towards equality of responsibility.

But already I am missing my original point, Daboe, on this particular weekend, was gone. The lack of his presence shaped the night like a hacked tree, a mangled impression of something more animate. How do you repair those gaps of assurance and comfort when a family member is missing? Can they truly be filled?

If Daboe was home we would all be sitting around a warm bowl of rice, peanut, and sour milk porridge. He would be making sure the boys were holding their spoons correctly, making sure they weren’t spilling rice all over the mat, and he would be evenly distributing the milk to all sides of the bowl. On this evening, I took over those roles. The minutes of passing time it took to have dinner represented a small moment of integration that define a volunteer’s vitality. The bowl of porridge was set on my mat laying just in front of my door. Buba came and sat around the bowl as if nothing was out of place. I held a small flashlight over the bowl so that throughout the meal we could see where we were scooping. Buba patiently waited for me to distribute the milk and stir it into the porridge. He listened and made corrections when I told him to eat properly, and when he was finished he told me, “I’m full. Here is the spoon,” gave me the spoon, then got up and walked away.

Increasingly, as my service comes to the home stretch, these moments are what remains of my days. They are what I will take home.

28 January 2008

It Never Entered My Mind.

I increasingly feel like I’ve lost the ability to have an outsider’s view of this place. How does one keep their perspective fresh to an outside reader and do it in an appropriate variety of styles?

More and more the unique perspectives are coming from others. There is a shift towards more active listening, listening to comments from friends and family, reflective on myself, their lives, their intentions, and their hopes.

Here are a few of those reflections spanning a range of emotions.

“Todd, you are usually impossible to read. You tend to hide things well.”

“It was weird being home, trying to be the person she thought I was before I left for Gambia. But I’m just not anymore, I’m not.”

“I never realized how much of a role we were playing as cultural ambassadors. When my parents were visiting my village, this was obvious. Everyone has a better view of Americans because of my actions living with them.”

“In village I can’t even begin to turn on my brain for that kind of work. Have you ever considered editing writing as a profession?”

“So let’s say I wanted to switch my house to a completely solar set up, totally self sufficient. What kind of money are we talking about?”

“No, no, no. You see what she doesn’t know is that as a bachelor I used to cook all sorts of things for myself. If one can go to the market alone, why should they not be able to cook for themselves?”

“That boy, he was truly talented with his hands. He learned how to do woodworking quicker than any of my other students, but he just couldn’t get serious. I had to tell him to go.”

21 January 2008

A Short Fairy Tale

The eastern woods of the Western Region was a land that, for the city dwellers, seemed untamed and backwards. Logged forests, salted tributaries, and drought had desecrated the land over the course of many generations and no one seemed to remember it’s original fertility. The roads, ghosts of a rickety path set down by European colonists, were dilapidated to a point of preventing a positive flow of growth or prosperity. Driving down this road in a lonely and rusting vehicle, a quiet traveler felt as if he was in the precense of someone painfully lying on their death bed.

Within the confines of this region lies the small rustic village of Bwiam. Approaching from the east the village appeared to sit on a slight incline letting it’s visitors feel lifted up into it’s embrace. The change of emotion is much needed as the path to the village is far from inviting. Water-deprived moaning woods flank both sides of the road, and the tired traveler’s mind had been repeating this same scene of decay for hours.

As the car jumped and rattled around a slight bend in the road a large oval structure popped out of the tree-lines. Higher than any tree and bright reflective white in color, the structure appeared to be hovering in mid-air. Bending his head high and crunching his neck muscles together to view the sight, it seemed to want to fly off it’s four tiered skeletal base. The giant white bowl was smooth and round on it’s bottom half but triangular shaped at it’s top; it appeared like a giant flattened out toy spinning top. In comparison to the greys and browns of the dying woods, the shattered black and crushed white of the seashell gravel road, the bright shiny white structure appeared to the traveler as coming from another world.

The car approached clunking up and down, closer and closer. As the car moved along he forced his neck muscles to remain locked on the object, and it was then that the traveler realized he had been tricked by the magic of perspective. Indeed, the structure appeared to decrease in size and grandeur the closer and closer that he came. With a more intimate view it was obvious that it was something much more plain that his awe would suggest, it was a merely a water tower.

He looked up at this structure in it’s reduced state, a giant brought down by inspection, and realized it should not be reduced or thought of as any less momentous for it’s steady delivery of drinking water. Then he pondered if humanity would always find a way forward.

13 January 2008

Flickering Flames from yesterday

This past week has been a rather busy one being consumed in large part by participating with fellow volunteers, staff, and administration in a Peace Corps training design and evaluation workshop. The aim of the workshop is to increase the measurability of our training program and trainees and has come as a result of a world wide PC mandate to improve the quantifiability and quality of our training programs.

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The few days this week that I spent back at site reminded me of why this is my favorite time of year in The Gambia. The weather in the evenings is cool, and in the mornings, it is down right “chilly.” Of course this is all relative, my sister sent me an e-mail about Chicago using the same vocabulary, but with a distinctly different set of temperatures. I deal with cold at a low of 75 or 80 (I don’t really know absolute amounts anymore), whereas my sister would remark, “Funny how your perception of cold changes when you live in a city where 30 degrees is warm.”

Nighttime is particularly enjoyable due to the decrease in temperature. The stars come out as brilliantly and clear as ever. The inner stargazer in me is happy to see that Orion has made a return, starting eastward in the early hours of the night. The pattern in the sky is yet another reminder that my favorite time of year has come again.

The children of the compound celebrate “winter” with fire. Something about this seems more than fitting in the human context. Each night they sit around a large log fire, the wood slowly crackling and popping in that ancient but comforting sound. They sit and chat, sing songs, and play games with one another till late in the evening. I sit on my veranda and watch their shadows dance and hop on the wall of crumbling and aging concrete block.

This is my home in The Gambia.

06 January 2008

Travel Diary

The following is fictitious. Any resemblance to real people or places is purely based on speculation and inspiration from multiple people or personalities.
HOLIDAYS TO CHICAGO. 2010. Family Travel Diary

I've never written a diary before but Yaya recommended I write one for this journey. He told me that I will be able to read this some years later and gain much enjoyment out of it. So I don't know how this should be written, but here it is.

~ D. Jammeh Musa


Saturday 16th October
We have been looking forward to this day for the entire year and now it has finally come. It's been two years since we last saw Yaya and when he left we honestly never expected that we would see him again. Travel is difficult; this we know because getting our VISA alone was a serious problem. When he left Yaya told us that we would be invited for his wedding. To my surprise this January I received a letter at my office saying that he was not planning to be married soon, but he said he missed us and that it might be possible to sponsor a trip for Kaddy, the two boys, and myself to visit.

But I am writing too much on this which is now the past. What is important is that we are sitting at Banjul International Airport about to depart for the city of Chicago, America. I don't know exactly what to expect, but travel is always experience and learning. For that I am grateful to Allah, happy, and excited.

Yaya always tried to explain the feeling of a plane as it takes off from a runway. He said there is a feeling in your stomach that is unnatural but exciting. I am excited to feel this for myself.

Sunday 17th October
Why are airplanes so cold? We spent 7 hours from Dakar to Brussels and I was glad the women apprentices on the airplane were handing out warm tea and blankets. Yaya has warned us that Chicago will be very cold when we arrive and I can't imagine if it is much worse than the plane trip. The problem for me was that I could not escape from the cold, we just sit sit sit.

There were plenty of wealthy Senegalese people on the airplane. I think some business traders but mostly they seemed to be traveling to see relatives in the UK or Europe. When I look at the way they dress and their manners I think about the big difference between their lives and what I am familiar with. It seems like they have a much harder time making due with minor troubles or inconveniences. They seemed to be making many requests of the staff but since I don’t understand French I couldn’t understand all they were saying.

We are stopped at the Brussel's airport waiting for our flight to Chicago. I cannot believe how large this place is. Kaddy is a bit beside herself at the speed and size of what is going on at this airport. She doesn't seem to be outwardly showing any problems, but I sense her discomfort. Maybe it is because I am also discomforted but impressed with the size of this place. I worked for 3 years at the Banjul airport, but this place is something different entirely. We are sitting for our plane in a large waiting area. We are surrounded by the morning sun that is coming in the huge round canopy of windows. It’s like being in a big bubble made of a metal skeleton and glass skin. The ceiling must be almost 100 meters high. Buba and Amee are enjoying themselves because on both sides of the bubble they can look out and see not just one or two planes, but an entire fleet of planes. They are close and Buba keeps putting his hand on the glass as if he wants to run out and touch the plane.

We have to wait until 10pm for our flight to Chicago. I think there must be every nationality in this airport now. I'm surprised at how much of an outsider I feel in this environment. Everyone else seems to know where they are going, and I sit and try to understand the variety of everything in this environment.

Evening
I have decided that airports are interesting places to watch people and how they act. People running around from one place to another, some dressed in suits, others alone, some Senegalese in their Kaftans, others in these long coats.

I am anxious to get into an airplane again.

Monday 19th October
Afternoon
What a world this is. As our plane moved through the sky I watched a small television displaying how far we had traveled and what countries we were flying over. I was shocked when I saw Gambia as a small dot on the screen that was about 50 times smaller than the ocean we were crossing. It’s strange to think about how easy we are traveling this distance when at home traveling between Brikama and Basse would probably take longer and be more uncomfortable.

Amee and Buba enjoyed the television also. They got to watch some cartoons like the ones Yaya used to always watch at our compound.

I have a small headache from writing so let me close here.

Evening
We have arrived in Chicago. We were tired from our long journey but I was more than excited to see Yaya again and finally meet his sister that he has told us a lot about.

We were a bit lost to find the area where we would pick up our bags, but a friendly large man helped direct us. His face and body seemed like he had been enjoying too much Saatoe, bread, or meat, but that is something that I have noticed about a lot of the people already: they seem to have been eating very well.

We walked into the area where our bags were and immediately I saw Yaya in the distance with a friendly looking girl with him. That must be his sister I thought. They were both holding a poster board saying, “Welcome!” We left our bags on the belt and went to greet them. I was surprised when he decided to greet us first in Mandinka, I thought he would have forgotten everything by now! His accent was not right but he was still trying. The thing I noticed most is that he definitely looked older. You could tell in his face he had more years on him, but he looked younger as well. I can't describe it but he looked more fresh and more strong than I remember him when he was leaving The Gambia. It was good to see him again anyways.

We met his sister who was more than welcoming and she and Kaddy laughed about how hard it is hard to feel clean and presentable after a plane flight. Some women things I might never understand. I think they will get along well though. Amee and Buba are not used to American names and had trouble saying her name. Muh-lly they would say.

We walked to the garage where Yaya said that we would take a car to his apartment. I wasn't sure what transport would be like here, but I was surprised when we found two cars there for him and his sister. We were able to split everyone up into the two vehicles and drive to his home. Seku, Sarjo, and Yaya always said everyone in America has their own car, but I wasn’t sure of this until I saw for myself. I remember very well Yaya always telling me that back home he could drive and had been doing it for years. Still, I was surprised to see him driving us around.

It is strange to hear everyone referring to Yaya as "Todd." I always knew his American name, but simply never connected the face with the name in every day use. Anyways, it is all fine and I think if he doesn't mind I will continue to call him Yaya.

Tuesday 21 October
Kaddy is nervous about her English but she is doing fine. Still I know she is uncomfortable having to use it all the time. Buba and Amee still haven't gone through enough school to be able to say much in English. I feel a lot of pressure having to be the translator for everything, and my mind is tired after an entire day of speaking English. Still, we are enjoying ourselves and that is only a small disturbance.

The highways here. The highways are wide and fast. Each time we are out I am surprised at how many cars can travel so fast and so close to each other without accidents. Everything moves fast.

Wednesday 22 October
Cold. Horrible cold. This country is more cold than I could have imagined. It rained in the morning and I went with Yaya to put the rubbish in a large bin and I nearly died with the small bits of rain hitting my long sleeve shirt. We had to go to a shop today to buy more jackets and warm clothing for everyone.

At the shop we were trying to purchase the clothes but when it was time to pay Yaya shortly distracted by something. The woman asked me something in a quick voice and accent I couldn't understand at all. I told her “Pardon me, I didn’t get you”, but she gave me a look like I was stupid for not understanding her.

Yaya explained later that she was talking with what he would describe as a southern accent. He said that sometimes people from different parts of the country have trouble understanding each other and it is no problem that I had trouble understanding her. It made me think of Mandinka back home, the Foni Mandinka and Western Division Mandinka. There are differences but even then I think we can usually understand one another?

I think I like the trees here the most. There is a smell to the dying trees that reminds me a bit of the leaves around mango trees at the end of the rainy season, but this is more strong and powerful. Yaya says this is his favorite time of year because of the colours on the trees. I agree with him and we have been taking a lot of pictures of us with trees colored red, yellow, and orange.