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.


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.

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
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.

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.