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.