Monday, March 28, 2011

Ben Post

Blog.  This is a Ben post.  I’d first like to apologize for the lack of postings I have made and publically thank Kate for keeping everyone informed on what is happening here in The Gambia.  We thought it would be in everyone’s interest that I participate in the blogging.  I know Kate has been working on a few posts today to update everyone and with the battery low on the computer I haven’t been able to read it all yet.  Don’t worry though, I probably know the gist as I live here with her.  Point being, my post might be random and with less detail of the current goings-on in our lives right now.
As I was thinking about what to post a number of things came to mind.  First of which was my simple experience of the day.  Today, I did more construction work than I did in the three and a half years I worked for a major home builder.   Not knocking my previous career, I just didn’t do much construction.  Today I assisted the village men in building the new mosque.  As you might imagine I had certain reservations about helping construct a mosque, but without going into the detail of my thought process I decided God would forgive me.  In short, its more an exercise in building trust with the people I’ll be working with rather than construction a church for a religion different from my own.  My job was merely handing bricks to the mason, but it seems that just my presence helped the men of my village to see that I am willing to work, so I think it was a successful day.
A few notes regarding construction here in The Gambia for those near the construction industry.  Standard attire includes flip flops (if shoes are present at all).  Children are welcome to work and play.  Beware of cows running through the worksite and the scaffolding is made of the finest African Mahogany one can find in the bush.
The day also consisted of juice breaks, candy breaks, kola nut breaks (which are apparently disgusting), and attaya breaks.  Lots of breaking, except for the hired masons.
I’d say all together it was a good day.  While I don’t anticipate mosque construction to become one of my main projects here in Gambia, it felt good to do some work with the men, even if it wasn’t much.
Other than the events of today I can say that so far I have had a very positive experience being here.  As I am sure you have read in previous posts from Kate finally being here in village feels good.  Our hut is becoming a home and we actually have some furniture.  We’ve spent the first few weeks at site just getting to know people and the possible jobs to be done.  And there are many jobs to be done.  I hope to do a lot of work with the Eco-Lodge that our village owns and maintains, although I don’t exactly know what kind of work that will be.  There is also a beekeeping project getting fired up in our community that I hope to be a part of.  Other than that its pretty open…tree nurseries and orchards, chickens, ducks, rabbits and farming are all possible areas of interest.
I know Kate is posting blogs with more detail on what we are up to.  I’ll try to make time to do some more blogging (and better blogging) myself in the near future.  Hopefully I’ll have more to share once we really get going on various projects.
Now if you will excuse me I am going to eat some oysters on potato chips. Blog out.

Work Life

As I said previously, we aren’t really getting into any big projects yet but we have met the people that run the eco-camp that Ben hopes to work with and also have attended a meeting with the NGO called KOMFARI.  It was interesting so I’ll relay it.  First, we received a text message giving us details of the meeting.  The meeting was to take place in a village that is too far for us to bike to and was on a Saturday. We get on our village gely at 7 am and arrive in the village at around 8:30. The meeting starts around Noon, after breakfast was served.  Breakfast was a plate with either spam or fish (it was hard to tell which one), mayonnaise, and onions that everyone dipped bread into.  There was also Nescafe, as usual.  For those that don’t know Nescafe, it is Gambians choice coffee beverage – it tastes a bit like the worst office coffee you’ve ever had.
After breakfast, the KOMFARI secretary read a mission statement and had a 3 hour discussion of why the peace corps volunteers were there and what was currently happening in the community forests of the area.  And when everyone talked a small boy carried around a tape recorder from 1985 to record the persons words.  Then we broke up for lunch. Lunch was rice, oil, cabbage, and a nice fish. It was pretty good actually.   All 30 people broke up into groups, gathered around a big bowl and ate with their hands.  There was a toubab (white people) bowl with ben, I, and the two other volunteers present and we were the messiest.  After lunch we talked a bit more, decided that our community forest needed to have another meeting, and called it quits around 5.  Ben and I had no idea the meeting would be an all day thing, the only information we had was that it started at 9:30.  After the meeting we tried to catch a gely back to our village but they were all full, which is normal at that late in the day. But our village gely passed by us and told us he would come pick us up.  3 hours later, he arrived and we proceeded home after a long, but eventful day.

Village People

We met a Spaniard, Luis, who started an NGO – nongovernment organization that put the irrigation system in the womens garden - by irrigation system I mean tanks with solar panels that pump water to taps all over the garden – but it doesn’t work very well yet so women still haul water out of the well with buckets.  He is also starting to colonize bees in the area so Ben is interested in working with him.  He has placed over 70 bee boxes around the village and has a good building operation in his compound.  On our second day in village he showed us all around his compound, workshop, where he’s placed all the bee boxes, and also the building he is making for a future bee keeping school.  He is bringing in a honey and wax processor and is planning on teaching villagers and other Gambians how to bee keep and process honey.  We are hoping to learn a lot about bees from him.  He also has a car, a Spanish restaurant in the tourist area by the Peace Corps transit house, a house in our village, and a house in the city.  He is an interesting guy and we are looking forward to getting to know him better, and also hoping to get some rides into town. He seems to be in our village every couple days or so.
We are getting to know our family and community better as the days go on, thanks to the fact that Mariama (or Sibo) our host mom can speak a little English.  It’s been really great for me having conversations with Mariama, she’s been a huge help, and insight to Gambian women. Mariama moved here about 7 months ago and is our host dad’s 2nd wife.  A few days ago my suspensions were confirmed that she is pregnant and due in June! This means that we get to learn all about pregnancies, naming ceremonies, and child rearing in our village.  We’ll get to see this baby girl growing up for 2 years, and I get the title of ‘small mother’. Mariama did already ask if the baby could go back to America with us– ha.   So Mariama is 7 months pregnant. She cooks 2 meals a day for about 12-15 people with fire not gas, and works the garden by hauling water from the well to her beds,  and tills the soil to plant.  On her off days, she goes to the doctor miles away from our village. She wakes up at 5-6 to catch the village gely, makes it to her appointment at 11, takes a gely back to the part of the road you take to go to our village (only our village gely actually comes here) and walks 5 kilometers on that dirt road back home. Wow, These women are so strong!!!
I will convey some interesting conversations Sibo and I have had.  She was telling me all the work she does and saying how difficult it was and I agreed with her that it is very difficult. She starts talking about how much better life in America would be because you don’t have to do these things (I think Gambians think that nobody actually works in America because all they see are European tourists).  So I tell her that it’s too bad here because she gets to watch her children grow, have community with her friends and family, and work outside.  I told her how in America some women have to drop their kids off at 7 am, go to work at an office inside all day, and don’t get to see their kids again until 6 pm after dark.  And she was shocked and said that she could never do that!  
I want to add to this entry, that I realize that what I told her is a huge generalization and that a lot of American mothers don’t have to do that at all, or do that because they really like their work, or must work to provide for their families. And I think most people would rather work in an office than plant tomatoes, peppers, rice, and coos all year long. But for those of you who are reading this at work  – be proud, because an African mother of 5 who is 7 months pregnant, works the fields every day, twice a day, cooks lunch and dinner for 12 people, does the laundry, sells palm oil in her spare time, and walks at least 5 kilometers to the doctor thinks that she could not do what you do!!!
Sibo has asked me to teach her how to cook American food. And I will, but the problem is – she wants me to cook dinner for the 12 – 15 people that she normally cooks dinner for. Yikes! And I feel pretty bad at the fact that even if I cook something like spaghetti, the family could probably not afford to go buy it themselves and cook it as a meal. The ingredients are just too expensive here and you have to go to the big city for dry pasta.  For now she has asked me to teach her how to cook pancakes so she can sell them in the village to the men! She also asked me if we could cook the pancakes in a pot - ha.  So tommorrow, in an african kitchen, cooking with fire, I will be teaching my host mom Sibo how to cook American pancakes. :)
I think this coming week I will also attempt to teach Sibo how to cook spaghetti and thus cook spaghetti for 15 people; I’ll let ya’ll know how it turns out. I will also cook our family and counterparts fudgies (no bake cookies to those who aren’t familiar).  However, I know there is no way they could afford these ingredients, so I will not try to teach them and just surprise them with it. I am happy to say I have given the recipe out to several volunteers who have made them for their families, and we made some fudgies at the transit house in the city, they are a big hit in the Gambia!
Yes, it was a weird, uneasy revelation to realize in real life, not just by textbook, that Westerners eat incredibly high on the food chain. But that is not to say that in our village they do have some great food. The fish here is big and good, and we have fresh oysters! Last night we sautéed them up with some garlic and butter – delicious. There is also abundant crab which we are hoping to get a hold of soon! 

TIA - This Is Africa

I am going to start writing things down that make us think the phrase ‘TIA’.  And I have a couple great stories to start out with.  A couple days ago while I was helping Sibo (what everyone calls Mariama - host mom #2) water her garden beds, I heard some loud noises in this huge Red Silk Cotton tree right by the garden. I look over at it and there is a family of about 5 -7 little red monkeys hanging out! I stopped watering and ran over there and got to watch them for a good hour (they were also watching me)!  They were very cute, climbing all over this huge tree, and one of them had a baby monkey on her stomach! As I was leaving to get my camera, our counterpart from the NGO KomFari arrived at the garden to talk to me so I couldn’t go get it but it was definitely a great ‘I live in Africa’ moment. I am sad Ben didn’t get to see it – he was working at the eco-camp that morning and by the time we got back to the garden, the monkeys had left.
There are a lot of TIA moments but I’ll just touch on one more. We are still eating with our family and yesterday, we had sting ray for lunch. Normally for lunch we have mashed up leaves on rice with some fish. See below...

This is what a normal lunch looks at on our site, and to be honest its not terrible.  For the ingredients available in village, our moms do a great job making things.  But this is where those care packages really are life savers, Thanks again so much!!! We both lost some weight during training so having protein bars, snacks, and the ability to cook has been a huge help to our health!  While we really want to be like our community – eating and living the same way, we have come to realize that it may not be in the best interest of anyone for us to eat only Gambian food because if we are sick all the time, we are no help to anyone.

A New World

Our first 2 weeks on site have been pretty great.  There is so much to say; I have filled up several pages of my journal each night it seems.  Because almost every day we discover something new about our family, village, or area.  I will try my best to convey what the past 2 weeks have been like for us, and apologize for the complete lack of organization (and perhaps too much detail) of which the following entries will most likely entail.  I want to say thanks for the emails, posts, and encouragement regarding the blog – it helps me find the time to write when I know people are enjoying reading about our experiences.
We are trying our best to take it slow and get to know the community before we start working on any projects as this is what the Peace Corps advises, but people in our village have expressed interest in many tasks so we have started a tree nursery at the school, a garden bed and 2 compost pits in the women’s garden. We also started an herb garden, tomatoes, and a compost pit in our backyard as well.  It feels great to have some things growing in the ground again, and they grow so fast here. Our herbs that we planted are basil, cilantro, oregano, and chives, and in the women’s garden we planted tomatoes, okra, cucumber, peppers, and egg plant – or as Gambians call it, garden egg.  
Having a bed in the womens garden is a daunting task for me because although I’m supposed to be teaching the women about gardening, I have all of 2 years experience gardening in my life, and not a single one in Africa -compared to the women here, who seemingly have had more gardens in their lifetime than I have in years!  Yoo, wo koleta (ok that is difficult!).  But I am coming to terms with the fact that yes my garden could fail, miserably.  But I am still hopeful about my garden techniques because I have seen some of the women spending lots of money on synthetic fertilizers and not using any compost or mulch, and others transplant their vegetables by yanking them out of their nursery beds – ouch! But again, I am trying to go slow, and concentrating hard on just observing and being there in the garden rather than trying to tell them how to do anything. I just show up every day, ready to water my bed and compost pits, help my host moms with theirs, and greet all the women. Because really it is a social time as well as work. And, it is beautiful there. Pictures soon to come for sure! Gardino ninyata (Garden is nice!).
 I’m working on trying to know our peoples names – another daunting task, as a common greeting here in the Gambia is calling out the person’s last name.  I am terrible with names; I think that I inherited it from both my parents (example, both my parents still call the ice cream store TCBY – TCYB, and when reading this will wonder if it is really called TCBY or if I am just kidding around – Love you Mom and Dad, but its true).  
But It doesn’t make it any easier when the villagers have names like ‘Hapu Buta’; I try to remember her by thinking her name is similar to happy birthday but then I just end up calling her Happy Buda and laughing at my ridiculousness.  It’s okay she’s about 7 and thinks it’s hilarious too.  And everyone knows our names for the most part, and we know about 10 people names (out of 300-400). Why can’t they have a village yearbook or something? ;)  Maybe that should be our 3 month challenge!

Our new house for 2 years! We'll get a better picture but our portion of the house is on the right side with the door open.

It’s Official

We are officially Peace Corps Volunteers as of March 11. We both passed our language tests and are no longer in training. We spent 10 days in the city area, which Gambians call ‘Kombo’ where we stayed with 28 other trainees in the Peace Corps transit house in the tourist area called Senegambia for 10 days and had a good time.  We attended Peace Corps sessions, relaxed at the beach, went out to eat, had a swearing ceremony, met other volunteers, and enjoyed other Americans company.  The transit house is a 5 minute walk to a nice beach, close to several restaurants, and a cab ride away from a huge market that sells everything! It was nice to be in a city for awhile after living in a small village for 2 months.  We tried to take full advantage of things like meat, pizza, electricity, showers, and going to the beach. However, we also had to prepare for our 3 month challenge at our site.  3 month challenge means that we try not to spend the night away from our site for 3 months – we may have to break this but not for more than a couple nights.  So we were busy in Kombo going shopping for things like a bed, plastic chairs, mats, food, and other materials that aren’t readily available in our village. Peace Corps provided us with transportation to the market 2 days in a row and we still didn’t get everything that we needed, but we got enough to hold us over until we could return to the city again.

Ambassadors backyard

Our swear-in ceremony was held at the U.S. ambassador’s house, right on the beach.  It was a nice ceremony that all of the trainees dressed up for.  We wore the Gambian traditional ‘Asoebe’. This is a style where people of the same compound (or family) wear the same fabric.  It is comparable in the U.S. to wedding ceremonies, where the bridesmaids and groomsmen wear the same fabric but different styles.  Gambians wear asoebes on important events and holidays.  All of our trainers also wore asoebes too, and they all looked fabulous! The ambassador, the Gambian Minister of Forestry, the Country Director of Peace Corps in the Gambia, and several volunteers gave speeches.  Then we enjoyed a brunch, and some of us jumped in the ocean with our Asoebes on.  Later in the day, the volunteers prepared a party for us at a bar called The Scottish Embassy.  The party was nice, relaxing, and we received some great food prepared by the other volunteers.  We had hamburgers, thai food, Indian food, and plenty of desserts as well as Gambia’s only microbrew called Julbrew. After the party we went out to the beach and enjoyed the night.
Us with our first language teacher and the other members of our training group - Sharon and Lina

Saturday, March 12, 2011

It’s not what you know, but who you know

Already in our short time here we have met some great people with some fascinating stories;  I just picked a few to write about for now:
Hanna – she is a 69 year old volunteer who has two PHD’s, served a full 2.5 years as a volunteer in Samoa last year. She started an exotic animal vet clinic in DC, and had 4 foster children and one adopted son.  Her foster daughter was a Bosnian refugee who now works full time in Tennessee. 
Jen – is from New Jersey and is a very talented designer.  Check out her awesome photos so far: Jen’s Photos. She is placed by the beach not too far from us and is going to work with a Non-Government Organization helping with radio, and design stuff. She’s also going to teach us how to use our camera!
Abby – was a Young Life leader in Georgia. She is placed out in the bush in Basse, UpperRiver region where it’s hot and life is hard! She is strong though, so she’ll do great. Example, Abby has been sick since we arrived. In fact, she has poo-ed her pants 4 times since she’s been in the Gambia.  The last time, she was climbing the stairs to use the toilet, tripped, and….well, the 4th time happened.  But, good news, Doctor Mike got her stool sample back today and she has a parasite. This is actually good news because she can take some pills and it will go way quickly! And she’s eating for two – her and her parasite!
Seth – grew up in a small logging town in Washington with 14 siblings. His dad is an ex FLDS, ex secret service agent for Nixon who has pinned Henry Kissinger to the wall, and currently believes WW3 is near. His dad is also convinced that the HBO series ‘Big Love’ is based on his life, and has been approached a number of times for reality TV series.  We are going to be given a signed copy of his dad’s book that is being edited for publishing. 
Mike – is from a small town in Oregon but acts like he’s from Texas so we get along pretty good. Mike shot himself in the leg with a revolver.  And that small town he’s from - just happens to be the same small town that a Mr. Steve Prefontaine is from! Mike has been in Pre’s mom’s house and helped her move boxes down from her attic. He said her attic is littered with Pre’s old awards and articles and such. He also said we could visit.
Ibrama S Bah – this is our current language instructor who is a very gifted teacher. He is a Gambian (a Fula) who knows a whole lot about Reggae music, and actually used to be a Rastafarian. He studied in the UK for about 9 months and told us a story we won’t forget for awhile: While studying in England, he decided to go to France to meet up with a Gambian friend.  He couldn’t get a hold of his friend so he tried to find other people that would house him for the night (all the hotels he could afford were booked already).  He did this by walking up to random people on the street and asking to stay with them, which is probably common in the Gambia where everyone knows everyone, but obviously in our western culture norms – that is not a common thing to do. So he ended up getting a trash can and putting it in a phone booth and sleeping inside the trash can. I think the best part was that the point he was making with this story, however, was NOT the fact that he slept in a trash can inside a phone booth but that it was really really cold that night.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Site Visit

We made it to site visit! In January, we weren’t sure if we’d ever see the day but it finally arrived.  Currently, I am typing this inside our tent in our hut.  We set up our tent because our site visit is that survivor style trip I was talking about earlier where you don’t have a bed or any cooking utensils yet so to keep bugs off us while we sleep, we set up our tent inside J. (Yes, there are bugs in the bush in Africa – big surprise there). 
We had a great arrival to our site.  When we were driving up, the women started dancing and singing all around the car! It was great; they wouldn’t let the driver drive any faster so that they could dance in front of the vehicle. Then we got out and they kept dancing and singing and made us dance and we greeted everyone.  Luckily, our site mate that was with us got some great pictures for us! We like our site, very much. The people are nice, seem very hard working, and we are out in the bush but only an hour gely ride from a bigger city with internet and a large market.  The villages put in request for volunteers, and the Peace Corps reads them and accepts requests based on needs and skills of the volunteers.  It’s pretty neat, some volunteers had great stories of their village meetings thanking them so much for being there because they’d asked for an agriculture or health volunteer for so long and they were finally there.

The women dancing in front of our car

We went down by the river, and it is nice, big, and you can swim here because its close enough to the sea that it’s still salty (so no hippos, crocodiles, or freshwater parasites like you would find upriver).  Our host dad is a nice man who is a fisherman and speaks English! One of our host moms speaks English as well.  Yes we have two host moms.  Our host dad had his first wife and then took a second one when his brother died so our 2nd host mom is new to our village as well. We have a great mango tree in our yard that shades a nice big area of the compound. Our house is similar to our training house, but a little bit bigger. 
We met the manager of the eco-lodge that is a 2 minute walk from our house on the river.  The eco-lodge is neat, has 17 huts with toilets and showers in it.  Our village owns the lodge, and it looks like there are a lot of opportunities for work there.  They told us that a class from the University of Maryland came last year and is supposed to come again in May to do archeological digs.  The class found a human skull, old pottery, and other things that were left behind in the area.  The area by the river is an old slave trading spot.  It was featured in that movie Roots that we watched in High School (9th grade geography?).  They also told us that university classes in Norway, Sweden, and England have all come to the lodge as well for courses on music.  There is also a big women’s garden that a Spanish NGO has installed a solar pump in.  The solar pump is still being worked on, but it looks like it will be ready by the end of the dry season in June.  They are also putting in pipes throughout the garden so women can easily access the water.  It is great!  Now we are back in the city area for our final language test, more classes, and swear-in ceremony (which will be televised on Gambia’s only tv channel!).  
We leave for our site again on March 15 and are going to be doing a 3 month challenge.  That is a PC Gambia term for staying at our site for 3 months straight, and not totally involving ourselves in any major projects but getting to know our community and language sufficent enough so that after our 3 month challenge we can begin working on projects we feel would be a good fit.

Marathon March

It is a Peace Corps Gambia tradition that every training group go on a lengthy hike known as ‘marathon march’ towards the end of their training.  Our group was no exception.  It was fun, and the day of the hike was a success.  The day after….was not.   The hike was a 9 hour hike in the middle of nowhere Africa – with no lunch. We woke up at 6:30, got some bread, peanut butter and jam, and then found out we weren’t getting lunch so pc staff were there handing us hot boiled eggs while we were in the van saying ‘take it, you’re not going to be eating for a really really long time’.  Interesting way to start the day.  So we hiked all day through women’s gardens, salt flats, tall grasses, tall trees, and mangroves! Once we got to the mangroves we had to sift through muddy water until we reached a stream where we had to swim about 400 m, fully clothed and some (like my wonderful husband) with full packs on their heads.  While we were in the mangrove forest, someone commented that this is how they train Marines – and I noted that I didn’t sign up for the Marine Corps!  The swim was really refreshing after walking miles in the Africa heat – it’s starting to get hotter during the day now. Not terrible, but more like Texas in May than in April.  We walked a total of 24 k (about 15 miles) and arrived at a nice eco-lode with baboons, an awesome pool, and floating cabins on the water.  It was a nice finish but kind of a tease because we ate dinner, and then Peace Corps came and picked us up and took us back to training village. According to older volunteers, the marathon march ‘back in the day’ entailed Peace Corps dropping people off in boats and telling them to find their way back. ha – so I guess we shouldn’t complain?
The day after was pretty awful.  We were served lunch, and dinner the days previous to going on marathon march by a guy named Omar that the peace corps likes to have cater.  And everyone ate it up because Omar cooks some semi-western dishes and we are all very hungry for food that doesn’t have rice involved with it! Well, the morning of marathon march we had 7 people sick but some still went on the hike.  The day after marathon march, 6 more people got sick with food poisoning and had to go to the med unit.  That was half our training group; it was scary! Luckily, Ben and I were spared this time!

                                                 The Baobob trees are fantastic in The Gambia!

Friday, March 4, 2011

More Pictures

Our whole host family in training village!

Our compound - our room was the last door on the left.

Womens community garden in Training Village - so big and great!

Some of the women at work


We are almost finished with training and are in the city area for 10 days. Which means we finally have time to upload pictures! Here are a few pictures we took during training – we really didn’t have time to take that many so hopefully we’ll get much better ones at site.

This is a picture of the trainees at our naming ceremony in Training Village

Ben and I on our marathon march!

Our Host mom and my namesake: Caddy Gitteh with Aminata