Saturday, April 16, 2011

Project Aspects

We are slowly meeting with NGOS and figure out what capacity we will be working with them in the future.  As of now, we will be helping out with the NGO KOMFARI by assisting in a large tree nursery, tree planting in our village, and going on a trek to the 27 villages in KOMFARI’s region to facilitate tree planting. And it looks like Ben will be helping out with KOMFARI as a financial manager, and I will be also be working on helping to establish a website for them.  We were also visited by another NGO called IRD (International Rural Development) that works with small farmers to improve their cashew crop.  Ben is interested in working with this NGO as they are trying to educate the farmers on the business aspect of cashew growing rather than strictly the technical aspects. I am also hoping to visit another NGO that a Peace Corps volunteer works with that teaches and promotes oyster harvesting.  Our village is right on the river and women from other villages come to harvest oysters here; however, the women of our village do not harvest oysters at this time.  This is a huge untapped resource for our village, and by teaching these women how to harvest oysters properly will allow them to earn a nice income.  Teaching them an environmentally friendly way of harvesting oysters also protects the mangroves in the area as well. 

Ben is still planning on working with the eco-lodge to enhance marketing and budgeting as one of his main projects.  And I would like to also work with the school in some capacity. In Africa, illiteracy is a big problem and we are seeing that in our village.  Our host brother is in 5th grade and is probably at a 1st grade reading level.  Although he can’t be blamed, the only book he has been given is about a Jewish holiday with words like ‘shabbat’ and other extremely useful things he’s never encountered. 

I read once that the literate farmers’ land is up to 10-15 times more productive than his illiterate counterpart, and from what we’ve seen here, that is true.  So, I’d like to help kids read because they need help with it, they could use it when they grow up even if they never leave our village, and well, I can read. Maybe I’ll even set up the ‘Kaddy Gitteh center for kids who can’t read good’. 

At this point, a month into our service, it looks like we will have a nice mixture of challenging and interesting work, good company, and lots of stories to bring home. 

                                                    Our friend Fatou and her two kids

Gorillas in the Midst or Baboons in the Bush

Ben gave his details on his hunts and I will give mine! We have now both experienced our first hunting trips. Not too many toubobs can say their first hunting trip was executed out in the African bush.  We were hunting for baboons that were after some plants in the womens garden.  Not only that, but we were armed with ‘beating sticks’ that our friend Nuha had chopped for us a few minutes prior to the hunt with his machete.  Out of the 7 village men, one had a shot gun, and the rest of us had beating sticks. 

We walked in the direction of the baboons; heard rustling in the woods and tried to surround them. About 50 meters away we saw a male baboon beat his chest and display his dominance to us.  It was incredible; it was also after that moment that I nominated myself to be the official village hunt photographer. (women aren’t invited on hunting trips, and its not that I want to kill anything – I just want to take awesome pictures ).  It was also another great ‘I live in Africa’ moments. 

Baboons are dangerous but we felt safe with 7 Africans, a shot gun, and several handmade beating sticks. I would’ve probably cried if they had actually shot one because they are such interesting, smart animals and I was very satisfied with the outcome of the hunt.  Although, we have heard that baboon meat is pretty tasty from other volunteers.  

Bath Time

The kids bath time here is always one of our favorite things to witness.  This is probably due to the fact that we don’t have children yet so we can be bystanders. How it usually goes down is something like this: Both Moms holler at kids, the biological mom will most often wash their own kids unless the other one is out or busy.  There are a couple of wooden planks in the front yard by the outside kitchen area where the bathing goes down (only for the kids). The mom plops the kid down – usually screaming and crying, and srubs the kid down with no mercy.  Often, people will walk by and the mom will stop to chat, completely ignoring the wails of the wet, shivering child.  After they’re finished, the mom will go inside and retrieve a piece of old fabric to wrap the still screaming child inside and sit them on the bench, outside, still wimpering.

Sometimes they do bath time in the early afternoon and it’s a little more relaxed. Here’s our two youngest host siblings helping each other out. Yes, its even more cute in person. 


She is our host mom I am constantly referring to.  The one who speaks English, and we get along very well.  She has a good sense of humor, and a resiliency that encourages me daily. We laugh a lot over our misunderstandings, and she helps us out significantly. Without her, our lives here would be a lot more difficult because she speaks English better than anyone else in our compound.  I will keep giving you updates on her because I think her life is so incredibly different from western women lives.  

Sibou grew up in a bigger town and went to school until 9th grade where she had to drop out because of money problems.  Then her dad chose the man and time when she got married and has had 5 children – but only two of them live with us.  The past 5 years she lived in Serrekunda, the largest part of the City area where Gambians live.  She has never in her life worked in the garden or rice/coos field. She owns a TV, a mobile, and nice things like stiletto hot pink shoes.  From the sound of it, she was living fairly well off with her husband who was a carpenter.  When he died, she came to our village just 8 months ago.  I asked her if she wanted to come and she laughed and said emphatically “No, Here is Bush”.  I asked her why she came then and she said if she did not come, her parents would beat her.  Did I mention that Sibou is 30 years old? 

She also told me that Suleman – her oldest kid that lives with us will be going to live with his uncle in Serrekunda sometime. When? She doesn’t know, sometime soon. Why? Just because.  I think really it is because our family cannot afford the extra mouth, but she didn’t say that so it may not be true. I was so saddened by the thought of Suleman leaving that I almost started crying – he’s such a sweet little boy! I asked her if she would be sad. She laughed and said ‘only small. Here there are lots of children, it’s okay to give away. When you go back to America you can take this one (pointed at her stomach)”. I laughed and told her that if I took her baby home with me I’d get arrested in America for not having any paperwork. 

This coming Tuesday she has a doctor’s appointment in a bigger village and I am going with her.  I am excited to see the hospital and to check out the prenatal visit. Also a Peace Corps Response Volunteer lives in the town, and she is giving us a kitten when she leaves on May 15 so I want to meet our new kitty Simba as well!

Naming Ceremonies

In Gambia, when a baby is born, the child and mother stay inside a home (not necessarily their home) for one week. After that week, the baby is named at a Naming Ceremony by a Griot.  The father decides the babies name most of the time but the mother can as well.  A Griot is a performer/singer who is paid to do ceremonies and such events.  It is a tradition in this part of Africa.  I think that maybe our Gambian people are Africans first, muslims second. To become a Griot, you must be born into that tribe/family.  At the naming ceremony, people donate money and the new babys fathers sisters make food and drinks for the ceremony.

We had a small naming ceremony the other day.  This naming ceremony was considered small because nobody from out of town came.  We went to the new baby’s compound for the actual ceremony in the morning after breakfast and going to the garden.  There we sat, talked, and ate a second breakfast of coos porridge with peanut butter and baobab juice mixed in. It was delicious.  There was also sugar, rice-balls served.  They were not as delicious. In fact, I kept giving mine to a small child next to me until she started refusing.  Gambians love to eat, and they love to make sure you are eating too. I am constantly hounded for not eating enough rice.  There was also a sour-milk porridge that was even less delicious than the sugar rice balls. 

Then, the women left to prepare lunch and the men remained in the compound all day to do nothing. A goat was killed for the event so after our families lunch we went back to the naming ceremony and had a second lunch of benechin with the goat.  The lunch as pretty good, and the goat was great! After second lunch, the women went back to get dressed up then we came back to the naming ceremony compound to give the donation and drink sweet, canned milk that was heated up in a tea pot.  Also delicious, I have asked Sibou to teach me how to make it so I can make it back in Texas. There is a definite technique to it.  We sat and chatted until 7 pm and then left to keep working.  

The men left to play/watch the village football game.  Ben played in it for the first time that night. He did so well the Imam (religious leader) asked to be his coach. Ben agreed. 

For bigger naming ceremonies, we wear asoebes (matching fabric), and there is dancing into the night.  We are supposed to have a big one coming up this month.  We will take pictures of that one!

Wildlife and Vegetation

Our surrounding area has an abundance of diverse wildlife and vegetation.  It is beautiful here.  And fun to see different wildlife and vegetation from back home.  So far, we have seen a few different species of monkeys – a small red one, baboons, and a small brown one.  We have no Gambian wildlife books available so we have not been able to identify the English names for the monkeys yet.  There are 5 species of monkeys that live in our area, and during the rainy season they are supposed to be all over the place! We have also seen mongoose, a variety of birds (including hornbills, kingfishers, pelicans and cranes), crabs, and lizards.  What we have not seen but heard accounts of are: porcupines, large bush rats, snakes, and a small type of deer.
The vegetation consists of wetland, mangroves and upland semi-tropical forest.  The forest has been cleared in the past but the remaining large trees that we have seen range from palms, baobobs, Melina, and red silk cottons. 
                                This is one of the little red monkies that frequents the tree by the garden. 
                                Its not a good picture but I like it because you can see him watching us! 

Baobob trees are fabulous and we have a lot here. They are big, single trunk trees that are very resilient.  Baobob trees can fall over completely and continue growing. They produce a large oval shaped fruit that can be the size of a person’s head.  The fruit is a chalky powder that tastes delicious and can be boiled into a nice juice that tastes like a milk shake. I would drink it every day.
Inside the village itself, there are a few avocado trees, 2 coconut trees, something called a ‘ja fruit’ that resembles breadfruit, several orange trees, and lots and lots of mangos.  The mangos are just beginning to ripen.  We had our first taste the other day and it was delicious! Now our mouths water as we watch the fruit grow on our trees in our compound.  Mango season lasts for about 2 months and are in abundance in our area.  Apparently during the end of the season you can buy a whole bucket of mangos for 30 dalasi (approx 1 USD). So, when we’ve had all the mangos we can eat, we are planning on making wine, jam, and salsa with the extras. 

Ben Post # 2

Blog.  Ben here.  As I am typing this Kate and I are in our house in the village.  We just recently learned that a clinic in our village has a solar charger and while its not open regularly our friend is the key master and said we can use it to charge the computer.  Now it looks like we might have a regular source for charging so chances are we will try to get wireless internet sometime in the near future.  Exciting stuff.  Other than that new piece of information things have been going quite well.  We’ve both been healthy and continue to find many possible jobs and projects.  Its quickly getting hotter but its still somewhat cool at night.  There have been a few nights this past week where I had to crawl out from under the bug net and just go stand outside for a few minutes and cool off before going back to sleep.  The coming of the heat also means the mangos are ripening.  Its only the very beginning of mango season and we have only been able to try a few but they were delicious and I am very much looking forward to having mangos available all day, every day.  We are definitely still adjusting to life and have felt quite busy most days.  Over the last few weeks I’ve started my career as a village footballer.  I think I may even be the new goalkeeper (they call the position “posts”).  I have now played in three full field pick up games.  While I need some training to get back in shape and I am still learning to play on sand/really hard sand its been fun.  A few days back some guys from the neighboring village came to town for a friendly game.  I  think most of them were surprise to see a white goalkeeper.  I feel like I might become somewhat famous around this region of the country if I get to continue to play on our village team.  Not necessary based on skill, mostly because Im the only toubob (white person) around playing football.  Not only am I playing soccer I have been able to watch on TV.  They show Champions League games on the Gambia TV network and thanks to one man’s generator I’ve watched four games over the last few weeks. 

                                           Action shot of Ben playing Post in a pick up game

In addition to footballing and football watching I can now proudly say that I’ve gone on my first hunting trip.  Actually I’ve gone on two hunting trips now.  I can also probably say with confidence that I am the only one among my hunting friends who began their hunting career in the African bush (besides Kate that is, who was on hunting trip number 2).  Now that being said, from what I know of hunting this was not normal American hunting.  The first trip included probably ten men, only two had guns.  I did not have a gun and unfortunately won’t get to ever since handling a gun is not cool with Peace Corps.  Basically the way the hunting works here is that those without guns spread out throughout the bush and look for the deer.  If one sees a dear they call out the location and the group begins to move that direction attempting to chase/trap/corner the animal for the gunman.  Honestly, I never knew what the plan really was.  Although others saw an actual deer and tracked it through the mangroves I never actually saw anything. No shots were fired and we still had to eat rice for dinner.  No bush goat.  While it was fun and I hope to do it again, maybe with more excitement the hunting trip ended up being a two and a half hour walk through the bush.  I think the most interesting thing I learned about this method of hunting is that there is a possibility for hand to hand combat with an animal.  As I didn’t know what would happen I didn’t bring anything with me out to the bush (not like I have much to bring).  All the other guys were finding nice big, thick sticks to carry with them.  After noticing that they all seemed to get one I asked why everyone was getting a stick.  The guy next to me replied, “For emergencies”.   I wasn’t sure what emergency might come up that required a stick like that and neither of us had the correct language skills for me to find out at that point so I just laughed at the reply.  Later, another one of the guys asked me where my stick was.  He speaks english so I was able to ask what exactly I needed one for.  He said I should have one in case I needed to hit the animal.  Again I laughed.  I couldn’t see there possibly being a situation where I would need to hit an animal with a stick!  I asked him if anyone had EVER killed something with this method to which he replied “Why not?”  Touché.  I asked the more direct question of whether he had actually seen someone kill something with this method.  He said he himself had done so.  I guess it is possible then.  This whole time I was picturing a deer (whatever kind of deer like creature they have here) running at a human and them taking it down by hand.  I later realized that the stick method was most likely to be the method if one came across a bush rat (it is what it sounds like) or a snake or something else.  I don’t think anyone is hunting down a deer with a stick.  I never did get a stick for myself on that trip.  I did eat a few cashew fruits though and that was good.  For those of you who don’t know.  Cashews grow on trees and have a big juicy fruit attached. 

The second hunting trip wasn’t really “hunting” I guess, depending how you look at it.  For the sake of storytelling it just sounds better.  So my second hunting trip ever and Kate’s first was baboon hunting!  A gang of baboons had moved towards the woman’s garden a few days back.  Apparently they and other monkeys can be very destructive to crops and people here don’t like that.  I found out that people here in this area don’t really eat baboon but people further up the country do.  There were a few guys with guns on this trip.  Kate and I were mostly interested in seeing the baboons, not necessarily shooting at them.  I don’t really know if those with guns were planning on shooting them if they had the chance or just shooting at them to scare them away from the garden area.  I didn’t really ask.  Anyway, this trip was much shorter than the first but we did take a nice walk through the bush.  Kate was able to get a few pictures of the baboons but the quality is that of a sasquatch sighting because the baboons refuse to stop and pose for pictures.  I expect we will have many more opportunities for baboon/monkey pictures while we are here.  We see monkeys somewhat regularly these days.

So those were my first two hunting trips ever.  Unconventional and unsuccessful, while still entertaining.  I suppose I will leave this post with that.  If you took the time to read this far, thanks, although you’re most likely bored at work. Blog out.

Show me the money

Money is a problem. Often the first things that people say to you when they find out you are from America is: America, there is money there.  Our villagers make money in whatever ways they can.  Some men in our village live and work in the city area and commute back to the village on weekends. Some, like our host dad, are fisherman. Others tend to their cattle or orchards.  Some, travel around the area doing odd jobs.  Others are employed by the village to be the Iman (religious leader), Alkalo (leader – kind of like mayor), Gely driver, and manger of the lodge. 

One great thing about Gambians is that they really take care of each other.  When a relative (and they have A LOT of relatives) needs help, you should give him financial support.  And vice versa when you are low on cash flow. A close friend cannot deny their friend anything.  If your close friend asks to borrow your tape player, you must let him.  Money will come to families by various means such as these during hard times.  It also makes it hard to save because when you have extra you will probably have to give it to a relative who has helped you out in the past. That said, we have seen people with more money than others – they have things like cars, satellite tv, etc.  But, in our village, there are a few motorcycles, a couple cars, one house with glass windows and satellite tv.  The other compounds that have those items are the Chinese man who lives just outside the village and Luis, the Spaniard. 

Women generate income by various means such as gardening, collecting palm fruit, and oyster harvesting.  Although women in our village do not harvest oysters yet – maybe a project in the future.  In the big cities, women work in offices, are teachers, nurses, etc. 
During the rainy season, the majority of the villagers plant rice and coos.  They try to harvest enough to last the family a year and some families are able to do so.  Our family has already run out of the local rice and has to buy imported rice (from America or Thailand) to eat.  Our family goes through a big bag of rice (think Sams big) every 7 -10 days.  A bag of rice costs about 1,000 dalasi (approximately 30 USD) and the price increases with the increasing costs of fuel.  Our host dad makes 50 dalasi per kilo of fish, and the catch can vary extremely.  We now contribute food and money to the equivalent of 1200 dalasi per month.  With this information, I honestly have no idea how our family puts food on the table every day. But somehow, it is there.  And if not, you could walk around the village and eat at any compound.  During meal time, people always ask you to come eat with them.  Quantity is less than a problem than quality. We have had three vegetables in our food bowl that we did not contribute thus far – pepper, bitter tomato, and onion.  I am not certain if this is because vegetables are hard to get here or if they are too expensive.  I think it may be a combination of factors. Hopefully, we will be able to help this problem.  When we leave town, we get materials to add to the food bowl and in a couple months, we will have okra, cucumbers, tomatoes, basil, peppers, and egg plant available from the garden – Inshallah (God willing). 

                                     Host Dad Lamin with his latest catch standing infront of our kitchen

Money is also different here.  We are starting to utilize our village people to get materials so we are working with the carpenter, boat builder, honey collectors, pounder makers, etc.  When asking the price – because we don’t know how much a piece of wood should cost, our villagers will say either: you are part of our community, it is free or how much can you pay? Both of these responses baffle our western/urban minds! Free?! You are giving us your time, how can this be free?! And how much Can we pay? – surely, more than it will cost. But this is how it is here and we are getting used to it and have people to help us settle on proper amounts.  Everything is negotiable.  We are learning to never accept the first price.

Day by day (4-7-11)

It seems to be a common question that comes up on phone conversations back home – what are you guys doing there?  I think it is cultural; for us Westerners, what we do is very important. In Mandinka there is no direct translation for ‘how was your day?’ or ‘what did you do today’? I tried to ask Sibou, our host mom, that one day and it took us 5 minutes in mandenglish to explain the meaning of those two questions. Ha! Instead, mandinka’s ask ‘how is your morning, evening, afternoon, etc’.  And the response is always – It is there.  Perhaps this is because everyone knows what you do all day, and you see each other in the morning, afternoon, and evening so there is no need to ask what you did all day. Everyone already knows.  When you leave your house neighbors ask you where are you going, how is your morning, how did you sleep, etc.  There is no need to say what you did all day when you tell people what you are doing now, multiple times throughout the day.  This is not considered rude to continuously ask questions; it is considered proper village etiquette.  By asking questions, it shows that you care about the person. Our people will definitely tell us if we have forgotten to properly greet them!
 Africa in general is a collectivist culture. People want to be with people, cooking, cleaning, gardening, and working are all done together.  It is a nice most of the time, although we forgot that being by yourself is not a good thing.  A while back I was cooking and cleaning inside, and Sibou asked Ben what was wrong with me because she had not seen me since the afternoon (it was 6 pm).  I tried to explain that it doesn’t necessarily mean anything is wrong when I’ve been inside our house for a couple hours during the day.  

So, I will try to answer the question of what are we doing daily.  Like I said previously, we do different things everyday and our routine is loose and based around what others are doing each day as well.  Everyday I go to the garden and water in the morning and evening.  This is no easy task though.  The garden is a 10 minute walk from the house, and to fetch water I must bring a bucket with a rope and draw water from a well to put in watering cans; or most usually buckets made out of older containers.  Obviously being an American woman, I am not an experienced ‘well water drawer’. In fact, before coming to Africa, I had never even seen an open surface well.  It is quite a work out – forget pilates, drawing water from a well really works those core muscles.  I can’t say that I love it, but I’m gradually getting more skilled.  On my first day of using the well I made our host grandma mad because I got muddy water on her shirt. Sorry Mama Muso. 

I can usually count on spending an hour there minimum each time I go.  If one of our host moms is out for the day I will assist the other one with watering her beds and will be there at least 2-3 hours.  Our host moms have left the village for three reasons thus far: selling palm fruit, going to funerals, and to go to the doctor.   
Ben, will come with me to the garden, go to help build the mosque, or go to a counterparts house to help him build his new house. There is about 2 months until the rainy season starts here so this is when people make repairs and build things in preparation for it.  Yesterday, ben and another counterpart Ibrama started on our chicken coup!  Ben is also employing our oldest host brother Lamin, who is 12, to help build the coup.  And Ben has made a deal with Lamin that if he does a good job, Ben will take Lamin to Brikama and he can pick out some new shoes.  This is a big deal for Lamin for several reasons: He has never been to Brikama (the big town that is a 1.5 - 3 hour gely ride away), he has never owned a new pair of shoes, and he has never picked out a pair of shoes to wear, they have always been given to him. Lamin asks Ben everyday when he will have the supplies to finish the chicken coup

As seasons change and we become more accustomed to our village, our tasks and projects will change as well.  Currently our task assigned by the Peace Corps is to integrate into our community, and so we are focusing on that rather than starting any big projects.  We are meeting people, going to events, helping out with projects and gardening, and just figuring out how to live in a completely different culture and place. 

                                                                        Village Sunset

                                   View of my cucumbers and okra and the rest of the womens garden

Tourists (4-2-11)

This past week has flown by for us. Neither of us feels like we have a ‘normal’ routine yet and every day I want to start studying Mandinka and fail to do so.  Although several villagers know English, a lot do not, and everyone wants you to speak the local language even if they speak excellent English.  We have the usual vocabulary down but having any meaningful conversation is far out of our range.  

This week we had some Peace Corps volunteers from Morocco come stay at our lodge.  It was great to exchange stories, hear about their experiences, and get traveling tips.  They both live with the Berbers in Morocco, and are a year into their service.  They actually made us feel thankful about our site because they are both in such a conservative area where temperatures can reach up to 140 degrees.  They do have running water and electricity which we were jealous of, but we both decided we wouldn’t want to trade.  We also got to show some Americans around our village area, see what our camp was like with guests, eat some good food, and take a boat trip to James Island.  The boat trip was amazing! The water is so calm by our village, there are a lot of birds, and it feels really nice on the water. James Island is an international historic site and was interesting to see.  I’m sure we’ll be making the trip again when others come to visit.

Ben and our friend Ibrama on James Island

                    Approaching James Island from our boat (our village is a 30 minute boat ride away)