Friday, May 20, 2011

Solo's Love

Solo is 25 and is now starting to seek a wife.  He is going about it and a different way then we are accustomed to and its pretty great to witness. During our KOMFFORA trek, a girl from another village was there and he was trying to win here over which was wonderfully entertaining for us! When her name was announced at a meeting, he leaned over and whispered to us that her last name would soon be Sanyang (his last name).  He has us continuously laughing at his flirtations throughout those 2 days.
So when they were leaving, he tells me during our meeting that he wants me to tell her that he loves her.  I said that I think it should be him to do so and he said No he already did so now I needed to tell her too.  I told him that if the opportunity arose, I would but it may be better to wait until later.  But as we were walking to their car, he says loudly “Howa, come here, Kaddy has something she wants to tell you”. And I am forced to tell this girl that solo loves here – 7th grade style.
Judging by her lack of communication with Solo following my declaration f his love on his behalf, I’m going to guess this one might not work out.  But never fear, Solo has 2 other options on his list.  Inshallah, one will work out.  Solo has proposed to one but hasn’t heard a response yet.

Misconceptions of Toubabs

Like we have many misconceptions of Africa, Gambians have many misconceptions of Toubabudo (the West).  One nice misconception Gambians have is that toubabs never lie! We may have some fun with this one at times ;).
Yesterday, I was chatting with some women and they told me that toubab women don’t let their bellies get big when they’re pregnant – that they hold them down with belts! I said no, our stomachs get big just like yours and pointed at my very pregnant host mom. They said they had never seen a toubab women with a big stomach like that and I explained that most toubab women want to have babies in their own countries not Gambia and that is not good to travel by airplane when you are very pregnant. So if anyone wants to send us some pictures of proof that toubab womens stomachs do indeed get very big and we don’t hold them down with belts, send us what ya got!
Me with the ladies, just doing some ironing with a charcoal iron like the ones seen in museums, no big deal

There is also the misconception that toubabs are rich without having to work.  And even if we do work, its much less and much easier than work in the Gambia.  We constantly explain that people work very hard in America, and generally work long, strenuous hours.  I doubt they believe us even still and after our explanation they still say Oh but its not manual labor so its easier.
Along these same lines, Solo keeps talking about how his ancestors didn’t have stores to get things from – and implying that our ancestors have always had stores.  This makes me a little defensive and I always reply: my ancestors didn’t have stores either – we’re Americans not Brits! And usually follow it up with an emphatic ‘I’m from Texas!’ that is mostly for our own amusement.
Solo has stated a couple times how in America we have no more land, not like here.  I say no, America has lots of land, and tell him that our families also have farms. He was shocked and said Oh but you are losing it because its so crowded with people; I told him yes, in some parts of America its very crowded and there is no more land but where we’re from there’s still plenty.
A government sponsored program came out to our village the other day with a Catipillar digger to dredge some of rice fields.  Ben saw some old women go out and watch it work and said the looks on those womens faces were priceless! We speculated on how these women have probably never seen anything like those machines, and how to them it was like looking at something from a different world.

Simba Sanyang

Our new kitten has arrived! We wanted a cat to keep the rat/lizard population in check in our compound.  And our compound people don't like dogs.  Look how cute!
We named him Simba Sanyang and our villagers think its hilarious; they even come to our compound to meet him and laugh.  Sanyang is the last name of the people who founded the village back in the 16th century; half the villagers last names are still Sanyang. 
Getting Simba home proved to be an adventure. I traveled to Sibanor by gely with Sibou and Al Sana to go to the hospital (Al Sana was having some problems but is okay now). There we picked up Simba from another volunteer.  To get the little guy home, we arranged for a small boy to pick us up on the road to take us home! This is because Al Sana is too little and Sibou is too pregnant to walk the 6k to our village, and our village gely sometimes doesn’t get home until 10 pm.
Simba sinoola

Taking the donkey cart back to our village


We attended another KOMFFORA meeting a couple weeks ago, and it went well.  The meeting was better than expected.  Mike, another volunteer, was granted citizenship of his village and presented money to KOMFFORA, from his village – it was great, everyone clapped and his picture was taken. Later in the meeting, two elderly women barged in the building, greeted everyone and shook hands with everyone there, then asked where lunch was and left.  At the end of the meeting, a women named Binta sitting next to me talked about how KOMFFORA had helped her start a knitting business and thanked them because she was doing well because of it.  She showed us all a sample and then gave it to me! It was so sweet.
Our program managers came to our site.  It was a good visit; they told us to keep up our good work, showed us how to plant mango seeds, and talked to our village people about us.  They told us our villagers said that they were very happy with us and that they considered us to be one of them.  Later, they told us they want to grant us citizenship.  All of you are most welcome to come out to our 2nd house on the river ;) – in The Gambia!
We also went on a trek with KOMFFORA to seven surrounding villages.  It was very hard, a bike trek in which we were the only ones biking! But beneficial because we met with villages and learned about problems and work possibilities.  We also learned more about KOMFFORA and its leaders.
One of the founders has a hard story.  He is educated and managed to get a green card to work in the U.S. But, he didn’t have the money to go so he moved to Libya to work and save up enough money.  Once he had managed to do so, his green card expired so he moved back here and worked for an American company and tried to re-apply.  While waiting, some political turmoil between the Libyan government caused the banks to close (?), and he lost all the money he was saving because it was still in that Libyan bank account.   He started this NGO about 12 years ago when seven communities came to him about their community forests so he started this NGO to help them manage the forests.  He has a full time job and does this NGO as a side project.

No pain no gain

We try to make this blog positive, and will continue to do so but I will give you an idea of what are our main challenges have been/ are thus far in our service.  We are still settling down in our village so most of our struggles are diminishing as the days go by and it’s interesting also to see how each of us struggle less or more with different things.  For example, Ben struggles more so with the heat, ‘co-workers’, and lack of electricity.  I struggle more with the food and gender issues.  We both struggle equally in regards to language and the hordes of small children – or as I continue to call it ‘lord of the flies hours’.  
Let me expand on these issues. 
The heat – its getting hotter now….highs of upper 90s and lows of high 60s/low 70s. It’s not terrible though and compared to our friends up-river, we are lucky to still have the ability to sleep indoors.
The co-workers that ben struggles over is generally dealing with a lack of organization, planning, and facilitation.  He also gets a lot of unwanted help with some of his projects.  When trying to finish the chicken coup, some people would not let him he do anything so he couldn’t finish it as he wanted and got frustrated at times. Ben also misses having a light in our house and is working with our neighbor to rig up an old battery to make a light run on the battery for our house.
Ben standing next to the completed chicken coup!

 I struggle with the food because I’m not used to it yet; I’ve found out that apparently all my life I’ve been accustomed to eating well!  After a hard days work in the field I was accustomed to gaining all those lost calories back by indulging in bbq or Mexican food so the switch to rice, fish and coos is not an easy one. Its getting easier though; Now that its mango season – we are eating at least 2 mangos each a day.  They are delicious!  And the care packages help us both immensely, thanks again!!!
 The gender issues hit me harder because I’m a woman, and being an African woman is a lot harder than being an African man.  I get told often that I should be learning how to cook Gambian dishes. I laugh and ask them if they can cook themselves, but sometimes I don’t find it particularly funny if I’ve had the same conservation multiple times earlier that day. Or sometimes people will joke that I should be waiting on ben; while I know they are joking, it’s not funny to me because they actually expect their wives to wait on them after working the fields all day. And explaining to very educated men that ben and I are equals is something that I didn’t expect! Their rebuttal: no you’re not equal; he makes the money so how can you be equal? We laugh and say we make the same amount of money so I guess that makes us equal. I like it when the women are present and hearing these conversations.
Language issues:  It’s difficult to learn a new language, and to not know what everyone is saying.  Our villagers want us to learn it so bad that almost everyone takes it upon themselves to be our teacher. Our host dad tries to teach us by spouting out long, complicated phrases that we can’t decipher and then has us repeat the sentences 4-5 times and does this multiple times during the conversation; it is very trying on our nerves!  Another time on my way to the garden, an old man stopped me for a lesson and says ‘you can say nakato or gardeno’ and followed it up with ‘you know, the word gardeno comes from english’ – I responded, ‘What?! You’re kidding?!’ Sarcasm is lost on a lot Gambians so he said, yes yes – which probably made him feel good about his lesson, and me feel good that I could say how I really felt yet not be seen as rude; so it was a win win.
Lord of the Flies hour:  There is a time of day when the women go to the garden or bush, and the men are working that I have dubbed as Lord of the flies hour.  This is generally between 5 -7, and during this time we make a point of being at the garden or doing something outside our compound because if not, we run the risk of being attacked by the hordes of small children who have taken over the village at this time.  Being attacked means children peering through our windows, doors, and chanting our names relentlessly over and over.  When we yell ‘Boja’ (leave it), they just laugh at us and chant Boja Boja.  This is because they know we won’t beat them with a stick like other adult villagers.  So, we make a point to be with an African adult, in the garden, or at the riverside during this hour. 
Child rearing is SO different here. There is little to no supervision and the children are free to roam the village as they please. There is no such thing as ‘grounding’ or time out, and positive reinforcements are non-existent.  Also, every adult is considered to be any childs’ parent and thus can beat the kids and would be encouraged to do so.  The older children ‘watch’ the younger ones most days, and because of this there are many conflicts.  It’s interesting; but hard for us because we know it’s something we can’t change, obviously its not pleasant, and not like anything you see in America.
A great ‘lord of the flies’ story is from training.  A training group of 2 boys and 1 girl were eating lunch without their African trainer and the children were pounding on the door hard.  The kids were extra  relentless this day because a tour bus had come through and thrown all the kids candies.  So after the volunteers finished lunch, instead of facing the children, they chose to jump the 6 foot cement wall over the bathroom and run back to their compounds to throw the children off! Our whole training village was laughing about that incident – we actually heard about it from our host family before we heard it from those volunteers!
Obviously these challenges are very different from challenges of our jobs in America and although sometimes very trying, we still enjoy the challenges because we know they’ll get easier, they won’t last forever, and that we’ll look back and laugh.  In 2 years we’ll probably miss Lord of the Flies hour, laughing at what we’re trying to force down for lunch, and will be stronger people because of it.  Talking to other volunteers, these issues seem to be very common with everyone here and also with volunteers all over the world, which is kind of neat to think about.  To end on a positive note, we are still enjoying our service very much and speculate that it will only get better.
The front room of our hut

Things that made us Laugh

Gambians have a great sense of humor and make us laugh frequently, sometimes on purpose, and sometimes by miscommunication and mandenglish. Here are a few things we thought were funny lately:
When showing Sibou how to mix the dough for pancakes using a fork, she looked at me and with dead seriousness asks me, “What should you use if you do not have this type of spoon?” (I told her to use the beater she carved out of a tree branch the previous day).
The day Osama was killed; I asked Sibou if she knew who Osama Bin Ladin was. Her response: No, is he a president? (I think its great she doesn’t know who he is – why does she need to know that?)
Solo was talking about his good friend and told us “Me and him – Oh, he is the SIM card to my mobile phone”.
A woman braiding my hair stopped braiding and very seriously asked me what kind of oil I used to make my hair grow so long and how could she get some of it.
A Peace Corps trainer came to our site one day and left us with this proverb: “Habits are like hairs, you can shave them off, but they will always return”.  Thanks Momado.
I was walking in the village with our 2 youngest kids and another young kid runs up and tries to hold my hand with Al Sana – he slaps her away and says ‘No, I own Kaddy’ and her response was ‘No, the village owns Kaddy!’
Mama Kewo (grandpa) was walking by our compound after Al Sana and Binta got their bath and I overheard them playfully insult Mama K by saying “Your mom’s a mosquito!” – in mandinka (I Na susulaa!)
Gambians love Obama. There is Obama stuff everywhere.  We’ve seen obama attaya, obama oil lube, and lots of Obama shirts.  One shirt had a picture of Obama that read “U.S.A. For President”, and another read “Obama, He touched everyone”.
Once during training village, Ben and another volunteer were walking around the village and were walking past a large, intimidating Gambian man.  As they both passed him giving him the usual greetings, they noticed he was carrying a pink pre-teen girls back pack.  Nicceeeeta!  

Al Sana getting bathed.

Wrapped in fabric after bath time!

I hear a 'kong kong' at the door and see Al Sana standing there like this with his broom.

Sibou getting mangos from the tree with a stick with cashew trees in the background

Love, marriage, and conversations with Solo

Ibrama, or Solo as our village calls him, is the guy in our village who has been the biggest help to us so far.  He is 25 and has finished high school and in computer school but taking a break this semester to help out in the village.  He is very hard working and seems to genuinely care about the village and his people. He attends meetings with us, relays information, translates, helps ben build things, etc.  So we are getting to know him better and are starting to have more in depth conversations with him.  A couple nights ago, he was over chatting with us and told us how he’s been observing how we act towards each other – how ben helps to fetch water, goes to the garden, and how we both consult each other on matters.  He went on to say that when he gets married he also wants to help his wife do these things. 
Part of our job as married volunteers - by default - is to show what a western marriage is like.  Until Ibrama told us that, I think we had both completely forgot about this aspect of our work here.  Apparently people really are watching what we do.
Another time, our western habits were verbally noticed by Gambians was during the village football game.  When Ben was playing post on the side of the field all the women and I were watching from, the little kids started dancing to the music and made for a quite a surreal village-life African moment.  We made eye contact and smiled at each other and waved, probably both thinking of how crazy our lives were at the very moment.  A woman in front of me noticed, and a few minutes later she was telling all the women how we looked at each other and waved – mocking our actions in mandinka and laughing at us, but not in a mean way.  I guess it’s weird for a couple to do something like that here, but it was encouraging to me because I could actually understand her making fun of us in mandinka, and also because she made note and brought to everyone’s attention to the fact that we actually like each other and I haven’t just ‘gotten used’ to one another.
Marriages here are very different.  It is very hard for us to tell who is married to whom because the men and women are never together.  The women and men work separately all day and there isn’t too much mixing.  Solo told us that the elders tell the youth that “your wife can get used to you, but can never really love you”.  They teach the youth not to trust their wives because if she knows too much, she could use it against you.  But Solo said he doesn’t believe this and wants to tell his wife everything like ‘Kaddy and Sana do’.  Nuha, another educated man in the village, also has voiced to us how he thinks marriage is a partnership not a one way street.  It seems that the educated youth around here are starting to change some old traditional thinking, and that is very encouraging.
Ben and Solo working on the chicken coup with Mama Kewo (grandpa) managing their work.

3 years have gone by

We have officially been married for 3 years now! Hooray, and to celebrate we broke our 3 month challenge and went to a resort called Coco Ocean for a night.  It was amazing; you should be jealous. But remember that our normal lives here consist of no running water, no current, and….we still poop in a hole.  So don’t be too jealous.  The resort offers a Peace Corps discount so it wasn’t too bad. The resort was the nicest hotel either of us had stayed at.  We always feel a bit out of place at really nice places like that, and speculate on how we are allowed inside.  We tried to slow down when eating, but the baskets of bread and danishes would disappear within minutes of the waiter bringing them to us. Ha, it was hard to hide the fact that we hadn’t had anything so delicious since leaving the state’s 4 months ago! We had a great time and hope to return for a longer stay.

Coco Ocean!

We also went to visit another volunteer at her site for her birthday.  Her site is really great.  She is a 10 minute walk through nice compounds and gardens to the beach, and her compound has current , a tap, tv, a big garden, rabbits, and a guard dog named John. Her dad is an immigration officer and did a year peace keeping mission with the U.N.  Her compound is so nice I would live there in Texas – it actually reminded us a little bit of East Austin. It also shows just how different Peace Corps services can be, even in the same country.   6 other volunteers joined us for a day at the beach, and we made eggs, pancakes, and chips and salsa. The beach by her village is almost completely deserted and so beautiful! There is a nice eco-lodge that we walked to as well and got some drinks. It was a really nice time sharing with each other our first six weeks trials and tribulations.
Hanging out on the beach under the bantaba!

Ben, Mike, and Xander at Gunjar Beach

This little guy stole a mango outside our hotel room!

Village Entertainment

Entertainment in the African Bush is different from entertainment in Austin.  The men play football, watch football on the one TV in town, go to ceremonies, go to wrestling matches, and chat over brewing attaya.  The women have little to no time for entertainment unless there is a ceremony to attend.  The only entertainment I’ve seen them engage in has been hair braiding, chatting, cracking peanuts, and brewing attaya. They socialize mostly over work – laundry, pounding coos, collecting palm fruit, going to the bush for firewood, making brooms out of grasses, etc. The women here are working always or as Sibou says ‘Every day, I sweep, Every Day, I cook, Every Day, I clean, Every Day’. While I enjoy helping with some of these activities, I can’t engage in them fully with the women because they expect me to help them all with everything and that takes a big toll on me physically and mentally. It is also doesn’t really help them because mostly they just laugh at how poorly I do things and re-do it.  I still do try to help with some things.  Luckily, since I’m a toubob woman, it’s okay for me to do some of the men stuff too.
A couple weeks back, we had an interhouse competition at the primary school in our village.  Because our village is small, we only have one school that goes from grades pre-k to 6. The older kids were allowed to participate in interhouse which is the Gambian version of our American Field Days. It was fun to watch and be a part of. Ben took some pictures and I helped write the scores down and blew the race whistle for some events.  The whole village had a great time.  The events included 800 m, 400 m, 100 m, and 200 m dashes and also 4 x 100 relay and 4 x 400 m relay.  There was long jump, high jump, and ‘milk tin’ race.  The track was made on the sand football field and the lines were created with ash.  The teachers did not stagger any starts so the inside lanes did particularly well during the 200 m and 400 m dashes.  Some of the kids had jellys on, some had socks, but all had a great time. When one member of the team finished the kids rushed to the center of the field to meet the runner and beat drums and clapped and yelled.  
The other big event we’ve had in village recently was an official village football game (with actual uniforms) against a neighboring village followed by a ‘disco’ that lasts all night.  Ben got to play post again and did not get scored on.  The other village was scared when they saw the toubob goalie! ha. The women all got dressed up and came and watched the game, and the dj’s set up the sound system during the game so there was music and all the little children were dancing.  It was fun to watch.
After the game everyone went home to eat dinner and clean up for the disco.  We arrived at the disco at 10, and although we went to a disco during training village, this time was a lot different.   They set up a closed off area by the school to blast the music and most young people in the village attend.  Our village is a Muslim village so there was no drinking at all.  Just straight African dancing all night, and attaya of course. The men and women dance separately, and the men try to dance like justin timberlake and have a great time doing it.  It was so fun to watch, and so completely different from any ‘disco’ in the states!
6th grade girls race - notice the track :)

One of these things is not like the other.