Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Breaking Barriers

Ben Blog. July 2011. I am the Jackie Robinson of Gambian Men’s League Soccer.  On our way back to the village a few weeks back a man I was talking to told me that I am the only white person he has ever heard of playing on a Gambian village football team…ever.  Hence, just like Jackie broke that barrier back in 19blahblah, I am breaking that barrier in 2011, in Africa.  Jackie and I, we are so much the same, yet so very different. 
I’ve now played in two official matches.  Both were sad, sad losses and I won’t bore you too much with those details.  I will say that both matches concluded in fights.  The first between our team’s other goalkeeper and someone from the other team.  The second fight was between someone on our team and someone from our village.  I have no idea what happened in either situation.  All I do know is that the first fight meant a red card for our other goalie and a three games suspension.  That left me, the first American-African ever to play in the league, as our only goalkeeping option.   Our team struggles a bit and I am personally still adjusting to the conditions, not to mention that I have been out of practice for a few years now.  Much like I am sure Jackie did back in the day, I endure a good amount of taunting during the games.  I’ll spare you the details of what people like to yell at me but I will tell you its not nice.  To be honest, even though I know I should just let it slide and not care about what they yell it is actually quite frustrating to deal with.  If only I could just ask Jackie how he handled it.  Of course, it hasn’t all been bad.  Some people are very supportive and happy to see me out there.  A few more matches and I’ll be pretty well known around this region.  I’ve already come across a few people who know who I am specifically because of my ballin.

We have another game on July 9th.  Hopefully we can pull it together, score a few goals, play at least a tiny amount of defense and actually win our game.  I think that will help my reputation as well as help keep my taunters quite.  We will see how it goes.  But for now, the struggle continues.  I’m sure J.R. didn’t change the American baseball world in a day.  Domanding, demanding - slowly, slowly, we’ll change the world together.

It’s a BOY!...or a GIRL!...actually, not sure because we already ate it!

If you’re confused by the title of my this blog, that’s probably because you are bad at riddles.  What I am referring to is THE BEST EGG SANDWICH I HAVE EVER EATEN.  We now have five lovely chickens.  After a few slow months of build up we were finally able to acquire the chickens we need for our own little egg factory.  We’ve had these five fine ladies for only two days.  The first day we got one egg, and today we had two eggs.  For dinner, Kate scrambled them up and made two delicious egg sandwiches.  If my information is correct these five chickens are young and have just started laying, which hopefully means there will be many eggs to come.  It’s probably been mentioned in a previous blog somewhere but eggs are not available in our village.  Even if they were available they cost five dalase.  I know what you’re saying…five D, that’s like, I have no idea how many dollars.  We’ll don’t worry about it, it’s way too much for an egg.  Yes, there was an initial investment to build the coop and buy the chickens but if we get decent production I am sure we will make back our investment in what we could have/would have spent on eggs very soon.
In addition to now having eggs I am hoping to spark a little egg eating fire in the village.  Most people don’t eat eggs here.  From what we see, they don’t really eat the chickens either.  I’ve already had a few people interested in building their own coop at their compounds.  Whether they want to eat eggs, have lil’ baby chickens or both - it doesn’t matter to me.  I just hope I can show a few people that the results are much better if you take care of your chickens than if you just leave them to run free and die. 
I’ve also actually taught some villagers a lesson with my new chickens.  I’m sure a few of you out there don’t realize this either but a female chicken (hen) doesn’t need a rooster to make an egg.  People here keep asking me how I am going to have egg production without a male.  Without going into the intricacies of the reproductive system I just guarantee that a female chicken can in fact lay an egg without a male.  Who knows what else will come from this little egg project.  I hope to dabble a little bit in the duck business sometime soon.  For now, I’m happy to be digesting the greatest egg sandwich ever, while my egg vendors sleep soundly 10 feet out our window. 
In other new, the rains are now starting, we have only had a few showers so far but they are definitely coming.  From what we understand it’s a whole different ballgame in the rainy season, everything turns green, every bug in the world makes an appearance, and at the same time everyone abandons the village for the coos and rice fields.  We now get asked, almost daily, if we have a field and what we plan on growing.  I can generally get around it by saying I don’t have a field and just plan on working in the fields some to help my host father.  I’m sure I will do that some but I have no intention of becoming a full-fledged coos or rice farmer.  They already seem to know how to do that and don’t need any assistance.
The other day we did get our first lesson in tie and dye.  In case you aren’t sure what that is it’s most commonly known in the USA as Tie-Dye.  Here, tie AND dye.  A few women in the village learned to do it a few years back but only get to work on it when they get an order.  From what I’ve learned so far I don’t think they advertise much or seek jobs so they only do it maybe twice a year.  They really do seem to know what they are doing now and I think there is a lot of potential for them to advertise themselves, even just small small, and get a few extra jobs each year for some additional, much needed, cash.  For now, I am planning a little meeting with them in the next few days to discuss how much money they will actually make from this last contract and see what we think can be done going forward, if they want to do more.
I’m sure there are more things I could talk about but I think that’s all the blogging I can handle for now.  Kate is a much better blogger than I am as I am sure you can tell by the Kate-Ben blog ratio.  I’ll leave you with those few stories for now and try to have some other stuff happen to me that I can write about.  Oh yeah, I read Seabiscuit, An American Legend, it was awesome. Blog Out.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Thanks Again

We just want to say another Thank you to everyone who has sent us packages, or are sending us packages. Keep 'em coming, It is a tremendous help and is much appreciated!! Being able to eat familiar things and share some of it with our family is such a great thing and we are so grateful for everyone who has taken the time to send us anything! Thanks to everyones generosity I think we now have enough spices to last us the remainder of our time here so I've updated our 'do us a kindness' list to include things that we can't easily find here in the Gambia. Thanks again and keep us updated on your lives; We miss you!

Yaya's naming ceremony

We got to experience a naming ceremony from a broader spectrum this time around.  The morning of, visitors arrived from Sibou’s home village and Lamin’s work.  This was considered a small ceremony because Lamin couldn’t afford a goat and there weren’t that many outsiders.  A big one supposedly everyone gets decked out with asoebes and dances all night.
Lamin showed Ben the food he had for the ceremony the morning of, which consisted of rice, oil, and onions.  He told Ben it was a tradition to show the men the food before the ceremony.  I helped the women pound coos for the breakfast.  They love to laugh at my inability to do the things they do so well.
Lamin’s sisters are in charge of cooking th meals for the ceremony.  Sibou’s siblings came and gave her five outfits to wear for the day.  Her sister put make up on her and brought a wig for her to wear.  Apparently the latest fashion trend is to wear fake hair – for the evening portion of the ceremony, a few more women brought out the wigs. Nice.
At around , some old women brought the baby to the Griot. The Griot is the person who performs ceremonies such as these.  They pray and then the griot announces the name and kola nuts are passed around to elders.  Then they walked the baby back to our compound and gave him back to Sibou.  Then Sibou made her entrance outside for the first time in a week. She seemed really happy and when I asked why she was wearing a wig not a Tico (the standard African head tie) she said because you don’t always have to and today, she was girl. It seems strange to me that a week after you give birth you want to be around a hundred people and get dressed up, but I am not a mother so I don’t know.  The remainder of the day the women spent chatting and cooking in our compound wihle the men talked with Lamin over in another compound, and brewed attaya.
Lunch was served and then women left to change for the ‘contribution’ portion of the ceremony.  This is when the women brew sweet condensed milk and everyone gives 50 D to the mother.  The day ended about and people were still over chatting at 10 when we went to sleep. 
One neat thing was Lamin’s work people, the people he stays with when he goes fishing on the river, brought him lots of big catfish (that one man stayed up all night to catch), and vegetables for the lunch.  Lamin was really proud and happy about it and showed everyone and had us take pictures of the ingredients.  We’re pretty sure that our compound is one of the poorest in the village so we knew there probably wouldn’t be any meat at the ceremony.  According to mandinkas, no meat and no chagree (a yogurt, coos mixture) means the ceremony is ‘not sweet’. Well, there was no meat and very little charge but still guests from other villages came – and we were there with cameras.  Everyone seemed to have a good time.
Two people told us that it seemed like we were really enjoying ourselves, and in truth we were.  And at the end of the day, Lamin said he thanked God we were here and that we enjoyed the naming ceremony. 
Pounding coos with the lades

walking the baby to the next compound

Isatou and the biggest cooking pot ever.


women chattin

Sibou getting dolled up

Me, sibou and the kids

Baby Yaya Naata (has come)!

We have a brand new baby boy in our compound.  His name is Yaya and it was / will be interesting to be around with him.  Up until the day she delivered, Sibou cooked two meals a day, washed clothes and children, swept the compound and did all her regular duties in the 100 degree heat. The day Yaya arrived; she knocked on our door at around and said she was sick and going to the doctor on the village vehicle.  We said okay and went back to sleep, too tired to question how she was sick.
That night I was suspicious that ‘I’m sick’ really meant that the baby was coming so I called her phone to see how she was doing. (Sibou is the only one in the family with a mobile – she got it from her previous marriage) Our host dad’s sister answered the phone and told me in mandinka that Sibou had delivered a baby boy and both were doing great! I told a neighbor (thinking she would already know) and several women came in the compound and asked if it was true that Sibou delivered. It was great because our compound was really excited and everyone, including the kids, were really happy.  It also made me a tad nervous that maybe my ‘advanced’ mandinka skills had failed me and I had misheard considering no one else in the village seemed to know the news. I asked a neighbor, Howa, why Sibou didn’t tell us that she was having the baby, and that I would have traveled to the hospital with her; Howa told me that “we, the black society, consider it bad luck to tell people you are delivering.  Because if something happens during delivery, people will say it was because you told so and so or because so and so went with you to the hospital”. The next day Sibou and Yaya arrived on the village car! Everyone was really happy and still now people will ask us ‘Where is the baby?’ – a common greeting here.
The following week, mandinka tradition is to stay inside the house for a week until the naming ceremony.  Neighbors all came over to see the baby and women brought gifts to Sibou.  Normal gifts are soap, fabric, soap, sugar or money.  Sibou collected about 30 new pieces of fabric, and I’m sure lots of other goodies too.  She stayed inside her hot room all week and didn’t do anything but chat, sleep, and feed Yaya.  We were glad she could take a break but felt sorry she was in her hot room all week.  Being outside here is much nicer than being inside.  These mud homes are like ovens at times.
During the week I would go in and hang out with her and whomever was visiting. I introduced the card game Uno to her and some others and it was a hit.  I also brought her magazines and cooked the family a spaghetti dinner one night. They love my spaghetti. J I also had some funny conversations with Sibou. She was telling me about a women and I couldn’t place the name so I asked her what she looked like.  She looks at me with dead seriousness and says ‘she’s black’. I pause, waiting for some more description, and there is none. We both laugh and I say but everybody’s black. She was laughing and said ‘not me’, I said okay, not you. I still don’t know who she was talking about.
Sibou and Yaya (I tried to make this picture arty - did it work?)

baby Yaya

Mef Dreams

Meflequione is the malaria medicine the Peace Corps distributes. Sometimes it can cause people to have nightmares.  We have heard stories about vivid dreams of snakes crawling everywhere, spiders, and rat infestations, etc. Ben has had no problem what so ever, and I have had minor problems but not enough to want to switch to the other peace corps drug of choice: doxycylcine.  Mef, you take weekly but doxy you take daily.  They’re both not great drugs and have their positives and negatives, but I’ve decided the risk of a little liver damage is more favorable than the risk of getting cerebral malaria.
But recently I have had some dreams where I wake up and think ‘NO!’. Dreams of death, spiders, snakes, baboons….hardly.  I have had dreams where I’m at my favorite restaurants enjoying delicious meals and drinks with old friends! The hardest part is waking up and realizing it will most likely be 2 years until these dreams come true.  Food dreams…they are the worst.

Signs of Assimilation

We’ve noticed some things that we feel are signs that we are indeed adjusting to life here, slowly slowly.  Things that 6 months ago we wouldn’t have done or understood, we are now doing with little to no hesitations.
The other day, walking back from the garden, some young girls called out for me to come sit at a compound I regularly pass by.  I spied some baobobs and quickly veered inside the compound.  These girls were making baobob juice for a graduation and offered me some.  In the past, I would hesitate, thinking of the unknown water source that was in the cup being offered.  This time I quickly agreed and slurped up the deliciousness as any villager would have done (Its okay, it’s been a week and I’m not sick!).
Later, I was contemplating on what I would cook for dinner because based on the lunch received, we would not be eating too much of dinner.  Sibou informed me that there was a small marriage meal that was occurring at our neighbor’s compound (I still have no clue why this meal occurred).  Previously, I would think about my current hunger pains, run inside to eat a cliff bar of some sorts before heading out because I was most likely not going to be eating much of the food prepared at the ceremony.  But this time I just went. We sat down, chatted and in 20 minutes they brought out a platter of chicken skins and some unidentifiable part of the chicken that was left for me to eat – whatever it was, my appetite for anything remotely chicken made it taste absolutely delicious!  Later, they busted out a big platter of pasta and chicken cooked in oil and told me to bring it home to eat with Sana (This is what they do for honored guests).  I complied and we easily cleared our plates.  Back in January, we maybe would’ve stomached half the platter.
When the Spaniards came, they brought a lot of things with them. You can do that when you have a car. When I was over there waiting to bee keep, they offered me a coke – not only a coke, but a semi-cold coke! An extremely precious commodity in village.  Back in the states, I rarely drank cokes for reasons I won’t bore you with, but now consider it a wonderful little taste of America! I noticed how when the Spaniards asked me if I wanted something, I responded just how our villagers do when we ask them if they want something – with an eager, emphatic Yes, barely waiting for what is being offered to be said, and never saying no. 6 months ago, I would have hesitated, thought to myself ‘do I want to drink a coke right now? Do I need this sugary, carbonated substance in my body?’ but now, if someone offers me a coke – oh wow, what a foolish thing it would be to say no ;). I even went home to Ben and bragged how he missed out on the semi-cold coke by leaving early!
I got my hair braided, but this time, I didn’t take it out immediately that night.  Not because I love it - I am fully aware of how ridiculous it looks - but because it took Jeneba a really long time to do it, and all the village women love it.  Everywhere I go I get ‘dibayro ninyata, Juma le dibya?’ (Braids are nice! Who braided your hair?)  The funniest part about getting my hair braided is how the women all say how much Sana (Ben) will like it!

We both already have some different views on things by living here for 6 months.  Last night we were listening to the BBC on our shortwave radio and they were doing an interview with a Syrian refuge.  He was explaining how he was having trouble getting milk for his family and that they were running out. 6 months ago we may have thought, Oh man, those people need help.  However, last night, after hearing this I said ‘What? They have milk?! I want some’.  Ben laughed, as he was thinking the same thing. (disclaimer: This doesn’t mean we think the situation in Syria is not bad, it really sounds awful; I was just giving an example of how our train of thought have been altered in the past 6 months)
During our IST, we received another language test.  Much to our surprise and delight, the Peace Corps has determined that we both are now ‘Advanced’ Mandinka speakers.  And that fact will be proudly displayed on every resume for the rest of our lives.

Noo, A Banta (Coos, It is finished)

When we came back to village from IST, Sibou informed us that the coos was finished and our family was no longer eating breakfast.  This was bad to hear for obvious reasons, but for one, breakfast was both of our favorite meals.  Breakfast here consists of a coos porridge with sugar; when you add peanut butter, baobob, and honey to it, Oh its delicious! It was the one meal that every day we knew we could eat, and now – A banta. I asked Sibou why and she said ‘nothing’.  I ask her again and she explained how last rainy season, our other host mom Isatou had a baby, Lamin our host dad was sick, she herself had not arrived yet, so the only person who was farming was mama muso (grandma).  With this information, we were impressed that the coos made it this far! Mama muso is a good worker says Sibou, and wow we believe her!  
So I say that is not good and Sibou says emphatically ‘No Kaddy, Not Good!’. So I tell her that we’ll ask Solo what to do.  We can buy breakfast materials for ourselves, but these kids should be getting 3 meals a day! Upon consulting solo, he said it was up to Lamin, our host dad to deal with the matter because if he, or the wives do it –it will seem as if they are going over his head.  So we wait for Lamin to come home from working on the river.  Lamin has beein gone for over 2 weeks now and has not come.
According to Solo, there is still plenty of coos in the village, and Lamin will take care of it.  Inshallah, we will eat breakfast again before the next harvest in October/November.
Although we may not have breakfast, we are averaging 2-3 mangos a day now.  Mangos are delicious and I’ve wanted to dry some, make juice and jam, but we don’t leave any uneaten to do! Mango season lasts well into rainy season in our area so hopefully I will be able to leave some uneaten in order to make some of these things.  So don’t worry, although we may not be getting breakfast, we are getting much more nutrition and calories from the copious amounts of mangos we are consuming each week! Much more so probably than a month ago when we were getting breakfast.
Mango Tree - so delicious

The future is our country

The Spaniard that lives in our village, Luis, had members of his NGO called ‘The future is our country’ come down for a visit.  It was great to meet them and talk about the work they’re planning on doing in our village.  We’re starting to work together, although we’re not sure what it will shape up to be.  They have something we, as Peace Corps do not, money, a car, and actual resources.  However, we have something they do not, we can (kind of), speak mandinka and have an elementary understanding of our village and the people in it.
I did get the chance to suit up and go bee keeping in our village with Luis and two Gambians. Ben couldn’t come because the extra suit they had was too small for him. But I am still the height of an average man here in Gambia, as well as in Texas, so the suit fit me just fine.  We went to 3 hives and got half a huge trash can full of honey! I got to take some fresh honey in the comb home with me too.  Bee keeping in village was a bit different than at training; It was quite intense out in the African bush, and slightly an adrenaline rush.  Seeing the extremely full hives, extracting the honey, and then processing it ourselves was really cool.  And the honey tastes amazing, which makes it all worth it!  The wax we saved for baiting our future hive, and I am also going to teach the women how to make soap with it that they can sell.

Processing the honey

Our honey that we processed ourselves

Our honey is on the left; standard bush honey is on the right.

Stories from 3 month challenge

I could say we did a great job of completing all our 3 month challenge goals, but alas, we did not set any.  Looking back, I think our main objectives for our first 3 months were to:  1. Survive 2. Stay healthy 3. Get settled 4. Hang out with Gambians 4. Grow/build things 5. Get information about future projects
Based on that assessment, I’d say our 3 month challenge was a great success. I do feel we have better integrated in the village, improved our mandinka, and managed to grow/build things. Over IST, we heard some great stories of other volunteers 3 months.  Jen attained 4 cats during her 3 months and all died except one.  She also painted a mural on her round hut in village. Seth had the following things happen to him in a span of 4 days: phone stolen by small boys, 102 fever, kitten mauled by tom cat, and he was bitten by a dog.  He was also out in the bush and was chased down by a larger herd of baboons; he said he was scared for his life. Mike (or Big Fo as our counterpart Solo named him) killed the deadliest snake in the Gambia, a puffadler, skinned it, and ate it.  Remy bought huge bags of coos and beans because he was going to cook all his own meals, a task no one was going to attempt.  Once at site, he quickly discovered he had no idea how to cook coos and/or beans and in hast gave it all away to his family.  Apparently, Remy was looking pretty thin around month one.

In – Service Training

We successfully completed our 3 month challenge and attended our one and only environment in-service training (IST).  We are now free to move about the country / world; which we intend to do. Our training was a week of intense, tiring, 10 -12 hour days.  We learned more gardening, composting techniques, fruit tree grafting, and bee keeping. Bee keeping was our favorite.
We did this training at a non-profit called Bee-Cause run by two fabulous Brits.  They were great teachers and offer training to Gambians to promote bee keeping here.  Bee keeping is another untapped resource here in Gambia; our village bee keepers still climb trees and smoke bees out of their hives! It’s a crazy and dangerous practice that also kills the bees and leaves the honey tasting like smoke which makes it unmarketable internationally. Bee Cause teaches Gambians how to colonize hives in a way that uses local materials and how to process the honey and wax by hand. 
Before IST, I met up with some volunteers on the coast for a reunion and another volunteers going away party.  We stayed at a lodge on the beach, had a bonfire, and had a good time.  Ben wasn’t able to come because he went to play football on the village team for a big tournament.  They ended up losing and the other goalie got in a fight after the game, was issued a red card, and now Ben is the village team’s only goalie for the next 4 games.
After IST we stayed in the city a couple days to get supplies and some much needed rest.  We ate good food, hung out with friends, and watched the finals of the champion’s league.  The football game was a big deal here and we all went to a swanky hotel that opened just for the game that night.  Afterwards, the hotel hosted karaoke and Ben was the unofficial MC which proved to make quite a memorable and fun night.

Bee Keeping during IST

Hanging out on the beach with a bonfire

cow, beach, TIA