Tuesday, July 24, 2012

80 Kilometer Coastline Hike

I joined three girls in an 80 km (50 mile) hike along the whole Gambia Coastline in the beginning of July.  It took us about 3 ½ days and although tough on our feet, shoes, and legs, we had a lot of fun.  And we got to see the Gambian coastline in its entirety.  We finished on the north bank in a national park called Ginak Island.  None of us had been there and we stayed with a Peace Corps employee’s family.  To get to the island you take a small canoe and it was really pretty.   Highlights of the trip included seeing the presidents new mosque which looks like a hotel, meeting a British man who claimed to have been an advisor to the president 20 years ago, seeing a washed up big turtle, the ‘cliffs of Tanji’, being chased by multiple sets of children, and being followed for 6 hours by 2 stray dogs.
Move Cows, get out the way

The Sheraton Gambia wouldn't let us in for some reason...maybe it was the stray dogs following us up to the pool?

Crossing the river to Barra


Ginak Island

The start!

A nice village outside Kartong

The Abby's

Our Triumphant Finish
Our feet were not as happy

Rainy Season / Ramadan

We have now reached the time of year in the Gambia where our sahalian, sub-tropical savannah shrubland turns into a tropical forest.  And this year is different because it is raining a lot! This is nice because it cools off faster and the rain is a nice change from the hot hot sun.  However, with the added rain come added creatures.  There are a lot more bugs this year than last year!  And you have to be more vigilant where you walk and grab.  Last week, I was taking our laundry off the local palm stalk fence and almost grabbed a green snake taking a nap under a pair of Ben’s shorts.  I told the old man walking by to be careful, a snake is here.  He looked down and quickly decapitated it with the machete he was holding.  It was just a common bush snake though, we are lucky not to have seen cobras or puff adders like other volunteers.

It is dead

Samba, our neighbor, helping his Moms collect firewood

We have also just entered the month of Ramadan.  Ramadan is nice for us because we get a good meal of noodles, spam, oil, and onions for “break fast” right after sunset.  Break Fast is supposed to be really delicious meals, usually with tea.  For our village that means noodles and canned meat, and we are not complaining!  Neither of us are observing the fast, but we don’t eat or drink in front of anyone in our village during Ramadan.

Shierrifo, Binta, Alpha and me enjoying some rainy day popcorn

USAID Food Security Grant

Back in February, I started working on a USAID food security grant to plant 50 fruit tree seedlings at three schools in our area.  One school is our village’s lower basic school and the two other schools  are in Ndembang where Jessica lives.  The previous month I have been working to make arrangements for this project.  Things move slowly here and although we were supposed to receive the money in April, we did not receive approval until June.  After approval was granted, it took me another month to actually get the money.  By this time, I had a very short amount of time to purchase the seedlings, fencing materials, and get them to the schools before school let out.  But we managed, and thus far all the schools have planted the seedlings and protected them.   Each school received these types of trees: coconut, Cleopatra mandarin, lime, sweet orange, sweet grapefruit, avodaco, sweet/sour soup, and two different varieties of mangos.

Measuring correct spacing

Bakary planting a sweet orange tree

Head Master, Head Teacher, and Jerreh fencing off a lime tree

The diversity of these trees are not found anywhere else in our area (excluding perhaps an NGO) and will help the schools and community for years to come by increasing nutrition, money, and adding a variety of trees planted in the area.  Citrus fruits bring in decent money right now in the Gambia so we made sure to get ample supply of citrus seedlings.  All the schools were very happy with the selection and I hope that will aid in the success of maintaining the seedlings.
Tree planting is hard work, but maintenance can be a frequent problem in the Gambia.  So I have allocated extra funds to have a completion between the three schools.  Kaddy & Fanta’s Tree Competition will give the school with the best orchard 3,000 Dalasi (approximately 100 USD).  Students who maintain their tree guards will receive certificates, and students who keep their trees alive will receive a prize.  And at each school, the student with the best managed tree will get a prize worth 300 Dalasi (about 10 dollars).  Because Jessica (Gambian name – Fanta) is finished with her service and going back to America in August, I will check up on the schools in October, and award prizes in December.  The students seem to be excited about it and I hope they will keep up the enthusiasm throughout the next school year.

Jessica/Fanta and Lamin talking business

Coconut trees

Kaddy Getuh’s Library and Resource Center Open!

It seems that all my projects are wrapping up nicely and came about in the span of these last 2 months.  The first one of these was the library project at our school.  It was finished, painted, and opened right at the end of the school year.  I asked our site mate Jessica to come down and talk to the head master and help us organize the library. Jessica has worked on a couple different libraries in her service and she helped us catalog and sort out our 750 books.  We organized the books by easy picture books, medium picture books, advanced fiction, non-fiction, textbooks, magazines and teacher resources.  Jessica also suggested having a volunteer from the village run the library instead of a teacher.  The head master took her suggestion and it is going well so far.  The kids seem to really like the library.  When I’m there kids ask me about pictures, words, and a few like to hear me read.  Especially Dr. Seuss’s ‘One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish’ which they call ‘fish fish fish’.
We color coded all the books by sections and the students and teachers both seem to be getting the hang of putting books back according to color. Thanks to everyone who sent books, they are being put to good use!
Students help to clean up

World Food Program Trek

In June, I had the opportunity to help another volunteer coordinate a trek across the country with World Food Program (WFP) and the Ministry of Agriculture.  The trek was to train head gardeners in schools participating in the WFP school garden program.  WFP provides schools with fencing, tools, seeds, training, and books.  This trek went to all 5 regions in the Gambia where we trained participants on the following: garden prep, composting, Moringa, live fencing, incorporating the garden into lesson plans, nutrition in the garden, pest control, action plans, and record keeping.  I helped co-manage the trek which entailed teaching sessions, distributing per diems, keeping time, and coordinating the guest lectures. The trek was two days at each region and lasted 10 days.  It was a lot of fun seeing the whole country and hanging out with volunteers I don’t normally get to see at site, but afterwards I was completely exhausted!

The sessions I led were on Moringa, live fencing, and incorporating the garden into lesson plans.  Another more informal task I had was to keep my Gambian counterparts on subject.  Most Gambians are gifted speakers and can talk at length about any subject at anytime, and are often more than willing to do so.  This can often allow speakers to get completely off topic and go on for any amount of time given.  I had to constantly remind speakers to remain on topic and of time restraints.  To give good examples of this, I kept a list of quotes that were said at some point during our 10 day trek:
This is the worldwide web. Nobody would be mad enough to put something untrue on here!
All work and no play make jack a nonsensical girl….or boy.
Hunger is a 3rd religion challenging Christianity and Islam – and football too, is challenging.
We dissolved 4 cubes of jumbo (a bouillon cube) in water and a donkey drank it and was immediately castrated.
Pest control lesson: You can use birds to peck insects.
Spain is going. Greece is gone. France is going down! You will all have to be farmers.
To drink cold water is bad for your diet, but hot water is okay.
Using a rake can increase children’s ‘Psycho Moto’ Skills.
Inexplicably hostile live fencing argument: There is nothing more beautiful than watching a tree grow.
You can’t make this stuff up!
My favorite story from the trek was when I went to see how the bed preparation was going and found my counterpart and participants chopping down a tree.  I arrived at the moment where the tree was falling and watched about 5 grown men dive out of the way.  I said, “Mr.Barry, Why?!” and he responds quite passionately, “We need the seeds Kaddy! They will take them back and they will plant them!” 
Mr.Barry avidly teaching garden bed preparation

Ben Blog

Soooo its time for another Ben Blog.  I’m sure you all have missed me since my last blog and been patiently waiting.  There have been some ups and downs over the last few months so I will just fill everyone in on a few of the things.
First of all, beekeeping season is over. I know, I know, very sad.  The season ends when the bees hunker down for the rainy season and stop making honey.   Luis (who is the boss of the beekeeping) wanted to wait until the people who paid for the project came here to harvest so they could participate.  They came at the end of June and we spent a few days harvesting.  Unfortunately things did not go great.  The bees behaved themselves and everything.  The main issue was that there wasn’t as much honey as we were hoping for.  So when we were going to get the honey I had to gather the village folk who were supposed to help us.  After gathering them up we sat around waiting for some kids to bring the donkey in from the bush.  We needed the donkey to transport the honey.  That only took an hour or so.  We finally got out to the boxes.  Did the harvesting thing and returned to a donkey cart WITH NO DONKEY! After all the waiting around to get the donkey, the donkey apparently had to go home before we were done harvesting the honey.  I was unaware the donkey had a curfew but apparently it did.  Luckily we had a team of donkey cart pulling small boys and solved that problem.  Anyway, when we finished with everything we noticed that we did not have nearly as much honey as last year.  The Spanish beekeeper guy who was here helping suspect (based on experience in Spain) that thanks to a poor rainy season last year we had a poor flowering season this year and had poor honey production.  I confirmed that honey production was poor in other places around the country with a beekeeping friend who spends a lot of time going around the country with his NGO helping beekeepers.  So I guess in the end that was a little disappointing.  The good news is that so far this has been a really good (really rainy) rainy season so hopefully that will mean they will get a lot of honey next year.
In other news of Luis he successfully had a marabou (traditional healer/witch doctor) fix his little problem of having a bad juju (curse) put on his farm from a guy he fired…close call right!  Luis has a “farm” he is constructing.  It involves a lot of concrete walls.  He suspected the guy in charge was stealing bags of concrete and selling them on the side to people in the village so he fired that guy.  I assume some other people in the village informed him that this man then put a curse on him and his farm and that he needed to see the local marabou to reverse the curse.  Like a good Spanish-African he did what he was told.  Based on the fact that nothing terrible has happened to him I guess it worked.  After the marabou did whatever it is he does he told Luis that he had to give charity (this is normal) and he had to cook some specific amount of rice and kill a duck or two and feed people.  We were around at the time of the charity so we go to attend.  The funny part that I noticed was that the people who attended the small charity meal were the very same people that Luis suspected of buying, at a discounted price, the stolen concrete and had been using it to construct a wall at their own compound. EVERYONE’S A WINNER!
Finally, sadly, my tie-and-dye project is finished and it was a pretty disappointing finale.  Here is the basic story of how things unfolded.  When we first came to village there was a compound run by a Women’s Health NGO called Bafrow.  In the year and a half we have lived in the village we have never seen them do anything.  The facility was a really nice phone charging station.  I think the real story is that they had some funding issues and had to put a stop on their program.  I will give Bafrow credit for being the organization who gave the initial tie-and-dye training that helped kick off my project but they also get credit for killing it.  If you will recall from my blog about this group that there were a few women making and selling dyed fabrics in the village.  Those women had been trained through Bafrow’s project a few years back.  We (me and 32 women) then started the group I had been working with for the last 10 month.  The entire project was funded by start up cash that these women put up last year and we were doing quite well.  The group was working on registering with the government, we were about to invest in some of the materials necessary to make more kinds of tie-and-dye and it was going really well…then Bafrow returned.  They came back to restart their project.  The women told them they had been doing tie-and-dye and Bafrow said great, they could help.  When I went to the compound I saw that they, the Bafrow people, had purchased and brought a bunch of the materials used for dying.  I was a little worried because it looked like they were giving the women a bunch of the stuff that I had worked to get the women to buy themselves.  So I went to the women running the project and asked what their plan was with their project.  They explained that this was not a new project; they were continuing a project they have been doing for 10 years (even though they haven’t been there for the last year and a half).  It took some explaining to get them to understand that the current tie-and-dye group was not a continuation of their project but something we set up ourselves.  My pitch to them was that it was great they were there.  We would welcome training and even some help with materials but they had to understand that these 32 women had made a financial commitment to our group and the work of that group needed to be treated separately from the Bafrow project which is for all the women of the village.  After some confusing discussion they decided that this was not possible for them.  Again, they were not starting a new project that had any obligation to work with my project.  They were continuing a project for all the women of the village that has been there for 10 years.  After that unsuccessful meeting I knew things were not going to go my way.  I had to call a meeting for my women and explain the situation.  We could continue our project, do all the same things and keep working but it was completely separate from what Bafrow was doing.   We would still have to invest the money in materials needed to continue on our own.  In the end the group decided that they should work with the Bafrow project because it was for all the women of the village and (I agree) there isn’t really a lot of room in a village of 250 (mostly kids) for two projects to make and sell tie-and-dye so we shut it down.  I don’t really blame the women who made that decision.  They just did what they thought seemed right and I didn’t expect to be able to compete with an NGO giving away free materials when I was always asking them to invest their own money.  In the end each woman who put in 150 dalasi last summer is going to get about 700 dalasis once all the money is collected so that’s good I guess.
Those are pretty much the highlights of my recent past here in The Gambia.  That and as soon as I get my hands on it I will be finished with all the currently published books in the Song of Fire and Ice (Game of Thrones for you Americans who don’t/can’t read) series.  If you want to talk about Jon Snow and the war in Westeros call me.
Ben's Game of Thrones reading being interrupted by Adama, Howa and Fatou.