Sunday, August 19, 2007

I was finally able to work out the computer situation, which involved bringing Liza's computer to an internet cafe so we could access the file I typed on it... but here it is... it should sum up my training pretty well.... (We for-warned. It's a long passage)

Here are some thoughts I was able to type up while attending training sessions in Tendaba, where we have access to power, but no access to the internet. When I eventually get to an internet connection, it will be when we return to Kombo after training, and spend one week before moving to our sites. At that time, I will be competing with all the other internet-deprived trainees for computer time at either the Peace Corps headquarters or the internet café. So hopefully, this will save me some time (and money).
July 25th, 2007
So where to start… I have so much to say! For the past five weeks, I have been living in Jiroff, which is a Fula/Mandinka village in the Central area of Gambia, just a few kilometers south of the Gambia River. My home is a mud hut with a corrugated tin roof. My “bathroom area” is a fenced-in back yard with a covered hole in the ground (a pit latrine) and another area where I take my baths from a bucket. Bucket baths are my favorite part of the day. I love the feeling of bathing outside with the breeze and the birds flying overhead. I prefer a bucket- bath to a bath tub-bath, really. You may not believe it, but it is quite nice. I take one in the morning to help freshen up after a hot night of sleeping under my mosquito net, and another one after the hottest part of the day is over (usually sometime after 4:00). I fetch my own water for bathing and for drinking, and yes, I even carry it on my head. I don’t claim to do it well, but it is easier than carrying it by hand… most of the time, that is… I have been known to soak myself more than once trying to lift the bucket on top of or off of my head. Well water is fine for bathing, but before drinking it, I filter it and add a drop of bleach.
The two other peace corps trainees in Jiroff are Liza (who is a fellow Appalachian State graduate!) and Josiah. Our first week in Jiroff, we were given Gambian names at our naming ceremony. My Gambian name is Maimuna Bah (pronounced “my- moon-uh”). Sometimes, it is shortened to Muna. Liza’s Gambian name is Tida Jawo, and Josiah’ name is Demba Bah. Names are very important to Gambians. They are all named after someone else, which means that you hear the same names over and over again. Your namesake is called your toma (in Mankinka) or your tokara (in Pulaar). Anytime you meet someone new with the same name, you immediately have a connection to that person. Then there are certain family surnames that are “jokemates” to each other, so anytime you meet a jokemate, it’s yet another connection. For example, my surname, Bah, is jokemate to the Jalo surname. Just a little while ago, I walked to the bitik (small village shop) and began chatting with a Fula man. When he found out I was a Bah, he laughed and said he was a Jalo, and we instantly were able to joke. I told him Jalo’s have big heads, and he told me Bah’s eat too much. That’s how Gambians joke. I’m finally starting to get used to it… they LOVE to joke.
My family is large, but not as big as some families, because only one of of the men in my compound has more than one wive and he only has two. Families get really big with multiple wives. One Peace Corps Trainee I talked to has over 20 brothers and sisters. I’m not really sure how many I have because a lot of the people I refer to as siblings are really cousins or second cousins. The father of my compound died several years ago, so his eldest son, Mombano, is now officially the head of the compound, and therefore, my “father,” but I only just met him for the first time a few days ago because he works outside of Jiroff and comes back for visits. The next oldest brother, Ebou, would be considered my uncle by American standards, but here he is also my father. In Gambia, your father’s brothers are also your fathers, and your mother’s sisters are also your mothers. So therefore, any of their children are called your siblings, not your cousins. Your father’s sister is your gorgol (Aunt) and your mother’s brother is your kaw (uncle). The children of your gorgol or kaw are your dendiraabes (cousins) as well as your jokemates. (In the same way different surnames joke, different family members have joking relationships as well.) And just to add to the chaos… Ebou and his wife, Juma, pretty much call themselves my brother and sister instead of my mother and father, because Juma is two years younger than me, and Ebou is older than me, but not by much. Their children, Bintu and Lamin, are like a niece and nephew to me. So are you all thoroughly confused yet? Good… welcome to my life… and to make matters even more confusing, pretty soon now, I will be starting all over again with a new family (and maybe even a new name). My closest family members have been Juma and her children (Bintu and Lamin), and my cousin (or brother?? I’m not sure), Abdoulei, who is now back at school in Kombo. I am hoping to post pictures of all of them if I have time on this blog.
Here are some things I’ve had to get used to about village life.
1. All the farm animals. The village has goats, sheep, donkeys, chickens and roosters, cows and bulls, and horses. The animals roam freely. The goats and donkeys love to sit against walls where it is shady during the day and dry when it rains. This usually means my front porch is a favorite sitting spot. Occasionally, in the morning, I open my door and wake up a goat or sheep that was sleeping right in front of it. It also means I have to sweep the poop off of my porch a few times a day. And they make noises at all times of the day. Have you ever heard the noise a donkey makes? It really sounds like some sort of prehistoric dinosaur. It was a little unnerving at first. And oh yeah, roosters crow at ALL HOURS of the day… not just at dawn. Whoever came up with that obviously never lived with roosters.
2. Being the center of attention wherever I go and whatever I do. Anything I do seems to be interesting. Since its too hot inside during the day, I like to sit under a tree somewhere to study or write letters. You wouldn’t think that would be a very exciting thing to watch… but just walking out my door and sitting down usually draws a crowd. Sometimes, it’s really helpful if I’m studying and would like to practice some of the new vocabulary I just learned, but sometimes they want to help so much that I never get anything accomplished. And sometimes, they just sit silently and watch. We’ve started calling it “Toubab television.” And that’s in our village where everyone knows us now. When we get on our bikes and ride over to the next village, the children stop what they are doing and chase after us shouting “Toubab! Toubab! Toubab!” I’m finally beginning to understand why they do this. The kids are so accustomed to trucks with tourists traveling on packaged tours coming through these villages handing out candy and balloons like they are featured on some sort of parade float. So anytime they see a white person, they’re hoping for something free. They always ask for pens. That must be a favorite give-away item.
3. The lack of any sort of waste disposal department in the Gambia. While they tend to keep their compounds very clean (the women sweep the animal droppings and trash off of the ground every day), there is just nowhere to put their trash. So it all gets dumped on the ground outside of the village. Then the children go through it and make toys from things. I have seen some awfully creative inventions. I’ve learned that you can do just about anything with bottle caps, empty tin cans, flip flops, and worn-out fabric. They also love to play with old batteries, which is why I’ve begun disposing of my used batteries in my pit latrine.
4. Bugs and spiders. Big ones. Lots of them…. Still getting use to them. Luckily, I haven’t seen a live scorpion yet, but I’m watching out for them. One of Liza’s brothers brought a dead one to show us, and we saw a huge dead one on the road the other day. So I know what to look for, but hopefully won’t see too many of them.
5. The roads here are something else. If anyone comes to visit, you will see what I mean. On the south highway, most of the vehicles don’t even use the actual road… it’s easier to just drive on the side of it. I even have a hard time riding my mountain bike over them. Right now, Peace Corps transports us to most places we need to go, but we’ve had some “practice” with public transportation. Public transportation consists of standing on the side of a road and waiting (sometimes all day) for a gile gile, in which you squeeze as many people as you possibly can (I counted 25 in our 16 seat van). This is how I will be getting from place to place on my own after training is over. The last trip I took in a gile, I was sitting almost on the lap of the Gambian next to me. Forget a need for personal space. I suppose I’ll get used to it. It would be a bit more bearable though if the trip wasn’t so bumpy.
July 27, 2007
Right now, I am in the middle of our two week training session at Tendaba. Today is Friday of the first week, and it has been a busy week. We began our first week of “Model School,” which basically entails gathering students from the surrounding areas who attend Kwinella school (which is close to Tendaba), and “teaching them” for two weeks. It is the Peace Corps’ way of introducing us to what it is like to teach in a Gambian classroom before we actually have to do it for good. It has been a valuable experience in many ways, but it has made for a very hectic and confusing week. We were given our teaching schedule about a week before coming to Tendaba, and were told to begin planning lessons and creating teaching aids for our lessons. They told us to keep in mind that the students possess varying English skills, and we might want to consider using textbooks that are two to three levels below the grade of the students to plan our lessons (We were given Gambian textbooks to use as planning resources)… and that was all the information we were given… so I knew that I was teaching 8th grade English and 9th grade science, but I didn’t know if the students would have paper or pencils, if there would be chalk boards or anything at all… I just had to pick a few ideas and go with it. It has certainly been a challenge, but I enjoy it too. We’ve all been able to share ideas, which has helped me tremendously in planning. So each day this week, our schedule went like this: we taught at model school from 8:00 until 12:00, debriefed on the day until 12:30, drove back to Tendaba, ate lunch, then finished the rest of our own training courses for the rest of the day until dinner… including more language training, first aid techniques, health tips, and how to do various repairs on our homes once we get to site (such as fixing screens, windows, doors, and filling in cement cracks in our pit latrines). In addition, we took our 2nd of 3 language tests on Tuesday, and on Thursday we held a four hour workshop to meet with our counterparts for when we get to our sites and begin planning our first three months of service. And now, just incase this week wasn’t enough, we are leaving at 7:00 tomorrow morning for a 25 km hike called the “marathon march” aka the “march of death.” I think it’s safe to assume that we will all really deserve a break by the time Sunday comes around. I am really looking forward to the hike tomorrow though… supposedly we’ll all be just tromping through the mud all day long, but we will probably see baboons and monkeys, and possibly hyenas. I’m definitely bringing my camera.
Since we met with our counterparts yesterday, we all now know where we will be posted. It was an exciting day. I am posted in a town called Fatoto. I will be teaching science at Fatoto senior secondary school (grades 10-12), but I was told that I may also be working closely with the primary school in Fatoto as well. I’ll know more on that later. So you may be wondering where in The Gambia Fatoto is… well, if you happen to have a map of The Gambia with you, just simply follow the Gambia river almost as far east into the country as it goes… almost all the way to Senegal, just south of the Gambia River (it’s much narrower here)… and there you have it… I am the farthest posting in my group, and I may very well be the farthest posted Peace Corps volunteer in The Gambia (the farthest, that is, from the coast, and the capital). Although I may be far away from most members of my group, there are several Peace Corps volunteers posted near me, including Liza, who is posted in Basse. Basse is one of the larger towns in the Gambia, and it’s only about a half an hour trip away from Fatoto. Fatoto is a large village which is very close to the river. At that point, the Gambia River is no longer a salt river, but is fresh water, and I have been told there are three hippos living near my town!!

Long before I came to Africa, I wondered which things in my life I would miss the most… so here is a list of things that I have come up with…
1. Cold drinks of ANY kind. We have figured out that if you wrap your bottle in a wet cloth, it keeps it from getting too hot. I wouldn’t go so far to say it keeps it cool, but it’s much better than very warm water. We like to joke about “putting that drink on water” (you know, like you would say, ‘put it on ice’) ha ha ha
2. Fabric softener. All I can say is line-dryed underwear is just not the same. For that matter, truly clean clothes would be great too. Luckily, I pay my family to wash most things for me… but sometimes, I wash my clothes myself, and I’ve only been somewhat successful at getting them truly clean. Not to mention all the extra buckets of water that I have to haul from the water pump in order to do my own laundry.
3. Fresh vegetables. Sometimes vegetables in any form are hard to find, but even when we have them, they have been cooked to the point that they are more like a sauce than vegetables. I am taking multi-vitamins to make up for the nutrient deficiency, but I miss raw foods!!
4. Internet access… this, I have mixed feelings about, because it’s nice in some ways to feel a little disconnected. But there have been several times now, that I’ve really wanted to google something… like when I was planning for my lessons for model school… I can’t just run to a computer and look up ideas, or definitions, or anything at all.
5. Mountains. I live in a flood plain. Enough said.
July 31, 2007
Still in Tendaba now, and I’m ready to finish this week and get back to Jiroff for my final 10 days there. The marathon march went well, but later in the evening, I managed to get sick again. That was on Saturday, and it is now Tuesday, and I haven’t completely recovered. In fact, I’m missing model school today because of it. At least, I have a fan in my room here. Getting sick in the village is rough enough, but trying to recover in a hot hut in the middle of the day is worse. I probably just ate something I shouldn’t have. That’s the thing about being a trainee. You just have to go make due with what is given to you. In the village, I eat breakfast and dinner with my family, and the Peace Corps provides our lunch. We do not have the option to cook for ourselves, so we eat whatever is given to us, whenever it is ready. That means dinner is usually served around 9:00, which is pretty late for me. Here in Tendaba, we get a little bit more variety of foods, but they tend to use milk and butter in some of these recipes, so I have to be careful about what I eat. I’ve been very excited to get eggs here, but the Peace Corps medical officer thinks it might be the eggs that made me sick on Saturday… so I guess its back to plain bread for breakfast, since I can’t have the butter or soft cheese they serve with it either. Sometimes I dip my bread in sugar… I know that’s bad, but plain bread gets old after a while. I eat plenty of rice, bread, and sugar. My diet does not lack carbohydrates…. That’s for sure! When I get to my site, I am going to cook most of my meals for myself. I might do lunch with my family, but that’s it. I’ve gotten lots of cooking suggestions from other Peace Corps volunteers. We’ve even been given a cookbook with recipes that have been put together by previous volunteers. It will be a lot like car-camping for two years since I’ll be cooking with a gas stove, but I’ve cooked some pretty delicious meals that way before. I’m looking forward to it.
Here’s a few events from training that I’ve been wanting to share:
  • I spent my 29th birthday in Jiroff. Liza and Josiah cooked me an “American” dinner of macaroni with tomato sauce and garlic bread. It was delicious. My birthday happened to fall on a weekend that there was an event going on in the village. The villagers were up drumming, dancing, and singing late into the night. I watched for a little bit. Me and Josiah even got in the circle and danced a little. Oh, how funny a dancing Toubab looks to a Gambian. There was a full moon and everything. What a way to celebrate a birthday. The next day, some of the other trainees from nearby villages biked to Jiroff and surprised me with a birthday “cake” (crackers with nutella), some packets of flavor mix to make juice from water, and three nails (I’m saving these up for when I get to my permanent site). It was a very nice weekend.
  • Tendaba camp is a “rustic” tourist community. The Peace Corps uses it for training sessions, but other groups use it as well. The last training session we had here was for four days over fourth of July. In the afternoon on July 4th, one of the huts caught on fire. We were all in the middle of a training session when we heard the news. We ran out to see the straw roof completely consumed with flames. The Tendaba staff and members from the surrounding community were frantically running buckets of water from the swimming pool and tap to pour on the fire. After the shock of the situation wore off a bit, I grabbed an empty bucket and began to help… we all just grabbed whatever we could find and started filling our buckets with pool or river water. They managed to put out the fire before it spread to the other huts, but most of the woman’s possessions who was staying in that hut were completely ruined. At least no one was hurt. I kept thinking about my brother, Eric, who is a firefighter. They don’t have big fire trucks here. This is how it’s done. I wondered if he would have done anything differently. Later that evening, despite the events of the day, the Tendaba owners gave us a GambiaAmerican 4th of July cook-out. I felt that was pretty amazing after all they had been through that day. That is the Gambian way. They always make you feel welcome. What an intense day… fourth of July in Africa. Instead of fireworks, we fought a fire.

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