Salaam Malaekum... it has been a while since I have been able to update my blog, I think. The weather is beginning to get hot again. In fact, we're heading right into the "hot season." I'm not looking forward to it. The heat is worse as you get farther up-country (like say... Fatoto and Basse). One peace corps volunteer who lives in the Kombo told me that when he visited Basse last hot season, he was wearing a new hat. After walking outside in the heat for a few hours, the glue melted right off of the rim, ruining his hat. I rode my bicycle to Basse yesterday after school (I left around 11:00 am), and by the time I arrived here (about 1:15), anything that could melt in my bag, did melt (deoderant, soap, etc.) And it's not even close to how hot it will get, from what I've been told over and over again now... so enough of that talk...
My "sister-in-law" just had her baby. It's a little boy. We are naming the baby "James," after my father. I think I've now officially become part of my family here. It's quite an honor to have someone named after you. The whole village is excited as well. Everyone is talking about "Tokara Baba Maimuna" (or "Maimuna's father's name-sake.") It's definitely been a happy week in Fatoto. He is such a beautiful little boy! We will be having a naming ceremony in a few weeks, when I return from my trip to Dakar. Right now, I am at the beginning of my travels. In a few days, I'll be heading to Farafenni, then on to Dakar from there. My first trip out of the country since I arrived. And I hear that Dakar is an actual city... I'm curious and excited to see it. Hopefully, I will have more pictures and updates soon...
Here is something that I wrote in my journal about a week ago, and decided that it was a blog-worthy entry. So I typed it up and posted it along with this message.
Feb 2nd, 2008
I think the strangest thing about my life here in Africa is the feeling of duality… the mixture of “new” and “old” ways of living. I admit that one of the reasons why I wanted to come to a place like Africa was because of the appeal of living a simpler life – no running water, electricity, car payments, etc. – having to fend for myself and, in the process, hopefully finding a deeper connection to the earth and all of its basic processes… In many ways, I have found this, and I am happy in that sense. But what I didn’t expect was the side that “development” brings to the duality. The Gambia is an “undeveloped” nation… this is true…. But it has been in the process of development for decades now. The Peace Corps just celebrated its 40th year anniversary here. This means that well-meaning philanthropists and volunteers like myself have been working with people of The Gambia for a long time now. One of the results I see from this is that “development” here is viewed as a process of “catching-up” to the rest of the western world. The Africans see what the westerners have from the news, music, and travelers like myself – and they want these things – but they don’t understand the processes that developed nations went through to get to this stage. When America and Europe were developing, they didn’t see it as “development.” They were just searching for ways to improve their lives and at some point in the process, they became “developed.”
As a result of this difference in how development is approached, my “peaceful return to the simple life” is often disrupted by moments that seem out of place or just plain strange. Picture this: I am sitting with my family members who are singing and dancing to Fula music. Goats, donkeys, and chickens pass by at random. Someone walks over to the well to draw water for cooking dinner – then a cell phone rings to the tune of “Jingle Bells” (I once sang the words to jingle bells for them after hearing that cell phone ring. It struck me as absurd in the 100 degree heat. My sister had chosen the ring for its upbeat tune… she had no idea it was a Christmas song).
Or how about walking down a dirt road, passing women in brightly colored “compolets” with trays of bananas stacked high on their heads. A boy on a donkey cart passes me, going in the opposite direction. The sun is bright and the birds are everywhere (The Gambia is lacking in the kind of wildlife that makes us think of Africa due to hunting and loss of habitat, but birds are still in abundance)… then, a BMW comes pummeling past us, American “gangsta” music blasting.
These are the strange and slightly disorienting experiences I find myself in often. Some of them are just plain funny. I have often run to fetch my camera, hoping to catch the ironic moment on film.
Like the picture I took once in training village. Everything was new and funny then… Liza and Josiah called me out of my hut to show me a scene: The boys in my host family were in the process of attaching a medieval-looking plow to a large, underfed bull. Behind them was the village with all its different huts. Between the huts and boys with the bull, a shiny new American SUV had just pulled up. “Which of these things does not belong?” they asked me. We had a good laugh. I snapped a picture, and just shook my head.
Sometimes these dualities make me laugh – sometimes they make me want to cry. When I was first told that I would be teaching science, I pictured myself in a primitive classroom, teaching things to students that could, hopefully, improve their standards of living – like health related issues or the importance of environmental cleanliness. I have been teaching these things and more, but not in the way I would have imagined. I expected certain difficulties, like a lack of resources, but what I didn’t expect was the task of teaching students a western style curriculum without any of the resources provided in a western-style classroom. I have all the familiar trials a new teacher in America might experience: learning the “ways” of a new school and a new group of students; planning and teaching new lessons – many of which are topics I have never taught before; grading papers and dealing with absent and sick students who have to make up assignments or tests… but I have to do these things without a computer, an overhead projector, a photocopier, or resources to consult when I can’t remember the details of the topic I need to teach. The chalk board is my only means of teaching my students. They have no science textbooks, so they come with blank notebooks, and I give them whatever information I can, knowing perfectly well that I don’t have enough time to give them all of the topics they are required to learn… even if we did nothing but copy notes all day, with no explanation (which is what many teachers do here)… we still wouldn’t have enough time to cover it all. So I am thankful for the chalkboard, although I feel as though I am constantly battling with it. It is a concrete slab that has been painted black. The surface never gets completely clean, no matter how hard I try to erase it (I discovered early that using water will also eventually wipe some of the paint off of it too, so I quit that method). A while back, the school was given a shipment of chalk that was never meant for a chalk board… it was too hard, so it scratched the surface when you used it, and the writing was too light for the students to read. It took me twice as long to write anything, and since I had to press harder with this chalk, it actually made my hands tired by the end of a class! Now we have regular chalk again… thank god… but it’s still a battle sometimes… you can tell when the chalkboard wins, because I’m covered in chalk from head to toe by the time I leave school…