Here are some things I typed up a few days ago...
I am sitting on the island of Janjanbureh, which is a small, historic island on The Gambia River. I am here for a short break from school visiting some other Peace Corps Volunteers and exchanging ideas for science experiments and community projects. It is quite peaceful here. I have been very busy for the past month. It’s nice to relax and reflect on some of the things I have been through lately. When I am in village, I often think of things I would like to type on my blog, but then when I travel to Basse or to somewhere with internet, I loose the inspiration, or I get so frustrated with the computer that I am working on that I give up and just type something quick or nothing at all… so now that I am borrowing a friend’s computer, and I am not feeling rushed, I would like to share some of my every-day experiences…
This is my daily routine in village. I wake up before sunrise and go for a run. It’s the best part of the day for me. Half of the village is still asleep, so I don’t feel rude about not stopping to greet all of the people that I pass along my way. It’s also much cooler in the mornings. Now, when I say cool, I mean it’s in the low 80’s, or maybe even just under 80 degrees if I’m lucky. But at this point, that’s cool, crisp weather for me! When I begin my run, it’s still rather dark outside… I run westward towards and up the big hill (“big” is also a relative term… what I once thought was tiny, is now a large hill to me!), so by the time I turn around and run eastward home, I get a nice view of the sunrise. After a quick bath and a cup of instant coffee, I ride my bike to school. In between classes, we take a 25 minute break, and local women come to the school to sell breakfast to the students. The most common food item sold is beans and bread. You can order a whole loaf of bread or a half loaf of bread. The bread is pretty much the same everywhere in The Gambia. It’s a white loaf about 6-8 inches long which looks something like French bread. They cut the loaf open, put beans inside and top it with “sauce.” The sauce is usually onions and small pieces of pasta cooked in oil with spices. Gambians love oil, so if I don’t specifically ask them not to, they pour some of the oily sauce over the beans, then add a couple extra spoonfuls of plain oil. Sometimes, my bean sandwich is dripping in oil… I’ve tried to explain that this is too much… my favorite bean sandwich lady usually knows I don’t want the oil, but sometimes she forgets. Other women sell just plain bread with sauce (no beans), fish on bread with sauce, or a bowl of something called ebe, which is a fish and cassava soup (cassava is kind of like a potato or a yam). Breakfast usually costs me about 5 dalsai (that’s roughly a quarter).
The morning shift ends at 1:15, but I teach after-school classes on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, so I on those days I leave at about 3:00. On Thursdays and Fridays I leave earlier. Right now, the weather has gotten very, very hot… so by the time I leave from school, I’m usually covered in sweat and ready to cool off. One of the best things that has happened in my life recently is that my favorite bitik owner (bitiks are small, local shops) just bought a refrigerator. He now sells bags of cold water, but the degree of coldness is unreliable. The areas of Fatoto that are wired for electricity only get current at certain times of the day, and on some days, there is no current at all. But even so, the water inside his refrigerator will still be cooler than my own warm (or just plain hot) water at home. So I’ve been leaving my water bottle in his fridge, and I go to pick it up after school. I drop it off again in the evening so that it can cool again for the next day. It’s amazing how much of a difference it makes in my day to have a little cool water.
When I get home, I eat the lunch that has been prepared by my family. This is always rice and usually fish, with some sort of peanut-based, or oil-based sauce (once again, more oil). At this point in my day, I usually just look at my watch and count down the hours until the sun begins to set. It’s the most difficult part of the day for me. It’s too hot to do much at all. I’m usually quite tired, so my first impulse is to lie down and take a nap. This is what most of the Gambians do between 2 and 5… is lie around and nap. I can’t blame them. But when I do try to nap, I’m so uncomfortably hot that I just get annoyed and have to get up again. The winds are still strong, but unlike the winds in December and January, these winds are very hot… it’s like opening an oven door. So they offer no relief from the heat… and often make it worse. I find myself experimenting with different ways to sit or lie that may facilitate heat loss from my body. Any surface of my body touching another surface will soon be soaked in sweat, so if I am trying to lie down, I have to switch positions constantly to allow myself to dry off a bit on whatever side I was just lying on. The best position seems to be lying on my back with my legs stretched out and my arms over my head. Any part of my body touching another part of my body generates too much heat, so I try not to rest my arms next to or on my body… I realize this may seem like a pretty pathetic way to spend my afternoon… but it’s what I do… it makes the hours seem pretty long indeed. I often just get fed up with it all and go for a walk. My family thinks this is crazy, but at least if I’m standing, I may get a bit of a breeze on all parts of my body. Bucket baths are my saving grace. I try to wait until as close to 5:00 or 6:00 as possible for my afternoon bath (so that I won’t just continue to sweat as soon as the bath is finished), but sometimes I just have to cool off earlier than that… I can always take another later (and often do).
Once the sun begins to set and it cools down a bit, I can actually focus enough to start doing some work… grading papers, planning lessons, etc. This may take only an hour, but often much longer. I now do most of my work in my backyard. It’s too hot in the house. I bring my small desk outside and sit and work by candlelight. At some point, I take a break to cook dinner, then hang out and chat with my family. Also, students sporadically stop by for extra help, so sometimes I spent a good bit of my time with them. I also spend a good bit of time with little James, the baby who was named after my father. Sometimes, if I have been working for too long and haven’t gone to sit with the family, they just bring him to me. He sits in my lap or lies beside me while I grade papers, or do other work. He seems to like my music, so sometimes we listen to music together and I’ll bounce him around my hut for a while. When it’s time for bed, I sleep outside on a small wooden bed that my carpenter friend built for me. If it cools off enough in the early morning, I get up and move inside, but lately, I’ve slept just fine in my back yard until it’s time to get up and start the day over again. So that’s my day… it’s not the most exciting life, but it’s a good routine for me.
Little James’s naming ceremony:
It is tradition here to hold a naming ceremony a week after the birth of a new child. When Samba (my brother) and his wife, Susana had the new baby, I was leaving for my trip to Dakar… and since the baby would be named for my father, they put off the ceremony until I returned. This was my first real naming ceremony in Africa. Our training village put on a small ceremony for us trainees, to give us our African names, but it was just for fun. James’s naming ceremony was a fun and exhausting process to be a part of. I think the most amazing thing about this experience for me was that how much work was involved in the process. There is no way one family alone can accomplish all of the work required for an event like this. I think about the big celebrations that families in the US have: weddings, graduations, etc. Think about trying to accomplish the same amount of work that is required for one of those events: cooking food, arranging for entertainment, preparing the place that the event will be held to hold hundreds of people… but it is all done African style. All of the food is prepared the way everything in Africa is prepared: from scratch. Chairs and equipment needed for music are all hauled in by foot or donkey cart (we borrowed chairs from my school, and many of the students pitched in to carry them to the compound). There is no such thing as hiring a cook or a caterer. And there is no such thing as buying food in bulk at Sam’s club to be cooked. We slaughtered three goats for the occasion. Women from the community gathered at my compound for two days before the event, helping to pound grains for the breakfast porriage that would be served, and cooking sweets and snacks that would be handed out to guests throughout the day. I watched over 30 women taking turns pounding grains for the event. Even with all of the women helping, it still took several hours to do. It’s also something of a social event and a way of showing that you are happy for the new family by coming and helping with preparations for the ceremony. Like everything else, it is tradition, but it is a truly inspiring thing to watch. The entire community does whatever they can to help. And it all came together beautifully. The ceremony started in the morning and lasted until about midnight. There was traditional fula music as well as a D.J. with a huge sound system (the speakers were sitting right next to my hut… lucky me)… all powered by a generator. There was breakfast and a large lunch/dinner meal. The family had borrowed a donkey cart to haul in dozens of bidongs full of drinking water for guests. Guests from out of town slept on the floor of my family’s hut or with neighbors. Most of the villagers stopped by at some point in the day to show their respect, as well as all of the teachers at my school, the police officers, and many of my students. I was exhausted by the time that it was over, and I barely did anything to help. Overall, it was a lovely event… I felt inspired to be a part of it, and honored that my American family is now forever a part of my African family.