Sunday, February 7, 2010

Going Home (Written in Senegal on Jan 28, 2010)

I find it hard to believe that tomorrow I fly home. I will spend a
couple of days in Princeton to see my sister and then it is back to
LA. I finished my Peace Corps service earlier this month and I have
spent the past couple of weeks traveling in West Africa.

Yesterday I arrived back from Sierra Leone where I visited with a friend. Freetown is a fun and exciting city. Built at the base of mountains it overlooks the ocean. The country is still recovering from the war, but there are signs of hope. The streets were packed with people selling everything from whiskey to bread to stuffed animals to watermellons, and the amazing part was that people sold most of it from buckets on their heads. The country has beautiful beaches with white sands, palm trees, and mountains rising in the background. We went up country to the provinces to go climbing. The kid who guided us gave us a great insight into their culture. He said that when a leader of a secret society dies, he is buried without his head. His skull is used as a cup for later chiefs. It was a packed week and I wish I had more time to explore the country.

I also went to Mali with another friend for 10 days. Of all the places in West Africa I wanted to visit, dogon country in Mali was number 1. The dogons built their villages in the cliffs like the cliff dewlings in the American southwest. We spent four days hiking between the villages. The people built impressive mud houses, and I enjoyed the climbing. The Gambia is completely flat and a change of scenery was great.

My trip to Mali was a goodbye for me of the Gambia. It reminded me
about the ups and downs. At the beginning of the trip nothing could
upset me. I had just finished my peace corps service and a bribe from
the border police, or our guide being arrested, or two days straight
of traveling to the capital city of Mali did not bother me. Walking
around the market in the capital reminded me of what I am going to
miss. I am going to miss the chaos and confusion and knowing how to
navigate it. I am going to miss the street food like fried plantains,
bean sandwiches, and meat on a stick. I am going to miss the kindness of strangers like when a lady in the market gave me a free sandwich just for sitting with her or the man who invited us to stay in his friend's compound when we got stuck in a town.

After a few days of hiking, I bought a Fula wedding blanket. Later I
realized; the man had ripped me off. It pissed me off for a couple of
days because it brought back all the frustration of being targeted
because people see my white skin like people wanting to guide us, or
asking me constantly for stuff. After a couple of these instances, I
thought I was tired of being here. However, on my way back to the Gambia, I realized the good and the bad from my trip, is africa. I cannot have the joys without the frustrations. I guess that is what makes this place unique. I am definitely going to miss Africa a lot especially the people. Part of me wants to stay longer, but I am ready to go home.


P.S. Thanks to everyone who donated to the Tree Nursery Competition Grant. It was fully funded. We went on trek and they will be awarding prizes soon. Thanks again and this would not have been possible without your help.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A summary of my experiences as a PCV in Africa these past 2 years

1. Plant my own rice field.
2. See hippos, baboons, and a 2.5 meter spitting cobra in the wild
3. Make rope from bark
4. Learn to carry 6, three meter trees, on my bike for 7 kilometers
5. Ride 33 hours (with only 1 hour rest) to Guinea, with 9 other people, in a station wagon without brakes.
6. Realize America really is a great place.
7. Find out carrying things on your head is easier [why didn’t anyone mention it sooner?].
8. Leave milk out for three days to sour and call it a delicacy.
9. Eat bird seed on a regular basis and think it is normal.
10. Help plant over 6,000 trees in one year.
11. Attend more baby showers and funerals in two years than my previous 22 years.
12. Be on Gambian TV.
13. Know which is the smallest country in Africa [I should know, I live there].
14. Live on less than two dollars a day, sometimes even one dollar a day.
15. Have 17 blisters on one hand at the same time.
16. Question the benefit of aid for the poor and development work because it may cause more problems than it solves.
17. Run a nationwide competition.
18. Teach someone to read.
19. Realize the only person to use the school library I worked in was myself.
20. Ride my bike 70 kilometers in one day.
21. Realize how positive Americans are.
22. Butcher a bush pig, fail to cook it correctly [the meat had a cottage cheese consistency], but eat the meat anyway because we ate meat only once a month.
23. Enter a mosque.
24. Realize I am in another world when the women did not know how to hold a pen during my community needs assessment meeting.
25. Poop in my pants
26. Eat more than 10 mangoes in a day.
27. Think a bean sandwich is the best breakfast.
28. Receive compliments for wearing pajamas (African clothing) to a formal occasion

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Tree Nursery Competition Grant – We need funds/donations


This year I coordinated a nationwide tree planting competition in the Gambian school system. It is a great initiative that was started by a Peace Corps volunteer a few years ago. The competition is an incentive to teach school kids environmental education, and plant trees. The trees serve to beautiful the school, grow orchards, and woodlots. The fruit and timber from the grown trees will be used as food for the kids and income generation for the school. See below post on the Tree Nursery - Award Ceremony project.

Over 80 schools participated in this year’s competition growing over 20,000 seedlings. Unfortunately, the promised funding never came through. We now cannot finish this year’s competition. The kids and teachers have worked so hard on the competition we do not want to drop them halfway through. Therefore we wrote a Peace Corps Partnership grant to finish out the year and reward the winning schools with prizes. In the grant, the community must raise 25% of the funds and we raise the rest.

If you can help, please donate at the Peace Corps site below. Any amount would be appreciated.

or (click donations) – project number: 635-063

If you would like to donate, please do it as soon as you can because the competition is suppose to finish before the end of the year. Thank you.

Final thought - The competition encourages schools to emphasize environmental education and plant trees to reforest The Gambia. The forestry knowledge and skills gained by the students will remain with them for a lifetime building a more environmentally conscious society.

Students in their nursery site.

An education official judging the tree nursery on first trek.

Trees For The Future

This year I took over a project, Trees for the Future, from a volunteer who left for America. I organized the project this year because the volunteer’s replacement was new and still learning the language and culture. It turned out to be a great experience and what I enjoyed the most this past year. While the project took up a lot of my time because we worked in four villages, three of which were between 7-10km away from my village, it was worth it. I had fun and I learned a lot.

The project encouraged farmers to plant trees to help combat deforestation and soil degradation. The main focus was to teach farmers to include trees with current agriculture practices. I held village meetings where we discussed the environmental degradation, and strategies to fix the problems. We discussed different trees for soil improvement, income generation, fence building, and fruit. Gambians in general want a field cleared of all trees. They think a place that is completely bare whether it be their courtyards or fields is better. We introduced the idea that a developed field and compound incorporates trees for fruit, shade, and beauty. We drew pictures as examples and discussed different ideas.

Some meetings went really well. People were really interested in the material and were asking a lot of questions. Other meetings left a lot to be desired with no one saying anything. It was a challenge because some of the meetings I had to conduct in local language (Pulaar), but I was surprised how much I could say and understand. Other times, I would speak in English and a counterpart would translate to Wolof, another local spoken language.

The other part of the project involved tree nurseries. A person was selected in each village to be in charge of the project in the village. They grew the tree seedlings. When the rains came in August, they gave the trees away to villagers to plant in their fields. We spent a lot of time working with the nursery manager to plant and care for the seedlings. We also discussed the tree uses and correct planting spacing so the nursery manager could explain to other villagers when he gave the trees away.

At the end of the rainy season, we planted over 6,000 trees with over 15 varieties. Another volunteer is taking over the project for next year and making sure the trees are protected from the livestock since during the dry season livestock is left roaming free.

Medicine Men and Love Potions

I was sitting with a man one day talking when his daughter handed him some powder. He added some sugar, and started reciting words over the packages as he was tying them off. He told me it was a money potion. He said if I put the powder in water and then bathe with it, money would come my way. At first I did not understand what he was talking about but all of a sudden it all made sense.

At least once every two weeks I saw a car or taxi pull up to his compound, which is highly unusual. Only people with a lot of money can hire cars, and my village did not have money. I always thought it was strange. At that moment, I figured it out. He was a marabou, a medicine man, as we would call it.

I have heard of witch doctors and voodoo, but the Gambia has something a little different. They are called marabous. They tell fortunes, cure sick people, and make charms. They are extremely common in the Gambia, and Gambians believe in them, but they are very inconspicuous. The man in my village had the same house as everyone else, very plain with a bed, a mat, and some clothes hanging over a line. He dressed the same and worked just like every other man in village. I guess I let the Hollywood stereotype get the best of me because when I think of medicine men I think of dead animals, face paint, cauldrons, and bones.

Charms, or jujus as Gambians call it, are extremely popular. All Gambians have at least one. They wear them around their waist, bicep, or neck. They can bring good luck, or ward off evil spirits. They can prevent knifes from penetrating the skin or allow for safe travel. People can get them for almost any reason. One boy in village approached me one day to borrow my bike. He wanted to travel 12km to find a marabou that would make girls attracted to him. He wanted to go when it was dark so no one could see him leave. He wanted it to be a secret. He told me not to tell anyone in village. A few weeks later he said it was working.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Busy Busy

My first year of service seemed really slow. I hung out in village not knowing what to do or why I was placed there. I could not find any work to do. I mostly sat around my compound listening to conversations and trying my broken Pulaar. I spent time doing manual labor such as building fences and houses in order to learn about what people did. I would say I was what we call a cultural volunteer who spends a lot of time with the family and community learning about the culture and sharing mine. All I wanted to do was find real work to do.

My second year has been completely different. My this time I mastered their language, Pulaar, which made my interaction with the locals a much easier task. From spring through the rainy season, I was really busy. I had met a lot of people interested in planting trees, and I traveled to their villages almost every day. I spent a lot of time meeting with people to discuss ways to improve their agriculture yields, combat deforestation and increase household income by incorporating agro-forestry techniques with current agricultural practices. I helped them fill and plant polypots, and plant trees. When the rainy season arrived we made development plans for their fields. Looking back at it, while I enjoyed what I was doing, I wish I could have slowed down a little and spent more time in village.

I think it is kind of ironic that the first year I wanted more work because I spent too much time in village but the second year I had too much work and felt I was missing out on the village experience. I think this is typical of most Peace Corps volunteers because the first year we are learning about our communities and surroundings. We cannot speak the language and do not with whom to work. After some time, we discover the people who are willing to work and receptive to trying new ideas. At first, people who approach us tend to be hustlers just looking for handouts. This is frustrating because I wanted to hit the ground running when I showed up in village, but instead I had to wait a year to actually find real tasks. It was a good learning experience that to really help people it is important to take time to learn about the community. Otherwise the project might be a waste because it falls apart after we leave (see marnie’s blog).

Monday, November 16, 2009

The problem with donor money

A fellow peace corps volunteer in the Gambia wrote a blog post about the problem of sustainability and how most Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) work. It explains many of my frustrations with donors giving money to villages. The villagers then think money will be given to them whether they work hard or not. I have learned throwing money at a problem does not help the situation and usually makes it worse.

Here is the first paragraph she wrote:

A lot of volunteers, NGOs, etc. will roll into a village spend a couple days there and declare "You need a ______ (school/library/garden/clinic)!" This sort of situation is the WORST IDEA EVER and not sustainable AT ALL! For example, an NGO walks into a village and says, "You need a garden and we're going to build you one," and all the village people, if you will, are all super excited. The NGO then proceeds to build the garden using all expensive materials instead of local ones, ie. steel poles instead of wooden ones, chain-link instead of live fencing, pumps instead of wells. And the villagers love it and they start gardening. Fast-forward one year to when the pump breaks. Who's going to fix it? Well, no one has the money to fix a pump and since none of the villagers feel any ownership over the garden, it's not anyone's responsibility. So the pump never gets fixed. And the garden ceases to be used and just sits there. Fast forward 5 years, another NGO comes and says, oh, here's this garden just sitting here being unused, let us fix it for you and/or build you a better one. And on and on it goes.

Please read the rest of her blog post.
"The problem with sustainability and the way 99% of NGOs function".

It gives a more detailed picture of the situation -

Mummified - A Fula Wedding

I had been waiting all day for this moment. I watched as the women filed into the compound. I asked the man next to me where the bride was. He pointed to a brightly clothed woman. I was confused. My host sister was getting married, but the woman he pointed to was not my host sister. I asked again and this time he said look behind. Then I saw her, my host sister. She stood huddled behind the women wrapped from head to toe in fula fabric (Fula fabric is traditional fabric made by hand by the Fulas). She reminded me of a mummy because I could not see any skin. I do not know how she breathed. It was a hot day and the fabric covered her face. A man picked her up and laid her down on a prayer mat and the official tying of the knot started.

The bride covered from head to toe in white

The wedding began the day before in the bride’s father’s compound (where I lived). It started with a big lunch for all the guests. My compound killed two goats. I never saw my host sister the whole day. She stayed in the house, while everyone else was dancing, cooking, talking, and having a good time. Right before dark, the gifts were brought out and a crier started to count all the presents. My host sister had over 40 buckets, 250 meters of fabric, and 70 bowls not to mention the other household items she received. Each guest brought a present. To me, it seemed such a waste to have some items of the same kind because these people do not have enough money to replace their own broken bowls and buckets, but one woman gets more buckets, meters of fabric and bowls than she could use in her entire life. Later I learned the presents are actually shared with the family and friends.

Around 1 am, a gele (bush taxi) showed up with the groom contingent. After a couple of hours the groom left taking the bride to his village. Women, the bride’s family and friends, go in the car to the groom’s village. The bride’s parents do not go. The women were all crying (extremely uncommon in Gambian culture) because my host sister was leaving her village for good and may be visiting only rarely. Men usually do not go, but my family encouraged me to go to the groom's village to see what happens next.

The groom is on the left

The bride contingent stayed the entire morning in a different compound while people arrived in the groom’s compound. The women cooked. The men chatted. The kids chased each other around. Around two, the bride’s contingent showed up in the compound to look at the cow to be slaughtered for the meal. They approved and the dancing began. I helped a man from my village kill the cow and cut up the meat. In the evening the bride and her contingent showed up in the compound as the sun was going down.

I sat in the back watching as a family friend picked my host sister up to lay her down on the prayer mat. All the men were sitting around her. The groom was sitting a couple of rows back. Many men spoke and blessed the two. Then everyone got up and I could not see where my host sister went. Luckily a woman explained to me what was going to happen. I quickly followed a bunch of people as they headed to the open well.

My host sister went through the ritual of what she must do before she can enter in her "married" house. She knelt on each side of the well. She washed her husband’s clothes splashing everyone when she finished. She then went to the cattle field where a kid milked a cow. She finally was able to take off the fabric around her head and put it on the cow. Now she was ready to enter her house. As she approached the door, the groom’s friends would not let her in. The women’s friends must pay the fee to enter which is not more than 2 or 3 dollars but there was a lot of negotiating the price down. Then the women ran in trying to smear cream on the groom’s friends as they tried to escape. The women then took over the house. The bride was in her house and the women stayed there all night talking, eating, and congratulating the bride. The party continued the next day. Fula weddings are always three days, with much eating, dancing and celebrating.

The bride after she removed the fabric over her face.

Tree Competition - Awards Ceremony

This year I coordinated the nationwide Gambia All Schools Tree Nursery Competition in the lower (elementary) and upper (middle) basic schools in the Gambia with representatives from the Department of Education, National Environment Agency and the Department of Forestry. The number of participating schools has fallen over the past three years. We decided to hold an awards ceremony to generate excitement about the competition.

We held the first ever awards ceremony at the first place school to celebrate the successes of the top three schools. It was a great event with food, music, songs, and dancing. We invited high ranking government officials and the media to attend. The second and third place schools sent representatives. We awarded prizes, garden tools, to all the schools. The event was later broadcasted on the radio throughout the entire country. It also appeared in the newspaper.

I gave a speech to introduce the competition. Representatives from each participating organization also gave short speeches about the importance of the competition to combat deforestation and teach environmental education. We had a person who translated everything from English to Mandinka, the local language. The speeches started to drag a little, but the last speaker stole the show.

The head boy of the winning school spoke a few words about why we should plant trees, and why he likes planting trees. I was surprised how good his English was for the sixth grade. It was great to see him talking about the environment. I looked around and saw how proud the other kids were to win the competition. It made all the work worthwhile. The point of the competition is to teach kids about environmental education. If we can teach them to plant trees hopefully they will remember it for the rest of their lives.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Closure of Service Conference - almost home

In case any of you are wondering, yes, I am still in Africa with the Peace Corps. I actually just came back from spending three days at the Sheraton hotel for my closure of service conference. I fully enjoyed the pool, hot showers, and all you can eat breakfast buffet that had bacon, sausage, and real cheese. It was a relaxing few days where we received tips on finishing our service (tie up the loose ends), preparing ourselves for going home. Apparently it is difficult for Peace Corps volunteers to adjust back to America. We also received resume tips, career advice, and provided feedback to Peace Corps staff.

I am coming to the end of my service. The official date is in November, but I may extend my time to help with training the new group of volunteers. Whether I extend it or not, I only have a little over two months at site which is hard to believe. The past year has flown by. I have not been good about writing, but the past year has been a busy year for me. The first year I had a lot of frustrations not finding work and adjusting to the culture. During this past year I still have a lot of frustrations but I now know how to navigate the system better. While some volunteers look back at their service as a negative experience, I feel that I taught people new techniques, and had accomplishments. I found good people with whom to work planting over 6000 trees. Another aspect of the past year has been the cultural aspect of Peace Corps, which tends to be a larger part of our experience such as working in the fields, sitting and talking, and brewing green tea (Gambia's national past time). Now that I know the language, I have had some interesting conversations about why men have multiple wives, and how America and The Gambia are different.

Out of my group of 25 environment volunteers, 9 have left the country early and 2 have extended for a third year to other countries (Jordan and China) that leaves 14 of us in country. I have debated with myself extending my service for another year, but I am ready to come home. As I said I may extend for training so I will probably be home mid January.

Saturday, January 17, 2009


I just got back from a week in Benin. For those you who never heard of it, it is a west African country near the equator. I have heard it is also where voodoo originated. Since the Gambia is mostly Islamic with few animist practices, I decided to go to Benin for the international voodoo festival.
I really liked Benin. It reminded me of Brazil. When I stepped off the plane I was hit with a wave of heat and humidity (apparently it is the cool season. I cannot imagine how hot it would be during the other times of the year). Walking around town, I saw women carrying pineapples on their heads and cooking plantains on the sidewalks.

I visited Grand Popo, a beach village. We camped on the beautiful beach, and watched a local NGO release sea turtles with school kids. We took a boat trip in the lagoons visiting fishing villages and watched fisherman throwing their nets for fish.

We next went to ouidah for the voodoo festival. We almost missed some of the voodoo idols because all around town are these cement mounds. We figured they were left over cement, but we saw men kneel before them and we found out the mounds protected spirits. We later went to the beach for the voodoo festivities. We saw a lot of dancing, drumming, and haystack spinning (local gods). We also saw men cutting their arms and heads with knives and then pouring alcohol on themselves. It was crazy.

Spinning haystack

We travelled a little up country hiking in the hills around Dassa, and visiting a restored king's palace, which had a throne resting on skulls of his enemies. Cotonou, the largest city, was a lot more developed than The Gambia with an extensive system of traffic lights, roads, and sidewalks. Unlike the Gambia there were a lot of cars, but in the cities there are no taxis. Instead people ride on the backs of motorcycle taxis. We received helmets from the peace corps office, but i was still a little nervous riding them. They would make left turns into sea of cars, trucks, and zems (as they are locally called). Many times I thought we were going to crash, but always as if it was the parting of the red sea, a hole would open up and we would dash through it.

Kristina and I at the beach with our motorcycle helmets

Work for the New Year

Last month was the mid way point of my service. Around Thanksgiving of this year I will be coming home. While it is a long way off, I think the time will fly by. Here are some of the projects I will work on until the end of the year.
  1. Elementary School - I want to continue working at the elementary school in the next village in the school garden planting trees and vegetables. I am working with a teacher on the use of the library and hopefully i can continue teaching environmental education to the older grades. We tried to do a play on deforestation to present to the school, but the kids could not remember their lines.
  2. Tree Nursery Competition - I am the co national coordinator for the competition in all the elementary and middle schools of the gambia. I work with representatives from the dept of Education, dept of Forestry, and the National Environment Agency to motivate schools to participate and plant as many trees as possible.
  3. Village sensitizations - I am probably the most excited about this project. I am building on work started by a peace corps volunteer last year. We will work in five surrounding villages planting central tree nurseries, and holding town meetings on the benefits of planting trees. The meetings will emphasize the financial benefits because I have realized while many people understand the enivornmental degradation aspect, the prospect of selling mature trees for cash will be a greater motivator.

While I have been frustrated with my work, I have a better idea of what I will be doing this year. Therefore, I think i will be able to accomplish more.

Thursday, December 25, 2008


A few days before I came into the capital for Christmas, I helped fight (when I say fight, I mean mostly watch) a bush fire african-style.

The area between the villages has mostly short dry grasses so fires burn easily. In between the three nearby villages there are nothing but fields; by the way, I can see those villages at the distance from my village .

After breakfast, I started to make/fix the fence around my garden with the help of Mamadou, my counterpart in The Gambia. After 15 minutes or so, we saw smoke rising in the distance halfway between my village and the next; the villages are about 2km apart. My father and some of my host brothers took off, machete and rake in hand. Soon afterwards we saw the smoke greatly increased; thus my counterpart and I also took off toward the fire. When I got close I was very surprised. Boys and men were swinging branches with leaves to put out the fire. I could not believe they actually thought they could put out the fire with just leafy branches. Sure enough the wind picked up and the men realized they were no match for the fire.

We all headed back to the village and started to clear a firebreak of 2 meters around the village. I was trying to figure out how they were going to put the fire out. I thought maybe they would just let the fire die out on its own. However, by this point the fire was growing towards another village to the west of my village. I started to tell my counterpart we should widen the firebreak, but my counterpart told me to relax, that the fire would be taken care of. All of a sudden, boys in their late teens and twenties started to show up from everywhere carrying leafy branches. They took off toward the fire and started beating the flames and running along the fire line. Women started carrying water out to the fields, but instead of using the water on the fire, the men drank it.

I stood there not knowing what to do because I did not think they could do it; however, with help from all four villages, they succeeded in putting out the flames. Soon afterward everyone went home. Apparently fires happen every year so they are experts at putting them out. Last year was a rare event since there were no fires. I still find it amazing how the villagers put out the fire using only branches, but I guess that is what they have. There is no running water or fire service so they make do with what they have.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and Happy New Year

I wish everyone happy holidays and a happy New Year.
I spent Christmas in the capital (Banjul) with my friends, relaxing at the beach and eating good food.

I think this is one of the most difficult times of the year. This year more than last, when everything was still new, I really wanted to be back home for the holidays. I miss my family and friends, and here, there are no christmas lights, decorations, or music. At least I know next year I will be home for Christmas.

People in The Gambia have heard of Christmas, but know very little about it. They think of it as Tobaski for Christians. Tobaski is a big muslim holiday that we celebrated two weeks ago. I do not know its roots, but it is tied into the story of Abraham and Isaac in the Bible. On God's order, Abraham was going to kill his son, when God intervened at the last second, and told him to kill a ram instead. Therefore gambian families try to kill a ram for the holiday if they can afford it. My family killed two.

My lunch

During Tobaski, everyone is happy around here. People dress up in their nice clothes, and do not work. My compound was really excited with the prospect of eating meat. This is one of the few times they have the opportunity to eat meat. Chicken, beef, goat and lamb are considered luxuries that most families cannot eat on a regular occasion. In my one year of living in village, I have eaten chicken twice, goat once, and lamb last year for tobaski with my host family. However, after three days of eating sheep for every meal trying everthing from intestines to stomach, I was glad to go back to the normal millet, peanut sauce and squash that we eat for two meals on most days.

My host mom (wearing an outfit from the fabric my american mom gave her) and my neighbor

Rainy Season Ending

My host brother in the millet field

The rainy season ended a long time ago, but as you know I have failed to write in a while. The rainy season is the work season in The Gambia. My family goes out in the morning and afternoon almost every day from June until November. There is about a month break in August and September when the weeding is finished and people wait for the crops to ripen. My family grew peanuts called groundnuts, millet, sesame, and rice. I joined my family in the planting, weeding, and harvesting. After a morning and afternoon of weeding I do not envy their jobs. Farming is hard work and after a day of weeding by hand, all I wanted to do is crawl into the fetal position and not move. My lower back hurt badly after the day of bending over. It is amazing watching villagers especially the elderly women who weed for hours without rest bent over with their backs completely straight. (Gambians also grow watermellon, squash, and sweet potatoes.)
My host family separating the peanuts from the dried groundnut plant

This year I convinced my family to grow rice. Rice normally grows in paddies with lots of water, but my village is not near a water supply. There is a new type of rice, NERICA or dryland rice, that can be grown with little amounts of water. I wanted to introduce it to my area so my father and I decided to try a small field this year. Looking back at it, I wonder if it was worthwhile because I spent most of the time arguing with my family about it. I had difficult'y getting them to help me weed and harvest; I think they considered my project, not a family affair. In certain places, the weeds ended up being taller than the rice because my host family would not weed and I refused to do it all on my own (too big a job). We also had a problem with cows eating the rice. The villagers herd the large cows but they let the calves roam free. I cannot understand why they let the calves roam and destroy part of the crops. My father told me people do not agree to herding them and that they do not destroy a lot. In the end, we put cow dung in water and spread it over the fields which kept them away. But, even with all the problems, the rice did produce, and my father is saving seeds for next year. If he plants it next year, I can call it a success so I am keeping my fingers crossed that he will.

Me in the rice field

Next to my house I had a rainy season garden growing cucumbers, squash, sweet potatoes, cassava, and tomatoes. My American pumkin failed miserably. It produced one big pumkin. I kept constant tabs on it and on the day I was going to pick it, it collapsed in on itself completely rotten. My biggest success was cucumber. Unfortunately my village did not like it. They would eat one small piece to be polite, but would not go back for seconds. I ended up eating seven cucumbers in three days and still had some left. I gave one to a lady who is always nice to me. She started to cut it and offer it to the kids, but they had already tried it in my compound the day before and refused. In gambian culture, people must always say food tastes good so she refused to give it back to me when I said I would eat it. She kept forcing it down. By the the squint in her eyes and the puckering of her lips, I knew she found it really sour.

My garden and polypots (orange, lemon, and mango)

Now the men are starting to relax because their work is done. They build fences from time to time, but for the most part they can go back to brewing attaya, green tea, in the morning and afternoon. I think attaya can be considered the national pastime in the gambia.

Me and my host brothers brewing attaya

Sunday, August 24, 2008


Oh and just for fun and as an experiment, we destroyed a termite mound.
The first picture shows the mound, after it was cut, resting on a tree (it was about 6 feet high)
The second picture shows it upside down on the ground.

Of course four days later, they had already built the mound back about a foot and a half.


I arrived back from a vacation to Spain and Morocco, and for the past couple of days I have been a little down. It is difficult to adjust back to life after traveling, but in the next couple of days I should get back into the swing of things.

Snake charmers in Marrakech

I had a great time walking around the cities in Morocco. There were some small problems such as my bag not showing up for four days and feeling sick for the first week, but I enjoyed taking a break from The Gambia and forgetting about my frustrations and concerns. Morocco was not exactly what I expected. I thought I would see tilework, arches and architecture influenced by the Moors. Instead I only saw it in the Marrakech museum.

Mosque in Casablanca

While I only spent a half a day in Casablanca, the mosque, third largest in the world, was an impressive site. Non muslims cannot go into mosques, but this one had an exception. The room with thirty some fountains was a creative and beautiful way to provide enough water for the people to wash their hands, feet, and face before they pray.

Shops in Chefchauoen

Another highlight was Chefchaouen, a town in the mountains, made famous by its blue doors and buildings. I had a great time wandering around the small streets admiring the buildings and views of the valley.

The walled medina in Essouira

Most Moroccan cities have a medina, a walled older section. The areas are packed with buildings and shops. Each city is unique, from the waves breaking on Essaouira's city walls to Marrakech's dates, spices, and freshly squeezed orange juice. Every place was interesting; if I go back I will spend some time in the mountains. We planned to go to one village in the mountains, but we had to cut it out of our plans due to our bag situation.


During the raining season, people in village work a lot. It was almost as if the rains flipped a switch and everyone started to work. They have to do it because this four month period is when they produce all the food that will feed them for the rest of the year. What surprised me was the fact that people were also more interested in doing the environment projects I have been encouraging people to do. My counterpart built a fence out of branches and logs which is unheard of. He has been talking about it for four months, but since he never did anything I did not take him seriously.
Painting the library
One teacher and I painted the school library, and my jaw dropped when I walked in the library to see that the school folks had arranged the books without my knowledge. My father and I planted cuttings, branches of trees that when planted will grow into a tree, to make a fence, and he immediately agreed to help me plant my trees in polypots in the fields.

School kids planting cuttings

My excitment hit a brick wall when it came to planting rice. Before the rainy season my father said he would help me plant rice, but he only planted the rice after my counterpart chewed him out. I also worked overtime weeding the rice and my father only came a couple of times. My family started to help when I complained and asked why they were not helping. I realize now that weeding rice is more tiring than the other crops and my family does not want to do it. Also my host brothers already feel maxed out with their fields. I learned that next year I will not plant a field because my family does not really have the time or motivation to do extra fields.

Amadou in my garden

Rain, Rain, Rain

One night, I woke to the rattling in my roof. I lay in bed listening to the pounding of the rain and the increasing strength of the wind. My metal corrugated roof made so much sound I was convinced my roof was going to blow away. I flashed my light around looking for leaks. I found one spot where the water pooled and dripped through my rice bad ceiling. I placed a bucket to catch the water and tried to fall back asleep attempting to put aside my worries of the roof.

Storm clouds are approaching

In the morning I woke to find a skylight. One sheet of corrugate folded over causing light to shine inside my house. I considered myself lucky because when I went outside to survey the damage I saw one man's roof completely blown away and my host brother's grass roof fell off. My roof was an easy fix and I survived my first rain storm in village.

This storm was one of the many storms I have seen come and go. The rainy season lasts from June to September. During the month of August it rains almost everyday. I like the rainy season more than the hot/dry season. The rains bring a cool breeze and the barren wasteland turns green. Walking to the next village, I felt as if I was in a golf course due to the thin layer of green and scattered trees. Now the weeds are over head high. The rainy season is also the work season. Everyone plows, plants, or weeds the fields in the mornings and evenings almost everyday until the end of July.

Woman walking through a field

When it is rainy I usually go inside my house and read to wait for the storm to pass. Most Peace Corps Volunteers spend a lot of time reading during the rainy season.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Lolo's' views of life in village

A few highlights about what I (Alex's Mom) understand of life in village:

  • Alex’s family is from the Fula tribe, which are typically not so dark (even though his family seems very dark to me). They speak Pulaar and Wolof in the village. Alex was taught Pulaar, which is not as spoken as Wolof; he says he wants to learn Wolof (used for business) too. Folks speak many of the languages/dialects. African languages are not written, thus very hard to learn.
  • Families live in a compound, i.e., multiple houses or shacks – some are individual, some are long houses, with multiple single rooms. They are organized in a circle or square with room in the middle for the mingling.
  • Multiple family compounds make a village. Alex’s village has 7 compounds, thus, very small. They have only about 60-70 people.
  • Men and women don’t live together. Boys >15 and men have their own “houses (or rooms)”. Women sleep with their children in one “house”. Women visit their men during the night; I don’t know the protocol among the wives.
  • Each house has one room, fairly small, sometimes with a separation to make it into 2 rooms. Their one piece of furniture is a double bed typically covered with pretty African cloths as bedspreads; they all have it. I think the clothes are kept in trunks; no tables nor chairs. Alex had 2 chairs for us.
  • When we entered Alex's room, we were greeted by 4 frogs and 1 big gecko... I guess they come in during the day time (since it is too hot out) and go out in the night. I could hear rats scurrying in the roof in the middle of the night. His roof is corrugated aluminum with rice bags and straw in the inside to break the heat, I believe.
  • Typically a family compound houses families of 2 brothers.
  • They are muslims, thus polygamous (can have up to 4 wives). In Alex’s host family, his host father has 2 wives and his uncle also has 2 wives. Between the 4 women there are 24 children. So, there are kids galore, of all ages, mingling around and playing in the dirt
  • Women cook, clean and take care of the kids. Men plant, buid houses and fences. Kids do all kind of chores. Women and boys fetch the water from the wells.
  • There is no running water nor electricity.
  • Food is mostly rice or coos (i.e., millet) with some sauce and a small fish – for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
  • They eat with their right hand out of common food bowls; the left hand is the “dirty” one used for cleaning their privates. Men have their own separately from the women and children. Alex eats with his host father (who has a separate bowl in his family) and they gave us our own food bowl (most times we actually had two big food bowls which gave us a problem since we were supposed to eat well to show we liked the food). I have to admit we did use spoons most of the time when we ate in Alex's room (except for Alex).
  • They do very little between 11am and 4 or 5 in the afternoon during the dry season; mostly lie in bed or sit under the mango trees in the shade – it is too hot. In the raining season (June through October) they plant and weed.
  • In the late afternoon and evenings they sit outside, each family together, near the Dad’s shack; teen boys can sit by themselves in another location. Don’t know the schedule for cooking between wives but they prepare the food and bring the food bowls. Since there are no lights, the stars are bright; it felt like camping… beautiful. People sit together and sometimes chat. They either sit/lie on mats or benches until midnight or so (but I think they also sleep during this time since they get up early for prayers).
  • They cook in small stoves in the back of their houses, using wood for fuel; typically in a covered area. The backs of the houses have a little area which is fenced. There is where they cook and wash clothes and themselves; they use buckets or large basins.
  • I don’t know where they go to the bathroom; Alex says they are supposed to go on the fields. In Alex’s village there are 2 pit latrines: his and his Dad’s. His is in the back of his house, fenced. His Dad’s is a separate building. While I was there I never saw anyone peeing or pooping (a mistery).
  • They drink lots of ataya, a very sweet version of a green tea, which takes a long time to prepare.
  • They chew a type of stick that is good for their teeth; they don’t go to the dentist and most seem to have good teeth.
  • They sweep their rooms twice a day and, at the end of the day, they sweep/smoothen the area inside the compound. During the day the kids play around and the animals (goats, cows, chickens) roam free during the dry season; so they were all amongst us.
  • So the compound is clean but the areas outside the compound have all kinds of trash. Apparently they have an area delineated for trash (which I think they burn once in a while) but keep in mind they don’t have much, thus very little trash. And they use/reuse a lot.
  • When the wind picks up, there is sand/dust everywhere.
  • The kids are filthy because they play in the dirt but I think they are washed at night because I have seen many of them pretty clean except for the feet.
  • The girls have their hair in braids most of the time and the women wear the head turbants.
  • Women wear long skirts all the time but shirts are optional; since most of the women are feeding babies most of the time, exposed boobs are no big deal.
  • Greetings are very important in their culture. Every time they meet someone, they spend about 3-5 minutes in greetings (How are you? How is your family? How did you sleep? etc)
  • They spit a lot; it is part of the culture.
  • The women and girls carry the young in their backs, with a piece of cloth that ties up front. They do their chores (carrying water in their heads or pounding coos) with the babies in their backs.
  • They ask for things all the time (it drives Alex nuts), like food, candy, band aid, ataya, etc… and they ask each other too.
  • The school is in the next village; unfortunately, only 5 children from Alex’s village go to school. They feel there is no point since there are no jobs around.
  • Schools are taught in English; they also teach Arabic. Children wear uniforms and walk to school everyday; they provide lunch but the kids are supposed to pay a token fee for lunch, and also for the school year. Girls can go to school for free, if they choose to (order of the government). Their schools are not very good; they learn everything by recitation. Alex is now helping at the nearby school, teaching them math; he started math’atons to get their interest raised. The school buildings were built by NGOs (external help to Africa).
  • When we visited Alex's school, they put up a play about a Gambian wedding - lovely.
  • Many of the villages have mosques and they wake them up for prayers at 5:30am using loud speakers. Alex’s village didn’t have loud speakers.
  • They have leaders, the village alkalo; Alex’s Dad is the alkalo of his village.
  • They have community groups but mostly to discuss issues. There isn’t a sense of community to improve their life style or their villages. We found them very complacent, with no motivation for improvement.
  • Their knowledge of the world is almost none since they live so isolated. But things are changing. Alex’s oldest brother lives in the Kombo area and works as a manager for a hotel; so he left the village and now has a better understanding of the world; besides, he makes good money for Gambians. He brought a solar generator for the village and installed in the younger brother’s house. So they have some electricity and can charge all kinds of things, including boom boxes. They have an old black and white TV that the children watch 2 nights a week (powered by an old car battery); the problem is that the programs are either in French or English which is not spoken in village. So, they mostly watch the images; however, as they watch more TV, they will start learning the language and more about the world (then the culture will start to change, or at least the desires).
  • Most of the older guys have cell phones, which operate with bought cards.
  • There is dust everywhere due to the sand and wind around the area. Everything in the rooms have a coat of dust; it gets into everything. Alex is keeping his camera in Ziploc bags inside a trunk.
  • They are extremely friendly. They love music and to dance, especially the women. They play drums with pots and pans, gather in a circle and they dance, one at a time. We had a chance to hear and dance with them. They also asked us to dance and Karina suggested the macarena, done by 4 PCVs, K and Lolo and the children also joined us - fun!
  • They have so little that anything is of interest to the children, like a magazine, a toy, or candy. They are extremely curious. We brought some pictures and they just loved them.
  • If someone goes out of the village, it is customary to bring some present back, whether a mango, kola nuts, or a vegetable.
  • Most of them are very good looking, with some women with beautiful features.
  • They laugh a lot; they seem quite happy most of the time, especially the women.
  • Even though we couldn't talk to them due to the language barrier, they were very hospitable. We had heard that the gambians are a very hospitable people; any visitor gets food and board.
  • We really enjoyed visiting Alex's host family and experiencing his day to day life in the Peace Corps. It will stay in our memories for a long, long time.

Silvester family adventure in The Gambia

John, Karina and Lolo (Alex's immediate family) went to visit Alex in The Gambia in June 2008, just as the school year finished in the US. It isn't the best time to visit - probably the hotest time of the year - but we had no choice. We were anxious to see Alex and visit the country. We had read Alex's blog and the blog of other PCVs and had chatted with Alex on his cell phone quite a bit, so we sort of knew what to expect (well, most of the time).

We had a great time but, we have to confess that it was an adventure, traveling by boat and "old" van (through good and horrible roads), seeing beautiful landscape along the river, watching birds (John counted 99 different species), seeing children galore and very dry and desert-like conditions where Alex lives. We saw very poor living conditions but no one starving; in fact the gambians are beautiful people; we saw very tall men (taller than 6 feet) and women. There is one major town, a few small cities with electricity, but mostly villages with no electricity, and wells for water. It appears that most of the country has cell phone coverage, so it will be interested to see how they evolve as they get more communication and global news. Solar chargers are starting to get into use in many of the locations.

We spent 13 days in The Gambia and traveled up river with Alex. Alex said other parents may want to travel there; thus, here was our itinerary:
  • 2 days in the Kombo area
  • One day going up river (car and boat)
  • One night at Tendaba Lodge
  • One day again going up river (boat, car and boat)
  • 2 nights at Bird Safari camp
  • 1 night at Chimpanzee project
  • 3 nights at Alex's village
  • 2 nights in Gunjur (south Gambia)
We used a travel agency called Hidden Gambia; feel free to check out their site at for descriptions of the tours and nice pictures of the area.However we did try to take the bush taxi from Alex's village; another one of our adventures.
Adventure story: We left the village in the dark (5:30am) and walked to the next village (bout 1 mile away), on the narrow trail, carrying our bags, to catch the gele-gele (bush taxi - a big van where you pay $1 per person for the 50 kilometers to the ferry crossing); our head-lamps and flashlights were put to use and the starry sky was beautiful. Unfortunately, the gele came full and half of the people waiting for it jumped in (we don't know how they fit). We sat on the sidewalk on their main square, and Alex said that, in the worst case, we would hire a donkey cart to take us to the main road where we could take another gele. We had no idea how we would end up traveling; some said another gele would be coming in a "little" while. About 20 minutes later, out of the blue, a very old car showed up and offered to take us for $2.5 per person... they know how to deal with tourists. We believe one of the locals called this guy. Well, the car made it and we got to the ferry safe and sound - another adventure.

If you want to see pictures of our trip, go to

Instead of boring you with too many details, we will just post some highlights.
Overall impression. The Gambia is a small country with very few resources (mostly peanuts, tourism and fish); you probably know that it follows the Gambia river. It is a very colorful country, the people are extremely friendly (with a few exceptions, described below), its Atlantic coast is beautiful and the river is long and totally unused (from our perspective). The difficulty is to identify their possibility of growth; apparently most of their youth want to go to Europe or America to seek a better life. Deforestation is another big problem; they went from 85% forest to 15% in the last decade; and of course the poor farmers in village do not understand the issues. The agfo PCVs (like Alex) are doing their best to help them but it is difficult when they don't really understand it.
Highlights of our visit were the Chimpanzee Visitor Camp (described below) and Alex's village.
“Badi Mayo, the Chimpanzee Visitor Camp is located 270 Km up-river in the Gambia River National Park. It is managed by the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Trust (CRT) - Africa's longest running and perhaps most successful project for rehabilitating chimpanzees to the wild. The project was founded by Stella Marsden whose father, Eddie Brewer, was a forestry officer and a keen conservationist. He later became the first director of the Wildlife Department in The Gambia and was responsible for establishing the Abuko Nature Reserve. For a long time completely off-limits to visitors, Stella has recently decided to offer chimp-watching trips to small groups of interested tourists, in an effort to safeguard the project's financial future. It’s a thrilling opportunity to view habituated chimps in a pristine natural environment.” We paid $150 per person to stay there for one night (full board and boat rides), on a very fancy tent perched high up at tree level on wooded platforms overlooking the river.

The area was beautiful but it was extremely hot - it seemed we were in a sauna for 5 hours until late afternoon – that was no fun. The boat ride to the island in front to see the chimps, on the other hand, was great. No one steps on the island; from the boat, we fed one of the groups that had: a big guy, the Alpha leader, many ladies with their babies and other macho types and children (so cute). They fed them bread, beans and nuts. It was fun watching them. When they came by the shore, the boat was docked at a safe distance; one of their leaders pulled a couple of sticks (thick ones) from the trees and threw them at us – to show off his strength… They were pretty big branches… They also had baboons on the island that ate the leftovers of the chimps; they sat on the trees down river since a lot of food fell in the water while being thrown (and missed).
Then the boat continued navigating on small water channels they call little Africa; very pretty. We even saw a barn owl. John took great pictures of birds along the trip.
The food was great; the tents, perched on a hill, were beautiful but very hot. Definitely it wasn't the best time of the year to travel (we knew that) but it was a great experience.

We will talk about the village in another post.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Family Visit

I just arrived back from a trip to Spain. My parents spent 12 days in The Gambia and then we went together for one week in Spain, a few days in Madrid and a few days in Barcelona. It was great to spend sometime with my parents and my sister and to take a break from Gambia. Unfortunately I, the experienced Gambian, got bad diarrhea in the airport leaving for Spain. Just as I thought I would be able to eat whatever I wanted, I could not do it at first. Luckily it only lasted two days, and for the rest of the week I treated myself to all sorts of food I had been missing such as steak (without bones), ice cream, and cheese.

Eating "tapas" in Barcelona
While in Gambia, my parents and my sister stayed a few days on the coast, traveled up river to Tendaba and Bird Safari Camp in Janjanbureh, and visited my village for 3 nights; they lived their Gambian adventure. While here, they saw first hand the good things and some of the frustrations and challenges Peace Corps volunteers have in the Gambia. I think they had a good time seeing where I live, but by the end, they were ready to leave. I invited them to do guest posts so I will let them explain their adventures such as taking pictures of beautiful birds, our 2 boat-2 car rides in the heat of the day, sitting in the shade dripping in sweat, and feeding the chimps (a once in a lifetime experience).
Feeding the Chimps

When we showed up at chimp island, one of them threw a big stick at the boat barely missing one of the guides to apparently show who was the boss. It was amazing watching the chimps smiling at us, holding out their hands, and catching food thrown at them (beans, bread and nuts). At one point, one chimp pushed another one in the water (again showing strength). When the wet one came out of the water, one of his brothers gave him a hi five - like he was supporting him. It was amazing to see the similarities between them and humans.

Other highlights:
My mother dancing with one of my Gambian mothers at their naming ceremony

Eating local food (bread with beans) and tea

Teaching the kids the macarena - in village

Sunday, June 8, 2008


About a month ago, I had more training in Kombo, the capital area. We learned about a variety of project ideas.
  • I went beekeeping and harvested four hives in one night. I did not get stung, but I was covered in bees.

  • I attempted to graft a mango tree. Luckily i did not cut my finger like others in my group. If done correctly we could make lemon, lime, and grapefruit tree or a mango tree with different varieties.

  • I made a grass hive. The great advantage of those is that it does not cost anything and the materials can be collected in the bush. (Keep in mind villagers have basically no money so reusing raw materials is a must).


People say the best time in The Gambia is mango season which I recently experienced. Everywhere I look there are mangoes of different shapes, colors and sizes. I am told there are so many mangoes that most go to waste, but in my village that is not the case. When a mango falls, the kids burst off running because they go by the finders keepers rules. If they are too slow, a nearby cow may gobble it up instead. It is almost as if the kids have a sixth sense. They are off and running before my mind processes the thud. Therefore, I have never made it to a mango first, but the kids in my compound will give me some.
They were posing for a picture when a mango dropped and off they went.

One night I was sitting in the middle of my compound with my family when I heard a thud and clang on the corrugate metal roof. The kids took off running. I had no idea what happened to make them run; then I realized a mango had fallen from the tree, bounced off the roof, and landed on the floor. Since they had no flashlight, they couldn't find it. A little later one of the elder sisters joined the hunt with a flashlight. Then someone found it; and ate it.

At first I was nervous to eat mangoes because I used to have an allergic reaction to the mango skin. After a few weeks I decided to go for it; it was too tempting. Now I know why none go to waste in my village. They are really good. My record is five in one day and so far no allergic reactions.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

All Work and No Play

That is not really true. As peace corps volunteers technically we are always working in village, but we do have time to visit other volunteers, hang out, and have some fun. For Saint Patrick’s Day many of us in my environment group went up country to visit one volunteer at her house. We hung out for a couple days relaxing and sharing experiences about village. We all had been in village about four months and had gone through a lot. It was great to hear everyone’s different stories.
We decided to have bush pig, and we paid a local hunter to have the back half of a pig. We skinned it and smoked it over a fire. We were lucky to have with us an animal science major who is skilled in butchering meat. After we cooked it, the meat looked great. It was a golden brown and juicy on the inside. We were all excited to have some meat because meat is a rare occurrence in our families’ food bowls, but we should have known there was something wrong by the smell, slighlty rancid. We thought it was the fact that it was bush meat, but when we tried the meat it had a consistency of blue cheese. Only one section tasted okay. We decided not to risk it and threw most of the meat out. We are not sure what went wrong, but we learned not to let the meat sit overnight and cook it the next morning.

We also learned about a rabbit breeding project for meat. The peace corp volunteer has tripled the amount of rabbits she has in four months. One cool thing she created was beer bottles and sardine cans for water bottles. They work really well and they are cheap.

Meetings, Meetings, Meetings

"Can you draw a map of the village?" "We do not know how. "

"What is good about the village?" No answer.

"On what have you worked together on?" No answer.

"What are you proud of in the village?" No answer.

"What would make your life better?" Long pause…"A milling machine and garden."

"How will we build a garden?" "We do not have the means to build a garden. "

This is how one of the most discouraging meetings of my life went. I held a women’s meeting in my village through a translator. The women did not have answers for any of my questions. I could not believe they had nothing to say. I wanted to have a discussion about the village to learn what are their challenges and accomplishments so we could work together to improve the village, but they had little to say. When I told them I can provide knowledge and information but lack money to give them, they said "what is the point of having your knowledge and skills if there is no place to use them".

After the women’s meeting I was depressed and it took me the rest of the afternoon to recover. The situation seemed so hopeless. I did not know what to do or how to make their lives better. After talking to some other volunteers, I realized analyzing ones life and looking at what is good and what is bad is something Americans do their whole lives. We are taught and grow up in a society that is constantly self evaluating itself. The women in my village who never went to school have probably never been to school or been asked questions like the ones I posed. They live from day to day.

I decided I would write a grant for a women’s garden. The grant would include money for barbed wire fencings and a well. The water table is about 36 meters which is extremely deep for The Gambia. After talking it over though, I decided against writing the grant because everyone kept asking me how do you know they really want a garden, will use it, and maintain the fence when it breaks. It was true I had no indicators they would. My village has no women’s group. When I tried to teach them about mud stoves, they were not interested in learning or making them. They only wanted me to build it for them which is one of the major problems because when the volunteer leaves, the projects fall apart because no one looks after them. I also talked to two volunteers who had women’s gardens put in their villages two years ago. One broke last year and the women keep saying they need to fix the fence, but so far no action (see Mark’s blog – he has a great story), and another village where they had a great garden. The fence broke. No one fixed it and the cows ate all the vegetables.

My next course of action was to bring it up with the men. Women in Gambian society do not make fence; men have the responsibility. I held a men’s meeting which went extremely well compared to the women’s meeting. One man drew a map of the village in the sand; mosque first. I hear Gambians usually do that because of the importance of religion in their lives. Roads next; then compounds, and then trees. I found it interesting the emphasis place on drawing only three type of trees in village- mango, baobab, and bush mango trees (the only ones that produce fruit). I then asked the men the same questions as the women. They discussed and actually talked about topics. They said the fact the village had access to water and there is peace between villagers were good things. Later I realized I told the women the exact same thing. Gambians usually tell people what they want to hear. Therefore I do not know if the villagers truly believe what they said or were just trying to repeat what I told the women. What surprised me next was that they told me they wanted a garden for themselves. I became excited because now I had a reason to get the men to build a fence because they wanted it themselves. When I asked them about the VDC, village development committee, they had a big discussion about it and decided they should have a village meeting to discuss the members and the garden.

Three weeks later no word on the village meeting or about the VDC. In the meantime I found out who is the chairman and talked to him about building the fence out of local materials. He was all excited about it, and brought it up a second time to me. He said he could put his mango tree polypots there. He said he would talk to the village.

After another week I decided to call a meeting, so the women and men could tell each other what they wanted. I asked the women first, and there was no answer. I wanted to get up and shake one of them. They knew what they wanted, but would not say anything. Finally after repeating my question, they said "a garden". When I asked a rainy or dry season garden, they were stumped. They sort of discussed it, but mostly remained silent. I had to keep asking questions for them to decide what they wanted. Then the men said they wanted a garden. After a big discussion about complaining about the problems with a garden such as a low water table, chickens, termites, and birds, I pointed out the fact they have no fence. And their real problem is that without a fence they cannot have a garden. I told them they can build a garden out of local materials which they did not seem too excited about. In my opinion the villagers can build a fence out of local materials such as sesame stalks and wood, but they choose not too. When one man started saying the village could build it in a couple days (an exaggeration because it would probably take a week) everyone just laughed at him as if the idea was ridiculous. Later I asked who would organize work days. They said the VDC or village development council.

One night a few days later I asked my father, the alkaloo (the head of the village) about the VDC. He said they do not do anything. I asked who appointed them he said he did. When I asked him who was on it, he named the chairman and the secretary. When I asked for the rest of the members, he said he forgot. So the VDC is supposed to get people to work, but no one knows who is on the committee.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The end of the beginning

A couple of days ago was the end of my three month challenge. During the three month challenge we are supposed to stay in village for the whole time. I did not exactly do that because I traveled to the Kombo area a few times, for Christmas, and for taking money out of the bank. As for life in village, it is much better. The first couple of months were extremely difficult because I did not know how I fit into my community and my family. I could not speak to them, and I got flustered trying to respond to people asking me to buy attaya (a tea), sugar, bread, barbed wire, or anything else.

In the past few weeks I have started to feel more comfortable with my family. I will probably never be one of the them in the family because I will always be seen as the toubab (white person) who has money. And for the most part it is true, I have a lot more money than them and the dollar can go further here. I can buy a candy for a nickel and two pounds of potato for under a dollar. While I may never be part of the family, I can now feel accepted by the community and I am starting to feel that way. The women joke with me (a sign they like me), and the small kids will run up to grab my hand or hug my legs, which makes me feel more at home.

The first couple of months were hard and I questioned myself how I was going to live this way for two years, but now I do not question myself as much. I still have my bad days where I wonder if I am wasting my time here, but while I may not accomplish that much work project- wise, I am starting to see how the cultural exchange will be invaluable. I am learning how people think, view their lives and their challenges. In a sense it makes me appreciate America that much more. People here feel if they work harder there will be no economic reward for their extra effort. They lack motivation. It seems to a certain extent that people have accepted their fate. I have to admit it is sometimes difficult for me to see how they can improve their lives.

My questions have now turned to how I can help these people and what is the best way to do it. Motivating them to work and believe that together they can make their lives better will be my biggest struggle. People are not taught to think critically or analyze what is good or bad. Therefore, I will try to get the people to look at their lives carefully and see how they can make it better. I will probably work more with people individually like how to do orchard and cashew planting, and beekeeping. Working with communities or groups is more difficult because organizing people in a group is extremely difficult, and communal ownership creates problems when something breaks. Usually it never gets fixed. I also need to figure out if I want to apply for grants and funding because while it can give the community a leg up, it does not necessarily help them in the long run. Many times the projects fail because people do not have a sense of ownership, and will wait for someone else like an NGO to fix it. Also when an NGO gives a community something such as a garden, it prevents the people from trying to analyze and solve problems on their own. My debate currently will be to figure out how to help them. I really want to help them help themselves.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Views of my house

The entrance to my house. A fellow Peace Corps Volunteer is brewing attaya - Gambian tea
The back of my house. If I go through my backdoor I will reach my garden.

My side window, water filter,and food supplies trunk. Unfortunately I have to keep the window closed becuase the dusty storms are terrible.

Me and my pit latrine. It is more difficult to squat than I expected. I have trouble balancing. Therefore I need a counterweight so I do not fall backwards. The top of the pit latrine works extremely well.