Friday, January 1, 2010

New Year's Day

hello, friends. i am sitting in the peace corps transit house, in a very un-Gambian situation. there's a tv blasting super troopers in the backround, a fan is going off, and i'm on the internet. it's pretty different from what i'm used to. but very nice. we are all here for a week and three days, after which we are scattering back across the country to settle in to our new sites and undertake the "3 months challenge," where essentially we are expected to try projects and fail, and try again, until we find something that works. after the 3 months we have what is called in-service training, where we learn a LOT more technical skills. i think we are all excited and nervous for our 3 months challenge, but it's really time for us to try out all the cool things we learned over the past two months.
in between then and now, however, we have a LOT to do. we have another language test, some technical tests, and a swearing-in ceremony that will take place at the US ambassdor's private residence but be televised all over the Gambia. it may sound like a big deal, but there's really only one tv station here and it's not fully scheduled, so it's a nice way to fill the time slot. it does add a little pressure to us, though, because our swearing-in ceremony is supposed to include skits. yikes. the peace corps has given us the day off to sleep off the party of last night, and then our slew of tests and presentations begins in earnest bright and early tomorrow. yahoo.
but i am now going to write a little update on some things i've done that i feel are worth posting
-celebrated Christmas with 35 of my closest friends and some European tourists
-taken a long walk to the river with 5 young boys to see Senegal. i taught them to skip shells and they took a boat across. then, upon the boat's owner discovering they did not have fare, came directly back to the Gambia with a little arguing and splashing. on the way home they taught me the Mandinka word for "fart," a key part of their vocabulary
-met a traditional birthing attendent, who showed me her tools and her delivery area. the tools were quite a hodgepodge, including string and a rubber stopper like the one on the end of a turkey baster. she explained to me some of the process, but in Mandinka so unfortunately it was entirely lost on me
-rang in the New Year on an estimated time with a wonderfully crafted ball-drop consisting of a soccer ball wrapped in tinsel. Julia is truly a genius. there were also balloons.
-listened to the popular Gambian song "A Fo Die" up to 15 times in one night at one of the parties in Kaiaf. these affairs are quite the experience, everyone gets very excited when the generator switches on and the music starts, and then it quickly turns into a middle school dance. there are small clumps of girls and boys, segregated by age as well as gender, all over the party and they almost never mix. i have not seen a single Gambian couple dance together, and i probably never will. despite the cliques, everyone stays at the party until the fuel for the generator runs out, which sometimes doesn't happen until 3 or 4 in the morning. and they all wake up the next day to pray. impressive.
-cooked a tradtional dessert, pancatos, with a bevy of Gambain ladies. yes, there was lots of input from outside parties. but they were delicious.
-gone on a 30 k (18 mile) walk. it was originally supposed to be a 26 k walk the peace corps trainees do every year, but our guide got lost and we spent 3 hours bush-whacking before turning back. we were walking for 11 hours. but it was pretty fun. it definitely famalizrized me with the flora of the rural Gambia. i was not too worse for wear the next day, but some other people had some fairly alarming blisters. all in all, it was a good experience, though maybe not recommended for all.
-started a compost heap in my backyard! i am really into compost here, since the Gambia does not have a trash pickup-all the garbage here winds up in heaps behind compounds or in roads. i am hoping that i can use the tourism angle to get my village interested in more aetheistically-pleasing waste dispoasl practices. it is possible to compost paper, food scraps, cloth, and lots of other trash that ordinarly winds up in their compost heaps. they may be doing it so more tourists will come, but they will also be making richer soil for their gardens (they have awesome commmunity gardens there) and protecting their future. so hopefully i can get them on the compost bandwagon. i think about that a lot. but i'm starting small, and thinking big.
-deepened my opinion on how important international aid is. with that, i have also been feeling more and more strongly that it is irresponsible not to research the charity you may choose. after seeing wells go unused because the women in the village can not operate them, or machines that would change everyone's life for the better remain broken because there are no resources to repair them, it becomes much more real. i think i have written about this before, but i want to urge everyone again to check out the charities they are contributing to. are they getting results? are they on the ground, following up with the people they are helping and adapting their help as time progresses? there are some great NGOs around, but there are also some that simply have the best intentions and but just don't fit the communities needs. an example i have been thinking about recently-one of my friends is living in a village by the riverside, and they have recently been hooked up with a charity, who is going to purchase them 3 big items if they raise 10% of the funds. one of the items they were considering is a fishing boat with a motor, which on the surface sounds reasonable: they live near fish, and that's a great way to make money. however, after a few minutes of conversation my friend learned that no one in the village can fish, or in fact swim, and they are all afraid of the river. a seemingly good request can easily end up as a boat that sits on shore until the bottom falls out.
but despite my soapbox moment, there are good stories here too. you can see people's lives being improved, by taps installed by british ngos, by community gardens, by health clinics and education outreach. NGOs do make a difference, and sometimes just by showing people they are there to help, they give them the hope they need to make a change. so don't think it's all bad, because there are a lot of good things going on.
and now that i've preached i'm going to find some lunch and go to the beach. it's a holiday. eat some black-eyed peas and think about the year to come. 2010 has so much promise, and i'm excited to see what each day will bring.

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