Friday, May 21, 2010

barack. obama.

as i'm sure you can imagine, obama's kind of a big deal in these parts. the man is kind of a big deal everywhere, but here he's really achieved another level of popularity. he is ubiqutious. his face is everywhere here. and i really mean everywhere. people have holographic obama belt buckles. his face stares up at me from the wristwatch of the man sitting next to me on the gelly. his love for michelle is celebrated in tee-shirts of all shapes and sizes. you can get clothes made from fabric with his face printed on it over and over, a banner of obama adoration to be worn on the most special of occasions. even the beloved green tea that people guzzle here like americans and their starbucks comes in obama brand. for a slight price hike, but a small price to pay i'm sure.
and then, of course, there's the song.
ba-rack. obama.
ba-rack. obama.
there aren't really any other lyrics. but it really is a song here, and we sing it to baby Omar all the time. then we clap his little hands together for him and he laughs.
and of course, being an american, i'm clearly on speaking terms with him. i think some people even suspect i have his mobile number and am keeping to selfishly secret for some unfathomable reason. i have actually had arguments with people where they acccused me of lying when i said i didn't know him.
"but you work for the government. you have met him at least."
"no. my country is very big. many people work for the government. he can not meet them all."
"yes, but you work for him. he is your president. you know him"
and so on. it's not everyone, but i have been asked to greet him more times than i can count. now i just say okay, knowing full well that if i ever do get the chance to meet one of the most popular political leaders of our time i will be greeting him on behalf of an entire west african nation.
and of course i expect this to happen immediately after my return to the u.s., where i will fly into d.c. through an arch made of balloons with a floating banner that welcomes me personally back.
because that's what happens when you arrive in america.
we should be flattered, really, that our country has been percieved to have such a great and welcoming reputation. it's difficult to explain to people that america is great, and there are many opportunites there, but we also have many problems. that we have poor and even homeless people. and our doctors can't cure everything. that not everyone has a mansion and 3 cars and a fat white wife. and that the incredible culuture they have here, where everyone knows everyone, and welcomes strangers as you would a long-lost friend, is often lost in the day-to-day stresses that make up american life. i wish i could instill the friendliness and sense of community that comes so naturally to everyone here to the more uptight, isolated, distrusting nature that comes to americans almost by necessity. i wish we were a little less of an individualist culture, less reluctant to celebrate things we have in common, things that make us feel united, instead of competing through status symbols and constant one-upmanship. i'm not saying gambian culture is perfect, i'm not saying any culture is perfect. i'm just saying we could learn from them, just as they can learn from us.
but mostly i wish some one would greet obama for me because my host brother was playing with my cellphone the other night and deleted his number. i know he's waiting for my call.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

maybe i'll never leave site again.

and not just because things are going really well there. which they are. it's been a really good few weeks, and when it came time to come back here (i'm doing some oyster work) i was really dragging my feet about leaving. but leave i did. and it's nice to be here, with a fan on, sitting in a chair that has a back and a cushion, with the feel of cool tile on my feet. but i think the real reason it's so nice to be here is because the process of getting here was comically drawn-out and convoluted. i'll try and be concise, but get comfy, cuz that's not exactly my style...
i set out from home later than i intended, which was my first mistake because it was sunday and nobody likes to do anything on sunday (or friday, of course). but i was helping with the laundry and lost track of time, and then was heavily pressured to stay for lunch, which typically happens around 3 here. after lunch, i headed to drop off some seeds at a friend's compound. she was out, which was fortunate because she missed seeing me spill my bag of Moringa seeds all over the sand. luckily, i managed to corral some kids to help me collect them. then one of her sisters asked me to save her a seat on the gelly (the typical transport method, a van that is stuffed to the brim with people, luggage, and various other items such as chickens, gas cans, buckets of fish, photos of the gelly driver and the gelly,etc) so i went to the carpark and boarded the waiting gelly, taking care to save a seat for my friend. in due time (we'll say 30-45 minutes) enough people came and after some shouting and searching for the driver and apprentice, we set off, stopping at my friend's compound (it's by the one road running through my village), horn blaring, as she calmly strolled over and boarded. yes, the driver honked the horn the whole time. no, it did not quicken her pace. her 2 year old daughter chased the gelly crying as we rolled slowly away, with one last horn blast for emphasis.
and then my water bottle leaked through my bag and all over my pants. yes, it was unpleasant, but i am fortunate to be in such a climate that it dries rather quickly.and i managed to extract my mobile and wallet from the bag so my documents were safe. the rest of the trip was uneventful.
so i arrived at the first carpark and boarded yet another gelly to continue my journey, trying to ignore the wet spot on my leg and the confused glances it invited. this gelly also filled up slowly (who wants to go anywhere sunday afternoon?), but luckily i had a book with me, which served the dual purpose of giving me something to do and giving me an excuse not to talk to the man sitting next to me, who immediately upon taking his seat asked me which country i was from and if i was married. as we rolled along, two men in the front of the gelly started having a conversation about how we should all live like the prophet and how Allah is the only way, but only one felt that way. i suppose their "argument" was really about religious freedom, but it was a lot of back-and-forth and clearly no conclusion was going to be reached. everyone in the car noticed, we were all exchanging looks and chuckling to ourselves, except for one older man who listened quietly for about 10 minutes, and then could no longer restrain himself. he began yelling at the two men in the front, saying that they were distracting the driver, which they may have been. however, he did not seem happy with their response (silent), so he got to his feet and yelled more and more. apparently he used to drive for the embassy in Dakar for 22 years. and he doesn't want to hear anyone's thoughts on Allah. at this point, other passengers were trying to reason with him, which caused him to lash out at them, which made him even angrier. at all times about 3 people were standing and shouting at each other, ostensibly over how this man didn't want anyone to distract the driver. those of us who weren't yelling were laughing, but more in the "this is really uncomfortable and i'm nervous" sort of way. and one lady in front of me was recording the angry man's impassioned tirade on her cellphone. but i guess the still-shouting man had a point, because the driver was indeed distracted, and we got a flat tire. so we pulled over and moved the shouting match to the road side, with one very angry "i told you so" addressing the whole group. somehow everyone calmed themselves by the time the tire was changed (maybe 30 minutes) and we all piled back in, ready to get going. lesson learned?
they started fighting again. and this time, they tried to bring me into it. "let's ask our white sister here" they would say, and the whole gelly would look at me, and fall silent. and i would tell them in english and mandinka that i wasn't going to comment on their arguments. they wanted me to take sides on religious freedom. and then on who was responsible for environmental degradtion. and then, to ice the cake, the man sitting next to me asked if i had a boyfriend, and if i could tell him my pet name for him. i have never been so happy to get out of a car.
but now i am here, and ready to get to work. ready to forget that in a few days time i'll be back on the road. ready to believe that it was a fluke and that many people willing to argue for that long will never be on the same gelly with me also present, and that if this happens again it will be an hour ride, not 2 and a half. ready for action.