Tuesday, December 7, 2010

it's a christmas soapbox!!! (long post, skip to the end for important stuff)

i will, if all goes according to plan, be heading back to my village after oyster surveys wrap up for the month and not coming back to urban civilization until, and i'm not sure this will actually be possible, January. so i'm trying to get all my holiday/christmas wishes out of the way, all the much better to get those tidings of great joy in early, before everyone else gets in the way.
so of course, merry christmas/happy jewish festival of lights to you and yours, i wish we could all spend it together, let me know what you're doing and have a good one. i'm going to spend christmas in village, something i hadn't originally planned on doing, but so many people requested that i spend christmas there that i had no choice but to concede. it's going to be interesting, for sure, they treat christmas here about like they treat Tobaski, which means that those religiously inclined (so this time, the village's Christians) have a feast of freshly slaughtered meat (pigs instead of rams for Christmas)and everyone else treats it like a normal day, until that night when the parties start. Now, Tobaski is a 2-3 day holiday, which somehow wound up meaning 6 straight nights of parties. Christmas is only one day, and a Saturday, so maybe it will only be 1 or 2 nights. There's no place like home for the holidays, so everyone gets off work and school, even though the vast majority of them aren't celebrating anything. Well, they're celebrating not having to go to work or school, so that means PARTY. the parties here are unlike ceremonies, i think they're most equivalent to concerts. what generally happens is one group of people (friends, football teams, etc) gets together and pools their money to rent a sound system. they charge a small entry fee at the door, and attempt to make back their money before the generator runs out. everyone gets all gussied up in their most risque clothing (short skirts and dresses, generally glittery with leggings that just barely, just BARELY cover the knee) and dances middle-school style, in a circle with their girlfriends/ male cohorts. these events usually start around "9 or 10 pm," which, in Gambian time, means between midnight and one. they run "until mamma calls you home," which, in Gambian time, means until the generator breaks or around 4. those that consider themselves "too old" for that sort of thing either go to concerts (drumming, kora, etc) that begin a little earlier, and end around the same time, or organize beach parties, where they brew tea on the beach and chat. sometimes there is juice.
in my nostalgia for trees and carols, i didn't really have the right "christmas:party" mindset, but i think everyone has set me straight. it's not a day to spend with your family and friends, it's a day to stay up late and listen to Jamaican music, as long as the generator doesn't break (the generator, by the way, breaks probably 4 out of every 7 times a party is thrown). and it will be fun. and what i really like is that everyone knows i'm a christian, and they know that christmas is a special day for me, and it's a good chance for me to share some of my culture with them. it's opened the door for some nice conversations about family and traditions, which helps to ease the pain of being away from loved ones and gives them something to compare to their own. it's fun.

ok. but onto my christmas soapbox. you're not gonna get away that easily. this is the season of giving, and i hope you're thinking about doing just that. i think when every day you are confronted with the after-effects of good intentions turned out badly, you really start to think about what kind of charity helps people, and what kind enables them. it's the whole "teach a man to fish vs. giving a man a fish" idea. it's not difficult to assume all kinds of charity were good. i know i haven't always known enough about where my money was going. i'm not saying that if you give to the wrong charity they're going to use your money to buy bon-bons and fur coats instead of feeding hungry children. i'm just saying if you really want your money to help, i suggest a "first do no harm" mindset.
you can take a hardline on this, or not. it's your money.
charities that give food to people, i am not enamoured with. char ties that give people animals to raise, breed, and eat, beehives and instruction, or gardening aid (ex. the heifer foundation) build their capacity for feeding themselves and reduce their reliance on handouts strike a chord with me. check yes.
i am in favor of any charitable act that helps educate people. esp. if you can send someone to technical/vocational school, because i feel these are often overlooked for more formal education opportunities. chances are, if someone wants to go to a technical or vocational school, they have identified a talent and will be able to find a job in the future in that field. also, donations to technical or vocational schools i think are another under looked avenue of giving, because that helps everyone enrolled, including those paying their own way who may not be able to afford materials. in addition, the higher quality of materials they have to learn with, the more work they will be able to do.
as far as medical charity, i don't know very much. i know that often expired drugs are donated and that makes me angry. also i think it's important, as far as health goes, for people to receive not only pills but preventative education. i don't just mean condoms. i mean handwashing, water purification practices, malaria prevention measures. there are some good ones out there. do your research.
buying products made by groups as a result of micro-finance is generally, but not always, a pretty safe way to go.
the question you should ask yourself when giving is "how will this money improve the recipients life ON A LONG TERM BASIS?" too many money-now charitable donations are squandered, or wind up going towards things that the donor would probably never imagine, or approve of. if your donation can't be measured on a long term basis for indicators of progress, and there's no one in place to do that, maybe you should give somewhere else. i know it's a little more labor intensive, but i think it's the morally responsible thing to do. you don't want to solve people's problems with charity, you want to give them the tools to solve their own problems.
all that being said, if you really want to know who i think you should donate money to this season, it's the Peace Corps. there are these grants called "peace corps partnerships" where a volunteer writes a grant, it's posted on a website, and people donate. there are a lot of different projects up there, from every country the peace corps goes to, so you can pick your passion. no, i haven't done one. i may, and i'll let everyone know and beg you to send your lunch money to the Gambia when i do. but i thought i would plug it anyways, this is the website:

You can browse the projects on your own. If you need a suggestion, one of my friends here is doing a healthy babies project i think is pretty cool. her last name is Green, search her.
another, similar website i can recommend is a little more focused: all their projects are on access to clean water and sanitation. you can also pick your own project, a lot of Peace Corps volunteers wind up posting with them:

these are just suggestions from me. you don't have to give to any of them. there are people right outside your door who probably need it. but that's what i really want for christmas, is everyone who reads this blog to do one charitable act, whilst thinking of me. even if you just donate a book to a book drive, or make a small donation to your local vocational school. tis the season, right?
p.s. if you want to make my heart burst with joy you'll post what you did in the comments section. or tell me privately.