Friday, December 16, 2011

K is for Kankaroung

This week's blog post is brought to you by the letter K.

K was a tough choice, mostly because I am completely brain-fried and can't remember anything that starts with the letter K. But never fear, I was struck by inspiration, in the form of a man dressed is grass carrying machetes.

Ah yes, the kankaroung (pronounced kang-ka-ron). Not only a cultural icon, but also the punishment threat to the many children residing in the Gambia, as there is no Santa Claus to pretend to call. Allow me to elaborate.

The kankaroung traditionally comes around during male circumcision ceremonies to keep women and girls away from the places in the bush where the initiates are. However, kankaroungs can also be called upon to ward off evil and generally scare the pants off of everyone. They also can assist the villages in getting rid of demons or lawbreakers. For example, if a man is known to be committing repeated acts of adultery with a powerful man's wife, he can call upon the kankaroung to drive the offender out of the village.

What makes the kankaroung so powerful? It is indeed a deep mystery. On the surface, it is a man dressed in a suit of grass (usually) wielding two probably dull machetes and roaming around moaning. Sometimes he is more elaborately dressed in a suit of leaves, which are rumored to be potent hallunicagins that he chews while he is in character. Sometimes he is tame, and attends ceremonies where he entertains the people by dancing and flying. Each village's kankaroung is usually 3 or more men who take turns donning the suit and walking the streets of the village at night (and sometimes during the day), keeping the evil away, and then waking the women up at the crack of dawn to cook breakfast for the boys being circumcised. They don't do anything quietly.

Kankaroungs are different in different villages. They have been known to beat women and girls who come to close to the initiates with the blunt end of their machetes. But usually they are more for show, creating a general hubris. When people hear the clanking of the machetes and the moaning of the kankaroung, they run into their houses and hide until he has passed by. One PCV's family had their lunch stolen by the kankaroung, as he made his rounds right before lunch time and they were cowering in their houses when he passed by. Children are generally terrified of the kankaroung, and some women as well. Most people laugh it off, but they would not like to meet one alone on the village paths at night. A male friend told me he never fears the kankaroung because he can call it by it's secret name and calm it (a name I shall not repeat here), but the kankaroung is best avoided when it's on the prowl.

And it's a great source of distraction. Often when a small child is crying or acting stubborn, an elder family member will shout "Kankaroung ka na lee!" (literally, the kankaroung is coming!) and sprint into the house. Sometimes the child is so distracted he or she will stop crying to look for him, or just run into the house. Mothers will even tell their children, "if you don't behave i'm going to have the kankaroung come here tonight." So it's similar to Santa, except with machetes instead of coal.

Sinister Santa.

In the past, the kankaroungs were a lot wilder. Now they are mostly symbolic, and much less of a threat to the average Gambian. Rouge kankargoungs still occur, but they are rare, and people always know when one is around, and give you fair warning. It is one aspect of the culture you have to appreciate from afar, but should be appreciated nonetheless.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

J is Jollyphonics

Ah, developing countries. They are not easy places to live, but they are hotbeds of innovation. I recently read an EXCELLENT book, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, about a young Malawian boy who is forced to drop out of school because of his extreme poverty and uses his time to invent a windmill that brings his home electricity. He learns the principles by studying old physics textbooks. It's a truly inspiring story, and it got me thinking about how amazing the human mind is when it responds to adverse circumstances.

And then there's jollyphonics.

Jollyphonics were invented to help children learn the more difficult sounds in the english language, with an emphasis on the ones that don't appear in the local languages here. This is done by teaching the children songs that place an emphasis on the sounds (think that song from our preschool days, I like to eat, eat, eat apples and bananas). I think the concept behind jollyphonics is an excellent idea. When paired with explanations, sounding out words, and the other tools that help beginning readers and speakers, jollyphonics would be an immensely helpful tool in teaching youngsters to read and speak. However, once the teachers here learn jollyphonics, they typically (not all, but quite the majority) use only the jollyphonic songs and somehow manage to tune out the chaos around them and not do anything for the rest of the lesson. Another interesting twist is most of the teachers themselves do not pronounce the sounds correctly so the result is tainted from the get go. The kids generally manage to distort the true purpose even further, winding up with a song that is very far from the original.

But they love them. They love to sing the jollyphonics songs. Over. And over. And over again. Here's an example, for the letter "a"

Ants, ants, ants on my arm.
Ants, ants, ants on my arm.
Ants, ants, ants on my arm, they're causing me alarm!

Here is what my younger host siblings say:

Ats, ats, ats on me arm
Ats, ats, ats on marm
Ats, NTS, ats on marm, they cousin me alam!

So you can see they are missing a bit of the point. Now, it's not at all uncommon for people to misremember songs here (head and soldiers, knees and toes?) but when the entire point of the song is to pronounce things correctly and they butcher it, it's a little less amusing. That being said, I am not ready to give up on the idea of jollyphonics. They could be an excellent tool for all students if monitored properly. However, I am more than done with listening to them. Every. Day.

Monday, November 14, 2011

I is for Internet?

We have it here in the Gambia. Sort of. Let me go over your options (assuming you're a PCV)...

1. The Peace Corps Office/Transit house.
your best bet, security-wise. could be the fastest, depending on the day/what everyone around you is down-loading.
pros-you can use pandora because it's on an american satellite.
cons-one location, can be lots of wait, no privacy for skyping (even though it's the best place for it)

2. the kombo (urban) internet cafe (byo laptop).
fancy. sometimes air-conditioned. a place to relax and use wireless from a sort of comfy chair or couch. often are in locations with delicious (yet expensive) food. as with all other internet here, can have really REALLY good days and really dismal ones.
pros-cute passwords (chocolat at the french bakery, etc)
cons-white collar bumsters (see earlier posts) who know how to find you on facebook

3. the kombo internet cafe (sans cafe).
clean(ish). rarely air-conditioned, though sometimes there will be a fan. internet here is reliably slow (open on tab at a time, give yourself 10 mins for attachments minimum, etc). you can gchat on a good day, i've even seen people skype.
pros-conveniently located next to major shopping districts
cons-hackers know it too. isn't it weird that all your contacts suddenly think you're stranded in nigeria and need 13,000 USD?

4. the up-country internet cafe (with dust!)
as dirty as you are from the travel it took to get there. give yourself an hour to wait and see if the current will be on today. if the electricity is there, the internet may also be there. hourly rates are cheaper than kombo ones, but you pay for it in time. it takes awhile for even emails to open, attachments? maybe if you've got nothing else to do that day.
pros-closer to site than kombo
cons-it's possible to wait all day and never get internet, meaning you left site for nothing

5. the stick (for the pcv on the go)
recently, 2 of the major cellphone networks here have come out with portable internet sticks. you plug them into your USB drive, and they connect to the internet via signals from the cellphone towers (aka there's a tiny man inside each stick on an even smaller laptop that invents everything you think the internet would tell you). these are apparently magical for volunteers who have a reliable laptop-charging source around their site and a little extra cash (like the phones here, you buy credit and pay as you go, so you can use it all up on one download). coverage can be sketchy but it beats trekking around, especially if you are working on your own computer and don't wanna travel with it.
pros-you can email your program manager about how hard you're working without getting out of bed
cons-even if you have to patience to load a youtube video, you definitely don't have the dalasis.

6. super-fancy internet phone
yes, they have them here. and i would assume they work exactly like they do in america, except a lot more slowly and a lot of incomplete coverage. all i know is they make people less social and squint a lot.
pros-a phone like that can probably also play akon
cons-crow's feet.

So there you have it. I is for Internet indeed. unless this post fails to load, and then i'll just have to write another one, i is for irate.

ps. my brother gets here today!! it's going to be quite an adventure. i will let y'all know how he likes the gam.

Friday, October 28, 2011

H is for His Excellency

I just upped the number of president's hands i have shaken in my lifetime from zero to one. Woo!

For those of you who do not have their fingers on the pulse of the Peace Corps community, PC is celebrating it's 50th year of existence. Yay for half a century of development! It also happens to be PC's 45th year in the Gambia, which is somewhat of a milestone in and of itself. PC countries worldwide have been holding celebrations all year to commemorate this occasion, and yesterday the Gambia joined in with an epic celebration thrown by His Excellency, the President of the Gambia, Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya Abdul-Azziz Jemus Junkung Jammeh.

And I shook his hand 4 times. Not surprisingly, he has an excellent handshake. I noticed during the event (which, all told, was about a 12 hour affair) that he does a lot of hand-shaking. He shook everyone in the Peace Corps' hand at least twice, and there are around 90 volunteers, not to mention all the staff. When he arrived (in quite a fanfare, marching band and shiny black SUV) he shook all our hands. After every speech-and there were a lot-the speaker would go over to where he was presiding over the ceremony-and shake his hand. He was extremely cordial the whole time, including at the end of the night WHEN HE GAVE US DRESSES! that's right, he gave each and every one of us a dress. it was amazing. I can never wear it for fear of destroying it. the men all received haftans (traditional long shirts worn by Gambian men) or shirts. It was incredibly generous, especially since he'd already given us a free motorcade to the event (travelling in a motorcade is approx 1,000 times greater then a gelly-gelly), lunch, dinner, a place to sleep, and a ride home. He also gave us a touching speech about how he is grateful not only to the volunteers who serve here, but also their parents who allow their children to live so far away for so long. As a public speaker, His Excellency is truly gifted. He really knows how to reach an audience and connect on a personal level.

The night was a celebration of Peace Corps, and the legacy each volunteer leaves. There is a story passing around Peace Corps, one told to pick up volunteers when they are feeling down. The story is about the President of a small, developing country who comes to America for diplomatic purposes. Upon his arrival to the White House, before meeting President Obama, his first request on American soil was to meet the Peace Corps volunteer who taught him English while he was in middle school.

And I think, really, this is one of the most beautiful definitions of a volunteer...the first American a host country national wants to see (even before the beloved Obama). And I hope I have been that American to at least one person during my service. This volunteer had no idea he was teaching a future president, he may have even thought he wasn't reaching his class. He may not even have been particularly close with the boy. But the impact he had on his life was impossible to predict. And that's what makes PC different. You have no idea the impact you have on someone, and sometimes you never know. But sometimes, if you're really lucky, you get a chance to find out.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

G is for GAGA

Camp GAGA: Enduring Environmental Education for a Changing World

The wait is over. The planning, preparation, and anticipation are all a thing of the past. Camp Girls About Global Awareness, widely known as GAGA among the Peace Corps community, has come and gone. Basse (a center of the eastern end of the country) found itself playing host to an exceptional group of girls and teachers representing every region of the Gambia, from urban KMC all the way to the rural URR, and everyone went home richer for the experience.

Many things came as a pleasant surprise: the girls’ willingness to participate during sessions, the teachers’ enthusiasm for the topics we brought forth, the volunteers dedication to the cause, even the bearable climate (Basse was kind to a coastal girl that week). The camp began with an upwelling of support in the form of a visit from some embassy and PC staff (Cindy, Roberto, Suzy, and our own Heather) and this positive momentum continued throughout the week.

The girls were faced with some big new ideas; even the concept of decomposition was foreign to them. Thanks to our fantastic teambuilding coordinator, Abby, the girls learned a song, “Biodegradable,” which tied everything together, complete with some sweet dance moves. They learned the song Monday night and sang it often throughout the week, to give them a break in between sessions or just because. The volunteers had as much fun as the girls, leading them from the front of the bantaba and getting down to the song about garbage. Marta has kindly posted a video of once such performance on the Camp GAGA facebook page.

One of the most exceptional things about the camp was it gave many volunteers a chance to showcase their classroom skills, which became a form of teaching itself. The teachers, who spent the first few days observing, were wowed not only by the phenomenal teaching aids the volunteers prepared for each lesson, but also their very presence in front of a class. Catherine and Julie, who ably handled the teacher curriculum, based it around observations early, and, as the week progressed, expanded it to discussions not only about the content of the sessions (which the teachers could not get enough of) but also how the sessions were taught and how the teachers could apply these skills in their classrooms.

The camp ended with a talent show designed to get the girls thinking about how they were going to take home the lessons they learned that week. A talent show was a foreign concept, so Koko, Alex, Kelsey, Steph, and myself performed an impromptu one while they waited for lunch one day. Later, many of the volunteers performed a drama written by the tireless Erica (our life skills coordinator who never failed to ask the right questions and schedule the right sessions) that was so good I don’t want to spoil it…you’ll just have to see it at the 50th celebration! The girls, encouraged by meetings with the volunteer who accompanied them, put together acts in groups of two are more. The show itself was quite the affair…curtains, a banner, lights, cold drinks, even a DJ, and of course, honorable guest judges Saikou and Haddy. Modou from FAWEGAM (our community partner), Julia (my partner in crime) and myself rounded out the panel. Erin, our emcee and talent show organizer, kept everything running smoothly. The girls did dramas, songs, and poems about the environment and how to preserve it. Even the teachers favored us with a dance. The content of the acts was truly impressive, and the girls’ creativity was unprecedented as well. After the show, the music played and the girls danced the night away, at least until lights out at 10 pm. They had a long week, and plenty to take home with them, including a concrete plan made by each pair of girls and their volunteer for a way to apply the ideas learned at camp in their villages. I look forward to hearing the outcome of their plans to increase environmental awareness at home.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

P is for Paul.

sadly, the post about funerals proved to be a little too prophetic. one unthinkable tragedy later and i'm here, mourning the loss of a good friend, and wishing against all wishes i could be there with his family and friends, as if my presence could make a difference in the cold truth. as if anything could change what happened.

but nothing can. last night, wrestling with the news, i found myself frantically racking my brain, asking myself...when was the last time i saw Paul? what were we doing? how come i fell out of touch with him, slowly, over the years?

and then i realized, all at once, that it didn't matter. that i don't clearly remember the last time i saw Paul because he was one of those friends, the ones that you'll have forever. that we had so many memories, so much of our formative years spent together, that each parting was just a pause until life brought us together again. that when i said goodbye to him that last time, i was in no way aware i was saying anything other then "till next time." because, with a friendship like we shared, the "next time" was implied.

so let me tell you about the Paul i knew.

he was a gawky middle-schooler, a handsome high schooler. in and out of college, he always managed to surround himself with friends. he had a band he toured with, and you could tell he thought that was the coolest thing ever. he was years away from realizing the incredible potential he really had. he was a phone call on Bob Marley's birthday. he was a righty who played the bass lefty. he was friday afternoon frisbee in the park. he was my best friend's boyfriend. he was an on-going game of Connect 4. he was the kid who never took english class seriously, who made you wonder why you took classes seriously at all. he wore shoes so big i could store my phone AND my keys in them. he skateboarded in those shoes (before they were a purse). he had this plaid suit my mother loved. he brought cereal to the fancy christmas dinner every year, without fail. he built fires in the rain and said the smoke didn't sting his eyes. he drove around town without using his brakes, coasting into turns and driving other motorists crazy. physics made him think about the world, about how it all worked. he made me think about teleportation. he climbed trees. he climbed rocks. jumped off cliffs. went off the rope swing. no one could ever say he didn't take chances. he was up for adventures. camping by the river. camping out on golf courses. eating the "s'mores" wyatt made. for late night treks around the jungle that is green hills. hiking to the electric light place, all of us, looking out over the city's nighttime scene. he had a flash-flight, and always wanted to throw it no matter how dewy the grass was. he wasn't afraid to attempt the gallon challenge. whole milk, never skim. he was a good hugger, just as good at goodbyes as he was at hellos. he was an amazing artist, whether the medium was markers, spray paint, or tie-dye. he was a vibrant patch in the colorful quilt our friends made, and nothing will ever change that. nothing can ever change that.

last night, alone in my house, overwhelmed by a deluge of memories, i was slowly overcome by something else, as well. the feeling that he was there, in my room, with me. it hasn't left. he walked the sandy paths of the village with me, enjoyed the wind in his hair as the gelly carried me towards the city, towards a link to the people i need to reach. he beat me to the abandoned computer lab, so i wouldn't feel alone. Paul is with me, even as i write these words. he's with all of us. the feeling that he is here doesn't keep the tears from coming, but it does provide some comfort to know that even though his body is gone, we can each carry a little piece of him with us.

paul cobb, you were, you are, loved.

Friday, September 16, 2011

F is for Funeral

i'd like to start this post by reassuring everyone that i have not recently suffered a loss.

funerals in the Gambia are different than American funerals, of course. different cultures cope with loss in different ways, and i don't think we ever fully understand how to cope with the loss of a loved one, no matter where we are.

the first major difference is the timing. due to reasons never fully explained to me but i assume they have something to do with the extreme heat/humidity in the rainy season, the funeral is almost always the day someone dies. there are a few cases where it will be the day after the death (if the body is being moved, or people are travelling), but customarily funerals occur the same day. there is another wake 40 days after the death, and a final mourning 70 days following the persons' death. this is the grieving period. after 70 days, a person is no longer viewed as "in mourning" over the loss of a husband, child, parent, etc. the suddenness of the funerals (because death is always unexpected to some degree, even if one's health is declining it's difficult to pinpoint the exact day he/she will expire) is very incongruent with western culture. to another Gambian, there is no question, if you have a funeral, you must go. and this is understandable. loved ones need to be mourned. funerals are a very important part of the grieving process, and it is, of course, a measure of respect for the dead. i would want the same thing for myself, when my time comes. however, it is the tiniest bit irritating when you have travelled for a meeting and it has been cancelled because someone on the committee was called away at the last minute for a funeral. the funeral is both the wild card and the get out of jail free card. you can't plan for it, you never know when it's going to happen, and you can't argue with it. entire workshops have been moved, ceremonies cancelled, lives rearranged at the last possible second.

another difference is the crying. people do cry at funerals in America, but not in the same fashion. the word "keening" describes it perfectly. high-pitched wailing, flailing of limbs, people (mostly women) give themselves over to their grief in a way that almost seems over dramatized. but it does seem to exorcise their pain and give them the strength to carry on, so who am I to judge?

the final difference i will address here is the attire. in america, and many other cultures, black is the norm. but not here. the women make sure to cover their head and shoulders with an elaborate draping of shawls, but otherwise they dress up fancy or not at all. everyone looks clean and respectable, but not at all like they are in mourning. they could be going to a naming ceremony. or a wedding. it's impossible to identify.

i personally try and avoid funerals because no one i have been very close to here has died. i tend to draw a lot of attention just based on my skin color, so out of respect to the families, i avoid them so people can concentrate on mourning and not the white girl. except. one time i did accidentally ride my bike into the middle of one. an elderly neighbor had died, and i knew the funeral was being held that afternoon so i decided to bike my worries away while the general wailing was going on. but. they failed to tell me they were having the funeral in the middle of the dirt path that runs through the village. so i rode right behind the coffin before i realized what i was doing. luckily, i happened to roll up right as they were saying a prayer for the dead so every living soul was pressing their forehead into the dirt, praising Allah. somebody probably saw me make my panicked exit. but, i'm not going to say anything, and, since they were supposed to be praying, neither can they.

Monday, September 12, 2011

E is for Environmental Resource Management

E is indeed for Environmental Resource Management, which is my sector here in Peace Corps the Gambia. I think the name is pretty self-explanatory, so we won't get into that now.

but the question

and that's a toughie. i like to think that Peace Corps is relying on each volunteer, in their infinite wisdom and unique cultural understanding gained from living in their particular environment, to interpret their policies and act upon them as they see fit. it sounds fantastic, right?

unfortunately, i think the truth is, no one really quite knows. but, for heck of it, we'll go with what I said.

what ARE the environmental resource issues facing the Gambia today? at times, the question seems to be, what aren't? but i will gladly take this opportunity to harp on two of them and leave the rest of it to your imaginations.

you can refer to my earlier post (i believe the title is...i'm not fasting. and i made a quiz!) where i touch on a lot of rather alarming facts about deforestation. it's a huge problem in the Gambia, compounded by a population growing at an unchecked rate, and so far the response to this crisis has been, sadly, inadequate. the problem isn't just getting people to plant trees (though trust me, that can be a problem), it's getting people to fence them so they're not grazed by livestock (tying your animals doesn't happen outside of the rainy season), soil degradation caused by invasive species and over-farming, bushfires happening in the dry season due to people burning their fields, illegal felling of trees for various nefarious purposes, and cutting of trees as a byproduct of other measures (clearing fields, harvesting oysters, etc). there are a lot of things volunteers do to try and combat deforestation; the forestry training another volunteer and i led for the dept of forestry for example (an exercise rather like herding cats...these aspiring foresters were very interested in their cellphones), tree-plantings (largely ceremonial affairs but nonetheless rewarding), education and outreach (Gambia All-School Tree Nursery Competition), and the introduction of alternative income generation/conservation practices (mudstoves that reduce firewood use, biochar, etc). but it's a tricky issue in the Gambia, because people know, deep down, the bush is disappearing, but they also need these trees to live their day-to-day lives. and it's difficult to resist the chance to sell firewood for money (good money, at that) when you don't have any money. so there's a lot of blaming and not a lot of progress, sadly. any volunteer who's worked on this can tell you that, no matter who you saw felling trees, they will tell you those trees were cut by the next village over. or by the Senegalese coming across the border. or...even worse... Nigerians. and that is the worst thing a person could do, how could they cut down these trees the village needs for their lives? and they didn't even replant!
and their indignation seems so genuine. it's quite the performance.

Waste Disposal
and we're talking about all kinds of waste here. solid waste. medical waste. toxic waste (if you count batteries and old cellphones as toxic. which i do). sewage. this problem, also, is compounded by the population boom and the rapid cultural changes the country is facing. up until the introduction of plastic bags (for arguments sake let's say that was 50 years ago) all the trash in the Gambia could be dropped on the ground and, within a matter of months or even days, it would biodegrade. and be gone. so there's entire generations of people out there who have been conditioned to think that dropping your trash on the ground is the proper way to dispose of it. but it's not going anywhere. and this is a huge problem. plastic bags can be found almost anywhere in the Gambia. they are unavoidable. and they're not going anywhere. the same with batteries. the kids use discarded batteries as toys...and these are batteries of an inferior quality. which means they expire more quickly, causing people to use even more. they are also more likely to break open, exposing their acidic insides, a health and environmental issue. and, of course, as the populations grow the pit latrines fill. as the bush disappears, people have less places to dispose of their own bodily wastes. there are entire villages in extremely close proximity with urban areas where not a single soul has a pit latrine, everyone is doing their business in the river. or the woods. it's a truly cringe-worthy thought. what are volunteers doing about these issues? pit latrine projects...check out to donate to various sanitation projects in various pc countries. they are doing village clean ups. they reuse plastic bags as poly-pots to nurse young trees. they sensitize. the girls' camp we're about to undertake (less then a week now!) is going to be a huge sensitization effort. but this is one of the hardest problems to attack because, even after you've collected all this trash...there's really no place for it to go.

there was a point in my service, embittered by a lack of work and general feeling of uselessness, that i thought perhaps ENRM volunteers couldn't do anything in the Gambia, that the problems were too big and the people too apathetic and Peace Corps should consider pulling the program. but since then i have really come around. now i really feel that they should expand it, because these issues, along with others (poaching of endangered species, lack of understanding of wildlife resource management, the abuse of the term eco-friendly to name a few) that now i firmly believe the program should be expanded. but budget cuts hit everyone and they are receiving less volunteers next term. it's sad, but the best i can do is hope these next volunteers have the same revelation that i did, and that instead of being overwhelmed by these seemingly insurmountable problems, be overwhelmed of how they can attack these problems from any angle they choose and still be working for a positive change. because when you look at it that way, it's quite exciting

Thursday, September 1, 2011

D is for Drama

Behold, the Gambian drama. Imagine, if you will, the drama of a soap opera in a situation plucked from a Worst-Case Scenario handbook with a public service announcement to boot. And there you have it. My very favorite aspect of this many-faceted culture...DRAMA.

Drama is used primarily as a teaching tool, to talk about issues too sensitive to discuss openly. It can be used to start a dialogue as well, to coax people into talking about issues they aren't initially comfortable discussing. For various reasons, it's easier for people to talk about why "Fatou" is putting herself at risk rather than analyze their own lives and behaviors aloud. They're also a great education tool in general...they tend to make messages more memorable. The majority of dramas I've seen are health-related; the dangers of smoking, how AIDS is transmitted, what to do to prevent malaria, even how to recognize the symptoms of tuberculosis. But of course they dabble in other issues, the picture above is from a drama about climate change, there are more then a few about why girl's education is important, and why teenagers should avoid premarital sex.

The real Gambian spin is that they always have the most dramatic consequences imaginable. Now, I have heard people say that Gambians are not much for imagination. This is far from the truth. They might not be ready to embrace the fantasy style we imagine, for example Harry Potter and spells, but sit through any Gambian drama and you will see their brains can jump all over the place and bring out the most far-fetched conclusion you wouldn't even have dreamt of. The majority of Gambian dramas I have seen are performed by children, so even more imagination is required because 45% of the cast will be mumbling and looking at their feet. It takes quite a bit just to catch what's going on. There are rarely costumes, and though a narrator often opens and closes the production, he/she rarely pops in to help the story along. So the actors have the sole responsibility for making you believe.

Let me walk you through the basic plot on a drama about the dangers of HIV-AIDS...

There are 2 girls, perhaps their names are Binta and Kaddy. The dramas often start in a familiar setting, like the schoolyard. Binta, the star, will be talking to Kaddy, her friend, about her dreams. Maybe she wants to be a teacher, or a banker. Kaddy will use this opportunity to plug the correct behaviors, such as studying hard, or abstinence.

Enter Lamin. Lamin is clearly a "bad boy." He will sweet talk Binta, talking about buying her a cellphone and calling her beautiful. Kaddy will look disappointed in Binta. Eventually, against Kaddy's advice, Binta will agree to see Lamin alone.

Some point, offstage, Binta will submit to Lamin's persuasions.

.....Binta is pregnant! But where is Lamin? He has run off and is not answering his mobile. Binta is all alone.

And she has HIV! Kaddy asks her, why didn't you have Lamin get tested? The nearest testing center is ________, and it's free!

And Binta's baby is born with HIV, too! And her family won't let her stay because she had a child out of wedlock!

And now she has to leave her village! And she is all alone, because her friend Kaddy (who finished school and works in the village with her husband) has been forbidden to help her. Now what can Binta and her baby do? They will surely die...


That is just a sample. There are some where the star recovers, especially when it's a more treatable, less scandalously transmitted disease, like TB or malaria. The girl's education dramas often end in pregnancy, or sometimes are variations on a wicked stepmother theme. But what they all have in common is that they never fail to make you feel better about your decisions.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

C is for Circumcision

Back to the alpha-blogging!

Today's letter is C.

Circumcision, both male and female, is a traditional cultural practice in the Gambia. Female circumcision, or FGM as it is more commonly called these days, is a highly controversial, deeply sensitive topic for Gambians and non-Gambians alike, and overall something I can not truly be qualified to comment on as an outsider to this cultural. So we won't touch that topic anymore in this post, except to say that I am in no way condoning anything here on that issue. Done.

Male circumcision is more publicly celebrated here. Most volunteers here get the chance to attend a few circumcision ceremonies, the party thrown by a village when the boys come back from the bush, having not only been circumcised, but also initiated into adulthood and taught the finer points of the culture by their elders. The ceremony that I get to attend (women are not allowed in the bush where the boys are being circumcised, they can be there for up to 2 weeks, healing and learning with the elder males bringing them food from the village) is not altogether different from the other ceremonies. There's lots of cooking, lots of food, and lots of dancing.


I have a friend, another volunteer, who lives in a Jola village. Jola are a very different tribe from the Mandinka, the tribe I live with. For example, they do their circumcisions every 25 years. Which means, not just a ceremony when the boys come back, but an epic, epic party. It lasted for 6 days, and I attended for one. In this tiny village in the middle of nowhere, everyone had rented generators, and sound systems, and spent what was easily a year's salary on fuel for those generators, and this whole village did nothing for a week but party. At night every house was lit up, blasting music and people just went from house to house dancing. It was such a stark difference to the usual nighttime scene in that village, where the only thing making noise is the donkeys. And the food! Well. The day I came they gave us 3 lunches. And they were all delicious. People came from all over the country, in their finest clothes, ready to party and cook for as long as the party goes.

So I guess what I'm saying is, if you visit the Gam, try and hit the 25th year of a Jola village because you will see people come from far and wide to celebrate the snip-snip that ushers these boys into manhood. Whether they're 2 years old...or 20.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

alpha-blog pause

we are pausing. i'll get back to it, i've got big plans for the letter C. but i just wanted to take this opportunity to plug my project, and, obviously, ask for money. you can write it off when you do your taxes!

i'm a member of our country's gender and development committee, and myself and a few other members got together to make a proposal for a camp for middle school girls talking about caring for the environment. we've talked to quite a few organizations here, and drawn a lot of support from the community, and, thankfully, the US embassy. But we are relying on this grant, donations from home, for the backbone of our budget. your money will go to lodging for the girls, teaching aids, food, travel, guest speakers' travel, and our big last night talent show (environmentally themed, of course. who can do the best Earth-friendly teaching activity?). it's hard to imagine in America, but these girls are growing up in a country with a rapidly-growing population (the majority of the population is under 15 here) and no real solid-waste disposal infrastructure. it's a plastic bag graveyard over here, and it's only going to get worse. we're aiming to give the girls strategies for avoiding plastic use, ideas about re-using aluminum, glass, paper, and other normally thrown-away items, and pairing this all with a series of activities geared towards giving them ability to go home and tell all their friends. in addition, we're asking prominent female community members who serve in relevant fields to talk about environmental awareness, so it's not just coming from us. in a place where every day is a struggle, conservation isn't an everyday theme. we know we're not going to change all that with 30 girls and 5 days, but we also know that starting on the ground instead of in the sky is a much more practical approach. so please check it out (there's a much more vocabulary-ridden description for you there), dig deep, and help us help Gambia.

Friday, June 10, 2011

B is for Bumster. or Boss Lady.

*****this post contains adult themes********

What is a bumster? The question is not what, but who? And there are many of these "whos" around here. A bumster is the term for a male sex worker, a male prostitute. They patrol the beaches, clubs, and other high tourist-traffic areas of the Gambia, looking for their prey: the Boss Lady. IF, and this is a mighty big if, with tourism plummeting, they happen to find that special Boss Lady, she will accept him as her "tour guide." Then she will buy him things, pay him for sex, or simply fall in love with him and marry him, so he can go back to wherever she's from and reap the benefits of no longer living in a third-world country. It's a good reason to hustle. However. Bumsters are some of the most obnoxious people on the planet. Especially to unmarried white women. Also, just because a man has never been compensated for sex before doesn't mean he's not up to try. 97% of Gambian men have a little bit of bumster in them. If they're hassling you to marry them and get them a visa, you can say you're being "bumstered," it's not just about the carnal relations. So let me amend my earlier definition; a bumster is a term for a male sex worker, a hustler, or a wannabe trophy hubby. Good?
Despite all their annoying tendencies, when bumsters are not talking to you, well, they're hilarious. The squats and thrusts they do on the beach to simultaneously tone their bodies and get the lady tourists to notice them. They wear outrageously tight and revealing clothing, usually women's jeans. They preen. The sad yet funny spectacle of the 22 yr old stud and his 65 yr old girlfriend...he doesn't care who he's with, as long as she foots the bill. It leads to excellent discussions, do you think they're in love? How did they meet? The way they will hit on each of your friends in short order, undaunted by rejection. "oh, you have american boyfriend? that's ok. i will be your gambian boyfriend." The names they give themselves to make them sound tough or cool. My favorites so far: Powerful Striker, More Fire, and No-Waste Timeless.

I do, however, absolutely hate being called boss lady. Sometimes they will holler at you, to get your attention, "hey boss lady! hi!" It's the worst. It makes you feel like you're giving off that desperate "i cam e to this country to get hitched" vibes you get from some of the tourists.

This man is not a bumster. He is an employee of the reptile farm of the Gambia. He is, however, wearing a mesh tank top, otherwise known as a "bumster jersey." They have been dubbed so because many bumsters favor them because they give the illusion of being fully-clothed while still allowing you to show off every last muscle. Also it's hot here, and they're just trying to keep cool. Right.

Some bumsters on the beach. For obvious reasons, I didn't want to get to close. Note the excellent push-up form.

Monday, May 30, 2011

going alpha-blogitcally

it's offical. i've hit the wall. they all told me i would, and much sooner. allegedly after a year or so of being here, you experience blog-block. everything becomes ordinary and you run out of things to blog about. it's not that i don't have a lot to say. it's just that i don't know what to notice to say it. anyways, in an effort to un-blogblock, i've decided to go through the alphabet and blog about something in the Gambia with that letter. eventually i'll either leave the country...or think of something real to say. so let's get this ball rolling....

A is for Asobi.

Asobi (that's ah-soo-bee) is one of those words that is the same in every language here. It means everyone wears the same fabric, and usually the same style, as everyone else. I understand asobi exists throughout West Africa, though it often has different names. Gambians LOVE asobi. It's very common to get it for events, either with your work colleagues (all the teachers at my school have an asobi, for example) or your friends. It's sort of the opposite of America, 2 or 3 girls will show up to a party in the same dress...on purpose. And think it's awesome. Families also get asobi, at times. My host family ( host father, his brothers, and their children. and their children's children) are getting an asobi for my cousin's naming ceremony. I am very excited, even though I specifically requested they select a fabric that doesn't look terrible on white people...and the did anyways. I will manage. Anyways, here's an example of asobi from the Peace Corps' volunteer swearing in ceremony...we got different styles, but the same idea...

and another from the Peace Corps All-Volunteer Conference

and finally, here's the asobi, american-style my parents brought for my host family when they came to visit. I would estimate my youngest host brother wears his Vandy tee-shirt 4-6 days a week.

What does asobi say about Gambian culture? I think it's a great representation of just how much community means to them. Gambia is very much a community-based society, and asobi is a representation of this. Whenever someone invites me to have an asobi with them, I am flattered because I take it as a sign I'm really a part of the group/community. It's fun. Asobi is usually made for an event, but you get really fun moments when you wear it weeks later and your friend does, too. Asobi is more then just matchy-match fabric, it's an expression of unity. It's one of my favorite things about ceremonies here.

That's it for A....B is on the way coming, soon-soon.

Monday, May 9, 2011

recycling-it's not just for aluminium.

hiiiiii everyone. i've decided, instead of writing a relavant post, to share with y'all an article i wrote for our post's gender and development newsletter. i worked hard on it, so if it sucks...don't comment. :)

Where My Girls At? Women Working In Environmental Fields

One of the most heart-swelling moments I’ve had in this country was watching an older woman address a gathering of people on the importance of mangroves. She had been living and working around these incredible trees for years and only recently learned of their ecological importance. Given the opportunity to address a tree-planting crew on why they had assembled, her voice soared confidently across the crowd, proud to be sharing her knowledge. When she sat down, bursting with pride, the whole room exploded into applause. She had said what we all needed to hear.
Even if they are just cooking the lunch for a group of men clearing a firebreak, women are working for the environment in a way they understand. This means it’s your job to ask them, do you know why we’re making this firebreak? They probably do. And they’d probably love to tell you all about it. So next time you head to your forestry camp, your agriculture extension office, to the headquarters of your nearest environmentally friendly NGO, look for the women. Thank them. Educate them. It’s your world as well as theirs.
Personally, I see the environment as an issue where men and women have an equal stake. If this planet’s health takes a nosedive, we’ll all be going down with it. This is why it’s important for everyone, not just women, not just men, to be educated on sustainable environmental practices. GAD is all about equality, and this is an easy area to address without getting into too many “responsibility” issues. Taking care of the Earth is everyone’s job. That being said, there are some pre-determined gender roles when you come down to the particulars, and that’s a great place to GAD-up any environmental work you may be doing. Empowering women isn’t just about breaking gender roles. It’s about giving them the knowledge to understand the world around them. Women in this society are more then capable of nurturing a bevy of screaming children, nurturing a planet is well within their capabilities.
How do we educate women about the environment? Start in your compound. Talk to your host sisters. Sit in on a meeting of your local women’s group. Have them think about what they’re doing to the planet every day. I’m not talking about a guilt trip. I’m talking about bringing conservation concepts into the forefront of their minds. Environmental education can be done at every level; it’s really all about awareness.
In the field, many environmental extension workers are men. OK, almost all of them. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t women out there working effectively to save the environment. True, they may not get sweet motorbikes and they may not be chatting up all the alkalos, but they’re there. And they’re working towards a greener Gambia. For example, a woman named Binta essentially runs the regional forestry department in my area. Yes, there’s a government-appointed figurehead, and yes, he does actually do effective work sometimes (gasp). But for the daily monotony of keeping that place running? Binta makes it happen. Period. And this isn’t uncommon. A large component of our up-coming girls camp (yes, this is a plug) is having women working in environmental fields speak to the girls, allowing their malleable, sponge-like brains to soak up every inspiring word about how they can work for the environment, too. We want girls who understand the environmental problems they stand to inherit, girls that are passionate about taking care of their country. We will be using women who embody these values. And what we’re finding as we look for these speakers is that women are working for the environment not only on the ground, but also behind the scenes. They’re behind desks, getting the paperwork done. They’re making sure the tractors are ready for trash collection. They’re calling Lamin over and over to make sure the seedlings will be ready for the tree-planting exercise. They’re pushing the Gambia to be a greener nation, with every small task.
Is this where women deserve to be? I’m not saying this is true. I’m saying that there are plenty of Gambians who don’t think about the environment, and I’m glad there are women out there who leave their homes every day to do just that. I am saying that they deserve to be acknowledged whether they realize it or not. -Casey

Sunday, April 24, 2011

recap...lessons learned.

hello hello. i'm back, in one piece and not all that worse for wear. maybe my pockets are a little lighter, but hey, travel will do that to you. now that i have been to 4, count 'em, 4 west African countries i feel my perspective has grown enough to present you, gentle reader, with this list.


1. WAITING. for transport. for someone to call you back. for your phone to have service. for your visa. for the immigration guy to come back with your passport. for your food. for your check. for your laundry to dry. for water. for the airport to get power back so you can check in. for prayers. just waiting.

2. MAYONNAISE. on anything. and while we're on the topic of food...

3. BREAD ON PASTA. carbs can only be improved, clearly, by the addition of more carbs. sold.

4. PALM OIL. yumm.

5. AKON. this one is probably the least negotiable.

6. CELINE DION. this one is much more important if you are a male.

7. SPEAKING LANGUAGES IMPERFECTLY. if you're not mixing your french with your wolof with your english with your malinkee with your pulaar with your krio, what are you doing? just use your hands a lot and point.

8. GREETING. this will be 95% of your interactions. just follow the format.

9. LAYERS. it doesn't matter if the patterns match, just throw on some more fabric!

10. MAN LOVE. there's a lot of hand-holding, lap-sitting, leg-touching, male friendship. it's ok, you have 3 wives. you can be as comfortable as you want in your masculinity.


12. SHOUTING/ LOUD NOISE. it's the only true way to be excited/talk on your phone in a crowded car. or a house. or anywhere.



15. PEOPLE KEEPING THEIR PET MONKEYS ON SHORT TETHERS. i guess it is protecting you from rabies.

16. THE CALL TO PRAYER. you haven't heard it till you've heard it echoing around the mountains. amazing.

17. BOOBIES. you're going to see them. breast-feeding is beautiful and natural. so is taking your shirt off when it's really hot out and you're a 50 year old woman.

18. TAKING ANY FREE RIDE YOU CAN GET. this one is especially important when you've been waiting on the side of the road for several hours.

19. CONSERVING OR FINDING ALTERNATIVES TO TOILET PAPER. the more you travel, the better you'll get.


Tuesday, April 12, 2011

typical. ????

i guess i should begin with an apology. sorry. i mean to update more, but the Internet has been really slow lately...and i've been both really busy and really lazy. what have i done since i last posted? counted oyster spat, taught about endangered species, endured a week-long administrative conference, gone on a trek around the entire Gambia (it's hot upcountry), ridden my bike, taught some more kids about HIV, attended some meetings, written some grants, celebrated some birthdays, tickled some host siblings, andddd planned a trip to Sierra Leone and Guinea. !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! i leave friday. it's going to be awesome. i can barely concentrate. but i just wanted to tell a little story illustrating how much my perspective has shifted since i got here. this actually isn't much of a story, but it proves it's point. last night, my host sister and i were leaving a naming ceremony-the last part of the ceremony, where you just run out the last of the generator fuel by having a dance party with everyone under the age of 8-and we stopped in the shop to chat with our friend, the shop-keeper's wife. there was a man from Senegal there who spoke French. and only French. he didn't speak mandinka, pulaar, wolof, jola...just french. my host sister and i were fascinated. we pooled together our meager french to ply him with questions. where did he come from? what tribe were his parents? how did he get to the gambia? what language did his mother speak? what did they say in his compound? who was he staying with? before i came here, i wouldn't have been surprised by someone speaking only the official language of their home country. most americans only speak english. but living here has given me a new perspective on "official language." in a way, they have helped developing nations-allowing them to communicate on global level, making them more relevant members of the international community. at the same time, though, it's amazing how people manage without them. i would say you could absolutely spend your entire life in the gambia and never have to speak a word of english (the official language). but to spend your whole life in the gambia never using dialect? you wouldn't be able to talk to your age-mates, really talk to them, until around 8th grade. you wouldn't be able to talk to the shop-keepers, all idle chatter would be impossible. it would almost be impossible not to acquire local language skills, living here your whole life. i never thought mono-linguism would be so alarming. but it was a false alarm. this man really just wanted to command the attention of two young ladies. hours later, after we'd been dissecting and discussing (who did he play with as a child? what if he had a travelling emergency) a mutual friend informed us that the man in fact spoke fula and was joking with us. very convincingly, but still, joking. and he gave me so much to reflect on! so that was it. a typical night. a typical situation. a typical west african man, lying to the ladies for a little attention. typical.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

i can't believe i didn't tell you this

my cat had a kitten. things are pretty adorable around my house lately.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

i went to the canada of africa. and it was awesome.

so i recently took a little trip to Senegal for a softball tournament, the West African Invitational Softball Tournament. i am not very good at softball, but i am very good at sitting in a bus for 8 hours and then enjoying the more advanced nature of Dakar. What does Dakar have that Gambia doesn't, you may ask?
well. let me make a list.
1. real paved roads that are regularly maintained
2. sidewalks...which is good because when the road is nicely paved you can drive really fast.
3. street signs. and speed limits.
5. ice cream.
6. urban planning
7. beer other than julbrew
8. confusing money
9. trampolines on the beach
10. marines. apparently they guard the american embassy. in countries where the embassy might actually be threatened.
11. grocery stores that sell produce. even apples. APPLES.

so there are a lot of other differences, but these are the ones that really stuck out in my mind. also, fairly early on in my trip i decided that Senegal is the Canada of the Gambia. the similarities? Senegal has french-speakers, lots of plains/empty flat spaces, it's to the north (ahem. and the south) and therefore significantly colder (which was awesome), and they have a superior health care system. the rest is basically the same. it was not unlike going from america to canada. i dubbed Senegal "Canagal," which is really fun to say. I also tried to speak in a canadian accent whenever possible. i think others got tired of hearing "round-abooot" instead of round-about, but trust me, it was funny every time.
dakar is a nice city, but i think i'm a village girl at heart. I don't know if i'll ever go back. but i loved it. if you want details, you'll just have to ask.

Friday, February 4, 2011

i'm not going to post what i was talking about, but here's some pics.

hiiiii. the parents have come and gone, it was amazing incredible hilarious, you'll just have to ask them. i'm a little brain fried so instead of writing a wonderful post i'm going to post some of the pictures from the handwashing workshop i did with my school's peer health club.

this is right before they performed the handwashing song. notice Mariama laying down the law with the altos. well, there was no rhyme or reason for how they were standing. so the 3 girls in the corner.

this is my new puppy booby. she attended the workshop as well. she did a great job. until she got underfoot during the drama and somebody tripped over her.

omar's cartoon. note the second panel. yes, that person is pooping. yes, it is red.

it was a great day and we all learned why handwashing is important. i'm working on the follow-up.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

at a potluck, every person brings a dish of food

hi everyone! i know it's been an ENTIRE YEAR since i last posted. i've been too busy ringing in the new year and not having access to internet/free time. when i have one, i seem to lose the other. we are a little over an hour from the moment my creators step into the Gambia. am i excited? yes. is my village excited? yes. are the kids ready to greet them? no.
i tried to have them practice on some of my peace corps friends, and the moment a white person who's not me shows up, they get all shy and look at the ground. and mumble. these are the kids who get up from the mat, announce to me quite clearly (and loudly) that they're going to fart in the house, and then scramble away giggling. i am not quite sure where the shyness is coming from. but hopefully my parents can melt their icy hearts with a football (a soccer ball, my brain gets stuck on the local slang) and their constant presence. pretty soon, hopefully, the only thing keeping them from knowing who's going to fart where will be the language barrier.
in case you are wondering about the post title, it's from an email circulated by the embassy here. they are having a meeting/potluck and apparently they want to make sure nobody shows up empty-handed. it made me laugh. i probably won't attend, but if i do i'm going to bring a dish of food for sure.
i apologize for the short post, don't worry, i have a good one planned (really, i wouldn't lie to the blogsphere) but i need to leave for the airport. here's a teaser:
"these are our wives, our mothers, our sisters, our friends. they are all ladies of the night."
yes you will keep checking for updates.