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.