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.