Thursday, December 2, 2010


The middle-aged white woman sits comfortably on a padded chair. Her short "mom" haircut rests behind her ears which sport expensive looking silver hoops. Her delicate non-calloused hands hold a copy of Chenua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart". Just beyond the pages of her book the waves crash in on a white sand, palm tree lined beach. This is Africa-or is it? Here the comfort of the coast resembles Europe, except with more black people.

The woman, most likely, purchased the book at a comparatively pricey cost in some chain bookstore run by a multi-million dollar company. The book about Africa makes a perfect accompaniment on the trip to Africa. But will she ever see it, know it, feel it? Will she leave he comforts of a beach side tourist culture to go upcountry a few hours and see that people, Africans, are still living in the exact same manner as described in "Things Fall Apart"? Although the book was set in precolonial Africa the cultural details and living conditions are identical to life in The Gambia. Will she go and discover it, or continue sitting in her bikini drinking a beer in front of the ocean reading her book? Tourists come so close yet so far away from real Africa.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Aduna Ko Ni (the world is this)

The size of her brown eyes makes her beautiful.
Large and round.
Always intently focused on the person she is talking to.
I won't ever forget the way her eyes looked at me the morning she lost her baby.
They were still, frozen, hanging onto the words about to come from my mouth.
In those brown eyes I saw the panic and sorrow I was reflecting upon her.
Where is my baby?
Your baby is dead.
Water exploded out of the open-welled eyes.
We sobbed.
She chanted loudly, "o my mother, o my father help me now, my baby's gone, o Allah help me now."
An old woman in the corner of the hospital approaced us from the bed she sat on in observance.
"Be quiet my child, be quiet, the world is this, you are young you will have more, even I have lost many children. Be quiet now aduna ko ni."

All good things must come to an end, even Ramadan

Evening brought a starless dark. I walked to the "shop" in Banni to buy a candle for reading later. I was rushing because it was almost prayer call and time to break the days fast with tea and bread. I wished peace upon Kemo, the vendor, and headed back to the compound. What I saw as I rounded the corner stopped me as forcefully as an invisible wall. A tingle electricuted my entire body and left me smiling dumbfoundedly at the power in that moment
Everyone, all ages, was standing outside facing west. With their backs towards Mecca they pointed simultaneously at the sky. It resembled a scene from an alien invader movie or a UFO sighting. I ran up to Baba and asked, what is it?
It's the moon, was his reply.
There it was, the tiniest sliver of the moon for the first time in a month and the symbol of the end of Ramadan. Cheering broke out as children started playing bottles and bowls for drums. A light cloud of dust lingered around the excitement of shuffling feet and Alieu Jallow's voice beckoned "Allah akbaru" through the village from his place at the prayer house.
Families retreated to their compounds to break fast for the first time since before sunrise. There was a sense of relief in the air; tommorow we could eat lunch.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Farm Days

The yellow paint rusts off the hand plow as it scrapes the coffee toned earth, revealling long caterpillars and red furry spiders. The word "France" clings to the metal frame as it has, most likely, since the 1920s. Here in The Gambia nearly a century later the plow is led by the strong calloused hands of Gambian males with either cows or donkeys at the front. Saidu Jallow, a neighbor to Ney Ney plows through her farm with the payment of a pack of Busisness Royal cigarettes and attaya. Alieu, her 13-yr-old nephew cooks the tea dutifully like any good small boy, happy to take a break from farming.

The froth from the sweet tea bubbles to the surface of the teapot and splashes with the force of a wave against the rocky frontier of the burning wood. Mixing with the fire the sugary attaya lets out the aroma of cotton candy. At Alieu's back on a straw mat Ney Ney slyly pulls a large spider from her daughter's barefoot as to not scare her (me:).

The birds are actively following Saidu as he plows. The dark purple, teal and black feathers form a cloak as they flutter in the slight wind of the rainy season at his back.

During the rains,farming occupies the life of Banni's inhabitants. Men, women and children all have their roles and they carry them out from sunrise to sunset. The men plow, the women plant and the children pick weeds and chase away baboons if they come. All work is done by hand or with small hand tools. This leaves the hands of the villagers blistered and calloused and their backs sore. With incredible flexibility they bend at the waist, straight-legged, to work with the soil. This is repeated every day,weather permitting for three months, Ramadan included. They don't get paid for their labor, they dont take their crops to the market and profit from it. They can't afford to. Everything is used to feed themselves. They work everyday, all ages, to live hand to mouth.

Afternoon came and things slowed down at the Jallow's farm, the hottest part of the day rapidly approaching. The children skip home for the first time since sunrise. Their rice breakfast was taken at the farm but today they will have lunch at the compound before returning. Saidu finished his job and led the cows to graze and fertilize a nearby field. The long green grass next to the freshly plowed field swallowed their legs and noses all the way up to their rib-filled bellies. Ney Ney went home to finish cooking lunch while Alieu finished off the attaya and rest under a large tree to keep a sharp eye out for any animals that may hungirly wnater in from the bush.

Frequently Asked Questions

I thought a good way to give you all insight on life here in the Gambia would be to answer some questions that I seem to get a lot or that I thought you might have... Hope all is well in the states :)

Best thing
My host family, they are amazing and treat me like family...literally

Hardest thing
The heat and "hungry season" (whic is as awful as it sounds)

My closests friend
Egudou Jallow, a hard core Fula woman who lived in our compound for the dry season

Weirdest thing I ate
Goat brain scooped out of the skull with my hosts moms 8 am

Best thing I ate
Bread sugar and sour milk mixed together and attaya

My favorite project
Girls soccer team

Biggest Challenge
attempting to meet EVERYONE in the villages needs..and everyone assuming I am rich and asking for things

Moments that make me Real Happy
When my host siblings call me Jaja (big sis) and run to me when I come home to the compound. Seeing wildlife, swimming in the ocean, everything really!

Scariest moment
When my host mother was sick

Funniest moment
when my host mother helped me bathe by literally scrubbing blue dye from my bare butt

Its about nine and a half months in and life here feels really normal, which is strange. I am really comfortable in my village with all my family and friends there and just do day to day tasks while speaking pulaar as if it were normal! I am really enjoying my service and have so many stories to tell, its hard to online! I will try again (having problems with my camera) to post pictures on my snapfish because I think it will make things more clear, pictures speak a thousand words! I think of you all constantly and love the little emails and messages you all send me! love and miss ya! peace!

Aunt Julie (aka Julde Jallow) visits The Gambia!

Last month I hosted my first visitor, Aunt Julie! I was so excited for someone from my world back home to actually experience my world here and, of course, it was amazing!

I met her at the airport in Banjul and we had a lovely dinner and time to relax, however we pretty quickly went to my village.

After a long travel day upcountry we arrived down by the river where you cross to get to my village. My host father stod at the river waiting to greet us. Julie was so excited and thought Baba was quite stunning in his long light blue robe :). As we crossed the river we marvelled at the birds and vegetation looking for monkeys and other wildlife. Although it is INSANELY hot, the rainy season is a gorgeous time to visit. Everything is so green and overflowing with life and vibrance. Juma (host bro) was waiting for us with Rose the family donkey and a cart.

We rode through the jungle and as we approached my village we heard the banging of drums (or empty plastic jugs) and people shouting and clapping. As we got closer we saw the whole village waiting for us in the road singing and dancing. A welcoming that still gives Julie the goosebumps and almost moved me to tears. Everyone was so happy to have a "stranger" come to the village. Julie, besides me, was the first white person to stay in the village.

We danced, at chicken, drank attaya, chatted with women, Julie sang and played endlessly with the children and danced around in the rain. We went on a long hike with Baba, went to the market where we found some gorgeous fabric, at some local foods, and spent time at each compound in the village. We also watched the Ghana v America world cup game outside during a storm, the village went NUTS when Ghana scored, although they looked at me nervously but I was clapping too :)

For two days we had a getaway at Baboon Island, a national park reserve about 4 k from my site. We biked in the afternoon heat (sorry julie poor planning) and arrived at the camp. The rooms there are gorgeous and they have a really nice waterhouse on the river with hammocks. Its the only "building" in the area so you are surrounded entirely by jungle. Monkeys, baboons, snakes, crocodiles, endleess birds, insects, flowers, trees just to name a few. Around the clock you can hear chimpanzees howling from the islands. They park protects and rehabilitates the few remaining chimps in the Gambia, there is even a chimp recovering from alcoholism and smoking! (he was rescued from some shady european circus) We took a boat tour around the islands and saw SO many chimps, HIPPOS, and baboons as well as smaller monkey speces. It was truly unforgettable.

For her last few days we headed to the coast and stayed in treehouses on the white sandy beaches of Kartong, right near the southern Sengeal border. Devin came and met us and we swam and read and ate and just relaxed-it was wonderful and much needed. Then Julie took Devin and I out for what will go down in history as "the best dinner we ever had in the peace corps" at a resturaunt called La Romantica. Julie took pity on our malnurished souls and you name it we ate it...i still day dream about that night julie!! :)

So needless to say her visit was wonderful and she is very missed by the whole village and then some!! The village near mine had a baby while she was here and they named it after her! ( i dint realize this and they scolded me for not visiting my aunts name sake..whoops!)

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Medical Emergency in the African Bush

I knew something was wrong by the way Musa, my Rastafarian host uncle, called me over to the compound. All the adults stood huddled around my porch with expressions of panic and confusion. Neyney (pulaar for mother) had to be lifted from the porch, unable to stand or see straight. I asked what happened. "Her whole body just went dead," Mbuna said. Egudou, my host mother and I piled on a donkey cart and headed into the bush toward the nearst hospital across the river, leaving the sun to set behind us. My body cramped under her weight as I struggled to make her comfortable and fan her, fighting the heat and stablizing her panting. She was not responding to my questions and her eyes rolled around her sweaty and tear stained face almost lifelessly. I was terriffied but pushed away any fears or negative thoughts. Baba (father in pulaar) was waiting at the riverside wth the boat. Musa lifted Neyney's body and stradled a slippery gap to lower her into the boat. Her shoes and fan were lost in the transaction, something that normally would have been upsetting hardly seemed to matter. Two young men brought a wheelchair on the other side of the river and we loaded Neyney once we arrived. They struggled past dirt and rocks on the way to the hospital. At one point they tipped her and I scolded them in Pulaar, frustrated with their wrecklessness.

It was dark now and the heat worsened in Kuntaur, which is located on the river. The humidity and mosquitoes were a lingering pain adding suffereing too the already unpleasant situation. When we entered into the hospital I thought I could vomit from the smell. Aromas of urine , puke, feces, and death were so potent you could almost taste it, unfortunately. A few lights hung from fans whose only purpose now was to host dust, cobwebs and insects. The 12 beds were lined up on opposing walls with no dividers, it reminded me of a make shift hospital room during ww2 or in a refugee camp. At the far end an old naked man lay on his bed swating mosquitoes away with a rag. A young teenage boy who resembled a skeleton flailed around in panic moaning from pain and sweating profusely. Under his emaciated body was the bare matress tattered from use and with many questionable stains. Next to Neyney's bed was a pregnant woman in a light pink complet. She threw up every five minutes in a dish pan she kept at the foot of the bed, I unfortunately became quite familar with that pan as the night went on. It was not until later that I realized an old woman was laying next to her. I literally thought her clothes and body was just a sheet on the bed, she did not make it through the night.

The nurse hooked Neyney up to an IV and I fanned her for about an hour before she fell asleep. Egudou was sitting with her baby on an empty bed making friends with the patients and their families. Chattering away as if we were in our compound. Baba bustled back and forth from the Bitik, or local shop. The sustained presence of the mosquitoes got the best of us that night, everyone was constantly swatting them away and scratching at their bodies like they were going through withdrawls.
The stray cats did not seem bothered by the mosquitoes, they wandered around the room drinking out of the dish pans at the edge of the beds.

Although disturbed by my surroundings I was able to maintain my composure. Neyney was neglected,, except for the IV, by the nurses and I was more than happy to step in and play nurse. However, as the night went on I grew more and more upset at the lack of accomodation or attention from the professionals. Someone whom I had grown to love and care about, who treats me as a daughter was ill and little was being done. Neyney somehow drifted to sleep and I decided to ask the nurse some questions.

All I wanted to know was what was wrong with her. She had been complaining about stomach, head and body aches and had also thrown up quite a bit before passing out back in Banni. The nurse did not even look me in the eye when she said "look at the chart" in english. Reading the chart just frusturated me further, it was filled with innacuracies. Age: 26, she was really in her 40s and it read she had an abortion when really it was a miscarriage. As far as a diagnosis, nothing.

Baba returned from the Bitik with bread and a Fanta for Neyney. She had a little and her checks blew up. She motioned at her neighbors dish pan. Without thinking I grabbed the dish from the pink pregnat lady and held it to Neyney's mouth. The vomits converged and my stomach turned. I left the room for some fresh air under the stars.

By this time it was after midnight and Kuntaur quieted, surrendering to the sounds of crickets, frogs and a lonely track on a distant radio. The other visitors of the hospital were spreading wrapskirts on the cement floor outside the hospital. Egudou, Baba and I joined them in setting up camp. The night was reminescent of a sleepover. We stayed up late chatting under the stars and checking on our sick loved ones periodically. The mosquitoes refused to let us sleep, waiting attentively for us to doze off before they attacked. Thank God I took my malaria pills I thought as I drifted in and out of an uncomfortable sleep. We woke with the sun a little before six am. Baby Metta (Egudous child) was laying on her back wide-eyed. She made no noise except for the sound of her nails ripping at her skin as she consoled mosquitoe bites on her belly.

The crowd of visitors who slept outside flocked like zombies to the river to wash the sweat and stress off their faces from the preceding night. Back in the hospital room Neyney was awake and feeling a bit better. She was still throwing up any little food she swallowed but was more talkative and could walk, slowly, on her own. That morning the "doctor" (head nurse) was in. I introduced myself in Pulaar but he was a Wolof and chose to speak englsih. I polietly informed him that some of the information on my host mother's chart was incorrect, and that maybe I could get some answers as to what was wrong with her. When I said that she had a miscarraige and not an abortion two months ago his response was shockingly rude and condescending.

"Is it not the same thing," he said. I replied no. He then made me explain the differences to which he responded, "you are wrong, to a lay person one might think it would be different, but if you look in an English dictonary you will see its the same." This guy is going to be diffiult to work with I thought. After hours of asking the "Doc" to run tests on Neyney's blood and urine I had nothing, I was only denied in a rude tone time and time again. Frusturated with my helplessness in the situation I asked Musa for help. All he had to do was ask once and I was holding Neyney's hand as blood was being drawn and carrying her urine to the lab.

When the results came back I was shocked, but alone, in my reaction. She was pregnant. Baba and Musa were happy with the results. I explained that her illness was not just simply being pregnant, that bleeding to the extent one thinks they had a miscarriage is not a normal side affect of pregnancy. Wondering out loud who was going to inform Neyney, Musa nominated me. Entering the hosppital room I found Neyney resting. Her body, wrapped in a blue and orange skirt, lay atop a green plastic covered mattress. Flies jumped around her feet and Fanta botle. I took a seat and she rose up. In Pulaar I explained we have the results, you dont have malaria but you have a stomach (which is how you say pregnant in Pulaar). She sid "Ok" without changing the expression on her face. It was as if I had told her something as simple as the time or that a friend greeted her. Something did however switch inside of her. After refusing food and water for a day she instantly asked me to go to the Bitik and buy her something to eat. She knew that it was not just her she had to look after but a baby as well.

Neyney had to stay another night until they were done giving her medicine to kill any possible infection in her uterus. I wanted to stay again but needed to get somethings fom home. After Aliji and his small boat paddled me across the Gambia river I hopped on my bike, racing through the dusty dirt road that wound through the bush. I quickly greeted my village and explained Neyney is recovering with out revealing she was pregnant (its taboo to discuss). I got to my mud hut and lay on my bamboo bed, and attempted to relax. My mind was replaying little clips of the past two days like a trailer to a movie. The young boy's wails in the night, Neyney's heavy panting on the ride up, the cobwebs in the hospital room, the old lady who had died, the old naked man in the back who peed in his dishpan, Neyney's suffering and the heat. Then I remembered one more detail which summed up my feelings perfectly, An HIV campaign poster hung on the hospital door with the words "We can do better".

Lumo (market ) Day

Hey all, thought i would give you a little more insight on my life here. So much happens its hard to organize into blog posts but here are a few posts on recent/ reoccuring events in The Gambia. I my area every Monday is Lumo day in Wassu, a bigger town acorss the river from my village Banni. Here is an entry I wrote in my journal describing it:

The sun falls heavily on the covered shoulders and heads of the women waiting by the riverside for a boat to arrive. Today is Lumo day which means, if you have money to shop, you dress ip in your finest complet (traditional outfit) and paint your face to perfection. Once across the river horse carts line up in a row, waiting to transport people through the rice fields to the town of Wassu.

Amonst the tangled sandy paths of the marketplace, animals, colorful merchants and endless fruit stands, the lumo is the place to see and be seen. The market culture is reminist of how it was hundreds of years ago. North African merchants with their lighter skin and long robes lay on mats selling gorgeous fabrics. Around the corner meat hangs on wire scraps as the vendor swats flies away while he negotiates over the price with a client. Young school girls help their mothers and walk around the enchanted maze balancing plates of bananas or peanuts on their heads. Horse carts continue to shuffle people around kicking up the dusty earth of the dry season. As a result, men and women adjust their headscarfs so that only their espresso toned eyes are revelaed.

After four months of attenting as many lumos as possible I have become quite familar with the streets and merchants. There is my tailor Yaya Jallow's shop which is located in the middle of the market. It is my home base along with the rest of the people from Banni. Its where I leave my bike, get water and sit to chat with friends over attaya. On the main road is my "mom" Mariama who is an older woman that sells fruit. She likes to refer to herself as my mother and gives me free bananas which is nice. In between the meat and animal area is a collection of small resturants one of which is ran by my work counter part's in-laws. In the fabric section is an elder North/East African man who sells me fabric. At first meeting he thought I was just a normal Tubab but when I called him a theif and demanded he reduce his outlandish prices in Pulaar he realized his mistake, apologized and now gives me local prices. Among the familar faces that operate the lumo are many family and friends from my village and ones near me. However the biggest population of people I run into are my "customers". Last lumo day I counted 20 strangers who I didnt know saying in Pulaar, "Binta where is your sour milk" Not the most glorious thing to be known as, no, but still it always brings a smile to my face to talk about my sour milk with strangers...

Sunday, February 7, 2010

village life

Hello all, it was nice to read comments and emails from life back home. I am glad that you are all intersted in my storeis here, it means a lot and I will do my best to continue sharing my life with you!

On Januaury 8th myslef along with the 34 other new trainees were sworn in by the U.S Amabassador at his home in Kombo. The ceremony was surreal and inspiring. His speech was very thoughtful and gave me goosbumps as he explained that while he was the Ambassador reperesenting our country in The gambia were were all good-will amassadors as well promoting peace and bettering the livliehoods of the villages we are stationed in. It is great to here and experience how well recieved the Peace Corps is by the Gambian government, the people, and other development workers as well as US representives living here. We spent the rest of the day celebrating extensively at the beach and local bars/ resturants. The energy among our group was very high, we finally made it through training and are actually volunteers! It kind of felt like graduation!

After kicking it in Kombo with my friends in the pc we headed to our permanent sites. But first let me go back to talk about my initial welcoming into the village of Banni (before swear in we were at sites for about 4 days getting introduced to the commuinies)

The drive on the south back road was bumpy and hot to say the least. From our training villages it took about 4 to 5 hours. The suspense built as we stopped at each village getting our friends settled and meeting their new families. Soon it was my turn. I was so excited to see my new home I could barley contain it. From the main road we took a sand road into the bush to get to Banni, listening to a Bob Marley tape. We putted along the 13k road to my site for about a half an hour in the pc vehicle. We past 8 small villages all consisting of mud huts where the most beautiful buildings were the mosques. With each village I impatienly asked, "is this banni?" and the answer was no. I am living way out there and with each vilalge we past without stopping my friend Fern and I would look at each other and laugh thinking where are they sending me? We approached Banni and as we drove past the pump the first person saw us (Myamona Bah) and she started screaming "Binta ari Binta ari BIINNNNTTA" which is binta is coming (my gambina name in my vew village is now Binta Jallow). Soon everyone came running from their compounds screaming my name and chasing the car. There was as sworm of kids with smiles so large I wondered how their little forms could support them. We stopped in my compound and as I got out of the car their was a large group of women and childern playing the drums (emptied out oil containers) singing and dancing. They quickly formed a circle around me and each proceded to enter the circle and would individually dance to me as a welcome. They would put their arms around me shake my hand and invite me to dance which them, which I did enthusiastically. This lasted for a while and I felt so welcomed and overwhelmed by their hopsitality and excitment I felt like I could burst out in tears, I managed to hold them back thankfully! I met my family right away and a meeting was held on my porch with all the village elders. They explained their gratitude for me coming to the village ( I am their first and only PCV) and how I am considered as a memeber of my family and community and will be treated as such. My father is Alieu Jallow and my mother is Hawa Jallow. They don't speak any english but are so patient with my Pulaar and so fun to be around. Gambians are very welcoming and I felt instantly comfortable in the compound. I also have an older brother Juma who is around my age and an uncle Musa who is living in the compound. Their are five adorable children ranging from the ages of 1 to 11 ish (no one really knows their age). They all call me JahJah Binta which means older sister Binta. I've spent a lot of my days sitting with the family and talking brewing attaya and eating. They are very happy that I decided to eat all my meals with them, share the same food bowl and eat with my hand just like them. My thoughts were, duh of course I would do that, but they are very happy that I am just as excited/ willing to be a part of the family as they are with me. One afternoon I was sitting on a colorful bamboo mat with my family and members of the community brewing attaya. We had a nice conversation about all of the wildlife in the area and they shared their stories of run-ins with hippos, snakes and baboons. I shared my amazement with the diverse wildlife and explained that I was excited to see baboons. As we had the conversation a bunch of children came running to the porch shouting in pulaar "binta there are baboons in the pumpkin fields right now". With out any hesitation we were off. Here is a journal entry I wrote shortly after my little adventure with the children and baboons in the bush:

Dec 27 2009,
I was just interrupted by children screaming "Binta baboons" and so I sprinted off my porch barefoot into the bush to chase a group of two baboons, all together there were about 50. It was unreal, they were right near our village eating pumpkins from the farm. Myslef and the children were like a pack of soliders chasing the invaders and making baboon noises like "oo, oo, oo". Our leaders were some of the older kids ( around 12) in the front of the pack with rakes and machetes in hand. We ran in a straight line through the tall grass, one of the smaller girls on my back. The leaders shouted orders like "get down or up" We would duck disappering in the grass and rise accordingly, all the while the baboons ahead of us. We followered their path watching the dust form clouds around them as they sprinted off into the bush. We reached a fruit tree were they were perched mintutes before and climbed it to look out across the savannah. We saw them in the far distance and heard them as they disappeared but we were quickly distracted from our hunt by the delicious KuKu fruit in the tree. We ate and climbed and chatted in the same manner that the baboons had done there moments before. Just another afternoon in Africa.

In my compound their are 4 mud huts that face each other with a fruit tree, fire pit and laundry line in between. My houses is a large one room hut constructed of mud and a cement like substance made from sand and water. The thatched roof is made entirely of palm leaves (some times I catch the family donkey snacking on it!!) and my furniture is made of bamboo. I sleep on a grass matterse contained by old rice bags sown together. For all this furniture together I probably paid 40 USD. I have a large backyard fenced in with bamboo, a pit latrine and a nice shaded place to take my shower baths. Their are moringa trees and cassava trees in the backyard and some room for me to make a garden once I get some seeds. I plan to grow peppers, lettuce and tomatoes, inshallah. Turns out that my house was the only one acceptable by peace corps standards in the compound and it is where my parents used to live with the children. They willingly moved out of it to make accomodations for me, just one example of the hospitality and generosity that gambians possess.

As I mentioned most of my days are spent haning out with my family and participating with them in their everyday tasks, my main goal for the first few months is to learn Pulaar well and establish turst and relationships in the community, if I can accomplish this it will help my service as a volunteer signifigantly. On Mondays I go to the weekly market with my host mother to sell pumpkins and shop around. As the crow flies it is not that far away but due to limited transportation and poor road quality it can take hours to get there, but its a social experience and very fun. The women put on their best outfits, jewlery and even paint their eyebrows for the occasion. We start out on a donkey cart packed with vegetables to sell and people, sometimes goats and chickens accompany us. We crawl through the bush shortly after the sunrises admiring the birds who are taking their breakfast from the abundance of fruit trees. Every now and then we see red-tail monkeys in the baobob trees and almost always see baboons on the ground. We get to the river and pile into tin boats with a motor. It reminds me of those vending machines that you see at grocery stores pakced with stufft animals, watches and other random accessories. There are filled rice bags, people, chickens, goats, and some times large cows tied by the horns to the side of the boat and dragged through the deep water to the north shore, their noses and eyes fighting to stay above the surface. As we onload on the river bank there is chaos, and sometimes mild arguments, to catch another donkey cart to go to the market. After a few of these trips I have frineds in the nearby villages and hear "Binta" as we cruise along. We greet everyone we pass (as is normal all the time everywhere in the country) and go through a script of "how is the morning to which the response is peace only. I probably say the words "peace only" in pulaar near a hundred times a day. Occasionally I get a "Tubab" (or white person) by someone and my mother, who is hilarious, started responding to them as if they were greeting her, which clearly they were not. Its kind of interesting being the only Tubab in the village and much of the area. Sometimes I actually forget that I am white. I am eating the same food speaking the same language and often times in the same African dress as my gambian villagers. The marketplace is huge and bustling with everything from fresh meat, fruit, vegetables, fabrics and nescafe/condensed milk coffee stands(so good by the way). Everything is outdoors sheltered by rice bags strung up ahead. There are endless winding alley ways, each district of the market with different goods. One of my favorite areas is the fabric section, lines and lines of outdoor shops with gorgeious fabrics hanging on display. The colors are so bright and vibrant and look stunning with the Gambians walking by hosting similar fabrics on their dark bodies. I get hastled occasionally to buy things and the prices are raised because I am a tubab and therefore rich (a common misconception in west africa) but I am able to hold my one in local language and can bargain down pretty good. I mention that I am a volunteer and almost everyone has heard of Peace Corps and will adjust their prices accordingly. I am very greateful to be in a country so small where everyone seems to know everyone and most know of the peace corps as well, its pretty extrodinary. when I met someone for the first time and start speaking in Pulaar they say, "you must be peace corps, you are speaking our language" which is pretty cool. One shop owner gave me a bunch of nails for free and thanked me for my work explaining that we were now friends. I wandered around greeting people and making frineds when a young girl approaced me by name. I sort of forgot how I met her but it didn't matter. She grabbed my hand and asked where I was going, when I responded that I was just strolling she said okay lets go. She was selling bananas which were balanced perfectly on her head as her hand was free to hold mine. We would stop occasionaly to sell a banana or greet a friend and before long I had the bananas on my head and was walking around helping her sell them. It was pretty hilarious to see and a hit with the Gambian men, we sold quite a few bananas!

Coming back from the market at the end of the day consisted of more donkeys, boats and occasionaly a tractor. Once on a boat I got stuck standing towards the front with all the goats. I struggled to find a place to stand and found myself stratling four goats laying down in a couple inches of standing water. I felt like I was playing twister with the goats, consintely shifting my position as the hooves stomped on my feet. Occasionaly the goat would get uncomfortable and stand eleveating my feet from the ground momentarily, it was hilarious. We got stuck waiting for the tractor untill sunset and packed in about 40 people, animals and "groceries". The sun was a perfect orange circle on the horizon of the savannah lighting up the vegetation and birds. Every now and then we would approach a thorny bush and everyone would scream "bule" (thorns) and we would duck. My fathers' best friend Saarjo Jallow would turn laughing and scream "Binta" after each incident to make sure I had escaped the danger. Every moment is a cultural adventure and as amazing as it is surreal.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Last Days in Training Village

Like I mentioned before, my time in my training village was incredible. That was because my family was AMAZING but also because of my Peace Corps teachers. I mentioned S. Bah before, but after him Ida taught us. We called her Mama Ida and she was just amazing. Not only was she great with the language but she taught us a lot about the culture from a woman's perspective. She was endlessly patient with us and also, like my sisters, bossed us around a little. One day I left class to get my hair brush so she could brush my hair because I looked like a "Rastafarian". Needless to say we had a lot of fun and my time in Jiroff would not have been what it was without the guidance of both my teachers.

During the last two weeks I was able to spend even more time with my family and we were all dreading the goodbye! (me especially) I felt extremely comfortable and like I was integrating well into the culture. One good example of this is when a bunch of Brits came to Jiroff to build a school and set up camp near the road. They were the new Tubabs in town and one night after attaya my sisters and I walked all the way down to their campsite just to observe them and talk about them, from a safe difference mind you, and then walk bake to our compound without saying a word to them. It was hilarious, I felt like if I was Tubab watching with my Gambian girlfriends then I'm on the right track! When it was time to go to Camp Tendaba for more training with all the Peace Corps volunteers (we went here often for a few days at a time throughout the training) for the last time without returning to Jiroff it was pretty devastating. We heard the Peace Corps vehicle coming down the road and I looked at my sister Kaddy and we both had instant tears in our eyes without even saying anything. We proceeded out to the car, myself and my flock of sisters, like a funeral procession. We walked so slow, crying all the way. Although it was hard to leave them I do believe that they will be good friends for the rest of my time here and I will definitely go back and visit and they will make me feel at home, it's the Gambian nature.


Tabaski is a Muslim holiday where all family members get together and celebrate, we had the privilege of being in Jiroff during this time. The excitement was tangible as family members returned to the village from our of town, girls put on makeup and braided each others hair, and the men and boys prepared the animals to be slaughtered. Everyone had there role and played them out seamlessly as they had and their relatives had many years prior. A group of young women and girls sat under the mango tree braiding in their specially purchased weaves. There were many of them and this kind of braiding requires a lot of patience so it was an all day task. I sat with them for a while and watched the men as they brought out four goats and prepared to slaughter them. There were probably near 70 family members in the compound during Tabaski and the rams were to be cooked to feed them all. Right before they did it, my host sister insisted I photographed it so I grabbed my camera and got some pretty interesting shots! After I helped the boys skin the animals and dissect them essentially. I didn't participate to much, I was more of the limb holding assistant. The boys thought it was funny to chase me with various guts and bloody machetes, it was pretty funny. The next step was the cooking. A whole different crew of women (older then the ones braiding) chopped vegetables and meat cooking it in an outdoor kitchen made of mud bricks. They joked and laughed as they cooked sampling little ram bits along the way. As the time got closer to lunch everyone started washing up and putting on amazing complets (outfits). The women's were brightly colored often with jewels and designs stitched on. We ate like kings, the food was great! There were 10 food bowls prepared for the family and 8 people sitting around mine and eating. The bowls were separated by gender and age which was interesting to see on such a large scale. The day continued on with more of the same and the women constantly changed their outfits at various points. I got scolded by my sisters because I didn't have on my African dress yet. As I went home to change Kaddy asked me if I had showered yet and I said yes, then, in front of everyone, proceeded to ask me why my feet were so dirty. So little sidebar about my sisters, they are gorgeous! Like supermodels and are always bossing me around in a joking matter. I think my overall sloppiness is a huge disappointment (my hair for ex) and they are always striving to make me presentable, its great. So, Kaddy then told me to go home clean my feet and come over with a hair brush and my outfit so she could get me ready for the rest of the day. After putting my clothes on me and brushing out my ratty hair she pulled back in a tight pony tail and slicked it back with straight oil. Something that works wonders for African hair, mine not so much. I'm like a life size Tubab doll to them, its pretty funny. The rest of Tabaski was filled with more food, a soccer game between Jiroff and a neighboring team, Saliboo which is the equivalent to trick or treating, attaya drinking and chatting until midnight, and then disco at the elementary school until 4 am. It was an epic Tabaski to say the least and I could go on for hours with details but there is just too much too say! Hopefully I'll be able to post pictures successfully of Tabaski.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Overdue Updates! :)

Hi everyone!!Hope the holidays were wonderful! I was thinking of you all and sending out my love! I apologize for not blogging often but I have been NOWHERE near Internet access. I mean I literally have been showering from a bucket and crapping in a hole so the thought that I would be able to blog frequently is just plain comical! The Gambia is amazing and I absolutely love it here, I am grateful for every day and every new adventure no matter how small. I'm completely excited by the fact that I get to live this for the next two years! So I've received a lot of emails and facebook messages from you all (thank you by the way!) and it seems you are interested in my life here, so I tried to compile a complete description of what it is exactly that I've been doing these past few months! I hope you enjoy it and that it gives you some insight to my life in The Gambia!

At the close of the first week in Kombo (capital area) we found out what language/ ethnic group we would be a part of. I'm a Fula/Pulaar and right away myself and the 8 other volunteers assigned to the group were thrilled. Fulas are somewhat of a minority and are known as rural cow herders and fun/joking individuals. The Fula women wear colorful fabrics (as do all Gambian women actually) and lots of beaded jewelry, gold hoops, and Fula scars (cuts filled with peanut ash to make tattoos) on the side of their faces which distinguishes them from other Gambian women. They are all STUNNING its just insane, enough can't be said about their beauty. They have flawless facial features that are framed most of the time by brightly colored hair wraps, a gorgeous contradiction against their dark skin.

Soon after we found out our languages we learned that our training villages would be in the Kiang West region of the country which is a few hours up country from Kombo on the South Bank of the river. My village was called Jiroff and I was sent there with volunteers Julia, Katie and Ebrima S Bah our language and cultural facilitator. Before leaving Kombo we went to the lumo (weekly market) in Serekunda (area in Kombo) and it was a remarkable cultural experience. The markets have proven to be one of my favorite things about the country. Here is a journal entry I wrote about the experience:

NOV 12 2009,
Salamaleekum, Maleekumsalam. (peace be upon you and also with you) I greeted everyone in the marketplace with a huge smile and ehilarated expression which was matched with positive vibes strong enough to inflict peace on any troubled grounds. Women draped in vibrant fabrics glided the narrow dirt streets that winded through small alley ways sheltered by a makeshift roof woven of old rice bags and rope. Their faces showed no sign of struggle under the pressing weight of large buckets balanced on their heads without the assistance of their hands. Their beauty was indescribable. Each one looked like they had just stepped off the pages of a National Geographic magazine thumbed through casually at a doctors office or hair salon somewhere in the States, but here it was real. I remembered something I had read about the Gambia, no matter how many pictures you have seen or books you've read nothing compares to nor can prepare you for its reality. Any previous notions I may have had are laughably irrelevant when you are actually living it. As we headed back to the bus I noticed a young girl with a platter of peanuts sitting on her head looking at me. We began talking and soon there was a sworm of kids around shouting "Tubab" (which means white person) and asking me what my name was. Listening to them pronounce Joanna LaFrancesca (a name most of my teachers could never say correctly)was adorable. The girl kept looking at my hair like it was the most bizarre thing she had ever seen. Her curiosity led her to touch it, smell it, and even hold it up to her face. It was interesting that she was just as curious about me as I was her.

When we got back I sat on the balcony of the PC house writing in my journal. The sun was setting behind palm trees and unfinished buildings as the full moon began to reveal itself. I remember thinking and writing how amazing my life was and how much I appreciated my day at the market. As I did the call to prayer echoed from a distant mosque and a man next door was praying/chanting "what a life I lead". Words that in that moment captured my gratitude exactly. It was a small reminder that I am exactly where I am supposed to be.

My time in Jiroff was simply incredible. The village was no more than a narrow strip that stemmed from the south banks 'main road' (a one lane dirt road). There was a mosque, basic cycle school ( elementary and middle school), a tailor, and 3 small bitiks or shops with limited and basic necessities. There are about 24 compounds with a population of around 400. When we first arrived in the Peace Corps jeep we drove down the narrow path into the village and children came running up to the jeep excited for the Tubab arrival. They quickly placed our luggage on their heads and brought them to our respective houses. My house was a nice two bedroon house with concrete walls and a tin roff with a backyard just big enough to host a pit latrine, laundry lives, my bicycle and a blooming guava tree.

My family was huge and I am still confused as to just how many there were because they were constantly coming and going. However, if I had to guess I would say around 30-40 family members. My baa (dad) Bonno Bah only had one wife and a few kids but he had seven younger brothers, many of whom had multiple wives and children. (Polygamy is practiced here since it is a predominantly Muslim country and men are able to take up to four wives). The best thing about my family was without doubt all the women. There were eight sisters/cousins ranging from ages 19-24 (and 3 who were younger). They were not always all there but the ones that were and that I became closest with were Kaddy, Binta, Kaddy, Bintou and Hawa (yes, there are limited names in the Gambia and most people have the same name). When I didn't have class I spent my days gettinig to know my family and community, here is a journal entry from one such day:

NOV 15 2009,
I woke up with the goats, roosters and rising sun right outside my screen door. I showered with my bucket filled with water I had pumped the previous afternoon and carried, somewhat successfully, on my head. As I bathed the guava tree acted as a bathroom wall and I watched as little red birds picked at their breakfast from the fruit. For my breakfast I sat outside with my family and had mone, which is a porridge like substance made from millet and sugar. After breakfast we began to collet yellow jugs (previously used to store vegetable oil/ palm oil) to take to the pump to fetch water. We strapped 32 of them to a donkey cart and headed out with my sisters Binta, Kaddy, Julia (PCV), and other members of the community. We pumped in teams of 2-3 and had races to see how fast we could pump. My sisters are ridiculously stong (as are ALL Gambian women- no matter the age) and they put Julia and I to shame! By the end we filled about 80 gallons of water for our whole compound and some of the village as well.

For lunch we went to S. Bahs (our teacher) and had a food bowl filled with rice, chicken and sweet potatoes smothered in an oily peanut sauce. After eating S. Bah put on a well-played Bob Marley cassette and brewed attaya(green tea with LOTS of sugar) as we layed on bamboo mats practicing our Pulaar and sipping tea. Late in the afternoon we went for a walk through the bush greeting the men and boys returning on their donkey carts after a hard day's work on the farms. We were surrounded by tall grass that glowed the suns rays which set behind it from the endless African sky. Countless birds flew above us, each one suprising me with its exsistence. Bright greens, blues, reds and yellows. I think my favorite is one with really long metallic looking feathers. It changes colors constantly depending on the suns positioning and the viewers perspective. Of its deep colors its purple shade impressed me most. I was anxious to get home to my family and as the stars came out I was sitting cross-legged under the mango tree in my compund singing Gambian songs with the children. when dinner was made I was called to share the family food bowl. We sat outside on the ground around the bowl eating with our right hands only. It was pitch black except for the dim flashlights hovering over the four food bowls simultaneously feeding the Bah family throught the compound.

As a sign of respect they offered me the fish head and I politely ate the brains as the watched waiting for my reaction. Surprisinly I enjoyed it, but it could have been because I was enjouing the moment so much. As we finished, drums started picking up from the other side of the village, so I went with Tula (my younger sister) and other children to dance. They wore me out, I am consisently amazed by the way Gambians can move their bodies. My Tubab ass tried my best to imitate them but it resulted in a lot of laughter and me sitting on a log to catch my breath often. On one such break I was sitting with my younger brother Gibdon talking in Pulaar about the stars and right as we looked up we saw one fall, we both started laughing. The day was amazing and excitement rushed over me as I reminded myslef that I had two years of this.