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.