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.