Friday, November 7, 2008

Toubab...give me your soul

I lay on the floor of the Banjul ferry waiting for a lady selling groundnuts to walk by. I am hungry, exhausted, and covered with a dusty orange glow. My day was spent traveling from Dakar to Banjul in the back of a gele with a small malnourished child on my lap. I can’t feel my legs and my feet look 3 times the normal size.f The road from Dakar is not only bad-but inexistent. It is a roller coaster ride the whole way down, twists and turns, ups and downs through dirt fields and shanty towns. I lay on the floor of the ferry, sprawled out with my bag safely underneath me. I try to fall asleep for the hour ride until I hear a lady say “groundnuts a fele” (groundnuts are here). She takes the basket off the top of her head and hands me a bundle wrapped in a piece of old newspaper, heaven.

When the ferry pulls in to the city I crowd in with the mass of people and push my way off. The minute I step off the ferry hassling begins. “Toubab, give me bottle. Toubab, give me minty.” (Toubab =white man) Men, women and children grab at me like I hold the winning lottery ticket. I have to aggressively push
 them away as I walk to the nearest car park. The first gele pulls up and people thrust themselves in. In order to get a seat I must shove women and small children out of the way. After a half hour of fighting for a gele I sit down on a torn leather seat, almost there. The man who sits next to me immediately asks where my husband is and insists that he will make me his third wife. I firmly say no and have to restrain myself from hitting him; it has been a long day. I look away and stare out the cracked window at the overwhelming scene of trash piles. I have to cover my face with a piece of cloth to shield the dust and hide the smell. This life here, it is not easy, especially traveling alone.

These past two weeks I have been spoiled. My friend Brett came to visit me from America. It was so nice to travel with someone and not get hassled-though I am sure he would tell you differently. We ran into our fair share of attempted pickpocketer’s in Dakar and had numerous beggars at the local market. To be a traveler in West Africa, you must be confident and forceful if you ever want to survive.

We traveled though Dakar and The Gambia for 2 weeks. In Senegal we ate some great food, hiked around Goree and N’Gor islands and shopped at the local market. The Mediterranean style architecture and the old slave houses were remarkable to explore on Goree Island. While at N’Gor we spent a day at the Endless Summer surf house hanging out with the laid back locals. It was great to be on vacation, but oh, how I couldn’t wait to show him the “real” Africa. The next day we were off on the day long roller coaster ride to The Gambia.

While in The Gambia we traveled to my village. This is my first visitor here and my host family greeted him with open arms. The children gathered daily around my screen door to see my stranger. We hosted a disco one night and watched the children work in thebush to gather palm leaves to make the fence. My host brother killed a chicken in his honor while my mother cooked us macaroni over the open fire. It was very encouraging for me to 
have a guest in the village that I have lived in the past year. All of 
a sudden I can speak the local language, where before I thought I was struggling. I see the bonds that I have with my host family are strong and irreplaceable. The small boys loved having a white man around to follow and admire. I know that Brett’s visit to my village will be talked about forever and my family will always be asking to have him return.

I am back to work for the time being. Keeping track of the trees I planted,environmental ed classes, and gardening. Most nights I still sit on the cracked cement porch with my family, and I somehow miss them even though they are right next to me. I know that one more year will go by fast, I will leave, these people will stay, and all we will have are memories. The kids hug me daily as if it was their last, and my host mother’s greet me like it is my first day in village. Binta Badji (one of my host mother’s) is still cracking her jokes, even though the wrinkles on her face seem to get deeper everyday from her days in the rice fields. She has character, and makes me laugh till I cry. 
Nightly I find her hiding behind my front porch jumping out to scare the small children like a ten year old girl playing tag. She chases the children with a sugar cane stick in the dark. I can only see her eyes, but I can hear her cackle for miles. Binta, she hides her anger through laughter, where Teneng (my brother’s wife), doesn’t hide a thing. She yells daily at the children, and at me. I will not lie, I am scared of her. The comments she makes are fierce and I don’t want to be around her when she is back from a day in the field. I have seen her laugh twice, both times forced where I can see her soul crying behind her smile. Daily I watch her pound the rice with force, and can hear her screams frommiles over the beating rhythm of the pestles. She is hurting, I don’t know what she has been through, and probably never will, but she has an old, tired soul and needs a rest. Both women I extremely admire. I can only hope to be old one day with Binta’s profound wrinkles and Teneng's heartbreaking strength. To travel through life unscarred and intact, not an option here in The Gambia, nor for me.

Mom and dad are next to visit. Be ready for an experience  of a lifetime. It is a tough culture here. To get to my village is difficult and a long, demanding journey. When we arrive we will be dusty, dirty and exhausted. But, when we step off the geleand you see the children come running to greet us from under the palm trees you will understand why I am here. Their is an unexplainable peace in this madness, and you must see it, live it to believe it. 

Miss you all and thanks again to all my visitors. It means the world to me to have people come out here and support the work I am doing.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Today, I fast

5:00 am- I awake to the mosque outside my bedroom window. Daada, my neighbor, opens up her corrugate door and I can hear Sibona running to the pump to fetch her water. The rats continue to run along my cardboard roof. The day has begun.

5:30 am- Teneng, my host brother’s wife, comes to my door holding a bowl of dried fish and a cup of hot water with sugar. I eat the fish which has now become a delacasy for me. Very tired and groggy, I fall back asleep on my yoga mat.

8:00 am- I wake back up with the distant memory of eating dried fish for breakfast. I wonder what I should do with my day; I know that within hours, my porch will become the local hangout.

10:00 am –All I can think about is food. I walk around my village, which takes me 5 minutes, and return to my front porch. I find my brothers and sisters waiting there, staring at me wide eyed like I should show them a magic trick. Instead I take out a picture given to me by my Aunt Maryellen of her and a llama. They all laugh and point at the strange creature.

12:00 pm- I help one of my mother’s, Amie, dry fish for dinner. We lay the fish on a corrugate sheet and I watch it bake in the sun. I think “Temping to eat…but oh how I would love a burrito right now.”

1:00 pm- It is hot as hell, I sit on my porch floor sweating. Daada is next to me lying topless on her goatskin mat, she repeats “balaab aboliboli.” (the sun is hot).Gibril comes over and lays next to me...nap time.

3:00 pm- I walk to the community garden. I start to feel my senses come alive. The basil, cucumber, tomatoes. The aroma is sharp and I suddenly become aware of the food surrounding me. I look up to see the tall stalks of corn towering over me, taunting.

5:00 pm- I hear screams coming from the neighboring compound. The men are back from the bush. Working all day in this heat without food and water they become angry, they take it out on the children. Their true colors start to show. Siabatou, my sister, comes back with bruises on her face. Her father has beaten her. She sits on my lap, knowing that I will make it okay. But, I am speechless, I have seen this so many times now, I am numb.

6:30 pm- I sit on an old stool next to my host father. He looks at me and nods his head, 1 more hour till we can break fast. He looks at me with a sense of amazement, that I too, a white man, can give up something I love for religion and faith.

7:30 pm- I break fast with half a piece of bread and hot water with sugar. I walk into my house and chug a bottle of water. I am thirsty. It is still too hot in my house, so I go sit outside under the cottenwood tree to watch the sunset.The orange, reds, and yellows in the sky. Moments like these I just want to capture and take with me forever.

9:30 pm- It is silent in my village. I sit, alone, on my porch. Most of my family is in Kombo, I miss them. My stomach rumbles, I am still thinking of that burrito.

11:00 pm- Mmmmm...the rice has arrived. I sit with my 3 sisters and crumple a mixture of rice with sauce in our right hands and devour the bowl. I am full, and happy. I look around at the girls under my candlelight. They start to rummage through my things as if it was a garage sale. Their smiles shine and their bodies glow as they dance around my house in the candlelight. They are animated girls, each one with a distinctive and vibrant personality. Sarjo, the elder sister, tells the girls to go to sleep. I say tonight they can sleep here in my house. We blow out the candle. Through the darkness of my room I can still see my sister’s smiles glow, we are happy.

Ramadan is a Muslim holiday during the month of September. Fasting is meant to teach the person patience and sacrifice. Ramadan is a time to fast for the sake of God, and to offer more prayer than usual. During Ramadan Muslims ask forgiveness for past sins, pray for guidance into the future, ask for help in refraining from everyday evils and try to purify themselves through self-restraint and good deeds.

I have decided to fast with my host family to understand more of their culture and way of life. Though, some days when I work, I tell them I must drink water (Did I mention it is hot here?) They support me and are happy that I am trying.

“Whatever you can do or imagine, begin it. Boldness has beauty, magic, power in it.”

Saturday, August 30, 2008

I remember when I was growing up I used to love to help my father in the garden. I would put my work boots on and dig holes, plant seeds, and make compost. I used to take “Gatorade breaks” every ten minutes and sit with my sister and eat tangerines. My father would keep working and politely go over the “work” we just did. Now that I look back at those times I am sure I was just making more work for him. Working in Africa, I have that same feeling again trying to help hoe the rice fields with my host mother,Hawa. At the end of the day, the more work I have done the more work she has to go over. It is a learning experience for me, and somehow Hawa understands that.

I work with Hawa from 8 in the morning to sometimes 7 at night. We hoe the land to prepare for rice cultivation. I stand next to her, sweating in the afternoon heat waiting for my “Gatorade break”, but here we don’t get any. I am barefoot, up to my knees in swamp water, I hoe the land not bring able to see the work below me from all the mud. I think I am finished with a piece of land until she moves over and starts to hoe the same spot. It is hard work, these women are strong and tough. My host grandmother Binta comes over to greet me and takes the hoe from my hand. She shows me that it is in the arms, not the back and to keep my legs steady. We laugh and she cracks a few jokes about me being the only “toubab” (white woman) in the rice field. Hawa then tells me to go home, it is getting late, and I am sure she can tell that I am tired. I walk back through the swamps and laugh at the thought of how easy we have it in America.
On my walk home I see my friend Badji collecting palm leaves to make local brooms. I help her for a bit,cutting the leaves with a machete. She cuts fast, sometimes slicing her hand, but it doesn't stop her. I try to help and she tells me"domanding, domanding Teneng(my Gambian name), bare nu jejek fanfan" (Slowly,slowly, Teneng, but you are doing very well). We walk home together carrying palm leaves on our heads. She will spend the night making brooms to sell at the local market. I return back to my house, tired and looking forward to a bucket bath. Most of the women return later at night to finish cooking dinner and other household chores. I can see it in their face and body, they are tired, but also, it is all that they know, it is their work, their life.

These past few months I have been trying to spend a lot of time with my host family. I have learned the art of “etempey” (pounding) and the gracefulness of balancing buckets on my head. I have rode miles on my bike just to eat a boiled mango, taught an aids workshop/testing to find about 20% who tested are HIV positive (2 are good friends),swam in the rice patties with the children, been stuck in a torrential rainstorm conveniently next to bean sandwich lady, out-planted numerous amount of trees in my village, had termites eat away half my ceiling, been stuck in a gele for 4 hours in the mud(rainy season travel),and have slept many nights on my front porch with my younger brothers and sisters. But, no matter how long I live in this small village (4 compounds…at most 30 people), I will never really fully understand their life how they struggle day to day. I can try, and hopefully, before my two years of service is finished, I can help one person follow their dreams.

Here are a few photos on some projects I have been working on and some of me and my family. Enjoy!

Hospital planting.
Currently all the trees are surviving…lets hope they keep the goats tied up. And remember, in a few years these trees will be large. These trees are grown from seed or transplanted after one or two years in the nursery…this isn’t like America landscaping, a little more difficult. Can you find the trees?

Village gardening:
Planted bamboo, cucumber, sugar cane, pumpkin, moringa, cassava in backyard. No photos yet of women’s garden planting, soon to come, but all the trees are doing well and surviving.

I adore my host family. Many of the children in my compound are refugees from Cassamace, Senegal. I don’t know what I would do without them…..they entertain me all hours of the day

Thanks for a few care packages I have received the past few months(family and Doblecki’s!) I really appreciate it and it makes my day receiving them at site. THANK YOU!

Monday, June 30, 2008

Every night I lay on my front porch with my host family. Ajai has her skinny arms around me; Landing snoring, Sutay lying on his cardboard, and Binta Badji my host mother still cracking jokes till the morning light. We lay on a mat in the night heat and I watch the rain come down. The rain is beautiful in Africa, the clouds roll in from miles away. We sit and watch for hours. Women bathe embracing the rain as some children run from compound to compound sliding in the mud….this is their Disneyland.

My family has been struggling; we are on ground zero for the food crisis. The children in my compound are down to one meal a day consisting, without fail, rice and palm oil. They are malnourished and hungry. We need help, but how? I try to explain to my village about the crisis but they don’t have the education and knowledge to understand. Peace Corps has been working with World Food Program to get rice seed delivered. I hear they are coming soon with the seed, we are waiting and ready to plant. Here I will be farming and trying to help the locals sustain themselves. Planting gardens and trees around my community, the hospital, and school. Planting intensive Moringa beds, working in the coos and rice fields, we are doing it all…and fast. But what I feel is needed the most is for America to change its ways. Start a garden, walk or bike to work, carpool, buy local produce, and donate funds or lend a helping hand to these countries in need. These people here are poor, and they are trying to survive. If you want more information on how to help or info on the food crisis see link below. Donate to WFP. This progarm delivers rice to local schools and helps feed the children. You or your company can donate

Besides the food crisis issue hitting my community hard, I have many projects I have been working on lately. Below is what I have been doing with my time here in The Gambia the past few months.

· Myork festival. A few weeks back was a female circumcision festival in a nearby village. This festival happens once every ten years. Girls ranging from ages 5-20 go to the bush to get circumcised. They are there for about 4 days. During this time there is a large party going on in village. Grass huts are set up in each compound for all the women that come from neighboring villages. When night falls dancing, drumming and traditional Jolla songs are preformed. At an event like this any man is free to sleep with any women, even if she is married. I went to this event to see for myself what is going on. It is really sad that men are treating women as objects. The women don’t know better because here they have no choice, and events like this are their culture and tradition. When does this end? These women are getting raped and cut and there is no one to stop it here. This is the biggest human rights violation going on in the world right now.

I have decided that because of this event to hold an aids clinic and talk. I assume pregnancy rates and HIV/AIDS will skyrocket in the next few months. In the next few weeks I am holding a clinic to get my community tested and informed on the disease.

· Gardening. In my local village I have started planting with the rains here. Planting yellow cassia, citrus, pigeon pea, and moringa along the fence. I am working with the women to start an intensive moringa bed for each compound. My village loves it and the women are always open to new ideas. In my backyard I have been continuing my tree nursery and planting. Cassava, Pepper, Moringa, Bananas, and Bamboo. I will take pictures of my gardens and inform you on how everything turns out.

· Recycle. After teaching environmental classes at the primary school for the past few months at the end of the year I had all the children bring in recyclable products. We had over 300 plastic bags! I taught the children how to make rope. It went great and they are all very good. We will soon be making baskets and mats. But for now, the kids use them as new jump ropes.

· Hospital planting. I am working on a project to landscape the local hospital. A project like this is needed in my community. People get sick, they are admitted, but their diet consists of rice and oil. Soon, in the next month, we hope to plant mango, citrus, and cashew orchards, have a large garden, intensive Moringa bed, new street trees, add nitrogen fixing trees for soil improvement, and plant rice, coos, corn, and cassava so the hospital can sustain itself. It is very important that the hospital adds these vegetables to the patient’s food bowl. It is a great project for me to try my hand at landscape architecture in a developing country.

· Scorpions. Rain brings out wild animals in the bush. I have killed 5 scorpions in my hut in the past 2 days. If it stays at this rate I am sure to get bit. I will keep you updated.

-Food Bowl. My family serves me palm oil and rice..everyday. The Myork festival we got served goat and rice. It is one of the best meals I have had in The Gambia. Here we eat on the floor, have one bowl, and with our right hand. I have also been experimenting at site making tea with different spices.

· River. I have been going to the river every night around sunset with my host sister. It is beautiful. We meet other local kids there and they bathe before the sunset. We sometimes try to fish by throwing cloth down in the water and seeing if a small fish is stuck to it. I am still trying to convince Ajai that this does not work. But it is fun….

· Environmental Education. Took grade 4 and 5 students from the Western Division on a field trip to Kandali Game Park and Farm. Here we saw zebras, crocs, camels, and hyenas. The kids and teachers loved it. We then went to Bwiam where we learned about environmental practices in The Gambia. The kids learned about different tree species and planting techniques.

· Tree Planting Festival. I am holding the first annual tree planting festival at the local school. We will be out planting about 20-30 mango trees for an orchard and plant around their football field. It should be a fun event and I hope to continue it. We will be planting many trees that my environmental club has kept in our nursery. Should be good times.

Things here are good. I am keeping very busy with projects but balancing it well with bike trips, yoga, and visiting friends. It is hard, and hot. I have my down days when I question everything. I see the hunger, the poverty, and the struggle. But I love it here because of its challenge and the difficulties of things. And now, it is normal to me, it is life. I couldn’t imagine being in America, all the choices and the fast paced society. Here we are on it…slowly, slowly.

A few Thanks…

· Care packages I received lately. Mom and dad, Doblecki’s. I really appreciate it! J
· Darian Book Aid for donating environmental science, gardening, and English books to my local school. We really appreciate it, and I will use them as teaching aids for next year.


· Alexs and Andre for recently getting married. I wish you the best of luck. Congrats and I miss you both.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Moroccan Adventures

The past few weeks I have been traveling. Senegal-Spain-Morocco.It has been such a cool experience. My travels started off a bit rough. I traveled by land to Dakar-which I do not recommend. It took all day in 120 degree heat to get there taking a taxi,ferry,gele,donkey cart, motor bike, to bus.I explored downtown Dakar to the beaches of N'Gor island. When I arrived in
Spain it was great to see my friend Tiffani. To see a familiar face after 8 months of living in The Gambia was just what I needed.We explored Madrid that night but we were soon out the next day. We hoped on a train and traveled to the town of Algericas. It was a beautiful ride traveling through the mountains on a rainy day. When we got to Algericas we decided to get on a ferry that night to Tangier, Morocco. Out of Africa for less than a day and I had to get back. The ferry ride was long and when we arrived in the middle of the night we had no idea what time it was(Morocco is 2 hours behind Spain?). The next morning after almost no sleep we were up bright and early..still trying to figure out the time. We chatted some about where to go..but really had no idea. All we wanted to do was to go surfing and see mountains. After meeting a local guy at a restaurant (great food!! :)) he told us to go to Chefchawan, a small village in the Rif Mountains. A half hour later we were on a bus going through the mountains. It was absolutely beautiful. The small villlage of Chefchawan was very interesting, and blue. All the buildings were painted blue with small winding alleys where you could easily get lost...and we did! It was a great city and I would of loved to stay longer. Also had some of the best Moroccan food of my life there! The next day we rode a bus to Casablanca. We were both not big fans of the city. The constant rush of people and to be in a commercial city. Also to be a woman here is difficult.We were almost kicked out of a cafe because we wanted to sit outside...and only men are allowed to. That night we sat out at a cafe and had hot chocolate.Men stared at us thinking what are they doing?But it was good hot chocolate and a nice night outside. Gender roles seems to be a big issue in Morocco.The next day we left and went to a town called Essquaria.Here we stayed for a few days. We surfed for 3 days and rented bikes to get around the beach towns. The beaches were beautiful with camels and castles near the ocean. We met some local friends who taught us how to make tea from 10 different spices and gave us hookah. Great town and we both agreed that we could live there.The people were very friendly and we both did not want to leave. Then we were off to Marrakesh. Here we watched snake charmers and local musicians in the plaza. The local food stalls come out at night selling an array of food from chocolate cake,goat heads,ginseng tea,kebabs,salads,and soups. Great food and good music.
Below are some pictures of our Moroccan adventure. I am now back in The Gambia and I am excited for the rainy season.This means tree planting!Lots of it! A month ago I started a tree nursery in my backyard so I am looking to plant these trees through out my community.

I hope everyone at home is doing well. If you ever get the chance you should travel to Morocco. Great food,people,culture and you will have an experience of a lifetime.

Miss you all.