Life in the Gambia goes a little like this: Kill a goat, eat him in three days. Buy veggies, eat immediately. Then the rest of the month (or the rest of the year), you wait for that one glorious day to come again. No refrigeration, or even power for that matter, makes storing food impossible. I live in a state of perpetual hunger yet I have a swollen belly either due to the insane amounts of rice I eat or the fact that parasites have invaded my body. I can’t tell which one is winning.
So anyways, feast or famine. That’s life here and it is reflected now in my blog. Months with no entries and now you have a book to read. Sit back, relax, and take a gander at the last few months of my life, aka Training Take II. (And please, comments comments comments! Leave ‘em!)
August 23, 2008
110+ Degrees, 85% Humidity.
What’s that feel like? Scorching, blazing hot. Hot enough to almost faint walking three blocks. Hot that gives you headaches from constant dehydration. Hot enough to melt, I kid you not, MELT my glasses. I know because I took them to the optical center and they told me I did not scratch my glasses, the material just melted. It was not made for this climate it’s THAT hot.
November 15, 2008
Class Under the Mango Tree
And I bucket bathe underneath the orange tree. It’s the first day in training village and I’m settling into my two room mud hut. The bathroom consists of a hole (my toilet) and a red bucket and green cup (my shower). Bathing happens about 3 times a day due to over-stimulated sweat glands, and I have learned to bathe using less than two liters of water. Key, when you have to go two blocks to the pump, fill up a bucket with about 20 lbs of water, and then carry it back to the house on your head- far easier than carrying by your side- while trying not to splash it all out.
One of my host sisters invites me to go somewhere that night and not knowing the language to ask what I am doing, I just follow. I find myself sitting around a campfire at a Koranic studies session with masses of little children chanting Arabic. As I’m staring into the fire lighting up the darkness, surrounded by people speaking a language I don’t understand, practicing a religion I know almost nothing about, I stare at the fire lighting up the night and I’m pleasantly surprised by my reaction. Whereas I probably would have felt horribly nervous and out of place just a year ago before I started this insanity that I now call life, all I can think now is how great it feels to be back in the Peace Corps. And again that night as I fall asleep to a symphony of random donkeys braying, goats knocking at my door, rats chasing one another above my head, and kids screeching outside my window, I gaze up at the corrugated tin roof through the haze of my mosquito net and think to myself, “It’s so good to be back in Peace Corps.”
November 17, 2008
KADDY DEMBA, KADDY DEMBA!!! Oh, the naming ceremony. One thing you learn pretty quickly in the Gambia is that names are extremely important. Last names establish your lineage and I thought it strange that while a person was greeting me, they would ask me my mother and father’s first and last name in the U.S. I couldn’t fathom what they would need the information for and at first thought that I was misunderstanding the question. However, I wasn’t.
We had a naming ceremony today. It’s a traditional ceremony held for babies generally one week after they are born. It’s a celebration involving dance, food, drums, and offerings of kola nuts. The baby’s head is shaved, family and friends travel to witness, an animal is sacrificed, and the baby is named after someone of importance to the family. Gambians for some reason expect foreigners still to have Gambian names. So, in the spirit of integration, I borrow traditional dress from my host family, help fry up a million dough balls, pour juice into bags, and go through the ritual. I receive the name Kaddy Demba. I am named after an 8-month-old in my compound. She is the most adorable little naked African baby, with a runny nose, drool, and numerous little charms that adorn her body. She hardly cries and always smiles when she sees me. Later in training when I am totally in love with this child, I decide that when I have children of my own I will name one Kaddy Demba. And I will always use both names, Kaddy and Demba, because here no one ever says hi to me using only my first name, it comes out as more of a loud shout, something like “KADDY DEMBA!” Followed with a “NAA!” meaning “COME!” And if you grow up in the U.S. and someone yells your name with last name followed by a COME HERE, what option do you have but to come???
[Later in my stay when I have learned enough Mandinka to have basic conversations with the family, my three mothers establish the fact that I am too old to be without children. They suggest that I have fourteen. I say one. They say thirteen. I say two. We finally negotiate down to four. Also the jujus I am wearing (description on that to follow) will bring me a husband, they say. Oh, and since it is Muslim, men are allowed up to four wives, which is why I have three moms.]
November 23, 2008
That means “Peace be upon you.” The response is “Maaleekumsaalaam.” Peace be upon you too. I like being able to speak different languages. It was a talent and hobby I found more recently in life. I came to the Gambia partly because wanted to learn another language. My short term memory, however, forgot that language learning is hard and frustrating and sometimes downright sucks. I wonder sometimes why I didn’t just go to Peru or Ecuador where I could just change my accent and get on with life. However, temporary insanity brought on by sudden upheaval mixed with an unhealthy fixation on following through with commitments leaves me lighting candle after candle to support my late night study habits. Peace Corps expects all trainees to be at an Intermediate-Mid level of language by the end of the 10 week training, and with all that is going on with me I’m just crossing my fingers to get there. I also found it amusing that they wanted me to learn Mandinka plus a “second language.” I started counting, then did a recount, and indeed, it is not my second, it’s my fifth. This is out of control.
The other thing I’ve noticed is that I am not really learning new words, I am just learning to associate the same sounds with a new definition. For instance, the Mandinka word for fly is the same word for soy sauce in Vietnamese. I still wince a little when I use what used to be a swear word in Spanish with my host father who is at least 80 years old. And one time a fellow trainee was studying flash cards and said something out loud while I was only half listening, and I thought she had just dropped an F-bomb on me. Till I realized she doesn’t speak Vietnamese. Wow is my brain one linguistic nightmare.
[Editing note several weeks later: Contrary to what my consumer psychology teacher tried to tell me in college, cramming is an extremely useful and effective skill to learn. By the end of six weeks I hit the Intermediate-Mid level on our second of three language tests. However my quest for excellence ended there and I sadly have not picked up a book to study since.]
November 30, 2008
AgFo in Training
Training training training. My new job description: AgFo Volunteer. That’s short for agro-forestry. What am I doing? What am I learning? Plants. Flowers. Bees and trees. Fertilizers and compost.
I have never actually worked with plants or successfully grown anything in my life. I killed my lucky bamboo (which is extremely hard to kill for one, and extremely unlucky to let die, for two.) I planted beautiful flowers from the market in Bolivia that promptly stopped blossoming as soon as I put them into the ground. The most I know about compost is some ratio of green to brown things you have to put in, and while some volunteers are busy composting donkeys and ducks, piece by piece, the most experience I’ve had with it is taking all the vegetable peels out to the hole full of flies in my mom’s backyard.
Life is about learning though, and here I am again, learning. I’ve learned that if you collect your urine in a huge oil jug, mix one part pee and three parts water, you can use this to fertilize your plants. Just make sure that it is diluted or else it will kill your plants, and make sure you do not put it on too early or it will kill your plants, and make sure not to put it on plants of which you only eat the root (ie. carrots) or else it will make the leaves flower and the roots small. You also have to let the pee sit at least two days so diseases are not transmitted. And make sure to keep the container airtight lest it smell like a urinal in your backyard.
So many rules.
I learned about manure as well and how to use it in the plant bed before you sow seeds. We put huge hunks of cow manure in our garden and covered it with a layer of dirt. And of course, as soon as I start digging my hands in to transplant a tomato seedling, I run directly into a nice cow patty. No biggie. I just had to make sure to clean under the fingernails before eating with my hands from the food bowl.
Watering the garden is also a lot of fun. In my training village I happen to be the only AgFo volunteer. The other three are health volunteers, which basically means that everything we are instructed to do by using waste products, they are instructed not to do for disease prevention. At any rate, I am the expert ag-fo of the group.
We went to go start our demonstration garden. We dug, we put down neem leaves as fertilizer/insect repellent, we watered, we threw on a layer of dirt, and we came back the next day to sow seeds. The Gambia is currently in the middle of the dry season. It rained the day before I arrived in country on Oct 23, and it has not rained since. This makes for a lot of dust and hard dirt. So in order for us to breathe a bit cleaner and turn the soil a bit easier, we had to wet the ground.
There is a pump in the garden area. It is broken. But not to worry, there is also an open well. We could just draw water from that. One of the trainees went over to get some water, threw the bucket in, and as it fell down into the dark abyss that Tikky-tikky-tembo-no-serembo-berry-berry-buchi-pip-berry-pemble would have never, ever gotten out of it was so deep, he belatedly notices that the rope was not attached to anything and it is now floating in the bottom of the well. So now, five days later, we are still walking three blocks twice a day to fill up the watering cans at the nearest working pump and then teetering back to the garden with them delicately balanced on our heads.
It’s working out really well. Which means the seeds are in the ground. Whether they actually will grow, only time will tell. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
But enough about plants, let’s talk about bees. If you keep up with my blog you probably saw the beekeeping pictures from Bolivia. Now that’s something I have experience with. I went to split hives once.
Don’t let me start getting on my high horse yet though. I mean, I thought I was not afraid of bees. I worked with them and I got stung and I was fine. In fact, my sitemate had one in his mask the entire time we were working, and he told me, “Tammy, you have to show the bee some love and it will not sting you. He’s scaring me but I’m loving him and he will not sting me.” And sure enough, my friend was not stung.
So I feel like I know how to love bees and how to split hives and the role of a queen, worker, and drone, and I know how to trick bees into raising queens and I know all about smoking the hive and of course, how to look good in a bee suit. Everything I learned about bees I learned in Bolivia (and pretty much in one day. So really, no, I don’t know all that much about bees). Regardless, take all that amazing knowledge and transfer it to the Gambia. And this is what I find:
Bees in the Gambia are in fact the African Killer Bee species. They do not love, they sting. And when one stings he releases a pheromone that lets other bees know he’s in a fight and looking for some back-up and his bee friends come running to join the attack. That pretty much means that if you get stung once, you are about to be stung a dozen times so if you happen to be collecting water at the pump and not actually wanting to work with bees, you better turn and run, and when I say run I mean run fast.
And then the bee keeping techniques I learned in Bolivia are now irrelevant, as the bee expert informed me that what I learned and the hives we used were too “high-tech.” I must now learn new “appropriate technology.” Boy have I got a long way to go.
December 10, 2008
WARNING: Not For the Faint of Heart
Or for the weak of stomach. I’m warning you. If you continue reading on your lunch break, do not blame me for ruining your appetite. But don’t you dare throw that sandwich away. There are starving children in Africa. I know. They live in my compound.
Ok, so if you are still reading, let me share a little secret with you. I had testicles for dinner. Twice. Two nights and counting.
Want to know why? Tobaski.
First, let me tell you about the food. Food here is actually delicious for the most part. No sushi, no Taco Bell, no Chipotle, but they do have rice. And sauce. From fish. It’s not quite fish sauce like the Vietnamese eat and I adore, but everything has this fishy flavor to it. For me, it’s amazing.
There’s also a lot of peanuts. Peanut sauce and rice for dinner. Raw peanuts to snack on. Roasted peanuts to burn your fingers on. Peanut butter. Peanut soup. Peanut porridge. Please don’t ask me why I chose to bring peanut M&M’s instead of plain. And why do I have a million peanut butter flavored granola bars from both Quaker AND Nature’s Valley? Why did I not pick fruity things???
Occasionally I will get coos, also known as millet. Millet is used as bird feed in the U.S. Here it is a substitute for rice. It has no nutritional value but does fill up the stomach. Thankfully the Mandinka peoples I live with do not like coos, but once in awhile it shows up. To me it tastes like sour sand.
Food is served in enormous communal food bowls. It is eaten with your hands. No chopsticks, no forks, spoons, or knives. Squish and squeeze and form a little ball and stuff that into your mouth. There are about five people per bowl, but the family I am living with in training gives me my own mini-bowl and I eat from it by myself until I see that they have eaten all their sauce and are working on plain rice and I convince the old lady sitting next to me to take some of my share.
So, what about the testicles you say? Well, if we take inventory, we see sauce. And rice. And peanut sauce and rice. And coos. Notice the lack of meat? Well bring on Tobaski! Tobaski is a Muslim holiday celebrated in the fashion of Christmas back in the U.S.. New clothes, big feasts, dancing, and of course, the sacrificial ram. Or sheep, or goat, depending on the level of affluence of the family. Muslims do not eat pork, which makes risk of brainworm a moot point. I did kill pigs in Bolivia to eat, but I don’t remember ever killing a male. Just the girls.
Well, rams are male sheep. (I did not know a lot about farm animals before Peace Corps, so the clarification is for those of my friends who I know have no idea either.) Male sheep have testicles. Since I had only killed/roasted/eaten female pigs, the only animal I saw roasted whole, I have never had to deal with eating certain body parts. And let me remind you, in America people have the luxury of eating only whole, skinless, boneless chicken breast. Here, we eat it all. The whole chicken. The whole goat. The whole ram. Testicles included. Before dinner I saw them hacking it apart. Then at dinner I was confronted with mystery meat. And I just stared at my bowl…
And let me tell you! I am game! I am game for eating with my hands. I am game for tasting cow heart. I am game for moving to a Muslim-African country I knew nothing about as I was ripped away from the Peace Corps life I built for myself. I will eat bird feed. I will try other strange foods that are handed to me, at least the first time. But I am sorry to say, I am not game for testicles! I just couldn’t do it. Not the first night and not the second night either. (I must confess, I did stick a piece in my mouth but promptly spit it back out when no one was looking.)
The family was watching me and when I had finished without eating the meat the second day in a row, they picked up the pieces, stuck them in my face and said, “EAT!” Not knowing what to do, and not wanting to offend, I responded, “YOU EAT!” And so they did. They popped those big pieces of testicles in their mouth, chewed, swallowed and smiled at me. And I responded, “A diiyata?” And they responded, yes, delicious.
PS. After Tobaski I am taking a bucket bath and something catches my eye on the roof of the room next to me. It was right before Christmas but I could tell it wasn’t Santa Claus and his reindeer. I take a closer look and I find that it is the poor animal we had just eaten laying up there, all hollowed out. That night as his hide roasts on the roof I shut my windows and doors to keep out the scent of rotting flesh, and I spray Bath & Body Works room freshener to cover the smell and make me think of Christmas in my mosquito net.
Dec. 26, 2008
All I Want For Christmas Is You: Christmas Stories and More.
I was supposed to be home for the holidays this year, but it’s going to happen next year instead. Knock on wood. I will be receiving a one month home leave if I do actually stay for two full years as I plan. The timing should be that I will be around for the holidays of 2009! However, for now, another Christmas away from home.
To celebrate, Peace Corps organized a little get-together for the trainees. It consisted of a sixteen mile hike on Christmas eve that they named the “Marathon March,” previously known as the “Death March”. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately for me) I was a little sick. And by that I mean that half an hour after I ate, each time and every time for the past week, I needed to be next to a toilet. No questions asked.
So I skipped the march and the next day we did a boat ride along the Gambia River. It was very pretty and we spotted the usual monkeys, crocodiles, and various bird species. This was followed by a white elephant gift exchange. It was the first time I ever did it and there are too many rules for me to explain, but I scored a half-used roll of toilet paper, a pen that might work, a pencil with no eraser, a newspaper page with a crossword puzzle and comics, some Werther’s Originals ripoffs, post-its, and some sweet stationery. All very useful items.
That was the tame part of my Christmas. I did also listen to Mariah’s Merry Christmas album, drink hot chocolate, and wear fleece Rudolph pajama bottoms and alpaca wool mittens in 100 degree weather. It was all in the spirit of the holidays. For many of the trainees it was a rather homesickness-inducing event. I’ve found that for me, homesickness is not so much missing the US as much as it is missing Bolivia. Missing the volunteers, my group, my sitemates, and my old community. It’s just a strange feeling of not having proper closure and therefore feeling that something has been stolen from me. Thankfully, though, Santa Claus brought me the strength that I need to maintain my sanity and mental stability through a time that leaves most people vulnerable when away from home. All I wanted for Christmas was one more day with Bolivia. One more day making banana pancakes with chocolate chips, one more day waking up and seeing the Andes mountains in my backyard, one more day to spend with the most amazing people I have ever met in my life.
Usually when I am inadvertently reminded of something Bolivia, I begin a downward spiral that usually leaves me in an ugly funk for a time. I am trying hard though to embrace my experience in the Gambia rather than dwelling on what I lost, so instead of laying around and listening to depressing music to match my depressing mood, I had begun to channel my energy into creating a memento that merges my Bolivia experience with my new Gambian home. It’s called a juju, and it was my Christmas present to myself.
Let me explain.
The Gambia is approximately 90% Muslim. The other major religions are Christianity and Animism. Though most are Muslim, there are traces of animism found and practiced regularly by Gambians in general. This is manifested through various superstitions and in almost every community there is a person called a marabout. The local marabout is actually the father in one of the training host families and when I went to see him he told me that he had been praying for the trainees in the village since we arrived.
When I started having dreams and couldn’t get over the fear of a potential evacuation from the Gambia, when I realized that I wouldn’t take pictures of anything in this country for fear that it would actually be a personal visual historical record of my time here, I decided I needed a way to make peace my abrupt exit from Bolivia and the sudden loss of friends who meant the world to me. The isolation resulting from no Internet and sporadic cell service and the lack of a support network with anyone who even remotely understood what it might feel like to have life ripped away with barely a moment’s notice left me in a state of what I finally diagnosed as post-traumatic stress.
Most nights I would lay awake with my mind unable to rest. Usually I would fall into a fitful sleep and awake early, with nothing to do but stare at that mosquito net, such a symbolic part of Peace Corps life. One such night I awoke suddenly with the notion that I needed to see a marabout and get a juju that would give me the strength and courage to start anew and make it though service in a country that I did not consider my home, and of course, to help keep me from getting evacuated.
Jujus, according to local beliefs, are used for various purposes. They can improve your status in life, by bringing love, money, or new opportunities. They can protect from bad things, from people who have put a curse on you, from illness and death. They can also be used to bring harm upon others, although because marabouts communicate with the other world, you must find one that communicates with evil. Good marabouts won’t cast bad spells on others. Jujus can even go as far as making you invisible, though to get an invisibility juju you must first find the paws of a black cat and because black cats are so valuable, you will probably not find one. Black cats also have a chameleon-like quality where they change their color when they sense that you are looking for them, so to become invisible you can’t be actively searching for a black cat’s paws, you just have to be lucky. I guess it’s like love. You won’t find it if you’re looking for it.
Anyhow, though I think being invisible might be kind of cool, I don’t need all that. I just want to serve my two years here as uneventful as Peace Corps can possibly be. Which, as see from my blog, is never really uneventful.
I consulted with the marabout and he made me a juju that would soon be slipped into a leather cover and worn around my waist. To make it he consulted the Koran to see what it had to say about my future in reference to me and my situation. The results were written on a piece of paper in Arabic, folded up into a tiny little square (with words actually left unknown to me), and that is taken to a local leather-worker who wraps the paper in leather and sews it up. It is then worn on the body.
He also made me a potion in which he wrote Arabic words from the Koran on a wooden tablet, then washed that off into a basin using some water, added spritzes of what looked like perfume, and mixed it up and poured it into my used Frappuchino bottle. I took the murky black water with me and washed my face and hands with it and it now wards me from evil people for the next two years, in that anyone who casts an evil look my way will suddenly be overcome by my power and energy and their evilness will bounce off me and my goodness will overtake them and they will instead welcome me with open arms and be more than willing to listen and work with me. All paraphrased by my interpreter, so it may not be entirely accurate.
However crazy this may sound, I guarantee you it was nothing compared to what I had been going through trying to deal with the aftershocks of evacuation. I couldn’t sleep and couldn’t get out from under the black cloud hanging over me, so I was not above consulting a spiritual advisor for any help he could give me.
I washed with the potion and I had the juju charm to wear around my waist, and in addition to that I made a juju charm bracelet. During that same night that I suddenly decided had to see a marabout, I also composed what later became known as “Tribute in a Juju.” Gambian on the outside, Bolivian on the inside. Just like me, and a happy little convergence of my two worlds. It is a way to keep my memories of my old life with me, a piece of paper folded up in my juju with my life and love of Bolivia Peace Corps wrapped up neatly inside.
The final step in the juju process was to go to the market to have them bound in leather. Because my marabout is a well-respected, well-known man, and since he was making the juju for a foreigner, it would be perceived to be better and more powerful than anything the locals would get. I was warned by my language teacher to keep a close eye on it as the leather-worker encased it lest he pull a slight-of-hand trick and keep my juju and return to me a fake.
The timing was perfect that I got the juju on Christmas day. A little gift to myself, and little something to make sure that Bolivia stays with me even in Africa.
So after making the jujus, I get home and greet my family. They are always so excited to see me and I did the rounds and all the formal greetings. I then decided I really wanted to bathe before handing out Christmas gifts or the required travel gifts, known as silafando. In order to bathe I had to first go fetch water.
I enter my hut and open the back door to grab my bucket. As I am doing it, Mr. Lizard who has been happily co-habitating in my hut in peace for the last month or so decides to jump on me and scare the living daylights out of me. Usually he just runs around and disappears when I come in, but jumping on me was a shock. I scream and go screeching through my hut back out the front door, and the only person standing there happens to be one my best friends. Secu, a 3-year-old adorable kid who only knows how to say my name and a few other things I never understand in his baby babble Mandinka. I grab him by the shoulders, shaking him, and scream, “SECU! There is a lizard in my hut. GO DO SOMETHING!” And he looks at me with his beautiful little eyes and bats his perfectly curled eyelashes and giggles. My 18-year-old sis comes out to see what the commotion is all about, and I proceed to tell her, “FATOU! Lizard-o be bungo kono!” (Translation: Fatou, lizard-o is in the house.) I forgot the word for lizard in my panic.
She is cracking up cause she doesn’t understand me, and at that point another trainee walks by with his 18-yr-old sis. The three of us troop in there and I’m telling the trainee (in English) to just get the lizard out of the house, cause every time I approach it it tries to jump on me and scares me all over again. The girls have no idea what I’m saying but I hear them say “fitarango,” which means broom. One goes to grab a broom as Fellow Trainee is looking for the lizard, and then broom arrives and Other Girl finds the lizard, starts to smack the life out of it, I’m now standing outside over my latrine hysterically laughing, and then Fellow Trainee announces lizard is dead. Right next to my bed. I tell him to get it out of the house cause I do not want to see a smashed lizard in my room. They throw it in my back yard. I am now covering my face with the bucket’s lid, and tell him the thing is still in my yard which means I still have to see it, so just please throw it over the fence. I am covering my face and waiting for him to walk by and do it, and after a few moments I ask why he hasn’t done it. And he says he has. He threw it over the fence. So of course I have to inquire which fence he could have possibly thrown it over, and of course he had thrown it over the fence that separates my back yard from the family next door. I start hysterically laughing again and go about my business of water fetching.
I leave my compound and cross the next compound on the way to the pump, I am asked to put down my bucket and help pound rice out of its shell. Pretty normal. Then I walk by a lady who compliments me on my tshirt. Again, nothing out of the ordinary. I compliment her back on her outfit, a complete set of head wrap, shirt, and skirt made of one fabric print, the customary dress here in the Gambia. The woman keeps talking and I understand that she really really likes my shirt and she likes the fact that I like her outfit, and she starts teasing me about giving her my shirt. So I start teasing her about trading outfits, my tshirt for her skirt, top, and head wrap. She smiles and laughs and I am about to walk off when she strips off her shirt right then and there. I’m staring at her nakedness, quite a common occurrence since in this country, where women wearing no top is acceptable. Woman showing her knees is not. Knees are like cleavage, only shown for sex appeal. So of course I can do nothing else but laugh and stutter something about doing the exchange “tomorrow” and I continue towards the pump.
So there you have it. Merry Christmas to me. New country, new customs, new people, new surprises. Despite the troubles and hardships, the emotional roller coaster that never stops, here I am still. Still living the dream. I love Africa but as always, que viva Bolivia!