Friday, November 23, 2007

Happy (late) Thanksgiving!

Happy (late) Thanksgiving!

I am finally back to an area with internet access, and have just a bit of time to send out an update before I must be on the road again.

First of all, I am having the time of my life right now, and greatly enjoying this experience I am able to have! We are now about 2 months into training and only have about 2 weeks left. I spent the first two months spending time off-and-on between my training village, where my learning focused on the language and cultural immersion, and technical training sessions where we covered the actual training for the work we may be doing, as well as covering mandatory sessions such as health, mental wellness, nutrition, working with grants, religious understandings, understanding the Gambian calendar...the list truly does go on for several pages, and when I have an opportunity to go into more detail I probably will.

This past Thursday (Thanksgiving) I left my host village and headed with the rest of my training group to Banjul. Yesterday was a big celebration for the 40th year anniversary of Peace Corps working in The Gambia, so all the current PCVs as well as us trainees were in town to celebrate the event. Thursday we were able to celebrate Thanksgiving at the US Ambassador's residence, to an impressive array of American foods! (Oh, and the residence is also along the coast, so I HAD to watch a gorgeous sunset over the ocean and do a bit of swimming to also help bring in the Thanksgiving holiday. It's no Macy's Parade, I realize...but fun none-the-less.)

Friday morning was the 40th anniversary party, which was fun and was followed by a reception with great food! Many of us spent the rest of the afternoon lounging at the beach...reading, playing cards and swimming.

But now these past 48 hours of luxury are over and I'm headed out in just a few hours to finally visit my permanent site! I will be traveling with one of our language instructors to spend the next three days or so at my site for the next 2 years. It is located on the south bank (aka, south of the river) and about 2/3 of the way upcountry (aka, east). I will have several other PCVs around me in my area, and my closest neighbor is about 15 kilometers away. I can't tell you much about it yet, but after my site visit I will. I do know that it is in the country director's favorite part of the Gambia, and that the volunteer there before me helped start many new projects, and they are kind of counting on me to help the Gambians keep them going sustainably and productively. Again, not exactly sure what all that entails, but I will be able to let you know soon.

As you look at the map you may forget that while Gambia is tiny, transportation is...well, unique. I will be taken to my site by Peace Corps, but THE road was built around 1970 and hasn't been improved much you can imagine the comfort of the 8 hour ride ahead. Yes, the small trek that it is will take about 8 hours because of the lack of good roads. Translate that to something more important, to say...trying to get emergency medical help, or starting a new business that requires you to travel to a village to sell your products...and MANY problems of the Gambia become much more clear.

I will be visiting my site for several days, and then will be back in Banjul next Wednesday for the last week and a half of training before I officially swear in on the 7th of December!

To answer a few questions:
My language is coming along quite well. One of the most difficult parts has been learning it in village for a week or so, and then leaving for technical training and only speaking English again. But, seeda seeda, (slowly, slowly) my ability to converse in Pulaar is coming along. I know that in my village there will only be about one Gambian in village who can speak English, so my ability to speak Pulaar will be a key tool to a successful and productive two years. I'm thinking that once I'm finally in village, with just Pulaar, the language will sink in much more. I have to score an Intermediate Mid. on my final language exam in a week (kind of comparable to 3 semesters of studying language at college...only in about 10 weeks). I'm not concerned.

The weather here is...well...great! We are now in the cold season, so during the day it is around 85F and during the night it gets down to about 78. It is just the beginning of the cold season, so soon it will get down to the 60s or so at night, but will remain quite nice during the day. (Remember, during the hot season it will get up to around 120F, and down to about 90) My first couple of weeks here were brutally hot, but it's better now. I get chilly when it gets down to the 70s and put on pants and long-sleeves.

My projects will probably be centered around women projects, such as sustainable gardening practices, tie-dyeing cloth, honey production (with the killer African bees...mind you), and more.

I have remained quite healthy! I heave eaten rice and fish about 3 times a day since I've been here, but it is definately growing on me. I actually prefer it many times to the food we eat when we are at hotels for technical training.

And to answer a great question from a very close friend, (to paraphrase the question) As one of the main purposes of the Peace Corps is cross-cultural exchange, working as an official U.S. employee (I even get a badge and special passport) how am I taught to share the American political and social culture with the local Gambians, or what kind of picture am I supposed to paint?
*The long and short of it is, the Peace Corps, while officially a US agency, is a non-political agency. So for example, I am not allowed to to go political rallys or protests. I am not allowed to wear blatantly political clothing. And I am not allowed to be overly critical of the political structure here. All in all, I'm mostly supposed to keep my mouth shut about politics in general, unless I am helping dispell misunderstandings. For example, many of the people here (especially in rural areas) don't realize the difference between Europe and the US. To them all white people are the same and come from the same place. People who I know well still ask me how the UK, Spain or Germany is...not realizing that the US is different. Here white people are called "toubabs" and all white people come from that place called "Toubabadou" a long ways away. Helping teaching geography, in this sense, is more of an important lesson than what I think of Bush. But I'm not really taught at all what to say about America. For the most part people here think all Americans are very rich, live amazingly comfortable lives, and don't need to work at all. Those are the kind of myths I help dispell. In any case, most people here love America (or at least Toubabadou and love Peace Corps.) I have always felt extremely safe, especially when in village. It's kind of like being a super-star.

Well, with that I must be going. I will be back in town in about a week and will have another exciting update then. Thanks for the emails and letters, they really do make my day!!

I love you all and wish you the best with life back in Toubabadou!