Saturday, December 8, 2007

Seasons Greetings...I'm Now a Volunteer!

Seasons Greetings!

First of all, I would like to share that yesterday morning (Friday, the 7th of December) I officially became a Peace Corps Volunteer! I am very excited about this, not only because it means that I get to finally begin my two years of service, and move back to live with my host family for the next few years, but also because that means I passed my health, technical, and LANGUAGE requirements!

The ceremony was fun. It was hosted at the Ambassador's residence (though they are currently inbetween ambassadors to Gambia). There were several guest speakers, including the Department Secretaries of Agriculture and of Forestry. There were also a few speakers from the Embassy and Peace Corps. And my friend Alicia and I sang the National Anthem! All in all, it was a fun event, and the food following the ceremony was pretty good as well!

(There is a tradition of the male volunteers growing out a mustache for the ceremony, regardless of how bad it looks. Rest assured that I shaved it off as soon as the ceremony was over!)

This past week has been full of final trainings and seminars. One day we met representatives from many of the non-governmental organizations working in The Gambia, such as the World Food Program, United Nations Development Fund, UNICEF, Future In Our Hands (one I will be working closely with), "Gambia is Good," (an organization focused on sustainable gardening techniques), the Gambian Bee-Keepers Association, and Catholic Relief Services (CRS), to name a few. We also met with representatives from the national agriculture, forestry, and environmental departments. It was an informative time, allowing us to meet with many of the people we need to know and work with in order to get "big" projects done.

We also spent time this week visiting a wildlife preserve where we were able to test our skills at tree and plant identification, as well as learning a bit more about the wildlife here. I have had several questions about the animals I have seen. So far I have seen baboons, several other species of monkey, turtles, crocodiles, snakes (including the forest cobra), little ground animals, tons of little lizards, insects large enough to be animals, Nile Monitors, leopards, and heyenas.

Interesting apparently my host family compound lost a donkey to heyenas during the last dry season. Basically, as everything is dead and there is no growth or wildlife at the end of the dry season...the heyenas came almost into the village (the outside of my family compound) and ate a donkey. Needless to say, I will not be biking, jogging or hiking by myself between sun-set and sun-rise.

Another interesting fact is that we are close enough to the equator that the daylight hours of the day stay fairly constant all the time. The sun rises around 6:45am and sets around 7:15pm, all year. The day itself also revolves around the heat of the sune. Most of the work happens between post-breakfast (around 8) to noon. Lunch is around 2, and then it is just far too hot to actually do anything other than sit under the shade and fan yourself (although sometimes it can be too hot to actually fan yourself and you choose instead to nap). This is actually a great time for me to either do my own thing and read or work inside, or spend time sitting outside with my family and villagers, practicing the language and integrating. After all, a third of my job is focused on integrating into a new culture and the cross-cultural exchanges that come with just being a part of another community. Peace Corps works very hard to remind us of that, as our "Westernized" notions of success and progress tend to look more to progress reports and successful stats. Because quite frankly, the Peace Corps projects that fail are the ones that are developed before a volunteer has a clear understanding of the needs, expectations and ambitions of the community.

I digress...

So tomorrow morning I am headed back to my site! I will be there for a few weeks before getting together with about 10 of the closer friends I have made here to celebrage Christmas in a town near Bansang. We are calling it "up-country Christmas", since it is mainly for those of us who don't want to spend two days traveling back to the Banjul area so soon. We are already discussing the need to develop a Christmas tradition, as Christmas traditions are the tradition at Christmas in the States.

And two of the new volunteers are both getting new puppies as soon as they get back to their site, which will make our Christmas celebration that much more exciting and (traditional!)

However, in just a few weeks is one of the most important Muslim holidays of Tobaski. Tobaski is a day celebrating when the Prophet Abraham almost sacrificed his son Ishmael on top of the mountain, being stopped by the angel Gabriel. (You may find it quite similar to the story of Abraham and Isaac.) In any case, this is a day to celebrate that, and to focus on renewing their own faith. I'm not exactly sure what will all take place, but you can be sure that I will let you know! So while I will not be celebrating Christmas with my host family, there will be holiday festivities going on both in village as well as with friends! (I will be sure to get pictures from both events and post them as soon as possible. I realize my blog hasn't had any pictures yet, that is partly due to the lack of access to computers to update them, as well as my general lack of taking many pictures...yet. There are also several problems that come about when taking pictures of and around Gambians...)

As I will be moving into my house tomorrow, today was full of shopping and prepping. (Kind of like Christmas shopping, only all for myself, and in crazily-hectic-yet-hilariously-fun markets. Mostly they are so fun because of the expression on their faces when I speak to them in their own languages.) For those interested, some of my purchses included a mattress for my bed (my site already has a bed frame, though a bit different from what you are all used to), a gas stove with a single burner (enough to boil water for coffee in the morning and make soups and such once in a while), a large mat for my floor, some kitchen supplies such as a pot, pan, silverwear, a bowl and plate, and tons of groceries. I sincerely love the food my family cooks for me, but I can't explain enough how low in nutrition their meals are. Most of my groceries are focused on protein, and soups for the next round of "gastro-intestinal discomfort." I also got a blanket, sheets, a propane lantern, candles, and string...because you just never know what you might need it for.

Oh yes, and in good fashion, a few of my friends and I spent our last evening here in town at the beach to remember just how amazing the sun set over the ocean is. We have gone swimming almost every day since we've been here, and it's been greatly rewarding. Unfortunately, yesterday the tide was a bit too strong and I was a bit too ambitious and got a bit too far out. While I consider myself a good swimmer, the ocean did a better job of controling my actions. A few of us ended up literally getting picked up and thrown by the waves...and some of us onto some rocks (sorry mom!). Fortunately, noone was seriously injured!! I came away with a hurting foot, some bruised toes, and a fair share of scratches, some cuts on my legs and fatigue. Lucklily, as it happened in the ocean, the salt water disinfected my cuts almost instantly! It could have been worse, and we all learned a valuable lesson...the ocean is a good swimmer.

In any case, while this email hasn't necessarily been my most excting letter home, you can rest assured that I am on cloud 9 right now, greatly appreciating finally being a volunteer and, slowly slowly, (seeda, seeda) mastering the Pulaar language. You can be looking for another email from me around Christmas, when I will be in a town large enough to have an internet cafe.

Until then I want to let you know that I am thinking of you all this holiday season, wondering what the weather is like for you back in the States, and praying for a peaceful and Spirit-filled holiday season. It has actually been quite refreshing for me to think about the Christmas holiday without being inundated with ads, commercials, and SUPER SATURDAY SAVINGS SALES. In all honesty, thinking of Chrismas here, where none of that matters because it's not even an option at this time, is quite refreshing.

I pray this year is able to be the same for you...That you are able to think of Christmas for the ever-beautiful holiday that it is, a celebration of everlasting life. Ever-beautiful because of the family and friends we with, and everlasting because of the gift of eternal life offered through the Savior, Jesus.

Thank you all for your thoughts, prayers, letters and packages! Until next time, I wish you the best.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Almost a PCV!

I am back in Banjul again for the next week to complete training and officially swear in as a PCV. It's an exciting but full week...kind of. I have been here since last Wednesday working on trainings and such. There is a big house here owned by the PC called the "stodge" where the volunteers stay when they are in town. It's basically like a big hostel for just Peace Corps.

Our trainings have been going well, but we are all realy excited to just get to be an actual volunteer by the time we head back to our sites next weekend.

This past week I visited the site I will be at for the next two years. I don't know how it happened, but I am placed in what I think of as the "Decorah" of the Gambia. I am surrounded by gorgeous hills and forests, and I'm very close to the river. I was only there for a few days, to get to meet the family and introduce myself to the community, but I will be headed back next Sunday. My host compund is set up something like this: the head of the compound is my host father. He is probably around 30 and is married with three children (my host siblings). I am guessing they are around 8, 5, and 1 years old. My host father has two brothers and a sister who live in the compound as well. One of his brothers is married with one child, and the other brother and sister is not married yet. I think his youngest brother and his sister are probably just a few years older than me. (They don't really keep track of age here, so it's always kind of a guess.) Also, their mother lives in the compound, but their father has passed away. Typically the oldest man is the head of the compound, which is why my father is the head at such a young age.

Anyway, the family structure here is a bit different from what we are used to, but I will explain more of that later, and in more detail.

My house is a one room mud hut with a thatched roof. It's awesome! And it stay's pretty cool. (which will be very important when the temps get around 120F around May) It is probably about 4 meters by 4 meters. My backyard is big and has a lemon tree, several moringa trees, a pomogranite tree, and watermellons growing up my wall and onto my roof. I will get pictures to you soon.

The area I'm in is Fula, which means they are mostly cattle herders. It is also one of the poorest districts of Gambia. (And Gambia was recently listed as the 8th poorest country in the world.) Needless to say, while the natural scenery is gorgeous, my work is certainly cut out for me. Much of the year the meals consist of only rice or coos. The World Food Programme is quite active in my area, and provides all the meals for the local school, so I will probably work with them a bit.

An NGO called "Future In Our Hands" from Sweden recently built a skills center in my village, so I will also be working there a bit helping develop small-income generatine projects and special skills training, specifically to help generate sustainable income for women.

There is also a large women's community garden that the volunteer before me helped them establish. He wrote a grant to get 2 wells established for the garden, so now I will work with the women to help them realize the importance of diversification of foods and crops, and also use it as a tool to teach a bit about nutrition and sustainable soil management.

And my host father wants to turn his ground nut (peanut) field into a cashew orchard. Peanuts are the country's main export, and the prices are dropping. The last PC volunteer here tried to teach the importance of other crops, such as cashews, and my host father is one of the men in the village interested in switching over. So during my first few months at site I intend to work with him on that, planting somewhere around 500 cashew trees. It will be a good chance to get to know the family and work on my language before I start leading community sessions or skills training.

Needless to say, I am very excited to finally be a PCV and head back to my village. They were very excited to meet me, and even cooked a rooster in my honor to welcome me to their family. I feel very comfortable there, and very safe.

My closest site mates are about 5-10k away from me. I am a ways off the paved roads, so to get to me you have to either bike or take a donkey cart. I'm excited to be off the beaten path, but may reduce my number of visitors.

I got a chance to meet a few of the volunteers from my area and they got me very excited about living up-country. Their tends to be random camping, biking and canoing trips, as well as spontaneous bush-pig barbeques. (Muslims do not eat pork, so whenever a village kills a bush pig they give it to their PCV to share with the rest of us.) I'm really excited about the work, projects and experiences of these next few years!

I wish I could say more, cause I definately can, but I just don't have the time to go into as much detail as some of these stories deserve.

On another note, I found out that most of the time packages come through to The Gambia without being opened or having things stolen. It is recommended to use large envelopes or small boxes. Packages are not expected by an means, but greatly enjoyed!

Speaking of which, I have heard from several people that they would like a list of things to send my way. I wasn't planning to publish a "wish-list" but it seems to be necessary by popular demand. Here is what I could come up with:

-powdered drink mixes (ex. Gatorade)
-magazines and/or books
-newspaper articles (especially about the presidential race)
-a jump rope
-duct tape
-powdered sauces or spices (such as chilli pepper, garlic salt, or barbeque salts)
-soup and pasta bags (such as the Lipton soups and serving-size pasta dishes)
-the cheese packets from Mac&Cheese and/or Velveeta and Cheese
-M&Ms (one of the few chocolate items that won't melt in transit)
-Earl Grey and green tea
-small coffee bags (such as instant Nescafe)
-beef jerkey
-body and facial soap (unscented, as to not attract any one of the many millions of mosquitoes that bite me each night)
-medicated Gold Bond (for heat rash...hey, it happens when the hot season tops 120 degrees Fahrenheit!)
-journaling paper
-pictures of family and friends

With that, I should bring this posting to a close. I hope this finds you all doing well. I will be headed to the beach again this afternoon (for the 4th day in a row) to enjoy the sunset with friends, before heading out for dinner. I know life in the PC is tough, but I'm willing to endure!

Hopefully I will get a post out after swearing in and before going to my site!

Take care and best wishes!