Saturday, November 29, 2008

Guinea: An Unforgetable West-African Adventure

November 10th I set out from Basse with five good friends as we rented out a car and a driver and excitedly started our 28 hour(ish) drive to our destination of Dukie, Guinea. Five full days of hiking, waterfalls, a good time with friends and a well-deserved break from Gambia lie ahead!

50 hours later, with still no definate end to our drive in sight, but with tempers reaching a critical point, emotions running high, a driver ready to abandon us, hundreds of kilometers of never-ending craters...generously called a road, and a group of 6 young travelers ready to abandon the driver, --- the journey had certainly become what I like to call, simply, memorable.

In respect to you, my devout readers, I will not delve into what could be the equivalent of a 25-page, day-to-day play-by-play of what was truly an adventure, full of random twists and turns, and enough 11th hour revelations to fill a John Grisham book. But it is worth pointing out the more lively points of our memorable "vacation." (Come to think of it, even traveling with the Griswalds coundn't have been more interesting.)

(DISCLAIMER: To all those wishing or planning to visit Guinea, your vacation does NOT have to be like this. No no. This trip was certainly so many respects. Yet unfortunately not all THAT unique...since, after all, this is West Africa. So then again, maybe this disclaimer doesn't really have any merit to it after all.)

*We get off to a great start, leaving the parking lot with the wind (and dust) in our faces!

*2 hours in we had our first (of many) break-downs.

*Immigration officials are great a wasting time and power-tripping.

*The first day in the car goes by really well. We are all fresh, excited and think the driver knows where he is supposed to be taking us. (That assumption, that just because the driver SAID they knew where we wanted to go and how to get there, and we believed him, was our first great mistake.)

*We try sleeping as the driver pushes through the night, but on a "road" with more craters than the moon. Sleeping is met unsuccessfully.

*Surprise! The car is infested with cockroaches!

*The sun rises to reveal we are at a ferry crossing. After a cup of roadside coffee, we are excited to keep moving. "Hiking by sunset" is on our minds.

*We enter Guinea and it's GORGEOUS!! The first forests, and yes, even mountains we have seen in over a year!

*We stop to refuel (our stomachs and the gas tank) in the city of Labe. It's fun to get to speak Pulaar outside Gambia. There's a definate dialect, but we get by alright for our own needs.

*While in Labe, an elderly woman who was either extremely enthusiastic or, well... anyway, she was covered in small placards and buttons with pictures of Barack Obama and she gave us all multiple hugs... before begging us for money.

*As the sun is setting and we approach our FIRST 28 hours in the car, the forested mountains turn into rolling plains.

*At about 10pm the driver told us we were there... to Tugay. Too bad we should habe been to DUKEY about 4 hours ago.

*We somehow manage to come across Robert, the one man in Tugay who can speak English enough to help us convey to the driver our problem of Tugay vs. Dukey.

*Spent the night in a random hotel. No light, water or food. But don't worry, plenty of cockroaches to cuddle with.

*Off to another good start, sure that THIS TIME the driver knew where to take us. We were so naieve...

*2pm rolls around and we reach the PROVINCE/DISTRICT of DUNKEY. Again, NOT the TOWN of DUKEY.

*Somehow this too is "peacefully" resolved and we reach Dukey that evening around 8, after a mere 56 (yes, fifty-six) hours on the road. (Not that we were counting by then any more. It just wasn't fun to keep adding hours after 28 of them had already passed...apparently in the wrong direction.)

*The lodge, run by a great guy named Hassan Bah, is awesome and gorgeous! Truly postcard picturesque.

*Short hikes. Long hikes. Absolutely gorgeous hikes!

*Great Guinean food!

*Good times with friends surrounded by truly awesome scenery.

*Swimming under waterfalls in fresh water springs.

*Relaxing in natural whirlpools.

*Picking and eating oranges right off the trees.

*Oh yeah, one of the tour guides tries hitting on two of the young women in our group. (You can escape Gambia, but not West Africa.)

*Nice, lazy afternoons lounging, reading and sleeping in hammocks.

*Good weather.

*Good health.

*Great hikes!

*Push my limits with my fear of heights.

*Fear of heights NOT successfully overcome.

*Rock climbing.

*Vine swinging.

*Dropped my camera in the stream while vine swinging on our last hike. Memory card is alright. Might be time for a new camera though... (one where you can't hear sand moving around when you bring the zoom in and out)

*Met some fun, recently completed Peace Corps Volunteers from Togo and Morocco.

*Decided not to follow in their footsteps of backpacking West Africa upon completion of my two years of service.

*Our drive ACTUALLY came back to get us at the scheduled time! (We had been wondering over the days if he would actually come back and spend another 28... or 56 hours with us.)

*Another bumpy ride.

*Immigration officials still power-tripping.

But a mere 28 hours later we were back in Basse, Gambia! (Boy does time fly by when it's not 56!) (Over an entire "work-week" spent sitting in a car... just on the way there.)

It truly was a great trip. Not everything went according to plan, but really, what does in West Africa? Surely we could have planned better. Maybe we could have/ should have even brought along a map of Guinea to refrence. (Yeah, my dad and aunt Janis are going to literally rake me over the coals for not having a map of the hundreds of kilometers of roads we were traveling.)

But it was fun and memorable! A truly "once-in-a-lifetime" adventure. Except of course for next summer when I plan to take a similar trip for backpacking and hiking in Mali...with a map of Mali. I know, I'm just asking for it.

But for the record, I never lost my temper or composure on the trip. I'm not saying anyone did, just that I, personally, did not. On the contrary, I was the perpetual optimist! (not always appreciated) But I was well stocked with candy, pixie-sticks, fruit-roll-ups, gummy candies and countdown-callendar "Bush-isms" to help keep the mood light, tempers at bay, and a mellowing sugar coma all around.

So the trip wasn't exactly smooth (quite literally!), or even slightly predictable. But it really was a ALOT of fun. But oddly enough, I was glad to be back in Gambia when it was over. Flat, bland, "give me mintie" Gambia. It's somehow refreshing to be back. To be back "home." I guess my heart is really in it here.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

'Tis the Season...For Elections...

Hey Everyone!

I am in town for the election and thought you might enjoy a quick update with my life as of late.

First and foremost, Khiva is still doing well. She has gotten quite big (thanks in part to many dog treats that have made it over here in gift-packages). She's my baby, and she's doing fine.

I'm also doing really well! I'm excited to be going to Guinea this weekend! I am going with 5 friends. We will leave from the town of Basse at the very eastern edge of Gambia, and hopefully reach the place we're staying after about a 36hour car ride... a long, bumpy car ride. We will be there for about 6 days, mostly spending our time hiking and swimming. I mean, it's not easy to hike all day through mountains and jungles and then go swimming in natural streams and waterfalls... but someone has to do it. I'm really excited to finally have a bit of a vacation. Actually, this will be my first real vacation since coming to Gambia over a year ago! I mean, trips into Kombo and to the beach are nice, but I'm still in the perpetual Peace Corps fish-bowl. This will just be a nice break.

After I get back from Guinea I will be mainly just hanging out in village until Thanksgiving, when I will be coming back to Kombo for the annual all-volunteer conference. That should only just last about two days. Then in early December I will be helping out a bit with training the new Ag-Fo and Health volunteers! They get in on the 6th of this month, but I won't really be working with their training until December. I think I will be discussing local farming practices with them. Mainly I will be helping them try to gain a good understanding of what to expect before they get to village in terms of how their host-families and communities approach farming, and also help them think about some ways where maybe they can work to improve farming practices during the next planting season, such as inter-cropping, as well as ideas for fertilizers and pesticides. Kind of crazy that I'm now in the older group. It's been odd to see the volunteers from the year ahead of me packing up and getting ready to go back to the States. Time really does go by quickly!

And I can honestly say that over these past few months I've reached an appreciation and enjoyment with my service here that I didn't actually think possible. I'm not just enjoying it as an interesting and educational experience, or as a great way to get overseas experience. But I'm actually really loving it here. The relationships and friendships I have been fortunate to build with the people around me is unexplainably refreshing and rewarding. You can be sure that not every day is "great," but I truly am having a great time. I'm having the time of my life and truly loving it here.

Last week we had a bee-keeping training in my village. The main focus was on building sustainable bee-hives out of grasses and other local materials. We also spent quite a bit of time discussing the life-style of bees, trying to help them gain an understanding of bee communities and how they work. There were about 30 people who attended from about 8 different villages. In the coming months it will be their responsibility to actually build bee-hives, bait them and set them out in areas likely to attract bees. In a few months time we will have a follow-up training to discuss harvesting, processing and marketing.

(Bah-Fodi using his new training to make a grass bee-hive.)

I'm really excited about the potential for this project. It's something I think the people in my area could really get into, and really benefit from. Check out my pictures for more shots from the training!

With the corn, coos and rice harvested, now all that's left is the groundnuts. This year's rainy season was pretty good. (Even a bit longer than expected.) So now we have been using the mornings to plow up the groundnuts and group them. Next we will thrash them to seperate the nuts from the hay. Then we will collect the nuts for eating/selling, and then collect the groundnut hay for the horses and donkeys to eat through the dry season. The whole process is a bit labor-intensive and will finally finish up mid-December.

Mid-December will be their Tobaski holiday again, which will be fun to celebrate once more. And shortly after that I will be heading up to Dakar to fly back! Several of us are going up to Dakar on the 22nd. Two of us are flying back to the States, and the others just think it sounds more fun to celebrate Christmas in a different place for a nice change. It should be a fun few days!

Then (weather permitting) I should be home for Christmas! I'm sure it will be a bit of a whirlwind during the first few days, but as long as there is coffee I should be ok!

Oh, and a fun random story. Just about a week ago I came back to my compound around 10pm after spending some time chatting with some friends in village. When I walked in I thought it was funny that a bunch of people were walking around the compound garden area with flashlights. I knew something exciting must be going on, and I was pretty sure what it was. To my un-surprise, Lawo had spotted a snake moving around in the compound. A BIG snake! Of course I jumped into the action with my flashlight and machete, scouting out the perimiter of the garden, looking for anything resembling a big snake.

There were about 10 of us looking around until about midnight, but with none of us seing anything, we were pretty sure it was too scared to come out of the garden area. So, figuring we had it trapped, we left the dogs to keep scouting around the garden and went to bed. The next morning we went back to work, trying to find the snake. I asked Lawo how he could be sure it didn't leave during the night, and he explained to me that the snake was coming to try to eat the chickens or ducks, and wouldn't give up too easily. And he was right! Just a little bit later one of the guys scouting the garden fence saw it. The guys jumped into action, and shortly after the snake, which turned out to be a python, wasn't a threat to the chickens or ducks any longer.

It was a fun experience to be a part of. Truly a "Peace Corps West Africa" memory in the making! (And mom, now you don't have to be afraid of snakes around my compound, because we got rid of it!)

Well, that said I should probably get going. But yeah, in a nut-shell: promoting bee-keeping, python in the compound, Obama '08!, Guinea, Thanksgiving, groundnut harvesting, Tobaski and then I'll be home for Christmas!!

I hope you are all doing well and enjoying the November weather. It has been cooling down here, too. We are getting closer back into the cold season. It's getting down into the 70s at night. And yes, I've started wearing jeans and long-sleeved shirts when it drops down into the 70s. So this year I'll probably be huddling around the fire with everyone else. And the Iowa December weather may be a bit of a shock!

I hope this finds you all doing well. Until next time, take care!

Obama '08! History in the Making!

(My host-family, friends and actually most of the village are all VERY excited about the prospects of an Obama victory!)

Several of you have emailed or written me asking if I will be able to vote in this year's election. You can be sure that I proudly voted absentee for Barack Obama to become the next President of the United States!

(my hut showing pride for Obama. my sign and flag have actually lead to some great political discussions, a great means for cross-cultural understanding and education)

This truly is an historic election, and I thought you would enjoy some pictures of Obama support coming from the West African bush!

(even Bah-Fodi is showing his Muslim prayer beads to show just how seriously the rest of the world takes the outcome of this U.S. election)

Go OBAMA! Obama '08!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Hey Everyone!

Hey Everyone!

I don't have much to share (not that there's nothing to share but that I don't have much time to write it out...) But I thought you would appreciate knowing that I have uploaded some more pictures from October and also a few more video clips.

The pictures give a good look into parts of celebrating Koriteh, the end of Ramadan, and also some more shots of daily life in village and a few shots from Kombo (the capital area). And hopefully the new video clips will help offer a bit more into understanding life in Gambia.

I am doing very, very well! And I'm also looking forward to a trip I'm taking to Guinea in November, and then of course my trip back to the States in December!

The rainy season is almost finished, so now it's time to head back out to the fields for harvesting. First we will bring in the corn, then the coos, then the rice, and then finally the ground nuts. It was a great rainy season, so hopefully the harvest will prove strong as well.

"Projects" have kind of come to a standstill currently, as most everyone has been focused on their farms. But this time of year has also provided a fantastic opportunitity to just hang out with people and get a much better understanding of lives of Gambians. When it comes to cultural understanding, there is always so very much to learn.

For example, did you know that dragons still exist in West Africa?

Did you know that hippos are actually demons who come up out of the river to cause destruction?

And did you know that my community has apparently been discussing how I should stay on after Peace Corps to serve as the school head master?

I didn't. But I do now.

I hope all is well with you on the other side of the big pond!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A Shout-Out to the new Gambia Trainees


If I understand the timing correctly, there will be a new group of agro-forestry and health and community development volunteers coming into Gambia to start training mid-November. And if that's the case, that means most of you should be getting your invitation packet to serve here any day now, if you haven't gotten it already. If you're anything like me, you will now be spending quite a bit of time browsing anything you can find to clue you in to this country which you've probably never heard of before, including Peace Corps blogs.

So, congratulations on being accepted into and accepting your position into the Peace Corps. It's not easy or always fun, but definately an amazing experience to look forward to. In so many ways much of the experience you are about to begin is completely unexplainable, so it's a good thing you are headed over here to experience it for yourself!

Since the experience is so unique to each volunteer, and as the surroundings, experiences and culture are very different from probably most things you've encountered before, I won't really go into much detail on how to prepare, because, really, the best thing you can do to prepare is just not overly-stress about the commitment you just made. In fact, the best thing you CAN do through November is just spend time with family and friends, finish out your work, pack up your stuff, and EAT all day, every day. Eat anything you want anytime you want. Go on the "I'm going to Africa" diet, and all your favorite foods, because unless your favorite foods are 1) rice, 2) rice with peanut sauce, 3) coos with peanut sauce, or 4) coos with unrecognizable green sauce, you won't be finding your favorite foods here, and you will definately not be finding a variety. It's not a bad thing. Just be sure to eat to your heart's content before stepping onto the plane.

And I also figured for your benefit I'd share my packing list, along with commentary on my packing list now that I've been here for a year. (Keep in mind, this packing list is for a young, male, single, agro-forestry volunteer.)

*5 t-shirts (only really need 3 or 4)
*2 polos (only really need 1)
*2 nice, button up shirts (only really need 1)
*1 pair nice pants
*1 pair jeans
*1 pair outdoorish/lightweight pants
*3 pair shorts
*5 pair socks (I never wear my tennis-shoes so don't really need socks)
*5 pair boxers (it's just too hot for some things. way, way to hot)
*3 pair running shorts
*1 pair swimming trunks
*1 rain jacket
*1 tie
*2 pairs Chaco sandals
*1 pair flip-flops
*1 pair tennis-shoes (I only wear sandals and flip-flops, but still not a bad thing to have along)

*cell phone (it's super easy to get one here that will work just fine)
*cell phone charger to fit with Solio (you can get any kind of charger here you need for any kind of phone, and for much less than in the States)
*iPod (music is essential for so much down time)
*small speakers for iPod
*crank shortwave radio
*crank flashlight
*head lamp
*Solio solar charger (my site doesn't have electricity, so I use this to charge my phone and iPod on a regular basis)(you probably won't have electricity at your site)
*rechargeable batteries (I never really need to use them.)
*solar-powered battery charger (So I never really need to use this.)
*travel alarm (to have a clock in my house)(but time here runs on a different schedule, so it doesn't really matter what time it is)
*watch (with extra battery)

If you take a prescription medication you're supposed to bring a 3-month supply, after that Peace Corps provides it for you.
They are also good about providing your malaria medication, sun-screen, daily multi-vitamins, re-hydration tabs, calcium supplements, and a medical kit full of lots of interesting stuff you will hopefully never need to take. But sometimes Peace Corps runs out of stuff for a while, so it's not a bad idea to have your own supply of sun-screen or vitamins.

*2 pairs eye-glasses (Contacts are discouraged for cleanliness reasons. Some people still wear them. I haven't heard of many serious problems, but apparently a person lost an eye a few years back from some kind of infection attributed to his contacts.)
*Swiss Army knife
*small supply of soap, shampoo, and deodorant to get you through the first few weeks
*toothbrushes and toothpaste
*shaving razors
*pictures from home
*addresses of people back home
*Nalgene bottle
*day pack for travel
*camel-back for travel/biking

Once you become a volunteer, your monthly Peace Corps allowance will be plenty to cover your basic needs of food, housing, travel and such. However, your monthly stipend as a trainee is actually quite small, so if you do plan to buy a cell phone and other things immediately when you get here, you will want to plan to bring some extra cash. But, once you swear in you will also get an "adjustment/moving in" allowance, to cover the costs of furnishing your house (ie. bed, mattress, chairs, gas stove, cooking supplies...that sort of thing)

**I know it's going to be tempting to pack food to bring with you. The problem is, for your first 3 months you are in training, and everything is provided for you. Additionally, your schedule is pretty full and there isn't actually all that much down-time for cooking on your own. I recommend waiting and if you have certain foods you really want, have a family member of friend mail them over.

**I can't stress this enough, it's HOT here. It's hot enough that when it falls down into the 90s it feels fantastic and the 70s are down-right cold. So I recommend packing light-fabric clothing, and just be ok with the fact that you will sweat alot over the next few years.

**And you really can buy anything you may need here. The bigger markets have varities of radios, cell phones, adapters, small speakers, clothing, toiletries, and local food. So if it doesn't fit in your luggage, don't fret about it, you can get it over here.

**Oh, which reminds me, don't worry about packing cooking supplies (ie. pots and pans), since you can easily get that stuff here, as well.

**Spices are another matter. If you have special cooking spices you want to have on hand, you should probably either bring them along or plan to have them shipped.

**Peace Corps told my training group not to worry about paking bed sheets, but that they would be provided for us. That didn't exactly hold true, so I recommend bringing your own set of bed sheets for a double bed.

**And finally, don't bring anything of any real or sentimental value. Your stuff is going to get wet, sandy, moldy, moved around alot and possibly destroyed by termites or rodents. Other than a few things, such as a camera and mp3 player, I would suggest leaving anything expensive back in the States.

Alright, I hope this helps some of you while coming up with your own packing lists and figuring out how to fit the next two years of your life into two suitcases. Again, don't worry about it. You can find anything here, and food, books and those things ship easily.

Enjoy your last few months in the States. Eat alot! And we all look forward to greeting you when you get to Gambia!

(PS: Yes, time does go fast. I feel like I just got settled in, and now it's time for the older group to move out and the new group to come in.)

Friday, September 12, 2008

So About My Pictures...

Hey again!

I thought it would be worth mentioning (as I have just uploaded tons of new pictures) that I really would like to be taking many more pictures of the local people here, but since most of the women are usually very scantily clad and the children tend to not be wearing anything, and since I really don't want to get arrested for the pictures I post online, I hope you can just enjoy the shots I have to share.


Thursday, September 11, 2008

General Service Announcement

Hey Everyone!

If you check out the right-hand side of the screen you will notice I have a new feature. You now have the life-changing opportunity of getting to see another angle of my life and work in The Gambia via my (very short) video clips!

I've taken the liberty of taping some clips with my camera. (so the quality isn't always the greatest...) I do sincerely hope you all enjoy yet another aspect of "Making a 'Mark' in Gambia."

Also, I have recently uploaded quite a few new pictures, giving you all a fairly good glimpse into my life for the past few months.


July, August, September Update: I'm still truckin!


I'm back in the Kombo area again for a week or so and wanted to send out a quick update from my side of the pond. First of all, THANK YOU all so very much for the amazing birthday wishes, cards, packages, letters, emails and even facebook posts! They are all very, very greatly appreciated! And I am pleased to say I had a great, and memorable 24th birthday here in Gambia.

Village life has slowed down a bit lately. The crops are planted. The weeding is mostly finished. And the rains are starting to clear out again. These past few months have been slower days, as we are now basically just waiting to harvest the crops. We should be harvesting the corn any time now, the coos in October, the rice in November, and the groundnuts after that. Lately we have just been hanging out in the shade under trees with sling-shots to keep the birds, goats and monkeys out of the crops. It's been a cool experience, and I'm not THAT bad at the sling-shots! (the bigger animals are easier to hit)

But despite the slower pace of work and life-in-general lately, I suppose it should be able to go without saying that I am truly having a blast in village with my host family and friends! Each day brings something totally new and random. Something worth getting out of bed and opening the door for. (hence... not too many blog updates lately. I hope this one will suffice for my more avid and regular readers, and make up for lost time.)

Right now is the Muslim holiday of Ramadan, where they do not eat from sun-up to sun-down. It's also been very interesting, as we get up for breakfast at 4:45 or 5am, and then don't eat or drink anything until about 7 in the evening. But to answer your immediate question, no, I'm not fasting. The compound was really polite and asked me if I wanted to fast with them, but I explained to them that if it was a cultural holiday, something specific to the Fula or Mandinka people, I would be tempted to try it for a while. But it's a Muslim holiday, and I'm not Muslim. And it works out that the children in the compound don't fast, and neither does Fatou, one of my host-moms who is EXTREMELY pregnant. So since they are already cooking lunch for half the people in the compound anyway, it's not a big deal for them to prepare some food for me as well. But it has been an interesting experience, and a good time to learn about Islam. I don't know if I've mentioned this before, but Lawo, my host dad, is the assistant Imam in the village (the leader of the Mosque in the community), and it is great to have conversations with him about Islam, and how it differs between West Africa and other parts of the world.

And for my birthday itself I got together with a few friends on the 29th in the town of Basse, where Peace Corps has a house we can use when to go to Basse for banking and such. We cooked a nice dinner, I got to chat with my family a bit, and was even surprised by my friends with a brownie cake after dinner! The day was topped off with a great thunderstorm. It was like getting fireworks for my bitrhday! Someone up-above must really like me!

The next day, on my birthday itself, I was traveling back to village with my friend Alicia when our gele-gele broke down. And as, of course, the gele-gele didn't have a spare tire, I spent much of my 24th birthday hanging out on the side of the road, waiting for another vehicle to come along. But it really was beautiful, and definately memorable! I topped off my birthday hitching a free ride to Bansang. And since the sun was setting and I wouldn't get to my site before dark, Alicia and I ended up catching another ride to get back to her place. (Vehicles don't go to my village, except, of course, Peace Corps vehicles.) I got back to my site the next morning. And yes, at 24 I do actually feel older than I did at 23. Perhaps it's the new experiences, refreshed outlook on life, or just the fact that 24is an even number... But I do feel more mature and older.

Yesterday I met up with a bunch of my friends here in Kombo. There is a new education group swearing in on the 12th, so many of us are coming back down to the city to welcome them to Gambia. I spent the day with my friends at the beach, then went out for pizza and topped the day off at a nice outside moon-lit bar, where my friends surprised Alicia and myself with a joint-birthday cake! (as her birthday was September 8th) And we brought the day to a close singing and dancing to the Jackson 5. A successful day, indeed.

So now I will be around for a few days, or maybe up to a week, working on paper work and such. Yes, even when working out in the bush I'm required to come in every three months and fill out TONS of paper work about my projects. I'm still not exactly sure how we are supposed to "quantify" much of the work we are doing, such as working in rice fields with women, planting tree nurseries, or teaching English phrases to children. But, I suppose if Peace Corps wants to keep getting a budget from Congress, they will keep having us fill out arbitrary paper work. In some ways it does make me feel more "professional," other than the fact that all my statistics and "quantifying" numbers are still completely arbitrary.

In other news:

For October I'm looking forward to leading big bee-keeping and rabbit-production trainings. I've been organizing these with several men in my village, and I'm hoping for (but wise enough not to expect) a good event. I'll keep you updated!

For November: I'm looking forward to taking a week-long trip to Guinea (Conakry) with five other friends in November. It should be a fun hiking trip through mountains and waterfalls. Well, not "through" waterfalls, but you know what I mean. I'm REALLY excited for it. Then around Thanksgiving we will be having our annual all-volunteer conference, which should be a nice time with friends working in parts of the country I don't get to visit often.

And for December: I'm coming home for Christmas! All I can say is, if you want to make sure to have lots of extra time to hang out with me while I'm back, contact my parents to arrange some kind of schedule. I plan to just enjoy, rest and EAT all the time.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Some Haikus to Share

So Allison Hoff, a good friend of mine who is serving as a health and community development volunteer, wrote these awesome haikus. They do a good job of pretty much summing everything up!

I can't speak Pulaar.
What the heck are you saying?
I'll just smile at you.

You're still talking.
I hope this isn't important.
My answer is yes.

This meat is chewy.
Maybe it's just bad chicken.
Nope, sheep intestines!

I need something sweet.
There are cough drops in my med kit.
This can't be healthy.

They are called freckles.
They are not mosquito bites.
And that is acne.

Please kids, wash your hands.
Fine, just don't grab the goat shit.
Okay, don't touch me.

Life is full of exciting and new experiences in The Gambia!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Yet Another Update About Life

Hey Everyone!

I’m back in Kombo for a few days so I wanted to get out a quick update on my life and work here with the Peace Corps.

First and foremost, Khiva is doing really well. She has been growing really fast! Whenever I leave for a few days and come back again I’m always surprised with how big she is getting when I don’t even realize it. And her appetite is matching her growth. She is now completely house trained and she doesn’t even chew on the furniture when I’m not there, but we are now working on keeping her from chasing the chickens. It may be all fun and games now, when she actually gets afraid of the chickens and ducks when they turn around and start chasing her. But soon enough her playful chasing of the family poultry could easily become her wanting to satisfy her appetite. So we are working on that.

She likes to wander all around the village and into the fields with me. Every morning when we go out to the fields for weeding she comes along and sits in the shade to watch us work, when she’s not chasing birds, bugs, butterflies, other dogs or digging holes. She really likes to dig holes. (It’s become a bit problematic in my backyard as I’m trying to grow things.)

And in the late afternoons when I take my daily walk around village to see what is all going on she likes to tag along. I consider that a part of my “cultural exchange,” since they really aren’t accustomed to having animals just hang out like that. And my host family thinks it’s hilarious when she tries to play with people who come into the compound by chasing them around. I was afraid at first that maybe that wouldn’t go over so well, the whole chasing people thing. But as it turns out, Lawo thinks it’s the funniest thing in the world when someone walks into the compound and Khiva runs up to them to greet them and lick them, but they in turn get freaked out and run away. Ok, so maybe it’s not the nicest thing in the world, but people get used to it, and it really is good comic relief to hot afternoons.

We are now about a month into the rainy season, and it’s amazing how quickly this land that I remember looking like a desert turned into a lush, green rainforest. It’s kind of scary, really. But it’s beautiful!

It tends to rain almost every other night, providing a very nice contrast to the hot humid days. The fields are now completely planted with coos (millet), corn, groundnuts and rice. Now the trick is keeping the weeds down. Basically we spend each morning weeding the various fields (by hand). It gets to be a bit tiring and really hot, but usually each day after we have been out there a few hours a conversation like this happens:

Them: Saikou, it is very hot. You must be very tired. You should go sit in the shade.

Me: Oh, no no. I’m not tired. If you can work out here I can work out here.

Them: No, Saikou. The sun is very hot today. You should go sit down.

Me: No no. If you can work in this, I can work in this.

Them: No. Go sit down.

Me: Ok.

Then I go sit under a near-by tree and wait for them to finish. Sometimes I feel like a wimp for not working longer. Other days I am realistic and know that for as much as my body has adjusted to much of the setting here, if I was to work much longer in that kind of heat and humidity I would be in really, really rough shape.

Other than weeding I’ve been working with some farmers to get some orchards going. I worked specifically with Lawo to plant cashew trees all around the parameter of his fields, and he is very excited about that. Additionally, the seeds we planted are supposedly an improved variety that grow from germination to fruiting in around nine months! That would be awesome, but I’ll believe it when I see it.

I’ve also helped a few other interested farmers get some orchards started with cashew and mango trees.

my hand next to a hippo print in the mud

At the skill center we surrounded the perimeter with a row of cashew trees and then planted some mango trees in the middle of its front yard. We then filled in the rest of the yard with coos and corn. It has good potential for income generation in a few months, and that could be great to get some new projects going with the center!

And the women’s garden is actually working! I mean, they are growing things and the goats aren’t eating everything. The fence still isn’t as good as I think it could be, but, things just happen at a different pace here than we are used to. One thing I’m interested in with the women’s garden is that all the women are basically growing the same thing. Red peppers, onions, and bitter tomato seem to be favorites. I tried talking with them about growing a variety of vegetables to add some more options for cooking and nutrition, but they just weren’t interested, (unless I wanted to just give them seeds, that would be OK).

But I’m not really into giving anything away because that just adds to their overdependence on aid money and free, un-sustainable projects. But that’s an entirely different blog entry... on another day.

What I’m hoping happens is that when the women harvest all their vegetables and take them to the market we started in village, they will realize they are all trying to sell the exact same stuff and maybe be a bit more interested in trying a variety of vegetables next time. Sometimes you just have to see it to believe it. Especially in this culture and setting.

a dung-beatle's view of a groundnut field

The school year is finished, so there really isn’t much going on there. But it was a good year and I’m excited to work with the agriculture teacher next year to get an Environmental Awareness club started. I figure many of the older students will come because I’m there and they always like to watch whatever I’m doing anyway. And it will be a great opportunity to talk with them about environmental issues to the Gambia, maybe sometimes current events, and really just anything I think is important and they should be discussing. And since they next school year will be starting towards the end of the US general election, there will definitely be issues to talk about.

The current events class is going well. Lately the main questions and discussions have focused around the US primary elections, and them wanting to learn how people get elected (in a primary) to try to get elected again (in the general election).

Other than that, site is basically the same old routine. I am having a great time and continue to learn new things about my setting, the culture I am in, and myself. By now I have definitely been stretched beyond measures of patience and understanding I knew I had. And I continue to be amazed when I think of just how bizarre this entire experience really is. But I am having a blast, most days, and really enjoying this incomparable experience.

I hope this email finds you all doing well and enjoying your summers! This time of year our settings are kind of the same.. It’s hot there and it’s hot here. It rains a lot there and it rains a lot here. Except where here the heat can become a bit much, you have air conditioning. But where your rains are a bit much, we love it!

Thanks, as always, for your prayers, letters and phone calls.

Until next time, take care and God bless.

The Gambian Food Crisis: 101

So if you have been paying any sort of attention to the news lately, aside from the ongoing primary campaigns there is a food crisis happening throughout much of the world.

In one aspect, rice production world-wide has been hugely hurt by a severe drought taking place in Australia, preventing a massive amount of rice from being grown and harvested. As one of the largest rice exporting countries in the world, this drastic shortage means that countries who rely heavily on imports, such as Indonesia, China and the Koreas aren’t getting the rice imports they require, and are therefore stockpiling all of the rice they are producing themselves for their own populations, regulating against any exporting.

Another aspect is that a growing standard of living in massive countries such as India and China means that millions of more people are now consuming more meat. In order to supply this growing demand for meat more animals need to be raised and processed, which leads to a huge increase in the demand for grains, and what we consider “cereal” crops, such as corn and millet. Inevitably, the price for these grains is growing with the demand.

On the other side of the big pond, the United States (and much of Europe) are investing heavily in bio-fuel technologies, such as ethanol. In order to stimulate the potential for rapid adoption of bio-fuel technologies as an alternative to oil (and perhaps more importantly to win over the Midwestern swing-states during political campaigns), the US Congress and the European Union are pumping massive amounts of subsidies into the promotion of crops such as corn. This new and growing market for corn and other grains is supporting a rapid increase for prices of these grains in the US and Europe, which in turn promotes a rapid increase of prices across the world market.

a corn field

On top of all this, as I’m sure you have noticed, oil prices have gone through the roof, approaching nearly $200 per barrel. As I’m sure you are aware, this rapid increase in the price of oil has affected nearly every industry across the planet, especially if the industry has any kind of transportation involved. Airlines, shipping companies and trucking companies are experiencing sky-rocketing fuel costs for the transport of any and all goods.

If I’m not mistaken, this global phenomenon is mostly affecting the US in terms of transportation. People are biking more and driving less. Predicted sales for gas-guzzling SUVs have dropped into critically low numbers. The auto industry, especially GM and Ford are basically at a loss in terms of how to revamp their fleet to produce more efficient cars. People aren’t flying very much if they don’t have to, leading to mergers between airlines such as Continental and Delta as they try to save their already financially disrupted industry.

And overall, people just aren’t traveling as much as they used to, or as much as they would like. Amusement parks and national parks alike are seeing a shortage of visitors this year as some people just can’t afford to get their car out of the driveway if they really don’t have to.

What we are experiencing here is a bit different. This is where it gets a bit technical.

Countries in West Africa, like most other places in the developing world, are experiencing a situation where the education standards are rising just enough that many people, at least boys, are able to attend some sort of school and graduate. Granted, they might not actually graduate until they are around 25 because they take years off to work at home or just because the school systems are constantly changing things around, but for the most part, men have a growing opportunity to get an education. When they graduate from school they don’t want to live in their villages anymore, but are instead drawn to the ideas and dreams of living in a big city, such as Dakar, Freetown, or even Banjul (the capital of Gambia).

Unfortunately there really isn’t a need for all this influx of workers to these cities, as their industries really aren’t growing at a pace able to keep up with the amount of people looking for jobs. So, what you find is that cities such as Dakar, Freetown and Banjul have a large and growing population of young men (in their 20s) who are fresh out of school looking for jobs. While this situation is leading to problems such as over-crowded cities, homelessness and sex tourism, my main point in sharing this with you is that there is a huge population making just enough money to get by, able to afford just enough food.

On the other end of the spectrum, people living and around villages like mine are subsistence farmers. The farmers I am working with are able to grow just enough food to feed their families from one growing season to the next. While some improvements with this situation are happening (which is also the main focus of the work I and other Peace Corps volunteers are doing here), farmers can only plant enough corn, rice and coos to get by eating for the year and save some as seeds for the next growing season. Gambian farmers used to be able to rely on exporting the groundnuts they sell to the world market for a steady yearly income. However, as other countries expand groundnut production Gambia can’t keep up. Moreover, the world demand for groundnuts from Gambia has collapsed, and so has its price. Just a few years ago a farmer used to be able to sell a 50 kilo bag of groundnuts for around 1200 delasis (or $60 U.S. dollars). This year, however, they were only able to sell a bag for about 600d. (a bit of a drop, if I do say so myself) So what we have is a situation of growing urban areas, just making it by, on the one hand, and subsistence farmers with a steadily decreasing income on the other.

a baby groundnut (peanut) plant

For the past several years this situation has been offset by the fact that governments of countries such as Gambia and Senegal have subsidized the price of imported rice. They were able to keep it artificially low so that their low-income population would still be able to afford rice as a staple food to their diet, especially in the urban areas where the people aren’t relying on farming for their own food source. Moreover, even in the rural areas farmers were able to make enough from selling their groundnuts (despite the loss of value) to still afford the imported rice. Over a span of about 30 years, imported rice became a significant staple food item into people’s diet across the country.
That’s changed.

So, back to the rice shortage and increasing grain prices I mentioned earlier. The fact that Australia is suffering from a drought that has been going on for several years and taken out their rice production, along with the fact that more wealthy rice-consuming countries (China, Indonesia, Koreas, Vietnam) are creating policies against the export of rice, means there is a drastic shortage of rice that can actually be imported to West African countries, including Gambia. The skyrocketing grain prices in Western countries has made it nearly impossible for West African countries to be able to afford subsidizing the rice, or any other grain for that matter, imported into these countries, meaning these skyrocketing prices will inevitably be passed on to the consumer… people just making it by.

On top of it all, the “through the roof” oil prices means that organizations such as the World Food Program, which help provide lunches for schools across many of these developing countries, including Gambia, did not expect such a drastic increase in the shipping (oil) costs for distribution. For this fiscal year, the World Food Program is estimating around $500 million in unexpected and unbudgeted costs, because the synonymous increase of prices for goods all-around was not expected to the extent is has reached. Moreover, as the World Food Program also helps provide food to refugee camps and displaced peoples around the world, they are facing critical ethical dilemmas of where they can continue their work and where they must make budget cuts. From what I understand, the World Food Program is phasing-out its assistance to The Gambia over the next two to four years. That’s not going to be a good day.

a rice field

Furthermore, the rice currently imported to this country is only going to be subsidized through September. The national government here has made it very clear that they cannot afford to offer assistance with this situation after September because it will just be too expensive. They will incrementally increasing the price of a bag of rice to around 1000 delasis per 50 kilo bag in order to help “sensitize” people to the rising costs (it was around 650 delasis when I got here last September), and then it will be completely up to the world market. Costs are only expected to skyrocket with oil.

So, basically what we have is a growing population reliant on cheap imported rice as a main food item that will not be able to afford to eat it past September, if they can even afford to eat it now. While they used to be able to sell a bag of groundnuts for two bags of rice, this equation has now flipped.

So what is to be done?

Fortunately, the people I am working and living with are subsistence farmers who are used to eating what they grow. We have had community meetings to discuss this situation and the overall reaction is “Well, we used to grow and eat coos more than rice, so we will just have to do that again.” It’s a pretty good reaction.

Peace Corps volunteers here are trying to help introduce different methods of inter-cropping in order to get more food from the same amount of space. (such as beans and corn together) We are introducing different kinds of fertilizer methods to help increase yields. (such as an interesting urine-based fertilizer they can make on their own) And we have even tried introducing and promoting a line of rice called NERICA rice. It is an improved line developed by the Taiwanese that, under the right conditions, should have much larger yields and smaller growing cycles (about 80 days) than the rice they are used to growing for themselves.


All things considered, as long as the rainy season is good, the people around me should still be able to grow enough to get by.

That’s not the case for everyone, though. Urban areas, such as Dakar and Freetown, have already experienced food riots protesting the government over their inability to afford food. And there’s nothing to say that kind of reaction won’t happen here in The Gambia after September. As tightly as some countries may like to control the security of their countries, when people are hungry, or even starving, they will take on desperate measures.

Personally, I’m not expecting much of a strong reaction this coming year. For various reasons, I think people will be able to make it by and get enough food to meet their needs. However, I am more skeptical about next year. If people don’t have a good growing season and end up having to eat the seeds they set aside to grow the next year, that will only enhance the already growing potential for a devastating food crisis.

So what will happen as the rice shortage continues, combined with rising grain and oil prices? You’re prediction is as good as mine, maybe better. But one thing is for sure, people, both in the United States and in developing countries, will be going hungry. Sorry to end on such a downer, but that’s just the way an unequal world works. Some people can’t afford to fill their SUV for a summer road trip to the Grand Canyon. Other people can’t afford to feed their families.

Happy (late) 4th of July!

Hey Everyone!

I hope you were all able to enjoy getting together with various groups of family and friends to celebrate the 4th of July!

I met up with six other friends at Alicia’s house, the place we tend to go for American holidays, and celebrated the 4th of July with them. We had a blast!

making mashed potatoes

In true summer holiday tradition we grilled hot dogs and made smores… kind of. In true Peace Corps fashion we took spammed chicken from a can and cut into strips to kind of resemble hot dogs. Then we smoked them in a grill so they would hopefully acquire a smoky flavor. (it kind of worked) And to make the smores we took apart chocolate cookies (kind of like Oreos) and put marshmallows in them. And for a special treat we even bought ice in Bansang so we could have cold beverages! (It’s the little things that make the biggest difference.)

grilling hot dogs

We had a great time just hanging out together, cooking, relaxing and sharing stories from our sites. And to top it off we even had a good fireworks show of lightning at the end of the day!

Amy and Allison making "onion rings"

Interestingly enough, the 4th of July actually felt much more like Thanksgiving to me. No, I wasn’t really craving turkey or mashed potatoes (mmm….mashed potatoes). And it definitely didn’t feel like fall, let alone time for Christmas shopping specials. But getting together with friends to celebrate American independence and the freedoms and privileges we have in our society really struck me this year. Perhaps it’s because I wasn’t actually in America, or maybe it’s because my setting here is just so very different. But I just kept thinking of all the differences between here and the States and we truly do have so very much to be thankful.

For example, the fact that kids are required to go to school in the States differs a bit from the families who won’t send their daughters to school so they can stay home and pound coos and rice.

We may rely over-dependently on cars, but at least we have an overall functioning transportation system (be it cars, trucks, trains, airplanes, subways, taxis, and even busses, and most especially bridges!) to get around wherever we want to go.

We may hot have the best healthcare system for all members of our society, but at least people aren’t dying from malaria or dysentery, and most people have access to at least basic medications to cover most basic ailments and diseases. And so much of our society has it far better than even that.

We can drink water without fear of parasites.

Women in America can get an education, work, make their own independent life, and even usually leave their situation if it is abusive and unbearable.

People can speak freely and openly about their political opinions and frustrations without fear for themselves or their family.

People can protest and be heard if they are unhappy.

We have access to any kind of media we want, even uncensored.

Americans still have a belief that if you work hard and are dedicated to something, you will succeed. You can achieve anything you put your mind to. I’m thankful to come from a country where that is possible.

America isn’t perfect. There are still many policies and several laws that I either just don’t understand or completely disagree with. Our society, on the whole, is wasteful and selfish. (come on, admit it, maybe not you personally but our society as a whole…) And we are depleting our resources faster than we are planning to live without them.

But we also come from one of the greatest countries in the world. And we have so very much to be thankful for.

So, it wasn’t quite the same missing out on the Reinbeck parade, not going to the park in the afternoon for fried food, pie and ice cream, bingo, and small-town socializing, and it was very weird to miss out on the amazing fireworks shows I’m accustomed to. But it really was a great 4th of July. It was what the 4th is supposed to be about, a good time with friends, good (or at least creative) summer grilling, and a true and deep appreciation for all the rights, security and privileges the U.S. offers its citizens, and even the world.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

My Book Shelf

So, I realize it's really not a big deal and all, but I'm very pleased with how my new book shelf turned out so I want to show it off. I made it myself and it actually works! (it holds books...)

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Rainy Season Rolls In

We are now well into June and the rainy season has officially arrived!

It actually officially arrived in Chargel on the 13th of June at 1:30am when it started storming. It was our first "real" rain since October. That's right, after a good seven months with practically no precipitation we finally had rain. And boy did we get rain. Thanks to the handy rain guage my dad sent me I can tell you quite accurately that it rained right at about 3 inches that morning between 1:30 and 7AM.

The change of seasons is greatly appreciated and I am enjoying the drop in temperatures with the more overcast days. Unfortunately, the drop in temps (from about 130 to 110) is more than made up for in the humidity that just came out of nowhere. At the same time, when it is raining and the breeze is constant it feels great. And I love sitting outside under my overhang watching it rain with the rest of the compound.

During this past week, the first of the rainy season, we have consistenly gotten an average of about 2 inches of rain each day.

I understand that's the same kind of precipitation my family and friends back in Iowa are experiencing right now, which is leading to massive flooding and and disasters from too much water. Here, on the other hand, the ground was so completely dry that it is still soaking up the water as fast as it can fall. Any puddles that do form don't last long. Granted, there are areas near and along the river which get pretty muddy and will surely flood. However, they are expecting and hoping for that so they can turn it into well watered rice fields. In fact, with the severe food crisis hitting us here, if we don't have a strong and consistent rainy season, the people here may very well slide into a famine.

Which leads me into... with the rains comes plowing and planting!

It's quite amazing how literally overnight, with a few inches of rain, the ground went from being a dry, concrete desert to very fertile and workable. It's actually kind of scary how quickly and drastically it changes. Moreover, unfortunately with changes in global weather patterns, the farmers are saying that each year the rainy season is getting just a little bit shorter and the dry season just a bit longer. That fact, coupled with how this land and vegitation is able to go from desert to tropical, literally overnight, just doesn't seem very well balanced. To me, it comes across as a clear sign of how susceptible our surroundings and indeed, the world, really are to our actions and behaviors. And it's a clear sign that if that pattern doesn't change and the rainy season does continue to get shorter and shorter as the surrounding lands become more and more deforested and polluted, the people who rely on the rains for food will be in a world of hurt.

But despite my concerns for where the Gambia may be headed down the road in terms of sustainability and food production capabilities, I have been having a very good time plowing and planting in the fields with Lawo, Saikou and Bah Fodi.

As you can see, the equipment we use here may be quite reminiscent for my grandparents and more mature blog readers. But it gets the job done.

This year we will be planting two types of coos, corn (maize), rice and ground nuts (peanuts). Most all the food the plant will be used primarly for their own consumption needs for the next year. Much of the population here is still at a subsistance level of production and development in terms of producing food. There will be some farmers who will plant enough of a crop to sell it off at the market, such as ground nuts, but as the prices for grains and cereals continue to sky rocket, it is most likely that the people here will save as much for themselves as they can produce.

Now that the farmers are back in the fields for another season of crops, most of my projects will be shelved for the time being. As any farmer can attest, planting and sowing is extremely time sensitive, my projects are not. But that's fine with me. I'm excited for this change of pace and to experience Gambian farming. It will be a fun time working with the horses, learning about new equipment that I would have otherwise considered antique, and I already have an increased appreciation for the technology and agricultural advancements I grew up so accustomed to.

Additionally, after eight months of no rain, I'm excited to finally have a change of climate, of daily weather pattern, and the knowledge that soon the ground will be green once again! It's amazing how refreshing these rain showers are after now completing one year straight of summer, sunny, hot weather!

So, while you may not be too excited with the prospect for more rain on your side of the big pond, I say let it come! It's about time!

Answers to Some Good Questions

Hey Everyone

A family member of mine recently posed two good questions to me in relation to several aspects of the developing world. They are both very applicable to several aspects of my work here, so I wanted to pass these questions and answers on to you as well.

Please note that I do no claim to answer these questions as an expert on the subject, but am merely sharing my observations. Additionally, what is happening in my village should not be taken to broadly represent what is taking place across West Africa. But it is a clue as to how many Gambians in and around my area are handling these two issues in particular.

Question 1: I've read recently that there's a huge potential in improving the human waste logistics: latrines. Etc. And thus avoid a number of deadly diseases across the developing world. How is this thing handled in your village?

Sanitation is a problem. In my village each family compound has several "latrines" or holes in the ground used for "waste disposal." If you check out the pictures of my backyard you will get a good idea what they look like. It's basically just a hole dug about six feet into the ground and then reinforced with cement around the sides to keep it from caving in. This is the toilet system.

The good part to this system is that it is locally sustainable and as long as people are careful to keep them located a good distance away from the community wells, the water quality itself isn't really compromised. The problem is the lack of the use of toilet paper and the lack of hand washing...ever. So basically when the people finish doing their thing they rinse themselves off with a kettle of water using their left hand.

The importance of using the right hand, and the right hand only, for doing things such as shaking hands, eating, and such is very important because of what they use their left hand for.

But because people don't wash their hands with soap and hot water, no matter what they think, their hands, both their hands, are always really dirty. So as men and women shake hands and such, tons of germs are spread all over the place. As women cook and work with food, germs are spread into everything. And all this is on top of working with livestock, working in the dirt, and the constant exposure to the manure from their goats, cows, sheep, chickens and anything else that wanders through the compound past the kitchen or is carried in the air.

After a while you just kind of become desensitized to how dirty everything really is, and it doesn't seem that big of a deal. But now that I write about it and think about it again, it really is a hot bed for disease. (writers note: I always have toilet paper available) (And I wash my hands frequently with soap.)

But yes, because of this, it is very common to frequently get dysentery and guiardia no matter how careful or clean you try to be. In the West both of these diseases can be treated very easily with some pills, salt, rest and staying hydrated. But here, the leading causes for death among children are diarrhea and large part due to the uncleanliness.

Question 2: The other question relates to energy crops: one new possibility to raise energy crops that don't compete with food is a plant called jathropa. It yields poisonous oil that can be used as a feedstock for making diesel and it can be grown on a very dry land where probably other crops would not thrive. Have you come across jathropa, or any other stuff of such kind?

In regard to jathropa, yes, I am familiar with it. There is actually an organization/co-op here in the Gambia trying to spread word of the potential uses and development options with jathropa. Right now it is a fairly new concept, but the organization (I forget the name) is trying to encourage farmers to plant it around their fields as a way to help prevent erosion, and then having those crops harvested.

Some of the main problems they are facing is 1) The lack of a a clear system to collect the beans so they can be processed. Apparently it is best for the beans to be processed ASAP, otherwise it loses a lot of the potential oil. 2) Having the right infrastructure to process and store the oil. 3) Having a clear market for the product once it is processed. 4) In light of the impending food crisis from raising grain and oil prices, the farmers are not very willing to give up any of their land from corn, coos and rice to grow this new crop. Maybe in the years to come farmers will be more open to it, but in these next few immediate years it doesn't seem too likely for farmers to be willing to spare any of their farm land.

But they are now just in the early stages of introducing this as a legitimate product here, so these are problems that can be addressed along the way. When I saw their presentation, they would like to use it primarily to reduce the people's reliance on kerosine for lamps.

Our main fuel for cooking (and heat during the cold season, when it gets down to 70 degrees F and the people here start wearing coats) is firewood. That's one of the reasons why deforestation has become such a big issue here. The booming population is requiring more firewood, but the wood they cut down isn't getting replaced.

One of the ways we are trying to address this is by encouraging what we call "mud stoves." It's basically a small stove made out of mud, clay, and dung that is mixed together and then dried so that it becomes very hard. Before it dries completely it is shaped into basically a U shape so that the cooking bowls and such can sit on top of it, and then the firewood is fed into it from just one opening, while there are several small air vents in the back.

I'm actually glad you bring that up. I will be sure to blog about this more in the future. But basically, but using the "mud stove" it helps contain the heat much more, reduce the smoke that the women are exposed to as they cook, and cuts down on the firewood usage by about 2/3. There are quite a few major benefits to using this for cooking, but, most people aren't too interested in actually making in themselves, they just want one.

Many volunteers work with groups of young guys to make them and then the group of guys sell them as a kind of income generation thing for their group. I've been having a tough time getting people interested in it in my village, but I have been planning with a group of boys to start making them soon. My village is in a part of Gambia that is still quite forested, so they are having a hard time seing the need to preserve the wood when it is available. It's all a part of helping them plan long-term and understand "sustainability." (On a side note, sustainability can be quite a difficult and humbling concept to try to convey coming from the United States, where very little is sustainable.)

The Women’s Garden Fence is Finally Fixed!

It took many, many months of chatting up the issue, talking about the importance of keeping the women’s garden going, pointing out the food they could be eating had they fixed the fence earlier, and finally just dropping the issue on my part and letting things sink in, but the men and women finally organized and have fixed the garden fence so that the fence can actually be used during this rainy season!

After my first several months at site as I tried to talk up the issue and stress its importance, it became clear to me that the fence was not going to get fixed in time for it to really make a difference this dry season. So eventually, for my own good, I just dropped it and moved on to other project ideas. After all, if they are not interested in doing it in the first place, it probably won’t be too sustainable once I leave in a year and a half. So I let it go.

Fortunately, a few weeks ago, somehow the women and men got a renewed interest in the idea of wanting to fix the fence so they can actually use the garden during this rainy season. I’m not really sure what happened or what clicked, but I’d like to think it had something to do with the day I wandered around the village carrying two bundles of barbed wire asking where in the village I could use it, since it obviously wasn’t going to get used at the garden, and I was tired of having it just sitting unused in my back yard.

You see, each afternoon I tend to wander the village and just chat it up with people in the different compounds, getting a feel for what’s going on in town and what the people have on their mind. That day, my carrying two rolls of wire did not go unnoticed. Most all my conversations that afternoon went something like this, in Pulaar:

Them: Saikou, you have barbed wire.

Me: Yes, I do have barbed wire.

Them: What are you doing with the wire?

Me: Actually, I don’t really know. I wanted to use it for the women’s garden, but they don’t want it, so I’m looking for other uses.

Them: Oh.

Me: Yeah. Do you have any ideas?
(At this point I should point out that this day I made sure to visit the compounds of the organizers of the women’s garden.)

Them: (They would then jump into a conversation with each other discussing how they needed to get to work at the garden before I gave the wire away.)

Them: Saikou. They are saying they plan to fix the fence soon.

Me: They have been saying that for a long time. They have wasted an entire growing season, and I don’t feel like wasting another one.

Them: (More rapid-fire talking between the people in the compound.)

Them: Saikou. They plan to fix the fence Saturday. (This was a Wednesday.)

Me: Really? I don’t think they will.

Them: Yes. They will.

Me: Really?

Them: Yes.

Me: Great!

This conversation happened many times that day, and I think I did a pretty good job of getting my point across. As it turns out, they did gather that Saturday to cut new poles to hold up the wire, discussed how to purchase the nails for the wire, and a few days later the men got the wire nailed up around the garden.

So yes, it may have taken six months to get a women’s garden fence fixed, but I learned a ton through this one project. I now have a much more realistic and informed idea about how to address and handle other projects in the future. And I have a much more realistic outlook for how slowly some things take to get done.

But, in the end, the women have a workable garden again! And with a food crisis going on, and only expected to get much, much worse, I’m excited for the potential the women now have for being able to help offset the food their families consume and increase their nutritional intake. It’s not always easy, but it’s rewarding!

New Teacher’s Quarters: A bit of a tragedy with a happy ending

Each community that has a school, such as ours, also has teachers stationed to live in the community to teach at the school. As such, most of the time the school itself has an area with living quarters, since the teachers are moved from community to community at the government’s discretion and, obviously, need a place to live.

Unfortunately, during last year’s rainy season the teacher’s quarters building was hit by what I understand to be a very serious rain and wind storm, and the teacher’s houses collapsed. Since then the school has been facing the dilemma that the Ministry of Education and the government don’t actually have the funds to help Chargel put up new teacher’s quarters, thus pushing the teachers to live in compounds open and willing to take in the school staff for the time-being. While it is great of the community to take on the roll of housing the teachers, it really isn’t their responsibility, and the teachers themselves would prefer to have more private areas of their own where then can get more work done without as many distractions. After having several pleas for financial help declined by the Ministry of Education to help with this dilemma, I worked with the school head master to arrange the construction of 5 new locally-made houses built on the same site as the original teacher’s quarters building. It took quite a bit of pushing, pulling, community meetings and even some guilt trips to convince the members of the community and surrounding area that this was the best solution, and that it wasn’t practical to just keep waiting for money to flow in to pay for the construction of new houses.

(I will insert here that you may notice a trend in my work focused on helping the people of the community and area take on initiative to brainstorm problem-solving ideas for themselves of then implement them on their own, without outside funding or help, in order to keep the solution sustainable and manageable for the people relying on the project/program/solution.)

We spent many Saturdays making mud bricks at the local quarry just outside town. And we spent many more Saturdays building up the mud-brick walls for the houses. It isn’t the most fun job one can do, especially when it is so very hot. But the men were eventually convinced enough of the need for the houses that they were more than willing to devote a huge amount of their time and energy to this project.

We then spent several more weekends cutting branches and grasses to build the roofs. As you have seen from my previous pictures, building thatched roofs is a bit of a job in itself as well. Once the roofs were finished it was time to begin preparing for the backyards and building a fence around the houses. One day a few of the men decided it was a good day to rake up the area behind the houses and burn the area clean. (That’s what they do instead of mulching to get rid of the stuff they rake up when cleaning out yards and fields.) Unfortunately, they picked a particularly windy day to do this cleaning and when they lit the raked up grasses on fire it quickly blew out of control and very easily burned down the roofs to all five houses. It was a bad day.

On top of that, because it has been so dry, there are no more grasses that can be cut to replace the original roofs before the rainy season. But if the mud-brick houses aren’t covered by the times the rains hit, they will quickly melt away. And that would be a big problem. Fortunately, the community was still convinced of the need to finish the houses and protect them before the rains hit. (At this point the first rains were expected within about one week.) The school ended up hiring some local carpenters to fix temporary corrugate roofs for the five houses. It won’t be the best structure, but it will keep the buildings from collapsing on themselves, and it will allow the teachers to finally have their own housing.

Hopefully around this same time next year I will be able to tell you that the teacher’s houses are finally complete, barring any unexpected rain storms intense enough to knock the houses over, tear the roofs off causing the walls to melt in on themselves, or another unexpected fire disaster.

All in all, experiences like this one lead to good “character development” for all of us involved. It’s about learning, accepting and moving on.