Saturday, February 9, 2008

I finally have pictures!

That's right. I've finally uploaded some pictures from my experiences and village life. You can check them out at the link on the side of this page.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Christmas in January meets MLK for President

Hello Again Family, Friends and Avid Readers!

(Disclaimer: This posting is quite long, but very interesting I assure you. You may not be able to read it in one sitting, but hey, maybe you can make up some popcorn, grab a soda and just enjoy a vicarious time in The Gambia!)

First of all, I want to thank you for the very generous Christmas packages sent my way. Due to some transportation and logistics problems I didn't end up actually getting it until the end of January, but I celebrated Christmas again when the gifts showed up, none-the-less! I feel quite blessed with a wealth of letters, games, books, coffee, tea, drink mixes, spices, food, beef jerkey, and even some pictures. Thank you! Additionally, the packages showed up just in time for my friends and I to have some fun food an "MLK for President" party we had at the end of January. More to come on that later...

My past month has gone by quite well. I finally am getting to a point where I am feeling more settled, more into a routine that somehow makes sense, and just generally more comfortable what what is going on around me...the changes, the differences, and the expected stressful and/or challenging moments. Many, many, "character building" moments occur around here...each and every day.

A few highlights from the past month:
The skill center in my village has been taking great initiative and wants to dry to branch out their skills into micro-business development. Perfect! As I explained to my parents on the phone, one of the hardest parts of the projects I do is waiting for them to have ideas that they want to pursue, instead of me just giving them ideas of what they could do. Pretty much everything I do and say is taken as gold, which can be great for teaching and exchanging skills, but can be quite dangerous if I start getting them into something they really aren't interested in or that just won't work for the area, and they won't tell me because they are just too polite to the new white man.

In any case, they are interested in small-enterprise development, which is perfectly up my alley. Currently they make soap, jewelry, hand bags, and tie-die fabric for table cloths, clothing and a few other small projects. There is a village about two hours away from mine by bike, 3 by horse cart, and 3.5 by donkey cart that has several tourist camps on it. The skill center officers and I are meeting with several of the tourist camps and some store owners on Monday to check into a possible venue for selling their local crafts. Hopefully something positive will work out with that. Then we can work on quality control, improvement and developing some marketing strategies. But keep in mind that since this is Gambia, it will all happen very slowly...

Currently one of the skill center officers is teaching literacy classes to adults in the community. He's my closest counterpart here in the village, and one of the only adults I've met who can actually read and write! But he cannot speak English, so my ability to speak Pulaar is very important. And yes, my language is coming along.

Once he is done teaching the literacy classes I am organizing to teach English classes. I get requests from people almost every day that they really want to learn English, so that's what I will teach first. Keeping in mind that most people here cannot read or write (unless they are taking the current literacy class), the lessons will be all verbal. Basically I plan to reverse the way I learned Pulaar, starting with teaching them greetings in English, some important phrases, like how to introduce yourself or ask to buy something, numbers, and just take it from there. I really have no idea what to expect as far as results from the class, but I'm sure it will be fun, we will laugh alot, and in the end it will probably improve my language skills here.

One need I have noticed that I want to work on is their lack of basic understanding of financial management. This is greatly due to the fact that people can't read or write, so bookkeeping just doesn't happen. Completely understandable, but potential for improvement. I'm still not exactly sure how this will work out or how this will be organized, but my main focus will be to help them understand something such as... "When you harvest your ground nuts (peanuts) you are able to sell them at the local lumo (market) for between 400-800 delasi, depending on the market rate. (Which is plummeting worldwide...) At any rate, once you sell the groundnuts you then have funds for children school fees, food, clothing, goats, chickens and emergencies such as medicine and transportation. However, if you spend your money to buy attaya (a local tea that everyone drinks, highly culturally important), cigarettes, and candy each day (which they do) you will soon find yourself out of money. However, if we make this graph that looks at how the money can be saved by buying less attaya, cigarettes, or candy, you soon see that you will have enough money to be able to buy a goat. And once you are able to save up for a second goat you can get many goats! And once you sell many goats you can buy many many chickens for eggs and meat. And then you can sell the eggs and keep buying more chickens and actually have meat (protein) on a somewhat regular basis!"

So I get really excited about this and a bit carried away. But there really is alot of potential, and I think a great need for just a better understanding of finances, saving and the potential of what money can buy. (yep, some of the problems here are the same as the States...fiscal responsibility)

Once the classes are done we will be getting close to the rainy season (May-June) and I will then be working with several farmers to promote more mango, cashew, lemon and lime promotion. The volunteer before me worked quite hard to get farmers interested in the potential with mango orchards, so I am going to just work with the same 10 or so farmers he worked with last year (including my own host father) to help make sure they are off to a good and secure start. Moreover, one of the underlining goals with the cashew and fruit tree promotion is to slowly convince the farmers to switch out their peanut fields with orchards. Partly because the country is borderline desert...desert in the dry season, a jungle in the rainy season. But the added trees would greatly improve the soil quality for the surrounding fields of coos and maize. But equally critical is that the world trading price for peanuts just keeps dropping. They used to be able to sell a big bag of peanuts at a lumo to traders for about 800 delasi (just a few years ago) and it is now down to about 300. It's a highly physically demanding job and the payout just isn't good. Slowly converting to something like cashews, which ARE selling well and also produce a nutricious fruit they can consume for their own Vitamic C would be a great step in the right direction.

And once the rainy season hits I'm sure I will be busy in the fields helping out where I can and otherwise just learn by watching. I'm not really sure what will happen after that. But as far as my Peace Corps projects are concerned, this is where my energy has been, is and will be focused for the near future.

Aside from the labor involved Peace Corps work, integrating into my host family and community has been going very smoothly. I constantly feel very blessed at how I am accepted so openly, treated so well and able to interact with people so comfortably. Of course there are moments, but as I've discussed with several good friends from Peace Corps I've made here, it often seems like our public Peace Corps role is somewhere between being famous, a political figure, and constantly a VIP. This is simply because everyone, whether they know you or not, and whether they have any reason or not, everyone wants to talk to Peace Corps volunteers, and basically white people in general. Everywhere I go I accumulate a possee of children following me from place to place. I am always asked the same questions, bugged about the same topics, told that I should give them money, candy, bottels or just take them to "Toubabadou" with me. Very frequently I am offered wives by families who really want me to take their 12 year old daughter back to the States and don't understand how much is wrong with that... But part of my job is to always be polite, calm and put on a good face for the U.S.

Luckily, most of these things only happen when I leave my village and go places where people don't know me. Within my village I always have a posse of children following me, but the conversations are usually of genuine interest and respectful towards me.

My host family is great. I have explained a bit about them in previous emails and blog posts, but the family members themselves, as well as a few of the officers from the skill center, are definately my closest friends in village and those who I work with most regularly. My host father is one who actually gets it, and readily sees opportunities and tries to diversify his projects. For example, one project Peace Corps is working on alot here is a poultry project, helping families build chicken houses and raise chickens either for direct or for the eggs. The Peace Corps is working with a foundation to help families finance the initial start-up costs and get the projects running. And my host, Lawo, is the only one in the village getting into it. Unfortunately, because of the rural area that I'm in, and quite frankly, how poor the community is, he probably won't make much money. However, he did the project last year and was able to sell enough chickens to pay off the expenses, and then they just ate the rest. Not bad! That way they are basically getting free proteine and eggs! Lawo and I are going to get the new shipment of chickens on Sunday, so that should be a fun project to have going in the compund.

He also recently baught a few ducks, hoping to get more ducks and eggs. Have you ever seen water foul in the desert? I have! And it's funny. But we dug them a little pond (side note: I've always wanted a pond, almost all my life, and now I finally have one) and the ducks really seem to enjoy it.

So, to date, my compound has two horses, one donkey, many (evil) goats, many (annoying) sheep, two ducks, a truckload of chickens, two dogs and a cat. All that, combined with 5 children all under the age of 10 make for an entertaining, and often hilarious time.

Lately I have still been working alot side by side with Lawo and the other two men of our compound, Bah Fodi and Saikou (my name-sake). They are Lawo's older and younger brother. Bah Fodi, as the oldest man in the compound, should be the head, but since he is deaf it was defalted to Lawo, the next oldest. Saikou is about my age and we get along very well.

Just a few days ago Saikou, a few of his friends and myself went to a nearby village to help another of their brothers build a new kitchen. This other brother is getting married, and as a part of the process he needs to give back to the family that his wife is coming from, so we built them a mud-brick kitchen with a thatched roof. It was a really fun experience, even though I didn't get to work much. The work started by tearing down the old mud kitchen, but after a few minutes they told me I should just watch so that I didn't get hurt. Then we started pounding up the rubble to make it into new cement, but they told me it was dangerous since little pieces were flying around, and that I should just sit and watch. Then when we went to the field to cut the grass for the roof, I was told that it was dangerous since I wasn't familiar with the tools, and that it was too hot so I should just sit and watch. It got a bit frustrating, reallly, but in the end I just sat and watched. I came to realize though that often times the novelty of hosting a "toubab" is so exciting that they really don't care what I do. I'm a young white man who can speak their language. So instead of having me work the head of the compound took me around to all of his friends to show off that I came to help, and that he got to host me. Hospitality is very important here, and I am always treated with the best VIP treatment. While I was told to just sit and watch, I was escorted around and constantly offered bread and coffee. They really didn't have the funds to treat me to that, but I was honored that they did. And I know it was very important to them.

In other news, it is getting hotter here already. Apparently May and June are the hottest months, at the very beginning of the rainy season. During the day it gets up to about 100 and down to about 80 at night. Sad to admit it, but 80 actually feels a bit chilly at night. I know that as I write this you are getting clammered in a blizzard, and it's a bit ironic that I get chilly in 80 degree temps. But I guess that just means I'm adjusting well when I sit around the fire with them at night! :)

I am actually starting to get into a daily routine, which is nice. It's nice to have at least something during the day be a bit predictable, though not always. I get up around 5:30 when I hear the Mosque's call to prayer go off. Around 6:30 I actually get out of bed, make some coffee of tea, listen to BBC World News, stretch and do some sit-ups and push-ups. At 8 I open my front door and greet the compound. Greeting is culturally very important. We have breakfast around 8:30, and then work around in the fields or compound until lunch which comes sometime between 12:00 and 3:00. Then it is HOT, so we just sit around, chat and make attaya...which they will hopefully cut back on soon, but I doubt it. I also spend quite a bit of time in the afternoons reading and writing. Then by 5 the temps are cooling so I water some trees, take a bucket bath, listen to BBC World News again, and hang out with the family for the rest of the evenings. Often times this schedule is split up with trips to visit a friend, go to a lumo for something, have a meeting at the skill center, or visit a neighboring village to meet the people that the volunteer before me worked with. I try to keep things varied up a bit. It helps the time go by with a bit more excitement.

So far I have also been blessed with good health. Not to jinkx anything, but I've been doing quite well, getting a good amount of exercise, and getting into better shape than I think ever before. (yes, mom, I've lost some weight. but nothing to worry about. but if you're really concerned you can send some beef jerkey or soups my way!)

Let's see, I know this email is very, very long. But you don't have to read it all in one sitting, if you even want to read it at all, so i'm going to keep typing because right now I actually have computer access and no line of people behind me.

I'll try to answer a few quesions that apparently my parents get most frequently:

Food: My diet is something like this... Coos with moringa sauce or rice porridge for breakfast. Rice with peanut sauce for lunch. And coos with moringa sauce again for dinner. (often times the breakfast is left over from dinner the night before) Sometimes this is switched up a bit with some vegetables, fish or chicken in the peanut sauce at lunch, but other than that, that's about the extent of the diet here. Coos, if you're not familair is in the cereal grain family. In the States it's used as bird feed quite often. But here it's pounded into a find powder, and then a sauce made with either moringa leaves or some kind of bean is poured on top of it. The meals themselves are a communal event. The men all eat together, out of one bowl, and the women and children eat together, out of one bowl. The way it works is that basically everyone sits in a circle around the bowl and eats the food directly in front of them. It sounds a bit different, and kind of unsanitary, but I assure you that once you get used to it it actually makes sense. Most of the people eat with their right hand, but I eat with a spoon.

Bugs: They aren't too bad, yet. My house has good screens over the windows and doors, but the common pests are cock roaches, ants that bite...and hurt...alot, earwigs, mosquitoes, and really big spiders. I spray my house often and keep it swept clean, which helps minimize the bugs, but they are there, and I am there, and somehow we get by.

Heat: Yes, it gets hot during the day. But right now when it gets up to about 100 it just feels hot, but not really hot. Kind of weird. Soon the temps will be reaching about 120 during the peak of the day.
Health: I tend to be pretty health. I get random bug bites, scratches, scrapes and bruises...and I usually don't know where they came from. But I keep them well cleaned and they go away, only to get replaced a few days later.

Bathing: I take a bucket back one or two times a day. Yep, just like it sounds. I stand next to a bucket filled with water that I got earlier from the well, pour water over myself with a cup, lather, rinse, repeat as desired, and when the bucket is empty my bath is done. The hotter it gets, the more frequent I take a bath. I know that also sounds a bit, well, not like me. But it is actually a lot of fun and makes me realize how much water we go through in the States just because it's convenient. Quick side story though, I was sick the day of training when they covered the technicalities of things like filtering water and taking a bucket bath, so the first time I tried it during training village I couldn't understand why the other people at training were talking about how they could take 2 baths with the water from just one bucket, when the water in my bucket was completely soapy when I was done. Turns out, to my surprise, you aren't actually supposed to stand IN the bucket. That was a good lesson to learn.

My hut: It's a square made of mud bricks and has a thatched roof. Once I'm able to get a picture up it will make tons more sense instantly, but that's my house. It is one big room, about 15 feet by 15 feet. When you first walk in the front door there is a door directly on the other side of the house into my back yard. And there is a window on each of the walls without a door. I have a double bed, desk, chair, several trunks (for food and clothes) and a really big floor mat. (Culturally the people here won't walk with their shoes on a rug, since they are used for prayer. So by having a big on on my floor it both adds color and also keeps it clean so that when people stop by they take off their shoes first. It's basically the reverse of a welcome mat. That's right...I'm a thinker! My walls are spotted with a few different world maps and some language training materials.

My backyard is quite big. I have an area full of trees, mostly pigeon pea and moringa olifera, but I also have an orange tree and a palmegranite in their first years of growth. I also have an empty shaded area, which I use for napping in the afternoon. And then there is my latrine/bathing area. Again, pictures will help this all make sense. And I will try to get pictures up soon.

Friends: I have made several really good friends here in Peace Corps. The two closest volunteers from my training group geographically, Brian and Alicia, are fantastic friends and we hang out frequently. I have links to their blogs on mine. We find ways to have fun and take a break from the village life once in a while. For example, at the end of January we had a "MLK for President Party" to celebrate MLK day. We had a caucus and he won. It seemed only fitting. We went to a lumo and baught some beef, straight off the cow, and grilled hamburgers with fries we made from chopped up potatoes, cheese and seasoning. It was fantastic! And it was fun.

So, I've been in Kombo (the capital area) for a few days for meetings with Future In Our Hands, in regards to the plans the skill center wants to pursue. It's now almost 11, so I should probably bring this email to a close and meet up with a few friends. We are planning a trip to the beach for our afternoon activity.

Well, with sunny skies and hot temps, I will bring this email to a close. Thanks again for the wonderful letters and packages sent my way. Of course they are not expected, but they are most definately greatly appreciated!!

I am doing well, and I pray you are as well. And my life and projects are finally starting to form into something that makes sense, and I pray your daily routines, work and projects are also going well.

Until next time, I love you and wish you the best!