Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Oh Don'cha Know

Apparently I have an accent. It has been revealed to me over these past few days.

I had always been wondering about that. If my pronunciation of words comes across well, or if I'm butchering their language. I try to say words and phrases as I hear them, but as anyone who has studied a foreign language knows, it's easier said than done. (actually, I think that's an oxy-moron in this case, oh well...)

I have some experience with this. When I moved to Iowa I was relentlesly reminded that I say "boot" instead of "boat," for example. And during my summer living in New England I became ever grateful that the Midwest still puts "r"s in their words.

I know their are certain verb congugations I still struggle with, some irregular past-tense phrases that get me confused. And of course there is always more to learn. More vocabulary. More structure. But for the first almost three months here, people have been very generous and just kind of pretend like I'm doing a good job, but encouraging my efforts.

But lately the truth has come out. Children, adults, and even old ladies (who I'm convinced are trying to flirt with me...but again, that's a whole nother blog entry), they have all started revealing the truth...I have an accent. My words do, in fact, come out differently than I realized.

This is most obvious when doing greetings. In this culture, as I have written about before, greetings are very important and take up alot of time. And I'm in the lucky language of Pulaar which answers them all "jam tan." (peace only) Only, they don't hear me say "jam tan." They hear me say "cham tan," which is like saying "gibberish only." And they think it is very, very funny. And since I speak Pulaar, I speak "gibberish only" all the time.

One Fence, Two Fence. Red Fence, Blue Fence.

Working in a manner consistent with upholding cultural sensitivities and a reliance on grass-roots community organization often proves frustrating. I want to explain one example of why.

I must admit, as a PC volunteer I was quite fortunate to come into a village with several projects currently on-going from the previous volunteer. We are highly, highly encouraged to spend the first three months or so in village focused on improving our language skills, integrating into the community, and, in some form or another, conducting a needs-assessment; generally plotting out what THEY see as their biggest needs, compared to what I see as their biggest needs. Sometimes the results are a bit interesting, such as "Do you really need solar pannels to power light at the school when they are built to provide ample natural lighting?" or "Do you really need another well?" But can also be very eye-opening, such as "Yes, it IS a problem that your closest health/medical facility is two hours away...by donkey cart."

Nevertheless, I was fortunate tp get to see my community already at work with projects from the previous volunteer, which gives me the additional opportunity of observing how they work and organize themselves.

Today's lesson is brought to you from the community women's garden. (With honorable mention going to the community skills center.)

Two years ago (and two volunteers ago, which isn't normal, but that's besides the point), the community decided one of its greatest pressing needs was the need for a plot of land the women could work to help provide food and maybe even extra income for the family.

I'm not sure of the details, but a good chunk of land was set aside for them to use quite near my house. The volunteer at the time helped them arrange funding for a fence and two wells. You see, the point of the garden is for it to be a year-round garden, producing the much needed food during the heavily felt "hungry season." During the rains growth of anything is not a problem. Trees, fruits, vines, vegetables, parasites, rashes and mosquitoes all flourish! But as the grounds dry up, the soil turns to cement. Nothing grows. Hence, the great value of a year-round, water supplied, garden! It's exciting! It has great potential!

Enough money came in to put up the fence and two wells last winter. It is a wood-post fence with lines of barbed wire around. The two wells work very well, and several prople have been trained to repair any problems that may arise. Unfortunately, at the end of the rainy season (or around then), several ground posts loosened, the barbed wire sagged, and by the end of December, about the time I got there, the goats and cows had devoured whatever wasn't harvested by then. Luckily, harvest for the rainy reason is in November, so I don't think too much was lost.

But the goats and cows needed to go, and the fence needed to be repaired before a successful "dry season garden" could get underway.

So we had a meeting. Meetings itself are a whole other blog workth or writing (and on my list of topics to cover). Needless to say, they are long. Hours long. They involve many prayers and several thank-a-thons about "how good it is that we are meeting to talk about..." Usually there is some shouting involved. And there is always someone who stomps away angry, but comes back.

As I said, I'll write more about "meetings" another time. But know they are not often very fun, though certainly entertaining. And guess what the meeting concluded after several hours of talking? That is was indeed important to fix the fence.

Ok. So I was brand new. Not exactly sure what that meant or what would happen next. I was optimistic. We had had a meeting with a good resolution!

So I waited. And I waited. Weeks went by and nothing happened. I chatted regularly with people in the village, and especially those who headed organizing it initially, about the need to fix the fence, and they always agreed that it was, in fact, important. "Eye, joni o ko moyyani sabu si hebani nako joni, hebani ledde y legumaagi yeeso." (Yes, now it is very bad because if we can't have a garden now we won't have fruits and vegetables later.) And I would reply, "Eye, joni o ko moyyani nobete. Si fala hebbi o por namat yeeso, o wadi o joni joni!" (Yes. Not it is very bad. If you want to have food to eat later the fence must get fixed now!) And on it went. But nothing happened.

So I called another meeting. Once again the issue was raised in the same fashion and the same conclusion was drawn. And once again, I waited as nothing happened. And as weeks passed, it was clear that if the purpose of this garden (to grow crops during the dry season) was to be successful, they needed to get planted now. But they didn't get planted. And I kept waiting.

And finally, with yet another meeting, the picture became clear. The women were not going to cut down more posts to repair the rence because that is a man's job. And the men would not do it because it is a women's garden. And the Pulaar culture draws a fine line between what is man's work and what is women's work. It's not enterchangeable. And it's deeply engrained.

So there it sat. A perfectly good piece of land, evenly separated into garden beds for all the women involved, as well as one for me (in the middle, like a demonstration plot), and two wells. It all just sat there, the fence getting worse and the ground getting fertilized by cows and goats (not a complete loss). And we were all at a standstill.

I was growing quite frustrated. But a big philosophy with Peace Corps is not to do something the village won't do, beacuse that's not sustainable. So, tempted as I was to work at it, I just had to watch the fence get worse and the garden fail. So much potential. So much lost.

Then, something happened. At a skills center meeting they brought up that they think it would be a great project to fence in all the area around the skills center and start growing fruit and nut tree orchards. I told them it was a great idea, because it is. We chatted about the possibilities for the community and for the income generation. We were all very excited about the possibilities.

Then, I dropped the bomb. "Mi ala windat por o si nako hebaani." (I won't help you write a proposal to have a fence until the garden is fixed.) (And that's a big deal.)

They were shocked. I then stup up, which suggests something very important to say , and proceeded into a lecture on responsibility. I don't need to rehash it all here, but I made it clear to them that while they fully understand the purpose of the women't garden, they let it sit idle and go to waste because they wouldn't work together. And that I found that completely unacceptable if I am going to be working with them in the future.

I also then got into how they requested a garden because they saw it as a need, for food and for income, and they reaffirmed that the need still exists. And I finally brought up that when they do projects a big part of my role in the village is to keep help make sure the projects are sustainable. Therefore, until I saw a greatly renewed interest in keeping-up the garden, I was not willing to help them get another fence. (And in Pulaar!)

Then I sat down, and waited. Wouldn't you know it, within minutes it was decided that the women should gather more/new posts and the men would repair it and put up more wire. Fascinating!

I'm still waiting for the "work day." And they are still waiting for me to help them with a proposal for a new fence. But at least we have a new understanding. I think they have a better idea of who this PCV is. And I now have a much better understanding of the hurdles, challenges, and learning opportunities before me for the next few years.

A Mouse in the House

There's a mouse living in my ceiling. Yes, I do actually have a ceiling. There are 20or so (ok, 22, I counted) rice bags sewn together covering the inside of my roof, preventing dust and grass from falling as quickly and generally keeping it cleaner.

But shortly after moving in I started to hear at night the little 'patter-patter-scurry,' which means mouse. Oh his defense, I must say he is actually quiet most of the time. He's never woken me up. I've only heard him either late in the evening (around 9pm, which is now late for me) and early in the morning (around 5am).

We've never actually had a run-in, but I like to think it's a mouse. From watching the ceiling move, which I've done often, it seems too small to be a rat.

None-the-less, when first moving in, getting me settled and him out were two of my top priorities. I tried traps. I tried poison. I tried different sprays. I even tried making my own contraptions to eliminate his feel of welcome. But to no prevail. At one time I even had 6 sets of poison throughout the house and ceiling (of 1 room!) and he didn't seem fazed or slowed one bit.

So I have now lost hope in him moving out, and I'm staying. So I guess now we're housemates in Gambia. In fact, sometimes I wonder if maybe we were supposed to cross paths, to enter eachother's lives for a purpose, for a lesson. Sometimes I wonder if he is only existing in my Larium mind. (Our anti-malaria medication is known to sometimes produce hallucinations and vivid dreams as a possible side effect.)

Or maybe I've come across a distinct breed of mouse that just can't be pushed out, deterred or removed. And maybe that's the lesson! Or maybe that's the Larium... or the heat...

In any event, I'm now taking suggestions on what to name him!

(author's note: Since the original writing, I have in fact seen the mouse peek his face out from behind the ceiling and can now confirm that it is, in fact, a mouse. Or Larium.)

Current Events Club

I am now leading a current events club!

I realized that many of my host brother Saikou's friends (a bunch of guys in their 20s) like to hang around our compound each afternoon and just chat while the heat of the day passes. When I sit out with them they are always full of questions and misconceptions about the United States, so I decided to make a better effort to help improve their knowledge of what is going in on the world and started an afternoon Current Events Club. Our current events club is very informal, but basically we sit around under the mango tree, they cook attaya, read or flip through my Newsweeks, and then ask me questions about either what they see in the Newsweeks, what they hear on BBC and other radio stations, or just ideas they have heard from others about America. And I politely answer their questions and try to help them understand different concepts about the US, Europe and the West in general.

Some main concepts we are working on right now:
-Europe and the United States are two different things
-The United States and America are two different things
-how it is that the US is strong enough to fight two different wars at the same time
-why we invaded Iraq (that's been an interesting one for me to try to answer)
-why the US doesn't want Iran or North Korea to have nuclear weapons when the US has them (also an interesting one to try to answer...in Pulaar)
-and then more basic concepts, like distances, the size of the United States, the fact that just because you are white doesn't mean you are wealthy, and other questions that come along.

So, it isn't so much as class as it is a time when I encourage them to think about what they do know and what they have heard and ask me questions about it. And we do this several times each week. Of course, I am usually always willing to help answer questions about the US. But, strangely enough, it can get a bit draining. So this is a time I am able to be psyched up for, and mentally in the zone to try to answer difficult concepts in Pulaar, and many of the same questions over and over. And hey, it also allows me to say I have a Current Events Class!