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.