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.