Sunday, February 22, 2009

Back to Work

It's been good to be back.

Since I've returned some really good developments have happened in my village, and I can already feel my remaining months here filling up fast! I was kind of concerned about what would happen with the bee-keeping project when I went back to the States and wouldn't be around to keep encouraging it for a few weeks, but it turns out the guys who attended the training are all still really excited about it, and most of them have actually made the grass hives like they were trained to do and ahve gotten them placed in good apiaries. I'm excited about the potential for this in my area, and it's good to see the guys taking strong initiative about something like this.

De-shelling the peanuts and getting them ready to sell at market or plant in the next rainy season.

Also, the skills center in my village, in cooperation with Future in Our Hands (a Swedish development organization), has arranged to have two trainings in the months to come. In March we are doing to have a week-long seminar/discussion thing on "gender issues" in Gambia. I think we are mostly going to focus the discussions on the division of labor, but it's a conversation that the community (well, most of the world) needs to have, and I'm excited to be a part of it. It will be three days long, and some of my female Peace Corps friends are going to come help facilitate it, also. So I'm encouraged for the kind of empowerment that could come from this. Even if habbits don't change all that much, maybe at least they will value sending their children (daughters, especially) to school more, or something along those lines.

A boy dressed as a traditional "konkurang," a figure that scares the evil spirits out of the village.

Then in April we are going to have a tree-nursery and live-fencing workshop. I hope to arrange to work together with the school on this and make it more of an area-wide thing. The only drawback is that April is the WORST month (because of the high temperatures) the workshop will be taking place early morning and late afternoon to accomodate the weather. But that's fine, because it's also just before the rainy season, and really the most appropriate time for this kind of workshop. And it will encourage me to do more than just sit under a tree and sweat!

So these projects, along with being a co-regional coordinator for the Gambia All-Schools Tree Nursery Competition, should keep me occupied through June when the rains come. To note on the Tree Nursery Competition (TNC), a good friend of mine and I are working together as co-regional coordinators. I won't get into it too much since I plan to do a detalied blog entry on it (with pictures) in a few months, but it's basically a program which allows Amy (a good friend or mine who is also a PCV here) and I to visit the schools in our region and talk with them about ways to protect and enhance their tree nurseries and then also give follow-up advice on the outplanting process to help produce the best orchards and such. It's a cool project and, if done correctly throughout the country, could really help with re-forestation, which this country DESPERATELY needs.

But again, you can be expecting a good blog entry on it over the next few months.

Another project that has just picked up since I've been back, is that my host, Lawo, as well as the school in my village, have been accepted to be a part of a nation-wide poultry-production program. In a nut-shell, they will be part of a program looking for "middle-men" to help produce poultry (chickens) locally for the tourist industry, as well as local consumption. A business is in place to import the chicks from Senegal and provide the feed and medical attention. The role of Lawo and the school (as well as many others throughout Gambia) will be to raise the chicks and get them fully ready for consumption within 6 weeks, as opposed to the usual 8 weeks.

Cutting grass for the roof of the new chicken house.

The program has good potential, and each group in Chargel will be raising 500 chickens for four cycles a year, meaning a total of 2000 chickens per year. There is a very good prospect for income generation from this project, granted close care and attention is given to the project. I'm excited to be a part of this project from the begging stages! And I will be sure to give more updates in the months ahead as the project gets under-way.

I hope you are all doing well! I look forward to sending out (hopefully) many updates about these projects in the months to come.

Finishing the day with a football match.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Dear uKNIGHTed class,

Thanks for your questions! Here is an attempt to answer some of them. If my answers don't make sense, don't feel bad asking me to try to answer it again or give a more in-depth explanation.

"What made you want to join the Peace Corps?"

The long and short of it is... during my junior year of college at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, where I studied to get my bachelor degrees in political science and economics, I studied abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark. I studied at the University of Copenhagen for my full academic year as a part of an "International Political Systems" program. The way my class schedule worked out, I had each Wednesday free and wanted to do some type of volunteer work/service to fill my time. I ended up working with the Red Cross in Copenhagen, and I ended up working in a special program they had designed to try to help refugees and assylum-seekers who were in Denmark. I basically spent my Wednesdays working with refugees, primarily from Iraq, Afghanistan, Georgia, Syria and Egypt, teaching them English and basic skills they could use to promote their efforts looking for a job in Copenhagen. I fell in love with this work, and was extremely touched at how I was able to build such strong relationships with people from Iraq and Afghanistan who had fled their homes and lives because of being at war with my own country.

So when that academic year was finished and I was back at Luther for my senior year, I decided that I wanted to postpone my original plans of pursuing law school and spend some time doing more work, specifically development work. I already knew I wanted my experience to be long-term, and not like a 6 week internship. I also knew I was interested in working overseas. The Peace Corps offered the best option for work overseas, long-term, with only a bachelor's degree. I ended up taking a position working specifically as an "agro-forestry volunteer." But the bulk of my work isn't actually focused on agriculture itself as much as it is focused on micro-business development in an agricultural setting. So, for example, one of my biggest projects has been working with bee-keeping; helping run trainings for the men and my area to learn how to begin the process of bee-keeping themselves.

"Did you have to learn any languages? Or have you learned any since you've been there?"

The Gambia has three main ethnic groups, the Wolofs, Mandinkas and Fulas. Gambia itself is actually an "English speaking country" from the days when it was a colony of the British empire. However, once you get out of the bigger towns, it becomes quite apparent that most people don't know English, and if they do, they still probably speak their own tribal language a majority of the time.

The village where I live and work, Chargel, is about 3/4 they way east into the country. If you look at a map of Gambia, my village is about 10k east of Bansang, or 40k west of Basse. My village is very rural, and there are very few people in my village who speak English. The main ethnic group of the part of the country where I live is teh Fula tribe, so I speak Fula.

As a part of our training, before we actually become volunteers and begin our service, we are required to meet an "intermediate-medium" level of language ability in whichever of the three languages we were assigned to. We are all assigned to learn the language of one of the major ethnic groups, depending on where we will be living. So I speak Fula, and I actually speak it pretty well, since most people in Chargel cannot speak English.

"Do your family and friends support you?"

Yes. My parents, family and friends are very excited about the work I'm doing. Of course my mom is always a bit concerned about my safety... after all, Gambia does have heyenas, leopards, crocodiles, hippos, baboons, bush-pigs, several kinds of cobras, other poisenous snakes and insects, and it's very, very hot. But, my family and friends know I'm really enjoying this experience and encourage me to enjoy each day as it comes and to not rush through this experience, planning for whatever will come next. Sometimes I have a bit of a hard time "stopping to smell the roses."

"What do you do in your free time?" and "What is the food like?"

Well, I guess that depends on how you see "free time." Technically, the entire two years of my service are left up to me to get to know my village, assess their greatest needs and the projects with the greatest potential, and pursue programs that I think would be in the best interest of the community as a whole. That kind of work-structure means I can basically do anything I want. So, a typical day of mine is something like this...

I wake up at about 5am, when the roosters and donkeys start waking up. As The Gambia has a predominantly Muslim population and my community is entirely Muslim, at 6am we have the morning "call to prayer." By 6:30 I can hear the women working to prepare a breakfast of either ground millet (think bird-seed) or boiled whtie rice. I turn on BBC world news (radio) around 7, to see what is going on in the world. We have breakfast around 7:30 or 8, and then head out to the fields to take care of whatever work there is do be done. During the rainy season (June-Sept) the morning work usually revolves around the fields, such as planting and weeding. The rainy season is followed by the harvesting season (Sept-Dec), where each morning is spent harvesting the crops, gathering them and preparing them to be stored through the year. The rest of the year is the dry season (Jan-May). This is the time of year when we will work to repair fences, build new houses (out of mud bricks), put up new roofs (out of grass) and take care of the work that is best taken care of when it is dry.

Usually the morning work is done around noon, and we have a lunch of white rice and peanut sauce (think boiled peanut butter with onions, peppers and fish added in).

Most afternoons are usually too hot to work, so this is what I consider my "free time." Sometimes I use this time to wander the village (of about 800 people) and chat with the men and women about what they are up to. I try to keep a good feeling of what the village has going on, in terms of births, weddings and such, and they enjoy knowing that I'm interested in their personal lives. This is also when I usually have a good chance to bounce ideas around to see if development ideas I have (such as bee-keeping) is something the men and women there would be interested in. They will also share ideas they have with me, and I will get a good feel for projects the village is probably most likely to pretend to be interested in (because they don't want to tell me I have a bad idea...such as trying a new crop), as opposed to ideas they will actually be interested in (because they know many people in the community will benefit from it...such as when we had a training/demonstration to make a mosquito repellant cream by boiling local leaves.)

Once the sun starts setting, I wrap up my conversing and head to the football (soccer) field to meet up with the local guys and either train or play against the guys from a neighboring village.

Once the sun sets I head back to my hut and my host family. I will usually spend the evening just hanging out with them, chatting about stuff we did during the day, or projects coming up. I usually ask alot of questions to try to have a better understanding of what's going on, such as holidays and special events.

But, some afternoons, if it's just too hot to be out wandering or if I want to have more "down" time, I usually read. I probably get through about a book a week, and I had a great time reading the entire Harry Potter series with practically no interruption, and no waiting for the next book to come out!

I also hang out with the little kids. They teach me games and songs, and I teach them the alphabet and stuff like that. I usually just end up getting laughed at, but we always have a good time.

"Best and worst part of what you do?"

Best would be getting to build relationships and friendships with the people in my community.
Worst is probably the overall climate. During April and May the temperatures will get to be about 130-140F, with humidity, and that is just very, very unpleasant.

"Is being in Gambia lonely?"

No. Sometimes I practically crave interraction with other Peace Corps volunteers so that I can have a conversation purely in English, and at a level I am more accustomed to. But I wouldn't say that I am ever really lonely. As far as that goes, I've never really been homesick either.

One big reason may be because I have a dog named Khiva. She is a GREAT friend to me, always keeps me up-beet and enjoying the moment. It's completely against the norm for Gambians to have dogs as a pet, so it has been a great experience for me to teach them how to treat a dog as a friend, and not just an animal. She has been a great asset to my time here, and it's probably thanks to her that I enjoy it so much, even on the down days.

"Do Gambian people have traditional clothes or do they dress "like us"?"

For the most part, they have traditional clothes. I encourage you to check out the pictures on my blog (the "My Pictures" link) to get a good feel for the kinds of clothes they wear. Most of the fabric they wear is imported, but the styles for the clothing are done by local tailors. Almost each town, no matter how small, has a tailor who can sew the traditional clothing for men and women.

On the flip side, it is becoming more and more popular to wear "American" clothes. It is really easy to find knock-off soccer jerseys, and what basically amounts to iron-on shirts with pictures of people like Britney Spears, 50 Cent, M & M, and the Dixie Chicks. Something I've noticed alot of but don't fully understand the process of is that apparently the clothes that gets donated to places like Goodwill eventually end up getting sold by local "store owners" here to the Gambian people at rather expensive prices, as they make a business out of "dressing American."

As far as answering questions directly about the culture and Peace Corps experience, I'm going to need to put a bit more thought into how I answer those so that I can relay a full answer without writing a book. But I really do encourage you to check out stories and pictures on my blog, which help relay character-building experiences I've had and different things I've learned about the culture and way of life here. There's a ton on my blog, so even if you just skim through the different months you should be able to come across a few things here and there that help answer those questions. And quite honestly, those are questions I'm still learning the answer to, day-by-day.

"Are you interested in continuing your volunteer work in Africa after you finish this time in Gambia?"

My service in the Peace Corps ends at the end of November, 2009. I'm interested in going to graduate school to study "conflict and security resolution" or "state-building." And I'm also still interested in going to law school. (preferably at the same time) But before I continue to graduate school I'd like to work for a year or so on a refugee camp, learning about refugee camp management. This is an area/field I have a great interest, but would like to get some first-hand experience in before I head back to school. Down the road I would like to work with running the day-to-day logistics of refugee camps and resettlement projects, specifcally in Middle Eastern and North-African countries.

Thanks for your questions! I hope these answers help you get a better understanding of the work I'm doing and the life I live here.

Thanks again! Until next time, take care.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Ready to Hit the Ground Running...

Hey Everyone!

Well, I'm glad to be back in Gambia and get this last year of service underway. I've been enjoying this first week back visiting some friends, attending some meetings and just kind of getting my bearings straight again and back in "Gambian" mode before I head up to Chargel later this week.

I can honestly say it's nice to be back in Gambia. Not only is the weather fantastic right now (in the mid 80s each day), but I really do enjoy the people and my way of life here, and it's exciting to think of how much I would like to get done during this down-hill slope of my service.

Throughout the rest of my service I will most likely be focusing on working with Chargel's women's groups, continuing to promote bee-keeping with men in my area and helping out (where possible) at the school. I'm also a part of a nation-wide program promoting schools to plant trees (fruit orchards and such) through "The Gambia All-Schools Tree Nursery Competition." It's a fun initiative that I'm happy to be a part of.

Of course other projects and ideas will come up along the way, but as I'm now looking to see what I can take from my first year of service to help it become sustainable through when I'm gone, it appears that focusing on these projects and ideas will be the best areas for me to promote through these last 9ish months.

Another fun project I've just picked up is connecting with a class back in the U.S. who is now a part of the "Coverdell World Wise Schools Program" (CWWSP)

Basically, this means I now have a class I am officially pen-pals with. I happen to be paired with a class of high school students from Illinois. Apparently the class had a special awareness program last fall to bring attention to the rest of the school's students about the on-going crisis in Darfur, Sudan. After their awareness-program they decided they wanted to connect with a Peace Corps volunteer serving in Africa in order to learn a bit more about the culture, lifestyle, hardship, etc... currently going on in Africa. And I'm very pleased to have this new school connection as a great outlet to help share the experiences and lessons I've learned during my time here in Gambia.

One of the main ways I can connect with the students and help them understand the way of life here for Gambians and myself is obviously through sharing questions and answers back-and-forth via email. Additionally, whenever possible, I will go ahead and post their questions and my answers on this blog, in addition to what I send them via email. It just seems appropriate that you might also be thinking of the same kind of questions. And it's a great way for me to keep this blog updated with new stuff, and not just continuous rundowns on what I'm up to from day-to-day.

I hope the winter weather is treating you well, and until next time, enjoy!