Saturday, March 14, 2009

Check This Out!

Hey Everyone!

You NEED to check out Alicia's blog (there is a link to the right of this page and in this blog post itself) and see her most recent videos!

One is of children dancing to the new hit song "Barack Obama."

And another is a detailed description of "taking a bucket bath and the whole bathroom experience."

These two videos basically encapsulate our entire Gambian experience.

Check them out. You will enjoy them immensely!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


So, I just uploaded THREE fairly long blog posts and TONS of pictures. Please note that my first Picasa web album is full, so now I have a second one in order to continue sharing my experience with you through picture.

Thanks again for your emails, letters, thoughts and support!

Until next time, I wish you only the best.

Some Questions and Some Answers

Hey Everyone!

I was really pleased to see so many nice (long) emails in my inbox! I haven’t had time to reply to many of them yet, but a few people had some insightful questions/clarifications that I thought would be good to address here for the benefit of everyone.

(A quick disclaimer: I cover quite a few different topics with several long-winded answers, so you may want to take this blog entry on bit by bit.)

First and Foremost: I’m sorry to have mislead any of you with the Chelsea jersey I’m was wearing in the picture that used to be the "heading" picture of this blog. I am not, nor have I ever been, a Chelsea fan. I am a proud FC Barcelona fan! I don’t care what Real Madrid fans have to say about it, FC Barcelona is the best team in the league. That’s why you lost to us. Remember? (And why we beat Lyon yesterday, 5-2) So stop whining and train harder next time.

(So why the Chelsea jersey? I didn’t want to ruin my FC Barcelona jerseys hiking and rock-climbing in Guinea. And I liked its shade of blue.)

In what way is the current global economic downturn in the West affecting the lives of people in Gambia?

This is a great question. I don’t think I’m fully qualified to answer it, but here are some observations I can share.

The Gambia itself, as you are aware, is a very small but densely populated country. The Government here has been peaceful since gaining its independence from the UK, and has therefore been a safe and stable place for non-governmental organizations and other aid organizations to work. This, in turn, has lead to a very high number of aid organizations for such a small country. Aid organizations work here throughout a variety of areas, such as malaria prevention, HIV-Aids education, small enterprise development, community development, women’s rights and gender equality, education development, healthcare, and even best-care practices for caring for horses and donkeys. Some organizations you may be familiar with that work here include the World Food Program, The United Nations Development Program, UNICEF, Christian Children’s Fund, Future in Our Hands, The Horse and Donkey Charitable Trust, The United Nations High Commission for Refugees, The International Red Cross/Red Crescent, Concern Universal, and the World Wildlife Fund, to name a few of a great many.

There are quite a few opinions I have on the high number of organizations working in such a small country, but my main point with this blog entry is that, typically, during economic downturns, as people watch their incomes a bit more closely and are a bit more “tight”, one area where many save money is by decreasing their donations to aid and charitable organizations. This is a broad statement and assumption, and I don’t have any statistics to back this up, but my impression is that many of the organizations working here in Gambia are working with much tighter budgets than they had originally planned, which, in turn, means whatever skills trainings or projects they had intended for their fiscal year will have to be either scaled back or eliminated altogether.

As far as the day-to-day life of people in my village goes, I can’t say I’ve noticed much of an impact yet from the “global economic downturn.” Quite frankly, most people I work with are subsistence farmers who plan to just make it year-to-year, anyway. Most people don’t have bank accounts or any kind of investment to speak of. More than anything, gas prices and the cost of goods shipped into Gambia, specifically rice, have a great impact on the day to day economic situation of the “average” Gambian farmer. Currently the prices of gas and shipping seem to be in Gambia’s favor, as rice prices have gone down from about 1000 Delasis per bag (of 50 Kilograms, or 100ish pounds) to about 750 Delasis.

However, it’s definitely worth mentioning that the tourism industry is one of the main income generating forces in Gambia. And as far as that’s concerned, the tourism industry here has seen a slight but steady decline over the past several years. Most tourists coming to Gambia come from the UK, Germany or Scandinavia. If their pockets are hit by an economic downturn, my guess is they are probably more likely to take a vacation within Europe than trek down to Gambia.
Moreover, it’s my impression that an economic downturn in the West is more likely to affect developing economies such as Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania, or South Africa, which currently rely on substantial international investors to take on building and infrastructure projects. Those countries also rely on a very strong tourism industry, and as I have mentioned before, for the next few years people’s pockets might be more open to enjoying a national park in the States than experiencing a safari in Tanzania or a trek to Kilimanjaro.

What kind of malnutrition, hunger, or even famine have you witnessed in your village?

I can safely say that I have not witnessed anything I would classify as “famine” here in Gambia. But malnutrition is definitely a problem.

As I have mentioned before, the staples of the diet here include rice, coos (millet), peanuts, cassava, fish, and, to an extent, corn. Most vegetables that people have regular access to include tomatoes, onions and various hot peppers. Fruit tends to be seasonal. Cashew, coconut and baobab fruits are ripe now (February and March). Papaya is also almost ripe, and mangoes should be getting ripe by mid April. For the most part, oranges and bananas are available year round since they just need constant irrigation and can easily be grown in orchards along the river.

So, all in all, the food available is quite decent. In my opinion, the main concerns are two-fold. Yes, you can find most any vegetable here that we are used to in the States, but the vegetables will either be 1) available for a very, very limited time during the year, or 2) too expensive for most families to afford on a regular basis.

For the most part, people in my area rely on rice, coos, peanuts, fish, various leaves (such as baobab or Moringa) and hot peppers for the staples of each meal. The food quantity itself is usually enough, but the nutritional quality of the food, specifically in terms of vitamins and minerals, is greatly lacking. Yes, a bowl of rice and peanut sauce will fill you up. But it will not offer any real nutritional benefits to young, growing children or pregnant women.

However, I can also safely say this is one area where Peace Corps has had a strong emphasis in Gambia. There has been a strong push over the past several years promoting Moringa and Pidgeon Pea trees. These two trees are fast growing, durable, and offer an extremely wide variety of nutritional and health benefits. In fact, the Moringa tree has been named the “miracle tree” by many development organizations because of its potential for enhancing nutritional possibilities in places just like this.

Many agro-forestry and health volunteers have focused a good part of their time in Gambia helping families, women’s groups schools and even hospitals grow Moringa and Pidgeon Pea trees for their own consumption.

For example, the school in Chargel has its own vegetable garden at the school yard. Older students are each assigned a bed to water and care for, and the food is either enjoyed by the students or sold to help cover school finances. A major problem for any gardening attempt in Gambia is the threat of destruction from goats, cows and monkeys, as fencing tends to only last a few years before the weather wears it down and it becomes ineffective. So this year the school has planted two rows of Moringa trees along the current line of the garden fence. That way, by the time the current fence is ineffective, the Moringa will be strong and stable enough to act as a natural barrier to the goats and cows. (Monkeys always find a way through any attempt to keep them out. I think of them as the raccoons of West Africa...just cuter.)

Hopefully efforts such as this, spread throughout the country, will help improve the nutritional quality of the diets here for everyone, from school children, to hospital patients, to families just trying to get by.

Have you experienced any Parliamentary Elections during your time in Gambia?

The leading political party in Gambia is the APRC, lead by His Excelency, The President, Doctor, Professor, Ahlagie Yah-Yah A.J.J. Jammeh.

During my first few months in Chargel I did experience Regional Elections (but not Presidential Elections). Quite honestly, as odd as this may sound coming from someone as enthralled with political science as I am, I really can’t tell you much about the electoral process in Gambia. I know the President has Secretaries of various executive departments, such as the Department of Health, Department of State, Department of Forestry and Department of Education. And I know government representatives are elected from each of the different regions, as well as Regional Governors and Regional Representatives. But I really don’t know the process as to how they are chosen by the APRC to run, how they fundraise, or what the main political platforms are.

Something I did find quite interesting is that on the election day that I did experience, representatives from the Voter Election Commission came to Chargel with a voting box for each of the political parties participating in the election, but not for individual candidates. (Voting for parties over candidates isn’t all that different from the voting process in quite a few European countries or even the US, where you can either vote for a candidate or political party.) From what I understand you must be at least 18 to vote and you must have a voter-registration card or identity card. But since much of the population is illiterate, voting is done through a process by which each person voting puts a marble into the box of the political party they support.

But let me clarify once again, I really don’t know that much about the voting/electoral process in Gambia, or how the various layers of government are actually arranged. That’s really about all I can say on this topic.

Has Gambia been affected at all by the various political issues going on in the other African countries?

That’s true. Since I’ve come to Gambia in the fall of 2007 we have witnessed the devastating political unrest in Kenya during the December of 2007/January 2009. Political tensions in South Africa have reached a critical point. Pirate attacks on aid-cargo ships off the coast of Somalia have reached an all-time high. And much closer to home, Mauritania, Guinea and most recently Guinea Bissau have all experienced various forms of political coups.

I’m sure these events have a significant impact on the way the government of Gambia interacts with the heads of state from other West African countries. But as far as the day-to-day life of people in Chargel, these events have basically just been talking points of interest, especially since many people in the part of Gambia where I live have family in Guinea. (The Fula tribe spreads throughout much of West Africa, and indeed across Africa well into Sudan and even Ethiopia. Moreover, many people have migrated from Guinea and Sierre Leone to Gambia over more recent years.)

Chargel Basic Cycle School's Annual Inter-House Competition

Hey Everyone!

So this past weekend was the “Chargel Basic-Cycle School’s Annual Inter-House Competition.”

It’s the schools annual track and field competition, and it was a blast!

Quick background:

The school in Chargel teaches grades 1-9 to about 400 students from a combination of Chargel and about 12 other surrounding communities. Some students travel up to 7 kilometers a day to and from school, and other students who live futher away than that will stay with families in Chargel during the week for school and then go back to their own families on the weekend. For example, in my family’s compound we have a boy named Marlang who is from a town about 12 k away. He is a student in grade 9, so he stays with us during the week but usually goes back home on the weekends and holidays.

In any case, the students at the school are split into 4 houses, or kundas, (Red, Green, Yellow and Blue). Each “kunda” has several faculty supervisors and a “prefect,” or student selected to basically lead the house. (kind of like the school system in “Harry Potter”) Then, from all that, there is a head boy and head girl selected from among the entire school to basically act as the liaison between faculty and students.

So, this past weekend, beginning Friday afternoon and continuing through Saturday, the four kundas had their annual “Inter-Kunda” track and field competition. This is really one of those experiences where a picture is worth a thousand words, so here are some pictures from the various events.

Some of the events are typical to what we are used to seeing in the States.



Long Jump

High Jump

But other events take on a distinctive West African twist and are, well, quite frankly, a lot of fun!

Potato Relay (Truly indescribable in words. I don’t even fully understand what was all involved myself, except that it involved getting potatoes into a bucket and running.)

Three Legged Race

Musical Chairs

And my personal favorite, the Water Bucket Race!

It’s a great time with tons of cheering…

Lots of community involvement...

A DJ blasting West African music

Great food and fun snacks….(such as pop corn, fried crackers, pankets, fish-pies, and baobab juice!)

And even a Red Cross committee to handle heat and dehydration issues.

And what was I doing through all of this? Well, when I wasn’t strolling from kunda to kunda cheering students on or taking pictures, Taba and I were having a good time just hanging out and enjoying the great events (and the great snacks).

That evening the DJ kept the party going by playing dance music all night long at the school yard, as the school hosted a huge dance for everyone, free of charge. You can be sure it was a lively night!

Truly a good time had by all!

So About that "Gender Equality" Meeting...

Hey Everyone!

I’m currently back in Kombo for a few days for a Tree Nursery Competition meeting, and I’m excited to take this opportunity to fill you all in on a few updates with my life/work/experiences here in Gambia.

So…where to begin…

First off, as I talked about in one of my most previous blog posts, an aid organization was planning to host a three-day-long seminar on gender equality in Chargel. We had a very successful time organizing representatives from 10 different villages, some students from the school and even a few teachers and the headmaster to come be a part of the discussions. The topic definitely took interest with people who wondered what there could possibly be to talk about in regards to gender equality. Additionally, a few of my Peace Corps friends came to Chargel to help out with sparking conversations and supplying insight. Everything was looking on the up-and-up.

So then Monday came and the facilitators hosting the event were supposed to show up that evening, but didn’t. Typical enough, the roads can be pretty bad and transportation can be a constant headache. We tried calling them but didn’t get through. Also typical, as phone reception is a constant issue in my area. But then Tuesday morning rolled around, and when it became pretty clear that they weren’t going to be here in time to start the meeting we called them again. This time we got through, only to find out that they had postponed the meeting (until this week when I am currently here in Kombo and not at site) and the person responsible for informing us never did. Unfortunately, this too is also quite typical.

What was probably most unfortunate about this whole thing is that when my friends and I found out that the meeting had been postponed, all we could really do is laugh it off…because this happens so very often. And it’s not necessarily that meetings get planned and canceled/postponed often (although they do), but that communication between parties, in general, is always a problem in that it is rarely clear, consistent or followed-through. And that’s frustrating, sure. But, more so, it’s really just sad when you see the issue of consistently poor communication hold back potential development and progress.

So what did we do? Well, for the most part people just dispersed and headed home. And Alicia and I just hung out and had a great time. Some of our afternoon activities included…

Visiting the cooks at the school and helping with “quality control” for the school’s lunch.

Hanging out with my host family.

Strolling the village.

And going out to the bush and throwing sticks at baobab trees with some kids to try to get the fruit to come down. Despite how full the trees are with the baobab fruits, it’s actually pretty hard to get them to come down. But fun when they do!

All in all, despite the unexpected postponement of the gender and equality meetings, it was a good day!

And we topped off the next morning by enjoying pancakes and Starbucks coffee before Alicia headed back home.

So, lesson learned? Here’s a thought. In the end life isn’t all that predictable, no matter how much you think it should be or want it to be. But just because something doesn’t work out the way you think it should doesn’t mean that it can’t be productive, meaningful and fun. But now Mark, how, you ask, is just strolling around the village, eating the school’s lunch and throwing sticks at baobab trees meaningful? Well sure, those events in and of themselves aren’t all that insightful. But the moments you can have with people… the true happiness that comes to the ladies cooking when two young “toubabs” just show up and help them cook for the afternoon, or the laughter that accompanies the young boys when they watch “toubabs” throw sticks at baobab trees and the boys trying to teach us the “right way” to throw a stick…those moments are truly meaningful and irreplaceable.

And it’s amazing how many times I have to learn this lesson for it to actually sink in.