Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Peace Corps Mail Run: 101

Hey Everyone!

Amy and I just got back into town after spending a good 5 days on the road, delivering mail, packages and supplies to anxious Peace Corps volunteers.

Now I'm sure you are all wondering, "So when I send my monthly letter to Mark out in Gambia, filling him in on all that I've been up to, since he does such a good job of keeping me updated on what he has been up to via his blog, how does it actually get to his little hut out in the middle of the bush?"

Well, lucky for you, here is a step-by-step process of how all that beef jerkey ends up at my door.

When mail and packages arrive from the States, they first end up at the Peace Corps P.O. Box in Banjul. Three times each week one of the drivers heads into Banjul to pick it up, and brings it all back to the Peace Corps office, where it sits in what we all call "the mail room." From there, everything is logged so that volunteers can see what, if anything, has arrived for them.

Typically, mail run heads out to start delivering on the third Friday of each month. That means whoever is going to be delivering that month's mail will spend Thursday prepping the mail and getting it packed and ready to go.

This means...

Step 1: Organizing the mail in people's mail boxes.

Step 2: Tackling the craziness that is the mail room,

and organizing it so that the mail is divided into which "day" (1-5) it will be delivered.

Step 3: Load everything into the truck. ("Load" is just puting it nicely. Really, we just need to make sure it all fits.)

NOTE: It can be a problem that some volunteers consider the mail run truck to be their own personal moving company, and often try to send beds, chairs, bikes, mattresses, gas stoves, tables... all at the same time.

NOTE: It can also be a problem that there is always that ONE volunteer who has a super important item to send out, but they don't let you know they have it to send out until the truck is already loaded.

Step 4: Head out at the crack of dawn on Friday morning, delivering firs to volunteers on the North Bank, before reaching Basse several days later and turning around to deliver mail to volunteers on the South Bank.

Step 5: Deliver mail, packages and whatever else has been sent out in the mail truck, to eagerly waiting volunteers.

Step 6: Enjoy the nicely paved north bank road!

Step 7: Brace yourself for all the bush roads!

Step 8: Enjoy the scenery of Gambia from the beauty of air conditioning!

Step 8: After a few days, reach the ferry crossing at Basse and head down to the South Bank.

Just waiting to cross the ferry.

Still just waiting to cross the ferry...

Step 9: Remember the good ole' days of the paved north bank road.

Step 10: Repeat step 6 for all the south bank volunteers.

Step 11: Beware of bush fires!

Step 12: Just enjoy the time on the road, getting to take in the sights of the Gambia with friends!

And that, my friends, is how all the letters, packages, and beef jerkey you send makes it to my front door.

Monday, April 13, 2009

To Bembanding

Hey Faithful Readers,

It is with true sadness and, indeed, regret, that I share the following news with you. I don't mean to be too personal in what I share on my blog, but as my relationships with people here have become such an important aspect of my time in Gambia, it's only right that I offer a tribute of sorts to my good friend Bembanding.

On the morning of the 1st of April (April Fools), Saikou Ceesay, my host brother, woke me up with the news that one of my closest friends here in Gambia, Bemdanding Jimbara, lost his life that previous Monday night. Bembanding had left Gambia mid November to pursue the "back way" (illegal immigration) to Italy with one of his uncles.

I knew for quite some time that he was planning to go, and guys my age from this area leave each year pursuing the back way. So, when he left I didn't encourage it, of course, but I also know it's their own form of the "American Dream" per se, pursuing wealth and stability to support their families.

Even after he left we still communicated on a fairly regular basis, as he would try to call me once a week or so with updates of where he was at in his "back way" journey. He was a great friend of mine, and a relative to my host family. (Lawo and Saikou's cousin)

In the end, as he and about 300 others were crossing the Mediterranean from Libya headed to Italy, the boats they were traveling in (think of large canoes) capsized and all but about 20 of the people traveling lost their lives.

Oddly enough, on Tuesday I had heard on BBC radio about the boats capsizing off the coast of Libya. Immediately my mind went to Bembanding, since I knew he had been waiting in Libya for some time, just waiting his turn to try to cross. So my worst fear came true Wednesday morning when his family received word (from other relatives in Libya) that Bembanding and his uncle were among those in the boats.

It's been a huge shock. I really didn't see it coming, and one could say I've had a hard time coping with his death. He was a very, very good friend of mine, and his loss has stirred quite a few emotions in me. Of course, I'm sad. I'm sad for his loss and sad for his family. I'm upset that this had to happen in the first place, that such a tragedy could happen to these guys risking their lives just trying to improve the lives of their families. And just disgusted that we live in a world so unfair, so unequal, that just a few years I was able to join my sister and a friend to enjoy a luxurious and fun cruise around the Mediterranean, even sailing from Libya to Italy, while Bembanding lost his life in a most horrific and terrifying way. It really just makes me sick to my stomach.

So this past Monday (April 6th) was the funeral. That day helped bring quite a bit of closure, one could say, as I was able to cry with his brothers and his mom. (his father passed away quite a few years ago) And these past few days (Thursday and Friday), I spent again just hanging out, spending time with his brothers. He was actually from a village other than Chargel, but not too far away. These past few days with his family was actually quite therapeutic, as we were all able to spend time just trying to move on in our own ways. Our conversations were able to move back to discussing what else is going on in our lives, and his mother and I were able to have some good conversations reminiscing about the good times he and I had together, instead of just grieving that he's gone.

To answer some questions you may have:

*No, his body was not returned to Gambia. I have no idea if it was even retrieved from the sea.

*The funeral was more of a prayer service, following Muslim tradition, since there was no actual burial.

*About 300 people were traveling in three boats. (like I said, think of large canoes) The people were from all over West Africa, and even some from Libya and Egypt. But about half of the people traveling were from Gambia. I keep learning of more and more villages around me that lost someone in the boats.

The loss of Bembanding has really shaken me up. But I truly do feel fortunate for my friendships here, and especially for my friendships back home. And really, I can say that if his loss has to shed a silver lining, then I can say that this experience has truly helped me re-focus somewhat, and gain a refreshed perspective of what is most important in my life, that being my faith, family and friends.

Bembanding is on the left (with the sunglasses).

Other than that, life in Chargel is going well. This time has actually helped me realize what good friends I have made here, and it has sunk in a bit deeper that this place really has become my life, my host family is like family to me, and I feel blessed for the relationships I've built.

So, to not end on a "downer," all things considered, I'm doing quite well. I'm healthy, safe and enjoying my time in Gambia. I certainly have much to be thankful for, and this Easter weekend is certainly an appropriate time to keep that in mind.

Until next time, take care.

Happy Easter!

Yesterday I was able to enjoy the Easter holiday by 1) sleeping-in, 2) having a fun and relaxing afternoon, and 3) enjoying the evening with friends, as we had a wine and cheese party at some cliffs overlooking the coast.

I can honestly say it was an Easter unlike one I've ever had before, but hey, Gambia tends to be full of experiences like that!

As it is currently a full moon, we were really hoping for the chance to see some sea turtles coming in and out. But catching a glimpse of them is pretty difficult.

Alas, we had a good time...

...the wine and cheese was great...

...the sunset was gorgeous!...

...And a good time was truly had by all.

On a random note, even though it wasn't Thanksgiving we decided it would be nice to go around and share what we are all thankful for. Everything was shared from family and friends to sea turtles and the ability to appreciate coming from such a truly privileged country and society.

So, without getting too "deep" or personal, allow me to just share that my time here in Gambia has been a constant (though expected) roller-coaster of ups and downs, good days and bad days, character building experiences and days where I just can't stop smiling. Some experiences have pushed me to limits I didn't know I had, while other experiences and relationships continue to remind me of how much I have to be thankful for.

In so many ways, my time here and the experiences I've come across have truly helped me re-focus somewhat, and gain a refreshed perspective of what is most important in my life, that being my faith, family and friends.

That said, here is an excerpt I find appropriate to share with all of you in honor of this Easter holiday. It's from one of my favorite authors/theologians, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Take the time to read it, re-read it, enjoy the truth behind its words, and stop to take the time to be truly thankful for how blessed we really are.

Each morning is a new beginning of our life. Each day is a finished whole. The present day marks the boundary of our cares and concerns. It is long enough to find God or loose Him, to keep faith or fall into disgrace.

God created day and night for us so we need not wander without boundaries, but may be able to see in every morning the goal of the evening ahead.
Just as the ancient sun rises anew everyday, so the eternal mercy of God is new every morning.

Every morning God gives us the gift of comprehending anew His faithfulness of old; thus in the midst of our life with God, we may daily begin a new life with Him.
In the first moments of the new day are for God's liberating grace, God's sanctifying presence. Before the heart unlocks itself for the world, God wants to open it for Himself; before the ear takes in the countless voices of the day, it should hear in the early hours the voice of the Creator and Redeemer.

God prepared the stillness of the first morning for Himself. It should remain His.

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Happy Easter!

Poultry Comes to Chargel

Hey Everyone!

As I mentioned in a previous blog entry, my host father, Lawo, and the school in Chargel are both working to take on an expanded poultry project in Gambia.
In a nut-shell, they are now 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 now 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, so that they can then be sold within the tourism industry for an even greater profit.

Well, just last week the chicks arrived. All 200 of them!

You may be asking yourself how one actually handles a formal poultry project in Gambia, as opposed to just free range birds. I'm glad you ask. Allow me to explain the process.

First and foremost, you need to have a chicken house. Bear in mind that not just any mud hut will do. No no. The huts for chickens have specific dimensions based on the number of birds each house is intended to hold. For example, Lawo intends to eventually be able to host 500 birds by himself, so he has just recently constructed a second chicken house. Each house is 4 meters by 5 meters.

Additionally, the houses must have several windows at low levels, providing for proper ventilation.

So, first you make bricks.

Then you collect grasses which will be weaved together to form the roof.

Next, build the house.

Put the roof on the poultry house.

Kill the cobra that decides to crawl out of the grasses you are transporting on your head to the construction site!

Resume constructing the roof.

Build the windows and door.

And once your house is finished, just add chickens!


Then, you basically just feed and water them for 6 weeks, keep them safe and healthy, and in the end sell them for a hefty profit! Not a bad deal.

And that's how we run a poultry project in Gambia.

The Chargel Bush Fire of 2009

Hey Everyone,

So, on the evening of April 5th, Chargel was affected by a pretty intense bush fire. I don't actually know where the fire itself came from, what caused it or how long the fire had been going before it got close to Chargel, but at around 7pm a pretty intense wind brought what seemed like basically a really long line of fire straight at our village.

Now, it's important to know that bush fires happen pretty frequently here. At the end of each rainy season villages prepare by burning the fields immediately around them to act as a fire barrier. And the people are also quite familiar with the whole process of putting out fires, as there really isn't a "fire department" here to help them out. Nevertheless, the wind on that day was pretty intense, and the fire seemed to be coming dangerously close to Chargel. So on that day I learned first-hand how to put out a bush fire, and I wanted to share that experience with you.

(note: I apologize in advance that the quality of some of these pictures is less than good, but in my defense, the smoke and flying debris was a bit of a problem.)

Step 1: All the women and children get the the wells and start pumping as much water into buckets as possible. This water isn't actually to put out the fire in the bush, but to have on hand to start drenching houses and fences once the fire gets too close.

Step 2: Send out the small boys to collect full branches (as in, full of leaves) that will then be used by all the men in the village to quite literally beat out the fire.

Step 3: GO BEAT DOWN THE FIRE! I must admit, at first I was quite skeptical about the whole idea of just beating out a fire with branches, especially a really BIG fire. But, as it turns out, it actually works quite well! You do have to get a bit closer to the fire itself than I would have preferred, as the smoke is quite intense. But yeah, basically you just kind of smack the branches towards the fire, smothering it with the sand and dirt around it. It basically creates instant charcoal, which is much more manageable than huge flames.

Step 4: Spread out. As I mentioned before, this particular bush fire was QUITE big. It actually spread from the border of a town called Sare Guia, past Chargel, and on towards a village called Sare Nallen. I realize this really doesn't mean anything to you, but it was basically about 8k long, which I believe is just short of 5 miles. I mean, we had multiple villages out there taking this thing on.

And Step 5: Just try to make the best of the situation. It was really hot, really smokey and all-in-all probably not the safest thing I've ever done. (don't worry mom!) (And in retrospect, taking my camera along wasn't necessarily the best decision either, considering I lost my last one to a river...) But in a strange way I actually had a really fun time with my friends beating out this fire. One could call it a "bonding experience."

We ended up actually fighting this fire off from about 7pm until about 2am. By the time we were finished we were ALL quite tired. Fortunately, I'm glad to report that the fire never actually did hit Chargel (or the other villages around), so no homes or fences were affected, and no one was injured in the process. It just smelt really bad for the next few days.

And that was the Chargel Bush Fire of 2009. A true Peace Corps experience!