My African Stripes

Follows my life as a Peace Corps volunteer in The Gambia, from Sep 2007 to Oct 2009.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Change I Can Barely Believe

Yesterday was one of the most amazing and memorable days of my life! I felt like I was in a dream, watching an idealized version of what I’ve always wanted America to be, coming true before my eyes. And I could barely believe it was happening even as I watched it unfold, because even though I had an ideal of America in my mind, I never dared to believe that it could really come true. I know Obama’s election won’t solve most of the problems in America, and I know the shine of his victory will soon wear off as he has to buckle down to face the enormous problems our country now faces. And in terms of policy, I doubt McCain as president would have been that different, in the end. But to me, Obama and his path to the White House, embodies everything that is great about America. And even though it is so difficult for a president to make any real change in America, Obama, in his very being and in his very campaign has already permanently changed America for the better. It really feels like the dawn of a new era for America, and it feels like an era that I want to be a part of!

Watching the elections from The Gambia was a unique way to see history happen. Being in The Gambia has made me realize just how important this election is not just for America, but for the world, and how Obama's message of hope and possibility is a message that is inspiring people everywhere. Obama's election has already changed the world by permanently changing what is possible in the world. I can't help but feel pride when I tell young Gambian children that the president of my country is a half-African man who reached the most powerful position in the world through his own hard work, talent, perseverance and optimism, and that he was chosen by the American people to lead because he was judged the most worthy candidate. I can't help but feel joy at the thought that those children's view of what they are capable of achieving in life has been permanently widened. I can't help but feel more hopeful for the future.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Thought Vomit

I know it’s been a long time since I’ve written anything on this blog, but it isn’t just because I’ve been too busy or too lazy to write. I’ve been meaning to write for a long time now, but for some reason I could never bring myself to sit down and start writing. It’s not because I’ve been unhappy or have nothing to say, and for a long time I didn’t know what it was exactly. But just recently I realized what it was which has prevented me from writing: life has become ordinary again. And for the same reason that I don’t feel the need to write a blog about my daily life in the States, about my day at the office or my hellish commute to work, I don’t feel the need to write about my life here anymore. I know that my life here would still seem interesting to somebody back home, just because my life is so different. But to me, it doesn’t seem different anymore. Donkey carts, shirtless women, sweating 24 hours a day, heat rash, the frustrations and rewards of working and living with Gambians, the long, empty hours of the afternoon have become ordinary.

In a way it’s funny, because I had partially joined the Peace Corps to escape the daily grind of American life. But now I see that any life can become slightly dull and routine after enough time. At the same time, though, I don’t want to give the impression that I’m bored or unhappy with my life here. On the contrary, I feel a deep satisfaction that I have managed to adjust so much in just one year’s time that things that seemed completely overwhelming and foreign when I first came here, now seem so ordinary that I forget to notice them. I feel proud that I can speak comfortably in a language I had never heard just a year ago, that I now feel comfortable living among people I understood nothing about such a short time ago. And I also realize that even though life has become routine here, and I’m not experiencing life at the same intensity I was when I first came here, I have permanently widened my vision of the world because I have lived in two extreme situations and experienced them both as “normal”.

One thing that finally sparked me to write this was reading a National Geographic from September, 1964 about the Peace Corps. In it, one woman talks about her experience in the Peace Corps in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) and how the strange becomes the familiar:
“How did it happen, then, that the days just began to roll on, blending one into the other? It wasn’t that new experiences and interesting things ceased happening, but that the strange became familiar so quickly, and the unexpected became part of the daily routine—even in Africa.” –Ruth Dygert

I read an article recently that talked about how our understanding of what is “normal” begins to expand when we are children. The first time you sleep over at a friend’s or neighbor’s house when you are a kid, you are suddenly made aware that people outside of your family do things completely differently than you. When your friend’s mom brings you a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you think, “This isn’t right. PB&J is supposed to be on Orowheat bread with Smuckers grape jelly and Peter Pan chunky peanut butter. This is on white bread with the crusts cut off and some weird jelly and creamy peanut butter. You suddenly realize that what you always thought was the “right” way, is just one way among many possibilities. To your friend, his mom’s PB&J sandwich is the “right” way just as much as your mom’s is the right way to you. In a way, I feel like what I’ve gone through in the past year is a similar experience on a bigger scale. I no longer consider things I took for granted before as the “right” way. Now I see that the way I learned to do things is just one way, not necessarily the best way. And I can offer a different perspective to people here. I don’t have to tell them that I know how to make the best PB&J sandwich in the world, but I can show them a different way of making it that maybe they never thought of before.

That said, it doesn’t mean that I can completely embrace everything about Gambian culture. In fact, there are a lot of things that still drive me crazy even though I try to keep an open mind and a non-judgmental perspective. It’s a constant internal battle. And it changes from day to day. Some days I just think whatever and go with the flow. Other days, I think I don’t have to like the way things are done here. One thing that I have a hard time coping with is the philosophy of “God wills it”. It seems to serve as an excuse for a lack of hard work, self-help or drive a lot of time. It’s basically an attitude of there’s no point in trying since it’s up to fate anyway. At the same time, I understand that this attitude is also a great coping mechanism in a place where people have few opportunities and often very difficult lives. If you believe that your suffering is God’s will, it makes the burden much easier to carry. In terms of development, though, it makes things very difficult to progress. In a way, trying to better yourself or your situation is seen as trying to contradict God’s will, a sign of ultimate arrogance. The result is that the situation never improves. And when foreigners come in to give away their money and supplies, it is not seen as a stepping stone to a better life, but simply more of God providing for them and who will again provide for them. An NGO provides a fence and well for the women’s garden, the women use the garden until animals start getting in through the fence and eating all their food. Instead of trying to fix the fence or raise the money to rebuild the fence, they simply stop using the garden until someone else comes along and offers to pay for another fence for them.

Another aspect of Gambian culture that I struggle with constantly is my role as a white woman here. Gambia is still a very traditional and paternalistic society. Girls get married off as early as 14, and it is completely acceptable for a man to have as many as four wives. Women’s work and men’s work is very clearly divided. Women take care of the children, cook, clean, work in the gardens and rice fields, take care of the sheep and goats, buy and sell at the market. Men work in the fields growing peanuts, corn and millet, take care of the cows, build and repair things and sit around a lot drinking attaya. I, as an unmarried, educated working woman do not fit in any way into the Gambian mold. Traditions are changing slowly here. It is more and more common to see girls finishing high school and more and more women are entering the work place. But at the village level, very little has changed and very little will change as long as other aspects of traditional life remain the same. In fact, at the village level, life has changed very little over the past centuries. The main difference is that now a few of the wealthier people have cell phones, people wear hand-me-down Western clothes and think 50 Cent is some kind of American king.

In some ways I feel lucky to live in a place that time has seemed to forget. How else could I experience a reality so different from the one I grew up with? And there are some very charming aspects of life here that I know I will miss when I go home. I will miss the slow, relaxed pace of life, the incredibly strong family and community ties, the night sky. But at other times, it is incredibly frustrating and saddening to see how little has changed here, and how little choice people have in their lives. On the surface, life can often seem idyllic, there are always happy children running around playing games, women laughing while they work and men chatting under a mango tree drinking attaya. But there is a level of underlying suffering and anger here that you see once you scratch the surface. Almost every Gambian I have gotten the chance to know reveals some of this to me. Almost every Gambian family has lost a child, a loss that I can’t even begin to comprehend. I found out that my host mother lost 4 out of her 6 children. My neighbor lost his wife and infant son, my friend at the office where I work has lost 2 children, one in high school and one small child. And it can be very frustrating to think about how little has changed here when you think that Peace Corps has been in The Gambia for 40 years, and that The Gambia receives the most aid per capita of any country in Africa. And it can be doubly frustrating when you see the corruption and dishonesty that prevents that aid from benefiting the people it is supposed to go to. Like when you see the beans and oil that the World Food Programme donates to Gambian schools for free lunches for school children being sold in the market, or school children being charged for the meals when it is supposed to be free.

But I rant. Life is good. Things are good. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else right now and I wouldn't trade this experience for anything.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Successes & Failures

In the past two months I've had a couple of successes and failures. I guess that both are bound to happen when you start trying to get something done.

1) The Global Awareness Club that I tried to get started at the high school crashed and burned. The first week 30 kids showed up, the 2nd week 5, the 3rd week 0. I waited in the classroom for an hour until it became obvious that nobody was coming. It was pretty disheartening because I was really excited about getting the group going and I thought the first two meetings went fairly well. I realize now that there were a lot of things that I didn't understand going in to it and that I should have done differently. For one, I think the students had a hard time understanding my English since the English they are used to hearing is in an African accent with its own set of vocabulary. Second, the meetings were held on Saturday mornings at the headmaster's suggestion, but I realize now that no student is going to want to come to school on a Saturday morning. Third, my expectations of what the students were capable of and how much work they would be willing to do was unrealistic. I assumed that students in Grade 10 and 11 could at least read a newspaper article and write a simple paragraph for comprehension. I later found out that is not true.

I'm thinking of trying again and using a new approach. The headmaster at the school says that this time he'll find another teacher to help support me. The failure of the first time still stings, so its hard to get as enthusiastic as before. But last week I went to observe another high school club led by three Peace Corps Volunteers and it was so amazing to see the students debating about current events and thinking critically about issues. They were smart, engaged, articulate and confident. So I think I will give it another go, but this time I'm going to take it slow.

2) My garden was a little bit of a success and failure. After dealing with rats eating all my plants to stubs, caterpillar invasions, disease, and extreme heat I managed to keep my garden alive and for awhile it actually looked pretty healthy. But in the end, I'll I harvested after 5 months of work were 5 eggplants and 6 rats. My host family ate the rats (I would have tried it, but I wasn't around when they ate them) so they ended up getting some extra protein and that turned out the biggest output of my garden. It was a good learning experience, though, and my first attempt at gardening so I know next year will be a lot better. I never really expected to have a beautiful garden anyway; I just thought that it would be good for me to try gardening on my own before I try to tell other people what to do. And as it turns out, most of what I learned was from Gambians who knew how to do things much better than me in this harsh climate.

1) I helped organize a training on a special kind of compost called bokashi. It's a labor intensive compost, but its cheap to make and really strong. Together with Malick, one of the field workers I work with at AVISU, we had a full day training where we trained 10 community members and 8 AVISU staff. I was nervous beforehand, but everything went really smoothly and everybody seemed to absorb the information and enjoy themselves. We even had a couple of breaks for singing and dancing. And at the end of the day we had a big pile of compost to leave at the community garden. Bokashi compost won't save the Gambia, but if nothing else one of my counterparts was empowered to lead a training, the community members felt involved and valued, and the AVISU staff were motivated and interacted as peers with one of the community groups.

2) We are finally entering a new era at AVISU with a new director and new management staff arriving soon. I am very excited about the new direction of the organization and that some of my suggestions for improving the organization are being implemented. I spend most of my time working at the office, so its really rewarding to see things moving in a positive direction.

3) I have helped create 5 tree nurseries, 4 in community gardens and 1 at the upper basic school totalling over 1000 trees. It was difficult to get the ball rolling, but now that things have started my work is done and I can just sit and watch the results. I'm hoping next year to try the same thing at a much bigger scale.