"We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures that we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open." - Jawaharlal Nehru

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

My last few months in The Gambia!!

As I have one, last month left here in my Peace Corps service, I’ve been trying to soak up these last few moments to make them as memorable as possible.  My work has slowed down, because now it is time to sit with the family, laugh, and do all t.he things I said I’d do before I left West Africa.  I have been painting a lot, attending weddings and baby-naming ceremonies, doing the “bucket-list” things like visiting Tourist-attractions (Baboon Island) and biking the country!

  1.  Painting.  I had some leftover paint from creating a sign for one of the gardens I have been working in.  The creative fire under my ass has been stoked, so I put on some bum clothes and painted the past month away.  I even had my family get in on the fun!

A quote my brother sent me in the first 6-months of my service

My namesake was AT FIRST excited about painting, then she got scared of it!  Her mother thought it was HILARIOUS!

My "daughter" helping out with the painting

2. Weddings. My dad got married this month, took his third-wife – my friend, Fana Ceesay.  Last year she became a widow and had the child of the man who passed.  My dad was a very good friend to this man, so he took Fana as his third-wife who is now happily living in our compound, enjoying her new family!  Her baby is crawling all over the place, and is currently learning to take her first steps.
Host dad and two of my moms (the one on the right is the newest one)
3. Biking. One of the things I said I’d do before I left West Africa was to bike the tiny country of The Gambia.  It is a little over 375-kilometers long, and about the size of Delaware.  It is the smallest country in continental Africa!  I started in Basse (Eastern most part) and ended in Brikama (Western).  It took 5-days and I stayed with Peace Corps Volunteers along the way.  They fed me so well, and most of them biked some of the way with me.  I had the wind and sun on my back, and a smile on my face the whole time.  Now I can say I biked a whole country!
Peace Corps pride - gotta stay bright, too!
Basse to Brikama - 374 Kilometers, about 46 Miles a day!
Half-way point
The Mandinka translation of "bicycle", a RUBBER HORSE!
4. Bucket ListI always avoided doing “Touristy” things during my service, mostly to avoid being looked like a walking wallet with money spilling out.  I know Peace Corps volunteers are held in higher regard, because we know the language, we look like Gambians (minus the blinding white skin), and we are living and working with our families and villages.  I see the way Gambians view tourists and I must say I NEVER want to be a tourist, but I think that’s inevitable.  Anyhow, I’ve been doing some touristy things, like going to this place called “Baboon Island”, a chimp restoration ‘eco-tourism’ camp just 20-kilometers from my site.  It is an untouchable island located on the Gambian River the houses over 100-chimps who are taken care of (food supplementation, immunizations, etc.) by this place, and people can come take boat-tours and go on hikes around the island to see Bonobo monkeys, Chimps and Baboons, as well as hippos, crocodiles and hundreds of different species of birds!
Baboon Island is a Chimp Restoration Project in The Gambia
5. Cultural Exchange.  A few other things I’ve been doing are going to Gambian wrestling matches with my best friend and counterpart Abdou.  This style of wrestling was started in Senegal and is accompanied by HOURS of dancing, JuJus (putting hexes on the opponent), and drumming. I’ve been going on adventures with friends (bike rides and hikes) and learning how to bake pizzas in a mud-brick oven!

This wrestler's name is "Rasta" and has JuJus all over his body to protect him from evil.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Top ten things I'll miss about West Africa

1. Eating out of a communal food-bowl (with hand!).  There is something so beautiful in the social aspect of eating - it's emotional, intimate & brings people together.  Everyday I sit down to eat with my host family, no T.V. or distractions; pure company.  Each handful a piece of this heaping bowl of rice or coos, a part and parcel of the family.  Love it!

Breakfast with the family - I love coos!!

Benechin - Rice and veges/meat.  A Ceremonial dish that everyone eats out of

2.  Pooping in a hole & using water to wipe.  There are 3-things that always come up during Peace Corps Volunteer conversations - food (because we miss it), poop (because it's funny), and sex (because we miss it).  Some people may not agree, but I LOVE squatting over a hole to relieve myself.  It feels natural, everything flows & I now have amazing quads and squatting abilities.  Also, no T.P= environmentally friendly solutions. I'd never would have guessed it is more pleasant, but the trees and my bottom are all singing for joy.
A little peace corps humor.  My bathroom in village.

3.  Going to the garden to get veggies for my meal.  One good thing in working to build community gardens is my intimate connection to my food-source.  I go to the garden & see fresh, organic, home-grown vegetables ready for me to pick and eat.  Women hand me eggplant, lettuce, squash, okra & corn to cook my lunch everyday.
Eggplant and Okra, fresh from the garden!

4.  Sense of security.  I have never felt safer in my life, despite what people may think about living in Africa.  I can walk in the bush without fear of anything - wild animals, mass murderers, getting lost, etc.  If I'm traveling and it gets to be late, I know I can literally walk up to any village and will be housed, fed, and tended to without any expectations.  It's the Gambian way of hospitality.  I live in one of the most peaceful countries in the world - even safer than most cities in America - personal opinion, of course.  "Peace Only" is the answer to most greetings and blessings in The Gambia.

My newborn child, "Hawa Malick" (my sisters baby is also my baby)

5.  Babies, Babies, Everywhere!  Statistically speaking, I believe there are between 5-7  living babies/children to every-one Gambian woman.  Needless to say, I am handed a baby in every direction I turn.  "Take my baby to the place where white-people are!" "Let me give you it, you can have it!"  African babies are by far the cutest kids I've ever seen, and it has helped me to be comfortable holding them while they learn to walk, talk, work & play.  I feel like I never saw or payed attention to under 5-year olds in America.  Now, I hope to always be surrounded by their light and naivety.

6.  Living in a mud-brick hut.  My previous blog described the characteristics of how I am currently living.  Simply, my hut is my sanctuary and realm of peace.  I wish I could build one to live in while State-side.

7.  Hand-washing my laundry.  Taking a few hours each week, choosing a day to rid my clothes of Gambian elements, such as dirt, poop, boogers & other particles, is meditative and helps me to sow my life down.  It's too easy to throw our clothes in a robot-machine that does my laundry for me.  When I scrub my dirt out of my clothes, it is physically and mentally beneficial.  I could go as far to say it is a spiritual-cleansing.
Taking a morning to do my laundry

8.  Slow mornings and time for myself.  I have never spent this much time for personal reflection and growth as I have here.  I wake up slow, salute the sun, warm coffee on a charcoal burner, write in my dream journal and take time to read and write everyday.  If I'm not busy, I'll stroll to the vegetable market and slow-roast a stew while listening to music.  Our fast-paced lifestyles in America rarely cater this time for ourselves, always busy with work, others, etc. etc. etc.
My reading spot in my mom's cassava garden

9.  Lying under the stars with my family at the end of every single day.  No electricity, electronics, lights or anything except genuine conversation, greetings from the neighbors, village gossip and even a beautiful silence.  The children fall asleep under the stars.  Babies stare at the moon in wonder.  Adults brew a sugary green tea and stay up late chatting.  I can not think of a more pure, familial engagement as peaceful as this.  Oh how I wish this for a family of my own.
We lie on these stone "bantabas" every night under the stars

10.  Gambian fashion.  I have never looked as colorful and ridiculous as I have here.  African sin can pull off any color and fashion and look amazing!  Naturally beautiful people.  Me, on the other hand, have been the ass-end of Gambian fashion since I arrived.  Google 'West African clothing/fashion', and then imagine me dressed like that - it's funny I tell you!  However, the more crazy I think I look, the more compliments and praises I get.  The more designs, patterns and colors I can fit into one outfit, the better.  Not to mention, I never have to shave, wear make-up, put on deodorant or match!  I would never survive socially in America, although I still may not shave my legs and armpits.  Rawr, baby!

Friday, October 4, 2013

AN EXCERPT from my journal

This journal entry has been censored, cut-clipped & catered to a respectable audience.  It was written a few weeks ago on a “not the greatest of my life” kind-of day.  All is well now, but I found this entry when I recently re-read my journal & couldn’t help but laugh at myself.  This has been quite the adventure.  Excuse the candor, but it is indeed a journal.  I just thought I’d share the truth of a Peace Corps Volunteer in West friggin Africa.  Not to mention, I was under the influence of Cashews.

Once again, I have no idea what time of day it is, so I’ll entertain myself by saying it is about 9:30pm on – let’s say – the 27th of September, 2013.  Who knows…? I dare say it’s not important!

I’m in a hut with walls made of blended rocks, sand, and just a hint of cement.  The ceiling – made of tied grasses from the bush and smoked sticks holding it all together.  The combination looks like a hand-made craft, of a “real African house!” (said in the most annoying of southern accents), sitting on a make-shift table in the corner of a flea market labeled “multi-cultural section.”  At least the figurine has super-glue.

I sometimes want to believe my house is safe from the elements, until a slow & steady stream of rain drip onto my naked body – like a cruel form of torture – preventing even the idea of a dream or rest from an interesting day.  Lightning hits nearby and I imagine each individual piece of gravel, which hold my walls together, shifting and reducing in it's place – wanting to return to its final state of sand and nothingness– like the rest of West Africa.

Every night, I wake up premature to the sounds of a family or brotherhood of rats that decided to make my house their usual place of worship, singing their praises and hymns in a strange  & high-pitched voice that actually sounds like demons being choked, almost eerie.  Then I remember I am even protected from their non-sense due to my “top of the line” nylon warrior net, like a web in the night, preventing a sickness that could attempt to boil my brains & put me in the grave.  I can imagine the insecticide burning the legs of the mosquitoes and causing them to land just below, where the ants await their supper.  I wish.  Then again, even if the mosquitoes attacked, by some mere chance I forgot to tuck my net in, I obediently take a prophylaxis that has been outlawed in most nooks of the world – after eating and with plenty of water – or so it goes.

I roll over on my side, sending a shooting pain through my hips.  I currently sleep on a bamboo bed frame, on a mattress made of compacted hay – shoved into sewn rice bags.  I could move into the couch, but that is also made of bamboo, held together by bamboo nails.  Did I mention what the only tiny stool in my hut is made of?  And the table… and my bookshelf.  I have a full-on war with mold every rainy season.  Nothing provides support for the natural contours of my body.  At least I still have my youth, and time is on my side to strengthen the fibers that have been stiffened & weathered here.

At night, only the moon lights my hut- and on nights where the moon is not reflecting into our village, I light a candle.  The breeze from the desert, that has consumed The Gambia, slides over my skin & brings the sweet smell of mangoes from the tree overhead my hut.  That same breeze carries the howl of the hyenas nearby & the dogs barking non-stop to keep the scavengers at bay.  Sometimes it brings a terrible storm that threatens to rip my roof off and carry it to the next village over a kilometer away.  Either way, the breeze is a much welcomed blessing to cool the walls from a normal West African day of heat and hot sand (the elements).  I sing praises that probably only go as far as my hut itself.  Or so it goes.

I try to cover the plain, deteriorating walls with materialized memories from the past & many memories to come; pictures are littered around the windows and doors.  A painting or three remind me that even the simplest of houses can be a home – baobabs, farmers and women empowered through a lifetime of carrying the load.  There’s a bird-nest in the corner, an intricate creation that I’ll never wrap my head around.  All the eggs are long gone & so is their mother.

Little mantras are strategically placed on the ways in and out of my sanctuary.  They say “why are you here?” and “let your mind start a journey through a strange new place…” (See Erich Fromm, philosopher).  Bags…scarves…and ancient garden tools hang on the walls; they could have been dug up from the beginning of the Iron Age – (again, could be on a table at a flea market “from Africa!”).  I’m surrounded by notes to myself saying “don’t forget: finish planting those trees by this/that date…”  Again, “why are you here?”… I still wonder.

A hideous, black filter - to keep the amoebas at bay – has been put in a corner; I’ve had pin-worm more than five-times – don’t ask me how I discovered them – and I even bleach!  Maybe I shouldn’t have accepted that semi-cold cup of water from that beautifully decrepit old woman – an elder in the village – as I walked home parched and exhausted.  Fuck it.  It was worth it.  Thank you Mer Hawa…
I’ll go take that de-wormer now.

Lastly, a sun-faded Gambian flag hangs from my grass-thatched roof.  In the back of my head, I can hear a handful of school-children singing the national anthem “For the Gambia…” or so it goes.

All of these things thoughtfully composed & arranged within a 4-meter by 4-meter space.  In this sanctuary, I can read, work-out, meditate, sleep, fart, eat, but mostly I lie/walk around naked.  Why?  Not only because it’s hot as Hades, but because I can.  When I’m in my four walls of adobe slabs (queue Animal Collective here), I can escape the world outside my termite-infested doors.  I can simply BE.  No matter what happens – beautiful or nerve racking – I can retire to my Darussalam (real of peace) inside my hut… inside my Self.

I’m sure the rats can still get a kick out of my shenanigans and one-woman dance parties that take place, but then again, I wouldn’t have it any other away.  My hut wouldn’t be complete without their squeaks that haunt my mepholoquine-filled dreams.