"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

Sunday, December 11, 2011


The Bati Njol health school is in its final stages of planning, and should kick off in approximately 2-weeks!  If you remember back to a few blog-entries, I was throwing out ideas for the health school.  Now, after a few village meetings and a little planning with my counterpart, it has become a reality.  The school will open in January and will continue until the end of June – 6 months, 5-essential topics, 12-total classes, 42-women.  The thing I am stoked most about is the age-range of women who enrolled; every compound (household) has one representative, ranging from age 18-58.  

Age Range!
The planning started a few months ago, and the women have been very patient with me, but anxiously asking, “When does school start?” THEY ARE EXCITED ABOUT LEARNING!  And that is what makes me smile from ear to ear; the women are keeping ME in check.  I have not had to beg for the women to come to the planning meetings, they want to come!

community analysis
"what do we already know, what do we want to learn"
My co-workers and I were planning to cover the health clinic in Bati Njol (my village) with murals of the different topics this month, but due to administration, we will have to push them back a few months.  The topics include:
  1.  Personal hygiene, basic first-aid, preventing illnesses 
  2. Nutrition 
  3. Environmental Sanitation 
  4. Reproductive & Child Health (2-months long)
  5. Malaria
Each month, we will take one of these topics and fully cover it, take questions, do demonstrations, give out homework and test the women.  This is their time to ask anything they’ve been curious about and haven’t had the access to answers.  My counterpart, the community health nurse & my friend, Demba Secka, will be teaching all the lessons.  My role is behind the scenes, helping to plan the lessons to make them effective & interactive, finances, and making sure everything flows smoothly.
meeting with the women to discuss topics!

This project will define my Peace Corps experience.  It’s what I thought I would be doing in West Africa; I am grateful and in awe of the way things have played out.  I have the support of my co-workers, friends & family back home, Peace Corps administration, my village and counterpart. 

Of course there will be hiccups in the process – cancelled classes due to naming ceremonies and weddings, rainy days, etc. but that is where the excitement lies.  If this whole thing went as smoothly as planned, to be honest, I’d be a little freaked out.  Recently I’ve had everything tossed up in the air, and yes it has been challenging mentally and physically, but it’s been a change of pace and has reminded me to slow down.

The opening ceremony will be at the end of this month, after Christmas (not that it is celebrated here), before the new year.  The women decided they wanted to have a small village program, cook benechin (local Wolof dish), drink attaya (Chinese green tea), laugh and celebrate the beginning of a beautiful opportunity to learn and grow together.  Classes begin the first week in January, Inshallah (God-willing).  I will make sure to post another blog letting you all know how the first month went!  I will also be blogging about Geoff’s visit; he is coming February 3rd.  We will spend 2-days on the beach in a tree-house, 2-weeks in village, a week-and-a-half hiking in Guinea’s “grand canyon”, and one full month in each other’s arms, under the stars.  I am again… grateful of such adventure, love, and compassion in the one that I love. 

Chat with you all soon soon.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Ode to the Universe

Let me start by saying that I miss you all very much – can you believe it’s almost been a year?  A YEAR IN AFRICA.  You better believe I will be saying that (with immense pride) for at least… two full months when I get back, haha.  Almost half of my service is completed, and I still have half of a tour left here in The Gambia. 
GREETINGS from the smiling coast!
I thought I couldn't do a handstand these days, so I tried one.

A lot has been happening lately, but I wanted to write a little blog about something that just happened that will probably be affecting the next few weeks of service.  I will write another one soon about HOW AMAZING THE PLANNING HAS BEEN GOING FOR THE HEALTH SCHOOL IN MY VILLAGE, but try and bear with me for just short story about a recent event.  It’s funny and inspirational, I promise.
I’ve been in town these past few days, soaking up the energy from my friends, nutrient dense food, the sun and just being lazy…it’s been AWESOME!  There is one, small obstacle – involving crutches, ace bandages & lots of ibuprofen.  Let me tell you how funny it is, how it happened and all. 

I had just finished playing some ultimate Frisbee and celebrating a very late, Thanksgiving lunch with all of my coworkers.  Afterwards, we decide to go to the beach and take a beautiful, scenic route that peered over 30 ft. of cliffs and facing home…west.  I climbed down the cliffs with my friends to get a closer feel of the oceans beauty and catch the sunset.  The ocean CALLED me to come join it in celebrating another day of happiness and peace.  So, I anxiously pulled off as many clothing layers as I could to still be appropriate and flew off towards the waves like a 5-year old.  Running, Running, Running…. One foot in the ocean, two strides more… big smile on my face. 

ALL OF A SUDDEN my legs crumbled beneath me and I was being (p)owned by the ocean.  I was flopping around like a fish out of water, except I was very much in the water for a solid 5-seconds and fully submerged.  As I caught myself, I sat up gasping for air and feeling a HORRIBLE throb in my left cankle. 
You guessed it.

I completely ate shit, stepped in a hole hidden beneath the water.  Friends were calling from the shore “SHAWN, are you okay?!”  I was embarrassed, so of course I was like “YEAH I’M FINE”!  After 5 more minutes of rolling around in the waves, trying to figure out what the hell just happened, I slowly make my way to shore… up the steps… down a path… and walk about a quarter mile. All of this was done in denial that anything was wrong with my foot. “It was just another sprain that I could walk off” (me).  I get back to the house, drink a bottle of wine, ankle throbbing (still in denial that anything is wrong), and I pass out, happy and buzzed.  I woke up the next morning to the most annoying, excruciating pain I’ve felt in a while.  So I called up the medical unit (after squirting a few tears out of my eyes), they picked me up, I spent a day there giving my ankle some TLC, get some X-rays.  NOT BROKEN, awesome.  Then they say “well, technically, tearing ligaments takes longer than broken bones to heal”.  Here are a few things that crossed my mind at that moment in time.  Sorry for the language, in advance. 

[[ Fuck.  I am in a sandy ass country, where most roads have rocks, potholes, and are oh yeah… not paved.  Transport here sucks.  My whole village is a sand trap.  Crutches?  5 WEEKS, WHAT?!  What about fetching water?  What about going to the garden?  What about squatting over my pit latrine?  SHIT!  Does that mean I can’t go on that hiking trip to Senegal?  MAN, I was supposed to hold a meeting in village in 2-days... gotta cancel that one, I guess.  WHAT ABOUT WHEN GEOFF COMES in 2-months?  Can we still go to Guinea for hiking?  But really… how am I going to squat over my pit latrine?  ]]

So, I guess I am writing this blog because I realized ONCE AGAIN how vulnerable our bodies are.  I have been cursing under my breath for the past few days, hobbling around on crutches in The Gambia, where barely anything is paved, there are no traffic lights or pedestrian right-of-way.  A gimp ankle (NOT a huge injury in The States, really) is COMPLETELY debilitating to village life.  For a month and a half, I will not be able to farm with my family, greet the village, go farming, fetch water, properly squat over my pit latrine (you are probably beginning to see how I rate things of importance in my service here as a Peace Corps volunteer, haha), do any sort of household chores, exercise, go explore the bush.  Let’s just say, it (originally) put a damper on my spirit and my effectiveness as a mobile volunteer.

HOWEVER, another lesson I’ve learned from this is just to slowwwwww down.  I mean I have really been on over-drive these days:  projects, social life and holidays, planning for a trip here or a trip there, preparing for visitors, harvesting crops with the family, etc.  I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again; The Gambians have a saying here… “slowly, slowly”.  I’ve been pushing myself lately, and the universe was the first to take action against my headstrong mind/body working in over-drive.  It said “NO MORE!  Take a break, sister.”  And so I did/am/will. 

At first I was mad…then sad.  But, then I had some amazing support from friends and co-workers here who made me see all the positive things that came out of this happening.  It was a good reminder to SLOW THE HELL DOWN, enjoy this experience, don’t stress out, take some time to reflect and relax. 

So, thank you universe.  You always know what is best for me.  Why did I ever doubt your brilliant plan?

Monday, October 17, 2011

Age is just a #


Greetings for The Gambia, as always I hope this blog finds all of you in good health and high spirits.  This is just a short blurb about one-of-the-many things that have been running through my mind lately.

What I'm starting to see is the significance (or not) of age.  I am experiencing a new perspective on this thing that we seem to be bound by in the Western world.  I say this because I've known many people that get trapped in their age-mindset.  For example, I know someone who just turned 27-years, and he feels like he is "too old" to really do what he wants to do in life (i.e. travel) because it's "too late".  SAY WHAT!?  27.. that's nuts.  There are 65-year old women serving with me here in the Gambia as Peace Corps Volunteers, roughing it and simply living - what a badass.

My host mother, who is guessing to be around 62-years of age, is one of the hardest working women I know.  I say this because she has had over 5-children, most of which are older than me; she is a grandmother to many and treats them as if they are her own.  She goes to the farm and works alongside her children for hours at a time, sometimes all day.  When she comes home, she tends to the one of her many, many gardens.  During the rainy season, she helps with all of the farming and if she's feeling up to it, she'll walk over 5-miles to deliver the foodbowl to the rest of the family.

When I think of 60-year olds+ in America, most (NOT ALL) I would think are retired, dependent on one if not many medications, and pretty sedentary.. excuse me if my perception has been skewed. 

Anyhow, what I'm getting at is when you stop focusing on "how old you are getting" and you just live, NOW because you still can, you begin to see that age is just a number...  Sometimes, I feel like I'm 5-years old - hula hooping, playing in the dirt, laughing, care-free and blowing in the wind.  Sometimes I feel about 70-years old - full of contemplation, insight, wisdom and settled in the ways of the world.  Sometimes I feel 23-years old, full of creative energy, adventure, passionate and spontaneous

What I'm getting at and what I'm coming to see is if you get "trapped" by a number given to you, you are likely to prevent yourself from living to the fullest, in every single moment; we are here, now.  It's easy to fulfill a role that is given to you (or perceived to be), but that's just it - IT'S EASY.  Well, I could go on repeating my thoughts, writing the same conclusions in a thousand different way, but I think you all get what I'm trying to say.  If you want to be 5-years old for a day, do it - go rub some paint on the walls and buy a spongebob popsicle.  If you want to be 80-years old, spend the day looking through photo albums, reading philosophy books and thinking about the "good ole days".

Never get stuck in the past or in the future - be here, now.  Never get "stuck" in what everyone else your age is or isn't doing... just live! 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

On the uP and uP!


I have so much good news that I want to tell you all, so much that I'm about to explode with excitement.  I just had four successful and productive meetings with potential partners of a few projects that I have been hiding up my sleeve.  So.. I was inspired to write a post about it.

The primary health team in my village, mainly my counterpart (Demba Secka) - the community health nurse, have decided to have the first ever Health School for Women in Bati Njol!  The school will take place in January for 6-months and includes 5-MAJOR health topics.  Each month will have a different health topic dedicated to it complete with songs, drama, classroom style learning and fun ways to see what the women have retained (like practicals/exams).  Keep in mind that none of these women have ever been to school, or if they have it was while they were under 15 years of age and have not continued past that.  You can imagine how fun it will be to have almost 100 women "enroll" in the school, have a competition point card (gain and lose points for certain things), and attend CLASS.

The topics include:

1.  Nutrition - benefits of moringa, three major food groups, adding variety to the food bowl, nutritional benefits to local dishes and foods, and weaning foods for babies
2.  Personal Hygeine / Preventing Illness - basic first aid, hand washing, oral rehydration solution, coveringa  cough, brushing teeth, cutting fingernails
3.  Reproductive and Child Health - how to read a clinic card, exclusive breastfeeding, male & female anatomy, menstruation and pregnancy, birth spacing, birth control options
4.  Environmental Sanitation - proper trash disposal, compound sanitation and maintenance, pit latrines, open defication
5. Malaria - transmission education, signs & symptoms, neem cream, mosquito bed-net care and usage, weeding compounds and eliminating stagnant water, care-seeking behaviors

I am also linking up with a local lower-basic school to form a health club, so they can join in on the Health School festivites!  And for the best news of all, The Bati Njol Health School for women has now been funded by FRiends Of Gambian Schools (FROGS) - and organization based out of England!  I came across a God-send of a woman who fell in love with the idea of a Health School up-country for women and helped me figure out funding and logistics.

I will not be teaching any of the lessons.  The other wonderful thing about this project is the fact that it will be community led and implemented.  My counterpart, Demba, has volunteered the 6-months to teaching the lessons ON TOP of all of his work being the community health nurse.  He's my hero.  This will allow me to be in the shadows, helping to develop the lesson plans and figure out all the "behind the scenes" work to make this school roll smoothly.

Rest assured, I will be keeping you all updated on the progress of the school.  Yay for good news, eh?!  Also in the world of meetings today, I have met up with the American Embassy in hopes of getting a vegetable and fruit market funded for Bati Njol.  So much produce, nowhere to sell... we'll see how this goes! 

I feel like a real Peace Corps Volunteer!!

On top of all this work to come, I was able to work at an amazing camp run by Peace Corps volunteers - my coworkers.  The camp was called "CAMP GAGA" (Girls About Global Awareness) and blended lifeskills curriculum with environmental education.  I helped to teach a few sessions and run activities & games.  It was so much fun I am finally starting to get over my fear of public speaking.

Outside of the "work" world, I have picked up a new hobby and introduced it to my village. HOOPING.  Yes, hula hooping.  I found some local materials, had a friend help me put it together, and the magic happened from there.  The women and children have learned to LOVE it, and so do I.  I want to get really good at hooping, full of tricks and fancy spinning stuffs.  I've also been making dream catchers out of trash and beads sent from home (THANKS SID!).  Ubbb, frisbeeing with kids is fun too.  I know, I know - I am still a 5-year old.

So that's just about it kids.  I want to post pictures but internet is not strong here.  Soon soon I will post pictures of hula hooping and frisbee throwing kids, including myself.  Peace and Love

Monday, September 12, 2011

Doin' Work!

Salaamaleekum! Peace be upon you ALL.

I hope you all are enjoying the end of summer and embracing the coming of a beautiful season, FALL!  It was always my mom's favorite season and now that I don't have seasons, I'm starting to see why she always appreciated the seasons so much.  It's always summer in The Gambia....

I made "Peanut butter balls" for my family!!

Well, I'm never really sure what you guys want to read about.  Do you all enjoy hearing about what projects I am involved with or about Gambian culture?  I've tried to alternate my entries to keep in interesting, but I guess I just treat my blogs like I do my journal; I attempt to blend frustrations with excitement, business (work and projects) with pleasure (my personal journey).  Anyhow, shoot me a quick line if you want to hear more of one thing than the other.  I'm up for suggestions and/or criticism (there's an anonymous option) ;)

At this state in my service, I am continuing to dip my hands in multiple, small projects, trying to feel out where I belong and what makes me happy.  I had a sort of.. realization, recently.  It hit me that I signed up as a health volunteer, no matter how much I wish I had the same training as the environment volunteers.  So.. for a few days, I just sat in my huge.. maybe took a stroll through the bush.. thinking hard about what I want to pu tin/get out of my time here in Africa.

The cous and corn are now taller than me!
Conclusion: I am a teacher at heart.  Many people have told me that I'd make a killer teacher, and when I think about when I taught yoga and swimming in the past, I was so happy!  Knowledge is sustainable, and since one of the main goals of the Peace Corps is sustainability, maybe I should take what I'm good at and enjoy and turn that energy into WORK.  So I've come to the conclusion that I want to focus my energy in health education - which incluces environmental education (WIN WIN)!

Neem cream cooking demonstration at the clinic!

Recently, I taught my village about "Neem Cream".  Neem is a tree here in The Gambia that is known for deterring termites and - get this - MOSQUITOS!  Mix some neem leaves with soap, oil and boil it all together, and BAM you have mosquito repellant.  We've decided to call it "Diwi Yow", which translates to mosquito oil.  It really works, too!  My counterpart and I held a cooking demonstration to teach people how to cook up some malaria repellant.  Surprisingly, men attended the session as much as women did (very rare here in Bati Njol), and they were so very thankful - SO WAS I!

Cutest. Kid. Ever. On way to Koriteh Prayer!
Also, I've been helping out with the National Nutrition Surveillance in my village and 4 of the surrounding villages.  Using the height and weight measurements of kids under 5-years old, we could gauge their level of nutrition.  Later, we will sit down with the mothers of the "severely malnourished" kids to council them and give them nutritional supplements for their kids.  My goal, if my counterpart has a little extra energy, is to try and push the use of Moringa leaves in the food bowl.  Gram for gram, Moringa has:
  • 2 times the protein and 4 times the calcium as in milk
  • 4 times the Vitamin A as in carrots
  • 7  times the Vitamin C in oranges
  • 3 times the potassium as in bananas
Once again... MIRACLE TREE!  It's nickname is also "never-die" because it grows in the harshest of climates and conditions (aka Africa).

Lastly of the small projects is CAMP GAGA; this is different from the other camp I wrote about.  At the end of this month, me and about 15-20 other PCV's will meet in Basse (eastern most part of The Gambia), to guide young women to speak up about environmental issues.  We will blend environmental education with lifeskills (confidence, healthy decision making, etc) for girls aged 14-16, in grade 8 & 9.  STOKED. I'm teaching a reuse/recycle activity, getting the girls to think about how they can creatively reuse materials before we "throw them to the dogs"; we will attempt to make picture frames from old scraps of fabric and twigs, which is tooootally do-able.  I even made a dream catcher from trash... go figure!

Well, I will let you all go FOR NOW ::evil laugh::.  The next entry will be energy packed, for I have BIG plans for the women in Bati Njol!  I guess I'm really doing what I'd hoped and knew I would be doing all along.  Mom was right... "projects will come, don't stress."  Mom always knows best! 
I let the kids get creative with my hair - MOHAWK!
Thank you all for following my blog and sending snail mail/packages.  Aum, Peace, Love!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011



For those of you who are not so familiar with the traditions of Islam, I wanted to write a small post about Ramadan!  This year I am participating in the fasting, alongside my village, the rest of the country, and most Muslims on this Earth (oh yeah and the Peace Corps volunteers who live in Islamic countries)

When the moon is seen the first few days of August, the month long tradition (and requirement for Muslims) of fasting begins.  This is a time of turning our energy, thoughts, and bodies toward God.  From sunrise to sunset, absolutely nothing "sweet" can enter the body.  This includes the following:

* food or drink (ANYTHING you can think of in this category is not allowed)
* saliva... yes it's true.  I try and keep my guard up for the stray spit that may come my way throughout the day!
* incense, or anything artificial that may be sweet to the senses

ALSO not allowed:

* sex (ouch)... I can sympathize with the people on this one haha!!
* cigarettes, or really any sort of addiction the person may have..
* attaya - I previously touched on this phenomenon in The Gambia, see previous blog postings for details.

SO, from 5:40am to 7:40pm, the people in my village cannot partake or consume anything that may turn their attention away from God.  I love the idea of spending more thought-space and energy on God, and this isn't the first time I've done a fasting for this purpose; however, I have never participated in this type of fasting and am extremely grateful to be participating in such a challenge!  I have altered the fast a little and am still consuming water when needed, but all else I am staying within the rules (this is considered cheating by all men of my village, and I get heckled for it everyday...).

At 5:00am, I wake up with the women and men of my compound to eat a rice porridge filled with sugar and sour milk (ewwww, avoid!).  Once full, I stumble back to my bed and passsss out for a few hours.  My family, however, gets ready to farm for the rest of the morning - from around 7:00am-12:00pm on average.  This includes sowing crops, weeding the fields and all the intensive labor involved in farming/agriculture.  I still believe that Gambians are robots and have no idea how they stay moving without food OR water while working so hard.  After farming, the men mostly take the "rest of the day off" and lay around.  The women continue with the day, doing laundry, watching the kids, cooking for the people who are not fasting (kids, pregos, elderly, special cases), preparing the break-fast meal, and MAYBE catching a nap in between all these chores.  I have the utmost respect for all of the Gambians who are fasting, but DAMN the women have it hard.

I'm sure I haven't hit all the details.  I know the praying is prolonged and more frequent throughout Ramadan, and I just recently witnessed the most beautiful occurrence last night.  It was about 10:30pm, and my whole family was lying out under the stars.  Just as I started to doooze into dreamland, my whole family got up together (men and women) to pray under the stars.  It is very rare to see men and women pray together here, so it was quite entrancing for me to watch.  My father led the prayer, alongside my mothers, sisters, wives (brothers wives), and daughter.  It was a very humbling experience for me and made me very happy to be here in the Gambia - it EVEN makes being called "toubab" bearable.  Islamic prayer uses a series of movements and prostrations; these were all done in sync by my family which was SO beautiful.. too bad it's rude to take pictures during prayer or else I would have been alllll over that!

So far, the fasting has been fine with no problems.  The first few days were hard, with trying to farm beside my family and not eat/drink (i don't want to drink in front of them).  After the initial shock, my body has adjusted and I find myself thinking less and less about food throughout the day.  HOWEVER, come 6pm I start counting down the minutes until the sweeeet foodbowl of veggies, fish, meat (on accident, when I can't tell what it is), and rice.  I love breaking fast with my family with bread and coffee.  I feel healthy as ever, cleansed in mind, body and spirit

For those of you who are curious, find a Muslim buddy to fast alongside - I'm sure they would appreciate your efforts to become God-conscious and understand a tradition of their beautiful religion.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Look mom, I'm a Peace Corps volunteer!!


Greetings to everyone.  All is well here in Fana Fana territory.  I am writing this blog to let you know how much I officially feel like a Peace Corps volunteer and am HAPPY at the same time!  I know you all will feel my energy in this one, because it's just about to burst out of me, along with rice and cous... because I have been consuming in them unreal amounts - HAH!
did i tell you i got purple WEAVE??

even my 5-year old daughter can farm! awww she's cute.
So, updates YES.  The project I may or may not have mentioned before has officially completed it's first stage.  In case I never wrote about it, I will brief you.  For the past month, I have been organizing with (mostly) women in my community to plant 2,300 moringa trees (see previous blog about this miracle tree) and 150 cashew trees in our women's garden.  Along side these beauties, the women have already broken ground, broken a sweat, and planted hundreds of vegetables ranging from hot peppers, sweet peppers, lettuces, cassava, okra, and the list could go on and on.  There are 100 plots of about 15 meters by 10 metes - each compound (household) getting one plot to do with as they wish.  Veges are great and all, but there are hundreds of reasons to plant trees alongside veggies, as they complement the soil and our bellies HA i'm clever!
seeeeeds! oh how i worship the moringa...

measuring for seed placement. such hard workers!

my brother sowing corn in Senegal (it's only 1k from my village)

After a few meetings, the women agreed to sweat alongside me, putting all 2,450 seeds in the ground in an orderly fashion.  We used an alley cropping (just gooogle it) method to aid in soil enrichment and erosion prevention, along with various other purposes.   We just finished the plantings a few days ago, and now we play the waiting game.... THE RAINS HAVE YET TO COME!  This is unheard of.. last year the rains came early June, and now it is heading in August.  They women have resorted to rain dances and praying to the Gods for a slight chance of rain.

a rain dance!  i didn't think they really existed - hah!
 This project is a long-term nutrition education project.  The health benefits to moringa, alongside the thousands of vegetables the women are already planting, will be an amazing chance to educate Bati Njol on the benefits of keeping the foodbowl colorful instead of selling all of them in the local Lumos!  Once the trees come up a few meters, they will be more likely to take ownership of the them, which will hopefully help this project be a success.  Anyhow, I'm super stoked about it already and I can't wait to see what happens!!!

and and and

Outside of the gardening project, I have recently had the opportunity to bring out my inner camp-counselor!  The Forum for African Women Educationalist of The Gambia (FAWEGAM) has been holding a week long camp for young women in 9th-11th grade.  This camp is intended to allow the girls to realize their potential as bright, educated, confident young women to balance having a family with having successful careers.

20 of The Gambia's most beautiful, inspired, and inspiring young women (oh yeah, and 3 PCV's!)
Our camp has been filled with field trips to visit sucessful Gambian woman who have come from the same places these girls have (mostly in traditional villages up-country), who tell their stories of determination, struggle, perseverance and success!  It's been incredibly fun and educational at the same time.  When they are not learning about gender-roles, female and male anatomy (OH MAN that was a fun session), and other life skills, we are making Gambian-style jewelry - BIN BINs (see picture below), coloring like 5-year olds, dancing and having a good ole time at camp!! 
Waist beads that MOST every Gambian woman wears (i'll explain later, remind me.. eh?)

Beads, Beads, everywhere!  I love camp.

It made me realize how much I love working at camps and being around the youth of this beautiful world.  Education is sustainable.  These girls will never forget this experience.  Some of them have NEVER been out of their regions of the country. Some of them have NEVER spoken out about issues such as careers, gender-roles, sex, marriage, etc etc... THIS IS AN AMAZING OPPORTUNITY FOR THESE GIRLS!  I am so grateful to have been given this opportunity.  Of course, they were all kinds of shy in the beginning... but I had to change that IMMEDIATELY; I made them all get up and dance haha!  Even the American Ambassador came out for the opening ceremony, and her words of advice were this "IT IS NOT OKAY TO JUST BE A HOUSEWIFE!" and she even pointed a definitive finger at the girls.  By the way she used to be a Peace Corps volunteer and helped to fund this camp (so awesome)!

I wanted to let you all know that I am busy, I'm happy, frustrated at times, but I'm being a Peace Corps volunteer - we all go on this roller-coaster ride of emotions.  I'm doing what I always knew I would... helping to educate, motivate, laugh, dance, learn, and make an impact on those who I am surrounded by.  Thank you to all of you who motivated me to do the Peace Corps.  Mangi ci kowam, ndanka ndanka (I'm on the work, slowly slowly).

The community health nurse and I working in the garden!
So, just a reminder that I LOVE snail mail.  My address is right over -------> thurr.  Write me some darn mail, don't be lazy. 

You all inspire me.  Peace & Love.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Hello, my name is Toubab.

Definition of "Toubab" - outsider, foreigner (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toubab)

Can be used as:

1. Noun - someone of lighter skin color, a european.. or someone seen as "whiter"
2. Verb - to toubab someone, or "do toubab".
** example: I am given a price that is higher when I'm in the market ONLY because my skin color - this is known as being "toubabed".
3. Adjective - a toubab price, especially seen in the larger cities, where the tourists roam.  During tourist season, all prices are jacked up unless it's a set price, which is only seen in larger stores, also known as "toubab stores".

Sometimes it is used as a way to get my attention, and it works.  When I go to the local market (Luumo), I am usually the only person with white skin, so when I hear "TOUBAB!!!" being yelled out, I know it's for me.  As for kids, it is their first word they learn after birth.  Why?  In the areas where tourists come, Toubabs give mintis (candy).  And in the case of my training village, they may receive books, prescription reading glasses, cookies, etc etc by the tourists who have come to do their good deeds for the year by riding around in large busses and throwing these items out to "the starving african children".  But that's a reason for another blog... handouts - these make my job as a Peace Corps Volunteer very challenging.

So why am I writing a blog on this term? It's because I absolutely loathe it - it's implications, it's literal definition, the sound of it, everything about it.

Other than it being used as an attention getter, I see this term as being extremely degrading - comparable to "The N word" back home.  The concept of "outsider", in my mind is the thing that disconnects us from each other, and thus stunting any hope for progress and integration.  WE ARE ALL OF THE SAME SOUL, THE SAME MATTER, THE SAME PLACE IN THIS UNIVERSE.  When I hear this word, I cringe, and sometimes even shut down.  This is because often it is accompanied with "give me money" or "take me to America".  I mean LITERALLY people say "TOUBAB, GIVE ME MONEY!" and is screamed at me by tens of kids at one time "TOUBAB, MINTIIIII!".

Just like the person calling me Toubab, I have a name.  I have 2 names actually - Shawn Reed and Mariama Sowe.  Granted, the may not KNOW my name, but they don't yell out "HEY BLACK PERSON" to their fellow Gambians to get their attention (okay sometimes they say "boy!").  Even if the person doesn't know my name, I expect to be greeted just like every other person in this county, with "Salaamaleekum" - meaning " Peace be upon you ".  Before you approach anyone, the first thing you say here is Salaamaleekum.  If they will not take time to greet me like every other person they come in contact with, then I will not give them my time or attention. 

My coworkers and I have sacrificed 2 years of our lives of comfort, left behind friends, family and loved ones, and are living halfway across the world in a new culture, language and for most a new religion.  We have come to help one of the most underdeveloped counties in the world, and the smallest country in Africa... At least give us a proper greeting!!

Sadly, being called a Toubab every single day, by 2-year olds and 82-year olds alike, in and outside of my village (ESPECIALLY outside of my own village), sometimes makes me not want to be here.  YES - I am a foreigner.  I glow at night and you can see me from a mile away.  I will NEVER blend in, no matter how culturally appropriate I dress or how well I master the local languages; I am not a Gambian, I AM AN AMERICAN.

However, underneath my skin, I am the same as every human being.  If you really want to get into it, I am the same as every single THING, living & non-living, in this entire universe.  But, I digress.

This has been a problem for every PCV I know.  Sometimes, I feel like even the birds call me "toubab" ( I swear I heard it once.. or maybe that's the mephloquine) when I'm strolling in the bush.  When I hear it, I am reminded how far away from home I really am.  Imagine, hearing this about 20 times a day or 200 if in the city. 

So how am I coping?  I'm learning to shake it off.  Maybe I should just embrace it?!  I AM TOUBAB, HEAR ME...laugh?" ,because it's all I can do.  I cannot escape the wrath of the Toubab.  Maybe there will be  a day when I am called "sister" by everyone.  I like to consider every human being to be my family.  Things will change, but the Gambia has a phrase I like to remind myself of frequently.  You will see this many times in the life of this blog... "slowly slowly".

Thank you for hearing my rant, and by ALL means - leave a comment.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Tradition and Change - Culture and Development - Religion and Progress

Salaamaleekum! Peace be upon you all :)

Dreams are the Seeds of Change
The rains are falling, the seeds are sown, and the work has come.  For the past 5 days, I have been in the city for our final Peace Corps training sessions.  All of the health volunteers, who came with me in January, got together for idea sharing and brainstorming sessions.  I found the whole in-service to be extremely helpful; it allowed me to share ideas for/from my village, brainstorm with my co-volunteers (who I found out are seeing alot of the VERY same issues that I have seen in my own village), and find effective ways to implement sustainable projects and ideas into the minds of those I am trying to help. 

Building a Soak Pit for proper water drainage
(standing/open water may cause the breeding of mosquitoes that may carry Malaria - eeek!)
 I believe the hardest part of being in Peace Corps so far (outside of adapting to the culture, learning a new language, and missing home) has been trying to find effective ways to preserve culture, tradition & the deep roots of religion, while trying to progress a community and it's people.  Surprisingly, even though The Gambia is the smallest country in Africa, there are over 6 different ethnic groups - each speaking different languages - and all being deeply rooted in Islam.  This is where I find the most beauty in the "smiling coast of Africa".  It's a double edged sword though, sometimes...

The community I live in is a traditional Wolof (Fana Fana) community.  They are known for their eccentric dancing, proper language without English influence (meaning no English words are randomly thrown in, like I hear in the cities), rich culture and faith, and I hate to say it but... stubborn minds!  I wish I could put it in a different light, but it seems like they just don't want to budge when certain opportunities come to "progress" the community, further development, or even implement essential elements of change that will better the well-being of the community members. 

Traditional Wolof Wedding - they LOVE to dance, even late into the night!
For example, recently I realized that my entire village either doesn't wash their hands before eating/after defecating; if they do wash their hands, it is common here to not use soap and running water.  This may sound like a silly thing to put on my resume when I get back to the States ("taught proper hand washing"), but here it is a huge health concern aiding in the spread of diseases that could potentially lead to death.  Good news people - it's preventable to spread germs and bacteria!  In the States and for alot of the world, 'germ theory' and disease transmission is understood, as well as simple methods of prevention - such as hand washing.  Here, if someone gets sick or even dies, it may be the act of evil spirits, spells, or witchcraft.  The people sometimes don't understand what a "germ" is or how it may cause diarrhea, respiratory infections, conjunctivitis, and the list goes on. 

Hand washing demonstration
Therefore, I decided to start a hand washing campaign - sounds easy right?  Well, maybe in a place where soap is affordable and available, water flows from the faucets like a waterfall, and there's a sink next to the place where "pooooping" takes place to conveniently wash the soiled culprits or where cooking takes place to clean up before preparing meals for the family.  It's a mouthful, I know.. but my point is - IT'S INCONVENIENT TO WASH HANDS here.  At least that's what the mindset of most villages is.  Soap - either you make it or you buy it .. and that may cost some Dalasis ($$$).  Water - it's wayyyy easier to stick a bucket in the middle of the compound for the whole family to slosh their hands around in before eating out of a single food bowl.  By the time the food comes around, people are ready to dig in.. proper handwashing takes wayyyy too much time (so they say). Plus, I realized that some people don't even know what a germ is in the first place. 

I recently learned how to make soap!
This is one example of how hard it might be to change the mindset of my village on something as simple as hand washing.  So, despite the barriers to proper sanitation, the hand washing campaigns have been very successful.  However, behavior change takes time... reminders.. uprooting old habits to sow new ones.  Heck, even I forget to wash my hands before snacking sometimes.  We all forget to do things that we know are beneficial to the maintenance of our minds and bodies, but it's even harder when people don't even have the basic education to equip themselves with proper health habits in the first place. 
Back to the main point - even if people gain the knowledge of disease transmission and prevention, the Fana Fanas (or any tribe) still may decide that hand washing isn't worth buying/making soap or a kettle for running water, or taking the time to teach their family to wash their hands because they still believe that someone put a curse on their family, an evil spirit entered their body to make them sick, or it was an act of God.  So, my challenge is, how can I properly introduce change while trying to preserve the culture, traditions and strong faith, that the Fana Fanas are known for and are so proud of?  It's a tough one.  And this is just HAND WASHING!  Imagine when I try to educate my village on birth spacing/birth control/family planning, or any other ideas that may "challenge" the Islamic faith.
Crafting JuJu charms that are made to
ward off evil spirits, prevent disease, or even prevent KNIFE PENETRATION;
usually made with animal bones and Quranic scripture
 On a more positive note, I have a few ideas (thank you in-service and friends from home).  My dear friend Moya Moye, an enlightening fellow I knew back in college, suggested that I educate myself in the principals of Islam.  Instead of trying to butt heads with the beautiful Muslim faith that deeply permeates my village, I should use it in conjunction with my own goals as a Peace Corps health volunteer! Recently, I have found a few books that highlight Islamic ideals, which include maintaining the health of the body and well-being of children & family.  If I can find ways to relate these progressive ideas and habits, that Peace Corps wants me to introduce, back to their roots in Islam and traditional Gambian culture, then it's beneficial for everyone!

So all in all, I'm on the up and up, slowly slowly.  The Gambia has a proverb "Ndanka Ndanka mooy jappa golo ci alle bi" which translates from Wolof to "Slowly Slowly catches the monkey in the bush"... it's pretty much the motto of every Peace Corps volunteer in The Gambia.  It means SLOW THE HELL DOWN!!  Progress takes time and patience.  You can't grow a tree overnight.
... just a cute monkey!