"The body is the harp of the soul. It is yours to bring forth from it sweet music or confused sounds" Kahlil Gibran

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Balding, Bees, and Impromptu Salsa with the Ambassador of Venezuela

Planet Bald - Population You

Planet Bald- Population: Almost every male volunteer but myself 

Reunited! Finally after months of separation volunteers from all over the country returned to receive In Service Training.  This included a number of exciting subjects that will be covered later.... but to my surprise, most of my returning friends, driven crazy by heat, went under the razor and were now bald.  

Am I now Gambian?

Upon landing on the Planet or Country (depending upon expert opinion) of Africa, the Peace Corp volunteers wearily venture out of their space pod to explore the strange new world. (That is in fact me in the bee suit pictured there)
Before I begin, it is becoming more difficult to write a post.  Life starts to seem quite normal here, and in my daily conversations with Gambians we start to wonder ourselves at all the amazing things that happen in America.  This week I sat down and had a conversation with Bahtu, a Peace Corps staff member.  He had visited the US, and started trying to explain a Wendy's drive-thru to the other Gambian staff members.  He switched back and forth to Mandinka, and the awe on their faces was a priceless.  Here lunch takes 2 hours to prepare and usually involves a large cooking fire, a giant metal pot, tireless stirring and maintenance, and possibly the slaughtering of one of the farm animals.  The idea that you can drive up to a building, ask for food, and then it appears out the window of the building in 2 minutes is nothing short of a miracle here.  

Afterward I took a video of him trying to relate what a parking ticket was in excited English and Mandinka.  If you watch the video, please also note that I am speaking in Gambian English, which is the only English I can effectively communicate in, it means speaking slowly and using phrasing that only a Wolof or Mandinka speaker would understand.  Phrases like "I am on my way coming" "Off it!" (Instead of turn it off), "have you lunched today?" and finally adding "eh" after most phrases is now common for me.  

Within this context, I find myself being able to relate to Gambian life more than American life.  This makes it really hard to write blog posts because I am having trouble thinking that my day to day life is that exceptional anymore, and I really have to try to pull myself to an outside perspective to realize that indeed there are so many things that I feel should be shared.

The Most Exciting Week Thus Far
Back to in service training, this past week we learned bee keeping, tree grafting, composting, water management, and general garden and planting ideas and solutions.  Meaning, this was the most interesting week of perhaps my whole service.  


By far the most exciting thing was learning about the African Honey Bee!  From a fear stand point.  The African Bee rules, they respond much more quickly to disturbances sending out swarms of bees and will pursue you for almost 4 times further than the average honey bee (about 250-300 yards).  All over the Gambia, they make large open air hives hanging from the massive baobab trees.  Sadly, traditional bee keeping in the Gambia usually involves honey hunters as they are called, climbing trees and killing whole hives by setting fires and burning them out.  This leads to declining bee populations and honey that is cloudy, sooty, and of poor quality. 

We spent a considerable amount of time learning about bees, bee keeping, and the large market and desire for Gambian honey.  Check out the video I took in one of the hives (also posted left, but of better quality on youtube) 

The pictures below document some of the interesting things learned from our beekeeping sessions.

Each of us were given baby bee hives in hopes that we would go out and catch our own bees.

This comb will be melted down to bait these top bars.

Dave a Peace Corps Volunteer putting down lines of wax on the top bars of bee hives to bait them in hopes
of catching bees.
Different than the bright white and yellow comb seen in the movie which was pure capped and uncapped honey.  This is older brood comb where the bees (drones and queen) reproduce and place their eggs.  Some honey is still at the top for their consumption.  The masses of bees on the edges are adding wax to enlarge the comb.

Some of us just like wearing Bee suits in case the world was to end... say like 3 Saturdays ago! 

Mick is an incredible man.  He has come to Gambia from England to promote local bee keeping with his wife, together they started an NGO called BEEcause.  It is a wonderful and truly selfless organization. He is preparing the smokers for action. 

One of the hives we investigated.  The signs for the closest tree are posted in front of each, every honey indeed tastes different and mango honey is awesome!

Other Activities During IST

Water and erosion management 

We built a dam as a water break to prepare for the rainy season.
Alternatives to gardening

As part of our IST this is a demonstration garden plot of lettuce using only peanut shells and a fertilizing chemical.

Pointless Games
In our free time, we pretend to be wizards and dwarfs and battle ancient fairytale creatures.  This picture commemorates me getting my butt handed to me by what I thought was just a potted plant... it later morphed into a Ancient Plutonium Dragon and I was roasted and eaten.


    This amazing fellow has been living in the Gambia for about 40 years trying to help local farmers make and manage compost and bio-char (a potent fertilizer made from combusting organic waste without air). He is now 80 and still full of energy. He stands in front of a locally made solar dryer where fruit can be dried by superheated air.
    Going to tree nurseries, this one was formerly sponsored by Iran, but no longer 
    This means Mike can no longer run for president of the US in 2012.  This picture proves he went to a secret Iranian agricultural school! He must have been born in Iran.

    All and all, this week was a truly once in a lifetime experience.

    Finally Impromptu Salsa!

    After a 6 month salsa drought... I found myself returning from a long day of beekeeping to the sound of salsa coming from a nearby restaurant. A few fellow volunteer friends were out on the patio so I decided to visit and watch what was apparently a salsa lesson going on... After watching for a few minutes, I decided to crash the lesson.  I went up to the instructor and tried to explain that I wanted to dance and found she spoke only spanish... I thought, "Oh, I know some spanish..." but upon trying all that came out was a weird spanish wolof mix as my wolof emerged in the midst of my decaying spanish.  This must have sounded quite ridiculous; regardless, I pressed on until I found someone in the class of only 4 who spoke English.  I explained my situation, and was allowed to dance with the instructor, a very scantily clad Lebanese woman, and a kind middle aged Venezuelan.  The latter two were novices, but we had a great time as I imagined my former glory days of salsa dance. I did quite well for not dancing in 6 months and trying to adapt to a different style of salsa.  In the end, I exchanged numbers with Carlos who said that he and the other woman worked with the government and were from Venezuela, and that we should all go dancing sometime at one of the local clubs (in fact the only one in the Gambia that has a Salsa night...).  Upon leaving I sat with my friends and was informed by the waiter that the lady I had just danced with was the Ambassador of Venezuela. Go figure!
    I am going to write another extended post soon about my whole IST experience and some of the incredible things I have learned, until then I wanted to post what I thought was some really good photos and videos!

    Be Beenen Yoon,
    Until another time (actually translates to until another road, which I like as a unique cultural representation)


    1. Xander I'm glad you're adjusting to the Gambia but I would be very sad if you stopped posting. Watch out for potted plants and other dangerous things.


    2. Hi Xander- I adore your blog and your touching and keen observations. Don't stop. I need you.
      But seriously, your writing is special and you amaze me. Thinking of you.


    3. Great Blog.I got informative post about the Balding as you define in your blog.Thanks for sharing.