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

Monday, June 13, 2011

6 Months Later and I am off to the Village

Little Omar and the Tubobasaurus Rex ... I know I should stop scaring the children :)

Tiny Omar lives in a small house with his family.  Only a child, he fearlessly roams the compound.  That was until the scary white creature moved in next door… Now Omar scampers by the door, and whenever he sees this strange abomination he screams, cries, and runs away.  One day Tiny Omar (or Omar bundow as I call him in wolof) ventured up to the lair of the strange creature and began banging on the door.  His attempts to investigate seem to be going nowhere… until he hears a faint tapping. He looks to the window and sees the creature staring at him mimicking tiny claw like motions going “raar…raar” behold the Tubobasaurus Rex!

Tiny Omar screams in blood curdling terror and retreats. I pause in mid T-Rex mimicry and laugh.  I know that this will not help the problem but I have tried everything that you would try on a terrified rabbit to convince it you are not a vicious carnivore.  Now I figure I should just play the role.  Many kids here are terrified of my ghostly white appearance, many have never seen a white person before.  I have walked out of a compound after visiting for the first time to an entire yard of small children crying in fear at the horror which they see… I am an albino monster.

On a quick note Tubob to child relations go as follows, 

Stage 1...OH MY! WHAT IS THIS: The Baby stage - If they are babies, they just stare in wonder at me. 

Wow, look at this thing...

Stage 2 FEAR: The Omar stage- After some time, they become afraid of the white abomination 

Ok...what... are...you?
Stage 3 MINTY: The Minty stage - As mentioned earlier, after realizing that many white tourists give them things they run around saying minty or money. 
When Fear turns to give me Minty
At this stage they seem like robots, due to poor schooling where they only repeat English phrases.  They run around yelling "hello ... hello ... hello... how are you... how are you i am fine... hello i am fine... i am fine"

Strange robots that run off of candy...

My Double Life

Soon I will head off for the village.  Not living there full time, I instead will do what is now being called, extensive trekking... this is because I cannot have two sites technically, but for an indefinite period I will be heading up to the North Bank during the week to a town called Fass (or Fass Njaga Choi) to help promote our Cashew Enhancement Project by helping a large women's group up there learn about: 

1) What is business, and what are good business principles.  We have these large posters with drawing such as a man with many people fighting over a few small items in a shop, and a store owner with on one coming in as jumping off points for concepts such as Supply and Demand and proper business planning, timing, location

2) I will help them organize their own business processing cashews. With countless hours already spent in the office ordering cashew equipment from India, I will now help them learn about book keeping, balancing profit and loss, depreciation, and saving.
Some of the laminated posters we have made to help with
business training using examples they can relate to.

3) I will prepare and train them when the cashew equipment arrives. 

4) I will do this all in Wolof. This is going to need some translation help because it is one thing to explain what you are doing today, and quite another to explain the concept of depreciation. 

My trekking starts this Tuesday.  I will be up in the village getting to know the women, and figuring out which ones are most motivated and competent for positions of this new business they, with our help, want to create.

Here is the "guard " for IRD.  He basically helps open the door when the vehicles come in, sits, brews green tea, and is exceptionally friendly from what I think I can gather from his ancient mumbled Wolof.  The baby is the cleaning lady's child.  This was a great picture even though it has been done 1000 times before where the ancient man holds the new born. Now I just need to sell this to IRD because I have some great publicity shots.

My Rooster Revenge (chickens eating chickens)

So, in perhaps the most sinister way possible I realize that chickens have it both amazing and rough.  Amazing because they are happy here, they roam, they peck, they wake me up at 530 with their crowing.  I however saw a sight that made me both laugh and gave me great pause as to the oppression of the chicken here. 

I visited my host family in the village again last weekend, and they slaughtered a chicken.  It made a great lunch, but as our family ate with their hands outside from the communal food bowl they began discarding the bones of the chicken… The chickens in the yard came running, and fighting over the left over pieces of tendon, and meat sill left on their recently deceased relative.  It was a bizarre thing to watch chickens fighting over the remains of their mother, father, sister, brother that had been pecking in the yard that very morning.  The forced family cannibalism was bizarre, sad, and comical at the same time

What Peace Corps means... (a few thoughts after 6 months in The Gambia)

A large wedding ceremony I went to last weekend where they cooked for over 300 people using these giant pots
Peace Corps for everyone means something different, some people get placed in villages, cities, mostly developed, underdeveloped, and undeveloped countries.  For volunteers we wither end up with the wrong conditions, or by strokes of luck get placed in amazing conditions.  Often times it has little do with Peace Corps itself and more to do with factors beyond anyone’s control.  What links us though is the hardship, that no matter where you go you get a difficult task. As compiled from my fellow volunteers, in the Gambia these conditions include,
  1. Horrible reactions to malaria medications (causing lack of sleep, mood swings, vivid dreams)
  2. Being placed in villages where people are not welcoming and/or speak a variety of different languages
  3. Having unbearable heat rash from the 100+ degree days (day after day)
  4. Eating coos, dirt, and poop from poor hygiene and sand storms
  5. No vegatables from the lack of anything but coos/rice and onion sauce
  6. Incredibly over aggressive and threatening men who desire money from the men, and sex and money from the women
  7. Intense language barriers adjusting to dialects and mumbling 
  8. A complete loss of privacy due to this cultures' disregard for personal space
  9. Horrible medical conditions ie festering wounds, malaria, Guardia, parasites, worms, scabies, schistosomiasis, and endemic rabies (indeed we had one volunteer get bit by a dog here, and was almost evacuated on suspicion of being rabid)
Then there are the emotional barriers that come with being a Peace Corps volunteer, these include
This is a woman cooking whole pieces of cow with a few other veggies.  There was at one point a snout in the bucket... 
  1. Not seeing friends of family for extended periods of 2 years or more.
  2. Fearing that everyone you know is forgetting about you and/or moving on
  3. Trying to manage long distance relationships for some of us
  4. Complete identity crisis caused by everything familiar disappearing
  5. Watching the way the culture here treats families, women, children, and animal 
  6. Including the beating of women by husbands, the children by women and the animals by the children, usually in that hierarchy leading to cascading violence and intense situations for volunteers placed in these families.
  7. The way women are treated socially- they have little say in finances, undergo FGM, do most of the work, have multiple multiple children, having to their husbands take on as many as three extra wives, and undergo a severe lack of education.
  8. Being called "Tubob" white man/woman all the time, with the racial assumptions that go with.  2 weeks ago I was walking with some friends and a man offered a taxi, when I declined he replied with distaste, "Come on, you are a white man, you can afford it, take a taxi" 
  9. Putting up with long sleepless nights of lizards, rats,  roosters, 5:30am calls to prayer and above mentioned malaria medication insomnia.
  10. The love/hate relationship we have with Peace Corps.  We love the people and the mission... but with the paper work and oversight is sometimes a nightmare to deal with: site changes, harassment issues, monetary issues, and just about anything requires a pile of forms and indefinite waiting.
  11. Watching friends you make leave on consistent 6 month intervals with the arrival of new groups, implicitly lending to the idea that all friendships here with the exception of your own group have a shelf life
  12. Thinking that you will never be understood by people in America again because you have seen what it is like to completely integrate with a foreign culture to the point where you take on a new relationships with your ideas of poverty, happiness, consumerism, globalization, and all your possessions.
  13. The intense pain of the above mentioned illnesses
  14. The potential loss of a family member to illness without ever being able to say goodbye
  15. Family and friends getting married having children living and dying without you ever knowing until it shows up on facebook
*These views are not experiences I have personally had in all cases, but each one has been brought up by other volunteers as to some of the intense hardships that they face.  I am also not expressing any direct view on Peace Corps here, just combined observations and opinions

All combines to make each person's experience an incredible and unique representation of the Peace Corps experience.  Some experiences are just what a given person needs to succeed, grow, and help others, others are given a poor set of circumstances.  We lost a close friend to an early termination recently.  It makes me truly sad because she was a close friend. You compare circumstances in Peace Corps because everyone has such a different experience because of the situation they were placed in. In this way there will forever be people who do not like Peace Corps, justifiably so! and others who loved it justifiably so.  There cannot be comparisons, we are just a collection of people living in different countries around the world and trying to get by.  Some of us are given circumstances that should not be tolerated as they are not helping ourselves and others. 

However, if we are lucky and get the right set of circumstances where we can grow and help people, the sustained difficulties we live through become the life blood of the Peace Corps experience. And if the above mentioned factors sound harsh, I just wanted to make a point that the only way to understand who we are over here, is to know that we will be changed here more by the bad times than the good times. When we step off the plane 2 years from now, the slow adaptation to the above mentioned factors will change each of us beyond recognition. 

Me and my coworkers at IRD
 Spend the day in peace


  1. Xander I don't know if this your experience or not, but I promise you are not forgotten over here. I think about you all the time and set the highest intentions for you. I hope you are happy, healthy, and in peace.

  2. I love the picture of the baby on the dad's lap. The picture on his shirt is great. He is ready for you as a dinosaur. Alex who?????