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

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Stare at me any longer and I will eat your face

Another village and another compound where I sit quietly, the children watching me: an ancient relic, an abomination, or strange creature. This far out into the bush many children may have never seen a toubob (white person) before. They come running from all around the village and before you know it i am surrounded by children.

They watch me silently as if i will spontaneously combust they stare and stare and stare. Sadly this has made my love of children sour into a sheer question of numbers. The number of small objects in my way as i do something. I brush three wide eyed children aside as i open the car door, i lift up a small child and set him aside as he does not even move as I bear down on him on a path, i have to part them like water if I sit down to long. 

It was at the beginning of one of these stare sessions that i saved a small baby chicken. I had recently arrived in a new village and the people as they always do had scrambled to grab their best chair and put it out into the front yard. I sit and i wait for them to congregate enough for our training. I have accumulated my customary crowd of children staring at me from a safe the white man might eat you distance... i had been there not five minutes when a rooster began crowing. If you have not read my past blogs, roosters are my bitter enemy; they are loud bullies that get into crowing matches with other roosters at all times of the day, then cock fights... oh and to mate they hunt down the female and physically subdue her with their beaks, size, and strength I did not know this but they also eat their young if they are too weak or they want to thin out a competing roosters chicks

So i am sitting there, children all agape at me, when all of a sudden i see a small chick hurriedly waddle under my chair for protection immediately followed by a two legged rooster blur and a high pitched chirp from under my chair as the rooster grabs the chick by its beak preparing killing it. Emerging from under my chair, chick in beak squealing, the rooster didn't know what he was in for. I snatch the rooster up with one hand, in its total shock it drops the small chick that scampers safely away. The surprised rooster gives a load squawk, its limbs clawing the air like a small wind up tyranasourus rex. Slowly I rotate the rooster in my hand staring at him with the fear of onion sauce in his eyes. "Bad rooster!" I tell him, I then backhanded throw-release him to the ground where he stumbles around clucking for awhile before making his escape.
The chick is unharmed under its mom's protection once again but the kids remain staring, I am truly an abomination. 

My trek to the land of milk and honey.
Fresh milk and millet porridge was a staple of our breakfast on trek
I just returned from two weeks of trekking. On which I was stung continually everyday 5-10 times, acquired 120 liters of honey, drank local well water without getting sick, and consumed fresh milk straight out of a cow most days. Some day I will write down some fascinating stories to contextualize these experiences but as always for me a picture is worth more words than I want to type over a dwindling internet connection. Here is a short overview of the worst night of my Peace Corps experience thus far.

This was not the nightmare hive I am referring to, but it was a hive about this aggressive, that' me on the right 
Kiang... possibly the most isolated place in the Gambia. This is not because of the distance involved rather the quality of the road and state of poverty that is poor even relative to that of the rest of Gambia. I have now trekked for 12 days and the stress of daily going out, harvesting hives, getting stung, processing honey ie getting stung, baiting and sighting hives (the only time i dont get stung) is taking its toll on me. However being in one of our last villages I am assured that tonight's beekeeping session will probably be one of the last.
Me walking with a bucket on my head and rice sacks on my legs

Here in the Gambia we do not have the latest and greatest beekeeping technology so we make do with a number of local fixes. One of which is rice bags to cover out legs. Also, our suits are not thick and I have taken a number of stings through the suit but the rice bag over the leg always worried me. Today was my undoing.

The hives we are working with are in a thorn bush and horribly maintained. Ironically the man we're working with is a trainer for the National Beekeepers Association of the Gambia, despite this he was hesitant to suit up to look at his own hives. After convincing him to suit up I tie up my rice bags and gardening gloves to my customary suit that I have now realized it far too thin to keep out all stinger penetration. Regardless, I have become accustom to the 5-10 stingers that make their way through my suit on a given session. 

You would never guess it from my actions in joining a beekeeping NGO, but I have always maintained a healthy fear of bees and as the days have progressed with getting stung by I have been having a consistent string of "I am covered in bees stinging me" nightmares.  

We walk up to our first hive and open what is the most agressive hive I have ever worked with. Withing 60 seconds of opening the hive everyone is covered in about 1000 angry bees. Balla, who is attempting to hack away at pieces of the thorn bush with a small knife is clearly in danger of having his suit rip and taking 1000 stings from crazy African bees. At this point I am pleading with Balla telling him to leave the hive and try the other one not inside the thorny bush when I feel it. 

Little legs are climbing up my leg inside my rice bag and then BANG. I get it in the leg. 10 seconds later again and again, faster now. I abandon the others to walk my out out of my living nightmare. Cursing every step of the way. 

When a bee stings you it leaves a sent trail that other bees can follow. This way a small bee sized hole can turn into bees intelligently waiting their turn to enter your suit and sting you. As I am walking I am now unaware how many stings I have taken as the overall throbbing has made it very difficult for me to tell. I walk 2km back into the village and there are still some bees on me. After killing each one by squashing them, I remove my rice bag and with the help of a villager we remove each stinger from my leg one at a time... I put on a new hole-less rice bag and return to beekeeping. In the morning my leg is covered in itchy hives, in two weeks of consistent exposure to bee venom my body has developed a red itchy painful throbbing sensitivity to getting stung everyday. Before my next trek I will get gardening boots and I will wear long sleeve shirts to keep down the sting exposure. 

It is life changing to daily have to confront something you're terrified of. If you would have told me I would be doing this when I entered Peace Corps I would have told you you were crazy, there is now way I could do this. What a wonderful experience to have once you have come out on the other side but not when its happening. 

Spend your week in peace and Happy Easter,  

In Karentaba we sited a number of hives on wires so that termites couldn't get to them

Working with the villagers and interested small boys of Kuyang to set up their apiary 

One hive we colonized in a day, we put it out with fresh wax, and in 12 hours thousands of bees had a new home

Processing wax= heat over fire strain through a cloth

Balla fishing for honey

Me showing off a comb of half honey. The specs are stored pollen.

Some of the local boys made a rice sack and put leaves on their head so they could watch us beekeep without getting stung

Pressing heated wax through a cloth, fellow volunteer Hillary is helping out here

Now I really thought that this was a little too obvious. While walking through the city I was caught off guard by this... I mean smoking kills might need a reminder... I don't know about fire.

There are many open air hives in the Gambia. Bees will literally just build giant combs on the branches of trees

In order to get bees in your hive and for them to build correctly we put fresh wax on every bar of out hives. One bar should equal one comb

This is a cross combed hive. This is a nightmare of bee killing and knife work by contrast look back to the picture of me holding just one comb

Processing honey. Literally we just mash it up and let the honey drip through cloth.

However I did get stung a lot doing this because there are so many, dead or only half dead bees in the honey.

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