Saturday, January 18, 2014

Mama Suso's Top Ten Lists


Top 10 things I will NOT miss when we leave The Gambia:
1.       Random annoying children who scream at you, throw things at you, put their extremely dirty hands all over you, pinch you, pull your hair and/or demand money, candy, footballs and bicycles because at some point they became trained to believe that “toubobs”  exist to give them things. I look forward to the day when a 5-minute walk down any familiar or unfamiliar street isn’t a potential riot scene…And the day when choruses of “Tubob!” aren’t ringing in my ears everywhere I go.
2.       Fish-bone laden food bowls. I appreciate protein…but not at the risk of punctured tonsils.
3.       “Find me a Toubob (white) Wife.” There is not time enough in the world to explain how offensive this is (in our culture, I mean, not in local culture) or how tired I am of hearing it from random men at least once a day. Since I am married, I’m usually exempt from the more irritating, “I love you, you should marry me,” speeches but that doesn’t stop men from demanding that I “give” them my single female friends. I should mention that this is sometimes only banter…but I am not laughing.
4.       Bumster classics such as: “Hey, Boss Lady!”… “You are so nice, you are looking so beautiful.”… “Mama Africa!” “First time in The Gambia?” …. Actually, it’s not what they say so much as the fact that being approached by people who take you for a tourist and want to charm and entertain you gets very old over the course of 2 years. And while I mean no disrespect to the European women who come to The Gambia to pay for the companionship of young Gambian men with money and favors, I don’t want to be confused with one of them. Ever.
5.       Bug-infested and semi-spoiled foodstuffs. Nothing is safe – flour, things made with flour (like bread), oats and rice. In many places there is no alternative non-infested fresh food for saIe, so you just have to deal with it. I probably take in a good portion of protein from cooked bugs every week. I don’t have much choice in the matter. But it tastes horrible! Once larder beetles take over, nothing will disguise the awful taste and smell. In the same vein, most things in the village bittiks (small shops) don’t get refrigerated, so sometimes your eggs, mayonnaise or other items have a significant not-so-fresh flavor to them…but you’ve got to eat something, right?
6.       Market shopping experiences where the prices you are quoted are so ridiculously inflated that you don’t even want to bargain with the person. I know that I shouldn’t blame them for trying (on the off chance that I am a particularly clueless and rich tourist or an unfailingly kind philanthropist), but it still bothers me and it makes buying the simplest things a huge pain in the neck. I am looking forward to stores with set prices, aisles wide enough to avoid colliding with potential pickpockets and interpersonal interactions that are limited to exchanging pleasantries at the cash register. Not to mention that if strange young men follow you around Target attempting to give you a tour and get your phone number, that is actually illegal…or at least universally frowned upon.
7.       Slow and painful transportation. Long hours may be spent in vehicles that have no leg room and awkward bench seats that cut off circulation to your legs while your hips are closely wedged between the hips of your fellow travelers. Hazards like containers full of gasoline, puking babies, peeing goats and pooping chickens abound as well. Some vehicles stop what seems like every 20 yards in order to pick up or drop off random items. Nearly all vehicles stop frequently at police and immigration checkpoints. If you take the big buses, you are likely to not have a seat at all and, in extreme cases, only find room to plant one foot on the bus floor amidst the clutter of baggage and passengers, resulting in an awkward one-legged balancing act. On the plus side, the paving of the South Bank Road has resulted in the ability to arrive at one’s destination without a compressed spinal column (due to violent jarring) and thoroughly red dust-encrusted skin, clothing and baggage.
8.       “Take me to America.” Many people have a belief that we have magical powers to get them a visa and take them to the promised land. The fact that Darrin and I have neither a house nor any money in the U.S.  does not convince them otherwise. In fact, most of them don’t believe us and don’t want to hear anything potentially negative about life in the U.S. They want to believe that all Americans are insanely rich and that life there is always sweet. I am working on simply accepting this, but I am still so tired of these daily conversations.
9.       Always standing out. I am grateful for the experience of being a racial minority (because it’s not something I had often experienced in the U.S) and I am thankful that most of the attention attracted here is positive – or at least not hostile- but I dislike being whispered about, stared at, yelled at, singled out and, in some cases, run away from in terror (small children). I have taken advantage of the situation sometimes – for instance, I was waiting in a crowded shop to buy bread and when given the opportunity, as a foreigner, to cut in front of twenty local women (who were all violently jockeying for position at the counter) and get served first, I took it. But really, every day I fantasize about finding some magical way to make myself invisible. One idea has been to wear conservative Muslim garb with a full burka (not at all common here, but sometimes you see it) and paint the skin around my eyes brown to avoid detection…but that would be really hot and culturally offensive to some. Sigh.
10.   Slowest…internet…ever. Hard to find, hard to access and rarely worth it if you do. In our village there have been precious few moments when the planets aligned and decent internet was attained. If the network is on, the power is off. If the electricity is on, maybe the network is off because the tower fell over in a wind storm…Plus, someone stole all the computers in the hospital internet lab.

Top 10 things I WILL miss when we leave The Gambia:
1.       The kids in our host family! Especially Yusupha, who we have seen develop from a sickly, undersized 8-month-old to a healthy, active and loud 2 ½ year old!
2.       The occasional extremely delicious food bowl…maybe featuring domoda (peanut sauce over rice) or benechin (fried rice).
3.       Opportunities to make random host-family connections based on shared names. For example, one middle-aged man in my village is my “son” because his late mother shared my Gambian name, Mama Suso. Or if I randomly meet someone with my surname at, say, an immigration post, we can begin excitedly calling each other sister and brother, turning an otherwise routine interaction into a happy occasion.
4.       Excellent hospitality. This is demonstrated by random strangers sometimes inviting you to eat meals with them just because you walk by on the street.
5.       Call to prayer – with a few notable exceptions involving broken and earsplitting PA systems, I enjoy hearing call to prayer issue from the mosques 5 times a day. It’s especially beautiful when it is done old-school, acoustic style. As I like to tell my Muslim family and friends here, I am happy being a Christian and I don’t want to convert, but I admire Muslims very much for their devotion in praying together. It is a good reminder to people of any religion to think of God all day, every day.
6.       Taking a nighttime bath under the starry sky.
7.       It’s fairly easy not to be fat here, even though you may hardly ever work out and you eat a diet that is 95% carbs. There just aren’t that many appealing snack foods outside of the capital city area supermarkets and alcohol is hard to find and expensive. On the downside, many of us have experienced a serious loss of muscle too, due to lack of protein and a decent workout routine. Everyday activities like walking through deep sand, carrying buckets of water, gardening and biking don’t seem to help as much as you’d imagine.
8.       People not staring at their I-phone screens 24 hours a day or having long, loud phone conversations in public places. Now, to be fair, many Gambians love their cell phones and some of them have very snazzy ones. The etiquette of not answering your phone at certain moments isn’t usually observed, so you may see people answering phones while giving or attending professional presentations or while administering vaccinations (or anesthesia, as I was informed by a friend who observed an appendectomy in a local hospital the other day). But people don’t generally stay on the phone for lengthy periods, because phone credit isn’t cheap. And you don’t see people sitting together, interacting only with their phones and not each other…you see people sitting and chatting and acknowledging each other’s presences. Amazing!
9.       Occasionally, the relative lack of regulation – where things are based on personal relationships over an excess of rules, it is sometimes surprisingly efficient. For instance, in lieu of an official mail delivery system, things reach people all over the country by being handed out the windows of vehicles. I once had someone toss a bag of dewormer out of a vehicle at our police check point with instructions to give it to Mama Suso, and about 5 minutes later a small boy on a bicycle delivered it to my compound.
10.   The sweet randomness. Head to the market for onions and end up riding home on your bicycle with a live rooster in one hand (because someone told you it was a present for your host sister)…through a herd of cattle…while enjoying some frozen juice from a plastic bag. Or wake up in the morning to see your 2-year-old host brother squatting naked in the middle of the compound, pooping on the ground, with a shoe balanced on top of his head…smiling at you. Or waking up to cool morning air and the smell of smoke from people’s cook fires, then greeting and chatting (nonfluently) in five different languages in the process of walking to the nearest shop, buying bread and walking home.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Tobaski

Tobaski is the Wolof word for the important Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha. The holiday celebrates Abraham’s  near-sacrifice of his son Ishmael. Most important on this day is: lots of praying, sacrificing a ram (or cow or goat), looking fancy and feasting. For the kids, in the evening they get to dress up and go around asking for money and candy.  This year our community celebrated Tobaski on October 16, but due to ever-present technical problems I'm posting about it now!



2013: Dan (Jerreh) and Darrin (Kawsu) pose with our family's dog, Jack, in their nice holiday clothes

2013: Baby Therese chowing down on a large piece of meat and thoroughly enjoying it

Tobaski 2012: Binta snacks on some puffs while a ram is slaughtered.

Tobaski 2013: Fancy kids!

Friday, August 30, 2013

Material Baby!

A friend in our village(a mom with several kids) was recently urging me to hurry up and have a baby. I hear this from people all the time. Most Gambians are horrified to hear that the Peace Corps does not allow their married volunteers to procreate during their service. My friend pointed out that caring for a baby in The Gambia is not expensive, like it is in the U.S., so there should be no problem. You don’t need anything for the first month, she assured me. Just some old faanoos (wrap skirts) to wrap the baby in and replace with clean ones if the baby makes a mess. Later on, some used clothes might be nice. I didn’t even want to try to explain to her the massive amount of equipment some parents in the U.S. tote around on a daily basis!
When you have a baby in The Gambia, people generally give you things like money, soap and fabric – not crazy plastic contraptions. Granted, people in the Gambia are not inundated with the marketing of baby products like we are in the U.S. If these products were available and people had the money to buy them, they might. It’s human nature to like new, shiny products. And for many Gambians, having Western material goods is a big status things…so who knows. Maybe I will someday be visiting a more developed Gambia of the future, where people are pushing name brand baby joggers down village streets and sterilizing baby bottles in their electric dishwashers.
So, here is my top ten list of the West African way vs. the American way
(United States prices are estimates based on Amazon.com searches – I know they are not completely accurate!)
1. sport stroller for jogging(150 - 600 $ USD ) , regular stroller for general use (40- 400 $ USD), expensive baby backpack contraption and/or front-carrier contraption and/or store-bought baby sling (15 – 150 $ USD) , stroller base for car seat infant carrier (100 $ USD)
vs. wrap skirt (“faanoo”) (2 meters of fabric)  for riding on mom’s back (1 - 2 $ USD)
2. expensive child safety seat for automobile travel (80 – 300 $ USD)
vs. potential death in accidents involving baby riding unprotected in mom’s lap on public bus/donkey cart/taxi (0 $ USD) (I don’t even want to think about it!)
3. breastfeeding (0 $ USD) (In the U.S. A.: 49%  at 6 months, 27% at one year, says the CDC) or formula (20 $ USD)
vs. exclusive breastfeeding (0 $ USD) – anytime, anywhere…and no one cares or complains that it is obscene (in The Gambia: pretty close to 100%, barring a few exceptional situations, says me with no scientific proof)
4. disposable diapers (20 $ for 75) or cloth diapers (1 $ USD each) with intricate snap pants in cool design (12 $ USD)
vs. semi-reusable triangle of plastic (0.05 $ USD)  and an old, not especially absorbant rag OR nothing (0 $ USD – though you need soap and water for cleanup)
5. baby wipes (13 $ USD for 350 “all natural” wipes), baby wipe warming device (25 $ USD)
vs. plastic kettle (“tasaloo”) of water (1 - 2 $ USD) (I also recommend soap for proper handwashing)
6. play pen (50 – 100 $ USD)
Vs. mat on the ground (3 $ USD)
7. baby bathtub (25 $ USD), baby bath chair (20 $ USD)
vs. plastic basin (4 $ USD)
8. crib (150 – 300 $ USD), crib mattress (60 $ USD),  apnea alarm mat (100 $ USD)
vs. old fabric (0 $ USD), sheet of old plastic (0 $ USD), mom’s foam mattress (25 $ USD)
9. Fisher Price Laugh & Learn Click N’ Learn Remote (12 $ USD), Fisher Price Laugh & Learn Smart Screen Laptop (16.25 $ USD), Baby Einstein World of Rhythm DVD (10 $ USD)
vs. mom’s cell phone (20 $ USD), large, not-so-sharp knife (3 $ USD), sticks (0$ USD), goat poop (0$ USD)
10. Bouncer swing with IPAD  plug (200 $ USD)
vs.   Riding on mom’s back while she does work (0 $ USD)

No one can argue that West Africa is a safer place for babies than the U.S. – the discrepancy in access to health care is just too large. Malaria, diarrhea and respiratory infections take many infants’ lives here…and countless more die for reasons no one investigates. In the U.S. we have access to clean water, medicine and amazing emergency services. We have eradicated malaria, successfully vaccinated our population against many deadly childhood diseases, educated the public on many child safety issues and found ingenious ways to make traffic accidents less deadly for kids. But we Americans also spend a lot of time, money and energy on things that have no discernable benefit to our childrens’ health and well-being.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013


Work at Sulayman Junkung General Hospital is not always exciting. I’ve recently spent a lot of time collecting information for birth certificate registrations, adding it to the official books and filling out certificates when they’re available…we’re always slightly behind on this task and I know my help is appreciated, if not particularly essential to anyone’s health and well-being (except maybe the public health officers, who can spend more time taking breakfast breaks).
I also still help out at clinic by making sure kids get the proper vaccinations, as quickly as possible. At some of the busier trekking sites, some crowd control is necessary at the vaccination station.  Gambian women are a multi-talented bunch, but few of them really excel at orderly queuing.
Sometimes I have nagging doubts though – I think most Peace Corps volunteers want to feel that they did that one  major project that was flawlessly  conceived, perfectly executed and really helped their community in a big way. And many volunteers do! But you can’t just force a project, especially in a large community that already has a lot of resources. Many times in Bwiam I’ve had a sudden “great” idea, only to inquire and find out people are already doing whatever it is, by themselves! Sometimes the best I can do is say “Great job! I’m so happy you’re doing that! Let me know if I can help.”
I never knew much about development work before coming here and I still don’t. However, I have learned one thing: it’s really complicated. What makes a project succeed in terms of its effect on individuals or communities is pretty elusive sometimes. Having a sufficient grasp of what’s really going on in a completely different environment and culture is frankly close to impossible, even when you live alongside community members for months or years. As volunteers we see situations where foreign aid money is being poured into projects and the benefits are minimal – and people are less willing to work for their own needs because they now expect continued support.  In other cases, aid is essential for people’s well-being (for example: Global Fund’s funding of antiretrovirals for HIV patients at our hospital) and the idea that the money may someday dry up or be withdrawn is very scary.
There are definitely many people here who believe that all Americans are insanely rich and should be giving them money and things all the time. It’s hard to explain that some of us are privileged in terms of our educational opportunities and skills, but we don’t have bottomless amounts of cash to share with them. A lot of people don’t want to hear that and a few will even become angry with you or call you a liar. I have been trying to put my ego aside and not fight about this – I just want to be secure in my own knowledge that I’m helping in the best way I know how. If I honestly thought that throwing money at some serious problem here would solve it for once and for all, I would be eager to raise funds, write grants or do whatever it takes. But I also believe that it’s something you really need to be careful about.
Honestly, I don’t think I’m cut out for real development work. I respect that Peace Corps is geared towards small, community-based projects. And I’m sticking with the smallest of the small. If I leave after two years knowing that a handful of people learned something about family planning, malaria prevention or prenatal care, that’s great. If a few moms remember that some crazy white lady with terrible Mandinka (and even worse Wolof) came and held their hand while they were in labor and helped them to be a little less frightened and feel a little less alone, that’s great. If some of the hospital staff got a few new ideas for how to care for their patients, that’s great.
I’m a nurse and a volunteer because I care about people. I love women’s health because I love women and I want their lives to be better. Most women in The Gambia have hard lives, but they are strong. I don’t pity them, I respect them. I want to show them my respect by working alongside them and encouraging them…and we’ll see what happens.
Hospital staff educating about the benefits of prenatal care.



Sunday, June 16, 2013

Pictorial Tour of the Past Few Months

Prepping Gmelina tree seeds with host brothers

Our family's new puppy "Jack"

Colette enjoying the puppy while it's young

Our host brother Sam receiving his "Best Science Student" award this year

It's mango season here!

Sam with his award. We are very proud of him.

Colette with our friend Kassa. She's the new Deputy Head Girl at school.

Our cat only drinks water from buckets. She's spoiled.

The youth beekeepers received their new beesuits!

The hut I sleep in every week while beekeeping.

The NGO I work at 2 days a week.

Bottling fresh honey for resale.

Me.

Bintou (our host sister) and I are preparing "soso" for lunch.

Mariama pounding cardamom pods to put in home made soap.

Cute baby.

Colette whisking soap mixture.

Me whisking body butter mixture.

The group is proud of their home made beeswax and honey soap and body butter.

More soap making.

Hive building.

The youth with their new bee "catch boxes."

The group with their hives!

Add caption

At Abuko nature reserve.

Abuko nature reserve. It's a hyena!

In Cape Verde making sangria in the bathroom. We're classy budget travelers.

Cape Verde's black sand beach. 

One of Cape Verde's many shipwrecks.

We match! 


One student with her Earleaf Acacia that she has been taking care of.

In Basse Santa Su.

We used to eat by candlelight...now we have electricity!

A fellow Peace Corps Volunteer's beautiful hut.

One of two bathtubs we've seen in our village. The other one is in a pig sty.

Wedding feast called Benecin!

We made grass hives.

A local "griot" musician played the kora at our host sister's wedding.