Monday, February 25, 2013

Approaching Peace Corps year one...

In exactly 9 days it will be 1 year since we made our way from Washington D.C. to Dakar, Senegal to begin our Peace Corps training. In the next few months we will be celebrating several milestones in our Peace Corps service: 1 year from our arrival in Senegal, 1 year since we started our training in The Gambia, and 1 year in village as official Peace Corps Volunteers. These are the periods by which Peace Corps volunteers measure their time. Those markers, and perhaps the mosque's call-to-prayer every morning, afternoon and evening...

At this point most volunteers from our group are pretty adjusted and comfortable. We consider many things normal that seemed foreign a year ago: 
  • random bouts of digestive illness 
  • strangers yelling things at us from a distance 
  • children constantly running after us, calling us "toubab" and demanding candy
  • eating rice and fish for most meals
  • greeting everyone we meet
  • being perpetually sweaty
  • curious skin infections
  • always having insect bites
  • washing clothes by hand
  • everyone constantly asking us to buy them things, give them money, or a U.S. Visa
  • living in harmony with rats, bats, and insects (even naming them) 
  • pooping in a hole and using water and your left hand instead of toilet paper
  • waiting hours for transportation, getting in and being unconcerned if the vehicle breaks down
  • roaming goats, cows, chickens, guinea fowl, donkeys, sheep, dogs, cats, and horses
  • sand everywhere including on your bed and in your food
  • cutting our own and other people's hair
  • eating with our hands
  • being a minority
This list goes on, and to stress how normal many of those things seem it took me a really long time to think of all of them (more than an hour!). With this list, you may be thinking that it must take a lot of endurance to continue living and working in an environment so different from the U.S. It does, and many volunteers at the year mark start to question if they should continue their service. They get very tired, irritated, frustrated, angry etc. They look back at the past year and don't feel like they fit in, can't speak the language and that they haven't accomplished anything, myself included.

The important thing to remember is that these feelings pass. Just as many other things in life that are transient, patience leads to change. As Peace Corps Volunteers we may endure a lot of things we normally wouldn't, but everyone who grew up in The Gambia endures much more than we do. It's definitely not easy here, but it's not easy anywhere else in the world either. We all have our struggles, but the significance of Peace Corps service is a better understanding of someone else's struggles.

Much time in the Peace Corps is spent by listening and observing. With these two skills you connect with humanity in a way that transcends superficial things like whether or not you use your hands to eat or whether you use a hole for a toilet. We continue serving because we want to understand. We continue because we want to connect with the people we share this tiny planet with. We want to know, understand and support our neighbors.

The big question for service is how to support your neighbors. For many volunteers they were requested by a village. The community gathered, determined why they wanted a volunteer, how they will make them feel safe, and where they would live. They wrote a letter to the Peace Corps office in country with the explanation. With determination and perhaps recommendations from previous volunteers, a village obtains its own volunteer.

When the volunteer arrives their job description is very vague, because the village may not know how they want to be supported at first. It takes about a year to get to know a volunteer and for a volunteer to get to know the village. After that there may or may not be a defined way to support the community.

In my case a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) wanted a volunteer, wrote the letter and got me. The skills they requested in a volunteer matched the skills I had. I feel lucky in that regard, because I have an actual written job description and a defined place to work. What I have incorporated into my service is this feeling of working to support rather than just doing. I am not here to change things, I am here to support others in their plans to change. So you may be thinking, "What do you do for work?" Well, a couple of things that I am working on are a biodiversity project and a youth beekeeping project:

1. Biodiversity project at St. Joseph's Family Farms Centre (the NGO I volunteer at).
The goal of the project is to increase biodiversity (variety of plants/trees) in our district, reduce the use of wood for cooking fires, and improve live fencing for women's gardens. To do this a tree nursery is being created using used plastic water bags as polypots (tree seedling starter bags). These water bags are basically trash found along the streets. We told community members that we would pay them the equivalent of 3 cents for 4 of these bags. We also told them we need about 23,000 of them.

Children and youth quickly got on board and started gathering this "trash" and bringing it to us in exchange for money. Some children gathered up to 1,000 bags by themselves as an after school job and earned about $8. This amount is the equivalent to one months apartment rent in our village. Good money for the youth, the streets are cleaner and we get to recycle this trash to grow trees. Not too bad! Below are some pictures of the place I work and our tree nursery:

The front entrance to the Non-Governmental Organization that I volunteer at: St. Joseph's Family Farms Centre.

                  Illiasa (a forestry extension agent) planting Mahogany tree seeds for the St. Joseph's tree nursery (background). 
                                 Saikou, a beekeeper, farmer, and caretaker preparing to water the nursery.
                              A partial view of the tree nursery beds with recycled water bags and the seed storage shed.

2.Youth Beekeeping Project
Over the past months I have been approached by two beekeepers in Bwiam and one in Sangajor village who wanted my assistance in expanding their apiaries (beekeeping areas). Since there are many youths in Bwiam we planned a project that would allow the beekeepers to increase the number of bee cases and resources that they have while introducing youths of their choice to the profession. Over the next year and a half we will be planning beekeeping training with the youth, the experienced beekeepers will be working with the youth at their own apiaries and the youth will be able to start their own apiaries at St. Joseph's Family Farms. Following are pictures of the group.

Most of the youth beekeeping group that I am working with.
                The men second and fourth from the left (Saikou and Salifu) are experienced beekeepers .
Wuyeh, the beekeeper on the left has been experimenting with local bee hives for the past year.
His student is on the right.
               This is me acquiring a therapeutic bee sting from an experienced beekeeper.
I requested to be stung so I am more relaxed around bees.

This year will be filled with more learning opportunities and more chances to connect with people-if we just let it happen and if we are patient with ourselves and the culture. We have really become comfortable in our community and prefer it to the urban area where there are many more people, tourists, vehicles, and supermarkets. Bwiam has become our second home and although challenging at times, I wouldn't trade our current living situation for any other. Except maybe having a thatched roof to reduce the temperature in our home!

The road entering our village. 

                                  The area near our village that leads to the rice fields.

This is a 'moon rise' at the river by our village. Yeah,. we actually live here!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Up country

Many volunteers live further east (inland) than we do, but we didn't have a chance to venture in that direction until this past month. Both Darrin and I travelled to Janjanbureh mid-January to help out with a week-long camp Peace Corps volunteers were running for some senior secondary school students in that area. After spending a few days there, we travelled up to Basse, where Peace Corps Gambia has its second transit house (a place where volunteers can stay when travelling through or doing business in town). We spent a fun few days in Basse with our friend Kathy. We occupied ourselves with cooking, playing games and exploring the town a little bit. The market there had far more veggies than we are able to get in Bwiam, so we went a little crazy eating salad, stir-frys and the like.

We headed back to Janjanbureh to celebrate the "Triple Birthday" on January 12th. My fellow volunteers Jen and Daniel have birthdays on the 13th and my own is on the 14th, so a large group of us met up for a boat cruise on the river and a night at one of the lodges. In typical fashion we met with a few snags in the plan - some German tourists had been given the boat that Jen had reserved well ahead of time, but we managed to find a different lodge with a similar boat and eventually get out on the river. I saw a few baboons, but no hippos. Maybe next time.

Darrin in the kitchen at the Basse house. It's just like a children's playhouse. It even has a (tiny) oven! We would love to have something like that at our house...

Kathy, hanging out in Basse

People crossing the river.

View from the boat as the sun was beginning to set.