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I hope I'm the right Scott Jorgensen that you are looking for.  

The professions and identities of some of my more illustrious namesakes include Scott Jorgensen the flyweight UFC fighter, Scott Jorgensen the podiatrist, and, more locally, there are two other Scott Jorgensen individuals in the Greater San Francisco Bay Aea, according to LinkedIN.

Well, if you read that whole paragraph, I bet that you know by now whether or not I am the Scott Jorgensen that you are looking for.

About the Gambia (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

The Republic of The Gambia, commonly known as The Gambia, or Gambia, is a country in Western Africa. The Gambia is the smallest country on mainland Africa, bordered to the north, east, and south by Senegal, with a small coast on the Atlantic Ocean in the west.

Its borders roughly correspond to the path of the Gambia River, the nation's namesake, which flows through the country's centre and empties into the Atlantic Ocean. Its size is almost 10,500 km² with an estimated population of 1,700,000.

On 18 February 1965, The Gambia was granted independence from the United Kingdom and joined The Commonwealth. Banjul is The Gambia's capital, but the largest conurbation is Serekunda.

The Gambia shares historical roots with many other west African nations in the slave trade, which was key to the maintenance of a colony on the Gambia river, first by the Portuguese and later by the British. Since gaining independence in 1965, the Gambia has enjoyed relative stability, with the exception of a brief period of military rule in 1994.

An agriculturally rich country, its economy is dominated by farming, fishing, and tourism. About a third of the population live below the international poverty line of US$1.25 a day

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Aloha!

Hello America, I've neglected you for so long.

Sorry about it.

I've been keeping busy here in The Gambia.  The days go long but the months are quick here.  I've been working a bit in the gardens to build up bee populations and transplant Agave sisalana plants to form hedges for garden protection (those pesky goats...).  I've been relaxing a bit, reading many a book and drinking a few bottles of Julbrew, the national beer brand.  I've been official a bit, meeting President Jammeh as a representative of Peace Corps during the organization's 50th birthday.

The rainy season has ended and now we only have the odd thunderstorm to make things wet.  Today do feels like some rainy season mugginess so it is hard to predict what will happen.  The coming cold season is coming (COLD!) and i look forward to being warmed by that morning cup of tea or coffee.  There are many things going on right now it is kind of hard to group them all.  So this message can be shorter and sweeter.

The Gambia is working diligently to be ready for the Tabaski holiday.  This Muslim holiday will be a three day celebration in the village and I am very excited to be in attendance with my host family. Right now, Farafenni is bleating and humming with activity as everybody strives to have a ram to sacrifice for the tradtional religious celebration.  This demand spikes up the price of rams, of course, so that some heated bartering goes on and the sheep are overpayed for in general.  Bush taxis loaded with watermelons go rumbling down the street, but soon the watermelon will be out of season.

I have a lot of time to sit and think about the passing colors and rhythm of flower blooming that passes as the weather changes for wet to dry and cool.  People in my area of the country have already harvested their millet crops, while in the more coastal areas, the millet is still flowering.  Groundnuts will soon be ready for harvest.

Recently, my village underwent a quiet revolution: we have piped water now.   Our piping was finally connected to the watertank and solar pump of the next village over, so in the evening times we are able to draw water from a tap.  This really opens up some work opportunities for me, some things that just weren't possible before in village because of the work required to get and transport water.  Now we can have gardens within the compound.  Now growing those live fences will be so much easier.  I want to enlist the help of my 11 year old brother to fetch water and water things.  Before i didn't ask because he wasn't big enough to wrestle the pump by himself.  Now, water is here.  Let the birds sing.  OH THE POSSIBILITIES.  : D

I'm a selfish person.  I want to see the wonders of the natural world before they go away completely.  I think that the best of the last will be gone within the next thirty years, so i am going to be selfish a bit with my life.  When i first came to Gambia i was excited to see a tropical ecosystem, but a bit let down about the degraded state of this environment.  Still though, it's much close to the equator and there is a wealth of plant species here.  The elephants and the lions are gone, but the insect community of the Gambia is astounding.  Sitting in the grass i realize that there are multiple species of insect as big as my hand all buzzing around me.  It was just nice to realize that every place has a wealth, you just got to get down to the right perspective to see it.

keep on growing.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Solitude Revisted

August 8, 2011

Since the beginning of August I have been contemplating my involvement with solitude and how it affects my life during my Peace Corps Service.  If the writing of the the previous post reflects a scattered and disillusioned person, I don't deny that those periods happen.  As coincidence dictates, I later recieved two packages from the homeland, care of a PC vehicle that was traveling upcountry.  Retrieving the hand written notes, familiar fitting clothes, and good candy from the two boxes completely reversed my day.  In this job there are poor hours and there are good hours.

In the nighttime I now sit to write, welcoming solitude to help me concentrate my thoughts to attempt to reveal a truth, however small.  I am not currently in a monastic aloneness for I am kept company by a dozing, snoring cat and the musics of the bands that drift through my mp3 player.  Tonight a drizzling rain is strong enough to drive people and animals under cover.  I sit in a freshly dusted and swept house with a full belly and a clean skin that hasn't yet been spoiled by nighttime sweating.  The achings and complaints of the body are satisfied enough to let me mull over the state of the universe.  This kind of detachedness from living is a familiar kind.  I've spent most of my past life able to withdraw into this body-comfortable separateness, whether for recreation or school work.

..........with the first edit I cut out everything else I wrote that night.  The universe is a complex place and truths are hard to find.

August 13, 2011

Three days ago I traveled to the Basse area to visit volunteers here, explore the eastern end of this country, and take a vacation from my own site.  I have already spent two nights at the home of my friend, Remy Long.  We two and also Remy's counterpart, Alajie, have worked hard to build nine beehives from three sheets of 8' x 4' plywood (as an aside, I love how plywood uses imperial measurements.  It is the only thing that I have found in country that still does).  The first day we sawed the boards by hand and on the second we glued and nailed the boxes together.  It felt like woodshop.  When Remy goes home, Alajie will be the owner of these beehives, so we are training him from the beginning--right down to how to properly use a saw to cut a straight line.  The cuts were straight and well made boxes followed.  Remy and I were in disbelief that we accomplished an American standard of quality (not American owned and fabricated overseas) in this country.  I am satisfied with this project, and so far, with bee keeping in general.  Building, cooking, exercising, and discussing with Remy continues building a friendship.

I am of roughly 100 PCVs  in the Gambia who have come from many different states and arrived in different batches.  Quite bluntly, these people do not know me, or I, them.  It's all ok though, that is just the situation over here.  I find volunteers friendly and have no reason to be exclusive of some within our community.  In fact I need my fellow country men and women to help me affirm my nationality from time to time.  As Remy stated  during this visit, "I find myself a lot less selective about the types of people [among volunteers] that I am friends with here."  For my own part, I agree with him.  Openness and the relinquishing of control is required to survive here, relationships included.  If I were at home, both the ability and the incentive to seek out and befriend my own kind is possible.

So I've written a long winded passage when I could have easily wrote some bullet points.  oops
  1. There is solitude present in the inter-volunteer relationships, both at parties/large workshops, and during more intimate stays at village.
  2. There is solitude in being away from home soil.
Let me also add
3. There is solitude as being instantly VISUALLY recognized as The Outsider.  Peoples faces show varied emotions when they see me, from anger to welcome, happiness to a desire to harass.
4.  The two way solitude as the only American (and Westerner) in my village.
5.  The solitude of being apart from the vast majority of Gambians on an intellectual level.

So what do these mean to me?  What work do they do for me?  Before I answer let me unpack numbers 4 and 5.

Gambians and Americans are hugely differentiated by their access to information, including information about the outside world and of different peoples.  For children, parents, and grandparents, I am often the first non African that they have had interactions with.  They don't know my customs and preferences (which is totally fine and understandable), but the lack of exposure makes them unaware as to how and why I may be offended at their personal and cultural behaviors towards me.  Examples include condescending questions about my lack of marraige, excessive pushing to be at the front of a bank teller's line, assumed deference of women to men and of younger to the old, and lack of the idea of privacy, especially with regard to a person's desire of privacy (Imagine walking down the street and 20 random people shout the word 'Toubab' as either a statement or a greeting.  This word means "light skinned foreigner".  It can be said both with curiousity and anger.  At least my village knows to say Bubacarr, but the same thing happens there too.).

This is true also, but to a lesser extent among Gambians who can speak more than broken English.  I have become exasperated trying to explain that I wear a tengade, a large circular woven hat ( like a sombrero) because it is a good idea for white bread like me and not because I am going to herd cattle.  In fact (their eyes now show disbelief) I don't even want to herd cattle.

So what do the solitudes do for me?

Whether they make me withdrawn, or more or less neurotic, they do give me a lot of time to think about what I'd like to do with my time in this body here on Earth.  Hah, that's not really groundbreaking at all.   

Since aloneness is the opposite of connection, solitudes are humbling me.  I'm still in a young, fit, body at 23, but gosh do I think differently than I did at 19.  Having only experienced poverty in the USA through writing, I now witness it daily in the extended bellies of my host family's children.  At 19 I was absorbed in myself and with ideas.  Ideas were more interesting than other people.  So were endorphins.  Now, drawing faces on my younger siblings' hands and talking in funny puppet voices teaches a different-but-equally-valid lesson than reading the Encyclopedia Brittanica.  Endorphins are still important but I can get them also now from relaxing after a hard day of making beehives, weeding, or other work with my hands.  My family's hospitality during Ramadan has amazed me.  Despite being famished from a hard day's work without food or water, my host brother Salifu will never accept the first piece of bread and cup of tea to be passed during the evening breakfast.  He tells me to have it.  Many of my fellow volunteers are writing excellent blogs about cross cultural experiences.  I encourage any readers I have to check them out.  They've written extensively about Ramadan and Toubabs and they capture the living of this place. Through constant reinvention, I know who I am enough to admit what I am not or not yet.  I now know what I want when I get back to the States.  The how-to-get-it is yet to be decided.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Solitude

Another month has gone by since I've posted to this blog.  Time passes everywhere and my recent days in the Gambia have left me better acquainted with Solitude.  

I feel the oneness and the aloneness of solitude every day as an single outsider to a foreign culture and as a emigrant from my original place.  I think it is important here to state that my feelings about solitude are positive, negative, clear, and muddied all at once.  It is an unavoidable consequence of coming here. 

Language and understanding are the strongest walls that keep me single.  I will say with pride that I am quickly learning Pulaar and can survive for days in my village without speaking english.  I get compliments on some pronunciations and grimaces on others.  The amalgamation of languages spoken in Wallalan (Pulaar, Wollof, Mandinka, English, French) and the larger Gambia (also Jola, Serrer, Serehule and more) mean that while there are common words borrowed from each language and known to all language groups, sometimes the dialects within the same language (Pulaar, for example) are entirely incomprehensible to native speakers, much less a novice like myself.  My ability to talk better and with greater critical thinking than a native toddler is tempered by my lack of familiarity as to when a single  word has finer distinctions based on the others around it.  That was garbled, but it secludes me.  This is not my mother tongue.  I feel at times more alone for getting "it" halfway than not at all.

"Garbled" is a perfect counter example.  No Gambian nonnative english speaker without a college education would understand what garbled means.  And even if I tried to explain with literal examples, the flavor of the word is lost in translation.  Or garbled in translation.  As well as not using my mother tongue, I  can't speak fully with it mother tongue either. 
And the really good, multipurpose words that have been adopted here are abused by their overuse.  But I digress.

This is a very poor year for rain and we are now in another heat wave.  Apart from a prickly heat rash that has spread over most of my back, I have had tolerable skin infections and never had a peeling sunburn.  I am the only person in my village capable of having a peeling sunburn.  People here don't understand the concept that the sun cooks me and I'm not exactly willing to show them.


Solitude happens in the presence of fellow volunteers.  Whether the setting is a group conference or gathering, or a more intimate visit with one or two volunteers, we all take some time to ourselves, and withdraw back into our heads for a moments respite.  It is no scandal to say that chain smoking of shitty cigarettes happens when volunteers meet together.  From quick mental counts at gatherings and from what i know about my fellow volunteers, over 60% of us smoke, probably in part to deal with the pressures of constant solitude.


It is Ramadan now, the Muslim month of fasting to teach discipline against earthly temptations and to better the individual's relationship with God.  With the communal spirit of self betterment I am not smoking or drinking alcohol for this month, though I will not take part in withholding from food and water from sunup to sunset.  People's incredulous stares that I am eating, that I am not fasting, and that I am not a Muslim again set me apart.  On some days I take enjoyment out of explaining that there are many different kinds of people and beliefs in the world, on other days I am depressed by the level of social rigidity that people here enforce on each other, and to a lesser extent, me.


My camera has succumbed to the dust long ago and now that the countryside is green I have definitely missed the opportunity to share photos with you all!  I am sorry because there have been colors, situations, and landscapes that have reduced me to sniffling and I cannot capture the marching of time with still images right now.  I see myself as an apparition that floats through the photo albums and blogs of my fellow volunteers.

This is garbled.  Let me tell you of some of what I've been doing.

Agave sisalana is a spiky, spiky plant that is larger than a meter cubed when mature.  And when it gets big, it is impenetrable.  Bomb proof.  I have been transplanting many of the small runners that come off of big plants into lines with the intention to grow a live fence.  

I've lashed together 2 more stick frames for beehives with binding wire.  I've played host to traveling PCVs and visitors.  I've weeded a few times. 


My attempts to grow cashew seedlings and even a garden with my host family have been repeatedly thwarted by goats and a lack of rain.


I'm working to bring universal nut shellers to my village to start small business enterprises.


I feel alone in my work ethic.  I think that a large part of this difference is caused by the fact that even if the crops/plants that I sow all die, I will still be able to eat for the next year.  It's just that not only are meeting times hard to coordinate for work, people largely don't seem to want to try new methods here.  I am alone in thinking that toubobs shouldn't simply give out money.


 Awhile back, Remy Long and I exchanged brief text messages of things that we miss.  Here is some of the list.

Critical thinking
Live Jazz
Good Beer
Literacy in my fellow citizens
Insulation
Humane treatment of animals 
Snow

I've learned to just admire the thunderheads and lightning shows that build up over the South Bank and stop expecting rain.  I'm in a drought. 

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Playground

June 29, 2011
I am now closing my sixth month in the Gambia.  To me, this short sentence encompasses many feelings because my concept and perception of time here in The Gambia are radically different from what I was used to in America.  Some days, I feel like I have only been here just for a few weeks, other times I recall all the mornnings of waking up in a foreign country and missing for my home's soils.

So, I guess, this is a typical and even expectable feeling from one within the window of 5-7 months away.  The biggest influences of this time dilation, i think, is my learning and using of the local languages here and just realizing that things take more time.  Regarding the former, I know Pulaar well enough now to have my language skills complemented by the people of my village.  I understand more jokes, and able to hold my own and tell a few back (although the simple ones).  When i have a good language day, i feel comfortable in my current home.  When the language days are hard, I feel like it has been forever since I've spoken eloquently with someone the American way (we don't speak the King's English, but Americans get the job done).  I feel disconnected (along a range ) from all people back in America because of the difficulty in communicating over such a large distance.  But this is supposed to be the communication age...well I will handle this topic in another post.

And now for the time.
Let me start by saying that things just take more time.  All things.  Especially living in a largely illiterate country and within a small community of farmers.

For example, this post was a long time coming.  Some days I bike 13K to come to the internet bar where I am now writing, only to find that electricity was turned off for the day.  Other days electricity would be here, but the computers would be so slow that blogspot was unable to load.  Sometimes i would come and realize that this just wasn't a day where I could write.  I try to keep this blog positive, but also separate from my personal journal.  Right now, we are running the generator, and I will keep praying that the current holds up.  So I come and put this blogging task first on my priorities at the internet bar, because although my last post feels like a week ago and 2-3 months ago at the same time, if i check my email first then i will lose momentum.

That's where my head's at.  Let's go to the playground.


This garden is where i have spent and will spend a lot of time.  I find myself coming here a lot sometimes just to be out of the village.  It's quieter in all the trees.

It is owned by my village counterpart, Buba Jawo (of whom I am lacking a picture and will post one soon).  Buba Jawo and I are finally starting to become friends as well as coworkers, and he also speaks good english.  He describes himself with pride as "an agriculturist" and I believe him.  He owns a garden and cashew orchard in a lot off of the main drag of the village and farms as well.  Buba and I are starting a beekeeping venture together, and when this is established we will also involve more community members in their own ventures.

Last night I could not fall asleep, I think that my body's muscle pains and also my brain kept running.  One fruit of the sleepless night was that I have decided to start the Wallalan Forestry Beenifit club.   I will hold meetings within the village once a week to talk about gardening and forestry topics as well as beekeeping.  I will strive not to claim ownership of the club though, so that it will hopefully continue when i leave.  Wooops, sorry, we kind of left the playground, let's go back.


These are our first beehives in Jawo's garden.

We've had one big rainstorm after which i had to repair the apiary, but our bees will soon be transferred back to the stick and mud hive.  Right now our bees are hanging out in a catcher box in a neighboring tree where it is safe and dry.


I can now proudly and skillfully wield a machete in the presence of Gambians!  This is huge for me!  This has taken practice, and I now have a healthy respect for the machete.  It is an axe, a knife, a shovel, and a saw (if you have a hammer too).  I had to earn the respect of my own machete though by sharpening it (took a long time to put a nice edge on it...but hey i bought it for $2) and practicing my skills by pruning the cashew orchard.  Over the last two days i pruned the orchard that hadn't had a pruning in about 5 years, I'd say.  The trees will love me when the rainy season really gets going, but now they are crying sap.  Additional benefits of the sopagol (chopping or clearing) is that i have a lot of dry, dead wood to play with mushroom inoculations, and a lot of wet wood to build stuff with.  Y shaped sticks make good beehive stands.  Cashew isn't the strongest, but I have some big pieces.

Last monday I planted my fence.  HAH.  I still laugh to myself when my village asks me what I plan to farm this year.  Today is the fourth day after the rainstorm and the fields are a toil with people sowing their millet fields.  Everybody is out in the fields by early morning.  It is a nice change to wake up, walk down the street to buy the morning bread, and see and greet about 30 less people on the street. Anywhom, people don't seem to understand that i am not farming millet this year.  Or corn.  What about groundnuts?  You aren't farming and cassava?   You are farming bees?  Whaat?  You want to germinate some fences?  Huh?   Huhhh?  And then i walk away smiling.   Oh lord, though.  come the close of rainy season, I better have put my efforts where my mouth had been talking.



My fence is an experiment.  It is going to be a 100% Moringa oleifera fence, with plantings spaced at 10cm.  The idea is that the trunks will grow next to each other and form a solid wall, especially with the help of pruning and the weaving of support branches.  This 5m x 5m area i planted a perimeter for will house an agroforestry tree nursury.  This garden is an ideal spot to experiment because it already has a chicken wire fence around the larger orchard.  Goats sometimes get through, so we patch the holes with thorny branches, but cows do not enter.  Goats have been my bane of existence and comic relief at the same time.  I love the fact that they will soon be tied up during the rains, unable to forage the fields and eat all the seedlings that i plant.  When they scream at me, I yell back that they look nice and plump and ready for Tobaski.  Oh, I'll get the goat.  But the goats work to get you back, even in death.  For example, a goat fell down the open well in Buba Jawo's garden and died.  And goat smell is a very strong smell, anyone who works with goats will tell you.  And you know, even a drowned, bloated, semi-rotted goat carcass extracted from a well smells like goat.  And....so does the water until we draw enough out.  O daa luuba.  That really stinks.


Another thing, first the dust of the dry season, and next the wet of the rainy season are slowly grinding down my electronics.  The camera is the hardest hit so far.  When i first came here, I lost the ability to take macro photographs.  The buttons have deadened, one by one.  Now I cannot look at pictures that I have taken, no macro, no light adjustment, no zooming, and my flash is permenantly set to off.  BUT, the camera does still take normal pictures and it does interface with a computer so it is not all bad.   My laptop though......well i leave it in misery at the Transit House in Kombo.  The CPU is fried.  running windows explorer crashes the thing.  If i have the patience and the time, i can manage to rip a few cds or write a word document but that's about it.  So I am surviving on a data stick diet.  

 Well...as of right now the computers are not agreeing with my loading of pictures.  I hate to write but not deliver photographs.  I make a trip to kombo for a celebration of american values on the fourth.  Volunteers will gather there, rent a boat, and float around the river while drinking beer.  God Bless.  I promise to deliver photographs while i stay at the transit house.

Spend the day in Peace

July 2, 2011.
I have arrived to the Kombos.  I am sitting luxuriously at the PC office computers in an air conditioned room!  It’s really nice after a travel day of cramped gele’s and a river crossing in the sun.  I have started a pattern which has developed into a tradition to buy a coconut on my way to Kombo.  So, my coconut keeps me company while I finish this post.
Because of Africa time,  the pictures seen above were loaded here today.  A new development has happened with my camera though.  At the internet bar, I took out the battery to recharge it.  Later at my village when I tried to take a picture, I had to set the date and time in order to be able to take a picture…but alas, the OK and BACK buttons have perished, and with them, my ability to take pictures until I find a way around this.
Walking into the Peace Corps office I just saw the new volunteer trainees that arrived a couple of days ago.  This brings it home to me that I have been here awhile.  Although I am still “newer” to the Gambia, I am now in a position to give advice and answer questions for other raw recruits.     Weird.

This is my host mother, Jabu Bah, with her grandson Momodou Bah.  Jabu is a very patient person.  She's patient, although unknowingly so, in the time that it has taken me to share a picture of her with people who read this blo.  She gives me support for pretty much anything I do and is understanding of my my periodic incomprehension of Gambian culture.  I supply her with Kola nuts.  It's a mutual relationship.

AHA!  I found a picture of Buba, he is the shaved head closest to the camera.  Here we are at the village pump. 

Notice that the pumps are working!  We drew out the 50m of line, replaced the slip and then put everything back.  I am glad to have that project behind me now, and focus more on forestry and farming type work at site.  Thank you everyone for support in this project, and in case you feel like you missed out on the opportunity, there are constantly projects waiting for funding at apprpriateprojects.com

It rained last night.  The clouds finally opened above wallalan at 3 am after a fantastic lightning show starting at sunset.  The village is happy, and as I walked out towards the highway, I passed many fellow Wallalandians sowing their peanut crops.  These peanut crops are the cash crop of the area, but farming 'groundnut' as it is called here, is increasingly hard because of unstable prices, unreliable weather, and environmental degredation.  Part of what PC The Gambia's Environment sector is pushing is the education and spread of cashew trees as the next big cash crop.  The statistic that i am told is that the sale of cashew seeds from  10 mature cashew is comparable with an entire field of groundnuts.  So with the July rains I hope to plant a hundred or so cashew trees with motivated farmers.

Haa yeeso (till later).

Saturday, May 28, 2011

wait, i have another ten minutes!

Just random stuff, afforded by an extra ten minutes of battery life.
I am loving life because of:
Acquiring a  quality frying pan with lid, thorn resistant bicycle tubes, and packages from home.  One package has taken 4 months to get here, but it did come intact!
Tonight is the Premier League championship match!  I'm going to watch with a bunch of crazy Brits.

Mangoes.

I promise myself to write a culturally insightful narrative in the next post, but right now, there are mangoes in the Gambia.  Going to go eat a mango now.
Ten minutes done...end transmission.

My head has exploded.

Salaamalekuum!

Let me first say that my head exploding is currently a good thing.  I have been in the Kombo area this past week for technical skills training and feel very inspired about the ideas that I can bring back into village.  Because I have not been to Kombo for the past two and a half months, and because it has been a long time since my last post, so many things have happened that I know this post will be directionally scattered.  I apologize in advance. 

Now and for the past month have been a very busy time in the village as farmers work to clear there fields and prepare for the rainy season farming.  Fires from field clearing, and the occasional bush fire that results from escaping cinders have been turning the countryside black, patch by patch.  The hot wind now has smoke added to the dust as it creates mini tornadoes on the farm fields.  Also in Wallalan, people have been working very hard building dry brush fences to enclose their vegetable gardens for the rainy season.  I am very excited to see the the bright, growing green color that the rains will enable here.  Coming to Kombo, which is right near the ocean, has been a vacation in itself just to see grass and many trees again.  The water table here is 3 meters down instead of thirty.  ;)

Although it is hard to see progress in the day-to-day, changes have been happening in Wallalan and the Gambia.
  • Our hand pump has been fixed with loaned parts a few weeks ago so I have had access to clean water again
  • My moringa bed in the backyard has been expanded and is ready for it's second harvest!  The plant grows faster than a weed, with this crop i will dry the leaves and create a leaf powder that is the equivalent a protein-packed vitamin pill.
  • Carlos the cat is bigger!  Now that she is larger, I finally got around to looking and Carlos is a female cat.  She will remain Carlos though, because she responds to it, and no one over here knows that Carlos is a masculine name.
  • My language skills are slowly improving still, and learning work-related vocabulary is fun.
I am VERY excited for many reasons, but one big reason is that a grant proposal for money to fix our village hand pump with new parts has been approved.  Appropritae Projects, a division of Water Charity that works exclusively with PC volunteers for small scale water and sanitation projects, has given us money for approximately half of the estimated cost of the project.  Check it out!  http://appropriateprojects.com/node/670

My job as a PC volunteer is to build peoples' capacity to help themselves sustain a better standard of living rather than just throwing money at problems, and although I assist this project by finding a $500 dollar resource, I am happy to do it.  Water is required for life.  Our hand pump project now has to be completed within a month, and I will write up a report describing the finished project.

This week in Kombo has been awesome because of the quality of the hands on training.  This week I have put on a bee suit and opened up a top bar hive, processed beeswax and honeycomb, learned how to graft trees, learned about how to make 3 week compost and botanical pesticides, exchanged seeds of agroforestry trees with other volunteers, learned about nursery management...and got to know some really cool people better.  What was especially great about this training is that our counterparts from village were also invited to come for part of the training.  Buba Jawo (I need to put a picture of him up here), my counterpart from Wallaln, came down to the Kombo and for the first time in our lives, we put on bee suits and opened up multiple hives of 30,000 bees each (with a trainer telling us what to do, of course).  This was great because before I had been hesitant to start beekeeping by myself.  I had read the PC beekeeping manual, but it seemed like too big of a project for one person to do on paper.  Now I have some experience, and a few stings which really aren't that bad, and Buba is also all about this project too.  I bought a catcher box from BeeCause, a NGO over here that likes to work with PC, which promotes good ecological beekeeping and our hope is to colonize a hive before the rains come in late June.  Time is getting short before the rains!
I'm in a beesuit!
This was the last picture anyone ever saw of Alpha team as they left to explore the Alien World.

I have planted some Kola nuts in polypots in my backyard, and i will need to also plant some bitter kola so that i can graft onto a better, drought resisitant rootstock.

I feel so energized right now because I also realize that with beekeeping, I want my second project to be a complete education about all of the uses of the Moringa oleifera tree.  Almost all parts of this nitrogen fixing tree are edible and very nutritious, and the use of moringa oil from pressed seeds is nonexistent in the Gambia.  The resulting seed cake can be tilled back into the soil or used as animal feed (an excellent selling point of moringa to a herding Fula community).   AND moringa is excellent bee fodder.  I seriously hope to plant 1000 trees this rainy season and start intensive leaf beds like the one in my backyard with whoever is interested.  I am brainstorming with another PC volunteer and we are going to make a seed press together in order to get a good quality oil on a reasonable scale.  Moringa oil and moringa leaf powder are untapped markets here in the Gambia, and over in twobobadu (the land of the white people), people pay big money for these products.  If people in the US want to try to grow some moringa, I think that is a interesting idea.  Since the tree is a crop tree, i don't think it will be ecologically disastrous to plant in America (i hope).  Basically the tree likes sun and heat, if you live in an area where it doesn't snow, it'll grow just fine.  I'd be happy to mail seeds back.

So this is a tease, i know.  I should take more pictures while I am here, and in the next post, I want to basically post a photo album.  It is so dang hot here that I shaved my head.  Well, actually a boy in my village shaved my head with a straight razor (I watched him shave his father first, so i knew he could do it).  Long story short, the wind feels better, I found all of the lumpy spots on my head, and I see the beginnings of male pattern baldness.  I look about 8 years older, and nothing like my passport picture.  Oh gosh, this is a rushed message.  There never seems to be enough time on the internet.  Today is my opportunity to tie up as many loose ends before i head back to site tomorrow, and this one is still a little frayed.  No matter, more to come. Cheers everyone!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A normal day is:

   I have lived in Wallalan for nearly a month now and my daily schedule has settled into a normal enough pattern.  I feel like the first stage of my newbie-toubab grace period is ending as people are expecting me to understand more Pulaar and start some work.  I'll always be an outsider though, and that makes me happy because it gives me the freedom to be wildly different from other people as long as it is inoffensive.

So the day. 
I get up from my bed between 6:30 and 7:00 because i feel that it is finally light enough to crawl out of bed then.  I wake up earlier though, because the morning call to prayer is sung and projected from a loudspeaker just outside my house, and also my 3 day new kitten, Carlos, attacks my hands and feet in play.  Carlos is about a 6 weeks old, more on him later.  So it is 7 now and I yawn because I always sleep like a brick here.  I average about 9 hours a day.  As a side note, between all the sleep and the distance required for purchasing alcohol, I get to feel pretty healthy day to day.
When I open my door at around 7:30 I greet my family and the woken people of the compound next to me.  The same greetings are used every morning:  How is the morning?  Did you sleep?  Did you sleep without a problem?  Did you wake up without a problem?  How is your family waking up?   The answer to nearly all of these is "Jam tan, Peace only"  Greeting takes about 6 minutes.  Next I need to haul water for the day.  I have a victory, but also a problem in this portion of my day.  The victory is that I now own three  20L bidongs to store water.  I use this for watering, cooking, washing, and general purpose.  Capacity is an amazing thing!






Bidongs.  Worth their (empty) weight in gold.

The water problem, now, is that the village hand pump, which was very close to my house, has broken, so for the past week the village hauls water up about 70 feet from an open well.  When i go to the well for water, I take my place in the group of women fetching water.  Here the well can handle 4 pulleys and 3 people max can work on one pulley.  I am the only man in the village that hauls my own water (well I have the help of the two other women on the rope now) and the women, even after a week of getting water from a well, still seem surprised that I am hauling my own water.  I like how my hands are getting rougher and more callused.  I had felt a little ashamed about my soft hands in the village, and though more callused, they are still the softest of any man, woman, or child. 

After water, more people have arisen and more greetings happen.  I then go into my house and fix breakfast.  I have largely been eating oatmeal or cereal for breakfast with copious amounts of full cream powdered milk and a big cup of tea.  When i feel nutrient deprived, I cook a vegetable medley for breakfast and munch through out the day.  For this reason, going to town is the  best because of the fruit and vegetables there.  I am excited to eat bananas today.

Before the day heats up too much I try to get some work done.  Sometimes I collect seeds or sow polypots, most of which I have appropriated from tough plastic bags used to hold drinking water, or sometimes I go to chat with the people reclining on the stick platforms in the shade.  Most people in the Gambia call this structure a bantaba, but my village literally calls this "the sticks".  Other days I clean my house and sit and read while the day is still pleasant.  Now i also have the opportunity to play with a cat!  Speaking of which, meet Carlos.


Carlos likes to hang out in the Moringa bed in my backyard where it is cool.  I worried about the cat damaging the small trees, but then i remember that the local name for that tree here is Never-die.  The trees are getting tall and I can harvest the leaves for eating in another month.  Carlos eats rice but prefers sardines.  Carlos also likes string.

Then, like a wall, the heat comes.
The hours of noon to five are best spent chatting or sleeping.  Sweating is continuous in these hours.  My host brother's wife, who culturally is also my woman (wife), serves lunch at 1:30-2:00 and lunch itself is steaming hot from the cooking fire.  Normal procedure is to take off the lid, take off my shirt, and read a short story while lunch cools.

At five I rouse myself to action for the evening chores.  With three bidongs of capacity, I no longer need to go to the pump to fetch more water in the evening.  I water my beds and my polypots, and every few days I turn my compost pit.  With the watering at home down I walk to the other end of the village to the garden of my village counterpart, Buba Jawo.  I have started another Moringa bed for leaf production here and will soon have more beds and a tree nursury for fruit trees and live fencing. 
Walking back home my daily chores are done.  I bathe and soon afterwards around 8, dinner of lecheri (pounded coos) with some type of oil sauce.  I usually eat with my hand, like my family but i must sit on a bidong because I cannot squat to eat with the proficiency of a normal Gambian.

Around 10 i wander back to my home.  I listen to music and usually wrestle with the Africell network to send text messages to other volunteers.

Daily, I love the triumphant style in which Sarjo announces the arrival of a meal.  "Bubakarr!.....BO-tarri!  (lunch)"  or  "Salifu! (her husband)....HIIR-ande (dinner).
Sarjo, Abdulai, and Keba, part of my host family.

Now let's meet some characters.  On main street (you can see the sticks)
You can usually find these two men:
On the right is Demba Bah, who is both the village imaam and the alikalo, the mayor.  Demba is one of my biggest helpers in the village even though he does not speak english.  He does whatever he can to make me welcome here and I am very thankful for that.  On the left, is Ousman Jallow.  This man is my favorite person in The Gambia.  The Bahs and the Jallows are jokemates, so we constantly insult each other in good humor.  Let it be known, here and now, that Ousman Jallow is no good!  He eats too much bread!  All the bread!  And if there is rice, he eats that too.  Bahs eat only little, and mostly Lecheri.  Bahs work hard.  This man is my friend because he can usually be found relaxing on the Bantaba.  He has a belly laugh that induces more laughing from everyone.  He is constantly sleepy eyed and talks slowly but intelligently.  He wears amazing ski hats.  He is also a big help in the village for getting things done.

Ok, I can't resist.  Please look at another picture of my cat.  I'm living on kitten time right now.



My first mud stove is working!  The two week building process (most of it is waiting for the mud to mix or dry) is over and now Sarjo says that the stove DOES cook faster and DOES use less fuelwood.  Awesome, I'm stoked, i will begin village outreach about these stoves now.

Ok i am getting scatterbrained, more to come later.

Friday, March 25, 2011

I am a volunteer now!

After the whirlwind of a combined swear-in and All-Volunteer conference in the urban, touristy part of The Gambia, I can proudly declare that I am a card-carrying Peace Corps volunteer (although most days that card stays safe inside my house)!  The swear in ceremony took place at the American Ambassador's house, possibly the cushiest backyard  I have been in thus far in the Gambia.  I mean, with a view like this.....


She gave a speech about her past experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer herself and at the ceremony were other important Gambian officials.

The graduating Fula Class and teachers of March 2011!

And the whole group together, everyone looking at a different camera.

I have been living the past 10 days at my site in Wallaland in the Upper Badibou District of the North Bank Region.  It is very close to Senegal, in fact I could ride a donkey cart across the border (though i should technically let my Program Manager, Safety and Security Coordinator, etc, etc know of my whereabouts before i do).  Wallaland has the most welcoming people, and since they are Fulas, numerous cattle.  I am enjoying my time there so far, and although i can get frustrated with not understanding most of what is being said, my language will improve very rapidly in a village with only a handful of english speakers.

In my compound, I have one mother, Jabu.  My host brother, Salif , is the head of the compound, and he has one wife, Sarjo, who is about 25 years old.  There are 6 children in the compound, the oldest about 10.  We are a young family.  Unfortuneatly i don't have any pictures of them yet.

I have spent a few of my first days here making my hut into  home.  This includes the backyard where i have dug a compost pit and also a garden bed for intensive moringa tree leaf production.  I will later dig another bed for my other garden veggies.  Between the pickaxe, shovel, and water fetching to loosen the soil, I am so proud of my little patch of dirt here.  This picture was taken just after I sowed the seeds, so hopefully in a few days they will be sprouting.  Thanks to all of the lovely cows, there was plenty of manure to mix in for soil improvement.  The soil is very clay-y here.

The front door to my home!

Now the goodies:  Here is my chariout, my water filter tht sits on top of my wardrobe, my cooking area, and my deluxe red plastic chairs (really quite comfortable).

This awesome tree shades me in the morning.  My backyard has the only corrogate fence in the village, so it is pretty easy to guess which house is mine.  In the afternoon sun, the corrogate turns into a 4 walled radiator and you need to put on sunscreen if you want to go outside to use the bathroom.  No joking.  And the real heat hasn't come yet!

There are some quirks that I am noticing everyday about life here.  Cell phone culture is interesting, as they are a relatively new thing in the society.  It is never considered impolite if your phone starts ringing, whether you are in a meeting, at a naming ceremony, or whatever.  That's a changeup for me.  Also, ringtones are amusing out here.  I particularly enjoy when Gambians, who are largely Muslim, have Christmas carols or other Christian affiliated music as their ringtone.  Given, this ringtone is usually accompanied by a techno beat.
It is the start of mango season!  Already, kids are pulling unripe mangoes from the trees to gnaw on.  Having bought a couple at the market, and waited for a day before i ate the last one, I was struck with a question I can't yet honestly answer.  Is a fermented mango better than no mango?  Also in season right now are cashew apples , which i enjoy and am thankfully not allergic to.

I will likely have a lot of work opportunity at a community gardn for the village.  My counterpart, Buba Jawo, and I have discussed live fencing, tree nursury, gardening, and even bee keeping projects designed to improve villagers lives and create income generation.  Thing is though, it really will take village support to pull off any of these projects simply because of the manpower needed to haul water up 60 feet from the garden well.  I will hold meetings to find out what the villagers feel their needs are before  really begin any serious project work.  To be most effective, i need to be able to talk and understand people, so the Pulaar language is my current homework.

I am becoming accquainted with Farafenni, the nearest city, and since i can find my way back to this internet bar now, I can make more posts in the future.  Now though, it is lunchtime and my brain is fried.  I'm going to go find the chicken sandwiches that this town is famous for, and later go to the market to buy veggies for the next week for me and my family.  I got my banking done earlier this morning, so I'm getting in the swing of things.  WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

Monday, February 28, 2011

From the left, Stephanie, Baboucarr, Scott, and Emily, plus some kids who always seem to pop up everywhere.  We were dressed in traditional ceremony dress for our Naming Day celebration.

This is most of my gang of small boys in the village.  My brother Sarjo has the soccer ball and standing above him in the grey tan shirt is my other brother Ousman.  Small boys get into trouble unless you send them to do things like fetch water or go buy Attaya (green tea) from the bitik.


This is a small part of the Bakoteh Municipal Refuse site.  There are methane fires burning throughout the dump.  People say that it is a big improvement over how the place used to look.  Teaching myself how to litter has been an interesting process.  The village has grown around the dump, and even up to the fences, for some people earn a living by sifting through the trash and selling the valuable parts, others live by feeding the dump workers.  Be thankful that pictures don't transfer smells ; )






On a 25 km hike a few days ago we passed a village with amazing stencil and painting artwork, but I forget the village name.  This is only some of the artwork, it was really impressive.  Right now, I really dig Baobab trees.
These were my Language and Culture Facilitators, Baboucarr Sallah and Ida Keita!

I'm Still Alive!

Greeting from The Smiling Coast Of Africa!

Today I sit and update from the Peace Corps Office in Fajarra, due to my brief stay at the medical center for a spell of "reedu doga" or "running stomach".  Either way, I am definetly on the mend and should be released by tomorrow.  One benefit of this is that I finally have the ability to climb on the internet for more than 15 minutes and write a post.

During my almost two months in The Gambia, I find that my opinions and feelings about this place change greatly and rapidly from bewildered  to frustrated and anywhere in between.  I think that this is a result of being new here and jumping in as an alien to a new culture and language.  Almost every interaction is so different from American culture it is taking me time just to figure out what people regard as normal and common behavior.  This is particularly true in the marketplace where people agressively want you to buy things and haggling is encouraged, in the way that the two genders largely don't have contact with each other in public settings, and in the incredulous stares and flat refusal by many Gambians to sample a peanut butter/banana/chocolate sandwich that I make for a snack.  All in all though, I am very excited to be here, and have largely enjoyed my time thus far.  Public transportation and roadways are exhilirating and frenetic experiences, and although you need to shove to get a seat on the "gele gele" (the 10-16 person van) people are all very friendly and chatty once the ride has started.  I need to shove extra hard to find a seat that my legs fit in.

Here are my vital statistics:
I am called Bubakarr Bah.  In my training village, Yuna, I live in a family with 7 brothers and 2 sisters, one of whom i see regularly.  My family treats and feeds me very well and are awesome, welcoming people.  While my parents don't speak English, the older brothers do and the younger brothers are learning.  Bucket baths are delicious, especially when you leave a bidong full of water to heat up in the sun all day.  Pit latrines will never break unless they do so much that you fall in (I keep my fingers crossed, mine seems sturdy).  I have a gecko that lives in my ceiling and sings to me at night.


I have been living in the Fula village of Yuna.  This is my father, Kali Bah, my mother Raama tu Laahi Camara, and one of my brothers, Sarjo (the child born after twins is always named Sarjo, whether male or female).


This was my two room house in my family's compound.  The big tree behind my house is a mango.  Between the two buildings leads to the backyard where the sheep are kept at night (all livestock roams free here during the dry season).

In Yuna I went to school with two other Toubabs (white people) named Stephanie a.k.a. Fatumata Bah and Emily a.k.a. Yiali Bah.  I have had two different teachers of Pulaar, the language of the Fula people, while at Yuna, Babacarr Sallah and Ida Keita.  They are great teachers for Language and Culture and I feel that I am learning very fast.


Village life is not quiet.  Few cars have efficient mufflers, sheep are ornery, people shout greetings at each other from across the town, the mosque loudspeakers announce prayer time 5x a day, the donkeys call to each other at any hour and remind me of the Tuskan Raiders from Star Wars, somebody, somewhere is always drumming, and for the first month a group of boys marched around town at sunup and sundown, drumming and singing to fill their circumcision ceremony tradition. 

My pre-service-training is ending and I have already moved out of my training village and said goodbye to my family.  I want to post more pictures of them, but blogspot is not cooperating with the computer right now...

Tomorrow I will go to Wallalan, my permanent site for the next two years, for a 3 day visit.  I will meet my new family, the imaam, the alkaalo (town mayor) and other village notaries, and get a handle on that village.  I then travel back to headquarters for my swearing in ceremony.

There are many things to be written about, but I feel I am in a phase where I am still trying to figure out where things are and why things are the way they are here.  I have more pictures, at least, let me try another computer.