Blog Archive

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Birds of The Gambia, West Africa: Dave's Pictures

Dave Montreuil is a close friend of mine, whom I met while I was living in The Gambia and got to know during my third year. He is still living there and has taken up photography. Below is a link to his Flickr page where he has some amazing photos of the birds of The Gambia. I truly miss living amongst the sights and sounds of Coucals, Grey Bulbuls, and Long-Tailed Glossy Starlings, and these photos take me back there!

Friday, March 7, 2014

Peace Corps Language Archive

It has been years since I have posted to this blog, but I got an email recently that I believe makes a worthy post. Ray Blakney is an RPCV from Mexico and he has been working to build and share an archive of languages that Peace Corps volunteers learn and use. The link, as well as the email he sent me, are below. It is an amazing site with lots of information. I was happy to see that there was lots of material on Fula, or Pulaar, the language I learned and used.

Good Day Ian!

   Sorry to bother you.  My name is Ray Blakney and I am a RPCV from Mexico.  I am working on a 3rd goal project with the PC regional offices and the main office in DC to try to create an online archive to keep the language training material made all over the world from getting lost.  I have created a sub-section (link above) on the website my wife and I run - - with all the information I have been able to get to date (from over the web and sent to me directly by PC staff and PCV's).  I currently have close to 100 languages with ebooks, audios and even some videos.  

   The next step for this project is that I am trying to get the word out about this resource so that it can not only be used by PCV's or those accepted into the Peace Corps, but also so that when people run across material that is not on the site they can send it to me and I can get it up for everybody to use. It is all 100% free to use and share.  

Thanks for any help you can provide in making this 3rd goal project a success.   And if anybody in your group has some old material they can scan or already have in digital form, and want to add to the archive, please don't hesitate to pass them my email.  Thanks and have a great day.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

In Conclusion ...

The Adventure Continues

While my service as a Peace Corps volunteer has ended, I know that I will never forget the experiences that I had or the people I met in The Gambia. My three years in West Africa have greatly shaped me as a person and I hope to return to live and work in Africa again. Indeed, the adventures continue! The only way that I can properly conclude this blog is with expressions of thanks to everyone who cared for and influenced me during my time in The Gambia.


YOU – thank you, reader, for listening to my endless ranting and raving.

MOM, DAD, and CHRIS – for calling every Sunday and sending care packages regularly, for sending school supplies and mailing pen-pal letters, for visiting me and helping with several of my projects, for always giving the best advice and constantly being there to listen.

UNCLE TIM – For sending me magazines, anti-biotics, and other random medical supplies!

SUNNY U. – for sending me well over 1,000 text messages, for visiting me and helping with several projects, for being so patient with me, for cooking amazing dinners and joining me on bird-watching trips, for always being there to cheer me up.

AUNTIE J. SABETTA - For picking me up in Philly and treating me to an amazing dinner with friends and family before I shipped off to The Gambia, for telling me stories from when she was in the Peace Corps, for always staying in contact, for sending me books to read, and for looking at all my photos when I got back!

MRS. HOGAN AND THE 5TH GRADE AT AOSR - For agreeing to start up a Pen-Pal Exchange with my students at Suduwol Basic Cycle School, for sending fantastic letters and drawings and postcards, for replying in a second round, and for showing my Gambian students what a large and amazing world is out there!

ASHLEY ROCK - For contacting me after reading my blog with a brilliant project idea, for gathering together 5-barrels' worth of clothing and teaching supplies, for shipping them over to The Gambia and allowing me to distribute them to volunteers, for visiting the volunteers at the transit house. The supplies you provided gave many volunteers the chance to offer rewards to students at their schools, to make teaching aids, to promote creative projects, and to paint new black-boards! Thank you, thank you, thank you!


BECCA L. – for regularly sending mail and packages.

GINA A. – for constantly sending mail, creative postcards, and packages.

ERICA P. – for constantly sending letters and CDs with new music, to keep me updated on the times, and stickers for my students.

BRUCE B. – for sending a great package with school supplies.

JOHN AND SARA M. – for sending a great care-package and for inviting me to a great wedding.

RYAN H. – For sending many postcards and letters.

M. AND M. USNICK - For contacting me to see what books my library needed and sending me several packages filled with excellent children's books and science books. My students were amazed and inspired by the images and stories in the books and it made the Suduwol Basic Cycle School Library one of the best in Upper River Region!

R., L., J., AND J. CLARKE - For sending my regular updates and great letters throughout my service, for telling me about your times in Africa and the challenges you faced and offering great advice on how to deal with the challenges I was facing.

MRS. PFANNL - For sending me my first teacher planner, which I made excellent use of, and for always encouraging me to do my best.


IDA KIETA – for teaching me how to speak Fula and how to behave like a polite Gambian, for literally serving as my first Gambian mother.

BABUKAR SALLAH – for teaching me about Gambian customs and introducing me to Gambian humor and Gambian music.

MUHAMADOU M.M.S. BAH – for teaching me how to brew Attaya and Mew, for being a great trainer, and for being a great guide when I began working as a PCVL.

SARJO DUMBUYA – for being an awesome lead trainer and delivering our mail when I was a trainee, for being a rock in an otherwise unstable environment, for your constant calmness and great sense of humor, for being an amazing Training Program Manager, for inviting me to your home to watch the world cup and to play with your rabbits.

LINDA M. – For convincing me to stay another year and work as PCVL, for listening to all my stories from my first nine months of service, and for having a pure love of education in Africa.

M. McCONNELL – For always taking the time to listen to his PCVs and for staying involved with The Gambia well after leaving.

CORNISH – For having a great sense of humor and re-igniting the drive and energy of the post and it’s volunteers.

FATOU SOWE – For caring for all us hapless PCVs and for always smiling, even when she was lecturing us!

JOHN, SAM, PETER, and ALIEU – For driving us all over the country, delivering mail, making training happen, and fixing almost anything that broke!

SHERIFF – For coordinating the drivers and always being helpful about finding keys and keeping things scheduled.

Dr. NJIE – For always caring for us PCVs in the medical unit, despite whatever ridiculous thing was wrong with us.

BARBARA – For giving me all of my shots as a Trainee and immunizing me to basically everything!

MIKE TOPPE – For being a great PCMO, for taking care of us PCVs, and for hosting social events at your home!

ALIEU – For taking such good care of the Basse house and always asking about my site and work, even after not seeing me for a long time.

YAHYA – For always being the go-to person in the office and for being the most dedicated RAEL MADRID fan I have ever met!


BLAIR C. – for being an awesome PCVL and friend, for introducing me to many other friends in Kombo, for staying in contact and meeting to catch up in Boston.

KRISTY C. – for being the best site mate I could ever imagine and really helping me through my first three months of teaching, for always being positive, for cooking some amazing meals, for using a solar oven, for raising ducks, for cooking pankatoes in the Basse car-park, and for introducing me to the magic of blue-grass music.

DHARMA – for introducing me to running in The Gambia, even when it’s dark and raining.

M. TALBOT – For first showing me the beautiful view from the Bakau Guest House, for cooking some amazing Italian meals in Kombo, and for playing some great Ultimate Frisbee.

ELLIE A. – For having the best laugh in the world and for always being positive, for working so hard with her Gambian counterparts and being a great, unofficial PCVL.

KATIE C. – For being one of the longest serving Gambia PCVs, for having a fantastic sense of humor, and for keeping me updated on all the office gossip!


J. CASWELL – for being a great training buddy and look-alike, for always being around to get an icy and hang out in Basse during my first year, for visiting me and helping me get my garden started.

TRAVIS R. – for being a great training buddy, for your constant positivity and love of anything medically related.

ANNE AND JOSH L. – Anne for being a great PCVL and being super helpful in showing me the ropes as I tried to follow in her footsteps. Josh, for being a fantastic scientist and creative lab instructor.

NATHAN A. – For going on biking adventures out of training village and introducing professional theater to The Gambia, for always having a good laugh.

CHRIS C. - For his amazing computer knowledge and willingness to fix my computer whenever it broke.

JENNY F. – For taking the time to visit me at my site and for always having a positive attitude, and for always having a compliment to give.

EMILY – For many great dinners in Kombo, and for always being game to go on a walk, hike, or bike ride.

MARCUS – For once saying that I looked like “Frankenstein” and for always being willing to talk about Italian Vespa Scooters.

RYAN – For being the first fellow PCV I met as a roommate in Philly, for always having a hilarious story to tell about having diarrhea or dealing with “small boys.”


BETHANY H. (now D.) – For introducing me to Basse, for going camping along The Gambia River, and for always planning big dinners at the Basse House. I hope Minty is doing well!

LIZA – For always having an open door in Basse and thinking of so many good dinner recipes, for a great dinner night with Cashew wine and vegetable curry. Newton misses you!

SCOTT AND LIZ – For a great Christmas in Basse and for many adventures in URR. Scott for showing me how to farm a field and for being a great, short-time site-mate. Liz for always having positive things to say and for your awesome mother.

BRENDAN – For cooking some amazing meals, playing guitar in Fatoto and Kombo, and teaching me about West African music, for a fantastic overland trip to Mali.

ZACH R. – For teaching me how to integrate into Gambian culture and for always being laid back, for showing off your awesome Mandinkha, for showing me around your site, for being a great travel buddy as we went through Mali, and for taking great pictures.

KANE M. – For being a chill and hilarious person, for being a genius with computers and always recommending good books to me, for letting Sunny and I stay over at your place in Kombo, and for a great hike through the bush as we tried to map out a new trail for marathon march.

M. CLERVY – For all your advice on solar power setups, for having a great laugh and always facing each day as an adventure, for leading us along a new Marathon March trail and showing us a beautiful resort afterwards.

KATIE A. – For always texting and brainstorming about ways to deal with corporal punishment, and for always being willing to hang out in Kombo.

EVELYN D. – For being a great Fula-buddy and travel buddy, even when she was clipping her toenails in the car seat next to me.

MELISSA M. – For tagging along as we explored a new trail for marathon march and for always having a fantastic smile.

LEAH S. – For her boundless energy and positivity and willingness to try anything, and for tagging along when Josh and I made a return trip to Fula Kunda.

STEVE – For offering an open door in Farafeni and being willing to go on a run, and for playing some great ultimate Frisbee.

ALBIEN – For showing me what true faith looks like and for playing some great music at the various “Talent Show” nights.

JENNA K. – For always being willing to hang out in Basse and for many a good meal at “Aminata’s.”

JULIA H. – For visiting me at my site, for helping me plant banana trees in my garden, for cooking up great dinners in Fatoto, and for visiting me in Boston.

JIM M. – For doing awesome work in Tujereng, for showing me the biggest Christian festival in The Gambia, and for always working so hard!

KRIS P. – For organizing the first Gambia triathalon and for teaching the best architecture class in The Gambia!


ERIN D. – For building a library, for being an awesome Wollof speaker, and for always finding an excuse to dance!

LILY N. – For always being positive and for tackling work at one of the most remote sites in The Gambia.

DYLAN F. – For taking fantastic photographs, for learning two languages at once, and for always having ICT advice!

SAMANTHA J. – For doing great work at the university and for introducing me to Bon Ivor.

JEN D. – For being a fellow Mainer, for taking over for me as PCVL, and for accompanying me on a particularly long trip up country one time.

JOSH K. – For always having an open door in Kombo, for becoming such a great Frisbee and Game Night player, and for pushing through a really tough month of training!

CATHERINE H. – For putting together a great resource center, for showing a true love of gardening, and for serving, literally, in two schools at once!

ABBY A. – For her constantly positive attitude and love of all things sports, for making great teaching aids, and for coaching basketball in Basse.

CAROLINE S. – For being a total champ during training and for taking the Peer Tutoring Program to whole new levels.

TRISH – For bringing advanced science to Gambian classrooms, for working with my old counterpart, and for creating some very creative science laboratories.

KIM – For pushing through a tough first few weeks at site, for putting together a great library, and for becoming a great Fula speaker!

NATHAN O. – For his great and unique sense of humor, for integrating into Gambian consulate politics very quickly, and for always being ready to have a good time!

SONJA – For learning Fula so well, for taking on the challenge of living 200 miles up-country in Fatoto, and for having an epic amount of patience and subtle humor.

JAY – For giving me great advice about graduate schools, for pouring himself fully into whatever he is doing, and for facing several challenges in his first months of service!

JESSICA M. – For having a fantastic laugh, for applying her literary skills to the education newsletter, and for building up a great library/computer laboratory.

JULIE D. – For having a great sense of humor and adventure, for taking over and far surpassing me as a PCV in Tanjeh, and for staying in contact after I left.

EILEEN M. – For dedicating a ton of energy into setting up a library at her school and for showing a ton of love for her host-family’s children.

GLORIA – For revolutionizing a rural school and setting up the best library in The Gambia, for biking back and forth to Basse on a regular basis, and for bringing strong dedication to everything she does!

HEATHER S. – For being constantly positive about everything and for always having a solution to whatever challenge is presented to her.

SHIELA – For being the bravest woman I’ve ever met and for working hard to set up a library at her site.


IDA – For always coming to my hut in Sarre Alpha to study English, for bringing me delicious food as repayment, for putting up with my horrible tutoring skills, and for always calling to practice her English greetings.

DAVE M. – For always offering an open door in Kombo, for running Saturday game nights and ultimate Frisbee meets, for visiting me in Tanjeh and helping me move a car battery, and for being an awesome musician!

L.C. – For being an awesome ultimate Frisbee player and showing infinite levels of calm.

ALL THE BRITS, TOSTAN VOLUNTEERS, AND MRC WORKERS – Such amazing and diverse people!

BROTHER DISMISS – For making me a rosary, for telling me about The Gambia in the old days, and for caring for all the children in Tanjeh.


MAMASAMBA CHAM – For being a loving and caring father, for never once asking me for money, for being infinitely patient, for taking me to the farm fields, for showing me the stars and how to pray and how to eat like a true Gambian, and for always greeting me with a smile.

MAIMUNA JAW – For cooking up some great meals, for showing me how to crack groundnuts, for making me dance when she made Hako, for letting me buy one of her knitted quilts, for always showing true love and devotion to her children.

BABY – For boiling water for me in the first week when I was sick, for always laughing at how crazy I was, and for bringing me breakfast when I did not have school.

AMY-BABY, KADIJATOU, JENABA, and AMIE – For teaching me how to make Mew tea, for always playing on the tire swing I made, for coming to my hut to “study a.k.a. draw,” and for always bringing laughter to the compound.

MAMADOU-HAWA, ALHAGIE-MAWDO, and OMAR – For helping me learn Fula, for teaching me how to weed a field and how to find certain plants in the bush, and for always helping me to fix my back-yard fence.


ALMAMI JAMMEH – For always having great ideas about how to improve his community, for being so curious about America, for understanding sarcasm, and for always (and I mean ALWAYS) listening to the radio.

BINTOU JAMMEH – For always laughing, for inviting me to help in her garden, for cooking spicy fish every night, for introducing me to Tanjeh, for many a long night of conversation, for cooking me a large farewell dinner, and for riding with me to the airport when I left.

FATOU FATTY – For always being a laughing companion to Bintou, for always being modest about her beauty, and for bringing me dinner in my first few weeks in Tanjeh when Bintou was not around.


PATEH JALLOW – For being one of the best head-teachers in The Gambia, for always being completely honest, for displaying a genuine drive to improve education in The Gambia, for holding a firm line, for helping me with the library and teaching, and for generally making my first two years of service meaningful by being the best counterpart I could have asked for.

ENSA “MAN” GIBBA – For being a fantastic Deputy-Head Teacher, for showing a great interest in bird-watching, for taking me out to many of the surrounding villages to visit students in their homes, for getting involved with the library, for listening to my advice, and for showing a true passion for teaching young children in The Gambia.

MAMADOU BADJIE – For being a great Deputy-Head Teacher and then Head Teacher at Suduwol, for continuing work with the library, for bringing his family along to the school, for always being willing to work with me, and for being a hard working teacher!

MR. JOBE – For being a fantastic counterpart at Sarre Alpha Lower Basic School, for helping me set up another library, for coming over to study math, for staying in contact, and for inviting me out to visit him at his new school shortly before I left.

MR. SANNEH – For taking over the Sarre Alpha library after I left and keeping the program going.

MR. JALLOW – For taking a great interest in science teaching and trying out activities in his classroom!

MR. GIBBA – For being a great Deputy-Head Teacher at Tanjeh Lower Basic School, for helping me get a library started, for taking the time to introduce me to the staff and school, and for always doing eight things at once!

ALL THE TEACHERS AT SUDUWOL BASIC CYCLE SCHOOL, SARRE ALPHA LOWER BASIC SCHOOL, and TANJEH LOWER BASIC SCHOOL – For listening to whatever crazy advice I had, for supporting me when I was getting started, and for working hard under some of the toughest and thankless conditions imaginable.


MARIAMA JAWO – For being a genuinely hard working and intelligent girl, for loving theater and acting, for acing every test I gave her, and for taking the lead with the library club!

MARIAMA SANNEH – For always being quiet and studious, for showing a propensity for reading and discussing, and for always wanting to visit the library.

YAHYA BALDEH – For being an all-star biology student and excellent reader, for always having excellent questions, and for always wanting to do the right thing.

MUHAMMED G. SISSOKO – For loving theater in all it’s forms, for being able to put a smile on anyone’s face at any time, for always having a great answer to a question, and for frequently paying me greetings in the evenings.

ALL MY STUDENTS AT SUDUWOL BASIC CYCLE SCHOOL – For trying their hardest to listen to my quickly spoken English, for always laughing at my antics, for coming to school every day, even if they were hungry or it was 112F or it was raining, for showing me how easy it can be to find happiness, and for always making me feel welcome in a place that sometimes seemed very strange.

If I forget anyone, I am sorry, but thank you for everything!

Ultimate frisbee at MRC.

Muhammed Touray and Linda M.

In Mali with Zach and Brendan.

Peace Corps/The Gambia Education groups.
Mamasamba Cham

Students and teachers.

Back in America - An RPCV Reflects

The Transition

I returned to the US on May 16th, 2011. I’ve now been out of The Gambia for over seven months now. In that time I have gained about 15 pounds, lost my tan, travelled to Italy twice, gone through a massive amount of teacher training, and met a whole new group of awesome friends. I no longer spend half my morning greeting people or share my food plate or eat on the floor with my hand or speak Pulaar regularly or chase farm animals away from my front door. However, to be honest, those are all things that I miss. While I realize that there are many things that I do not miss, I sometimes find myself wishing I could return to The Gambia. I know that my life will never again be as simple as it was there.

Joy and Nostalgia

I enjoy no longer being referred to as a “toubab.” It is also a relief to go shopping and pay the price listed on the item, instead of bartering for 15 minutes. Being able to eat a variety of foods and having ready access to ice-cold water at all times is fantastic. However, I do miss the salty taste of domadaa and the exotic fruits that were always so cheap and accessible in The Gambia, such as papaya and cashew fruit. Living in Boston has severely reduced my ability to go on secluded runs or to go bird watching. Now, in the cold of winter, I run on a treadmill in a crowded gym, longing for the open fields that I used to run through in Africa (even if it was really hot and dry and dusty). I do enjoy being able to have a hot shower and no longer having to use a pit-latrine, but I will never forget the nights when I was able to take a bucket bath under a starry sky.

I also miss the incredible people, culture, and customs of The Gambia. Gambians had a friendliness and simple sense of humor that I have found nowhere else in the world. However, I do not miss the people who tended to be overly friendly or the domestic violence that was often present. Overall, the things that I miss the most are the amazing people that I met and worked with and the abounding nature that constantly surrounded me in The Gambia.

Goal 3

Everyone is interested in hearing about Africa, especially people who have lived and worked overseas before. While my friends make fun of me for constantly starting my sentences with “well, when I was in Africa …,” I have found many willing and interested ears to listen to my crazy stories. One of the best things I did when I returned to the US was designed a photo album on summarizing my three years in Africa. It is a great thing to show to people and allows me to condense an otherwise overwhelming amount of stories, experiences, and memories. I have also found that it is great to listen to the stories that other people have of living and working overseas. You’ll be amazed at how similar the joys and stresses of your different experiences might be. My students are also good listeners!

Whatever the situation and whoever the person, I am thankful for every single person who has read or listened to my stories and reflections.

Running in The Gambia

An Unexpected Addiction

While serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in The Gambia, I did more running then I ever have in my entire life! I would often run for one hour, running 30 minutes out and 30 minutes back, three or four times a week. I suppose this is not very significant in comparison to what college athletes do, but it is the most running I have ever done. I first started running in Rome, Italy, when I joined my high school cross-country team during my junior year in order to get in shape for the following basketball season. I had no idea how addicted I would become to running. I ran in the DODDs cross-country European championships and continued running all throughout college. However, I had never run further than around five kilometers over the span of 18 to 25 minutes. During my senior year, a friend of mine first introduced me to long-distance running.

Adapting in Africa

I did not try running in The Gambia until my third week of pre-service training. I was still adapting to the heat and the diet, but I could not wait any longer. If anything, I found that running helped me with my adjustment. After a long run, it did not matter how hot it was at night because I was so tired that I slept and it did not matter how gross my host-family’s food was because I was so hungry that I ate. Running was also a great source of stress relief. Running through the bush, with nothing but birds and trees around me, was extremely relaxing. I continued running, even after I had moved to my two-year site. I began to lengthen my running times, ultimately reaching one full hour. Though I never actually measured my running distance, I believe I would often cover between six to ten miles in a single run. I went for runs all over The Gambia, which allowed me to see much of the country.

Sarre Alfa

In Sarre Alfa I had three major running routes. I would sometimes run north, across the south bank road and along a very sandy path that lead to Perai-Tenda, a Mandinka village near the river. I would sometimes bike along this same path, passing the village and heading down to the river for a swim. I once swam right across the river at this particular site. However, the main reason I liked running there was to marvel at the Silk-Cotton tree that grew just above the riverbank, looming over the river and the path. It was the most enormous and majestic tree I have ever seen. Silk-Cotton trees are amazing; they are covered in small spikes, their roots stretch out at the base to form huge crevasses, and they release their seeds in fluffy, cotton-like balls that fall to the ground and make it look like it has snowed.

The other two paths I ran on in Sarre Alfa went to the South. I would run through the center of the village, passing the central mosque and all the old men on their bantabas, and then strike out into the farm fields on the outskirts of the village. It was a beautiful, flat, open area that was spotted with lone, evenly spaced trees. You could see for miles in almost every direction. One path lead through the fields to another village, where I would turn around and run along a small inlet before turning back to form a U shaped path. I will never forget running back through the fields as the sun was setting. As the tall, dry grass swayed in the wind, the fading sunlight would paint it bright orange and yellow. The farm fields were also home to several Abyssinian Rollers, which are beautiful, iridescent-blue birds that perform amazing flight displays. They would often perch on a lone coos stalk as I ran by and I would often stop to stare at their beautiful white eye-slashes and long tail hairs.

The other path I ran on led through the fields and up into a forested area that my host-family called “dow hyrre,” meaning “upon a hill.” Indeed, it started with a slight rise, then I would pass though a smaller, cleared area that served as my own host-family’s farm fields. Then I would just run along a thin, dirt path that wound through the over-grown bush. It was beautiful! I would see Hornbills, Starlings, and huge termite mounds. Two Warthogs once ran right across the path ahead of me. Another time, I passed a lone fisherman coming back from some hidden pond. He looked totally surprised and a little frightened to be seeing a white man running through the bush.


On a few occasions, during the rainy season, I went running while staying in the Basse transit house. I would head out of town on the dirt road that led up past the SOS Children’s Orphanage. This was the most uneven and difficult road that I ever had to run on. The mud was slippery and sometimes stuck to my shoes, making them heavy. The puddles were as wide as small lakes and surprisingly deep. I would be so covered in mud by the end of the run that I could easily blend in with the road itself.

Janjanbury Island

I stayed on Janjanbury Island several times as I helped with Peace Corps site development treks. We would spend the nights at the Regional Education Office and I would often go running down a dirt road that led to a small resort called “Bird Safari Camp.” It was a beautiful path through the bush that ended right at the riverbank. I would often see Parakeets, Parrots, Kingfishers, and Weavers, as well as find hippo prints by the river’s edge. On other occasions I would run to the main road and follow it off the island, crossing the newly built bridge leading to the Southbank. I would pass a large, dirt field where young men were always playing football: running and kicking in a fog of dust. The bridge offered a beautiful view of the river, with the green bush lining both sides and the cloud filled sky above.


I once stayed with a volunteer just outside Soma and went running through a strange neighborhood of large abandoned buildings. I was later told that the buildings were part of a hospital that was once located nearby. I also stayed in the center of Soma a few times as I passed through on site development treks for Peace Corps. I would run out of town, heading West on the Southbank road. I would often be passed by large trucks, heading for the river crossing, which kicked up so much dust that I would often have stop to the let the air clear. I sometimes wonder how much African dust I have in my lungs.


A fellow volunteer and I once went running outside Farafeni, through a bunch of smaller villages and along a road leading though the mangroves by the river. We picked up quite the little following of children.

Tendaba Camp

Tendaba is a beautiful tourist camp located right on the river. It is where I completed much of my Peace Corps training, including model school. I would go on morning runs with one of the volunteer trainers, which was an excellent way for me to get rid of my nervousness before model school. One morning, which I will never forget, I woke up to the sound of pounding rain and darkness outside. “I guess we won’t be running this morning,” I thought, and then there was a knock at the door. Indeed, we went running in the pounding rain, splashing through puddles and kicking up mud. It was awesome!

A few years later, I stayed at Tendaba a few times while on site development trek. I would often jump over the back gate and run along a path that led into the mangroves behind the camp. It was a beautiful path that passed by a few rice fields and then went straight into the mangroves. I once startled a large Monitor Lizard, which climbed up a tree with amazing speed. I also came across a troop of baboons, which barked at me and slowly ran off in a very systematic fashion; constantly keeping an eye on me. I would pass several trees that were full of weaver nests, like little cities made of intricately woven grass baskets.


I spent a good amount of time in Kombo, which is a well-developed area of the Gambian capital, Banjul. I would normally go running along the beach, striking out from the Peace Corps transit house and heading straight down a few paved roads to the coast. I would sometimes take a side trip along a beautiful, thin path that led along the edge of a high cliff over the beach. Needless to say, the beach was beautiful. I would run along the firm sand and dodge my way through the many Gambians and tourists who would be playing football (soccor), rugby, working out, or just running around on the beach. I would get quite self-conscious as I passed the Gambian wrestlers on the beach; men who had so much muscle they looked like G. I. Joe action figures. I would kick off my shoes to cross a small inlet and then run onwards, rounding several bends in the coast before turning to run back.

Every Monday and Thursday in Kombo, there would be pick-up ultimate Frisbee games on the MRC grounds. These were really fun, friendly matches where a bunch of diverse people would come together to play Ultimate Frisbee; Gambians, Peace Corps volunteers, VSO volunteers, British NGO workers, MRC workers, and many other people. During the rainy season, the field would be covered with high grass that painted our socks with seeds. Huge bats would fly out of the nearby palm trees and sore over the field as the sun went down. In the dry season, the field would be reduced to sand. Starlings and Plantain-Eaters would fly over the field as we kicked up dust and ran like crazy, the setting sun turning my teammates into silhouettes.


Tanjeh, where I lived for the third year of my Peace Corps service, offered me the best of both worlds as a runner. I could run out along the coast or through the forested area behind the village. One path that I often ran on led across the coastal road and through a large area of farm fields that separated Tanjeh from the beach. As I neared the beach, I would pass a large line of palm trees standing with the ocean behind them, then run down a steep hill and come out on the soft, flat sand. I would round a bend and then run along an empty beach for miles. Sometimes it was as if I was the only person on Earth. Occasionally there were some fisherman or cow herders guiding their cattle along the beach. I would watch the sun set over the water as I ran back, following my long shadow as I returned home. The other path that I would run on led away from the coast. I would run through the village and into a small area of farm fields. Though it was never as remote as the area I ran through in Sarre Alfa, it was peaceful and a welcome relief from the crowded village.

These are the memories I have from running in The Gambia. It was such a beautiful country and I feel like my frequent runs helped me to see that.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Year in Tanjeh, West Coast Region: 2010 – 2011

Leaving Sarre Alfa

On June 16th, 2010, I moved from Sarre Alfa in Upper River Region to Tanjeh in West Coast Region. The Peace Corps car arrived to load up my things in the late afternoon. I had expected the loading of the vehicle to take hours, but with all my host-brothers and host-sisters helping it took only a few minutes. I bid an emotional farewell to my host-family and drove away from the village where I had spent two years of my life. The driver, a Christian Gambian, blared gospel music on the radio all the way to the coast and sang along at the top of his lungs.

A Bridge I Could Not Cross

At one point we came to the newly built bridge connecting the south bank road to Janjanbury Island. Though the bridge was finished, a man in military uniform stopped us. He explained that no one was allowed to cross the bridge until His Excellency The President had crossed it at an upcoming opening ceremony. He told us to use the small ferry that rested on the other bank. This ferry was essentially a slab of metal, capable of fitting two cars, with a cable running through it that was secured on either bank. You pulled the ferry across by hauling on the cable. So we walked across the bridge, pulled the empty ferry to our side, loaded the Peace Corps car on, then pulled the ferry back to the Janjanbury bank. The soldier watched us from the bridge with a bored expression. This whole process took almost an hour. Right as we off-loaded the Peace Corps car from the ferry, a government vehicle with tinted windows went flying over the bridge, cruising from one bank to the other in five minutes. The soldier simply saluted.


I went from living in a small, Fula village located 200 miles from the coast to living in a huge, Mandinka town located right on the coast AND I went from living in a small, thatch-roofed hut to living in a two-room corrugate-roofed house. Though I still had no running water or electricity, I had a well right next to my house and a tap that was periodically turned on right outside my compound; no more crowded village pumps for me! There were also many shops selling everything I needed and a large market right up the road; no more 30km bike rides to Basse to get oatmeal for me!

My host-family in Tanjeh was almost the exact opposite of my host-family in Sarre Alfa. Mamasamba Cham, my host-father in Sarre Alfa, was a subsistence farmer with two wives and 12 children. He sometimes worked as a mason, but was otherwise uneducated and had no regular income. Almami Jammeh, my host-father in Tanjeh, was the Village Development Committee chairman. He had one wife, Bintou, and no children. He was well educated, spoke English, and had a regular income. Bintou, his wife, was also educated and had a regular income from her work at a Credit Union in the Tanjeh fish market. Almami Jammeh was a talkative man, who loved listening to the radio and was determined to one-day travel to America. Bintou Jammeh was a large, strong woman who was almost always laughing and working. She had a radiant smile and spoke very good English.

The Jammehs of Tanjeh

Almami and Bintou lived together in a long, corrugate-roofed compound; one end of which was my house. Bintou raised sheep and maintained a large, walled-in garden that she shared with other village women. The compound was surrounded by an incomplete concrete wall, which primarily served as a perch for birds and prowling cats. Covering the space between the wall and the house were hundreds of concrete bricks, lined up perfectly to dry in the sun. Bintou explained that she had been accumulating the bricks in order to build a second house. Judging by the tall grass that was growing from some of the bricks, I guessed they had been there for a long time. Other than the garden, the only greenery that existed in the compound was several mango trees and palm trees. One of the mango trees leaned directly over the wall of my backyard, near my pit latrine. During the rainy season I would often go out in my yard and find several mangos resting on the ground. I did not sleep outside for fear that one of these falling mangos would hit me.

Though Almami and Bintou had no children of their own, they housed several children who were distantly related to them. Almami shared his compound with his parents, who would often sit outside under the covered front of the compound and play with or berate the children. Almami and Bintou also hosted a teenage girl named Fatou Fatty, who helped Bintou with all the cooking and cleaning and also worked in the Tanjeh fish market. Fatou and Bintou were like sisters and would always banter and laugh together: much of the time about me. Needless to say, it was rarely quiet in the compound.

A Large School in a Large Town

If I was not in the Jammeh’s compound or working at the Peace Corps office in Kombo, then I was usually working at the Tanjeh Lower Basic School, which was located further into the town. Like the Jammeh’s compound, it was surrounded by an incomplete wall that encompassed eight classroom blocks containing 22 classrooms, a tap, a medical building, and a teacher’s building. Two enormous mango trees stood in the Northeast corner of the campus and loomed over the nearby classrooms. Otherwise the school grounds were composed of a soft, deep sand that was difficult to walk on, much less ride a bike on. During the one year that I spent at the school, I put together a school library. When I first arrived, I was shown three store rooms: the first was a large classroom filled with broken desks and other furniture, the second was filled with old boxes of donated books, and the third contained more boxes of donated books buried below many donated school desks. I enlisted the 5th grade class to help me clear out the first room of all the broken desks and furniture. We disturbed the homes of many large geckos, which went darting out of the long-unopened windows. The room had a panelled ceiling and a solid floor so I decided to use it as the library. I dug through the pile of old furniture and salvaged whatever good wood and shelving I could find. I used a hammer and nails to repair the shelves and even built a new shelf out of an old, wooden beehive frame.

The Secrets Held in Donated Books

Over a two-month period, I slowly moved the old boxes of donated books to the library, unpacked them, arranged them, and shelved them. I found entertainment in the secrets the books held. Many of them had old dedications penned on the inside covers: “happy birthday Jimmy, 1974,” and so on. Written across the top of a particularly old book, I found a catchy rhyme; “if this book should come to roam, box it’s ears and send it home.” I found many other things while sifting through the pages of different books; a shopping list, a love note, several playing cards, and flattened insects from strange lands. Unfortunately, many of the books had been eaten through by termites or ruined by moisture. I found that termites could consume the entire inside of a book while leaving the covers intact. It was interesting to see what books they ate (Catherine Cookson, Danielle Steel) and what books they spared (Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck). The best book I found while sifting through the boxes was a 1944 encyclopaedia, with hand-drawn illustrations of rivers, mountains, birds, and insects.

Riding With Sand and Fish

On days when I needed to do work at the Peace Corps office in Kombo, I would leave the Jammeh’s compound and bike along the main road to the fish market. This road was smoothly paved and conducted a lot of traffic, much different from the almost impassable road that I travelled on near Sarre Alfa. While riding to the Tanjeh fish market, I would frequently be passed by large trucks carrying sand from the Kartong sand quarry to construction sites in Kombo. On top of the sand these trucks carried sat several men with shovels, whose job it was to load and unload the sand. I would sometimes see a single digger on the side of the road, leaning on his shovel and waiting for a passing sand truck to pick him up for a days work.

The Tanjeh fish market was always bustling with men and women hawking, bartering, and selling everything from fish to music cassettes. The fisherman, who were all Senegalese, would beach their boats near the market and get mobbed by men wading through the waves to help unload the fish. The fish would either be bought by women who would then transport them into the city to sell at a higher price or frozen on ice in a Taiwanese built ice-factory and stored to be sold later. Cats, dogs, and birds roamed everywhere and the stench was unlike anything I have ever smelled before. I would chain my bike to a post in the market and board one of the geles (public vans) leaving for Kombo. Unfortunately, these were the same geles taken by all the women who loaded up fish to sell in the Serekunda market. Many a time I sat next to a woman holding a basket of fish or had fish juice drip down on me from the baskets of fish piled on the roof of the gele. Invariably I would arrive in Kombo reeking of fish, which would subsequently cause many of the Peace Corps office staff to give me funny looks when I arrived for work.

Running in Paradise

Living near the beach did have its advantages, especially for a runner like me. After a long day at the Peace Corps office or at the Tanjeh school, I would come home, throw on my running shows, and make for the coast along a sandy trail that cut through the farm fields between the main road and the ocean. After descending a short cliff and glimpsing a spectacular view of the wide, blue ocean over palm trees, I would find myself running near the waves. I would round a few bends in the coast and then make my way along miles and miles of flat, empty beach. Aside from the occasional tourist bar, cattle herder, or fisherman, I would be the only one around. With the sun set painting the sky orange, the waves crashing next to me, the birds hovering above me, and the wind in my face, I could not imagine being anywhere better.

These are the memories of my life in Tanjeh that I will cherish. Eating and laughing with Bintou and Fatou, while trying not to sniffle too much from the spicy food. Listening to the cacophony of frogs at night during the rainy season. Waking to the smell of the sea and listening to the wind as it crackled through the leaves of the palm trees. Though I was only there for a short time, I will never forget it.