Blog Archive

Monday, August 3, 2009

An Introduction

This is a picture of me standing with my fellow teachers at Suduwol Basic Cycle School.

Salaam alekum! Greetings from The Gambia. Welcome to! Ousman Cham is the Gambian name that I was given when I arrived here. I intend to use this blog page to share the experiences I have had as a Peace Corps volunteer serving in The Gambia through stories and pictures. Many of the pictures posted here can also be found on my facebook profile.

First and foremost, I hereby certify that the views and opinions expressed on this blog page are mine and mine alone, and do not reflect the views and opinions of the Peace Corps or the United States Government. If a reader should find error or offense on this blog page, the fault is wholly my own and any response should be addressed to me only.

Working in a garden in training village.

In brief, I am a volunteer in the education sector. I am working as a math/science teacher in a small public school in a rural, up country region of The Gambia. I have taught General Science to grades 7, 8, and 9. I have also taught Population and Family Life Education to grade 7. I have restored and opened a large library at my school and a smaller library at a school in a neighboring village. I ran a “Library Club” and “Science Club” with high performing students. I have run workshops with my fellow teachers on designing effective teaching aids and encouraging alternative discipline. I have also helped start a tree nursery at my school and planted over 10 mango saplings on the school grounds. I helped repair a fence surrounding part of school and plan to raise money to build a proper gate for my school. I have helped other volunteers with a variety of programs. I brought girls down from my school to attend a workshop that promoted women’s rights and encouraged them to continue their schooling. I also helped run sessions at a football camp for young boys, which was coupled with a sex education and HIV/AIDS awareness program. There are many other smaller projects that I have worked on that may be related in the following pages. I have greatly enjoyed serving as an education volunteer in The Gambia. My host family, fellow teachers, and fellow Peace Corps volunteers have been very welcoming and supportive of me. If you have any questions, please contact me at

Standing next to a large termite mound. These things are everywhere.

Below are samples of mass emails that I have sent out at various times during my service.

Acting out the shaving of my head at a traditional naming ceremony. This is where I was given the name "Ousman."

(This is the first large email, which I sent out shortly after arriving in The Gambia)

Salaamalekum! (peace be upon you), and you say “Malecumsalaam” (peace be upon you too). The sporadic availability of internet in this part of West Africa has led me to use mass emails. My Africa address can be found on my facebook account and my Africell phone number is 736-1397 (I do not yet know country codes, but you can look them up if you want to call). Africa is amazing. The heat is so thick that I can just sit on my bed and sweat. I am slowly learning how to deal with it. I and the other Education Project Volunteers are staying at The Gambia Pastoral Institute. The nuns here prepare our food; we clean the dishes, and attend classes and lectures under a large Mango tree outside. At night, this Mango tree is full of huge bats that fly overhead and there are dozens of geckos that gather under the lights at night to consume the insects. The lectures we attend pertain to technical skills learning, cross culture skills, personal health, personal safety, and language training. I am learning Pulaar, the language of the Fulas, who inhabit the North Bank of The Gambia. It has been very intense, but things are going well. I have also spent a lot of time meeting current volunteers, who seem like fantastic people. They have lots of good advice to give. We have been taken to an outdoor market, where I bought my first length of Gambia cloth. Now I must find a tailor who can make it into a shirt and pants for me. We have also spent some recreation time on the beach and I have to say that the water is VERY warm on this side of the Atlantic. The food has also been amazing. Breakfast is always tea, porridge, maybe some cereal, and bread. Lunch is more tea, fish, and bread. Dinner is rice, meat, and bread. We are spoiled by the nuns that prepare the food for us. This coming Thursday we will begin training with our host families. I will be going to Fula Kunda, a small village on the South Bank of the Gambia River, where I will live with a Fula host family. Dinner will then consist of sitting around a communal bowl and eating with your right hand. This is the real trial. They will not speak English, there will be no electricity, and no pluming (I will be using a squat-hole for the next two months!). I am both excited and nervous about it! I can not believe that I have only been in Africa for a week! There is so much to see and do and the people here are very friendly. Our language teachers are the people that will look after us while we are in the villages. My instructors are Ida (a woman) and Babukar (a young man). They report to Mohamadu and Sarjo, the heads of our training (and two very funny Gambians). That being said, there have been shocking moments. I had my first encounter with a “bumster” two days ago, while at the beach. These are men who come to you and act very friendly. They ask lots of questions and follow you around. I was picked up by a man who claimed that he had just been married. This led up to him requesting a marriage gift (money). All they want is money. Luckily a firm “no” sent him away, but it was a very new experience for me. It has also been shocking to see so many stray cats and dogs, which are very unhealthy and uncared for. However, I can understand that when people are starving, people see no reason to care for other animals. They are very serious about the Education Project that I am working on. Currently about 90% of children in the country are in school. They want this statistic to reach 100% in the next few years. My role will be to work as a math/science teacher in a specific school. Rote learning is all these children have experienced, so we are encouraged to use more creative and exciting ways to help them learn and think creatively. With the current food crisis in the country, we are also required to maintain school gardens. I am very excited about this prospect and Peace Corps has already put us through a session where an Agricultural Volunteer taught us gardening techniques that make use of available material (ever grow tomatoes in an old car tire?).

Working in the rice fields with a group of boys.

(This is an email that I sent out after visiting my site for the first time. I had just completed training and was about to be officially sworn in as a Peace Corps volunteer)

Site visit went very well. We left our training villages on Wednesday morning. My host-family gave me a heart felt good-bye. We were all taken to a small car park where they broke us up between three different vehicles. We crossed the river at Soma (there was a very long line of vehicles for the ferry, which is crazy). We stayed in the car while Gambians, chickens, goats, cows, and cars were loaded onto the ferry. Josh and I made the mistake of sitting between our two LCFs (two Gambian women named Ida and Adama). They gabbed and gabbed at the top of their lungs in Mandinka and Fulla the whole time! We finally reached the North Bank Road, which looks like an average American highway. Smooth, painted, and maintained (as opposed to the un-repaired, pot-hole filled South Bank Road). We drove up country and crossed back to the South Bank Road at Janjanbury (an island on the Gambia river). Here again you must take two small ferry’s (no bridges). We drove on to Basse where we stopped at the Basse transit house, which is really nice. They had a small library (lots of good books), a bathroom (with a real toilet), a kitchen (with a burner and sink), beds, fans, etc…. We hung out while they loaded a few things into the office that is adjoined to the transit house (they brought fans and a fridge). We then moved on a dropped off Josh. He has a VERY large house (two large round huts with thatch roofs connected by a hallway). His family is big and a lot of them speak English. He is maybe a 15 minute bike ride from the center market in Basse. Ida chose to come out to Sarre Alfa with me just to drop me off. The road was REALLY bad (I felt like laundry in a drier). It’s beautiful out there though! We eventually came to Sarre Alfa, which is a very large village. We unloaded my things and then they left, along with Ida. Kristy, the volunteer working in Fatoto (a nearby village, so she’s my “site-mate”) rode over on her bike and helped me move in (she was the one who helped us in Fula Kunda as well). She’s very nice and was very helpful. My house is a small, one room, square hut with a thatch roof. There was no furniture in it at all, not even a mattress. I brought all my stuff in and my host father brought me a thin, padded mat to sleep on. I have a very large backyard with two trees in it, so it is nice and shady. There is also a bath tub sunk into a cement slab in the back yard, which was left behind by the previous volunteer. There’s no running water, of course, and it was very dirty. My pit latrine is small but new, which is good. When I arrived there was no fence separating my yard from the rest of the compound, but they said they would build one the next day. I spent the night unpacking and getting settled with Kristy. We went out and got water. There is a water tap near by compound that operates in the morning (I get my drinking water from there). There is also an open well nearby (with a bucket and rope), which I use for bathing water. We had maffe gerte for dinner (rice with peanut sauce) and it was SO good. The next day I woke up at 4:30am to eat breakfast with my host-family (it is Ramadan so they are all fasting and I am giving it a try as well). I ate and went back to bed but didn’t sleep because all of the five nearby mosques started blaring out their prayer calls. We eventually got up and Kristy headed off the Basse on her bike, where she is going to visit Josh and then stay with another volunteer friend. I bathed, swept my house, got organized, and then broke out my brand new bike (so nice!). I biked over to Suduwol where the school that I am working at is located. It took all of 5 minutes, it’s very close. I found Suduwol Basic Cycle School, which is very big, has a soccer field, an incomplete fence, two water pumps, and 5 class room structures. I ran into Pateh Jallow there, my headmaster, who I had met in Tendaba 10 days before. He was very happy to see me (he’s living on the campus in the teacher housing (strangely, most Gambian teachers do not live anywhere near the schools that they work in, so they live on the campus, often with their families). Pateh gave me the basic tour. They have large classrooms and a lot of equipment. The rooms were VERY dirty from a summer’s worth of dust and sand. I met one of the care takers and was shown the library and text book storage room. There was a nest of wasps in the text book storage room, so that made things interesting. The library was very dirty but the previous volunteers did a very good job of laying out how it was all organized in a few record books. We talked about logistics and he is still unsure as to what classes I will actually be teaching. As he said: “we’ll just see which teachers show up this term.” Once we were done I headed back to Sarre Alfa, where I helped my oldest host brother build a fence across the left side of my back yard. It’s all sectioned off now. My host mother was doing laundry and she asked if I had any, so I gave her some soap and all my pants and shirts and towels. I then did my own underwear and sox in my back yard. Then my host brother took me out to meet the village Alkalo (chief, essentially) and the two Imams (priests, essentially). I brought them cola nuts, which I also gave to my host father (a tradition gift for a guest to give). It was very good language practice for me to introduce myself to them all. My host brother then gave me a tour of the village, which is HUGE. I met two million people. That night I hung out with my family, broke the fast, and went to bed. My host family is great. My host-father is Mamasamba Cham, a very large man with a stern look and great sense of humor. He is a retired mason and he still farms (corn and groundnuts). He had a first wife who he has now divorced. She left behind one child named Omar who is probably 23 or so. He is very nice, speaks some English, and he’s the one that took me around the village. The second wife is Maimuna, who is fantastic! She is nice, hard working, and understanding. She does all the cooking and cleaning. She has three daughters; Amie, Jenaba, and Kadie. The third wife is Baby. She is young and does not seem to do too much work. She has one very young daughter, also named Amie. On Friday (my second full day of site visit) I woke up with a sore throat (some of the kids have colds and I’m sure I got it from holding one of them). I stopped fasting and worked on fighting it. I spent the day at Suduwol school where I had the caretaker let me into the library and the storage room where Pateh told me they had some donated science equipment. The library is well laid out and so I hope to just continue it the way is has normally run. We’ll see what happens when school starts. The science equipment is good as well. It was a very dirty room and when I opened one of the cabinets a mouse jumped out at me. They have flasks, beakers, test tubes, a Bunsen burner but no gas, pipettes and a few other things. Most of the pipettes had holes in them so they are useless. I found 10 that will work. There were also some teaching aid supplies. This will be good stuff to work with. Making a basic science lab will be a fun project. I sent home that afternoon and hung out with some of the village kids. They are nice and were happy to see that I spoke rudimentary Pulaar. The next day I woke up early again. I spent the day organizing my house and packing for my trip to Banjul, which I would start the next day. Ida, my LCF, came to village that morning, so I was able to negotiate rent, laundry, and food with my family. They basically said they consider me as part of the family, so they will not charge me for anything. However, I will be sure to contribute to them what I can. Ida left in the afternoon and I rode out to Suduwol to buy ice! I had gotten my hands on a cooler from a free box in the Basse house. It was SO good. However, with my cold setting in, I ended up having my mother heat some water for me over the fire for my throat. I spent the evening packing and preparing my paper work. At 6:45am the next morning I tied my bags to my bike and rode the 40km from Sarre Alfa to Basse. It only took me 1hr and 40min. The bike worked great and the road was horrible. The morning was nice and cool though. I arrived at Josh’s house a little after 8am, smelly and muddy. I got cleaned up, ate, and then Josh and I headed out to the Basse market. We met up with a volunteer from a nearby site. Basse is amazing! It’s essentially a giant market. There is a bank, a post office, and bitiks (shops) where you can buy soda, candy bars, juice, fruit, and even yogurt. It was SO nice. We then returned to the Basse house and hung out, eating our treats and talking with Bethany and another volunteer who was there named Alex. Josh and I eventually decided that we wanted to cook at the Basse house. We headed back out to the market on our bikes and bought pasta, tomato sauce, potatoes, an onion, garlic, oranges, apples, and bananas. We then returned to the Basse house and cooked up pasta, potato chips, and fruit salad. It was VERY good. After the meal Josh and I helped clean, then headed back to Josh’s house. The next morning we rose at 5:30am and walked to the car park in Basse, where we met Ida. We got in a set-plaus (a station wagon taxi) which was headed for Barra (the fairy crossing to Banjul). I crammed myself into the back seat and slept for most of the ride. We crossed to North Bank through Janjanbury and then went straight to Barra. The guy next to me (a Gambian) actually fell asleep on my shoulder at one point. We must have stopped at 20 police check points, but luckily Peace Corps has given us real IDs now. We got to Barra at about 11am and waited for the ferry. We walked onto the ferry and crossed without any trouble (it’s a long trip across that channel!). We then took a taxi, a gelegele, and another taxi through Banjul to get to the Peace Corps transit house (aka The Stodge) in Kombo. It was good to finally arrive. It was about 1pm and most of the rest of our training group had arrived. Josh and I dropped our stuff off, claimed beds upstairs, and went out for ice cream (it was SO good. I hadn’t had ice cream in two months!). The stodge is a very nice, dorm like building that Peace Corps owns and maintains. We have cots, a kitchen, a living room with tables, games, a TV, and big movie collection. It felt SO good to sleep on a real mattress with a real pillow. I had been sick throughout the entire trip and had not slept much, so I slept like a rock that night. I also went to the Peace Corps office, where I got all my mail. I got all the packages and letters. The mail really brightened my spirits! Yesterday we all rose at 7am (this is sleeping in for me now) and took the Peace Corps mini-bus to a conference hall where we had a few sessions. We then had a brief language review session and then took our final language exam. We have to be at least intermediate mid. I think it want well, though my voice has been gone due to the cold. I was able to speak clearly enough though. We’ll find out our scores soon. We then had an official tour of the Peace Corps office and a few more technical sessions. During my free time in the afternoon I ran to this nearby book store, which has very good wireless. In the evening we went out with other volunteers to an Italian restaurant in Fajara (the tourist area of Banjul). I actually had pizza, which wasn’t bad (but a little expensive). We have more money coming our way soon.

My training village; Fula Kunda.

(These are some emails I sent out in November of 2008, about 2 months into my service).

I am doing well, it has been another busy week. Pateh (my headmaster) found out that he had to help run a session in Basse for all of this week, so I substituted for all his classes it again. It wasn’t a big deal, it was just that much more teaching for me to do. Ensa Gibba, the teacher I have become very friendly with also left for Basse for a two week adult literacy seminar. With out them at school (they are the authority figures), I found a few teachers slacking off. I caught Ustas, the Islamic Studies teacher smoking in the classroom in front of the students! I gave him a stern talking to. I also had to stop one of the teachers from beating one of the lower basic students. A wild dog had puppies near where the children get their lunch. Some students were trying to get at them, despite warnings to stay away from myself and this teacher, Mr. Jallow. He went to one boy and got a punch and a kick in before I got there. Ridiculous. I do my best to talk to them about it, though it’s obviously going to take some long-term working. On Friday we had a cleanup day. Classes were cancelled and the students helped sweep the classrooms, build a fence for the garden, and clean up things. I had them clean the library and the room I want to use for the science lab. It went pretty well. I also took the opportunity to take pictures of some of the students, which was good. I lived for a whole week with only 50D cash in my pocket (that’s two dollars). However, I needed cash so I’m here in Basse and just got back from the bank. I biked down in the early afternoon, which was nice but it really wore me out. I’ve started running again here, which is nice but I have definitely noticed how much hungrier I am. I run into the coos and corn fields behind the village and it’s fantastic for bird watching. There is a bright blue roller who follows me every time. He’s got fluorescent blue patches on his wings. I also saw a HUGE agama lizard chilling in the sun. Very exciting. It has not rained in almost three weeks here, so things are getting dry. All the frogs and insects have some out and are looking for cool places to hide. The school library is full of earwigs and bats, which I’m going to have to deal with. Basse has been great. I got the guitar that I bought off of Alex, a volunteer preparing to finish he service. It’s REALLY nice. I just gave my first wave of tests at school. My grade 9 science students did well, though about half of my grade 8 math and science students failed their exams. This caused me to reanalyze things. Their English skills are REALLY poor and most of them could not do long addition or subtraction, let alone long division and multiplication with algebra (which is what the syllabus requires me to do). So, I’ve thrown the syllabus aside, slowed WAY down, and gone back to basics. Hopefully it’ll pay off. There are some students, especially the girls, who are amazing! I spend my out of class time working on other projects. I have gotten the library at the Suduwol School back in use and am slowly getting the library in the Sarre Alfa school organized. The books have sat in open storage bags for years. I’ve never seen more dust and earwigs in my life. I also helped plant a few mango tree saplings on out school grounds. We built fences around them using large sticks, wire, and thorn bush branches. It has not rained for four weeks here, which means dry season has started. All the herdsmen let their sheep, goats, and cows roam for food, so it you want to grow anything you need to put a fence around it. I’ve gotten good at chasing goats away!

Building a fence around a mango sapling at my school.

(This is an email I during my first all-volunteer meeting, about 5 months into my service)

Salaam alekum! Greetings from The Gambia. I have now been in Africa for just under 5 months. I am doing well and keeping busy at school. I carved a small pumpkin for Halloween and listened to Obamas victory on BBC radio in my hut. I hope you all have a wonderful Thanksgiving. I am currently in Kombo for a volunteer meeting and have access to internet. I hope to be home in Rome for Christmas so I will be able to update you all on more in a month or so. I hit the ground running with teaching at Suduwol Basic Cycle School. I started off teaching science to grade 8 and 9, and math to grade 8. However, due to a number of teachers arriving late and leaving due to lack of pay, the schedule changed several times. I am now teaching science to grades 7, 8, and 9. I gave my first wave of tests a number of weeks ago and my students should be currently taking their second class tests (I wrote them before I left for Kombo). My school has no power, so tests are given by copying the questions on the board and having the students copy them down and answer them. This system works, but makes it hard on students who cannot see well and who cannot comprehend English as quickly as others. My grade 9 science students did well, but about half of my grade 8 students failed their tests. It’s showing me that I really need to slow down and repeat things to help the students understand important concepts. I’m also trying my best to incorporate teaching aids. I used a candle, wire, beakers of water, and food coloring to teach lessons on heat energy and even found a magnifying glass to demonstrate lenses. Pretty fun and it definitely raises student awareness. Getting the students out of their cramped classrooms and into the natural world around them also helps with science lessons. My grade 9 class has about 25 students, which is manageable, but grade 8 has 52 students crammed into a single classroom. Grade 7 is split into two sections and I am taking my time with them. The Suduwol library is clean and set up. I have done “reading periods” and “letter writing” lessons, which went well. With the dry season setting in, many insects are making for the refuge of the book cabinets. I had to take all the books out before coming to Kombo and kill about 8,000 earwigs using insect spray. It was pretty horrifying. I had to sweep up all their carcasses. It was only later that a VSO friend recommended that what I should have done was set a few chickens loose in the library and let them exterminate the earwigs. Next time. Halloween was fun. I biked the 15km up to Fatoto, a nearby village where Kristy, a fellow Peace Corps Education Volunteer, lives. I brought candy that I received in a few packages and we carved a small pumpkin. Her Gambian host-family thought we were crazy for carving a silly face in a perfectly good pumpkin! A few weeks later I listened to the Obama victory on BBC radio in my hut. Very exciting! The Gambians were excited as well, though they all seem to think that Obama will give a lot of attention to Africa. I think he’s going to have his hands full with America right now. I gave out minties (candies) to my family in celebration. The Gambia radio stations were blaring that Obama had won long before the polls in the US had even opened. I was able to vote with an emergency-absentee-ballot, which was good. The last few weeks have been very busy but amazing. I spent two weekdays in Basse going on trek for The Gambia All-Schools Tree Nursery Competition. This involved heading over to the Regional Education Office (REO) in Basse and riding a UNICEF truck out to various schools in the area. We rated tree nurseries at the schools, noting fences, student involvement, and out-planting. It was great to see the tree nurseries and all the other schools. Due to the bad roads, I developed some very good back-seat dance moves, including the “laundry board rattle,” the “ship-in-a-storm spin,” and the “the 1 second levitation.” We went to Fatoto, Lamoi, Fatako, Badari, and a few other small schools. The next weekend I helped Pateh Jallow, my headmaster at Suduwol, plant several more mango saplings on the school grounds. We then used large logs and thin sheets of corrugated metal to build fences around each one. When that ran out, we piled concrete blocks around them, which is enough to stop the animals. With that done, Pateh and I turned to another project that we had been waiting to tackle. Pateh teaches the grade 9 math class and he wanted a graph-chalk-board for his classes. I got an idea and went out to buy paint. We chose an unused classroom and painted half the blackboard white. Then we cut 100 small strips of scotch tape that I had and placed it on the board where we wanted to the lines. We then painted over it all with blackboard paint. After it dried, we pulled up the tape and it actually worked pretty well. Keep in mind, we were painting with pieces of ripped cloth tied around sticks. I presently took the blackboard paint home and painted up two blackboards in my hut. These have been extremely useful for my English tutoring classes, as well as for students who come to my hut to study every once and a while. This last weekend I was also fortunate enough to accompany a few of the other teachers and head to Kumbul, a nearby Fula village where many of the Suduwol Basic Cycle School students live. It was a really eye opening experience to see where many of my students live and what they are like when they are not in school and not in uniform. They were also very honored, and I made a point to visit the compounds of two grade 8 girls, Mariama Sanneh and Mariama Jawo. They are both very smart, hardworking girls. However, they have a high probability of being married off before they can go to Senior Secondary School (high school). Hopefully having a “toubab” (white man) come to the compound and tell the father that his daughter is one of the best students in the class will motivate him to keep her is school. We’ll see. I left after drinking lots of Ataya (a traditional tea they drink here) and holding a large bowl of Kosam (sour milk) that they insisted on giving me. I shared it with my host-family back in Sarre Alfa. It was really good (just like a more watery sour yogurt).

Painting the "graph board" with Pateh.

(This is an email I sent out right before traveling to Italy for Christmas)

I got down to Kombo yesterday after a busy week at site. I spent the first half of the week recovering from a badly infected blister that I got on the inside edge of my left ankle. It was so swollen that I could hardly walk. I took medicine for the infection and just rested the foot and it is all better now. It’s amazing though, how one little blister turned into a huge problem. Since all I could do was sit at my desk, I finished up all my grading, filled out report forms for all my students, and planned out weekly lesson topics for next term. The grading methods here in The Gambia are ridiculous. It’s all done on paper and each individual student has to have their grades, ranking, attendance statistics, and teacher comments written on their personal report forms. I filled out forms for 49 students. Where’s “excel” when you need it! Filling out all these forms also showed me how few students are getting passing grades in their classes. This is by far the most frustrating thing about teaching here. Next term I’m going to concentrate on doing extra stuff with club activities so that I can help the students who are really trying to move forward. I also want to do fun activities to try to snag the interest of the students who could care less about science. Hurray for kites, fire, and explosions. Once my foot was better I spent my time doing work at Suduwol Basic Cycle School, where I teach, and Sarre Alfa Lower Basic School, which is in my host-village. At Sarre Alfa LBS I am reviving a library that a former PCV set up. It was destructed by the school staff after some people tried to break in to the classroom where the books were. The Gambian solution to the break in was to destruct the library themselves. Ugh! I finally got all the books out and organized again. By the end I was completely covered in dust (head to toe) and I had probably killed maybe 6,000 earwigs. Yuk! At Suduwol BCS I got my “learning center” basically set up and repainted all the blackboards in the school. I originally set out to do this with one small can of paint, but as fate would have it, I had help. On THE day that I chose to set out and start painting the classrooms, I ran into a truck carrying three (white) British people and a lot of school supplies. They were from a charity called “schools for the Gambia,” going around to schools and dropping off supplies. Thankfully I was at the school, because if I hadn’t been there it would have been completely empty! I showed them around and they gave my large boxes of pens, pencils, notebooks, and, of course, blackboard paint. One of then ended up staying with my and we painted blackboards all afternoon. He was a retired truck driver from Manchester who had such a thick accent that I had a hard time understanding him. Lets of “lads,” “smashing,” and “bollucks.” It was pretty entertaining. I think it was the longest conversation I had had in English in at least three weeks. As things wound down, I was feeling ready to get away for a while. I packed two small backpacks, strapped it all to my bike, and biked to Basse on Thursday morning. My family was saying good bye like I was leaving for a month (I’m only going for two weeks). However, it will be the longest I’ve been away from site so far. At Basse I relaxed and picked up some gifts for my family. It’s always nice having power again. I sat in front of a fan and read all afternoon. So nice! I’m still wearing shorts and a shirt here, and it’s almost xmas. Going to the cold in Rome will be a shock! At 4:30am on Friday I got up, grabbed my stuff, and walked to the car park in Basse in the dark. It’s always creepy in Basse at night because all the wild dogs come out. Fortunately I had a bright headlamp that seemed to keep them away. Though the car park was empty when I got there (I had a mini panic attack right about then … not really, I was just really early). I caught the first set-plaus at 5:30am and was at the ferry in Barra by 1pm. You wait for the ferry in a large awning where beggars and shop owners bombard you. When they opened the gates I joined the masses running for the ferry. The crossing itself takes only 30 or 40 minutes. Once at Banjul, I had to find transport to the Peace Corps house. A direct taxi costs about 150 Dalasis ($6), which is expensive. Instead I hoped in a taxi to the town “garage” (that cost 5 dalasi), then I piled in a Gelegele (large van) with about 5 other Gambians and took it to Westfield, another large car park in town (this ride also cost 5 Dalasi). I sat across from 4 Gambian women, all of whom were holding new born babies. From West Field I caught another 5 Dalasi taxi to the transit house. So, using three different vehicles, I made the trip for a total of 15 Dalasi (under $1), as opposed to using ONE vehicle for 150 Dalasi.

The dock for the ferry going from Banjul to Barra.

(This is an email I sent out during my In-Service-Training, about 9 months into my service)

Shortly after flying back into Banjul I made my way back up to my site. I took a set-plaus (public transport car) to Basse and stayed there a night. I did not know this then, but that set-plaus was the last motorized vehicle that I would sit in for the next 3 months. I biked the 35 km back to my site with my bags tied rather precariously to the back of my bike. My host-family was happy to see me and my host-mothers danced and sang for me. I had brought them clothes from a Boutique in Europe, which they were very happy to receive. It was still a little chilly in Sarre Alpha, but not nearly as cold as Italy had been. I started the second term of school that week. My second term of teaching went well. Highlights included miming diarrhea in front of 44 8th graders and telling 7th graders about cities and sky-scrappers (huts that have up to 70 levels!). I spent most of my time preparing for my science classes and running a library club. I took the grade 9s after school and performed simple labs with them, such as building cup-and-string phones and mixing vinegar with baking soda. They got a kick out of it. We placed eggs in vinegar and then water to observe osmosis. I had to explain to all of them that “No, you cannot take the eggs home and eat them when you are done with them, sorry.” I have 11 students in a library club that meets after school once a week. I mostly have them read to improve their reading comprehension and draw things in order to teach them creativity. My last project was to have them write letters to students in Europe, which they were very excited about. I look forward to getting the responses … in two or three months. We also had “Sports Day” at the school this term. I was put in charge of a “kunda” or student team. I taught them cheers (which they could not get enough of) and coordinated silly games like dizzy-bat and tug of war. Tug of war involved hundreds of children just clamping on to the rope and pulling in whatever direction they thought was winning. It was a level of chaos that I had never experienced before. I walked away with rope burned hands, a bad sun burn, and no voice, but I had a smile on my face. I continued to hear students chanting the cheers I had taught them a whole month after the event. My fellow teachers continue to be great. I have observed many lessons and given them advice where I can. There is still lots of work to do in terms of lesson planning and eliminating corporal punishment, but its coming along. I feel I get a lot of respect from the teachers because I am teaching as many classes as they usually are, which helps me in giving advice to them. They had me play on the teachers team in a football match right before I left. As someone who has rarely played football before, this was like playing in a college varsity football match. I held my own but we lost in the end. Life in Sarre Alpha (my village) is also great. I have built a tire swing in my back yard, which my host-sisters love (they call is a “Jaiurgal” (swinger)). It has started to get hot at site (107F in the afternoon and 85F at night). The solar panel, car battery, and small fan that I bought upon returning to The Gambia have saved my life. I also purchased a “londe,” a large clay pot for drinking water. Water evaporated through the clay and cools the water within. It works so well its like having a refrigerator. My host-family is well I continue to do what I can to be helpful. I feel I will spend more time with them once the school year is over and I can maybe help them plant and harvest the fields once the rains come again. The mangoes are starting to grow on the trees here and they are even starting to sell them in some of the markets in Basse. I only have two more months of heat to get through and then I have nothing but mangoes and rain to look forward to (and heat rashes, but that’s the price you pay).

A thermometer I put up outside my hut.

(This is an email I sent out while I was in Kombo helping with a program)

Greetings from Kombo in The Gambia. I'm down in the city to help witha program for empowering young girls in schools. I brought down sevengrade 8 girls from Upper River Region, where I work. They're hereattending workshops and shadowing professional women here in the city.I'll be taking them back up on Thursday. One of the girls had neverleft her village before. This was her first time seeing the ocean. It was a pretty fun trip. I also finally got to sit in the front of aset-plaus (the rickety 7 passenger cars they use here for longdistance transport). I now fully understand that these men do drivelike maniacs. The speedometer said that we were going 0 km/hr (it wasbroken), but from what I could see he had put it in 5 gear and his foot was on the floor (pot holes, wandering sheep, and docile cattlebe damned). I think that was the fastest that any of these girls hadmoved in their lives! The last few months have been good, but somewhatchallenging at schools. I'm slowly dealing with the use of the hittingcane at my school. I actually steal the sticks whenever I can and Ihave quite a pile growing in the back of my office. This is not themain strategy I am using though. The school year is almost over and Iam looking forward to a change of pace. My plans for the summer are tohelp my family with farming, maybe help with a few Peace CorpsHIV/AIDS awareness programs and possibly help with a bee-keepingproject (I am in the process of getting a bee-suit .... theyrecommended using duct-tape to fix any holes ... that was reassuring).Life in village is good. My host sisters continue to love the tireswing I built in the yard. I'm pretty sure the tree is leaning to oneside now. It's very hot now (92 degrees F at night!). I sleep outside,where the wind is really nice. You know it's hot when you have to sitoutside and fan yourself at night! My host-sisters continue to showtheir love towards me as well. On a particularly rough day, my1-year-old host sister came to the screen door of my hut to watch mework, which she often does. During this visit, she smiled, squatted,and took a BIG dump right in front of my door. I had no idea that somuch could come out of such a small body. My door also opens out, so Iwas trapped. It got cleaned up eventually, but I tend to shoo her away from my door now. Just another day over here!

Standing by the river Gambia, near Tendaba Camp.

(This is an email I sent out after completing my first full year of school, about a year into my service)

Salaam alekum! Greetings from The Gambia! I have now been here for almost 13 months. School has been out for just over a week. It has been an exciting start to summer. School ended with a week of exams, which I helped proctor. I spent most of my time the following week grading all the papers. Some of my students tried to answer my theory questions by simply copying the question or the test instructions. Other students did very well. Over all, half of my students passed (“passing” being a score of 40% or higher). Many of my students really improved, so I’m really happy with them. We hosted a quiz show, gave out awards (which included pencils, notebooks, and pens), and report forms. In a single weekend all the teachers and students left. The school got very lonely for a few days. I still went by to check on a tree nursery and close up the library. The Gambia National Library sent a large box of books, which are great. Lots of story books about Africa. The teachers method to bring it to the library was to load the box into a wheelbarrow and then dump it and roll it the rest of the way into the library. I have almost finished entering the books into the library. With school done, I’ve been helping my family farm. My host-father has two large fields that are far from the village. He proudly showed them to me on my first trip out there. He’s planted coos, corn, rice, and groundnuts. It’s a lot of land, which means a lot of weeding. Now I see why he has fathered 12 children. They’re the ones who have to do all the weeding. I’ve been helping as well. Weeding involves bending over in the hot sun with a hand-held hoe and digging up weeds from around the crops. They work in teams, going row by row. They start in the morning and take a break during the hottest part of the day. It is grueling work and I am embarrassed to say that I sat down in exhaustion while my 12 year old host brother hadn’t even broken a sweat yet. I’m getting stronger though. I like clearing the larger, fast growing bushes and shrubs. This involves swinging at the plants with a machete. I’m getting a wicked farmers tan. At least I can honestly say that I got the farmer’s tan while farming. I have now been traveling like crazy. An education volunteer who was running a large number of sessions with the new education volunteers got sick and I have been called in to help cover some sessions. This last Tuesday I traveled to Tendaba camp, where I ran a short session on teaching with limited resources with the new trainees. Getting there involved taking a gele from Basse to Soma. This is about 150 km or terrible terrible terrible road. It took 8 hours. The gele driver did not have proper papers, so we had to stop for 30 minutes at every police check point, and there are about 20 of these between Basse and Soma. Ridiculous. It then started to rain and the windshield wipers didn’t work, so we had to stop to fix them. This involved connecting two exposed wires on the dash board. The key to start the gele also did not work so the driver basically had to hot wire the gele every time he wanted to start it. The gear box also got stuck occasionally, so the driver would lift up the cover on the gear shift and bang on something with a screw driver until the gear caught. I was glad when we reached Soma, to say the least. However, it was 6pm so there were no more cars going the last 10 km to Quinella, where Tendaba camp is located. I hitched a ride in a large freight truck (I had to climb a ladder to get into the cabin). Luckily it was being driven by a bunch of Fulas, so I talked and joked with them in Pulaar while we drove along. A rain storm was gathering above and we bounced along the rough road, lit by a surreal grey light. They refused to accept any payment from me once we reached Quinella. A Peace Corps car picked my up from there and I arrived at Tendaba just in time for dinner. I spent the next day getting to know the trainees and running my session. We had the afternoon off to watch the celebrations in Kombo. President Jammeh was celebrating the 15th anniversary of his coup. Peace Corps advised that no one should travel that day, so I was stuck in Tendaba. Unfortunately, I had only packed one set of clothes (I thought I would only stay one night), so the trainees met a very smelly, dirty Ian. I was also asked to come back to Tendaba next week to help with more sessions. This required me to repack. So, on Thursday I traveled back to Basse over the North Bank road (a much better road. Count the vehicles; this involved me taking a PC car (1) to the Soma ferry. I crossed the river on the ferry (2). I took a taxi (3) to Farrafeni. I took a set-paus (7 passenger car) (4) to Janjanbury. Crossed onto Janjanbury, which is an island in the river, on a ferry (5). I crossed the island in a car (6). I crossed from Janjanbury to South Bank on a ferry (7). I then caught a gele to Basse (8). This took less time than my trip down south bank. Ridiculous. I stayed the night in Basse and biked back to my site on Friday morning. At site I unpacked, checked my mail (the Peace Corps mail car and come through while I was away), and repacked for a week long trip to Kombo. I then joined my family in the fields and did more weeding. At 5:30 pm I biked back to Basse. I was exhausted by the time I rolled in and a huge rain storm hit right as I pulled up to the Basse house (I thank which ever higher power held back those rain drops till I was near shelter). I repacked my things and spent the night there. On Saturday (yesterday), I traveled to Kombo (where I am now). I’m here to help with an HIV/AIDS awareness program that is coupled with a football camp. I will also be taking Peace Corps transport up to Tendaba to continue helping with training (no more crazy trips this time). The trip to Kombo was nuts (traveling is always an adventure in this country). I caught a set-plaus (7 passenger car) early in the morning, which took me to the ferry at Barra on the North Bank. This went fine. However, the ferry terminal was packed with people. Apparently They were opening a new building and the vice president was there, so they were stopping people from entering the ferry. However, the crowd was huge and people were beginning to push through. I also pushed my way through the crowd and showed my Peace Corps ID to the guards, who decided to let me through. Once I was out of the crowd I realized that my iPod was no longer in my pocket. Frustrated, I walked down to the ferry terminal right as the boat was pulling up. I put away my wallet and used a lanyard to tie my cell phone to my belt. Many more people joined me to wait to board the ferry. However, guards came forward and blocked the ferry. So, we all waited in the hot sun and the crowd grew to a dangerous size. Imagine up to 200 African men, women, and children crammed together, Many holding chickens on walking goats and carrying large bags. The guards must have realized that they could not possibly keep control because they decided to let up board the ferry. I stayed back as people crushed forward onto the boat. Once the movement had calmed down I joined the crowd and got on the ferry. I sat on my bag in a corner and only then realized that my cell phone had been taken out of my pocket and ripped off the lanyard. I hadn’t even noticed it. At this point I was only angry at myself for not being more careful. Once in Kombo I stopped at an Africell office and got a new card with the same number, luckily. I was still flustered, but at least my wallet was not taken (I kept it ripped in my bag). I was glad to reach the PC transit house and relax. Today I’ve been trying to get work done and prepare for the training sessions that I will be helping with. Hopefully the rest of my stay in Kombo will go a little more smoothly.

Standing above the river Gambia on North Bank, near Niakoi.

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