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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Questions and Answers

A friend of mine sent me a list of questions, which I answered through an email. I thought I would post the answers here as well. Please feel free to ask me questions, I really like talking about my experiences here.

Three patches on one tire. Rough roads in this country.

1) Are you still collecting insects?

I have not actively collected insects since leaving training village. Starting my teaching kept me very busy and by the time things settled down it was dry season and there were few bugs left worth collecting (just lots of ants, crickets, and cockroaches). I did catch a camel spider under my bed, but that’s not an insect. Now that the rains have returned (after more than 6 months without a single drop), the insects have returned as well. I have a proper net to collect with this time (I used a plastic bag tied to a stick in training village), so hopefully I’ll have more success this time.

Some bugs I collected.

2) Explain the nature of polygamy over there. How does your host-father deal with having 2 wives?

Islamic law in the villages allows a man to take 4 wives if he so desires, but no more than that. My host father had 3 wives, but he divorced the first wife a few years ago. This, I think, was mostly because the first wife did not get along well with the second wife. The first wife came to visit once and she was very nice (she was sick, so my host-father took her in). However, once she was better she stayed. Things got tense between her and the second wife and after a big argument in the compound she left, along with her children. Each wife trades off duties in the compound. They both wash clothes, cook, and clean on rotation. The children are very loyal to their blood mother, though my host father treats them both as equals. Marriages are usually arranged here, though feelings definitely have a say and the wife must agree to the marriage. The man pays a bride price to her family (this could be money, food, or even live stock), then the wife moves into the man’s compound and is hence his responsibility. Mamasamba, my host dad, is a good husband. He does not beat his wives or his children, though I have witnessed beatings in other compounds. He fathered 6 children through the first wife (now divorced), 6 children through the second wife, and one through the third wife (so far ….). Mamasamba wants me to take an African wife, though I tell him that if I’m going to marry a woman then she has to be taller than me (luckily, most Fula woman are short). He claims he’ll find a tall one for me.

Cooking pancatoes in the Basse car park.

3) Do you miss the States at all?

I did in the beginning, but Cham-kunda is becoming a home for me now. As I got to know the language better and meet people in the village, I definitely felt much more comfortable in my community. However, I will never fully integrate. I will always be the “toubab” or “white man.” The minute I step out of my house I am watched by everyone. When I walk around the village, everyone greets and watches me. Children follow me. People beg me for things. It’s constant. You get used to it after a while, but it NEVER stops, no matter where I go, even in Kombo, where there are many white people. We ALWAYS stand out in the crowd.

Gambian garb.

4) Do you still have that ear piercing?

I do still have the ear piercing, though I have not worn an earring since arriving in The Gambia. Peace Corps recommends that volunteers eliminate all visible signs of wealth, such as jewelry, so that we do not present ourselves as targets for theft, even though our white skin already does that (as I discovered on the ferry a week ago when my cell phone and iPod where pick-picketed from me). I am also working as a representative of Americans and a professional teacher, and Gambian culture does not see men with earrings as professional.

Slaughtering a sheep for Tobaski.

5) Why did you join the peace corps?

I got drunk in a bar once and passed out. When I came to I was on an airplane. I asked the guy next to me where I was and he said; “You’re off to The Gambia son, you’re in the Peace Corps now!” Not really. Of all the things I’ve done, I decided there were two things that I really liked doing; living overseas and helping others. Peace Corps is an organization that gives people the opportunity to do those things. I also really admire my father and the career he has lead, which gave me the overseas upbringing that really shaped me. I would really like to give my own children that same experience and Peace Corps is what launched my father on his career (he was an aquaculture volunteer in Central African Republic in the early ‘80s).


6) What do you want to do when your service term is up?

I’m putting a lot of thought into that now. I see myself going back to school to get a masters in science, focusing on marine sciences. I could also look at taking the education route and getting a teaching credential. I could see myself teaching and working at international schools or at the college level in the US. I will also consider taking the foreign service exam and look at job opportunities in UN agencies such as UNICEF and WFP, whom I have interacted with during my service here. As you can see, I’ve got some work to do and some decisions to make.

Truck carrying oil bidongs headed for Guinea.

7) When you go to mass, it the priest a Gambian or a westerner running a mission or something like that?

I have gone to mass in Basse and Banjul. The priests at both churches are Gambian. There is a “priests quarters” near the Peace Corps transit house, but I have never been in it. During Easter there was an Irish priest who said mass at the church. He had been living and worshipping all over Africa for more than 10 years in Kenya and Somalia. Christianity has been long established in The Gambia. All of the Bishops of Africa will be meeting in Banjul this August for some kind of conference. However, Islam is the dominant religion in this country. Most Peace Corps volunteers that I have met are atheists, though I have met many Christians, but it’s hard to practice here with so few churches up country. The church groups and prayer groups in Basse, though, are very active and do a lot of excursions with the local hospital, helping distribute medicine, mosquito nets, and things like that.

Carrying food from Basse to my site.

8) What are you prayer flags? You posted a picture on facebook of them in your backyard.

The flags are from an art project called “Woven Voices.” It is run by a woman named Sarah Haskell and you can visit her web site at . The flags do not pertain to any one religion. The idea is that people write their wishes, prayers, hopes, and dreams on pieces of paper or fabric (this could be “I wish for world peace” or “I hope the Packers win this season”). These people then cut up the paper into long strips and mail the strips to Sarah Haskell. She then weaves all the strips into these flags and sends them to you (free of charge). Place the flags outside and let the weather destroy them. Then the wishes, prayers, hopes, and dreams will come true. It is a project that I got my fellow Residential Life Staff members into while at Bowdoin.

Standing my the Gambia River near Fatoto.

9) How do you keep you cell phone charged with no electricity in your hut?

Cell phones have been made available to Gambians all over the country. My host-father owns two phones. China is pumping cheap, failed models into this country and making a slim profit off them. My village has a cell phone charging station where a man owns a small generator and charges 5 Dalasi (about 10 cents) for a charge. However, I have purchased and set up a solar panel that runs through a charge controller to a car battery in my hut. The sun recharges that battery and I use power from the battery (run through a charge inverter) to charge my cell phone and iPod. I can also run a small light and fan.

A path through the bush.

10) How often do your students come over to study with you?

During school I had students coming over 3 nights a week. During my 3rd term of school I tutored a teacher from another nearby school in higher level math every Mon, Wed, Fri. At the same time I started to teach a woman English every Sun, Tue, and Thur. I also tutor my host-sisters when I can.

A branch of the river the flows by my school in Suduwol.

11) Do you miss Italian or American food?

I miss Italian food the most, especially restaurant pizza and my Mom’s pasta. I also miss the diner-style cheese burger and frappe you could get along Route 1 in Maine.

The Peace Corps vehicle that took us up to our sites.

12) Are there many opportunities for Gambian women to be independent?

Village life is very structured. The men farm, build homes, and care for the animals. The women cook, clean the compound, and raise the children. Boys help their fathers, girls help their mothers. However, within school children are usually treated equally (there are both male and female class officers, they all participate in sports day, etc ….). However, in the villages, many girls are married off at a young age and are not encouraged to live independently or continue their education. However, this is changing. In Kombo there are many professional women who work at the banks, hotels, and NGO offices. The vice president of the country is a woman. Girls do not have to pay school fees for their primary education.

Josh and I on Marathon March.

13) Will the grades you teach next year change or stay the same?

I am not sure what I will be teaching next year. Peace Corps is decreasing the amount of direct teaching that Volunteers do in The Gambia and is focusing more on teacher training. I hope to teach grade 9 science next year, but beyond that I will focus on training and team teaching with my fellow Gambian teachers. We’ll see though.

Babukar, Josh, Travis, and I with shaved heads.

14) Are you training new education volunteers or just peace corps volunteers in general?

I am helping with the training of new education volunteers, since I have done a majority of my work in the education sector. They’re a great group and I have already had a few sessions with them. Later this month I will return to Tendaba camp, where a lot of training takes place, and help the new trainees through model school, where we simulate one week of teaching in a real Gambian school with Gambian students. This helps the trainees get a taste of what they are up against.

Ida and I on my first birthday in The Gambia.

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