At 5:30am the prayer call comes through my hut’s thatch roof. This call is blasted through a megaphone (powered by a car battery) attached to the roof of the large mosque in the center of the village. Other prayer call recordings soon erupt from the smaller mosques, creating a cacophony that echoes over the village. It is a strangely soothing sound.
The Gambia is full of sounds. My alarm clock goes off at 6:15am. The bamboo bed frame creaks as I sit up. I hear the sharp “to trick or to treat” calls of the Grey Bulbuls in a tree outside, roosters crowing, donkeys braying, children crying, and goats wailing. Maimuna, the first wife in the family I live with, is already up and using a mortar and pestle to pound coos to make porridge for breakfast. I un-tuck my mosquito net and flip it up over the plastic tarp that I have tied above it to protect my bed from the dust that falls from the thatch roof. I go into my back yard to the pit latrine. The sun has not yet risen, but there is just enough light to see by. A smell of smoke fills the air, coming from the cooking fire in my host-family’s cooking-hut. I dress and walk out of my front door to greet Maimuna and whoever else is around. Greeting people is an important thing to do in Gambian village life.
I use my gas stove to heat water for tea and oatmeal. I mix powdered milk into the tea, as well as sugar; which I serve out of a container zipped inside two zip-lock bags to keep ants out of it. I would sometimes have a supply of cinnamon to add to the oatmeal. Otherwise I eat corn flakes or cook up eggs, depending on what’s available. I listen to BBC radio and eat, then wash my dishes outside using an old sponge and a kettle of water.
With a full stomach, I throw on my ratty gardening shoes; tying rubber bands around the toes to keep the detached soles from flopping around. I grab a plastic bucket, on which there is a bike tire patch covering up a small crack, and head outside. I cross the compound (a ring of thatch roof huts connected by a straw fence and concrete wall) and walk around the cooking hut to where my garden is. It is a five square meter space surrounded on three sides by chicken wire nailed to several posts dug into the ground. The fourth side consists of the concrete wall that runs along one side of my compound. I fetch buckets of water out of a large, blue, plastic waste bin that I keep in one corner of the garden. I had bought the bin in Basse and rode the 30km back to my site with it tied to the back of my bicycle; quite a sight. I had filled the bin the previous evening with about six buckets of water, which is how much I usually needed to water the whole garden. An old plastic chocolate spread container with holes punched into it serves as my watering can.
At its peak, my garden had four beds and a few tree saplings. I found that cucumbers, carrots, tomatoes, and cilantro grew well. Zucchini, bananas, pumpkins, and lettuce on the other hand, did not grow so well.
After watering, I close and tie shut the gate, then check the fence to ensure that the various goats, donkeys, and sheep that roam the village cannot break in. Chickens, however, were unavoidable pests. They frequently flew over the inappropriately named “chicken wire” and scratched up the fertilizer in my garden beds in their search for insects.
I walk back to my hut, take off my garden-dust covered work clothes, take a bucket bath, and put on my chalk-dust covered teaching clothes; dust is a constant thing in Africa. I pack my books and teaching aids in a backpack, take my bike outside, and lock my hut. I roll up my left pant leg so that it won’t catch on the bike chain. I have already had a local tailor fix several rips in my school pants. I set off for school, riding first through the sandy streets of Sarre Alfa. Coos fences stand tall on both sides of the road and children run everywhere. I pass the village pump, then the women’s gardens, and finally reach the road. I cross a bridge over a small stream where cattle are often grazing.
I pass many of my students on the road, walking along with their torn and faded blue uniforms. I greet them with “good morning,” switching out of village Fula mode and into school English mode. The few students who are riding on bikes peddle crazily in an effort to keep up with me. At the top of the road is Suduwol village and Suduwol Basic Cycle School (BCS).
I live in Sarre Alfa, a Fula village, and teach in Suduwol, a Sarahulle village. These two villages are one kilometer apart and consist of entirely different languages and cultures. The classrooms of Suduwol BCS (grades 1 to 9) are filled with students who either speak Sarahulle, Mandinka, or Fula. English is the only unifying language between them, but they do not speak it very well.
The school consists of four long buildings, each containing about four rowed classrooms and a few small offices in between. Two sit right in line with each other, constituting the southern border of the school grounds. The gap between these two classroom blocks used to serve as a path for cattle herders and women walking to the fields, until the head teacher and I fenced it using large logs and barbed wire. The third block sits parallel to the first two, lying lazily along the middle of the school grounds, with the fourth block stretching perpendicularly behind it. Like many schools in The Gambia, Suduwol BCS was constructed by World Bank. You can tell from its characteristic structure, as well as the white and grey painted buildings. Only three of the four classroom blocks are regularly used. Every classroom is equipped with old blackboards, and equally old desks and benches. The newer teachers’ quarters are also located on the school grounds. They are nice, two-room apartments with separate pit latrines. There are also two functioning water pumps; one near the classrooms and one near the teachers’ quarters.
During my two years at Suduwol BCS the school grounds changed considerably, which I attribute entirely to the head teacher I worked with. He and I repainted every blackboard in the school and used wire or nails to fix many of the desks and benches. We started a school tree nursery and out-planted over 30 mango and cashew tree saplings around the school grounds. The school garden was re-fenced and an impressive amount of garden beds and banana trees were planted in it. We used large logs and barbed wire to fence off the gap between the southernmost classrooms and we fenced the entire western side of the school grounds. At one point, the EU arrived and renovated the teachers’ quarters; adding open patios, new tiles, and repainting. WFP provided money and materials to build a school kitchen near the center of the grounds. The EU then returned and installed a solar powered water tower that fed water to three taps on the grounds; one near the classrooms, one in the garden, and one near the teachers’ quarters.
Upon arriving at school, I open up the large, green, iron door of my office. I park my bike in a small back room, which is full of dust and cobwebs and bats that hang from the ceiling. I then open up the library, which resides in the large classroom next to my office. Like every classroom in the school, its high corrugate roof rests on thick concrete walls that have small holes punched in on one side and large, un-closable, iron-barred windows on the other. With no air conditioning or electricity in the school, these openings are necessary for air and light. The small holes look as if the masons accidently left out every other brick when constructing the building. In the late afternoons, bats sometimes begin flying around the roof beams of the classrooms. At the end of the rainy season the classrooms fill with large frogs and centipedes, which crawl in searching for moisture and shelter from the sun. They always, eventually, dry out and die, and the school’s toothless caretaker sweeps their carcasses out of the classrooms every morning. During the hot season, the corrugate roof cracks and bangs as it absorbs the heat from the sun. The strong winds outside pick up dust from the surrounding fields and fill the classrooms with it. After a single windy night, some of the regularly used classrooms have so much dust accumulated on the desks that it looks as if they have not been opened in decades.
I make sure that a number of books are stacked on the front desks for students to read during their library period or during break, then return to my office to prepare for my classes. I review my schedule for the day, laying out whatever teaching aids I need. I make sure I have chalk, though I often just have to use whatever little, leftover nubs I can find. I walk over to the head teacher’s office to sign my name in the “teacher register” book. I greet Pateh Jallow, the head teacher. Pateh is a young looking man, with a natural smile and a head that is constantly bent forward, as if he is intensely focusing on whatever is in front of him. He is one of the most honest and hardest working Gambians that I have ever met. He has already been in his office since 6:30am.
Just before 8am, a student begins ringing the school bell and all the other students begin flooding into their classrooms, pushing and jabbing each other as they squeeze through the doors. I pick up my attendance register, a thin blue book with an overly complicated information table in it, and walk to the grade nine classroom. When I arrive, every student’s attention is drawn to me; they never get over the fact that I am the only white man in the school, let alone in the entire district of villages. I open up with “good morning grade nine!” and they shout back, in unison, while rising to stand; “goo moourning saar!” I tell them the date and any announcements I need to make. I have them sit, which they do while again shouting in unison; “thang yoou saar!” I begin calling the 35 names on the register, which I can recite by memory. I am amazed at how quickly I have come to know the faces, names, and personalities of my students. There’s Muhammed Kieta; the rebel without a cause, Bilali Danjo; the class clown, Yaya Baldeh; the athlete, Mariama Jawo and Mariama Sanneh; the ones who answer every question I ask, Mamadou Baldeh; the shy but smart student, and so on. There are five “Muhammed”s in the class and seven students with the last name “Sissoko,” but every one of them is unique to me.
After marking the register, I begin teaching my classes; switching between the 7th, 8th, and 9th grade classrooms depending on my schedule. In the Gambian school system, it is the teachers that rotate. The students have to sit on combination benches and desks connected by iron frames for the whole day. The wood benches are hard and uncomfortable and so the students fidget constantly. They mostly sit two to a desk, but sometimes three or even four students have to cram onto one. The screws that are supposed to connect the wooden bench and desktops to the metal frames are often missing. Therefore, students often fall to the floor while still on their benches or catapult their desktops up by leaning on them in the wrong place. Despite all this, the students soldier on. They bravely place their torn up notebooks on the desks and try to write, though their pens often die (if they have pens to begin with). Many of the students carry razor blades, which they use to sharpen their pencils. The walls are usually bare, but I have endeavoured, along with the other teachers, to cover them with posters and other teaching aids. However, the wind, leaking roofs, and insects make it hard to keep things up on the walls. The blackboards present further challenges. Even after repainting them, there are still rough patches that eat away at the chalk. The teachers and I all know where the rough spots are and purposefully avoid them, sometimes leaving large gaps in a sentence or paragraph.
“Teaching,” in The Gambia, for me, usually involves writing notes on the board and elaborating on them while students copy it all down. I do my best to speak very slowly and use the simplest words possible, since the students’ English comprehension is low. I often ask easy “yes or no” or “true or false” questions. With every lesson, I try to include some kind of activity where students can come to the board and write or stick up teaching aids. While all this sounds simple and obvious, it was entirely novel to my students. What Gambian students are used to is rote learning; where the teacher shouts a sentence at the students and has them repeat it back several times before moving on to the next sentence.
My bizarre, interactive teaching methods made classroom management tricky. My students were not used to a white teacher, nor were they used to a teacher who constantly asked them questions. They also quickly learned that I would not use beating and kneeling as a form of punishment, as their other teachers did. However, after my first term I managed to earn their respect. When I first started my service, I was afraid to even walk into a classroom. By the second term, I looked forward to it.
After five 35-minute periods, the bell is rung for lunch. I retreat back to my office to prepare for my afternoon classes and gather more chalk. I then join the other teachers as they sit outside the teachers’ room and await the teacher’s lunch bowl. Suduwol BCS received WFP food as part of a school feeding program that was supposed to motivate parents to send their children to school. WFP regularly sent bags of rice, chickpeas, salt, cans of oil, and a little money to provide school lunches. The food is to be provided to the students without charge and not to the teachers. However, Suduwol BCS school charges 50 bututs (half a Dalasi or about 2 cents) per day, which is then used to buy onions, fish, and other things to add to the food. Each day, three women cook up the food in huge cauldrons over open fires in a smoke filled, abandoned classroom. They fill big silver bowls with rice, a little sauce, and hand one bowl out for six children to eat from. The teachers also take a bowl. While this all sounds unjust, no children are left starving. In fact, many students prefer to buy bean sandwiches for five Dalasi, rather than pay the half a Dalasi it takes to get a food bowl. There is always food left over, so the teachers are not taking food away from students. After a few months, I caved in and began eating with the teachers. I ate WFP lunch for almost two years. Don’t worry I plan on making a massive donation to WFP in the future. However, during my second year the financial crisis hit and WFP stopped delivering food to Suduwol BCS, since it was not a “high needs” site.
The teachers and I sit around the lunch bowl and eat with our hands. However, after burning my fingers on the hot food a few times, I began carrying a spoon to school. My first year of service coincided with the US presidential elections. Obama and McCain. During this time the teachers always brought a radio to lunch and all they talked about was politics. Since I was American, they listened to my opinions as if I knew Obama personally. In the Peace Corps I am free to talk about US politics, but I suddenly made sure to have food in my mouth or to quickly finish eating if the teachers began talking about Gambian politics. After the elections, the teachers usually spent the lunch period joking with each other, discussing football games, and complaining about the heat or the wind.
After lunch, I continue teaching while rotating between classrooms. During the hot season, the afternoon is always the most gruelling time of the day. The air temperature sometimes reaches 115°F, driving me to constantly sweat. The students are exhausted, sitting in the hot classrooms. The chalk dust sticks to my skin as I write on and erase the board. I often retreat to my office after each lesson to guzzle down water and then return to continue teaching. I usually bring four nalgenes full of filtered water to school and empty them all by the end of the day.
At around 1:30pm, the morning shift ends. All the students pile out of the classrooms and dash for the school pump. They crowd around the pump, pushing and shoving each other for access to the thin stream of water coming out of the spigot. They need the water to perform ablutions in preparation for afternoon prayers. I have never seen such chaos. Children pushing each other, washing their hands, hitting each other, washing their feet, kicking each other, washing their mouths, screaming at each other, washing their faces, and then retreating. All this insanity is followed by almost perfect silence as the students set up their little prayer mats in neat rows under the shade of a large tree and stand facing Mecca in the East. The school Ustas (Islamic teacher) leads the prayer and all the students repeatedly bow and kneel in unison. Occasionally a few students jostle each other, especially if there are two or three jammed on a single prayer mat. Otherwise, the only sounds are the calls of the prayer leader. Once prayer is over, the chaos resumes as all the students snatch up their prayer mats and run for home.
At this point the school’s afternoon shift starts. Since many schools in The Gambia are short of teachers, they adopt a two-shift system where some grades come in the morning and the other grades come in the afternoon. While this system allows class sizes to stay small, it puts the local teachers under an enormous amount of pressure. Double shift teachers teach from 8am to 6pm with only a few breaks, and they then spend their evenings preparing for the next day. I chose not to teach in the afternoon. I do not envy the double shift teachers. Instead, I spend my after school hours grading homework, tutoring students and teachers or running club meetings. Grading homework is always entertaining because it requires me to collect the ratty note books that the students have and scour through them in search of my homework assignments, which are written in the most random places. My students obviously copy off each other. However, since so few students even try to do the homework, I just let it slide. However, once I started giving out stickers to students that had no homework errors, the homework completion rate markedly increased.
The school library is an endless source of work for me. After cleaning it out, reorganizing it, and decorating it, I set about finding ways to make it useful. To my surprise, students and teachers began visiting the library after school to read and study. I began tutoring the few teachers who were brave enough to approach me and say that they did not understand a certain subject or problem. However, my favourite afterschool activity is my library club. Initially, I recruited the strongest readers in the grade 8 and 9 classes, keeping the genders equal. I led group readings, had the students use drawings to make book reports, started regular vocabulary tests, and conducted simple art projects to keep the meetings fun and to decorate the library. The club grew in size and I started including grade 7 students. It is amazing to see what these students are capable of when they realize that they do not have to be afraid of being creative. The whole group once came to me and asked if they could put on a “drama.” I helped them adapt one of their favourite short stories into a two-scene play and we performed it for the whole school. We have our meetings every Wednesday and it has become my favourite time of the week.
I also host afterschool science lessons for the grade nine students, who will soon be taking the national standardized test (the Gambia Basic Education Certificate Examination or GaBECE). I use these afternoon classes to conduct the more complicated labs that I do not have the time to do during the day. We mix vinegar and baking soda to observe acid base reactions, make string phones, and act out circulation using a role-play.
These various afterschool activities often keep me at school up to 5 or 6pm. After making sure that I am ready for the next day, I close up the library, retrieve my bike, and close up my office. Quite often the sun is already low in the sky, shining over the sandy football field that is just next to the school. Young men from Suduwol village play football on the field in the evenings and I always pause to watch their silhouetted forms dive, run, and jump. While biking home I feel exhausted and burned out, but these feelings are always alleviated when I bike into my village compound. Every day upon my arrival, without fail, my two youngest host-sisters, Kadijatou (4 yrs) and Amie-Baby (2 yrs), run at me screaming with joy as if I have been gone for years. The two of them hug my knees and almost knock me over every time.
After dropping off my bag and parking my bike behind my hut, I again change into my gardening clothes and walk to the well with my two buckets. The well is located close to my hut, but walking to it is another story. I have to walk out of and around my compounds fence in a capital G like pattern to reach the well, making it quite a long way to travel with two buckets filled with water. When my garden was at its peak, I hauled 14 buckets of water over this distance afterschool every day. I used four buckets for the four garden beds, two buckets for the trees, six buckets to fill the big blue bin for the next morning, and two for my evening and next morning bucket baths. I fetch this water out of a deep, open well that has a rickety pulley mounted over it. A rough rope runs through the pulley with two plastic containers called “bidongs” tied to both ends. As one bidong is pulled up, the other falls and fills. Holes cut into their sides ensure that they sink and fill quickly. They invariably also have small cracks in them, so you lose a good amount of water before you actually pull one bidong all the way up. The pulley makes such a high-pitched shrieking sound that my ears often ring after pulling up just one bidong; it takes two bidongs to fill one bucket. Needless to say, I had some impressive callouses and decent upper body strength by the time I was done with my garden. As tiring as all this is, I really enjoy it. On days when I was running late, I could watch the sun set over the wall on one side of my garden, which was always beautiful.
Believe it or not, after all of this water hauling I sometimes go running. After my first three months of service, I started going out on long distance runs. They were a great way for me to relieve stress, escape my village, and explore the surrounding bush; which is extensive and beautiful. Running has always been an addiction of mine, but it went to a whole new level in The Gambia. I have three different running routes, all of which lead out of the village and into the farm fields or wilderness. I get dive bombed by Abyssinian Rollers and scare grouse, which explode out from the underbrush unexpectedly. One time I saw a family of warthogs cross my path. Another time I frightened an old fisherman who was riding a bike back from some unknown stream. A white man was the last thing I think he expected to see while riding home from a day of fishing.
After watering and running, I return home exhausted. If I have any Gatorade powder or Cliff bars stored up from care-packages, I sit in front of the small fan that I have rigged up to a car battery and wolf it all down. It is amazing how good Gatorade and a Cliff bar can taste after a long day of teaching, watering, and running. I take a bucket bath and sit at my desk for the rest of the evening. Sometimes a few students come over for tutoring, which I enjoy doing. However, on some nights I had to turn them away. Sometimes I take out the small backpacking guitar that I managed to buy off another volunteer and play a few songs. This draws Kadijatou and the other compound children into my hut, where they dance and laugh.
During my second year I began tutoring an older woman named Isatou, who wanted to learn to speak English. It was challenging at first (I had never realized how complicated English is as a language), but she put a lot of effort into it. She was a literate woman from Senegal, which made tutoring her easier. After a while she began bringing food with her sometimes. She made the most amazing Senegalese dishes; salads, pastas, and rice porridge with bananas in it. She ended up becoming a very good friend of mine.
At around 8:30pm sharp, every evening, Maimuna (the 1st wife) or Baby (the 2nd wife) brings the dinner bowl to my door. I take it outside, place it next to Mamasamba’s dinner bowl, and wait for him to return from evening prayers. When Mamasamba arrives we tuck into dinner, which is “lachiri e poinche;” coos with watery groundnut sauce. Picture a bowl full of what looks like soft sand; this is coos. Picture another bowl full of what looks like rust colored water; this is the sauce. Mix the two together and that was dinner, for two years of my life. I learned that if I mixed it with just the right proportions, I could make it feel like I was eating mashed potatoes. I also learned that if I bought beans in Basse or fish in Suduwol, they would add them to the sauce. Every once and while Maimuna makes “hako;” leaf sauce, a salty green paste that I find delicious. One night, I made the mistake of dancing for joy when Hako was served and so the family now demands that I dance every time Hako is ever served. During dinner I eat with my right hand, as all Gambians do. Every now and then I would break out my spoon, in response to which Mamasamba would say; “A niamugol America hande;” “you are eating like an American today.” I have always considered myself to be a fast eater, but Mamasamba always eats faster. It is incredible.
I sit outside with Mamasamba and the rest of the family for the rest of the night. Omar, my oldest host brother, sometimes brews “ataya;” a super concentrated green tea, and shares it around. I practice my Fula with Mamasamba and ask him about his life and family. I bring out my binoculars to show Mamasamba the moon or we look through my bird book and he teaches me the Fula names for a lot of the birds. With no city lights, the stars are dazzling. I sit and stare and I often see shooting stars. As exhaustion overwhelms me, I bid everyone goodnight and go back to my hut. I close and lock the corrugated doors and tuck my mosquito net around my bed. I read with my headlamp and set my alarm. If it is hot season I set up the fan next to my bed or I move my bed and mosquito net outside in my back yard. I fall asleep to the sounds of the crickets and the wind rustling the trees. A donkey brays somewhere in the distance and sets off a number of other donkeys in the village. Villagers walk by my fence, speaking in rushed Fula to each other. It is the same Gambian melody of sounds that I will later wake up to, with the arrival of another busy day.