30 December 2005

Njau Women's Center

Here's a picture that a neighbouring volunteer (Haddy Wan lives in Chamen, some 9kms away) took while visiting the Njau women's centre. As with the school, certain activities (crop harvests, Ramadan) prevented me from an undiluted view of the centre's daily undertakings, but I'm hoping to get more involved with a more active outfit after Tobaski.

Among the group's activities is weaving handbags and purses out of old plastic bags, which they then sell to create a little supplemental income and a measure of financial independence. We are looking at ways to expand the market for these goods. I'm including a picture of these items too.

28 December 2005

Al's Pizza in the Gambia!

Yesterday I went to visit the family compound of my headmaster/principal in Banjul. It was a nice visit, as we relaxed, drank ataya, watched a bad movie until the power cut off, and checked out the local gym -- the first in Banjul.

The gym wasn't bad, although a bit cramped (they're building a second floor). To be sure, it's an upgrade on the one in my old University of Ghana dorm, Commonwealth Hall. The Vandals (Commonwealth is known as Vandal City) had to rely on things like disk brakes for weights.

Anyway, Assan, my headmaster's twin brother, works at the gym. He also lived in the U.S., mainly in and around Washington, D.C., for 12 years. Assan worked mainly in restaurants, including the Armand's Pizza on Wisconsin Avenue. But he also worked for a while at my trusty Capitol Hill pizza shop, Al's Pizza. It's always fun when I get to make connections like these, and talk with people who know the places I know.

Interesting, too, is how someone who worked largely on the margins of U.S. society (i.e. in the kitchen of a pizza joint) can return to a place like Gambia and put his savings to really good use (since they're worth so much more here). Assan has also experienced the same difficulty, though, in explaining to Gambians that, just because the money goes further in West Africa, it doesn't necessarily follow that life is incredibly easier in the U.S. (although in certain ways it is).

But that is something that is very difficult to explain here -- trying to negotiate the culturally, socially, and media-driven chasm between comprehension of our different environments. I have potential visitors in the next year or so, which excites me about the opportunity to broaden perspectives of visitors and the visited (and, in turn, their friends and relatives).

26 December 2005

3 month challenge over!

Well, we've completed our "Three Month Challenge," during which we were supposed to remain in and around our sites, and avoid the temptations and amenities of Kombo, the capitol region. So, that successfully completed (aside from the fact that two of us returned to the U.S., and a couple others were too disease ridden to avoid a trip to the PC med center), my group assembled in Kombo for an education meeting and a fortnight of general carousing.

Dare I say that three months of deprivation has not turned us towards a more ascetic lifestyle. While I think we have done fairly well in difficult living and working conditions, we are enjoying the fruits of being in a big town -- electricity, running water, beer, eggs. It is a nice break, but I do miss my village and will certainly be back well before Tobaski (commemorating Ibrahim/Abraham's near-sacrifice of his son Ismael/Isaac), which should fall around January 10.

The three months in Njau were somewhat challenging, although not tremendously so. Everything at school went slowly, as classes were delayed by millet/cous harvest, Ramadan, late teacher postings (all coordinated by the central government), tardy teacher arrivals, and groundnut/peanut harvest.

So I didn't get a lot done aside from putting the school library to use, teaching some library classes, and teaching Grade 6 English for a while. I'm hoping that next term we'll get more stuck in to our actual work, during which I envision taking a consultant-like position, more in line with the aim of my job, which is to improve teachers' skills.

In the social realm, it has not been difficult making friends. I get on very well with my headmaster/principal, as well as the rest of the teachers, and we usually take lunch together after school. The only hindrance to good friendship is the frustration some cause me with their approaches to work. In the village, I spend several nights a week making the rounds, visiting compounds and practicing my Wolof (and, to a lesser extent, Fula). Juggling the social engagements can be a little daunting sometimes, so I am hoping to manage my schedule better next term.

In short the adjustment is going well. I'm coping with the diet (although I miss eggs), and sour milk is the only product that consistently upsets my stomach. Milk comes in two varieties here -- warm and fresh (right from the cow and goat), or curdled after a few days. Both are quite tasty, but I'm still not used to it.

I'll end here, but shall attempt to upload some pictures in the next day or two that my good friend from training, Lie Njie, an IT teaching volunteer here, made a CD of for us.

Happy Holidays!

15 September 2005

Riding the sareti fas!

Recounting events of August 25, 2005, one of my favourite days of training...

On our day off, we rented a horse cart and rode it from Saresamba to Soma, the nearest "big" town (14kms journey, 11kms as the crow flies). My host brother Assan drove, using the family horse, Pegasus (we named him on our previous venture a few weeks ago). Laye Njie (nee Craig N.), Aram Sinaan, Fatou Ngaalan and Yuusufa Touray (formerly Nancy, Sarah and Taylor) joined us for the trip. The extra two people (Aram and Fatou), plus the muddy conditions (we're in the middle of the rainy season), made for a slow journey.

In Soma we bought eggs, butter and flour, as we plan to bake some peanut butter cookies for our host families (this is our last week in Saresamba). On the way back home, our cart foundered in the mud, so we had to dismount and push it through. Laye brought along an MP3 player and speaksers, so we listened to 80's hits on both legs. A little while after the mud, Laye started shouting "Stop! Stop!" and after a few seconds I remembered the Wolof command ("Taxawal") and Assan reined in Pegasus.

Now we were all looking at Laye, and I for one thought that it was time for an emergency bathroom break (these are not uncommon). Instead, Laye pointed to the front, while frantically turning on his camera. We turned forward to see the remainder of a pack of baboons crossing the path. Once we started moving again, we saw a few stragglers pass through the bush. I saw about a dozen of them, but Laye reckoned there were perhaps 40 baboons.

By this time it was getting dark, making the bumps less predictable -- but none of the eggs broke! So we trotted along in fits and starts (Pegasus was getting tired) and, in the echo of the sunset (which shone orange, red, then purple through the clouds) and the haze of the moon, listened to "Carmina Burana" as we negotiated the route. It seemed quite fitting and portentous (there were lightning flashes in the distance), plus it reminded me of my friend Adrian, who was a voice major in college.

Little adventures like this spice up our days. While on the cart, I got to practice Wolof with Assan. He's getting married in the dry season, to Mena, a girl who lives in Senegal. In a week he's going to visit her family there. People tend to marry in the dry season, because crops have been harvested -- so people have lots of food, and some money from the sale of surplus crops. Few people marry in the rainy season (also known as the "hungry season") as food runs out, and harvest is a few months away. I also spoke Wolof in the market (many traders are Wolof). Great fun, really.

11 September 2005

Katchikally Crocodile Pond, The Gambia

This was at a visit to the Katchikally Crocodile pond. Crocodiles (unlike other reptiles) are venerated and it's believed that the water of the pool can help women become pregnant.

Other reptiles are roundly reviled, however. All snakes that are encountered are killed on the assumption that they are poisonous and want to attack people. My host family in Saresamba upset me one night by killing a gecko -- the story there is that the geckos spit in the grain in compound food stores, and this makes people sick.

In my broken Wolof I told them that I volunteered at the reptile house in the DC zoo, and that the animals are largely harmless (especially the geckos). They were dubious about this, but they did promise not to kill any more geckos (I'm sure that promise is void now that I've moved out).

In other reptile news, I hope to acquire a chameleon for a pet. The geckos here are too fast, and all the dogs and cats are disease-ridden, or very soon will be upon encountering their brethren.

10 September 2005

Finishing Training!

My 10 weeks of training are virtually over, with only this week in the capitol remaining, with the following tasks: shopping for provisions not available upcountry, attending swearing-in ceremony at the ambassador's residence (which reportedly has a great buffet featuring food we will never again encounter in The Gambia), swimming at the beach, and drinking away our paltry salaries at the bars.

I am very excited to be starting work at the Njau Lower Basic School (grades 1-6) on the north side of the Central River Division (40kms east from Farafenni along the main road, 1km from the northern border with Senegal). There's some excitement as there's a by-election for an open parliamentary seat, so I already saw a lot of activity and heard lots of conversation in my first few days in Njau (I moved into my new compound last week).

My school looks like a good place to get lots of work done, particularly in the library, which will be my primary focus at first. The room is not too bad, but we are extremely short of books, shelving, and other materials. There is a lot of potential! My headmaster/principal, Oussainou Touray, is rather eclectic but very interested in helping improve the school, and is quite proactive. Among our upcoming weekend activities: visiting the feeder villages to try and drum up enrolment, and having the police join us on a friendly sweep of Njau to collect benches, desks and chairs "borrowed" for various naming ceremonies and weddings. And I'm certain we'll be drinking plenty of ataaya (green tea with oodles of sugar).

I'm definitely going to miss my host family from my training village of Saresamba. My family there, the Tourays, had 18 members in the compound, 13 of them girls or women. By contrast, the Ceesays have only four people in their family, and the only female is the mother. So it's quite a different dynamic.

The good news is that Njau is a manageable size (350-400 people) so I should be able to know just about everyone, and find some social outlets. The village is about half Wolof (they are a bit wealthier), and half Fula. I'm in the Wolof side, but expect to learn some Pulaar -- at least the (elaborate) greetings. For a village without electricity and running water, I was pleased to still find some treats -- sour milk (tastes like yoghurt and is plentiful in the rainy season) and fresh bread (baked every two days).

Dinner at our hostel beckons so I must end here, but will try to add more in the future.

The Gambia

I composed this during our staging in Philadelphia, PA, on July 5:

To the tune of 50 Cent's Candy Shop --

I'll take you to The Gambia
Won't let you get malaria
Here comes the cotton swab
Wait till you get your shots


I'll take you to The Gambia
No, not Zambia
You'll eat from a communal pot
Hope it's not too hot


04 July 2005

03 July 2005

A Farewell to Palavers? Terrorism's Legitimacy

April 23, 2005

Hookah Palaver IV: Terrorism, Yay?

On a cool Saturday night, we took in a renowned film focusing on the role of terrorism in an independence war. Since I read that “The Battle of Algiers” was being screened in the Pentagon (with the hope that it would shed light on the insurgency in Iraq), an examination of the merits of terrorism would make for an interesting Hookah Palaver.

Cha Cha, Jenny Marie, Anjy, Kentaro, Natalie, and Jennifer showed that their RSVPs were indeed their bond. Many thanks must be bestowed on James for his hospitality.

While ordering Al's Pizza and setting up the hookah, we started out with a DVD “extra” – a half hour discussion featuring Richard Clarke and a less celebrated former counterterrorism bureaucrat (the latter was from the State Dept.). You may recall Richard Clarke as the pre-September 11, 2001, terrorism Cassandra on the National Security Council for both Clinton and Bush – you know, those halcyon days when obfuscating titles like “Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States” lulled our leaders into a false sense of security. Their discussion centered on the continuing relevance of “The Battle of Algiers,” whether terrorism is ever the right tactic, and the long-term outcomes of relying on torture.

Serendipitously, further insight into the cogency of “The Battle of Algiers” was provided by George Will’s op-ed piece in today’s Washington Post!

With Jonah now smouldering, we turned to the main film. Although not graphic by today’s standards, “The Battle of Algiers” does not shy away from the wages of war. These range from the bombings and tortures carried out by French soldiers (between 500,000 and 1,000,000 Algerians died during the war for independences) and the FLN’s (National Liberation Front’s) bombings of places frequented by Algeria’s French residents. One indelible image is of a young child eating an ice cream in a cafĂ© shortly before it is reduced to rubble.

The film crystallizes what I alluded to in the event details – that definitions of terrorism are malleable, and that in some cases it may be justified. In addition to waxing philosophical on the ideas prompted by the film, we also entertained other notions, such as the viability of traversing the lower 48 states, and, dare I say the necessity, of procuring a chauffeur.

Given that a palaver is 5hist. a parley between African or other natives and traders, James has suggested that it may not be apt to have another Hookah Palaver sans an African – yours truly, who is leaving for, yes, Gambia in West Africa this July. I hope that Jonah will still make appearances, as he, his owner, and our friends have brought good times to Why Did Blacks Vote Republican in 2004?, Gentrification, Parley Beyond the Parochial, and even Our Final House Party. Thanks all!

Shisha Soiree pics

HP3 Attendees

Senor Smokeface!

Hookah Palaver III: Parley Beyond The Parochial

Chronicalling the events of Feburary 19, 2005

“Hookah Palaver III: Parley Beyond The Parochial,” sought to build on the traditions of “Why Did Blacks Vote Republican in 2004?” and “Gentrification,” this time looking at issues of international import. As with all shisha soirees, however, the subjects and conversation meandered, and the evening culminated with a viewing of an episode of “The Family Guy.”

Our first topic of the night was one brought to our attention by my erstwhile hostess Liz. We discussed HIV/AIDS prevention policy, namely the ongoing debate over the three pronged A (abstinence), B (be faithful), and C (use condoms) approach to prevention. Liz mentioned Uganda’s success in reducing their HIV prevalence rates, the reasons for which have been a bone of contention, although a preponderance of the evidence shows that promoting abstinence and monogamy, and encouraging the proper use of contraception when sexually active, is the most effective strategy. This topic has particular salience, with the Bush Administration’s Global AIDS Fund requiring that at least 33% of the funds go towards “Abstinence-only” education programs.

Any conversation of international reproductive or sexual health issues inevitably involves U.S. domestic politics, so our discussion veered into an examination of, and reminiscence on, the American sexuality education experience.

From here, we discussed the current situation in Iraq, with most of us falling under the description of beleaguered realists, subscribing to the view that we must soldier on, the merits of the war notwithstanding.

This evaluation was followed by a discussion of American policy towards China. Many a prospective president has promised to take a stand against Beijing’s human rights abuses and occasional bouts of regional surliness, only to turn into a pragmatist once in office, with nary a mention of Taiwan, Tibet or Xinjiang. This reluctance to confront burgeoning powers, or longtime allies, meant a logical point of further discussion was…

The municipal elections in Saudi Arabia! Has the Middle East ever been so free!? While President Bush was his effusive self when describing the Middle Eastern election du jour, many wondered exactly how far our much ballyhooed push for democracy would go if it meant that the oil spigots were turned off. Leaving aside the conspiratorial tones of the House of Bush, House of Saud variety, the discussants couldn’t help but wonder how the U.S.’s incredibly close relationship with the Saudis may jeopardize our idealist tendencies. The inconsistencies of our foreign policy were mentioned by not a few people.

At this point, the palaver left the international realm altogether, while some friends attempted to best immortalize their pipe-toking for posterity. Many thanks must go to our erstwhile benefactor, Brandon, for supplying the digital camera. As always, we did not end where we started, but enjoyable conversations were had, friendships made or strengthened, and a cool vibe embraced.

Much, much gratitude must be reserved for Liz, who introduced several topic ideas, and helped me attend to our guests. Thanks, friend! Wo pE laif paa!

Special thanks in absentia to James for the use of Jonah, and Kavitha for once more allowing me to let India spend the night. In honour of James, and in deference to my head cold, I carried the torch and used a catheter, or condom (in line with our first topic of the night), when inhaling. Keep your eyes peeled for Hookah Palaver IV: Title Embargoed For Release.

Hookah Palaver II: Gentrification

With our first shisha soiree fast gaining renown, and safe in the knowledge that we would have a hookah or three in attendance, Hookah Palaver II: Gentrification saw an uptick in popularity. 100% of “Yes” respondees showed that, for this event at least, their RSVP was their bond. And we even squeezed in a couple more roommates and other friends. Thanks everyone!

Compared to “Why Did Blacks Vote Republican in 2004?” we were not as focused on the topic at hand. After I introduced the subject, we had a short all-inclusive conversation on the merits of gentrification. With such a large group, though (approaching 25), we soon devolved into smaller discussions. Still, the seed was planted, and throughout the evening I heard exchanges relating to the evening’s theme.

In addition, James gave us a treatment of gentrification, to the tune of “Frosty the Snowman”:

Displaces families
Thru soaring rent and selfish landlords
And the influx of yuppies.

Is fair market change they say.
Interest rates are low, but we all know
How greed is the American way.

Is alive as it could be
Cultural demise right before your eyes
That's not the way it has to be

I think this is an important topic, particularly in the DC area, and I'm glad everyone gave some thought to the demographic changes in our region and in cities around the country. An example of this is our own house, which we will (most likely) vacate in April 2005 once it's sold. Of course, we in turn displaced some residents bought out by our slumlord.

Of course, the other “agenda item” was to chill out and smoke some hookah while listening to Ali Farka Toure, Khaled, and sundry other performers. Although we did not listen to any Bob, we did “turn our lights down low,” and enjoyed the ambience of fruity tobacco in the air.

The flavours we sampled included cherry, apple, orange, coconut, cantaloupe and grape. As time goes by, we are gradually learning how best to tend coals, apply foil, and get the water pipes flowing. This is an upward trajectory, so soon enough we shall be masters. We also broke in Kavitha’s hookah, “India,” which heretofore had not been used (aside from an abortive attempt which left the hookah filled with water).

Besides a gathering of friends, there were a couple more milestones to celebrate. It was Liz’s birthday the day before, and on top of that she took the GRE last Wednesday. So we were able to fete my great roommate, and partook in some chocolate mousse (soup?). Of course, there was other great fare (samosas, veggies, clementines, hummus, cheeses, cookies, etc.) that our fabulous guests brought along, not to mention a few fruity drink mixes and some wine.

Our night also included an obligatory broadcast of “Meet Me in the Parking Lot!” as James, Andy, Sam and Chris shook it to Panjabi MC. Plus a massage line formed in the dining room to eliminate any residual stress from the week that had not already gone up in smoke and/or Scooby snacks.

Finally, as the clock approached midnight, my old friend Mo arrived from Pennsylvania. Not even a car crash or 10 hour layover in Hagerstown, MD, could keep him away. Of course, upon his arrival, Mo promptly tutored me on the proper layering of foil on the hookah pipe. Also, we need to upgrade our coals. Think of Mo as filling Anthony Hopkins's role in "The Efficiency Expert."

After most everybody left, James, Mo and I took in a short film on Muslim stand-up comedians performing in post-September 11 America. It’s an extra on the Fahrenheit 9/11 DVD and well worth a look. We knew the event was officially tapering off once roommate Brendan made his now-traditional early morning appearance to help us polish off the grape tobacco.

Thanks to everybody who came out to join us for a wonderful evening. Special thanks to James, Amber and Kavitha for bringing along their hookahs. Thanks to MIDC's Brandon for his selfless donation of flavoured tobacco. We'll you have in the fold for the third parley, Brandon! And gratitude is extended to Kevin and Picot for helping the less technologically endowed folks of Chez 1209 with the documentation of the proceedings.