19 September 2006

A wasp strikes Alhagie!

So last week I came home in the afternoon, only to discover that my little brother Alhagie had been stung by a wasp on his hand and left cheek. It quickly swelled up and soon Alhagie had trouble seeing.

This was the source of much amusement, particularly to his mom Maram. Alhagie promptly covered himself with a muso/veil, and skipped two days of school out of pain and embarrassment (classes had not started yet). It was very difficult for me to prevent myself from laughing too, but I managed to restrain myself.

The next evening, though, Alhagie was a little more philosophical about his predicament and wanted to record it for posterity. So he asked me to take pictures. This was a very cathartic moment for me as I felt free to let out my laughter at the hilarity of Alhagie's appearance.

Please note that the first, before/normal picture of Alhagie was actually taken after the stinging. So you can see that he has safely recovered. But it will be some time until I forget the image of Alhagie struggling to see the meal in our food bowl.

Normal (above) and swollen (below).

Along with Alhagie are his older brother Omar Dye, Omar's friend Sait, and Alhagie and Omar's mom Maram.

18 September 2006

A visit with my friends Matarr and Mbombeh

Sorry, I forgot about this post until now. I started it in December. Here now are my friends Matarr and Mbombeh. In fact, I'm visiting them for lunch today.

Matarr and Mbombeh lived in Njau but moved to Latri Kunda, in Kombo, several months ago. When I'm in town I usually drop by and see them. So these pictures are from a visit there in April.

Top left is Matarr in the yellow vest. His son Mohamed is in red on the right.

In the picture on the right, Mbombeh is having her hair braided by her daughter Fanna, and her son Alieu is sitting in front.

The group of kids are enjoying some Jumkin (juice mix), an occasional treat.

The World/Gambia is Flat

29 August -- I've been passing the time reading "The World is Flat," a book my parents sent me for my birthday (among others - thanks guys!). The gist of the book is that the world is flattening or converging -- creating new opportunities and challenges for billions of people as barriers to education and employment come down. So I have been reading with some trepidation about this new world, considering the ramifications for The Gambia.

I am fearful that most of this country will miss out on this flattening of the global playing field. I haven't read the book's section of developing countries yet, but the author (Thomas Friedman) seems sanguine about the aggregate positive effects of globalization on the world's population. Unfortunately, Gambia seems largely removed from these changes. To be sure, modern communication is slowly proliferating, but the country seems to be falling further and further behind the rest of the world. There are some improvements, like the paving of the north bank highway, but these all seem to be driven by foreign donors. Most people want to go work overseas (and they do work hard if they get there), but the money made is devoted to micro-level changes here -- a nicer house, a few years of generator-provided electricity. Reading about legions of Chinese and Indians toiling away and improving their skills, it is difficult to contrast that with what I see here, where many teachers may not read a single book during the school holidays.

Yet just a kilometer from here is a functioning, albeit poor, country. All of Senegal's large towns have near-constant electricity. Even out here, if I walk 3-4 kms to Makorgui, the site of the nearest Senegalese school, the government has installed solar and the village has light at night. When I was riding a horsecart to my host mother's village for her brother's wedding I saw the ambient light in the distance, which I regarded with the fascination I would presumably reserve for an alien spaceship landing.

In short, I get rather discouraged when I think about Gambia's prospects. It's one of the reasons I'm contemplating another PC posting -- to visit a country where the attitude towards poverty and life is not largely one of abject resignation. To be sure, I exaggerate, and there are a lot of kids, and some adults, with lots of creativity, curiosity and motivation.

UPDATE: Having finished the book, I thought I'd comment briefly on the chapter on developing countries. I think Mr. Friedman's arguments that states should open up their markets, lessen red tape, invest in education and infrastructure and so on are laudable. And to the benificent leader who is not terribly enamored with remaining in office, these are great moves.

However, I see very little motivation for an administration that is less altruistic or visionary in outlook. Gambia has very little incentive in such a situation, as the leaders' hold on power and information would be negatively affected. As things stand, Gambia gets enough aid (some 60% of the education budget, for instance) that there is little financial pressure to increase surveillance of public employees or to reduce spending on wasteful projects.

The international community, too, seems to have a symbiotic relationship with an administration interested in touting minor infrastructure improvements. They draw positive attention for NGO's donors and Gambian citizens alike, both of whom rely on others for information -- the NGOs and the largely government-controlled Gambian media, respectively.

And Gambia's too insignificant for larger countries to pressure it to change, although America deserves credit for (quietly) dropping Gambia from its list of deserving countries receiving aid through the Millenium Challenge Grant/Account, or whatever it's called. More forceful follow-up is needed, though, if Gambia's leaders are to undertake more than piecemeal moves to improve governance.

Eleven Things I Like About My Host Father

In homage to Chebo Ceesay. One day I will put up a picture.

1. He spends 150% of my rent money on ataaya.
2. When he hums along to "Ain't no sun shining when she's gone."
3. His son might be the fattest small boy in The Gambia.
4. He misses broccoli.
5. He reads with his son sometimes.
6. He doesn't beat his kids.
7. He has one wife and two kids and doesn't want more of either (especially the former).
8. His wife Maram asked me if albinos in America are black.
9. His older son fetches water for the compound [this is not considered men's work here].
10. His relative engagement with the outside world keeps me from forgetting how most people regard U.S. foreign policy.
11. When he calls to his wife, she answers "Ceesay!"

17 September 2006

Pictures of Dakar, courtesy of Jeremy

My friend Jeremy sent me a disposable camera, and he has just sent the prints and a CD to me. These pictures are from my trip to Dakar, Senegal, in April 2006.

This is a small picture of the crowd in Dakar (it belies the scope) assembled for Independence Day celebrations and the procession of Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade and everyone's favourite reformed dictator, Muammar Qaddafi. Below are posters of Wade and Qaddafi. Five other African heads of state came too, but they barely rated a mention in the national press, nor did they take part in the main parade.

A view from the southern tip of Dakar. Alas, it is the western tip of the peninsula that is the westernmost part of Africa. During a future visit I shall trespass on Club Med grounds and make it to west, West Africa.

A (distant) view of Goree Island.

Goree Island was a major waypoint in the slave trade. Nowadays, a rather tacky environment, although there is some interesting architecture. Lots of restaurants and touts, though. The old forts (left relatively unmarred by tourism) in Ghana are much more thought provoking, and so is the ruined fort at James Island in The Gambia (nearby Alex Haley's "Roots" village Juffureh is not up to much).

The Palais du Justice and main bus station.

16 September 2006

post-Gambia travel plans - come along!

So it's a bit early to give much thought to my post-service travel plans (although the time is coming quickly - July 2007). But those of you in the real, workaday world, who may be inclined to join me for some of my wanderings but would have to budget and allocate time, deserve a sneak peak to consider it.

Here are my plans, such as they are. Essentially, I am going overland to Ghana, where I would probably then spend at least a few weeks. Everything in between is up in the air.

DEFINITE features of my itinerary:

- visiting Guinea, where a good friend is working (in Conakry), and where there is beautiful hiking (in the Futa Djalon);

- visiting Guinea-Bissau, and checking out the archipelagos just off the coast for a few days;

- the aforementioned return to Ghana after 8 years, to catch up with friends across the country;

- a visit to Senegal's Casamance region, intermittent skirmishes permitting

POSSIBLE waypoints and stops on the journey:

- Bamako-Dakar train - something I'd really like to do

- Togo

- Benin (esp. Abomey)

- perhaps Niger, and even Nigeria?

So, if you are interested in any or all of this trip, give it some thought and get in touch with me soon-soon. My plans are pretty flexible, so someone could join me just for a couple of weeks, and I could come meet you in whatever city you fly into. Getting here is expensive, but travelling around is more reasonable. There's not a lot of wildlife compared to east and southern Africa, but I was thinking of visiting a game park and traipsing around behind some elephants. Plus The Gambia has hippos! (Mali does too.)

I'm not too picky about what I need from a companion on the road. It couldn't hurt if you knew a little French. Mine is awful, but enough to get by on. Wolof isn't of much use beyond Gambia and Senegal, although some people spoke it in Mauritania. I will try to learn a little more Fula, but their dialects vary.

Come travel around West Africa with me! If I'd used my digital camera, I could have put up some pictures of Mauritania, which was a pretty amazing trip. Maybe I'll go through some of the other volunteers' files. My writeup on that adventure is coming soon.

15 September 2006

The Travails of My Trousers

Lazily taken from a letter I wrote to my good friend Harry while in Dakar, Senegal.

9 August -- My trousers are being held hostage by the Senegalese government. I discovered a tear along the seam of one of the legs yesterday, so today I took them to a local tailor and, after a prolonged negotiation, I left expecting to pick them up after lunch. I returned after 3, but the tailor's was still closed. Assuming he was still at lunch, I came back again a bit before 5.

When I got there, the men at the neighbouring store told me the tailor was gone, the place locked, and he might not return today. Given that I had (faint) hopes of leaving tomorrow morning, I found this a bit vexing. I asked if anyone knew the tailor's phone number, but they said no and, when pressed, that no one around there knew how to contact him. Cryptically, they said he doesn't have a key anyway.

So I settled down and played a game of foosball. Another thing that Senegal has over Gambia, besides electricity, roads, and the like, is foosball tables galore. Going down a town’s main street, I see one every two or three blocks. I don’t know if they are truly foosball mad (or perhaps the French brought higher smoking rates and a love of foosball to their colonies), but they are truly abundant.

A little later the tailor did return. He promptly told me the trousers were ready. I suggested that he fetch them. At this point one of the assembled men decides to tell me that he is the one in charge off the sewing booth – it resembles a freight container from a ship – but he cannot open it.

He explains that the space is rented from the municipal authority, which decided that afternoon to lock out tenants truant on their rent payments. He told me he would go tomorrow to pay his arrears and collect the key. When? In the morning, Insh’Allah (God willing). Does he have the money to pay the rent? No. Does he know where he’s going to get the money from? Nope. So, when might he be back to open the place if he does happen to get the money? After 1 o’clock, Insh’Allah. Reiterating that I may be leaving tomorrow does not faze him. In fact, he, the tailor and the rest of the crew found it all quite entertaining.

I have to admit it was amusing (aided in this hindsight as I was by a can of Carlsberg given to me by a Nigerian who stayed in the room across from me), but it crystallizes some depressing facts of life here – that so much depends on the arbitrary whims of government officials (the closings took place without any notice or warning), that nobody gives a shit when things are delayed or held up, and the compulsion to withhold information unless asked repeatedly.

24 August – In a happy ending, I picked up the trousers on my way back down from Mauritania!

Three kids from Njau

This is a photo in my house of Mariama Sallah, Sally Ceesay, and Fatoumata Sallah, who dropped by one evening for a little studying.

25 July 2006

Photos of the AgFo-Ed. group match

Pictures from our football match. Look at the beautiful Atlantic ocean. The education team is on defense on the right (I'm wearing red).

24 July 2006

Education volunteers dispel myth: they can run!

A few notes for the uninitiated: IST (In-Service Training), AgFos (AgroForestry volunteers), Ed(ucation)

Friday, March 31, saw the merciful end of our respective ISTs, and the new AgFos and newish Ed group decided to have an American football match on the beach.

The AgFos seemed pretty confident of victory in the days leading up to the match, and talked a lot of trash (Lie Sinyaan: "When I'm done with you, you're going to wish your daddy pulled out early."). The Ed group was a little intimidated by those taut, wiry bodies, honed by days working in the fields and searching for counterparts. Add to this the fact that we were missing three of our stalwarts - the sublime Robert (who was taking a bath), the insane Lie Njie (and the prospect of a post-football Frisbee game), and one of our tall man-eaters. But six months of watching kids kneeling in the sun with their arms over their heads meant that the Educators know a thing or two about doling out punishment.

Faced with the disinterest of half our team ("No lunch or per diem? Fuck it."), we managed to field 7 education volunteers for the 5-on-5 affair. By contrast, the AgFos came in droves, with a dozen or so willing participants. Still, the Teachers had a tight rotation and Jannetty, for one, tagged in and out with aplomb.

After a tentative first few series, the match was tied at 1. But a few defensive stops by the Education group put the score at 4-1, and the rout was on. The ignominy continued till a score of 10-6. At that point we decided to finish things off with a "first to three," leaving a total of 13-7. For one day, Tie-Dye Mai was known as Touchdown Maimuna, and Xaji came through with some incongruously athletic defensive plays. Yusufa was to opposing receivers what Katia is to dance partners. The wide margin of victory, however, prevents us from referring to it as a “grind it out win”.

Although cowed, and a little shellshocked, by the beating administered by classroom- and office-bound educators, the AgFos deserve some credit for their showing. Most of them turned out to play, in contrast to the lackadaisical education volunteers. Also, Peter had the block of the game when he put Guttridge flat on his back during one kickoff. They also bought us beers, the stakes of the game. One can only wonder if they regret freezing out Rodney, who apparently expressed interest in playing, and has wanted to lay Alieu out for a while now. Good dinner and drinks followed at the Sandplover.

Back at the Stodge, though, the AgFos rallied like true PCTG veterans, masters of the sedentary arts. Not ones for drowning their sorrows, they turned to the Stodge TV for comfort. The Ed vols, by contrast, were a little frightened by the content ("Texas Chainsaw Massacre") and retreated to the clubs of Senegambia.

In the meantime, the Ed group awaits a challenge (and the promise of hotties in the next Ed batch). Perhaps the health groups can offer more resistance?

18 July 2006

The guy with the mustache...

Well, my blog has been linked to by my fellow PCVs and some of our newly arrived Education trainees perused my page. I met the Wolof trainees this past weekend as I was asked by PC to go down to Sare Samba and help out a little. I managed to provide a little encouragement, chiefly by showing that after a year I am still pretty hopeless (and no longer remember how to set up a water filter). It was fun to revisit my old stomping grounds, and I really get on well with my old host family there. A couple of the trainees had visited my blog, and the chief thing they remembered was my facial hair of a few months ago. "Didn't you have a mustache once?" was the question.

Janitorial Hubris

From the annals of indignities heaped on our school caretaker…

Given the low rung on the pay scale occupied by our school caretaker, his attempt to become the only Njau Lower Basic School staff member to retain two wives was bound to raise eyebrows. With a lower salary than even our unqualified teachers (whose monthly earning were unfavourably compared by our deputy headmaster to the money needed to feed an English dog – see June 4 entry), Ebou Incha’s gambit to take on a recently-widowed mother of three children seemed a classic case of overreach. Ousainou, our headmaster and, along with my host father Chebo, a staunch advocate of having only one wife, was quick to announce his disapproval of Ebou’s assuming this added financial burden. Alas, a great many destitute Gambian men cannot resist the allure and status of a second wife (which aims to obviate, yet simultaneously worsen, their sorry financial states), and Ebou Incha proved no exception. After Ebou gave a warugar/bride price which included two cows, the new wife Jai arrived at the beginning of the 2005-06 school year, just preceding my own arrival.

It wasn’t long afterwards that Ebou pointed to his onerous financial obligations when I pestered him about his daughter Incha’s dropping out of school. It soon came to light, too, that Ebou’s first wife Sohna was not happy to have Jai join the household, with the ill feelings exacerbated by the compound’s precarious financial footing. Soon Jai was spending most evenings in a neighbouring compound which I sometimes visit. Jai often bugged me about buying her stuff but, as I get that treatment from quite a few people, I thought little of it. After about six months of acrimony and deprivation, Jai decided she’d had enough and returned to her in-laws’ across the river in Niamina.

Following this turn of events, the women of Njau decided to do a “roast” of Sohna – Ebou’s first wife. To the accompaniment of drumming and dancing the women teased Sohna, needling her for driving away Jai, who could’ve been a big help with work around the compound and on the farm. Ebou recounted this final humiliation to Ousainou, with the coup de grace being that Malick Ceesay (yours truly) came along to watch insult be heaped on top of injury (in truth I came for the music and dancing and only learned of the event’s agenda later on).

Career Advancement and Self-Improvement vs. The Siren's Call of Green Tea

July 7 – The choice may seem obvious to the uninitiated, but when I returned to Njau from an 8 km walk to Mbolgoh and Njokoben to greet parents and explain their children’s report cards and exam results (and my hopes to get half the kids to repeat Grade 1), I discovered two of Njau’s “unqualified” teachers waiting for transport at the police station cum gelegele stop. It was 7:30 in the evening and my erstwhile colleagues were hoping to travel to Mansa Konko, where the next morning they would take (and hopefully pass this time) the entrance exam for The Gambia College’s teacher certification program.

Given that the journey entails at least three gelegele/minivan rides (and the potential for breakdowns) and a ferry ride, plus the fact that Friday, being the Sabbath, is a horrible day for catching transport, a noontime departure is prudent – especially when considering the stakes. If I have to be in Mansa Konko by a certain time, I’d allow 8 hours on a normal day.

Today was (mercifully) the last day of school (we assembled to give out report cards and tutus…), which let out at 11AM. As I left to begin my catchment village tour, the teachers settled down to brew some ataaya (Chinese green tea with lots of sugar). This included our two prospective teachers, who one might have expected to want to leave early to be well-rested in advance of an exam they’ve already failed a few times. They too hunkered down, though, for two full brewings (a batch of ataaya features three progressively sweeter rounds) that took them well into the afternoon. Once I’d arrived and greeted the police and my colleagues, one of the teachers bemoaned their difficulty finding transport at this late stage. This was one of those rare occasions where I managed to bite my tongue; a year of haranguing teachers about the seemingly obvious and elementary is wearing on me and the rainy season break is arriving in good time.

Rock The Vote, Gambian style

July 5 – In the days following the AU summit, when 35 or so heads of state (along with the presidents of Iran and Venezuela…) descended on Banjul for a few platitudes and a joint statement denouncing coups (future ones, not the ones that brought to power some of these leaders, including the host), President Jammeh has shown his gratitude to a compliant populace by giving the country (well, those with government jobs or at banks and the like) four days of public holidays.

So school is finishing today (Wednesday) instead of on Friday. This combined with the fact that we had Monday and the previous Friday off, put paid to my hopes of our headmaster holding an end-of-year staff meeting (or even a 2006 one).

One sector of government is working quite strenuously, though, unlike the schools, which are giving added meaning to the phrase going out with a whisper. The “Independent” Electoral Commission is in town, registering voters for the upcoming presidential elections (variously projected to take place between September and November). Suffrage is universal from age 18, so I was a little surprised to see some of my 6th, 5th and even 4th Grade students lining up to join the democratic process. To be sure, some of our students are a few years older than their corresponding grades (and some PCVs working in high schools have students older than them), but I don’t think that even any of our Grade 6 students are as old as 18.

In lieu of birth certificates and immunization cards, which inconveniently have closer approximations of birthdates, the children have statements ghostwritten by relatively literate young men (who are back in town for the rainy season), then stamped by their alkalis (village chiefs). It’s a reasonably effective, albeit obvious, racket, as the ruling party (the president appoints district chiefs who in turn oversee the alkalis in their area) will have the alkalis turn out the (pre-selected) new registrants later to augment its take at the polls.

As a result of this registration drive, we’ve been missing our Deputy Headmaster, who’s also our Grade 1 teacher, for the past three weeks. He’s hoping to parlay his working for the ruling party/electoral commission into a headmaster post – a position he’s consistently failed to carry out in the past. He’s been so abysmal, in fact, that he’s been demoted to deputy status (no mean feat).

The upshot of this is that your correspondent found himself in charge of writing, giving and grading exams for over fifty Grade 1 students. I decided to be thorough and this, combined with questioning administered haltingly in English, Wolof and Fula, meant that I spent 20 hours alone on giving the exam, not counting treks to outlying villages to test students who’d been absent. The upside of this is that I have a very clear idea of what our first graders know, and don’t know. Still, after over 1000 minutes of showing students numbers (for example: “6”, answer: “W”) and letters (flashcard: “F”, response “21”), it gets a bit draining. As of now my main goal for the summer is to venture out to our catchment villages to explain the report cards to parents, do a little farming, and bugger off to Mauritania and Senegal for three weeks.

A little about the competition

29 June 2006 – Tonight I visited Musa and Fana Ceesay, whose 5 year old son Mam Sheikh has left the school’s nursery class, and is now studying at a dara (madrassa) in Darou, a km away from us in Senegal. So I dropped by to see if I could encourage Mam Sheikh’s return. Musa and his brother Sheikh, a teacher at Njau’s school, are both well-educated and could help Mam Sheikh, who’s a bright boy, to do well.

Musa was quick to mollify me, however, explaining that after two years in Darou, Mam Sheikh would re-enroll at Njau for Grade 1. His plan to give Mam Sheikh a little grounding in the Koran sounded reasonable enough.

As Musa went on, though, I felt less at ease. He explained that the students spend the morning farming in the school’s fields, then study after lunch. He noted that the teachers are very strict (a strong statement given some of the sadists in DOSE’s employ), and the children don’t sleep on beds (or under mosquito nets) and only bathe once a week or so. Musa said that Mam Sheikh used to be very playful (he is five, after all), but now his demeanour has totally changed. I had to concede that point to Musa, although I haven’t seen Mam Sheikh recently.

05 June 2006

A trip to the stone circles

Here are a few pictures from my second visit to Wassu's stone circles, about 40 kms east of Njau. I've since made a third trip, a Grade 6 class trip, and always have a nice time there.

No one knows much about the laterite stones, although some have been there for 1200 years. Some of them surround burial sites of (presumably) important people, and they vary from a few feet in size to three meters tall.

Maimuna (tie-dye), Fatou J. (red bandanna) and I visited them in April, and stopped by to see Julie (pink trousers), a volunteer who lives in Wassu. As you can see, we made pyramids.

04 June 2006

Assorted quotes from Gambian teachers

Obviously, these tend to obscure the fact that many people here are working hard, with little training and support, for a pittance -- as our Deputy Headmaster put it, the salary for "Unqualified Teachers" (those without a teaching degree) is "less than it costs to feed a dog in England." That said, these are entertaining.

"Get out of here before I beat you!" -- an Njau teacher address yours truly.

"Children who ask for help with homework are weak." -- another Njau teacher, on the appropriateness of assisting students after school.

"I really haven't done any work these two terms." -- My counterpart, in a meeting with me. The day before he heard that he'd been nominated for Headmaster/Principal of the Year.

"The people here are very nice and hostile." -- Grade 4 teacher at Sare Samba Lower Basic School, minutes after beating students who failed his vocabulary test.

3 PCVs and an Iranian head of state

28 February -- I had a dream that Sekouba, Fatou J. and I (see picture further down) lived together with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. We all seemed a bit afraid of him (he's kind of dour in person), but Mahmoud did fry us some eggs. Perhaps this was an allusion to, or premonition of, the U.S.'s new stance towards Iran. Lariam/Mephlaquine's good stuff!

An End to Ponding?

27 January 2006 -- I was listening to some listener feedback on the BBC World Service this morning. This is always entertaining, as the BBC will put just about any text message, now matter how deranged, on the air (Network Africa is especially fun because of this). Anyway, the callers and texters were commenting on a piece that focused on initiation rites at universities. The original story was about one man's experience with some form of hazing at a university in central Africa (I believe it was Congo-Kinshasa).

One of the respondents wrote about "ponding," a rite of passage into Commonwealth Hall (a.k.a. Vandal City) at the University of Ghana. Built by the Brits in the 1940s, the University features some nice architecture. Commonwealth, on top of the hill, has a terraced structure, and here and there are small rectangular ponds. It is into these ponds that new Vandals are violently dunked (in the case of Freshers) or allowed to gently roll in (exchange students such as myself). A little while ago, the listener wrote, one victim of a vigorous ponding (around 10 Vandals hold you and slam you up and down on the water) suffered a "sprained femur" and ended up missing the school year.

The university authorities suspended those responsible and banned ponding, draining the ponds (which I think have relied on rainwater rather than plumbing for the last few decades) for good measure. I was saddened to hear this, as I look back on that night with some fondness. To be sure, my initiation as a Vandal was gentler than more, but there was still plenty of vitriolic epithets to take in (not to mention the latent homoeroticism of young men carrying on in various states of undress). Another incident made this a seminal night in the early days of my stay in Ghana. Shortly before being carted off for ponding, our hardy crew (there were six of us from America in the dorm - me, Isaac, Ziggy, Kwame, Guy Jesus, and Snake) was robbed by a couple of shady guys (not university affiliated). The next several days saw us pushing the police into action (with much credit due to plying them with yoghurt ice creams) to capture the thieves. The eventual early morning raid (complete with automatic firearms) would not have been possible without the assistance of two young men who remain great friends to this day -- Senanu and Essel. Senanu's quite old now, though.

Kids in Lower River Division

Ousman was/is one of Yusupha's host brothers from training. He's a very nice kid who waited in Kaiaf for two hours to take us down to Sare Samba. Alas he and his friends weren't among the best horsecart drivers, but we managed.

When Ousman was born (he's around 10 now), his mother called him Kumba, a girl's name, before his ngente/naming ceremony (which comes a week after birth). The usual placeholder name for Wolof boys is Samba but, as two of her previous babies had died as infants, Ousman's mom wanted to throw any malevolent forces off the scent. So Ousman is still called Kumba by a lot of people in Sare Samba, as this is not usual practice.

On my way back to Njau, I got a horsecard ride from Assan. On the way to Soma we picked up three "hitchhikers" - Maimuna, her mother, and her grandmother. Maimuna is in Grade 4 at a school farther along the path to Soma. It's a half hour walk each way, so it's a small victory that she has time, and is permitted, to go. I asked Maimuna where she would go after Grade 6, since the nearest upper basic school is about 8 kms (5 miles) away. Maimuna answered only "No," as continuing with school didn't seem to be an option. When we alighted in Soma, I appealed to her mom and gradmother to help Maimuna continue beyond Grade 6. I tried to encouraged enlightened self-interest (my usual tactic), but I'm not sure her guardians were anything besides bemused by my speech, delivered as it was in broken Wolof.

The Land Ran Red...Then Brown Again

I suppose it's not as extreme as self-flaggelation, but preparing a smorgasbord of flesh that will likely give you a strong case of biir bu daw (the stomach that runs) seems a somewhat excessive way to commemorate a moment of religious import. Yet so it was with Tobaski.

Tobaski (or Eid al Adha in Arabic) is marked in remembrance of Ibrahim/Abraham's near sacrifice of his son Ismail/Isaac, averted by a late substitution of a ram for the boy. So every year Gambians (well 90% or so of them) endeavour to sacrifice a ram (or, failing that, a billy goat). This is no mean feat, as most Gambians have difficulty affording a ram (around $100) or goat ($30) to slaughter. My family had a goat so, after praying at the mosque and watching the imam kill his ram, we headed back to our compound.

I didn't kill the goat (my bloodlust remains satiated by my offing of a chicken during training), but I did help skin it and cut up the meat. Compared to the chemicals and preservatives in our stateside fare, we were eating meat within two hours of the goat's death. My host dad and brother did a good job cleaning the animal, although I could have done without the testicles and intestines. Not much is wasted in The Gambia.

Aside from the financial hardship most endure to put on a good Tobaski, the other discomfiting aspect of the holiday is the shits alluded to in my title. Given the abject lack of protein in the daily diet here (I am excited by the prospect of eating egg sandwiches when I travel outside Njau), the sudden abundance of meat can be a shock to the system (and proved to be just that in my case). People still seem to wholly enjoy the holiday even if it is debilitating to their finances and digestive tracts (and their kids'). For all these misgivings, though, it is nice to see people having such fun -- eating heartily and dressing sharply in their new threads.

11 April 2006

PCVs in The Gambia!

From late February, 2006. Here is Saikouba Demba, Fatou Jallow, and yours truly (Malick Ceesay), in Farafenni, Saikou's town. I don't know what's on Saikou's mind, but the mustache (not sported since 1999)was grown out in anticipation of an abortive birthday celebration for our friend Keba. Perhaps next year...

A Sojourn in Dakar

Of note in Dakar, where I took a brief holiday from April 2-7. I stayed with relatives of my host family in Njau, and was unemcumbered by greeting and other obligations I face in village or down around Banjul. It was a few days to myself, where the anonymity of a big city with lots of expats meant I could choose my spots and practice my Wolof (my French is now non-existent, but everyone in Senegal speaks Wolof) when the mood struck.

On April 3, I made the rounds with a Togolese man named Ali Francis, a friend of my host Cheikh. Ali is something of a small business man and, although he speaks little English and Wolof and I no French, it was interesting running errands with him. We visited a couple of banks, a church's basement kitchen (where one of his clients was cooking lunch), and several clothing stores where Ali picked up a few knock-off t-shirts. One of these stores had a little DVD player showing old Michael Bolton music videos. Dakar's different from The Gambia.

In the afternoon I just roamed around town. The next day happened to be Senegal's Independence Day, so I was treated to large crowds feting this anniversary and, yes, the impending arrival of Muammar Khaddafi. In addition to the obligatory posters of Senegal's (non-despotic, mind you) president, Abdoulie Wade, there were just as many of Khaddafi. Oil money will do that for you.

The next day while relaxing around my host's compound (interrupted by a couple of walks on the beach some 300 metres away), we saw the Independence pageantry on the TV. Khaddafi has just started growing a mustache and goatee. Due to the greying of his facial hair (in contrast to his locks, which remain a suspiciously glossy black), the salt and pepper effect merely made him look dirty. I also saw Charles Taylor on the news, and surmised that he has now arrived in Sierra Leone. So, although Khaddafi enjoyed the adulation of the Senegalese (I cannot imagine him getting such a reception in Libya), it may have been a bittersweet moment as one of his proteges is now in the dock.

Visiting Dakar, with all its amenities, is a bit incongruous, what with near-constant electricity, running water, and many other consumerist goodies. This was best typified by my uncle Al-Haji Laying, who was also visiting from Njau, and is just a few years from Old Pa status. This is a man whose energy use consists of having someone use cooking charcoal to brew some ataaya for him, yet one morning I came out of the bedroom to discover him on the computer using his best Fana Fana greetings (How are the home people? Hope nothing's wrong? How is the work?) while speaking to relatives in America over Skype, a program that up till then I had only read about in The Economist.