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.