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.