30 December 2007

A Comedy of Errors

Adventures in Job-seeking

My search for fairly humble employment in Scotland took six weeks, but not before a few misadventures.

The principal mishap was when I went for a group "supply" (i.e. substitute) pupil support worker interview in West Lothian, to the west of Edinburgh. Given that my knowledge of the regional geography is terrible, I probably should have taken more care than simply relying on online mapping and trip planning websites.

It seemed simple enough. My bus dropped me off at the predetermined point, and I was armed with a printed map showing that I was less than a kilometre from the interview location. Alas, the roads had no pavements/sidewalks, so I was forced to take to pedestrian paths that took me behind rows of identical houses. Since it was only 7:30AM it was still quite dark. Lacking my familiar directional indicators - mosques and the sun - I wandered into a vast expanse of shopping centres and parking lots asking locals for Owen Square, which they had never heard of.

Eventually I called the interview hosts and discovered that I had somehow come quite close to the building. I beat a direct path to it, and only turned up about 15 minutes late, although covered in mud after abandoning the walking paths. An upside to my tardiness was that I got to stay on a few minutes after the group interview concluded, which afforded me the opportunity to ask naive questions about the education system and terms of employment in front of a smaller audience.

The following week I had interviews closer to home, and did the necessary research and staking out to prevent a late arrival. That morning as I moved to button my suit trousers, I discovered that the dry cleaner had melted off the button. Luckily I had another ill-fitting tailored suit (the jacket is snug, the trousers more of a zoot suit style) from Ghana to wear, so I managed. It turns out that some buttons are not meant for dry-cleaning, although the dry cleaner did agree to replace the button. I will have to warn Inusa about the buttons...

My other difficulty with interviews here is that they often turn into talks about my life in The Gambia. It is not always easy for me to frame these experiences in a manner that highlights my credentials, and employers then don't grasp how my work in Peace Corps will help me at a school in Edinburgh. Of course, people here have no idea what Peace Corps is; in the U.S., at least there is some familiarity with the program. I am doing better at this, though, and at one primary school I managed to link my achievements and challenges in The Gambia to the work I will do for them next year.

A hike in Carlops area

In the beginning of December I went on a hike through an online group posting. It was in nearby West Lothian, about an hour on the bus. The hike was nice but very windy. I had thought that walking around would keep me warm, and my thin jacket with a broken zipper was not up to the task. I am wearing the red backpack.



Still, it was fun to get out in the countryside and admire the wind-towers in the distance, and VERY healthy looking farm animals. I will have to photograph the sheep sometime and send them to my friends in Njau.



The ride back was a bit of a challenge as we misread the bus schedule once (waiting half an hour for a bus that doesn't come on Saturdays), then missed the subsequent bus as the timetable was off by 10 minutes. Fortunately we got lifts from some hikers who drove.



I got a little lackadaisical over the next few weeks so didn't make it to any further group events. Plus I was trying to save money as I didn't yet have work, and a follow-up hike was postponed. Then there was some dispute between members that I was not party to, featuring much flaming and the eventual departure of the group head (who I never met). So in January I will relaunch my social endeavours!

16 December 2007

The death knell of my blog?

With the end of my West African sojourn, will my blog reach an inevitable end? This may seem a strange question to (my few) readers, given the fitfull and infrequent updates on the blog. The question gains saliency, though, as the online journals of several of my RPCV friends seem to have passed on. The include blogs I've linked to - Sekouba, Hadji, Maimouna - as well as a couple more I've happened upon, namely Haddy Whan's and Yusupha Touray's (the latter is probably too busy eating). With her extension of service, Mariama Touray's blog has a new lease on life. Hopefully my blog will avoid this post-Peace Corps fate, although readers may lost interest as the events of note lose some of their exoticism.

Now I am in Edinburgh, Scotland, staying with good friends from Ghana. I am still adjusting to the digs (my Gambian home is palatial by comparison), and trying to get active (I have been waylaid by the combined forces of rich food, cold weather, and constant Internet access). The city is beautiful and I'll try to explore in the next few weeks while I'm not yet gainfully employed.

Around London, I spent 10 days catching up with friends from Ghana, Gambia and the U.S., basing myself with my South African relatives. Given that I've been staying with Sena and family, I haven't yet gotten to know many Englishmen or Scots. I'm anticipating improvement once I have a workplace, and may also check out some MeetUp or MeetInDC-like groups. I'll report more on my first foray into that world shortly.

15 December 2007

West African Museum Review

From Senegal to Ghana, I managed to see quite a few museums, although I did miss the national museums of Sierra Leone and Cote d'Ivoire. Here are my thoughts on them, in order of visit.



Jon and I visited the IFAN Museum in Dakar, which had raised its tariff to 3000 CFA from 500 CFA from when I last visited in April 2006. It basically has a bunch of simulated village settings of Senegalese and other West Africa ethnic groups (especially Guinea Bissau). Not a whole lot to see.

A nice bonus, though, was an extra wing which had an exhibition of an artist named Eduardo Nery. I've interspersed a few of the blends of masks and faces, which Jon photographed.



In Labe in the Fouta Djalon, we attempted to visit the Musee de Fouta. First we walked to its old location. When we arrived some hours later at the correct address, we discovered it was closed. Oh well.

In Conakry we visited the dusty old National Museum, which was just one large room in this case. Here they had models of the different compound styles in Haute Guinea, Basse Guinea, and the Fouta. Someone made a half-hearted attempt to sell us some clothes and paintings, then we were off to fight for seats in a share-taxi out of town.

After Jon returned to Dakar, I made my way to Sierra Leone. Here I visited the National Railway Museum; the trains stopped running in 1971. Someone from the UK helped the Museum secure funds to repaint and refurbish the old trains -- most of the metal was pilfered by desperate refugees trying to trade parts for something to live on. The trains are fairly well restored, although they don't enjoy a lot of visitors. I also passed by the ruins of the Old Fourah Bay College's main building. The stairs leading up to nowhere hosts vendors, barbers and a drinking spot, and there's a few more sellers in the courtyard. Fourah Bay was one of the premier West Africa universities; a few of my old Gambian friends were here before the war forced them to transfer to the University of Ghana. I missed the National Museum in S.L.



In Liberia I did make it to their very humble National Museum. I think most things of value were looted. There are a few old paintings and trinkets. Otherwise, there is a wall of computer printed pictures of Liberia's presidents. It really is in deplorable shape, and doesn't yet have anything on recent developments (aside from presidential photos of Charles Taylor and Ellen).

In Grand Bassam in Cote d'Ivoire, they have fixed up a couple of colonial buildings quite nicely. What I think was the old governor's residence is now home to the Musee National du Costume. They had a bunch of traditional clothing, as well as performance garb, of Ivoirien ethnic groups. The north of the country looks really interesting, which my travel guide suggests too. They also had the miniatures of traditional compounds, and a somewhat disturbing picture of a colonial official manually inspecting a teenage girl's breasts at a market in the early 20th century. One unfortunate development over the years is that a lot of artifacts famous to certain countries or regions are now produced all over, with varying degrees of quality. This includes Ashanti stools, Ivoirien masks, mud cloth, and indigo cloth. As evidence of this, the artisans on hand in the Musee du Costume courtyard included a number of non-Ivoiriens. I got to practice Wolof with a few Senegalese artisans, who come from a country without such a rich woodcarving tradition, although the quality was decent.

In Abidjan I again missed the national museum, but headed to the suburb of Cocody where I visited the aforementioned Musee Municipal d'Art Contemporain, which had an interesting and enthusiastically guided exhibit of student artwork.

In Ghana I visited Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park. The museum and park are in good shape, but most of the historical photos are just of him visiting with various heads of state. Otherwise, most of the shelves hold copies of his various books.

Also in Accra I visited their National Museum. This one was quite nicely put together, with a lot of items, and quite a few explanations too (particularly of kente and adinkra symbols). There also seemed to be a recent effort to engage with youth, so there were a few pictures of this, and much writing on the virtues of preserving culture and national heritage. The Museum also did a good job of discussing the similarities between Ghana and other African countries, and displayed similar artifacts (or ones with similar purposes) together with Ghanaian objects. They also had a nice guest exhibit of photos of Japanese children, taken from 1945 up to the present.

Kumasi has several museums which cover Ghanaian, and particularly Ashanti, history. Of the museums I visited, the Armed Forces one had the most enthusiastic guides, and all of them go over the same potted history of the Ashantis. Sadly, the hat museum was closed for renovations.

Mole National Park and West African wildlife

October 1

In The Gambia, an early morning or evening walk would sometimes afford me the opportunity to see some warthogs or monitor lizards. Most Saturdays, if I left the Panchang lumo (weekly market) by early or mid-afternoon I'd usually see a pack of colobus monkeys crossing the north bank highway on my bike ride home. Once, on trek between Buduk and Chamen, we saw about one hundred baboons climbing up the mini-escarpment from the rice fields near the river bank. Plus there's Bubu, the police station's baboon mascot. And I got to see some hippos and chimps on our trip to River Gambia National Park. Not much large wildlife, though.

In Mole National Park in Ghana, I saw all of the aforementioned (well, no monitor lizards), only some were largely domesticated. The monkeys, baboons and warthogs walked around like any regular domestic West African animal, sorting through the trash generated by the Mole staff quarter's residents, with the warthogs wallowing in random patches of mud and in the gutters. As a result, rubbish was strewn all over the periphery of the staff quarters.



One we headed a little way onto the park grounds we saw, in addition to indifferent baboons and warthogs, three species of relatively skittish antelope. This was nice, as I'd never seen any in Gambia. After some more walking, on two of my three outings we saw, and got very close to, elephants. The first time, it was just the guide DK, Oliver (a tourism office transfer from Kumasi on his first park hike) and myself. We watched the three elephants eat for about twenty minutes, the we left them to it. That afternoon I visited Oliver to chat and watch Nigerian standup on his office PC. Ghanaian civil servants, toiling away!



The second time, I was in one of three groups of ten. This time we met five elephants. DK had us stay a while, so we got to watch them spray themselves with water from a mud patch. One our way back up the hill to the camp, we saw another elephant taking a bath in a waterhole.

Mole was a fun experience, especially as we got within twenty metres of the elephants. I think the park could easily charge more than $1.50 per person on the two hour guided walk, but I did notice that the park guides did not record the number of visitors on each hike, so a fair amount must get chopped. In all, the setup is a bit amateurish, and it's a shame about the rubbish all over the camp.



My other wildlife sighting of note was in Busua, a southwestern village I visited when I first entered Ghana from Cote d'Ivoire. One morning I woke up, strolled up to the beach, and saw a few whales swimming and spouting water just off the coast.

24 November 2007

On The Twins

October 1

Note: Essel is in a blue shirt, Felix in white, when we went to visit Miss Lilian. Not our typical night out to eat.



My hosts in Accra, Essel and Felix, are twins. The traditional Ewe names are Etse and Atsu/Atchu (in Gambia it's Adama and Awa, or Assan and Ousainou if both are boys). Both worked as "anyworks" -- young boys who made a little money by running errands and cleaning for students on campus. Essel worked for the Gambians on upper A (Dollar) Block, then for some of my American friends there, so that's how I got to know him. Felix worked for a friend of mine in another hall, among others.

After Junior Secondary School, Essel went to a Senior Secondary School east of Accra, while Felix went to the national vocational school to study electrical work. Both have now finished school and are looking for regular work.

Essel finished at Old Ningo S.S.S. last year, and has gotten a bit discouraged. Having been convinced that he cannot go far without further education (in IT or his personal favourite, business), he has not been proactive in seeking work opportunities. In a country with limited job prospects this leaves him with no chance of getting anywhere. So we are working on strategies that could help him make headway in this environment.

Felix has more prospects thanks to his electrician qualifications, but so far he has only had short-term odd jobs through word of mouth. With construction booming, there should be ample opportunities for Felix to get consistent work.

The twins are not lacking in work ethic. As "anyworks" they put themselves through J.S.S./middle school, when their father and uncles were unable and/or unwilling to help with their fees. They remain in the family compound, which has fallen into neglect. Some of the better-off uncles have moved out, leaving tenants in their place. Although by and large wonderful people (they are taking great care of me), the tenants cannot be expected to help out the twins and attend to the compound the way an owner might. Their father and the remaining uncle spend on alcohol what little money they earn. The few times I've run into the twins' father, he has stunk of booze. On the one occasion he didn't, he was on his way to the bar and was visibly shaking. Essel and Felix are not on speaking terms with their father.

Essel and Felix never knew their mother. But a few months ago she came to visit them in Kisseman. She had remarried and lives with her Malian husband in Bamako. Essel and Felix now have a brother (12 years old) and sister (6) in Bamako, and two more sisters in their early 20s living in Lome, Togo. It was a happy reunion, and their mother and step-father now call from time to time.

Essel is the more serious of the two, and more reserved. He is conservative in his spending and manner. Although I was pleased with this discipline, I think his modesty and reticence stifles his search for employment.

Felix, by contrast, is a fun-loving individual. He is happy to spend on a spot of drink, although he is not as nihilistic as his father. While Essel would prefer we just have some water with dinner, Felix encourages us to get some minerals or beer. But on our big night out, to my former study abroad director Doc's wife's restaurant in East Legon, Felix just went for banku with pepper soup. Our visit to Essel's congregation two Sundays ago was the first service Felix or I had attended in quite some time. But it was good to stop in as the pastor is a friend and mentor of Essel's.

We have been working on resumes/CVs and approach/cover letters so that Essel and Felix can leave a more lasting impression than saying "I need a job" and leaving only a phone number. They seemed quite pleased with the results, which should give them a little more confidence on the job search. We shall see what has come of it once I return from a week in the north.

We have been looking at some IT (well, typing and MS Office) courses for Essel. The understanding is that Essel will find work to occupy him along with the coursework. Even if the work is very low-paying or voluntary, it will get him out of the house and meeting people, and give him more work experience. Essel's aspiration is to attend the national polytechnical school in Koforidua to study business, perhaps next year. But that qualification won't provide him a livelihood without initiative and motivation. Hopefully this year will be a more productive one.

A few things Essel has said shed light on his outlook, which I am trying to change. Once, Essel mused about how much more money he might have if he'd been an "anywork" in America. I told him there was no point in wondering, as it wasn't so, plus his laundry skills (far superior to my own) would be of little use in America, anyway. His wistful attitude tends to substitute for going out and finding better options.



Another night, we visited a former teacher of Essel's who I once had a parent-teacher conference with many years ago. Her husband seemed to think we had come to beg or steal; we had to wait outside the big gate until Miss Lilian welcomed us in (any compound that has to have a gate opened by someone is a nice place). Anyway, during our conversation Miss Lilian related the tale of her stay in the UK. Her husband worked as a petrol station attendant while he pursued his master's degree and Lilian (a qualified teacher) worked as a cleaner to help with the bills. Miss Lilian, and I, clearly hoped the moral of this story for Essel and Felix would be that you cannot be too proud to take any work that is available, and to do whatever you can to better your situation. Shit, I probably would have settled for Essel wondering how Lilian's husband could forget his humble, but admirable, work and look askance at two random young men and their obruni friend. Instead, Essel remarked after we left, "Imagine what you could do with a little money earned overseas!" I retorted with what I deemed worth gleaning from Miss Lilian's experience, and again thought about how difficult it is to change people's attitudes.

ADDENDUM: It should be noted that Lilian's husband Francis was a great host when we came on an announced visit to their home. Also, my purpose in this article is to give a little idea of the situation in Ghana, and my hopes for a great friend of mine.

Vandalism



The 50th anniversary of Ghana's independence is also Commonwealth Hall's 50th year. The Vandal City, as Commonwealth is dubbed, is renowned for the spirit and enthusiasm of its residents. I experienced this during my year at the University of Ghana. My hallmates (V-Mates) had initiations for freshmen (and foreign students), pre-dawn route marches around campus, weekly debates on the hall steps, and an annual hall week replete with school boy, traditional wear and crossdressing days.



For all the shenanigans, the Vandals are by and large excellent students. The hall is held in such regard that their Jubilee Durbar was attended by John Kufuor, the president of Ghana, among other luminaries.

While visiting an old friend (and Old Vandal) in Winneba, we came across a television programme on the history of Commonwealth and the ethos of Vandalism. Although not a very incisive look (it was funded by an Old Vandal), the show had some fun reminders, such as that the other residence halls are referred to as "the colonies." When I visited there I was uniformly greeted with shouts of V-Mate! and got to see that the spirit is still strong. The hall is actually in fairly good condition, although the old problems remain (the water wasn't on that day). It was fun to get back and reminisce about the days there, the closest I got to fraternity living.

Sankofa! Extreme Makeover of Accra

28 September 2007

It has been great to be back in Ghana, although a little strange after such a long absence (since July 1999). There have been a lot of changes that have made parts of Accra unrecognizable, and the population has ballooned too. My friend Essel's home, Kisseman, used to be a dusty village between Achimota and the university in Legon, but when I arrived it was an unfamiliar jumble of storey buildings, makeshift compounds and street-stalls, with the paths through compounds or gutter-ways the only way to get around.



Downtown Accra is even more crowded and congested than before, with many new roadways and overpasses trying to keep up with the city's growth. These photos are from the old lighthouse in Jamestown, in downtown Accra.

One problem of such quick, unplanned growth is an unreliable water supply. Most of the compounds (households) lack running water; even the trusted public toilet ($0.05 a go, $0.06 if you don't have paper) is not a self-flushing facility. So Essel and his family, and their tenants, have to fetch water from one of the compounds that can afford a tap. In Kisseman a 20 Liter bidong/jerry can costs five pesewas, or $0.05, to fill. In other areas where piped water is an even greater problem (such as parts of Madina), 20L is as much as $0.20.



Essel asked me if I had seen Extreme Makeover, which is shown on TV here, and if deserving people really could enter and win the chance to have their home revamped. The show and the money and energy people put into their home decorating and improvement is a little, well, extreme to me -- consider that Essel's compound with some 25 people does not have a single toilet. That I find these home aesthetics programs a bit bizarre when just thought of abstractly may not bode well for my upcoming return to this milieu. To me, more practical concerns, such as a compound of two dozen people lacking even a long-drop toilet (and with one bathing area for the residents to share) are of greater concern than the extra touches that make a house nicer.

The State of Cote d'Ivoire

With yet more photos from the largest church in the world...



Since 2002, Cote d'Ivoire has been divided between northern rebels (uprising against discrimination and marginalization) and a national government led by Laurent Gbagbo (who won a 2002 election over a general who overthrew Houphouet-Boigny's successor Henri Konan Bedie, but which excluded a key northern politician), with a "Zone of Confidence" monitored by French and U.N. troops. Although there have been several attempts to reach peace accords, conditions haven't improved markedly over the last several years, with the north falling even further behind the south in terms of economic development, education, and so on.

I travelled through the government-held portion of Cote d'Ivoire, so I cannot comment on the situation in the north, aside from hearing that there is no more running water, sporadic electricity, and little infrastructural development.

As for the south, government services do seem to be working. In all of the towns I stayed in (including the smallish Tolepleu) there was constant electricity, and there was work on installing a lot of streetlights on the road from Tolepleu to Yamousoukro (perhaps a branching out of the 20,000 or so H-B installed in that ghost town).

There were lots of military checkpoints, but only occasionally was I asked for money (with their only take, $2, coming on the border where I was magnanimous since I didn't have to pay for a visa). Given the security situation, these checkpoints and stops (all near the Zone of Confidence) made some sense, as opposed to those in Liberia (becoming more stable, with the only checkpoints serving as shakedown points) and Gambia (perfectly peaceful, just corrupt). A disturbing aspect of these checks, though, was the fact that people who seemed to be of northern origin (i.e. were clearly Muslims) were most likely to be told to come down from the vehicles and have their luggage searched. Coming from the sahel, it was sad to see some elderly men who should be treated with respect shown such little regard.



Francis, my host in Yamousoukro, used to work in Bouake, the largest northern city -- that's where his Eglise du Christ school was based before the war. Francis said that he sympathises with the northerners, as they were long discriminated against and neglected economically (most African colonial development took place on the coast, exacerbating regional and cultural divisions). With the war, they are even more cut off.

13 November 2007

Cote d'Ivoire (more than just churches)

The last time I visited Cote d'Ivoire it was for a long weekend from Ghana in late 1998. The trip was done with my Council exchange group chaperoned by the inimitable Doc.

Then, Abidjan seemed from another planet - a cosmopolitan metropolis of skyscrapers, large streets and grand hotels, quite a contrast with the squat organic chaos of Accra. It was full of patisseries and nice restaurants, an impressive cathedral, immaculately dressed Ivoiriens (please bear in mind that all West Africans do their best to keep up appearances), and the Hotel Ivoire, a monstrous complex that seemed not of this time and region.

As for this visit, I took a decidedly less-travelled route than the coastal highway (see my Liberian travels for more). I spent the night in Tolepleu, then headed for Yamoussoukro. This day's travel was probably the worst of my trip. The fatigue from the Monrovia-Tolepleu journey caught up with me, leaving me ill-humoured and mentally not at my best. Ivoirien transport practices confused me, as a couple of times I was dropped and put in a new vehicle to complete the leg -- the first time I thought I'd already reached Guiglo and was being led to a vehicle for my next destination. My confusion over the route also had me get off a van heading for a town I would pass through anyway -- only several hours later now.

In my final vehicle, one of my fellow passengers, Francis, offered to put me up for the night. He did mention that it was a religious school, and asked me if I was a Christian but, approaching midnight and an unfamiliar city, you can't be picky about free accommodation.

The next day I followed one of my usual city itineraries, walking close to 10kms and getting the lay of the land. Constructed on the whim of first President Felix Houphouet-Boigny (who grew up nearby), it features large, mainly empty highways in all directions, an impressive hotel, a large presidential compound (the perimeter wall is 5kms long), and a massive campus of technical institute south of town. All this is in the middle of what was essentially bush thirty years ago.



The most amazing structure, though, is the Basilique de Notre Dame de la Paix. This church is the largest in the world, a fact none-too-subtly pointed out in diagrams showing Notre Dame in Paris and St. Peter's in the Vatican fitting inside it. An elevator we rode to a pavilion 34 metres up (about 10 storeys) is only 2/3 of the way to the top. Stained glass windows feature the apostles and biblical scenes, including Houphouet-Boigny in the Jerusalem crowd on Palm Sunday. The basilica is truly magnificent, although the main thoughts it stoked in me were wonder at how H-B (whose name always reminds me of Humphrey Bogart) could get away with this, and the better causes the $300 million could have gone towards.



The remainder of my stay with Francis and the Church of Christ was pleasant. My inadequate French kept me from being invited to join the religious seminars (among the boarders were students from Mali and even Cameroun), but I too was expected to turn in around 8PM to study (in my case, West African novels). Still my hosts took very good care of me, and Francis's English was sufficiently superior to my French to allow for some passable conversations.



From Yamoussoukro I headed via Abidjan to Grand Bassam, an old colonial capital. It was similarly run down like Janjanbureh (in Gambia) and Bonthe, but some of the former administrative buildings have been nicely restored. Tourist hangers-on and vendors were a bit annoying, but there was a nice costume museum (in one old photograph a French colonial officer can be seen in the background inspecting a local girl's breasts) with Wolof woodcarvers hawking masks (which Cote d'Ivoire is known for). The tranquility was interrupted one day, when a couple of busloads of Ivoiriens arrived for a "spectacle" of live music and an overlong dance contest. The whole thing reminded me of a warped facsimile of Spring Breaks as portrayed on American tv. Once the outcome was resolved (the proceedings took place in front of my room's window), I went for a walk along the beach. Unfortunately, Grand Bassam's status as a holiday spot near Abidjan meant the beach was full of trash (flotsam dumped in the water and returned by the tide), plus the site of the always embarrassing meeting with someone taking advantage of the ocean's natural flushing action...

In my return to Abidjan I lodged at a rather decent hotel in Treichville. Across the lagoon from the ritzier Plateau, it's regarded as unsafe by Lonely Planet, particularly at night. I was pleasantly surprised to find Treichville perfectly safe, albeit a bit rundown. It's an overgrown residential area teeming with migrants, and there's lot of activity at night (street food, drinking spots, etc.) so it was nice.

The next couple of days were spent riding bateau-buses across the lagoon, taking in the architecture, and bargaining for Cote d'Ivoire jerseys and Coupe de Calle CDs. I visited St. Paul's cathedral (impressive but a better fit for the surrounding's Ya'kro's church) and the Musee Municipal d'Art Contemporain, where some art school students had an exhibition hopefully titled "Reconciliation." The themes were a bit derivative (showing dances and ethnic group scenes you may meet at a tourist stall) but some of the paintings, using bark as canvas and incorporating found objects, were quite good. Benjamin gave a talkative tour which was mostly lost on me, but the unifying theme helped me follow most paintings. I had two of my trip's most delicious meals in Abidjan -- a rice and sauce dish from a vendor inside the cathedral grounds (where I somehow managed to prompt a discussion of the merits of waist beads), and a Paysanne pizza (with mushrooms and onions).

05 November 2007

Buchanan

My only upcountry trip (excepting the journey to Cote d'Ivoire) was to Buchanan, Liberia's second city. This was in early September.

We had a slow but fun ride, with two tire changes, a tire purchase, and plenty of teasing of our driver about the tires and other vehicular defects - non-functioning windscreen wipers, unopenable windows, a long-suffering muffler (the prevailing theory became that Toga the driver was hitting potholes on purpose to check if it was still there), and the rear window hanging on for dear life. The good humour of Liberian passengers was something I enjoyed a lot.

On the way, we passed through a Firestone concession area - a rubber plantation. Firestone has been in Liberia for ages, further cementing America's long-standing ties here. It was interesting to me that the concession area is like a country unto itself, complete with police checkpoints at entries and exits.

Buchanan is a low-key place with a nice little grid of streets at the centre, which may have been bestowed on it when another large extractive industry multinational arrived in Liberia. Lamco brought iron ore down by train to be picked up at the port. The massive plant outside town, now owned by Mittal but still closed, current houses a Bangladeshi peacekeeping unit. After a tour of the grounds I headed for an empty beach, where I read, swam, and woefully overestimated the sun-blocking powers of my umbrella. This is where some of the hope of Liberia lies, with extractive industries that also include diamonds and timber, but we've seen how that's turned out in some places.

For all the difficulties Liberians face, they are a friendly, welcoming people. There is a lot of interest in and cultural connections to the U.S. Given the large role America played in Liberia's founding and their strong relations through the Cold War, I hope we will be forthcoming with assistance. At the same time, Liberian governance and civic attitudes need improvement. The president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (universally referred to as Ellen) is highly regarded, but is often let down by others in her administration. In one recent example, Ellen was obliged to withdraw her nominee for maritime commissioner after it came to light that he was facing fraud charges and disbarment in the U.S. Apparently her staff knew about the charges but said nothing. As for civic-mindedness, Monrovia is awash in garbage. Sometimes it is piled together (at a street corner or road median), otherwise it is thrown all over the place. It is never taken away, aside from by a few people foraging for a useful object or two. Cleaning it up would be a good activity for some of the droves of idle and unemployed. They seem unlikely to attempt any hauling/sorting/burning without pay, and neighbourhoods and businesses don't pool resources to address the filth in their sections of town.

Another interesting thing I noticed was the apparent presence of Pakistanis on both ends of the Liberian spectrum. You may recall my post on migrants riding the ore train en route to Europe from South Asia. Well, around West Africa one occasionally sees Mauritanian migrants begging for assistance. I asked a taxi driver about one boy at Red Light motor park, and the driver said he was Pakistani. So there are Pakistani peacekeepers helping Liberians rebuild their country, and perhaps others that got stranded on their way to greener pastures.

Would I recommend visiting Liberia? Although there is a dearth of sights (and infrastructure), I think it is worth a look. Liberians are very friendly, and I experienced very little hassle while getting around (the police near the border focused their extortion efforts on non-Liberian ECOWAS citizens). They have a great sense of humour, which I may be highlighting as I surely missed a lot of commentary in Francophone countries. There are nice beaches, and away from expat-heavy Monrovia they are likely to be empty. The countryside is beautiful and still heavily forested, although a lot of this is rubber plantation.

So, worth visiting, but probably as part of a larger trip. It seems fairly accessible from Guinea, and from Cote d'Ivoire's north, if/when peace and stability return to the latter. The north of C.I. sounds really interesting too. The Monrovia-Ganta-Toe Town-Tolepleu rote I took was passable, but not for the faint of heart (it should be a little better in the dry season).

10 October 2007

Liberia - recent developments and football

I enjoyed a 10 day visit to Liberia in early September. I stayed with the parents of a friend I played football with in DC, in our Saturday soccer on the Mall days. The parents served in northeast Liberia with Peace Corps in the 1970s, and have been working in Monrovia for the last few years.



As you may recall, Liberia suffered through a series of wars from 1989 until 2003, when rebel leader/president Charles Taylor was forced to step down, leading to a large UN mission, 2005 elections and increasing stability.

Today, there are relatively few clear signs of the conflicts, namely bullet-holes on unrepaired building facades and pockmarked streetlights. Some of the ruins date to earlier tumultuous times, such as a minister's house that was destroyed after Samuel Doe's coup d'etat and purge in 1980.




A lot of buildings and infrastructure have simply succumbed to two decades of neglect. These include the national Masonic Temple (I think all of the Americo-Liberian presidents were masons), the large Ducor Hotel (where hundreds of people from upcountry sought refuge) and one of the two bridges to the Monrovia peninsula, which finally collapsed a few months ago.



A less visible, but obvious, effect has been on education. Many students had their studies interrupted for up to 15 years, and now are competing with their younger compatriots for high school and university places. George, who works at my hosts' home and recently completed high school, is applying for admittance to the University of Liberia. He's in his 40s. Such difficulties, compounded by economic collapse during the wars, make one wonder how Liberia will support itself and find work for its young people. Many people are trying to help, though.

Aside from the thousands of UN workers and peacekeepers, there are myriad agencies driving around town. The UN presence has enabled all the displaced people who wanted to return home to do so, and they have carried out a lot of minor infrastructure improvements - for instance, the Pakistani contingent erected a temporary bridge on the road from the border to Monrovia a few days before I got there (this is a different bridge from the aforementioned Monrovia bridge).

The swell of international aid workers has created a two-tiered economy. In a country where the vast majority of people are unemployed, Monrovia has no shortage of nice restaurants, expensive hotels, and supermarkets full of fine imported goods. At least this provides some Liberians employment, although I expect the profits go to owners with the capital to cater to this high-end demand.

Other large fields of work are in counseling, vocational training and education. Working with youths and others to find positive outlets and develop skills is a big challenge, as is helping existing educational institutions maintain standards while confronting staffing problems, demand for enrollment, and the temptation to increase fees and enrollment to stay afloat. This is leading to a commoditization and devaluation of degrees.

One of the nice examples of the rehabilitation efforts is an amputee footballers' league. Unlike the apparently more seasoned Sierra Leone league, which is mostly made up of victims of the RUF's 1997 post-election tactics, most of the Liberian players are former combatants.



Given the small pitches they play on, sides have six field players and a goalkeeper. The field players are amputees with part or all of a leg missing (touching the ball with a crutch is a handball), while goalies are missing an arm. Keepers could have an amputated leg instead, but that's widely regarded as inferior to having two legs to jump off. Still, it had me pondering the wide wingspan the crutches offer, although a powerful shot could probably not be deflected (and they are strong kickers).

The matches for the round robin tournament were held around the Monrovia area, and I was able to see the Conquerous play LASA (the flagship team - Liberia Amputee Soccer Association). It was the last day of the tournament, and the Conquerous had already beaten LASA (the perenial champions) on overall points, but it was a spirited match all the same. The small pitch, abutted and encroached upon by houses and construction (with a convenient nook behind one goal line where players and spectators could take a piss), was crowded by a couple of hundred enthusiastic residents. The match was very entertaining, although there were a lot of missed through-balls, with the Conquerous willing 2-1 to crown their overall victory. The spectators were very supportive of the players, the celebrations of the hefty, high-heeled Conquerous president (she's a counselor for former combatants) were infectious, and the players showed great effort and skill.



One of the fields in the area, near the Red Light motor park, is called Gobachop Field. Apparently people liked the sound of the name Gorbachev and corrupted it to Gobachop. Chop is a universal West African pidgin English word, meaning eat, or to steal/embezzle. A popular Nigerian song and music video is "I Go Chop Your Dollar."

My friend Francis used it interestingly the other day, noting that another friend of ours was "chopping that girl..." when we were last together in Ghana.

07 October 2007

"In Jesus's Name, We Shall Make It!"

15 September (relating events of 12-13 September 2007)

I composed an article on my ride from Sierra Leone to Liberia, dubbing it the most difficult so far. But it paled in comparison to the journey from Monrovia to Toulepleu, a small town on the Ivoirien side of the border. The only reason the route is used is that a better one further north has been abandoned since the civil war and division of Cote d'Ivoire.

The bulk of the journey took place between Monrovia and Toe Town (pronounced "Toes Town" by Liberians). The first nine hours were fairly uneventful as the road to Ganta is sealed (i.e. paved), though bumpy in stretches.

After stopping for dinner, we began the unsealed portion of our trip. After a couple of hours we reached a checkpoint where our apprentice/aparanti caused offense. The policemen loudly took exception to being bribed (I fear our apprentice was a bit curt). After an hour or so waiting at the roadside, we were allowed to continue once the driver and apprentice (essentially a conductor) paid an acceptable fine (no doubt larger than the proferred loan). The passengers gave the apprentice a lot of grief for not being more careful with his words.

On the plus side, our cramped minibus (they installed a wooden plank to create an extra row between the front seats and the first row of passenger seats behind) had the best sound system of my whole COS trip, and a decent selection of music to boot. In addition to some nice Ivoirien and Liberian music, the obligatory reggae and some gospel music, there was some 90s dance music, including Jennifer Lopez's first album and the guys that sing "What is love/Baby don't hurt me" and "Where do you go?" And one male passenger knew the words to every song played.

At 3AM we pulled into Tapeta and snoozed until dawn. We set off along the increasingly muddy path and stopped to chat with a driver coming the opposite way, to learn about the route ahead. From his perch in a sturdy SUV, the driver surveyed our battered red minibus and said, "You have no chance of getting there." At this point a woman in the row behind me announced, "In Jesus's name, we shall make it!"

Soon enough we came to our first impasse. At the bottom of the hill, a taxi was bogged down. To its right, a 4x4 was a few feet under, having stupidly tried its luck on an uncharted section of mud. Up the hill a bit, a large truck was also stuck.



In another section, they had succeeded in fashioning two lanes, so that other vehicles could head downhill while we tried to get a goods truck over the hill. This worked until another big truck decided to chance the bypass lane downhill. Instead of careening straight through, the driver went too slowly and when the lorry hit the bump, it smashed its headlights and the truck's nose just sank a meter into the mire.

While this was not the first unsealed road I encountered on my holiday, it was rather worse than others. In Guinea and Sierra Leone, the roads tended to be at least somewhat graded, so most of the rainwater could run off them. Sure there were plenty of furrough and grooves making the ride bumpy and some large puddles (deep enough to wet our feet on the SL-Liberia road), but we made reasonable progress.



The Ganta to Zweru (where our vehicle was continuing after I alighted) road, by contrast, had no such grading. As a result, most of the water was absorbed by the road, turning parts into mud patches.

We removed our shoes, dismounted, and began digging out the vehicles in front of us. Our driver took the lead in this, and the men joined in, and the woman who proclaimed that we'd succeed also helped dig. After the digging, we'd push the vehicles as the drivers attempted to get moving again. This was sometimes an iffy proposition as we occasionally had to jump out of the way of fishtailing cars we were pushing from the sides, and the drivers often reversed unannounced. Proceeding in this manner we got vehicles moving.



The experience fostered a lot of solidarity, and my presence no doubt encouraged a few waverers to pitch in. On the other hand, no such cameraderie was extended to those drivers and passengers who did not help dig. People in SUVs and pick-ups were particularly guilty of this, perhaps reckoning that if the path was cleared for a car ahead of them, they'd probably make it through too. But it was a taxi that ended up getting the most scolding. Having been mired in the mud in front of us a few times, the consensus was that they did not show sufficient gratitude to us, leading to one of our older passengers exclaiming to one young man, "I can beat my son!"

One might expect that a 4WD would be best in such conditions, although that ignores the question of the occupants. The vehicles were more adept, yes, but the drivers and passengers tend not to be so hardy. Indeed, our humble van's passengers were very active, and more numerous - there were routinely 15 of us at work. Of course, no number of passengers could talk sense to our driver who, although a very active digger, could not be dissuaded from speeding through the lanes we righted. It was only the high walls of mud that kept our vehicle from falling on its side during such dashes.

At Toe Town I alighted and got on a motorbike to get to Toulepleu, Cote d'Ivoire. This road was virtually impassable for larger vehicles, with one SUV and passengers on their third day on the 40 km road. We only made it thanks to a strapping man who hauled our bike through the muddiest section. I rewarded him with some biscuits with strawberry cream filling.

You say cucumber...

September 6

While travelling in Sierra Leone and Liberia, I've been impressed by the amount of cucumbers for sale. More impressive still has been the fact that Sierra Leoneans actually eat them.

This past year, when we did a pretty decent job in the Njau school garden, my headmaster elected to sow a half dozen beds with cucumber seeds. Master's reasoning was that the "kacoombas" (as it is pronounced in The Gambia) could be sold to Donald the French proprietor of the nearby hunting camp that has a very brief, sparse but profitable stint every dry season. Conveniently, we could send Gui Jahanka kids to peddle our kacoombas and other veggies, as the camp's not far from their village.

Unfortunately, Donald often pleaded poverty or lack of guests, so sometimes the cucumbers just spoiled. They could not be foisted on me, as I don't like them, which proved problematic for Master's next gambit.

With a bucket-full of cucumbers and one purchase in Njau, it was time to give them away. We'd had a PTA Committee meeting with a respectable turnout, so Master decided to act. At the conclusion of the meeting, he doled out the kacoombas to the bewildered old pas and the couple of matriarchs in attendance. It was left to me to explain the virtues, and eating/preparation, of cucumbers to the dubious audience. Pa Musa Jeng then asked me if I liked them, and I had to be truthful. No one reported back as to whether the kacoombas were enjoyed and cassava was transplanted into the beds as the hot season was upon us.

There was a thriving trade in cucumbers in Salone, by contrast. Whenever our poda-poda or sept-place stopped at a junction or village, we were besieged by girls and boys hawking water, roast/boiled corn, bread, groundnuts, and cucumbers. Just inside the border from Guinea, though, the kids were shouting "Come-cuber!" as they sold them. Indeed, they were very popular and invariably a few passengers were eating come-cubers or saving them for their families' travelling gifts.

Bonthe

September 1

Bonthe, the capital of Bonthe district, is on Sherbro Island, just off the southern coast of Sierra Leone. After riding three hours to Mattru Jong, you catch (if your vehicle's not late) the daily boat to Bonthe - a 30 km journey of 4-5 hours.



In its prime Bonthe, a prominent colonial outpost along with Freetown, must have been quite impressive. Today the town has perhaps ten deserted old churches, dozens of pretty if dilipidated 'storey-buildings', an abandoned airfield (complete with stripped plane), streets and lanes with names, a local radio station (there are lots of these in Salone), and a ten square foot area that sometimes gets mobile phone coverage. It is kind of like Janjanbureh, Gambia's old colonial island, except it's more remote and seems to have fallen from a higher perch.



Still, it was a nice place to spend a couple of days walking around, visiting palm and/or bamboo wine ghettoes/spots, listening to locals chatting about politics and Bonthe's steady decline, and learning a tiny bit of Mende (hello/how are you?/thank God). There aren't many tourists (besides me there were two EU election observers and a British student journalist) so there are few hangers-on like in Gambia, just some kids saying Pumwai (white person/foreigner).



Aside from a few skirmishes in Bo and another town, the elections were pretty calm, with the main opposition party (APC) beating the Sierra Leone People's Party in the second round on September 8.

03 October 2007

Bush Meat

September 1

At one of the stops on the way to Mattru Jong from Bonthe, a pirogue full of meat pulled up to our boat. As they were loading it on I struggled to identify it until I saw a flipper and surmised that it was a manatee (further confirmation came when the head was added to the wicker basket on deck). This was disconcerting as, although I don't know if this manatee was actively hunted (it may have been injured by a propellor then put down), a lot of endangered animals end up as bushmeat. Some are common and even pests (such as bushpigs and grasscutters), but many other animals are killed indiscriminately.

Meanwhile, Alhagie, a young man sitting at the guesthouse, just mused that he could kill one of the bee-eaters constructing nests in the trees above us, if only he had a slingshot. He offers to catch one for me and I suggest we don't disturb them.

02 October 2007

Black Guys and White Guys

September 1

One thing that remains interesting to me is the blanket description of all foreigners as white men. A recent example of this took place in Bonthe, when some Sierra Leonean drinking buddies told me about their white friends who served there as a UN peacekeeper. Lieutenant Zoa was from Bangladesh.

Of course, it would be a bit churlish to give Africans grief for seeing all foreigners as alike, given that Africa is widely perceived in the U.S. as a monolithic entity.

I was presented with another perspective on this while waiting to get on a boat from Bonthe back to the mainland, and listening to early 90s standards from Whitney Houston, Brian Adams and Elton John, courtesy of Radio Bonthe. Throughout West Africa (and the world, I'm sure) one can pick up pirated compilation CDs/DVDs of movies. Although often random, they are sometimes organized around a theme -- sequels/serires, horror, Schwartzenegger opuses, etc. One of my fellow passengers was carrying one called "Black Guys in Great Movies." Of the eight, I could only recognize (thanks to Newsweek) Blood Diamond (set here, coincidentally) and Apocalypto, whic was set in pre-Columbian Central or South America (I believe) and so probably does not feature black people.

Poda-poda and store slogans

August 26

One thing that was lacking in The Gambia and Senegal was creativity in naming of gelegeles/minibuses and stores. Most were named Alhamdoulilahi, Santa Yalla (Wolof for "Praise Allah") and so forth; stores and vehicles were otherwise named after their owners.

Sectarian diversity and enthusiasm for speaking English/Krio in Sierra Leone, though, make for greater variety in names and slogans attached to poda-podas (as dilapidated minivans are dubbed here) and stores. To wit:

Vehicles
To be a man is not easy
Hizbullah Tours
Daddy U Nar Man
Bum Stars * * * *
No Matter How Long The Night Is, The Morning Must Come
This Business is Built Upon The Blood of Jesus (Liberia)
I am Covered in the Blood of Jesus (Liberia)
Rien n'est tard (Cote d'Ivoire)

Stores
Pimp My Looks (salon)
Your Beauty Lies On Your Head
Some will hate u. Pretend they love u.
Yu fri fo tok te yu taya. (mobile company ad)
Don't Mind Your Wife Chop Bar (Ghana)
Corn Roll (among the services advertised outside salons in Ghana)

A nighttime drive through the forest

July 31, 2007

Our vehicle from Mandar, Senegal to Labe, Guinea left around 5PM, after everyone had had their fill of the lumo (weekly market). So before long it was dark as we muddled along. The forest enveloping the road reminded me of when I first visited my English grandparents, as we drove through the New Forest that night. So this nighttime drive was evocative of that 1988 visit, notwithstanding the washed out road, frequent breakdowns and eventual retirement of our vehicle (we transferred to another station-wagon the next morning).

18 September 2007

Loitering With Intent

August 26

Freetown, Sierra Leone

This morning I walked up Tower Hill on an intended trip to Fourah Bay College. It's a well-known university that, prior to the war, played host to many students from other West African countries. Indeed, my Gambian friends from U. of Ghana only came to Legon after the war started and they were airlifted out by U.S. Marines. So they finished their studies in Ghana. On the way up I saw lots of people and families in their Sunday best on their way to church.

On my stroll I left the road and came upon a memorial to Milton Margai, first prime minister of independent Sierra Leone. While reading his biography, I was accosted by a pair of middle-aged men. It turned out I had wandered onto the grounds of the national parliament. Officer Conteh and Izwe took me to their office, where they announced that I was under arrest for "loitering with intent." I was told that ignorance does not excuse the crime, which was documented in an ad hoc report. I was then offered a brief tour of the grounds with my hosts/captors angling for something in return. They pointed out Fourah Bay College - up another hill and not especially pretty so I decided to give it a miss. We returned to their office and I joined them for breakfast (the universal staple - rice with cassava leaf sauce). Afterwards, having abandoned their requests for soft drinks, they escorted me down the hill and expressed the hope that Peace Corps would soon return to Sierra Leone.

17 September 2007

Quotes from The Gambia and wider travels

Before I enter these, I must wonder how much of West Africa's internet usage is young African men posing as women and exchanging emails and instant messages with white men overseas. Hopefully the fiscal returns justify this...

First, a couple of quotes from a headmaster/principals meeting way back in March, discussing logistics of a prospective Cluster sports day and other issues.

Headmaster #1: "So it's agreed - three schools will contribute a sack of rice, the other eight will sell theirs and contribute the money."

Headmaster #2: "Don't forget to put the rice in another sack or the bitiks [stores] will try to cheat you because they know you shouldn't sell it."

Later, Cluster Monitor: "And, by the grace of God, your school will have a [football] field."

Headmaster of Bati Ndarr Lower Basic School: "God - sometimes he ignores things."

CM: "You! You are a Fula!"


August 1 - On the second day of our journey into Guinea, the driver took advantage of the rain and tossed some Omo powdered soap onto the windscreen. He then turned on the wipers to administer his improvised washer fluid. As I laughed at this display (carried out while driving), one of the passengers exclaimed, "C'est Afrique!", a familiar refrain after our night of breakdowns and washed-away roads.


August 3 - Exchange overheard on our abortive first attempt to reach Mali(ville).

Passenger: "Are we turning around because of the accident?"

Driver: "No, no, this is a different engine problem."

The accident in question took place just a couple of minutes after we left the car park/garage as our driver inexplicably veered off the road and into the gutter. We all got out and literally lifted the car out (gutters are deep in West Africa). Some time later the engine started acting up and the driver elected to return to the garage.


Sierra Leone

"I hear that in America they call the African a 'sex machine.' Is this true?" Fellow passenger on the road to Bo, while the driver attempts to fix the axle.


Liberia

Christiana, from Sierra Leone: "What you're doing is illegal."

Liberian police officer: "Just give me something small."

All ECOWAS citizens are officially free to travel through member states without visas or paying fees. As the ride from the border to Monrovia demonstrated (with 10 police/immigration stops on a 150 kilometre trip), this often matters little to low-paid officials. As far as extracting bribes, the Liberians on this stretch of road are the worst I've seen in my West African travels.


Christopher, a Nigerian in the car that was hit up so often for bribes: "Ghanaian taxis are really comfortable - only one person sits in the front seat."

15 September 2007

Time for an update!

I am presently in Grand Bassam, the old colonial capital of Cote d'Ivoire. I really should have attempted the occasional update while travelling, but the computers aren't always reliable, and I am often lazy.

Anyway; I shall move chronologically and gradually post descriptions of my travels:

circa July 27, 2007

Yesterday we had a nice visit to the Salls in Nord Foire (sp? it's on the outskirts of Dakar). The mother Fatou is a sister of my host father in Njau (Chebo), so I have stayed with them on past visits to Dakar. I was here with Jon, who had just arrived a couple of mornings ago (and, as luck would have it, his luggage arrived early the next morning.

Elhaas's wife Astou cooked a delicious chicken yassa, and I got to say goodbye to the Salls, we watched Senegalese TV/Brazilian soap operas, and I again got grief for not marrying Sohna, their cute cousin who dropped in.

Mot Lamin's coworker Jack, from (PR) China; had some interesting geopolitical news from The Gambia for me -- President Jammeh has announced that should China invade Taiwan, he is ready to send 1,000 soldiers to Taiwan's aid. Gambia, you may recall, is one of Taiwan's allies/client states in its quest for international recognition, along with Nauru, Vanuatu and others.

Senegal recently switched allegiances to China (well, in 2005). Around that time, in September '05, they had a falling-out with Gambia after the Gambians doubled the fares for their ferries. So the Senegalese government imposed a blockade of sorts, requiring all trucks going between Dakar and Casamance to drive around The Gambia. At the time, Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade proposed the following solutions:

1) build bridges (the river's not very wide),
2) let Senegal control ferries of their own, or
3) dig a tunnel running under The Gambia since it's so small.

The matter was resolved a few weeks later, when Gambia sheepishly returned ferry prices to their pre-blockade rates.

19 July 2007

Mangee dem!

So, soon I will be an RPCV and enjoying some post-service travel in West Africa. My friend Jon is coming to Dakar on the 25th. From there we'll make our way to Guinea-Conakry, to visit another good friend of mine. While there, I'll try to put to use my rudimentary Puel Fouta (different from the Fula spoken in the Njau area) that my bean sandwich lady Kindeh taught me. She also gave me directions to her brother's house ("Get out of the car in the Bambeto Quartier and start asking for him"), so we may have a couple of people to visit. I'm looking forward to some nice upcountry hiking, and sour milk. This is going to be great!

After that, Jon will return and I shall chart a course for Ghana. After eight years away, I'm eager to catch up with old friends there, and to see what changes have taken place. I've heard and read a lot of good things about how the situation in Ghana is gradually improving, and I remember it as a place where people seemed motivated by the possibility of bettering their lives in the future. To be sure, it's still a very poor place, but I remember there being a lot of spirit there.

I'm not yet sure which route I shall take to Ghana; it will depend on the rains and the available modes of transport. I will go via Liberia or Mali, and I have potential hosts in both.

As for my Peace Corps service, I am ready to move on. I feel that I worked pretty hard while I was in Njau, although often on the micro-level, with individuals. Also, my direct style, though refashioned as time went on, often rubbed teachers the wrong way, so that I wasn't as effective as I could have been. Still, I got to know the community very well and shared ideas and thoughts with a lot of people. I think this can slowly lead people to reevaluate their life choices; it certainly helped to give me some perspective and to make me more accommodating. As for the students, they were the most fun to work with, since the reverence of elders here and general norms of politeness served me well here (i.e. I don't have to be as diplomatic around kids). In all, a satisfying experience and one that will help me with my future activities. I will miss Njau.

As for my post-travel plans, I expect to fly to the UK from Ghana. There I will stay with some good friends in Edinburgh, Scotland, work for up to a year, and look into graduate school in education -- either in the UK or through one of the Peace Corps Fellows programs.

18 July 2007

Faith in the Market...

Prior to my visit to Touba, my aunt Judy remarked on the large presence of Senegalese vendors in Italy these days.

An Economist article last year delved further into these itinerant traders, the vast majority of whom are Mourides. So here is a little more background on the Mouride diaspora. I switched from the Economist's link as it is now in their archive and unavailable, but at least here is the introduction.

13 July 2007

There IS wildlife in The Gambia!

In May, after a pair of abortive attempts, seven students, one teacher and I went to River Gambia National Park (I thought they had their own web presence, but cannot find it) across the river from Wassu-Kuntaur, near Sambel Kunda.

It was a nice environmental education weekend for the kids, and I think they appreciated the message about the value of animals, and the chance to see some. While Njau does have a little bush nearby, it's buffeted on all sides by farms and villages, leaving very little wildlife. In addition to the animals and relative remoteness of the setting, we also got to spend time on the river, something Njau kids don't do much (Njau's 12 kms from the river), and even scaled some rare hills.







The animals we saw included these hippos and some chimpanzees. The chimps were reintroduced to these midriver islands starting in 1978; before then they'd been extinct here since early in the 20th century. No visitors are allowed on the island, so the chimpanzees are left in peace, with the occasional visit from researchers. The hippos, too, benefit from the low level of development in the area, and restrictions in boat travel around the islands.





Lastly, one of the activities our students did was a blindfolded tree identification competition. The leaves from the various trees were hung on a line and my kids then felt, smelled and tasted them. Of our seven students, six scored 9 or more out of 11. I have trouble identifying them without being blindfolded! The kids are also well versed on the various uses of the trees, which helped our hosts emphasize the importance of preserving and planting as many trees as possible.

12 July 2007

Saying goodbyes

At the end of the year we had a few 'programmes' -- the Gambian word for parties. I ended up having three -- library helpers, school, women of Njau -- which may conjure up memories of my long goodbye amongst my friends in DC.




They were a good time, with music sets and goat meat at the school (see the first picture of the boys cleaning out the intestines), but the one at my compound (the red gates on the left mark the entrance) may have been more fun. There the women and girls just turned over a few metal bowls and plastic buckets, forged an open space and invited people to dance. The ataaya, lait and juice mixes flowed freely (compliments of my host mom and others). The parties were good fun, and a chance to say goodbye and thanks to a lot of my friends.





The last picture has me in Demba Sey's compound. Squatting is Danielle, my sister's toma/namesake, who is enjoying some leftover rice. Amie is sitting next to me. Danielle's older sister Isatou (well, she's just a week older) was afraid of the camera so she's trying to hide in her mother Kumba's fana.

The iron ore train to Nouadibou

Some time ago, I belatedly wrote about my travels to Mauritania with my long-suffering friend Fatou Jallow. Well, the NYTimes Africa journalist was just there as, in additional to an article about a nascent campaign to wean Mauritanians off their love for hefty women, I came across an article about the train we rode to Nouadibou. I apologize if the article soon becomes inaccessible, but you may find it by searching for "Tough Commute on a Train Not Meant for People".

We did not go the whole distance, but instead joined the train at the 'station' in Choum, after a back of the pickup truck ride through the desert from Atar. We went westbound instead, so the cars were full of iron ore dust, which we flattened out to lay down in for the night.

Interestingly, it seems that large numbers of Pakistanis are using the train en route to Europe. You may recall Nouadibou as the port where many would-be sub-Saharan African migrants set out by boat for the Canary Islands and, it is hoped, greener pastures. This is an incredibly dangerous undertaking, as many boats are lost, with one unfortunate crew's remains eventually being discovered in the Bahamas. As far as I could tell, Fatou and I were the only non-Africans on the train, but we didn't check the passenger berths.

The funny thing is that this very alarmist article is in the same magazine whose cover story implores Americans to cast aside fear as we attempt to restore our place in the world.

Medical breakthroughs in The Gambia

Given that I've been dutifully serving as an ambassador of sorts for my home country, I've done my best to avoid holding forth on Gambian politics and other developments.

The time seems right, though, to share some developments that took place in January. At that time, President Jammeh announced that he had discovered cures for asthma and AIDS, and viewers were treated to television programs showing the President treating the patients. This was widely reported in the domestic media, less so on the international scene.

Recently, though, I have come across two irreverent international pieces on the President's breakthrough. One was in a recent Economist. The other is a clip on Youtube, which I've heard much about but never before seen. Today was my inaugural viewing, with Meet the President - Yahya Jammeh - 14 May 07 - Part 1 as my first Youtube video. Riveting stuff.

An old picture from February '06

My good friend Sekouba took this picture in the market in Farafenni. I was haggling with Bitch, sorry, Ms. Bitch, over the trousers I'm holding. He held firm so I had to break down and pay 35 Dalasis ($1.20). The trousers have served me well to this day, and will be my 'smart' pair during my travels.

Religious life in The Gambia

So this won't be a very insightful piece; I want to upload the pictures. As I've mentioned in previous posts, the 'western' style schools face competition from madrassas, although attempts are being made to integrate them into the overall educational system.

Anyway, my friend Fatim (Grade 5 at Njau) goes to Dara (Koranic classes) on the weekends. In May her class had a day of teri, or recitals, so I dropped by her village (Lebba) on my way home to Njau from Kombo. So here are a couple of pictures of the community gathered around to listen, and Fatim performing her recitation. She was a bit nervous, but did well and helped show others that you can study both.




The Gambia as a whole is some 90-95% Muslim, and our students get daily Koranic instruction in the timetable. School ends at 1:45, so that everyone can perform ablutions in time for the 2 o'clock prayer, or thereabouts. So here are a couple of pictures of the daily ritual, with the consent of the teachers. Afterwards, it acts as our ad hoc announcements forum.