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.