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.