December 9, 2010

baby pictures

Baby Mahana!
Kumba and baby Mahana at the hospital
Right after bringing the baby home. (There are three sisters: Kumba, Fanta and Hamina, the boy checking out the baby is Hamina's son Asi)

Me, Kumba and the baby later that night (see the sweatshirt? it's actually getting cold here)

The family and me. From left to right: Hamina (the other sister and mother of Asi), Baby Mahana, Me, Sarjo (their mom), Fanta and Kumba
Mahana (me) and Mahana (baby)

The sisters and me. Aren't they so beautiful?? From left to right: Kumba, Hamina, Me (like it was hard to pick me out), Fanta

My two namesakes! Fanta (not related to Kumba's sister Fanta) and her baby Mahana, next to Kumba and her newborn baby Mahana

My other namesake, baby Mahana (she was actually the first Mahana of the three)

December 8, 2010

The Namesake

I watched a live birth and now feel like a parent.

You may remember my friend Fanta’s sister, Kumba. I spoke about her in one of my previous blogs, the 15-year-old girl that had been married off and was fighting tooth and nail to get out of it. Yeah, she got pregnant. At first it was really upsetting for me to see her pregnant. But then she moved from her husband's village back to my village, and the more I saw her and the longer I was here in Gambia, the more I got used to the idea that having kids or being pregnant here does not equal maturity or adultness. It's just something that happens.

On Saturday, I had to go to the bank in a town a few hours away. On the way to the road, I stopped at Kumba and Fanta’s compound to greet and see about the drumming program that night (Fanta and her friends all chipped in to hire drummers to come so everyone could dance. The drummers came Friday night and were coming again that night). Their mom stopped me and told me Kumba’s stomach hurt. I didn’t hear her at first, and thought she said Mba’s stomach hurts (which is a male name here). So I said, What’s wrong, diarrhea? Because 9 times out of 10 that’s what it is. But she explained again and then I realized she was saying Kumba and meant the baby. So I freaked out and ran over.

Kumba was laying on her bed with the TBA (Traditional Birth Attendant, the woman in my village that delivers all the babies). The TBA informed me that Kumba’s water broke (I had no idea she was even at 9 months yet. She made it seem like it was only 7, but people here never know how long they’ve been pregnant. No ultrasounds or anything). My first thought was to get her to the hospital, but it was clear that was not a priority for anyone there. So I did my best to convey in Mandinka how the first births are always the most dangerous (which I’m sure the TBA knows herself) and that Kumba needed to get to the hospital now before she would become unable to be transported. The TBA was definitely offended that I was implying that she couldn’t cut it. But I didn’t care. I called someone in the next town to go to the car garage and send a cab here. I couldn’t wait for the taxi to come as the car to the bank town had stopped to pick me up, so I gave her mom money for the cab and told them I’d meet them at the hospital when I returned.

On the way to the bank, I was feeling really guilty because during the drumming the night before, I had forced Kumba to get up and dance with me. Honestly, I had no idea she was 9 months pregnant. I kept thinking over and over again, what if I caused her to go into early labor? What if the baby dies because of me? But then, I thought about how I would watch our 9-month pregnant cook in my training village chopping wood with a super heavy ax. AND THEN, I remembered seeing Kumba all last week pounding with a huge, heavy pestle (or mortar? I can never remember which is which) and realized that there’s no way the dancing was harmful. And I felt much better.

I got back around 4pm, fully intending to go straight to the hospital, thinking that the drumming had been cancelled. But Fanta (my friend/Kumba’s sister), who had just visited Kumba at the hospital, said she was going to attend the drumming program (which would start after 10pm) and then return to the hospital after, around midnight, because it didn’t look like Kumba was going to deliver anytime soon. Fanta’s plan sounded perfect, but what if she was wrong, and Kumba suddenly delievered?

While I definitely wanted to go to the hospital to support Kumba--if Fanta had not assured me that their mother’s co-wife, Lindo, would be with Kumba until her discharge, I would have gone right then--the biggest reason for wanting to go was purely selfish: I thought it would be really cool to see a birth and maybe my only chance to do so. Even though I really, really wanted to go to the drumming/dancing program (it would be my last drumming session ever), I DID NOT want to miss the birth. I have seen many drumming sessions, but would probably never have the chance to see a birth ever again.

I was considering just skipping the program and going to the hospital right then, but I didn’t want to show up at the hospital at 5pm only to have Kumba not give birth until 9am the next morning and have missed the drumming for nothing. So I called one of the guards I know at the hospital to get the number of one of the maternity ward nurses so I could check in and see how far along Kumba was. He wasn’t working, but gave me the number of another guard who was. I called him, and he went to the ward and gave the cell phone to one of the nurses so I could talk to her. She told me that Kumba was probably not going to deliver anytime soon because she was refusing to walk around. Typical.

Still, I was not completely convinced that I could get away with going to the drumming and still see the birth. So I got the nurse's number and decided that I would keep calling and checking in and if at any point she told me Kumba was about to deliver, I would drop whatever I was doing and go. Luckily, Kumba’s mom came home from the hospital right then and said Kumba will deliver before morning, but not before the drumming. She’s had maybe 6 kids, so her saying that was like my ticket to go to the drumming without worrying about missing the birth.

After the drumming, Fanta (my friend/Kumba’s sister), Fern (my friend in PC that lives nearby) and I walked the 2 miles to the hospital, arriving around 1am. Luckily, their mom was right, Kumba had not given birth yet; her contractions were several minutes apart. The nurse was asleep when we arrived: very comforting. And the mom’s co-wife was nowhere to be found. When I reached Kumba she was asking me to help her because the contractions really hurt. I was stunned when the nurse told me they don’t give the patients any medicine until after the birth. I asked the nurse how often they check in on her and he said every 3 hours. I checked her chart and the last check-up was 3 hours earlier. I was like, Yo guy, I think it’s time to check. So he grudgingly did. These night shift nurses are so lazy, you have no idea.

After he checked her, Fern and I went back to Kumba. I held her hand, rubbed her back, just tried to comfort her however I could, but I could never tell if she wanted me to be there or not. Meanwhile Fanta and mom’s co-wife, Lindo, are just sitting on the far side of the room. Fanta, who is around 7 years older than Kumba, has been pregnant twice and lost both babies. She looked really red-eyed and possibly teary. I figured she must be feeling a lot of concern for her younger sister and also sadness over her previous birth experiences. So, I understood her wanting to sit away for a bit. Lindo, however, I felt really should have been with Kumba.

After awhile of Fern and I being next to Kumba without Lindo nor Fanta coming over, feeling more and more unsure if I was breaking some Gambian protocol and worrying if Kumba even wanted us around, I decided to ask Fanta what the hell was going on. Fanta informed me that “It’s not good to be over there before Kumba gives birth.” She wouldn’t explain why, so I just figured it was some cultural thing—no matter how long I stay here there are so many practices I’ll never understand—but, if you ask me, it sounds like the most counter-intuitive thing in the world. Kumba is only 16 and this is her first baby. While 16 is by no means outrageously young to be giving birth here, it is considered young, nonetheless. I asked Fanta if it made her upset that Fern and I were there and she said, No, but I’m not going. So I returned to Kumba, where I stayed until the end of the birth. And I left Fanta sitting, where she stayed until the end of the birth.

When we first arrived, during Kumba’s first contraction, I immediately felt like coming to the hospital had been a big mistake. Earlier, I had been determined to stay for the entire birth and spend the night until she had been discharged, but seeing her wince and whine and then watching the nurses (a second one came, in plain clothes) examine her vagina, I didn’t know if I could take it. I also couldn’t tell if Kumba was embarrassed that we were watching the nurses’ examination or if she just didn’t want us there or what. So at first, it was pretty awkward and scary. But once her contractions sped up and the nurses were ordering her to push, Fern and I began to have more of a defined job. When the contractions would come, we would help her keep her legs bent while she pushed.

At one point she called the nurse over and said she had to use the toilet. I started helping her off the bed but then he said she couldn’t go anywhere and to wait for him to bring a bed pan over. At that, Kumba said she was ok. I asked her in Mandinka, are you really OK or do you just not want to go in the bed pan? And she said she didn’t want to go in the bed pan. And I said, what if I send everyone else away? But she said no. After a few more contractions and pushing, it became clear that Kumba had had a bowel movement. In other words, it smelled like shit. I asked Fern if she smelled it and she agreed (Kumba doesn’t speak any English, so we could talk without her knowing what we were saying). Kumba seemed coherent enough that I was worried she might get embarrassed if I tried to clean it up and I wasn’t sure if she had noticed yet, so I left it alone. But then it became clear she had realized what happened and was trying to fix it. So Fern got out some toilet paper and I cleaned up the bed and her. With every contraction and accompanying push, more came out, so I was literally wiping her ass. Although it was pretty gross, I was surprisingly not that bothered by the task. I think I was just happy to be needed and helpful.

Then the contractions got much faster and bigger and Kumba would sort of thrash around and scream and shake. And then she started saying, Mahana, I’m going to die. I’m going to die. (Mahana is my Gambian name.) And I kept saying, No you’re not, I promise. You’re not going to die, I won’t let you die. But I could tell she was really scared. She was crying and yelling for Lindo, her mom’s co-wife, to come. So Lindo came and checked in momentarily and then went back. Kumba grabbed her shirt to stop her from walking away and was crying out, Mom! Mom! But Lindo just shook Kumba’s hand off and went back to her spot. (I later asked Kumba about them not coming over during the delivery and she said it was because if they stood there they would cry and crying is not good. So don't think they are really cold for not being there for Kumba when she was delivering. Gambians are really weird about crying, it doesn’t mean that they didn’t want to be there for her and support her.)

Eventually the nurses decided it was time to actually do something. So they came over and gloved up and got ready to deliver. And then, get this, the power went out. It’s not like it just randomly shorted. It happens every single day. There is only power from 7pm-2am and 9am-3pm. It was after 2am and the power shut off and it was dark. They got some flash lights and came back. Fern was holding one flashlight and they set up another one on the end of the table. It was seriously like being in a movie about Africa. I couldn’t believe it.

At first I thought I wouldn’t be able to watch the actual delivery, like the baby coming out of her vagina, but then I realized I could do it, and not only grudgingly, I actually was much less grossed out than I thought I’d be. After a lot of pushing, I could finally see just the top of the baby’s head and the hair. And I yelled to Kumba in Mandinka, I can see its head. It’s coming, PUSH! And so she pushed and pushed and I was holding her hand and yelling and she was sort of screaming and the baby’s head was coming out and then she gave a big push and its head came out. It was sideways, eyes shut. It looked dead and I was terrified that it was. Immediately after the head came, the rest of the baby’s body just slipped out, umbilical cord and all.

I was really surprised that the rest of the body came out so quickly. I was still terrified that it was dead, but a couple seconds after that, it started to move and a wave of relief and amazement washed over me. I couldn’t believe that just seconds ago, there had only been 5 of us, and now there were 6. It was the craziest, most amazing thing in the world. I looked up at Kumba and said, The baby’s here! And she said, What? She hadn't even realized the baby was out. So I said, Look! And she leaned forward, saw the baby, smiled faintly with relief and lay back down.

They cut the umbilical cord and carried the baby over to a little basket-like thing. Normally they put the babies on this table which has a ton of lights to keep it warm, but seeing as though there was no electricity, they couldn’t do that. I totally forgot to ask about the sex of the baby, so I did and they told me it was a girl. I went back to Kumba and told her it was a girl, and she looked at me and said, I’m going to name her Mahana. I started tearing up a bit, but managed to keep it together.

Then the nurses came back and started to take out the after birth and all that shit. It was disgusting. At one point I made a face like I was going to vomit while watching (not on purpose, of course), and then I looked up and Kumba was watching me and just laughed nervously. I felt bad, she was clearly embarrassed by all of us looking at her vagina and my being grossed out didn’t help.

I can’t remember if there was a lot of bleeding right after the birth or not until the after-birth, but at some point, she started losing a lot of blood. It was spilling out onto the bed and then onto the floor. Some of it was making it into the basin under the bed, but a lot was not. It was really gross, like a horror movie. And more than that, it was really troubling. I don’t know much, well, anything, about births, but it seemed like she was losing wayyyy too much blood. I started freaking out. It didn’t help that there was a big poster in the room about a study that was done on the causes of mother morbidity (not sure if that’s the right word, aka mothers that die giving birth) and the main cause had to do with blood. Either that there was no blood available for a transfusion or the loss of blood wasn’t diagnosed early enough, etc.; obviously I had read that poster several times throughout the night so I was really scared. But the nurses assured me it was ok, that there were just some small tears. They found them and sutured them up.

At this point, it was after 3am and we were all exhausted. So all of us, Fern, Fanta, Lindo and I, found some empty beds and went to sleep for a couple hours. I should add that as soon as the baby was born, Fanta and Lindo came over and Fanta silently cried. When I woke up around 6am, I went back to Kumba and found her sleeping with fresh blood on the floor and on her bed—confirming my worst fears that she was going to die (clearly I have no concept of the fact that women bleed a lot after birth).

I freaked out and immediately went to get the nurse who, surprise surprise, had not checked on her. So he came back, checked out the situation, rolled up a ball of gauze and shoved it inside her (they were fairly rough throughout the entire birthing process). He said he would monitor how much blood was being loss by how bloody the gauze was. She cried a lot and kept begging him to stop. I said, Uh, don’t you think you should probably figure out why she’s bleeding. But he didn’t seem too concerned. Then I said, Don’t you think she should breastfeed now? Maybe that will help stop the bleeding (for those of you that don’t know, breastfeeding somehow alerts the mother’s body to stop bleeding). He said sure.

So I brought over baby Mahana, as I like to call her. Kumba said Mahana wasn’t going to know how to breastfeed and I said, yes she will. Just try. (Lindo and Fanta were still sleeping at this point). Without even a second of hesitation, Kumba brought the baby up to her breast and expertly used her hand to manually extract some milk onto the baby’s lips (something I’ve always heard was not naturally easy for women to do and in fact took some time to learn). Once it sensed the milk, with its eyes shut, the baby began to open and close its little mouth. It was the most amazing thing in the world. I cannot even explain it. The way in which Kumba, this little 16 year old girl, knew what to do and the baby automatically knew to start sucking. It was so beautiful. I was very impressed by the whole thing. Then the two of them fell asleep together on the bed. I took a picture. But her breasts are showing, which ain’t no thang to me, but is slightly pornographic to people living outside the continent of Africa, so probably I will not post it here. But believe me, it’s a beautiful picture.

Kumba was discharged around 10am. Her bleeding tapered off significantly and completely stopped the next day. (Despite cleaning staff coming at 7am, I don’t think the blood was actually cleaned up until around 9am. It was just sitting there on the floor under the bed.) I spent the rest of the afternoon with another baby Mahana, she's about 5 months old (I now have three namesakes, or tomas as they’re called here--babies that are named Mahana after me), and the whole time I felt a physical ache being apart from Kumba and her baby. I felt like it was my baby, too, almost like I was the father or something. I know that sounds weird. I can’t really explain it, but they were all I could think about. All I wanted to do was be close to them. The experience definitely bonded the two, well, three, of us in a way I can’t begin to describe. It was just unbelievable and I feel really lucky I was able to experience it and that they are both healthy.

Ok, that’s all (hahah, a 6-page blog post). I left my village for the last time today. It was pretty rough, Kumba sobbed last night and this morning. Maybe I will write about that later this week. But for those of you that are wondering, I will be home by December 20th.

Non-pornographic pictures coming soon.

October 9, 2010

The world has frozen over and pigs are flying

That's right. The impossible has happened. My 9-year-old sister, Kadyjatu, has started first grade. (I know that starting school at 9 seems really old by American standards, but it's not very old here. Most first graders are 7.) For my ENTIRE service here, I have been trying to get my mom to agree to send KJ to school, but she has refused every single time.

I just wrote an article about it for the PC newsletter, which my friend Kasey and I edit. In the article, I talk about Behavioral Change Communication (BCC). It was a technique we were taught during our 10 weeks of training when we first arrived. It basically says that so many of the unhealthy habits here are deeply ingrained behaviors that have existed for many generations and are ridiculously hard to break. Some behaviors include child and domestic abuse, giving the most nutritious food to the old men, FGC ((Female Genital Cutting) something I have discussed here informally on several occasions, but make no large-scale effort to change. You have to pick and choose your battles here, and I do not choose that.), or in my case, shunning Western education.

The central argument behind BCC is that it takes a lot of time to change these behaviors because they are so ingrained. It's basically the broken record theory: If you tell people to wash with soap and sleep under a mosquito net enough times, they might actually do it. But the thing to remember is that if one approach doesn't work, try another, and on and on, until you find the one that does work.

So with that information under your belts, read away:

Believe it or not, Behavioral Change Communication actually works.

When I first learned about Behavioral Change Communication (known as BCC to its close friends), I thought to myself, “Wow. This is so great. This is why I joined the Peace Corps and not an NGO. NGOs can’t affect real, sustainable changes like this, it requires someone who really knows the culture and the people. And they don’t.”

A year later, this is what I thought about BCC: “It’s a crock of shit. Gambians will never change.”

To those of you who have put all the memories of Pre-Service Training far out of your mind, BCC is the idea that it is possible to change ingrained unhealthy behaviors, like not using soap, not using a mosquito net, etc., but it requires a lot of time. And a lot of repetition.

During our BCC training on Janjangbureh, Ellie and our then Training Manager, Gisele, used a skit to show us an example of BCC. In the skit, Gisele was a smoker and Ellie was a PCV trying to get her to quit smoking.

They had a series of three or four conversations. Ellie gave basically the same information in each conversation, but presented it in different ways. By the second conversation, Gisele became more open to hearing about the health risks of smoking and by the last one, she was ready to try quitting.

Now in the real world, we know it takes wayyyy more than 4 conversations to convince anyone, let alone a Gambian, to quit smoking. But you get the idea, right? You consistently talk to people about changing their unhealthy behavior until you eventually break them down and they actually begin to do it.

I’ve given up on trying to get Gambians to use soap, because, to be honest, I probably use soap as often, if not less, than they do. I’ve also stopped scolding my family when they give attaya (super strong tea with TONS of sugar) to my 18 month old sister because it's obvious that no matter what I say, they're going to keep doing. It seems to me that those who exhibit positive behavior (ie. Always using soap) will continue doing so, and those that don’t, will continue not doing so. I just accepted that and gave up trying.

Like my family's reluctance to use soap, my sister Kadyjatu’s non-existant education is sort of a dead issue to me. I’ve talked to my mom about it more times than I can count. She says no every time. Kadyjatu’s dead father (may he rest in peace with Allah, but not so peacefully since he is the reason that my other sister Mamatida never went to school and is now married at 15) was against Western education and my mom refuses to go against his dead spirit.

So when I found out that one of my neighbors was going to start first grade, I thought, “Ooh! Maybe if KJ has someone to walk to school with, my mom will let her go.” But I wasn’t getting my hopes up. I asked my brother Yankuba what he thought. “She will refuse,” he answered. My brother Kemeseng (the head of my compound) added, “Yes, she will say no.”

I ALMOST gave up right then and there, convinced that it was a lost cause. But, instead, I started arguing with them about how important education is. I made a lot of points in favor of it. Eventually, the conversation shifted to my brother talking about money and Spain (surprise, surprise) and how all our problems would be solved if he could get to Spain, but he just doesn’t have money, yada yada yada.

I explained that if these boys trying to get to Spain (they’re almost entirely uneducated) had just enrolled in school, instead of spending all this time trying to go to Spain, they’d be done with grade 12 by now, probably working, and would have spent a lot less money on their school fees than they will getting to Spain.

I’m not sure if that was what made the difference or if it was something I said earlier, but soon after, my oldest brother Kemeseng, who had been listening to our conversation the whole time, asked, “If she goes to school, you will pay up to grade 12?” And I said yes. And he said, “Ok, we will talk to my mom tonight.” It was the most positive reaction I had ever seen in my entire service, but again, I didn’t want to get my hopes up. I knew we still had to convince my mom, and that, I thought, would be much harder.

I brought up the issue with my mom that night. In past education ‘discussions,’ Kemeseng had functioned solely as my translator. He never interjected with his own opinions, or argued in favor of education.

This time, however, after I said my usual schpiel, Kemeseng went on for 10 to 15 minutes about how important school is and how everyone is just sitting here doing nothing. All the while my other brother, Yankuba, was also standing there, agreeing with him. And that was all it took.

My mom barely argued. She made a couple feeble attempts to say no after he finished talking, but it was clear the decision had been made. My brother took a stand as the head of the compound and my mom was unable to refuse. I couldn’t believe it.

I suddenly realized that the whole time I had been trying to convince my mom, I should have been trying to convince my brother. He was the key, the turning point of the issue. (In my defense, he’s usually a pansy and mama’s boy, so there was no reason to think that my mom would ever listen to him, nor, more importantly, that he would ever argue with my mom.)

I never dared to hope that I would see Kadyjatu in school before I COS’d. But, lo and behold, the next day I registered her in school. And the day after that, Liz and I walked her to her first day. And now she practices English with my brother every afternoon.

Getting Kadyjatu enrolled in school is by far my greatest accomplishment here, even though I have no idea what exactly I said that made the difference. It just goes to show that persistence pays off. No issue is closed if you can find the turning point.

And if monkeys can compose Shakespeare given an infinite amount of time, there’s hope that given 27 months, we can find that turning point and maybe even change some behaviors.

August 8, 2010

Cultural Differences and Rice Paddies

I’m being dramatic, I know I am. But that doesn’t make me feel less helpless and frustrated. Mamatida, my 15 year old sister leaves for Kombo (the capital, 8 hours away) tomorrow with her husband Amadou, and is not coming back. She no longer lives in my compound anymore—instead of seeing her everyday, I will now see her one day a month, if that. And Kumba (the girl I wrote about before who was married off and hates her husband) is pregnant. Kumba, who is just a child, an immature, headstrong girl, who was married off at 15 is now “having big stomach.”

What is wrong with this place? How can Amadou look at Mamatida and feel anything but shame? How does he convince himself that she likes him when he knows she wouldn’t have chosen him as her husband. She was essentially sold to him by her uncaring mother. I asked her if she wants to go tomorrow. Her response: “He says to go, my mom says to go, my dad says to go. So…” AHHHH! Her obedience kills me. And I know I should be used to the cultural differences by now, but this is something I can never get used to. Amadou told her they will wait three years to have a child, or at least that’s what she told me he said in response to her telling him she’s just a girl and not ready for a baby. Three years, my ass—to him that probably means they’ll start having sex and Allah will decide if she’s still a child or ready to have one. And looking at Kumba, I think I know which one is more likely.

At least she’s on birth control—I got her the Depo injection, but that only lasts 3 months. Then what? It physically hurts me to imagine her pregnant. I can get a glimpse of it for a second and then it’s like my mind changes the channel. And I know I’m bring dramatic, but it feels like shit. I could have stayed until tomorrow morning to see her off (I came to Basse today for a meeting tomorrow), but I didn’t want to deal with crying and all that. Actually, truth be told, I think I didn’t stay because I was scared that there wouldn’t be any emotions, that she wouldn’t cry. And that would force me to stop imagining her hating this situation. Which, I couldn’t handle, because to think of her wanting to be married at 15 to this guy in his 30s not only makes me angrier at the system, but it also makes me feel judgmental and knocks me off my moral pedestal.

Ok, enough. There’s really nothing else I can say about it. It’s a shitty, shitty situation, but it’s life here. I just can’t believe I’m not going to see her face everyday. Ah, ok, I’m moving on. So, it’s insane how strong the women are here. Three hours ago found me shin deep in mud, surrounded by grass up to my waist, sunburned and wondering what the hell I had gotten myself into. I arrived in Dobong Kunda today (my garden village) to set up a meeting with the village chief about putting a PC volunteer in the village next year. But I found a fairly empty compound. Aside from Sarjo, who was cooking lunch, all the women had left for the rice field (it’s the rainy season now, so all the women are in the rice fields everyday, weeding, planting, outplanting, etc.).

Despite everyone being gone, I was completely taken care of, as is always the case when I go there. Upon arrival, Sarjo immediately brought me a chair and cup of water. An hour or so later, she summoned me for lunch. I had been smelling the peanut sauce and was really excited for rice for the first time in awhile (I always prefer coos, aka millet). But then Sarjo yelled to me, “Futoo” or coos, as I walked over, knowing it’s my all-time favorite and I would be really happy. But actually I was slightly disappointed to not get the rice and peanut sauce. She brought me inside and set up a stool in front of my chair with two bowls (one with coos, one with sauce), a spoon for the sauce, a fan and a cup of water. Amazing. Despite my craving for rice, the coos was delicious. I definitely ate a few more handfuls than I needed to, and as soon as I finished, Sarjo came in with another bowl, this one with rice and peanut sauce. I couldn’t have been happier. “Eat until you are very full,” she told me. And I did.

She was headed to the rice field to bring the women lunch (two HUGE bowls—one coos, one sauce—which she carried on her head) and work there for the rest of the afternoon. After all my royal treatment, I decided it’d be a nice gesture to accompany her and bring a cooler of juice—aka cold water in a cooler with a juice packet and sugar mixed in—to the women who have been out there in the sun working all day. I went to the bitik (corner store, ha) to buy the ingredients, but found it closed. So we tried another one—also closed (it was during afternoon prayer). All the while Sarjo has these huge bowls on her head and never even sets them down once when we stop at the stores. Finally we find a store, also closed, but supposedly the owner is near by. We spend about 10 minutes trying to purchase juice packets and sugar, which included a man saying to me, “My wife, buy me some tea.” And not once did Sarjo take the bowls off her head.

After we get the necessary items, we finally head for the field. It is HOT out, I am sweating sooo much. Sarjo assures me that the fields are not far. Well over a mile later, with my shirt drenched, we arrive at the field. Exhausted from my work in the rice fields yesterday, I hadn’t planned to actually go in the fields today. My village’s fields have paths in between to get to distant plots, so I just thought I would stand on the path and give them the juice, staying clean and dry. But there was no path in these rice fields and the women were about 100 yard in.
*A word about my ‘exhausting’ work in the rice fields yesterday: I went with my brother’s wife, Meeta, and worked for about 2 hours (during which time every single passerby said the exact same thing: ‘Meeta, Mahana has come to the rice fields today? Is she able to do the work?’) and then spent the next three hours napping under a tree while Meeta continued to work (during which time every single passerby said the exact same thing again, but this time it was: ‘Meeta, Mahana is here laying. She is tired.’). I finally got so sunburned that I just went home, leaving her to finish the work alone.

So, Sarjo and I took off our shoes and set out through the shin-deep mud and knee-high water, which was really warm and fetid and made my sunburned legs itch and sting. Soon we go to the waist-high grasses. Starting to think about the possibility of snakes, I thought to myself, this must be what ‘Nam was like, without the rain and all the Vietnamese people, of course. On several occasions Sarjo fell on one knee in the mud and I had to stand next to her so she could push off me in order to get her leg out of the muck and stand up again. There were also numerous occasions when my leg sunk through the mud up to my thigh and I thought I was finished (ie. Stuck in the mud video).

Amazingly enough, we made it to the women. They had gathered under a tree on a patch of dry land and were preparing for lunch. When they saw me they began singing, clapping and dancing in thanks for my coming and for the juice. I was really flattered, but mostly ashamed. I couldn’t even will myself to dance because I was so exhausted and uncomfortable just from the walk in the sun. But these women, after working all morning with no food were dancing it up for me. (I cringed to think that next week they will all be doing the same work, just not eating or drinking anything from sunrise to sunset… Ramadan). They’re so incredibly strong, it just blows my mind. And Sarjo, after carrying those food bowls the whole way was now about to begin working for 3 or 4 hours. And then here I am, so tired I couldn’t even consider working for two minutes.

The best part is instead of complaining, they immediately start worrying about me. Did I eat? Am I full? One woman takes a cup of their drinking water to wash off my feet, which was funny because moments later I was just going to get dirty again; I tried to stop her. As I started to head back, they told me to wait for them to eat so one of them could accompany me back to the other side of the field. I graciously turned down their offer, taking care not to fall on my way out, which would force the entire group of women to run over and come rescue me. I rode home in awe of their strength and their ability to work themselves to the bone and then laugh and dance, never once complaining. They truly are an amazing group of women and I feel so grateful to have them here taking care of me. Whatever person gets put in this village next year is very lucky.

*All this was written in the gele-gele on my way here. Sorry to have started off on such an angry note. I’m feeling a lot less angry now, haha.

August 3, 2010


I’ve been in the capital for almost two weeks and am now nervous to go home to my village tomorrow. It’s weird how intense the culture shock can be just going from my village to the capital. It happens every time I come here (which is usually once a month), but this current trip was much worse. Gambia has a ton of NGOs, which means a large ex-pat population, and a few of my friends stay with ex-pats or government workers while in the capital. I’ve been able to visit them there and it’s like walking into America. Sure, our Peace Corps House/Hostel has electricity and a fridge and a television and that alone makes transitiong from here to my grass hut difficult. But it’s disgusting. It’s like a huge frat house. There’s mice, roaches, ants, soooo many mosquitos—I actually find it to be much dirtier than my mud hut.

These ex-pat houses, however, are as nice as any expensive house in America. Tiled floors, granite kitchen counters, AIR CONDITIONING!!, pools, etc. It’s like this little oasis. No one bothers you, there are no Gambians that you have to greet in local language, there’s 24 hour electricity, it’s incredible. But more than anything, it’s the company. Sometimes at the Peace Corps house, I get overwhelmed by the number of volunteers and the sheer ‘fratiness’ of it, ie. Excessive beer drinking, dirty dishes, people everywhere. At these houses, it’s just me and a couple friends, enjoying each other’s company like we used to in America. And so the thought of going back to my village and suddenly being there by myself, the only non-gambian for several miles, having to greet everyone and 'be on' all the time is slightly scary. I know as soon as I get there it will be fine—the anticipation’s always worse than the real thing. So I just try not to think about it. But actually, I’m pretty excited to be home. It’s exhausting to live out of a suitcase, well, in my case, backpack, for 2 weeks. I miss my bed, my routines, my privacy, my family, my namesake, my friends. It’ll be good to be back.

I’m not usually out of site for more than a week, but this time I had a lot of administrative work to do. I co-edit the Health and Community Development Newsletter with my friend Kasey, so that had to be written, layed-out, edited and approved. Then there was a Volunteer Support Network [VSN] Training with one of Peace Corps’ psychologists visiting from Washington, DC(VSN is a group of about 12 people who’s purpose is to support volunteers through any mental or emotional problems they may deal with, be it a death in the family in America, a failure at work, a break-up, missing home, etc.). It was unbelievably fascinating and made me want to be a therapist.

We learned about active listening, emphasis on listening, ha. I learned that when other volunteers come to me with a problem, I should never actually give that person advice. I should just listen, ask leading questions to get the person thinking about solutions and let the person know that his/her concerns are totally valid. We did several practice sessions with our fellow VSNers and it was extremely helpful. As soon as I stopped worrying about figuring out a solution for the person’s problems, I started really listening, and as soon as I started really listening, I realized, ‘Wait, I have NO idea how this person is actually feeling or what he/she is dealing with. How on earth did I expect to give this person advice that he/she hasn't thought of? How incredibly arrogant of me.’ It was an incredibly freeing feeling to listen to someone's issue and not stress about giving advice, in fact, I think each and every person should have this training. I’ve been trying to use my newfound skills in daily life, but I often slip and hear myself giving advice, “you should…” “Don’t you think you ought to…” And then I kick myself.

I’ve also been doing a lot of LGBT work with VSN and Peace Corps Admin in general. I found a Safe Zone Staff Training Script on a Peace Corps website that had been used in Guatemala. I approached our country director and asked him if it might be possible to run the session here. I didn’t even dream that it could be mandatory, as Guatemala’s was, because LGBT-things are illegal in this country (I won’t even write it out the real words on this blog, just in case) and the majority of our staff is Gambian and Muslim. But, much to my surprise, our country director really supported the idea and wants to make it mandatory for all staff. So, I adapted Guatemala’s script for The Gambia. Then I did a run-through of it with VSN and it was really well received. They gave me some great suggestions for fixing up the lesson plan, so I spent a few days editing it and made A LOT of changes and now I think it’s really wonderful. I’m planning to have another meeting with the country director next month, in which I expect we’ll pick a date and iron out all the details to make the staff training happen. I can’t wait!

Another reason for my long stay was to help lead a couple Pre-Service Training [PST] sessions. A new group of education volunteers arrived a month ago, so myself and a couple other VSN members were chosen to do two sessions on healthy sexuality and volunteer resilience. This is the third PST I’ve been involved with (and will be my last…. Weird) and I think it was my favorite. The sessions were really successful and the new trainees seem great. I had been hoping to work with the next group of trainees, but unfortunately their arrival date was pushed back from November to January, and I’m hoping to be home for Christmas. Some people will extend here a few months to help with training, but not me, ha.

It’s very strange to think that I’m leaving in less than 5 months. I feel pretty ‘checked out,' especially since my work in my village is extremely minimal at this point. I'm completely done with the women's garden now that we outplanted the sisal. For those of you who don’t know what that means (I had no idea before I came here), let me explain. There’s something called a live fence. Basically it’s trees or thorny bushes that are planted in a perimeter around a garden or orchard that eventually grow enough to serve as a fence, a ‘live fence.’ These live fences are extremely useful here because barbed wire and chain link fences are very expensive and can break easily. When we initially made the plans for the garden, I made the women's group agree to do a live fence of sisal (a plant similar to aloe). We planned for the garden to have barbed wire fence (which it now has), but that will surely break within the next 3 to 5 years and I wanted to make sure the garden would be truly sustainable. So the women nursed the sisal during the dry/hot season, meaning they planted them all in a bed close together to make the watering and weeding of them easier in the early stages when it’s most important (you see, it'd be pretty hard to walk the entire perimter of the fence [over 100m] EVERYDAY to water the sisal, that's why nursery beds are great). Then, once they’re bigger (and during the rainy season when constant watering is no longer necessary), they’re outplanted, meaning dug up and re-planted along the fence or wherever you eventually want them.

For maybe 3 months now, the garden has been finished except for the outplanting of the sisal. But, while the sisal was still being nursed, I couldn’t feel that sense of accomplishment. The garden still wasn't finished in my mind. But, just about a week before I came into the capital, myself and 15 or 20 other women spent a whole morning outplanting all the sisal. There was a group of women digging up the plants, another bringing them to the fence, another weeding the ground outside the fence, another digging holes and another still to actually plan the sisal in those holes. It was extremely inspiring to be a part of the whole process and after it was finally finished, I felt such a sense of pride and accomplishment. It was wonderful. Also my shirt was literally soaking wet with sweat, I was able to ring it out.

So, that project is finished. I still visit that village and hang out a few times a week, but my work is over now. I also still do poetry and journalism lessons with the Press Club at the high school, but they are pretty self-sufficient as well, by this point (which is my goal as a Peace Corps Volunteer--to not be needed). Most of my work is now in Kombo, with the bike machine and with admin. As for the bike machine, there is another NGO, HopeFirst, working on its own bike machine. They are coming to Gambia Sept 7th and we are planning to meet and work together to manufacture and distribute the machine. I'll keep you posted.

Like I said earlier, as a result of not having any work, I’m pretty checked out in village. I have ZERO plans for when I get back, except to read and just hang out with my people. And I’m totally ok with that and actually really looking forward to it—aside from being a bit nervous to leave civilization.

I couldn't start a project now even if I wanted to, because I'm leaving so soon. It’s weird being on the way out here. I never EVER thought I would make it to this point. I’m basically just coasting. My work in village is minimal. Life is easy. Plus, I’m feeling really satisfied by the VSN and LGBT work I’m doing in the capital. AND! I have something to be excited for every month. August- My friend Josh is visiting, wooo hooo!!! September- VSN event with the new trainees and mail run. October- Close of Service (COS) Conference, My birthday, Halloween. November- Thanksgiving, possibly my friend Tawny visiting. December- OUT! I just get to sit back and enjoy life until COS. It’s pretty wonderful.

Thanks for listening. Sorry this post is so ramble-y and awkward. Just writing from my heart (ie. In one long uninterrupted stream).

June 13, 2010

Gambia: A brief look

I just sent an email to a friend doing PC in El Salvador, which sort of explained PC The Gambia in a nutshell, so I thought I'd post an excerpt of it here. Please excuse any grammar, spelling, punctuation, capitalization errors, this is a direct copy/paste.

this country is super small, maybe the size of delaware, the smallest country in continental africa. but it's long and divided in the middle by a river. it takes about.... 10-12ish hours (barring no car or immigration checkpoint trouble), to get from one end of the country to the other because the roads are so shitty and there are no bridges across the river. i'm about 8 hours upriver/inland from the capital (which is located on the atlantic ocean coast) and there's maybe 80 volunteers here, which means that at any point you're prob within 30k from another volunteer. i live right outside a biggish town, and have 3 other volunteers within 10k of my site, so thats really nice. and i see my closest friend here at least once a week.

probably about 10-15 volunteers live in the capital (banjul) and they all have their own 'apartment' or house. the rest of us live in family compounds and have our own room or grass hut, in my case. i would guess that none of the upcountry (in this case meaning not-in-Banjul) volunteers has running water in his/her compound, a few maybe have taps (communal faucets) in the village, and few have sporadic electricity (only the capital has 24 hr electricity, the other 4 towns with current, as they call it here, have it from 9am-2pm, and 7pm-2am). my village has pumps and no electricity, but my family has a generator which they use to watch football or movies maybe once a week.

the food here is mainly rice with a peanut or leaf sauce and oil and msg, hahah. theres also millet, which i greatly prefer to rice, mostly because there is less oil in its sauces. but i cook all my meals for myself (i'm one of the few volunteers living in a family that does that), bec my family's cooking is awful and they put this disgusting dried fish in everything. a typical day of eating for me is bread for breakfast, maybe toasted with cin and sugar, rice with a can of kidney beans for lunch, and maybe some more bread or a protein bar for dinner, and maybe some oatmeal during the day. the vegetables available year round are potato, onion, hot peppers.... and then seasonally-- carrots, cabbage, eggplant, peppers..... and mangos, bananas, oranges, watermelon (also seasonally). there's very little chicken or meat consumed here, only in wealthier families.

ummm.... our 3 sectors are: ag/forestry, health/comm dev, and edu. most of our adminstrative staff is gambian. and its a muslim country in that everyone is muslim, but its not an islamic state, ie. no islamic courts, judges, etc. but my family prays everyday 5x's/day, everyone fasts for ramadan. many men have 1-4 wives. women are definitely given less rights than men and in general considered less important, less strong, less intelligent, and just less respected. but they are so amazing and smart and wonderful. they work all day while the men basically sit around and brew tea. my brother might go to the fields (peanut) for a couple hours in the am, and then will spend the rest of the day in the compound reading the koran and chanting arabic. yes it gets annoying.

and there are a ton of local languages spoken here, but there are 3 main ones (mandinka, wolof and fula) that are spoken and taught to us here. english is that national language, but it is mainly spoken in the capital and in bigger towns, not in the village, unless there is a school nearby. i speak/was taught mandinka. but my friend that lives very close to me speaks wolof, so i can i sorta get by in wolof, and can very minimally greet in fula.

May 31, 2010

I'm baaaaaack!

I’m back from New York! I had the best time ever and saw so many of my friends and family. It was absolutely perfect. A lot of people asked if it was scary or overwhelming to be back in ‘civilization’ and especially in NYC— no, it wasn’t. Well, actually it was a bit overwhelming to be in one car with my entire family and it was strange that everyone—even the shabbiest looking guy on the subway, begging for change—has a blackberry, iphone, etc. But I can tell you with complete certainty and honesty that it was NOT AT ALL overwhelming to choose a beer in a bar with 20 different beers on tap. I also thoroughly enjoyed riding the subway, paying for cabs with credit card, never carrying around change, wearing a jacket, and eating hamburgers, sushi or pizza everyday.

But now that I’m back I actually have a lot going on here. My main project now is a bike-powered grinding machine. I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned it here, but I’ve been working on it for several months now. The women here spend several hours a day pounding rice, millet and peanuts in a huge mortar and pestal. It's extremely labor intensive and time cosuming. This machine, a bike pedal-powered grinder, would make pounding obsolete, revolutionizing the day-to-day life of women here. Also, because men and boys are the one who ride bikes in this country, it could possibly transform the job of pounding/grinding grains from strictly women's resposibility to both men and women's work.

The machine was originally designed and built by the engineering department at Rowan University in New Jersey. Travis, a previous volunteer that has since finished his service here, was originally in charge of the project. Through his contacts with that university's chapter of Engineers Without Borders, he heard about the machine and somehow arranged to have the machine brought here so we could attempt to build and distribute it locally. The grinding mechanism built at the university, however, was very complicated, and local welders were unable to replicate it. So, Travis took the machine to the Gambian Technical Institute (GTTI), which has the most advanced welding technology in the country, to see if they could produce a second one with their equipment. The problem I had with that plan, however, was that even IF the people at GTTI were able to reproduce the grinding mechanism, how can a machine be sustainable and usable throughout the country if its most vital element can only be manufactured in one place?

It can't. Here's why: Let’s first imagine that somehow, everyone in the country finds out about this milling machine and wants to buy it. The only place to purchase one is GTTI. The people living in the capital can go and place an order, but the people ‘upcountry,’ living a 2 to 12 hour car ride from the capital, have to somehow get in contact with GTTI. But I can say with almost complete certainty that there are no Gambians outside of the capital with the ability to reach GTTI (ie. Don’t have the phone number and have no way to get it and there's no real postal service in this country). So they’d have to go through their nearest Peace Corps volunteer to place the order. Then, somehow, these upcountry Gambians would have to get their money to GTTI and then GTTI would have to find a way to get the machine back to them. THEN if the machine has a problem, the only people who can fix it are at GTTI, anywhere from 2 hours to 12 hours away. Now these local villagers have to find a way to get the machine back to GTTI, pay for repairs and get it back. Let me add that most upcountry Gambians have never been to the capital.

You see how impossible this would be, right? Moreover, several months had passed and the GTTI people still couldn't build it. So, a few days before Travis finshished his service, he and I decided to forget about trying to reproduce Rowan U's original grinding device and chose instead, to see if we could make the machine work using the less strong, but widely available, local peanut grinders. After I purchased one at the market, Kris (another volunteer--my current partner on the project) and I took the grinder and the machine to a local welder to see if he could somehow attach it to the bike machine so it would be powered by the pedaling motion... ANDDDD he did! We picked up the finished product this morning-- it’s awesome and grinds so quickly. And, best of all, it's built entirely from local materials so that any welder ANYWHERE in the country can build and fix it, aka totally sustainable!

The plan now is to show it to a few NGOs and see if they would pay to have them mass produced or give us funding to do a trek around the country in which we teach the local welders how to build it for their own communities! Wish me luck, pictures to come soon!!!

***I updated, Don!

Below is a picture of the original machine. The one we picked up today is WAAYYY DIFFERENT. It has handle bars, cross bars to keep it steady, and a different grinding device.

May 8, 2010

New York, New York

In 48 hours I will be in New York City!! Should be amazing. Hopefully I don't have a nervous breakdown. I'll give a sweet update about it in a couple days!

WISH ME LUCK!!!!!!!!!

March 18, 2010

It takes guts to fight

My best friend in my village’s younger sister, Kumba, just got married, or engaged, if you want to think of it in American terms. The way marriage works here is that a man will find a woman, usually a girl between the ages of 15 and 17, who he wants to marry. He will go to the family and bring kola nuts. Then they will start talking, setting prices (ie. 2000 dalasis, two cows, two goats and a new house) for the dowry—at no point is the girl asked whether or not she wants to marry this man, unless the family doesn’t do arranged marriages in the first place. Then, once the dowry has been paid, the woman officially has a husband and the man can send for the woman to come live with him at any point. Sometimes they do trial periods in the beginning, the woman will go live in her husbands compound for a couple weeks at a time before she officially moves in. Then, she will move in permanently and once enough money is acquired the wedding is held (could be months or years later—my brother’s wedding is this May and they were married 2 years ago).

So, back to Kumba. She is 15 years old and absolutely beautiful, one of my favorite girls in my village. I had no idea Kumba was also engaged until I brought up Mamatida, how mad I am that my mom doesn’t care at all about her feelings, when I had lunch with Fanta (Kumba’s older sister) a few weeks ago. She informed me that Kumba was also engaged and did not like the guy (who lives two villages away). But, she said, her father told the man, Karamba, he would have to wait a few years to marry her. Fanta (already married to a man of her choice only a couple years older and living in the capital) was applying for jobs at some banks, in hopes that if she were employed, her family would send Kumba to live with her and do the house work. That way, she could avoid the marriage. (Side note: My absolute favorite person in village, Mamatida, who is my 15 year old host sister is also recently engaged, to some guy in his thirties that lives in the capital and supposedly the dowry has already been paid, which means it’s a done deal—she has told me she doesn’t like the guy and is scared.)

So, I was in Kumba’s and Fanta’s compound in my village last week. I didn’t see Kumba and asked where she was. Amie, her sister, told me that Kumba went to Karamba’s place and wasn’t coming back. No way, I told her. Amie has told me this before when Kumba merely went to the garden, so I was hesitant to believe her. But then, Kumba’s mom confirmed that Kumba was at her husband’s but was coming back in a week or so. On my way to Adrian’s village the next day I decided to stop in the village, find the compound and surprise Kumba. I found the compound and met her husband—a nice, very tall many, probably in his late 20’s. I walked into her hut, expecting her to be ecstatic to see me, but instead I found her laying face down on her bed, crying. I was shocked. It took awhile for her to even sit up and once she did she refused to make eye contact with me and her eyes were clearly wet.

For awhile the guy who brought me to her house (probably Karamba’s brother), was sitting with us, so I couldn’t start talking to her, at least not about anything serious. The guy kept asking her questions, are you sick, what’s wrong, etc. Nothing. Kumba wouldn’t even look at him. Normally Kumba is either happy and sassy, or pissed off and sassy, so watching her just sit there lifelessly was like looking at a ghost. I was racking my brain with what could have happened. I immediately thought of typical, bad things—he raped her or beat her. But then I started thinking, maybe she’s being dramatic, trying to make the place seem terrible so I would go home and tell her mom about it. Finally I got the guy to leave and, thank god, she started talking to me. I asked if Karamba hurt her and she said yes. I asked if they had sex and she said no, which was a huge relief for me. Then I asked if he beat her and she said, yes, last night with a stick on her back. F**K.

Like 90% of the girls/women/mothers I hang out with in my village, Kumba is younger than me, but still acts like my older sister. So when it came to dealing with, I had no idea what to do. I wanted to run out the compound and grab Karamba and thrown him against the ground and kick him (how I would manage to throw down a 6 ft man, I’m not sure). Ultimately, and probably for the best, I decided to call Fanta—she would know what to do. Kumba told her what happened and then Fanta asked to talk to Karamba. When I got the phone back, Fanta told me Karamba said he never beat her. I didn’t know who to believe. Did Kumba just not want to be living there anymore or did Karamba really beat her? And if he did beat her, what can I even do about it?

After I called Fanta, an older woman whom I imagine is Karamba’s mother came in to greet me. Kumba said nothing to her and didn’t even acknowledge her presence, which… how can I compare this to something in America. It’s like going to meet your in-laws for the first time and outright refusing to shake their hands our eat any food they prepared for you. Even if Karamba hit her, which, there’s no way I could ever know that for sure, I was appalled that Kumba was acting like that. I was thinking to myself, maybe she’s doing this on purpose, maybe she thinks if she keeps this up the family will be so offended by her that they’ll call off the wedding and send her home. But if that happens, her dad will beat the shit out of her. C’mon Kumba, is that really what you want? The idea of how much trouble she would be in just pained me to think about.

After the woman left, Kumba just lay down and started crying. It was literally torture to watch her cry. Before I left, I just lay in bed with her, holding her as she cried. I felt so helpless, just like I do when I hear a child getting beat by his mother, or a wife getting beat by her husband, and can’t do a thing about it. It would be easier for me to not have to know about it, not have to see how sad she was. Like Mamatida, who never opposes any decision her mom makes, never shows anger or dissatisfaction. I normally hate the fact that Mamatida just gives in so quickly, but watching Kumba suffer like that just made me want her to do the same thing, to stop fighting and accept her fate so she didn’t keep getting hurt (physically) and beat down (emotionally).

Why would she want to be rude to Karamba’s family like that bring that type of pain upon herself? But then I realized women’s rights in The Gambia will never improve if every woman just keeps silently accepting all the shitty social norms she is asked to put up with. It takes strong women (or girls like Kumba) who acknowledge that they way they are treated is not fair and that they are entitled to certain rights, and who are willing to then demand those rights for themselves, despite whatever punishment maybe come. I wish I could suffer the consequences of it for her, but then that would be totally anathema to my goals and philosophy here that Gambians are the only people who can change their country. If I can't do that, the least I can do is be brave for her, stop being selfish about having to watch her in pain and support her in her fight.