November 26, 2009


I just wanted to say thank you to everyone who has sent me an email, a letter, a package, called me and contributed to my grant!! ANDDD thank you for reading this blog. Your comments here and your support mean a lot to me and make this whole experience worth it. Thanks again and I hope you have a wonderful day with your family and friends. Greet the home people for me.

The nightmare that is Muslim holidays

HAPPY THANKSGIVING EVERYONE!!!!!!! I had no idea it was Thanksgiving today until I woke up to maybe 4 text messages this morning saying, 'Happy Thanksgiving!' Although I didn't know today was turkey day, I am WELL AWARE that the day after tomorrow is Tobaski. Tobaski is probably the biggest (and dumbest) Muslim holiday of the year, and it is impossible to escape. Wait, Marnie, you can't just call a Muslim holiday dumb. Yes I can, and I just did.

I have no idea how Tobaski is celebrated in other countries (maybe it's not dumb in Mali), but here, in one of the so-called poorest countries in the world, it is celebrated by buying a ton of crap that no one can afford. It is a four-day celebration that starts with the slaughtering of a ram. A ram can run anywhere from D1,000-D6,000. Let me put that into context for you, a host cousin of mine that drives a cab in the capital, which is a good paying job here, makes D1,500/month. And the people in this country without a salary (probably 75% of the population) don't make nearly that much. Could you imagine spending HALF of your ENTIRE yearly salary on a Thanksgiving turkey??? Well that's what happens here.

There are rams EVERYWHERE you look. At every single car park, there are at least 50 rams being bought and sold, rams being loaded on the roofs of every car, rams being dragged through the street by their horns, RAM NATION! It's crazzyyy. And then there's just sooo many people everywhere, fighting over cars, because everyone's trying to get to their birthplaces (or where their family lives) for Tobaski. It's a complete shit show. Several volunteers are stuck in various places, 4 in the capital, several at other peoples' sites, because the transportation is so crazy that they can't get home.

BUT, it doesn't stop there. No, no. Then all the women and girls need new complets (matching outfits). These run anywhere from D350-D2000/outfit, and you need a different complet for night and day, and preferably, a different one for all 4 days. AND THEN!!!! All the women and girls need new fake hair, which is probably D300. IT'S ABSURD!!!!

Families who can't afford a bag of rice, D600-D800, will blow D1,000 on totally unnecessary things because they don't want to be the only one in the village without a ram, wearing old clothes. This may very well be one of the poorest countries in the world, but it makes it pretty hard for me to feel bad for the people living here when they go and do things like this--wasting thousands and thousands of Dalasis. It's like a begger in NYC begging because he doesn't have food, but then going and spending his money on a new pair of sunglasses and an Armani shirt. He might be starving, but are you really going to feel bad for him? Probably not, because it's his fault that he can't prioritize his spending. SO! That's how I feel about a lot of people here, especially at this time of year.

I sound so negative about this. Sorry. It's just frustrating to see people who don't feed their kids healthy foods because it's too expensive blowing money on new clothes and fake hair. But it's their tradition and culture and we do the same thing. How many people do you know in serious debt in America, spending money on all kinds of things they can't afford? A whole lot.

OH! I forgot to talk about salibo. I guess upon more serious reflection, Tobaski is a combination of Thanksgiving and Halloween, because at night, the kids go around and ask for salibo, money or candy, from other people. However, unlike Halloween, which is one night, Tobaski is four, and the kids start asking for salibo well before the first night. It's super annoying. I probably won't even stay in my village for Tobaski. I'll try to get some pictures of the rams and all that.

In other news, I had a GLORIOUS day yesterday (one of my best days in this country to date), involving 20k of biking with Adrian and spending the afternoon at a pool in a tourist hotel on the near-by island. This post is already too long already, but check back for re-cap of that day and opinion on tourists here (surprise surprise, it's not a glowing review).


November 15, 2009

The problem with sustainability and the way 99% of NGOs function

So, I just talked to a friend of mine who read my last blog post and she seemed to get the idea that the women aren't that reliable and that it takes a lot of prodding from me to get them to do anything, which is absolutely not true.

So allow me clarify a few things.

A lot of volunteers, NGOs, etc. will roll into a village spend a couple days there and declare "You need a ______ (school/library/garden/clinic)!" This sort of situation is the WORST IDEA EVER and not sustainable AT ALL! For example, an NGO walks into a village and says, "You need a garden and we're going to build you one," and all the village people, if you will, are all super excited. The NGO then proceeds to build the garden using all expensive materials instead of local ones, ie. steel poles instead of wooden ones, chain-link instead of live fencing, pumps instead of wells. And the villagers love it and they start gardening. Fast-forward one year to when the pump breaks. Who's going to fix it? Well, no one has the money to fix a pump and since none of the villagers feel any ownership over the garden, it's not anyone's responsibility. So the pump never gets fixed. And the garden ceases to be used and just sits there. Fast forward 5 years, another NGO comes and says, oh, here's this garden just sitting here being unused, let us fix it for you and/or build you a better one. And on and on it goes.

The moral of the story is that if the village people don't actively want the garden or clinic or school and don't take an active role in the planning and construction, it will fail. Because they never had to make any sacrifices for it or work for it, they will not feel any ownership over it and will not feel responsible when things go wrong, which THEY WILL. Pumps break alllllll the time. And so do fences.

What happened with the garden I'm working on is this: I was approached by a guy (the fact that I did not approach the village already gives this project a much higher chance at success/sustainability) who told me there's this great women's group, would I be willing to meet with them. I said sure. I met with them, conducted a series of assessments and found them to be incredibly motivated and organized, more so than any other group I had encountered.

They had one garden and wanted another. But wait! Why should you build them a garden if they already have one? Well, the fact that they already have a really stable, working, maintained garden means that they are responsible and would likely care for another one. And not everyone was able to get plots in the first garden. I would much sooner help build a garden in a village with another, already working garden, then a village with an unused garden, because that shows me that someone came in and built a garden and the people in the village didn't care enough to maintain.

So we discussed the design, area, and features of the garden. We settled on using all local materials except for the barbed wire. The carpenter we used to assemble the barbed wire fence (which is done!!!!) is from the village, as are the well diggers, who are digging LOCAL wells.

I agreed to help them raise money for the barbed wire, the well materials (cement, rods, wires) and the labor costs for the carpenter and well diggers. In return, the women were responsible for collecting and erecting local fence posts, bringing in cart-fulls of sand and gravel for the well-diggers and clearing the land.

While I am very excited for this project to be done and be successful, they are ALL 100 times more excited than me, and that is a good thing. It means they care about this project and will care for its maintenance in the future. Not once have they asked for help or money with the activities they can perform themselves. Everyday they go out there and work on it, whether it's digging fence holes, or clearing the land, they work hard. And they complete every single task I give them. I am not just coming in and making decisions and throwing money at the land. They are the ones calling the shots--location of well, how many garden beds per woman, how many beds will be allocated to seeds, how will the fence posts be erected, who should dig the wells, etc.

By giving them control and ownership of this project, the women will see the garden as a product of their hard efforts and they will feel responsible for it in the future. AND by using all local materials and laborers, they will be able to address any future issues. The barbed wire is the only none local material. But, we will dedicate 10 garden beds to nursing sisal seedlings (sisal is like aloe and works great as a live fence, meaning that you plant them 1m apart along the perimeter of the garden and after a year or two it grows enough to act as a fence). So once those seedlings are nursed, they will be transplanted in between each fence post, so that when (and it certainly will happen) the fence breaks down and the barbed wire comes apart, there will already be a fence in place and they won't need to spend any money fixing it.

So, because of this careful planning, which was done with input from the village every step of the way, and because of the complete desire on the part of the women to make this garden work, I am 100% confident that it will be standing 5 or 10 years from now. I can't stress enough how vital it is for the group of people you work with on any project to desire the success of the project more than you. A project can never be successful if you take on more responsibility than the beneficiaries. Does that make sense? If I was to walk in and say, you need a garden, instead of them coming to me saying we want a garden and will do anything to get one, it wouldn't work.

So there you have it, the women are motivated, capable and work their asses off. I only talk about deadlines because it is a nation-wide epidemic that Gambians never do anything on time. But so far, everything is getting done. I mentioned in the last post that the fence should be finished within a day or two, and it was, and that the door should be picked up and erected, and it was. Everything is going great!

November 14, 2009

Garden pictures!

This is a few members of my women's group checking out the seeds I brought back from the capital, Banjul.

This is a picture of the garden before anything really got done. A couple fence posts set up.

The woman on the left is Alonso, the group's president. Unfortunately her last name is Jabbi, not Martinez. (Note: The barbed wire fence in the background, look at how much progress was made from the above picture in just a few weeks).

Some of the kids moving logs.

The process of well building. They build the cement rings first and then lower them in. Who knew?

The tractor we hired to plough the land

More tractor action.

November 7, 2009

Believe it or not!

Things I love now:
Dried Fruit
Tomatoes (off the plan in my backyard)

Things I will eat in other foods:

HOW TO: build a garden in The Gambia

I'm sorry I haven't posted pictures or videos recetnly, I haven't been to the capital for a month. But I have a ton of stuff to post and will be going in next week, so keep an eye out. In the meantime, for those of you interested, I'm going to go into some details about what this process of making the garden has been like. For those of you not interested, skip it.

Because no one has cars here, transportation of materials is a serious pain in the ass. If I lived 10k off the road and far from any towns, it would have been extremely expensive and annoying to get all the materials from Banjul, the capital, to my village. Fortunately for me, everything except the barbed wire was available in Bansang, a town 1k from the garden. I cannot begin to describe how much easier this made the process. Thus, my biggest concern was getting the barbed wire from Banjul to Bansang. Fortunately for me, again, the owner of a store in Bansang that I frequent (called Pa Foaud's, I'm sure I've mentioned it before), was in Banjul getting supplies and agreed to take the barbed wire back to his store. Problem solved surprisingly easily.

According to our grant timeline (a lovely formality, as nothing, and I mean nothing, happens on schedule in this country), on the day I purchased the barbed wire, the women's group was supposed to have erected all the fence poles. But, they hadn't. I told them that I couldn't get the money until all the tasks they agreed to complete in the grant application were done. This was not true, but I wanted to make sure they held up their end before they received any materials. So, I didn't tell them that the barbed wire was at Pa Foaud's until a week later when the task had been completed at which point they sent a donkey cart to retrieve it. In retrospect, this lie was probably unnecessary, because they really are so reliable. The fact that they finished their task only a week behind schedule is phenomenal.

Then I met with the women's group and the carpenter and well digger, for a second time, to verify start and finish dates (again, a formality) and pay them half their labor fee. At this meeting, my counterpart suggested we write a contract for each of the men. The men signed the contract, agreed to start work the following Saturday and were paid. And the following Saturday, they BOTH started work! I cannot explain to you how amazing this is. I bragged to EVERY SINGLE volunteer I talked to about the fact that work was actually going according to schedule with this garden. No one could believe it. Mind you, according to the contract, the fence should be finished today, but probably won't be until tomorrow or the day after. But still, by GMT (jokingly referred to here as Gambian Maybe Time), that is a great success.

Between the meeting with the carpenter and well digger and the start date, my counterpart and I went into town (Bansang) to purchase the rest of the supplies-- 92 bags of cement, 100 rods, 50 kilograms of nails and 3 kilograms of binding wire. Everything was available at one store. I paid for the goods, happy to be rid of the 60,000 Dalasis in cash I had had buried under my underwear in my house (better than under the mattress where every other Gambian keeps his money). Everything was totaled using a hand-held calculator and after the purchase was made, I was given a hand-written receipt by the store owner. And as promised by my counterpart, by the next evening, all the materials had been brought to the village by donkey cart.

They (the members of the women's group) do everything they say they're going to do and I don't even have to hound them about it. I cannot, cannot explain to you that while all this seems very normal to you readers, it is ANYTHING BUT normal for us volunteers here. Nothing ever happens on schedule, without hang-ups or serious prodding. My experience with this garden thus far has been nothing short of a miracle, and everyone here is very jealous that I am working with such good, reliable, motivated people (again, not the norm for Gambians).

That's not to say there haven't been a few hang-ups here and there, but they have all been minor and were resolved quickly. For example, the day before yesterday, I went to see the garden (I probably go three or four times a week just to check-in, and I am surprised every single time that things are still going according to schedule), and I ran into the well digger who said he hasn't been able to work because his "push-push," commonly referred to as a wheelbarow, "is having problem." Despite the 12,000 Dalasis given to him two weeks ago, he says he has no money to repair it. Well, I think, that's your problem, buddy. But my counterpart and I discussed it with him and agreed to give him an advance of 500 Dalasis to be taken out of his final labor payment. And just like that, problem solved.

Let me just add that I have never seen the well digger not wearing his shirt with a huge middle finger on the front. I'm not sure if he knows what this means. I've seen many funny clothing articles here, like the shirt worn by a 45-year old man that said, "Free Sex Toy," and then the arrow pointed down said, "Inflate Here." Tons of clothing is shipped here from America and rarely do the people buying them have any idea what they actually say. This leads to hilarious combinations, like an old woman wearing a Metallica shirt and a 14-year-old boy wearing a hat that said, "Life starts at 40."

But anyway, everything is great with the garden. Inshallah, the fence will be done today or tomorrow. The door we commissioned to be welded yesterday should be done by 5pm tonight. And once it is erected, the women can begin to start planting seeds. Note: If another PC volunteer read this paragraph, they would laugh at my naivete, convinced that the carpenter will travel or get sick and the fence won't be done for weeks. And that the door will have a problem or it will sit completed at the shop for days before the village retrieves it. But, they have not worked with these women and men and do not know them as I do. They are dedicated and want this garden much more than me (which is the only sort of project a volunteer should take on). I have total faith in them and this project. Already, we have made so much progress. The garden looks completely different than it did just a month ago. And anytime I walk around the garden, I see the fence, and the wells and the people working, and I feel so proud.

October 22, 2009

Updated package wish list!!!

*Haha, and I thought this was the end all, be all list. I took out PB, it's widely available here, not sure why I wrote that, and added tuna and chicken packets, raisins and craisins, and anything Kashi (I EAT RAISINS NOW, can you believe it?!)

This is for those of you who have been asking me what to send in a package... and also for those of you that haven't been asking. As for those of you that already have sent me letters and packages, THANK YOU SOOO MUCH!!!

This list is entirely comprehensive. You never need to send anything to me that isn’t on this list and I would like to get everything on this list all the time.

-Tuna Packets
-Chicken Packets
-Freeze dried meals/just add water-- pasta ones
-Freeze dried desserts/just add water-- not fruity ones, ha.
-Dried fruits-- apricots, mangos, peaches, raisins, craisins
-Sun-dried tomatoes
-Good nuts-- cashews, pistachios, almonds etc. (Just no peanuts!)
-Trail mix
-Fruit leather
-Salami-types that don't really need to be refrigerated
-Parmesan cheese!!!
-Teriyaki jerky
-Bacon bits, the more real the better, or even pre-cooked bacon that doesn't actually require refrigeration
-No-bake Jello pudding or cheesecake mix
-Any and all bars-- Kashi, Luna, Cliff... anything
-Drink mixes-- Crystal Light, Gatorade, etc.
-Emergen-C and Airborne
-Kashi Go-Lean cereal (not crunch)
-Anything by Kashi
-Spaghetti sauce packets, like Knorr, or Asian sauce mixes

Define normal

Entry from my journal- Oct 21, 10:30pm:

So I just smoked a clove (are they actually illegal now in the US?? I can’t believe that!). I don’t smoke often, but some nights, when the sky is particularly beautiful and I am sitting in my backyard it just feels right (don’t worry, Mom, I promise I rarely smoke). So anyway, as soon as I finished the clove, I took my fourth poo of the day. So now—worried that I might shart myself—I am starting to regret my decision to have one in the first place. Hold on, time to make it number five.

And back. Phew, it’s always bad news when I have to switch from my usual squat to the Gambian squat (feet totally flat on the ground). It means I’m in it for the long haul. Anyway, poo-ing aside, well actually, poo-ing included (I don’t poo very much here, so I welcome any and all poos), all is well now. For the first time, maybe ever, I really feel like I’d rather be living here than in America.

Let me qualify that. Do I want to be home for a week/month and see everyone and eat delicious food? Of course I do. But do I want to be living there for good, never to come back here? No.

Wanting to be here more than home is a relatively new phenomenon for me. Even a few days ago, I was still grappling with whether I could actually stay here for the entire 27 months and be happy. I don’t really know how or when this happened, because not much has changed in my life recently. Granted, the weather’s better (PRAISE ALLAH!), but nothing’s changed in my work. And it’s not like I suddenly no longer feel used by my family and fit in perfectly.

In fact, I was at Tavi’s site (another volunteer here), and her family is amazing, basically the complete opposite of mine. Totally appreciative and grateful of anything and everything Tavi and her husband, James, do. Their host sister refuses to let them fetch water and insists on doing their laundry (while my family overcharges me for mine and sometimes doesn’t thank me at all when I bring gifts). It was amazing to feel like our being here is a privilege to Gambians, that we should be appreciated, not extorted or used.

That being said, I’m starting to accept my family and my place in it, which makes it easier to not feel guilty about being gone, or reading in my house, or saying no, etc. But mostly, I think the reason I’d rather be here than America is because life here has become normal and life there now seems weird. Although some things here are still a pain in my ass—like how disgusting my house gets, having to sweep it every day, washing dishes, etc.—it’s all ok. (Well, actually, the state of my house at the moment is really stressing me out, but I realize this is not a Gambia-specific problem. I hated cleaning in America, too.)

This notion—that life here is now more normal to me than life in America—hit me when I was sitting with Adrian in Bansang, thinking back over my day, and realized that at no point did any of it seem weird to me.

The day: I left Tavi’s house at 8:15am. She lives about 1 or 2k in the bush, so we walked and got to the road around 8:30. We waited 30 minutes on the ONE north bank road (and could have waited hours), before a car showed up—a truck, that agreed to take me all the way to the Georgetown north bank ferry. The ride was pleasant enough. I only got toubab’d twice. But, surprise surprise, they didn’t take me all the way to the crossing, just to the police check point before the river.

*As I mentioned before, Georgetown is an island in the middle of the Gambia River, a river which divides the Gambia in half. So to cross from the north side of Gambia, where Tavi lives, to the south side, where I live, I have to take a ferry across the river on the north side of the island, go across the island in a car, and then take another ferry across the river on the south side of the island. (Make sense? No? Map it on Google.)

So I walked another k to the ferry crossing, sweating balls and sunburned. Even though people and cars were waiting to cross, the ferry was parked on the other side, appearing like it wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. No problem, clearly the government transport system never operates in a timely fashion. So I hopped in one of the small boats and went across, pleasantly surprised that the engine started on the second try. Then I got in a gele-gele to take me across the island to the south ferry. But first, we sat in the car for several minutes while bags of rice and a goat were loaded on the top of the vehicle, totally normal. We got to the ferry crossing and because the ferry has no working engine, we had to pull ourselves across the river. There were so few people so the women pulled, too. “How great,” I thought to myself. “And look at that girl in pants!!” There were no cars on the south side going to Bansang, so I snagged a ride to the next police checkpoint, where I waited for a car. I was again pleasantly surprised when one came 15 minutes later. I arrived at Bansang around 10:30.

To sum it up: A 35k trip (about 21 miles) took over 2 hours, 3 cars, and 2 boats. That seemed fairly reasonable to me.

I met Adrian in Bansang and she wanted coffee, so we went to a restaurant near the car park (one room, a couple of bunches, tons of flies, lots of mayo and MSG). We sat outside on a bench that had one side missing the leg and so was propped up on a bidong (a 20 liter jug formerly used to carrying cooking oil, but now used to carry fuel, honey and, in my case, drinking water). Adrian drank her coffee. As we sat, we watched the town crazy walking around, harassing people. I was surprised to see him in Bansang since last time I saw him, he was in Basse (a town about 55k away) and was asking me for money to get to Bansang. No way I’m paying for you to come back to Bansang so you can yell, “It’s the German!” at me whenever I walk by, I thought. I got thirsty and we tried to figure out which boy I could send to get me a bag of water. But then Adrian noticed that the ‘shop’ behind us had a fridge. So I woke its owner up, the guy sleeping in the chair behind me, and he got me a bag. Then I busted out the salami Tavi gave me. Neither of us had a knife, so we proceeded to take a few bites straight from the salami.

At some point, I looked around and thought about my day and realized, “Oh, this is actually not normal at all.” But up to that point, I hadn’t even noticed. Had I left Tavi’s, gotten on a bus or in a taxi and gotten to Bansang in 30 minutes, THAT would have been really weird. Or, if I walked into a restaurant with no flies and A/C and ordered a cold soda and a burger, THAT would have been really weird. But pulling myself across a river on a broken ferry, sitting in a car with a goat strapped on top, eating straight from a chunk of salami and drinking water from a bag all seemed totally normal. And I’ve only been here a year. I started to understand why it’s so hard and scary for people who have been here for two years to go home: This life truly does become more normal than the one in America.

But until that point comes for me to start freaking out and wonder how on Earth I’m going to adjust back to life in America, I’m going to sit back and enjoy the fact that I’ve somewhat adjusted to life here and no longer want so badly to go home.

October 15, 2009

A day in the life (October 14, 2009)

6:30- I'm sleeping outside (way too hot to sleep inside) and wake up to my cat meowing outside my mosquito net (I got a cat! Well, a kitten, and mainly for mice control. He's orange, so I named him Sake, after the Japanese word for salmon, not the alcohol). I lift up a corner of my net and let it in my bed and go back to sleep.

7:00- Wake up for real to the sound of rice being pounded, donkeys making noises and roosters crowing. My village is a farm. I get up, drink my daily cup of water with Airborne. Wash some dirty dishes, using a bucket of water and cup to rinse. Sweep the debris from my roof, mice poop and dirt from my house. Open my door and greet my family.

7:30- I talk to my friend Adrian, a fellow volunteer, who is currently biking from her village to our Central River Region Meeting on Georgetown Island at noon. It's not nearly as official as it sounds, it just means all PC volunteers in the CRR are convening at a bar on the island to talk about our work and drink. I would bike all the way there (about 15k), but I have a bad infection on my foot so I will be taking a gele-gele instead.

After passing my house, Adrian will stop in Bansang to get some water (There is only ONE road, and since both my village and Bansang are on the road and between her village and the island, she HAS to pass by them). Because I have no electricity, it’s always difficult to keep my phone charged. Luckily, there is electricity in Bansang. Since I'm not heading into Bansang for a few more hours, Adrian agrees to drop my phone battery and charger off at a store in Bansang so it can start charging as early as possible(current is on from 9am-2pm and 7pm-2am).

7:45- I need to go meet Adrian on the road to give her my charger and battery, but I decide I have enough time to fetch some water first. I head to the pump. Fill up my bidong (A yellow 20 liter container of water, previously used to hold oil). I leave it at the pump (I'll carry it home after I see Adrian) and head to the road. I'm hungry so I buy a 4 dalasis (20 cents) loaf of bread and munch on it while I wait for her.

8:00- Adrian comes, we chat for few minutes, I give her my stuff, wish her luck on the ride. On my way back to the pump, I stop and visit my Gambian friend that just found out she's pregnant (this will be her 10th child, she is not yet 40, needless to say, she's not pleased at all). Then I carry my bidong home on my head (which is so painful because I got my hair braided, with fake hair, so sort of like a weave).

8:30-10:30- I make breakfast-- cinnamon/sugar toast. I butter the bread, toast it face down in my skillet and then put cin and sugar on it. DELISH! Then I sit around in my back yard, play with my cat and finish my book, Vinegar Hill, not amazing by any means. After that, I pack my bag and get ready for our meeting.

10:30- I ride my bike into Bansang (where I will get a car to the island) and stop at Pa Fouad’s, the store where Adrian dropped off my battery to charge. I learn it is not fully charged yet, so I tell them I’ll get it on my way back. I leave my bike in the back of their store, buy a bag of water and walk to the car park.

11:00- The car (actually it's a huge 14-person van) that's going to the island is only half way full (it will not leave until it is completely full). I strategically put my bag down in the car to secure a window seat for myself. Then I head to wait in the shade, dreading the long wait ahead, wondering if I should just go wait on the road for a private car that is heading in my same direction. Like I said, only one road. I am pretty far East up-country. So every single car that passes my village traveling West will definitely be passing by the island. Luckily, the driver starts to gather people into the car. Turns out a lot of the passengers were sitting under the shade, like me, and not in the car, so the car is actually full.

11:30- We’re off! I’m wearing an over-sized mallard duck tank-top, given to me by another volunteer, no bra, some local pants, and a huge fula hat (think pointy asian man hat) that I am bringing for one of the volunteers at the meeting. And this is a TOTALLY normal outfit.

12:00- After stopping at three different checkpoints (either Police, Customs or Immigrations), we reach the ferry crossing. There are no bridges in this country and this ferry has had a broken engine for months so it has to be pulled across. Mind you its very small, holds only 2 cars and the distance to cross is about 100 ft, but it still takes a long time. I could swim across sooooo much more quickly but the water is disgusting. I make my way to the front of the ferry because I know the car waiting on the other side to take people across the island will get full fast. The man working the ferry asks me for my hat--typical--I tell him it's not mine, sorry. We reach the other side and I run to the car and I nab another window seat, what luck!

12:30-4:30- At the bar, about 10 other volunteers there. Drinking. Eating. We talk about work. I get the owner of the bar to bring out a huge boom box and I play the Paula Abdul and BFF mix-tape (Thank you Lindsay and Lizzy) that my mom mailed me. Everyone loves it. I am rocking out. Several times while speaking, a new song starts, and I have to pause and clutch at my heart, ie. Keith Sweat- Nobody, Take My Breath Away.

4:30- The meeting adjourns. Those who have bikes proceed to bike back to the ferry, those of us who don’t head to the car back to catch another car back across the island. No cars there, we decide to walk (the island is about 1 or 2k wide). On our way, we see our bike friends stopping to buy things. They pass us about half way to the ferry and as a joke, I yell “N samba! N samba!” which translates to, “Me take!” and is yelled at us by children anytiem we’re on our bikes. Alicia stops and says she’ll take me. So I climb up on the back of her bike. I’m pretty high up and every move I make shakes the bike. I feel a little bad for the other 3 people I left to keep walking, but we’re almost to the other end, and more than likely I’m going to fall anyway.

5:00- I can see the ferry ahead when I hear a car coming. I’m holding on for dear life because Alicia almost goes off the road. It is a truck, in which the friends I left walking are now sitting, waving. I no longer feel bad for them at all. It is a military car, which like the police cars, rarely ever gives PC volunteers rides. Several men in full-on military gear get out of the car and are talking to me. One starts hitting on me. I say my husband is living in Banjul (the story I tell everyone), but sense that I might get a free ride from them to Bansang, so I keep chatting. But like I said, the military guys are usually pretty mean, so I wasn’t getting my hopes up.

5:20- We cross and they agree to give me a ride!! I’m sitting in the back seat in the middle. They’re listening to music and, with a secret laugh to myself, I tell them I have some American tapes, do they want to hear? Yes. So I give them the Paula Abdul tape and they put it in and blast it. And are all rocking out and I am just cracking up, wishing there was someone else there to appreciate this scene—big, bad military guys blasting Paula Abdul. They love the tape and ask me to leave them with the tape, but I refuse. I promise to make a copy of it and bring it to their barracks next time I’m in Basse. When I get to Pa Fouad's, I almost forget my tape. They all admit they were hoping I wouldn’t remember to ask for it back. The whole thing is hilarious and makes my day.

5:45- I pick up my bike, phone battery, bag of water and grab some stuff for dinner and breakfast, pasta, tin of tomato paste--Adrian is sleeping over and we're going to cook. I pack up my bike and head home.

6:30- I’m super sweaty and dirty when I get home, but I sit outside with my family to wait for Adrian (who is biking back), but I decide to go fetch another bidong of water, for cooking and in case Adrian uses a lot in her bucket baths (which she does). I get back and Meeta goes to bathe, so I help stir their dinner which is churro—-pounded rice and peanut, boiled with sugar, usually for breakfast-—my favorite. I’m sad that I already bought the stuff to make dinner with Adrian and won't be eating it.

6:45- My mother starts to pray, which Meeta’s baby, Hawa, strapped to her back. Meeta comes back out and yells at me in Mandinka to stop stirring and, “Go take Hawa, Mom is praying.” So I stand next to my mom—not sure if you’ve ever seen Muslims pray, it’s really intense, they don’t break their concentration for anything, and don’t acknowledge anything else going on around them. My brother’s daughter could be crawling all over him while praying and he wouldn’t even react. So I’m standing there, not really sure if I’m supposed to say something, if she even heard Meeta, or what. But she does some hand movement that I think means go away, but actually means come get Hawa, so I stand behind her, careful not to stand on the prayer mat and hold Hawa while she unties the fabric in the front. Then I just sit and hold her until she’s done praying. By which point Adrian has arrived.

7:00- Adrian and I cook, eat, sit around. By that, I mean, while Adrian is bathing, I cook the pasta and start cooking the sauce. She finishes bathing and helps me stir the sauce. We eat. I rub some Gold Bond on her back where she has severe heat rash.

7:45- Exhausted from the bike ride, Adrian goes to lie down. I go and sit out with my family. My hair is itching soo much so I have my sister, Mamatida help me take them out. We're all talking and because I say, in Mandinka, “I swear to God,” about not hearing my name being called earlier in the night, Meeta starts interrogating me about whether I know what that means, who do I think made me, etc. Discussing religion is never a favorite topic for me. I tell her my mother and father made me, which elicits laughs. And she asks again, who made me, and I answer God. The way I can say this and not feel like I’m lying (I don’t really believe in ‘God’) is by telling myself that when I say God I just mean the energy of the everything. I tell them, I say God, you say Allah, but it’s the same. They ask me if I pray, and I tell them, Yes, but my praying is different than your’s. They question me more about that, whether I believe in prophets, in Mohammad, etc. Then Kemeseng, my brother says, It is all the same god, just a different religion, which I feel sums it up perfectly and is an extremely thoughtful statement. The mosquitos become unbearable so I head into bed, with half my braids still in.

8:30- My friend Amie comes to visit, which, by Gambian terms means, she sits in my house with me. After greeting, we don’t really talk. Then after about 15 minutes, she says, Ok, thank you, I am going now. And I say, Ok, thank you.

8:45- Adrian and I get into my bed outside. We chat for awhile, my braids are still itching me unbelievable and I start pulling them out. The last one is stuck in really good and hurts so much, but I finally get it out. Then we chat some more, send some text messages. I read a bit and we go to sleep.

And then it starts all over again. Hoping to post some pictures soon soon. THANKS EVERYONE! LOVE YOU ALL!

October 1, 2009


All the money has been raised! Thank you so much to each and every one of you that donated and/or spread the word. Thanks again!!

And keep an eye out for the best post ever, coming soon!

August 14, 2009


Do you ever read my blog and feel guilty about all the starving kids in Africa? Well
here's your chance to help!


As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have been working for the past six months with a nearby women's group to write a grant for money to fence off a garden and dig wells. These women are among the most dedicated and hard-working people I have met in this country.

As a community, they will supply hours of unskilled labor and all of the local materials, but it is nearly impossible for Gambians to gather enough money to build quality fences and wells. But, you can help these women generate income and provide their family with nutritious food at a relatively cheap cost by American standards--less than $4,000.

Any amount of money you'd be willing to donate would be greatly appreciated by me and the village. You can rest assured that your money will NOT be wasted on middle men or any government bureaucracy. It goes straight to me and will be entirely spent on materials and labor for this garden. And I will be sure to post pictures and updates as the project gets underway.

I know all of you are busy, but it will only take 5 minutes. So please click the link below to read more about the project and donate using a credit or debit card. And please, whether or not you can donate at this time, forward this link to anyone you think might be interested in donating.



July 14, 2009

Grey Matter

In every way, being here has made the grey gap between black and white much larger. Growing up, I often thought solely in black and white, making pronouncements like, “If my husband ever cheated on me, it would be the end of our marriage.” I’m not saying I have ever cheated on someone. I haven’t. But now that I’m older and have been in several relationships, and more importantly, have observed the relationships of those around me, I see how easy it can be for someone to make a mistake. And I know now that there are other healthy ways to deal with such a mistake besides ending the relationship completely.

When I was younger, I also thought child and spousal abuse were unforgivable crimes and that anyone that beats his wife was a bad person, bottom line. But here I am, living in compound with a host brother that once beat his wife so badly that she took her daughter and left the village for several months. All because, after smelling the laundry he gave her to wash, she threw it back at him saying, these aren’t dirty.

And yet, I really like my brother. In fact, I think he’s a great guy. He actually works, does physical labor. He has taken only one wife and has no interest in taking a second, third or fourth. He is a great father and spends more time with his children than any other Gambian man I have observed.

But, he is still a Gambian man. If he wants a glass of water, he will wake his sleeping sister up to go fetch him one, instead of going himself. He once hit three small girls on the back, extremely hard, who were talking about a rape accusation in the village, because they were “too young to be talking about such things.” It took me about a week to even look at him after that and several more to not be disgusted every time I saw him.
When his 15-year-old sister, who is quite possibly the strongest, most capable girl I have ever met, got into a fight with a boy at the pump, I asked him who won, assuming it would be Matida. But to my surprise, he told me the boy had won. I said, “But Matida is so strong.” “Yes, Mahana,” he replied. “But boys are stronger than girls.”

Were this America, I would hate him and never be able to see any of his redeeming qualities. I do still grapple with being innately irritated by him for no actual reason, aside from the fact that he honestly believes “boys are stronger than girls,” and that girls are dumber than boys. But, because I am living here, in The Gambia, where wives and children are beaten more often than not, and men sit around doing nothing, while women work themselves sick, I see that my brother, Kemeseng, is more respectful of women and children than the majority of his male counterparts. He may do or think some terrible things, but he cares about and loves his wife and his family. In no way is he perfect, but he is a good man.

Being able to like someone that does things I hate is a totally new phenomenon for me. But because I have realized that people are not good OR bad, they are both good and bad, I am able to feel lucky to have him as a host brother. When I learn to love, or even just like, the men in my village who consistently beat the shit out of their wives—even when they’re pregnant and have done nothing wrong—then I can really feel enlightened. But until then, I am pretty content with my progress thus far.

In other news, there’s a pair of spiders having, what appears to be, sex in the corner of this room.

June 22, 2009

Babies in buckets, Obama gear, beer and some work here and there

I walk out of my house yesterday and see the baby, Hawa, sitting upright in a bucket. She looks up at me, unsure of how exactly she got into that bucket in the first place. Not having any answer, I wonder where on earth her mother is and who the hell is watching her. And, for the first time in a long time, I feel like I’m exactly where I should be.

Because my house is on the road and in a central location, I often have visitors, or strangers as they are called here. For example, when people see me with another white person, they call out in Mandinka, “Mahana, you have a stranger?” or if they speak English, “Mahana, you are having a stranger?” It never fails to make me laugh. But since I came back from Turkey, it’s been crazy—at least every other night, there has been someone else staying with me at my house—all nearby Peace Corps volunteers that are passing through for one reason or another. Although it can be slightly stressful—making sure there is enough water and that the place isn’t completely disgusting—I’m not complaining at all. I love having visitors and know that many people are jealous of all the people that come stay with me.

When I have ‘strangers,’ my activities for the day usually include taking them to get internet or to the market in Bansang, the neighboring town, to buy the most delicious panchettos (fried dough balls) in the country and look at all the ridiculous Obama shirts and pants (You wouldn’t believe how amazing the Obama gear is here. Some shirts say “First Afro-America President” or “First African American to Sit White House.” Another has a picture of the first family and below it “OBAMA” in sewed-on letters, and in the middle, a map of the world titled, “Climatic Zones of the World.” That one’s my favorite. I can just imagine two guys sitting at a computer, “Ok, so we’ve got the picture of the family and ‘OBAMA,’ what can we put in the middle?” says one guy. And the other one says, “Well, we’ve got that climatic zones clip art on the desktop, right?” There’s also a pair of pants with his face airbrushed on the front left leg, and on the back pocket it says, “Republicans for Obama.”). Then we go to Pa Fouad’s, a store in town, more importantly, the only one that sells cold beer, and spend anywhere from 2-6 hours just sitting in plastic chairs in the shade behind the store drinking bags of water, black Fantas and Julbrews (Gambia's national beer). Getting up now and then to buy the occasional omelet or bean sandwich.
As a result of having all these visitors, I’ve spent way more time than usual just hanging out with other volunteers at Pa Fouad’s. In fact, after having beers so often before noon, I taught Musa, Pa’s son and the one who runs the store, the American saying, “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere.”

But, despite these seemingly wasted weeks, I’ve actually managed to get in lots of great work. In fact, during these last few weeks, I’ve had my most productive and successful work days to date. I’ve always advocated work hard, play hard. I guess things don’t change, even in Africa.

So I had promised a post about my activities, aside from the hours at Pa’s and the hours spent reading (I finished 4 books this week), so here goes:

1. I go to the hospital probably two to three times a week to check on the malnutrition ward, meet with the Nursing School principal, and occasionally check my email, update my blog and charge my phone. Right now, the malnutrition ward is a disaster. And after beating myself up about it for months, I’ve decided that it’s not my responsibility if the hospital staff doesn’t function properly. I was supposed to have the end-all meeting today about accountability and record keeping with the 2nd in charge of the hospital and the 4 head nurses in the pediatric ward, but the former informed me this morning that he’s too busy. So, it will have to wait until we both get back from Kombo (the capital) next week. Surprise, surprise. Out of all my activities, this one is by far the least enjoyable and most tedious.

2. Luckily! I have started working with a women’s group in a nearby village and it is by faaaaar the project about which I am most excited. My mentality about work here is to wait for people to approach me with ideas or ask me for help. It is not my job to motivate people and talk them into working on a project they don’t care about. So, I try to make it known to everyone that I am here and willing to help in areas such as health talks, record keeping, saving/profit management, income generation projects, etc., so that were an individual so inclined and motivated already, he/she would come to me and seek my help with a specific project. And that is just what happened with this women’s group. A man, Musa Kanuteh, approached me and said he works closely with an unbelievably organized and motivated women’s group and that they would love to meet with me. So I said I’d be happy to come.

The meeting went better than I or anyone else could have possibly imagined. Number one, it started on time. I cannot convey to you how HUGE that is and how rarely that ever happens. It started small, with myself, Musa and another man that works with the group, both of whom speak English. There are almost always a few men in every women’s group, serving as the treasure and/or secretary, because they are the only literate and English speaking members. And as a result, I’ve heard many examples of men taking control of the money and decision making. So I was a little irritated that the women weren’t being included in the meeting. But they were soon ushered in and everything was translated. I did what is called appreciative inquiry, which means I tried to find out about their strengths. I spent several minutes asking them questions about what it is they do, their activities, how they generate income, what happens to the money, who is in charge, what is the hierarchy of the group, when do they meet, etc. I found that Musa did not exaggerate; they are by far the most organized women’s group I have ever heard of, they even have a bank account and are already registered at the capital. I did a few assessment activities—I split them into three groups and had each draw a village map and then created a seasonal calendar with them.

After this, we got into the real work, ie. What they want. They have a garden, but the fence is no longer intact and they want to extend the garden. So first they need a new fence and more wells. I think that every single Peace Corps Volunteer in The Gambia encounters this exact same situation. People always want you to give them money for fences or wells. I didn’t necessarily want to apply for grants, but after all my assessment; I felt this group was competent and responsible enough to make good use of the money. So I am going back Wednesday, with a fellow agriculture volunteer, to see the garden and assess what exactly is needed in terms of fencing materials and wells. So I will likely be meeting with them once a week to determine the best way to acquire specific materials, start a live fence, dig the wells, etc. As things happen, I will describe them here.

3. I am heading to my friend, Ashley’s, village tomorrow to give a talk on weaning foods, which is what babies should eat after 6 months, when they are no longer exclusively breast feeding. The idea was conceived when Ashley looked at her baby brother’s clinic card, he is 9 months old, and found that he has not gained any weight in the last 3 months. So we met last week to prepare for the talk. We drew some diagrams and pictures on a rice bag to show during our talk. I got a recipe for weaning food and picked up the ingredients we will need. So I will leave tomorrow morning for her village and we will give the talk/demonstration after lunch and I’m hoping to get a good turn out!

4. There is a really great Senior Secondary School (equivalent to our high schools) across the street from me. Recently, I have just been helping them type out their end of term exams. But my friend Adrian just started an Environmental Education club there and I went to the meeting last week. I have talked to the principal about starting a Current Events club. I have heard of other volunteers having a lot of success with that and I think it’s a great way to get kids to think critically about a wide range of issues. I’ll let you know how it turns out once it gets going.

5. I also hope that if I get to know a good group of girls, I can start a girls’ club, either with the school or in my village. Recently, I have been spending most nights lying with my sisters inside their house. Because it is just the three of us—their mom and older brother are always outside—we can talk about their boyfriends (girls are never supposed to have boyfriends or tell people about it, obviously boys can have two or three) and even sex. It was so awesome to have them open up to me like that. I feel like I finally bridged the gap and now they feel comfortable talking to me, because for so long they insisted that they didn’t have boyfriends. I can tell they have a lot of questions and concerns, so I would really love to get a group of girls together to discuss health issues and also just offer support for one another.

Ok, that’s all for now. I hope that was informative for those of you wondering what activities I’m doing. LOVE YOU ALL!!

June 4, 2009

Coming back from vacation sucks

Well, I got back from a glorious trip to Turkey on Monday and being back was unbelievably hard. It wasn’t hard because I left a hotel bathroom with a heated floor and three course dinners for a hole in the ground and a communal food bowl of bland rice. It was hard because I left a family that knows the real me and a place with people that speak the same language as me and look the same as me, to go to a family that I can never fully communicate with and will never really understand who I am and to a place where I stick out like a sore thumb and am constantly hassled. And by the transition being hard, I mean I was on the verge of tears for about 48 hours and cried in several different locations during the trip, including the airplane bathroom and the backseat of a station wagon.

It all started in London, well technically on the way there. During my flight from Istanbul to London, I remembered my first time in Heathrow. I stopped there on my way to Rome for my semester abroad. I didn’t have my Alitalia boarding pass for my flight to Rome and spent hours running around being told different things by everyone, going through security three separate times and eventually missing my flight. I never found the Alitalia desk, but I did find the VIP Lounge where I burst out crying and told my story to the nice lady working there, who booked me a new ticket. After that I sat down in this seat in the waiting area silently crying to myself. Even when I arrived at my apartment in Rome, I still felt sick to my stomach. Everyone was already asleep (missing my connecting flight got me in at around 1am) and I thought, I must have missed out on so much. What if I don’t fit in or make friends? I remember thinking, I should have never come. But then Katie came out and saw me and gave me a big hug, and suddenly it was all ok.

On the plane from Istanbul, I started recalling how overwhelming that first trip to Heathrow seemed. I thought about the details of the terminal—the escalators up to the restaurants, the tons of designer shops, the huddled groups of tourists, the toy airplanes flying over my head—and I wondered if I came to the same terminal again, would I recognize it and would it seem as scary? As fate would have it, my flight from London to Lisbon landed me in the same terminal: Terminal 2.

Although I was not in any danger of missing my flight to Lisbon, I was again in that seat feeling alone and scared. I ended up having an 8 hr layover at Heathrow and before I got to Terminal 2, I met up with my friend, Brian, who is getting his masters at LSE (Thanks for the CD, Brian! I love it!). Don’t get me wrong, seeing him was really fantastic. We went to Whole Foods, obviously, and then walked through Hyde Park. It was beautiful, so beautiful, and we were having such a wonderful conversation that the whole time I kept questioning why the hell I am in Africa and not in London or NYC at school or working, where I could actually communicate with people. And more than that, seeing all those people out together with friends and family made me miss my friends and family so much that it physically hurt me. I honestly can’t explain the emotional and physical pain I felt when I got back to Heathrow, but it was like nothing I have ever experienced. Anytime I thought about them or about going back to my village, I had to fight back tears and an awful feeling in the pit of my stomach.

Usually, I try my best to be constantly aware of my emotions, so that I can quickly let go of harmful ones. Being able to remember exactly how scared and alone I felt the first time in Heathrow and also remembering that the feeling eventually passed should have made me realize that THIS feeling of utter loneliness and desperation would soon pass, as well. And it did, but just because I realized that doesn’t mean the feelings went away

I tried telling myself that by the time I get to my village, I won’t feel like this anymore, that there was no reason to hold on to such feelings—but it didn’t work. For some reason, I just didn’t want to let go of the sadness I felt that day. I just couldn’t do it. In fact, after spending the few hours before my flight fighting back tears, I took my first opportunity once I got in the plane to find the bathroom and have a good cry.

Not until I actually talked on the phone with my host family and could hear in their voices how excited they were to have me back did I start letting go of those feelings. I slowly started feeling more OK about going back to my village. And since then, I have been feeling totally fine about everything. And I’m heading back to my village tomorrow and am really excited about it. So don’t worry about me!

Aside from all that, I wrote a lot during my transit from London to the Gambian and here are some excerpts, if you’re interested.

5/31/09, 3:50pm
Were I living in London, I would face the same issues I have now. It’s not like I would have some big group to picnic with in Hyde Park—well in NYC I would, but not in London. So clearly the point isn’t to find the place where you are happy, but to find the people/things that make you happy in the place you are now, because it’s not the city that quells loneliness and depression, but the people in it and around you.

6/1/09 10:50am
I am on my way to Barra, listening to Celine Dion’s “Because You Loved Me” (Whitney’s “I Will Always Love You” just finished) as I stare at the slum around me. The dichotomy between this and my past week is beyond words, but already I have switched over into non-tourist mode, refusing to take a taxi because it cost D15 (about 60 cents) more than the gele. And so the scenery around me once again seems normal.
As I look at the grime under my nails and my bra I recently stuffed in my bag, I feel happy to be back. No one judges me here. But now, once again, I am the foreigner, the toubab with tons of money. Ever since Dakar, that has been bothering me to no end. This life would be a lot easier if I didn’t stick out like a sore thumb, like one brightly painted neon green house in the middle of all white ones. And that’s the hardest part—how much of myself do I keep when trying to integrate? I never had a problem being called Mahana [my Gambian name] before, but now it makes me feel like I’m playing a role. I’m trying to seem as non-foreign as I can, but it’s impossible. There’s a saying here- no matter how long a log lies in a river, it will never become a crocodile.

So where’s the point where I’m still integrated but also being myself? Is that even possible? How do I know when I’m being too inflexible or when I’m losing too much of myself? I guess I have 20 months to figure it out. Then again, reading Kafka on the Shore [by Murakami, AMAZING! Read it!], I’ve been thinking a lot about time. Times in my life when I was the happiest—Rome, senior year of college, the few months at home before I left for PC—how in those instances I wanted to freeze time and live in that moment forever. So I try to re-create those places or find them in life, not wanting to accept that that period of time will never again happen in my life. So how do I get that pure happiness back? Is it possible to be happy indefinitely? Even if you hate your job, apartment, mother-in-law, etc.? Is the way to be happy to change those things—quit your job, move—or is the point to find happiness despite those things? OR is just something that is fluid and comes in and out of your life, like people you meet? Can it ever be permanent? Can someone live in a constant state of happiness? If so, I imagine it has more to do with one’s mindset than surroundings because a person in a constant state of happiness should, in theory, be happy anywhere. How do you do that?

Well loyal readers, that’s all for now. Thanks for all the encouragement. I keep hearing about more and more people reading my blog and its really really awesome. I’m planning to publish a post next week about all the projects I’m planning in my village, so keep an eye out!

April 27, 2009


Well, just a quick update. My brother's thermometer broke only three days after its first use because of the extreme heat. It is now stuck at 120. Kind of ironic, like how my spatula melted while I was cooking pancakes. I mean, it's made to work in the heat, no?

Also, it was 140 the day before yesterday.

April 21, 2009

Sweat and Me

Well it's unbelievably hot here. My brother's thermometer only goes up to 120, but it maxes out there every single day. I'm guessing the day before yesterday was over 130. And it's only getting hotter. But my body is adjusting really well, though, it's amazing! I woke up on my outside bed this morning, wrapped in my fleece blanket, and I was freezing and didn't want to get out of bed. It was 75 degrees.

But during the day it's still HOT. I've learned to just live in sweat. I take 3-4 baths a day (which is CRAZY! as I used to refuse to shower more than once a day in America). I change shirts pretty often, but not that often. I've learned that if you just leave a shirt in the sun for a couple hours its as good as new. Most days I just hang around in my compound, laying on the bantaba (shaded area in the 'yard') with my family.

It's not just me, though. ALL the Gambians constantly talk about how hot it is. In fact, the heat is mentioned in every single conversation I have, everyday, no matter who it is, no matter what is going on.

For example, when I see people while riding my bike home from the hospital, the usual dialogue goes:
Them: You are from the hospital?
Me: Yes.
Them: But, Mahana, the sun is very hot, no?
Me: Yes. Yes, it is.

Or if I meet someone new:
Them: Where are you from?
Me: I am from Bantanto
Them: AH, but Bantanto is too hot!
Me: Yes, Bantanto is hot.

In other news: I have become a HUGE advocate of child punishment. Because the vast majority of kids here are amazingly well mannered and hard working (basically the completely opposite of kids from America), the few that aren't really stand out and get on my nerves. Like my brother's daughter, Aminata. She's the kind of kid that cries just as hard if she really hurts herself as she does if someone tells her no or takes something back from her. It's really unnecessary.

So when I first got here, Kemeseng and Meeta, my brother and his wife, never hit or punished Aminata. But now they do and I love it. I'll watch Meeta tell her to give back a spoon or something, and Aminata will refuse. And Meeta will ask several more times, and still Aminata refuses (the way kids say no to something is by pulling their arms against their body and saying, "M bang!" which is really really rude). So Aminata does that and I know its over and think, "Ugh, finally," as Meeta hits her.

It's never overly hard or rough. It's always very appropriate, I think. But sometimes I remember that this sort of thing is not at all condoned in America, and it seems very weird. Why not? Well, I think a big reason it's not too bad here is that people don't drink alcohol, which contributes to a lot of excessive child abuse in America. So that helps a lot, and I can't imagine all the other problems that would arise if Gambians were drinkers. So I thank Allah, literally, that alcohol is prohibited.

Well that is all from me. I LOVE AND MISS YOU ALL!!

April 3, 2009


So this is a little walk-thru of my house:

This is a video of my 15-yr old sister Mamatida, who is SOOO strong carrying a FULL enormous bucket and pouring it out into a jibida:

Just a walk around town:

Bru-bru, which is the burning of stray hairs after braiding, I've had it done to my head a few times. The talking on it basically consists of me and Meeta (the one doing the burning) making fun of Dobally for being a wimp, and noting that even I put up with it better than her:

Pictures with the fam

March 29, 2009


Random things I love about living here:

-Sleeping under the stars every night

-Being able to pick my nose anywhere, openly

-Projectile spitting toothpaste wherever I want in my backyard

-Throwing trash wherever I want in my backyard (or for that matter, anywhere in the country--but I still have trouble doing that)

-How easy it is to pee or poo in my latrine during my bucket baths

-Eating with my hands and generally keeping a pretty low level of cleanliness

-How being a toubab (white person) basically allows me to do anything I want and get rides from most private vehicles--in some ways we are given similar rights to the men

-Getting a delicious meat or bean sandwich from a street cart

Things I am proud of:

-Being able to speak Mandinka pretty well and greet in all three local languages: Mandinka, Wolof and Pulaar

-Killing bugs in the pages of my book while reading at night by smashing the book shut, usually I kill anywhere from 5-20 each night, depending on how tired I am

-Sweating profusely all day and night and feeling totally fine about it

-Coming up with witty responses when people ask me to buy them stuff--such as the woman who told me to buy her son shoes and I pointed to attaya (the tea that they drink all the time and spend all their money on!) and I said how much is that, and she said 25 D (which is the same price as shoes), so I said, don't buy attaya tomorrow and buy your son some shoes

-Slightly overcoming my fear of bees and wasps

-Being able to fall asleep without listening to music

-Cementing my floor, by myself!!

-Never killing spiders and in fact feeling safer when they are around

-Killing a scorpion

Foods I now eat (and love!) that I used to hate (or never though I could eat):

-Green sauces


-Coos (which is millet, used as birdseed in America)

-Canned tuna, well, tuna period

- Chef Boyardee, even if it’s unheated

-Kraft parmesan cheese

-Protein bar and jerky flavors I previously refused to eat

-Fish with bones in it (they’re too hard to pick out, so I just eat the bones)

-Breakfast porridges

-Powdered milk

Random rules, cultural norms:

-ALWAYS GREET, even your family, even your closest friend

-Always eat or offer things with your right hand, and use your left hand to touch anything dirty (ie. Nose picking, cleaning snot from babies, bathroom usage)

-Men (even soldiers and police officers) walk around holding hands and it’s normal

-Never step on a mat with shoes

-Wash your face in the morning before leaving your house

-Don’t make eye-contact with older men (very difficult, because I feel so rude)

-Don’t show your knees, unless you are working in the garden or in the privacy of your own compound

-Hitting children is ok, and often totally excusable (I came very close to hitting several children yesterday)

Things I don’t like: (Didn’t even think to include this, I guess that shows how much happier I’ve been lately- YAY!)

-When I am sitting with a group of men, and another man comes and shakes everyone’s hand but mine, and just in general the way women constantly work and men constantly sit around

-How lazy everyone at the in the pediatric ward is, and the fact that right before I left they were blasting both the radio and the television because the current just came on

-That I almost just spelled pediatric, paediatric, because that’s how they spell it here

-How terrible my grammar has become, and the fact that I have actually gotten dumber

-Listening to the same 3 songs OVER AND OVER, that Gambians always play on their tape players

-How hot it is

-Having to greet all the time, sometimes I just need to get somewhere quickly, so when I bike to the hospital I take this out of the way path to get to the road so I can avoid going through the village

-Priorities: people would rather spend money on attaya, sugar, fake hair, or new clothes before spending it on soap or nutritious food

Please send me:

-Kashi Go Lean cereal--not crunch (I know you all think crunch is soooo much better, but I disagree

-Any other “healthy” cereal

-Beef jerky

-Canned/packaged chicken and tuna

-Parmesan cheese

-Canned pasta (think Chef Boyardee-type stuff)

-Bars (zone, kashi, luna- just no fruit flavors)

-Bug spray (not to kill them, but to keep bugs off my skin, like OFF)

As for answers to everyone’s comments:

Shwi: I already do rock it!

Mrs. Sprague: People sell and harvest peanuts and rice. Some own shops, some work as tailors, others make goods—like bamboo beds or baskets. Most of the women also have gardens, so many sell their vegetables. (Ps. I’m almost done with Ender’s Game, it’s great!)

Mich: Yes, they have twix here, but only in the capital.

Rief: The scariest thing that happened is definitely all my run-ins with the kankoran or maybe the scorpion in my backyard. Or actually, maybe when this one girl in the ped ward was really sick and kept spitting up tons of blood and everything was super chaotic and I was cleaning her face and it was really scary.

Sarah: The people here have amazingly soft skin, especially my host sister and the new baby.

Brooke: No

Anna: I duno if there’s one thing I could think of changing. I guess I would make education was more of a priority to the people here.

**ALSO, I just finished reading, Three Cups of Tea, it’s really amazing. It’s nothing like my situation here, but still a really great book.

March 12, 2009

Just for fun

Loyal readers (hahaha): My friend did this on her blog and I thought it was a good idea. I know that people are reading this blog, but I don't know who. So I want you ALL to comment, its easy just press the comment button RIGHT NOW!! And tell me:

1. What are you doing right now?

2. What's the last thing/meal you ate?

3. Is there anything you want to ask me or general questions you have?


March 8, 2009


I know I have talked a lot about the kankoran, and now you can see him (actually, there's two of them) in all his glory. Pretty frightening outfit, huh?? And yes, at the end that is us running away from them.


A slightly scarier kankoran video, note the machete, not sure if you can hear his creepy scream. Thank god circumcision season is over!

So this is some dancing that went down in my village the other day. Any events like these they call, "programs." Its pretty funny, I don't really know why. But anyway, this is EXTREMELY SCANDALOUS dancing. The fact that these girls are shaking their butts inches away from this guy playing the drums and lifting up their shirts is insane because directly flirting with a man is in no way condoned, women aren't even show their knees. So anyway, I was initially appalled, but clearly as soon as I got used to it I jumped in and shook my ass. The girl in blue happens to be my host sister.

**Also, its always awkward when I look down and realize that I'm white and everyone around me is black. I always forget just how much I stand out.

More scandalous dancing! I tried to zoom in and adaquately capture the ass shaking, but people could see my camara screen and I thought the people around me would think it was weird.

February 16, 2009

Deep Thoughts with Jack Handy

Well... haha, I don't even know where to begin. I am here only, in Africa, living in a hut with a thatch roof. I know you all think its so crazy that I'm here, but so do I. Life here has definitely not become totally normal yet. And in fact (don't worry, I'm not going to leave, I just think about things), I wonder why I'm putting myself through this.

I am currently sitting drinking a cold soda and using internet. What is a totally normal activity for most Americans, is the most amazing treat for me! A cold beverage?! Are you kidding? It's a dream. If I were in America, I could have as many cold drinks as I want, AND eat any kind of food that I want, AND use a washing machine, etc. So I just think, what the hell am I doing here, struggling everyday, going through a rollercoaster of emotions, when I could be in America having such an easy life.

I spent my whole life always working towards the future--college, turning in my thesis, graduation, etc--never focusing on the present. And I came here thinking that I could get away from that, the only living for the next step. But, I'mhere and still doing the same thing. Only this time, its--Ok, you are suffering now, but soon everything will be great, AND THEN, think about how much more you will appreciate life when you get back home. And think how proud you will be when you finish. And it's true. But a small part of me just thinks, but is it really worth it?
And clearly the answer is yes. It is worth it. And I know that. Even though in one day I go from being ecstatic and loving life, to feeling miserable and lonely, several times over, I know that in a few months, I will have settled in a lot more, and there will be many more highs and fewer lows.

In other news, I am actually really happy and enjoying my life here. I have started working at the hospital and I really, really love it (see, my mood can change in seconds!) The people are great, so friendly and fun. On my ride home from the hospital today, I was just thinking how happy I am and how excited I am to start working full-time. It doesn't hurt either that the hospital has electricity. So during the hot season (which I'm told has already started--I think its been around 100 recently and may get as high as 130 in April and May), I can sit in the hospital and have air conditioning and cold water, which is fabulous!!

I don't have a specific job right now--I work a few days a week at the RCH clinics (reproductive and child health), where babies are screened for malnutrition and given immunization injections. I like it because I get to greet in all the languages, which, in my mind, proves to the women that I am not some random tourist, and that makes me happy. Tomorrow, I will start working at the malnutrition ward. I went through it during my hospital tour and it was really sad, so I'm not sure how well I will fare, but we'll see. So M-F, 9-2 (or basically whatever days I want to go and whatever time I want to show up) I will be at the hospital, either working at the clinic or in one of the wards. And then in the afternoons, I usually sit and chat with my family or other compounds in my village. Then around 4 or 5, I fetch water, bathe and hang out in my house until dinner, which is around 8. I've also been cooking more and more for myself, which is great.

I'm really excited to get into a routine and am pretty confident that life will be a lot easier once I do that. In fact, I am feeling much better write now than I was when I started this blog entry. I honestly cannot convey how often my emotions fly around in a day. It's crazy. Ok, well I hope everyone is loving life and doing great (CAN YOU BELIEVE ABOUT CHRIS BROWN, BTW!!) I love and miss you all!!!

February 4, 2009

Adjustment in all its glory

So, I have been in my village for just over a week now. The first week was really tough. I was kind of numb the first few days, I think I was just so overwhelmed. But I tried to just take it one day at a time and I spent most of my day unpacking and setting up my hut or reading. But after a few days, I stopped being able to take it day to day, and started thinking about being here two years and started freaking out. But then, like magic, I woke up on Day 8 and just kind of felt fine and, for the first time, had the desire to go out around my village and explore and meet people. I even cooked spaghetti and sauce for my entire family last night. They loved it and were re-heating it for breakfast this morning.

I’m never sure exactly what it is that’s so scary about living here for two years, but after thinking more about it, I’ve come up with a few contributing factors—unfamiliarity and lack of control. My friend Adrian and I went to a lumo (market that only happens once a week) on Saturday and it was insane. Just getting there was such an experience in itself, as traveling in jeles always is. And then we got there and there are sooo many people, smells (the smell of dried fish, which my family sells, is pretty awful), colors, animals, it’s a bit like sensory overload when you first arrive.

At one point, we saw a donkey-cart traffic jam that included maybe 30 donkey-carts that were stuck in the middle of the road, and on the one hand, I think, wow, this is hilarious, I love it. But on the other hand, I think, holy shit, this is crazy, what am I doing here for 2 years?! And so I realized it is my being entirely surrounded by totally unfamiliar things, people, clothing, foods, and languages that is so scary and overwhelming.

The other thing that makes being here for 2 years seem scary is having no control over several huge decisions and many day-to-day decisions in my life. It is always scary to move by yourself to a totally new city, but normally you get to pick out your neighborhood, apartment and choose who you want to be friends with. I did not get to pick my village, family or house. And although I love my village, family and house, as a result of living with a family, I still face all the problems that come with sharing a living space. So I have to learn my family’s routines and find a way to integrate into their way of life while simultaneously establishing my own life and routine.

Eating is tough, because have no control over when I eat and what I eat and I don’t particularly like the food my family makes. I feel bad telling them I don’t like their cooking so I started cooking on my own. And at first I felt guilty not only because I was not eating their cooking but also because I was not sharing my cooking with them. But I’ve realized that it’s ok if I don’t like their food and I shouldn’t feel bad about cooking for myself. So now, I usually eat a little with them, and then when I get hungry, I cook some food for myself and it works well.

But it is further complicated because I am paying rent. See normally, when you are living with your family, you aren’t paying rent. Or, if you are renting an apartment, you don’t have to feel guilty about not being friends with your roommates or never being around. So it gets really hard to do my own thing without feeling guilty and often I feel I am riding this very thin line between living detached as a renter and being a member of the family.

Eg. If I know my sister is outside slaving away at the family’s laundry and I am just lying on my bed reading, I start to feel really guilty, that I should be out there helping, because even though I’m not expected to, I’m a part of the family, right? Or, when my brother asks me to borrow my bike is it rude for me to say no, even though Peace Corps tells me I’m not allowed to let anyone else use my bike?

So right now, I am trying to work on finding a middle ground that works for me and feel less guilty when I want to do my own thing, because I know that it is really hard to offend Gambians. Ok, that’s all, the electricity will turn off in 10 minutes so I have to go!! LOVE YOU ALL!!

January 25, 2009

Here goes nothing...

I leave tomorrow to start life as an official Peace Corps Volunteer. Which means no more paninis, chinese food, ice cream bars, twix, hamburgers, movies and internet (which I've been using for almost 5 hours every other day, enough to almost make it seem like I am not in Africa). I'm actually going to be communicating through snail mail again and I'm pretty excited for it. I'm hoping to get some fun letter-writing chains started. Like I said, I vow to write back every letter I receive. So C'MON! WRITE ME A LETTER!!

Other than that, I don't have much more to say. I'm pretty excited slash secretly soooo nervous to go back. But I'm able to not think about it by not allowing myself to think about anything except the next 10 minutes. It's basically the same way I didn't allow myself to think about leaving for the Peace Corps at all before I left (maybe living life in the present is all about denial?). And that worked out pretty well, minus my nervous breakdown during the first two days. But this time I have friends to call/text and I know what to expect, so I'm not too worried.

Mostly, I'm just hoping the kankoran/male circumcision season is over by now. Because my limping around with one crutch isn't going to get me anywhere quickly if the kankoran should come while I'm, say, pumping water or washing clothes. Here's hoping he takes pity on the crippled white girl!

Here's my address again:
Marnie Florin, PCV
U.S. Peace Corps
PO Box 582
Banjul, The Gambia
West Africa

January 19, 2009

Pondering Life's Big Questions

So this was just some random writing I did in my journal. I didn't intend it to be a blog post, but I got into thoughts on being here and life here and life in general and all that. I'm a little hesitant to post it here, but I think it could be interesting for some of you. So I hope it is.

So, I just broke my foot last week and am currently on medical hold. We swore-in as official PC volunteers about 4 days ago and my entire training group went back to their respective sites 2 days ago. So I am just hanging out here in the capital at the PC house until my foot heals. I’m hoping to only be here a week, but probably it will be more like two or three. It would be really fun if I could walk around, but it’s such a pain to get anywhere—ie. crutching 100 yards to the street to get a car, crutching from where I get dropped off by the car, etc. But I’m managing way better than I thought I would be. I go out, I went dancing. It’s pretty awesome. I’m really proud of myself for going around and being able to do almost all of the things everyone else can do.

Life here other than that—well, it hasn’t really started. I finished training last week and won’t be back at site to start working as an official PC volunteer for another few weeks, until my foot heals.

So I just re-read the first sentence of that paragraph—that life hasn’t really started, or won’t start until I get to site. And I don’t know why it feels that way? Right now, I am staying in Kombo (the capital area). and like I said, I don’t really feel like this is life, like I’m doing anything meaningful. But I feel fine and happy, because I know that my time here is limited and I will be leaving in a week or so for site, where my life will start. But why is it that I feel like this isn't really life? And instead of this bothering me, it actually allows me to feel happy and stressfree. It’s the thought of going back to site for the next 2 years—starting life, actually living life—that scares me to death.

I’ve tried to figure out why the idea of going to site is so scary. Until now, during training, I had a schedule for every hour of every day—learning Mandinka, doing health stuff, etc. But in one week or two weeks or whenever I actually get back to my site, I will have absolutely NO schedule AT ALL. And when I arrive and have every hour of every day totally free for the next two years and can’t segment out my life, I think I will freak out. But, I can’t actually figure out what it is that is scary—maybe it’s just having so much free time, not knowing what on earth I am going to do with myself everyday. But would being super busy in the states really be better? Is it, in fact, easier to have a crazy schedule that includes 10 hrs a day in an office than it is to have a totally open schedule all day, everyday? I don’t know… In all honestly though, I think it probably would be/ is a lot harder to be happy in the US. And I think I will have just as many highs and lows here as I would were I living in the states for two years.

So then I try to sit and figure out why I am so afraid to have so much free time—to live without schedules and endpoints. I guess it forces you to live in the present. But I just can’t pinpoint why it is so scary or, actually, so hard to just be present, to just live in the present? I don’t know… Does everyone working some 9-5 office job with no end in sight feel this impending fear? Is that life? I don’t know. I have no idea.

And I mean, really, there is an end in sight for me. I am here for only 2 years. But after that I will leave here and then what? Maybe I will go to grad school. And then what? When does life actually start? I mean, I know this is life now, but why do we always have to be working towards something, or looking forward to something to be happy and feel alive. Why can’t you live every day for that day, and not look towards the future. Why is it so hard to feel alive or fulfilled just by living in the present—being happy, forming relationships, bettering yourself?

For the first three months at site, called three-month challenge, you’re not supposed to start any big projects or anything (in fact, some PC people advise you to wait at least a year to start a big project or to not even do one at all, and instead to focus on more grassroots activities). So for the next three months, I am expected to do nothing but fully immerse myself into my family and village. Most people get really antsy during that time and feel like they need to be doing something. But I’m really looking forward to just hanging out and I don’t think that will happen to me, because, well, I’m lazy and usually content just doing nothing.

So, I hope that during these next three months, and next two years, I will learn that I can keep myself happy here even if I’m not working towards some big goal—that I can live in the present, enjoying each day, without having to constantly look towards the future. I hope to accept that I’m not going to change the world or end poverty or anything like that in two years and that’s ok. That just by learning about this culture and how to live a different way of life I am working towards something. And if I spend each day here working to be a less judgmental person, trying to gain a deeper appreciation of life and a making new friends— then, my time here and life as a whole will be a success.

January 14, 2009


These first pictures are from the swear-in ceremony today at the ambassador's house

Ida, me, Adam and Haddy (who I just call hottie). They are a few of the language teachers we had and just generally amazing people

My entire training group. The health people had matching fabric and the Ag-fos also had matching fabric.

Adrian, erin, me and jes... check the cast

Another fantastic shot of me in the cast withCass

My health group in our matching outfits

Now some more pictures from training village that forgot about:
Me with a baby goat. They're the cutest. Also, note the bandage on my arm...

...From when i fell bike riding. it has since healed nicely

In front of my house at training village

They like to write phone numbers on the walls of houses, if you look under that smear you can see my phone number

Kasey, me and Lizzy Lizzy

Me and 1/3 of the tiny man crew with... MY NALGENE