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!