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.