August 8, 2010

Cultural Differences and Rice Paddies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 3, 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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