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).

1 comment:

Jan said...

Marnie, I continue to live vicariously through you -- albeit from the total comfort of my Sacramento home.


I love your postings and am totally in awe of all that you have done in Africa. What will I do when you come home??!??!?

Make the most of your remaining months, good luck with the LGBT project etc. etc.


Jan Ferris Heenan