Sunday, March 29, 2009

It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye...Maybe Because Mandinka Has No Literal Translation?




Where do you begin when something so big is coming to an end? For the second time in my two year service, I’m once again asking myself this question. Ironically, the first one happen to be right after emerging from the bush upon the end of three months of intense language, culture, and technical training…

I won’t even begin to try to summarize my feelings about experiences during these past 27 months. Hopefully they’ve been somewhat appropriately expressed by the tone of individual archived blog posts. But I will say I am incredibly glad I joined the organization, incredibly happy I decided to stay the entire 27 months, despite multiple periods of doubts, and finally, incredibly relieved to be coming home. For some reason, memories of the first three months of training remain the most vivid, like biking that lonely 10k on a road so pot-holed that mountain biking became a bizarre phenomenon in a nation with absolutely no mountains, to the nearest town to attempt (NOTHING is certain in the country, I soon discovered) to phone home and get my sweet fix with a package of stale cookies. During those months, I frequently mentally projected myself further into the service, with uncertainty of how I would fair without being able to see loved ones for that much time. In the back of my mind, though, a friend’s voice resonated about taking it step by step and persevering through difficult times because brighter ones were bound to be just around the corner. So, keep on keepin’ on, I did, and that advice, along with a running regimen, achievements with the support group, afternoons with my host family and the cashew fruit, to name a few, helped me get to the very end of the service. It definitely doesn’t feel like it has been 15 months since the last time I’ve left the African continent and seen the faces of family and friends back home, but it does feel like a significant amount of time has passed. Although the time passed could have easily been 4 months, or 4 years. Months were irrelevant, possibly because of the 100% chance of sun 9 months out of the year, and when I received letters from home recounting events which included specific dates, I found it tremendously difficult to compare a personal frame of reference with regard to time and events here in Gambia.

Throughout the past month, I’ve been able to take advantage of work winding down and participate in a bit of the tourist scene (the difference being that breaking out my mad Mandinka skills instantly proved fecund, sometimes to the point where the line between traditional Gambian hospitality and profit-seeking entrepreneurs became blurred, in my favor). While the weeks began dwindling down and the mercury level once again rising, I found myself making lists. Among them, lists of souvenirs to purchase, lists of people to say goodbye to, and lists of places to visit. One weekend I killed two birds with one stone by riding out to visit my good friend and site mate near the beach, Mai, where I picked up a painting I had commissioned from a local artist a few weeks earlier. The next morning, after an enjoyable overnight visit, I rode on to Sanyang, the last beach village I had been meaning to bury my feet into. Even though I had forgotten my swim suit and book, it was one of the most enjoyable and laid back days I had experienced in while, thanks to the generous hospitality of the lodge staff and a couple of friendly folks on holiday. A few of weeks later, I ventured up country with Mai for the final time, with plans to visit an isolated park known as Baboon Islands, on the way to my final VSN meeting and event, and hopes to spot some Gambian wildlife that ISN’T chosen as sacrifice for Muslim ceremonies. And let me tell you, we were not disappointed! In an afternoon boat ride we became familiar with many of the park’s cared for chimpanzees, as well as multiple families of monkeys, a myriad species of birds, troupes of baboons and even two hosts of basking hippos.

Finally, the last couple of weeks have been spent visiting places and greeting faces around Brikama and Bafuloto one more time, as well as closing up shop with reports and appointments with Peace Corps. On March 19th, the first two friends from my own group, Amanda and Peter O, went back to the homepeople of “the land of the free.” It was a bit surreal seeing them off; more natural than I had anticipated, but an air of sullenness existed among the crowd from which I expected. Then, on March 20th, I spent the last night in Bafuloto, with two of my friends, Beth and Allison, during which we ambled around village, the two girls taking digital pictures with a camera, while I mentally burned additional images of my surroundings for the past year. Although the moon was just a sliver of a smile in the sky, the last bucket bath was refreshing and cool and as always, made me feel just like a new person. Then, just before bed, Ndey and Ardo (who stayed up past her bedtime helping to provide enough light with the torch lamp) preformed the process of staining my feet orange, with the traditional decorative art form of henna. Predictably unable to sleep, I rose with the crows the next morning and set out with my host mom to thank and receive prayers from the Alkalo and surrounding neighbors, which unleashed enough emotion that by the time the car came to pick me up, words and blessings were pretty much all that came out. This past week I’ve lived at the Peace Corps hostel in Fajara, in order to wrap up shop with meetings and appointments, but not with out the necessary beach time. I also went back to the GIG farm to say a proper goodbye, to which they responded with a small thank you ceremony that was completely unexpected. The very last night was spent with a handful of my very favorite people here in Gambia. Being a Saturday night, we went all out, starting at the traditional karaoke joint and ending by dancing our socks off (which is pretty easy here because everyone wears sandals and flip flops…)

What’s the next step? Allah only knows. For the time being though, I’ll be in Dallas trying to re-adjust to more choices from one grocery store that in the entire country of Gambia. I’ll be spending time visiting family and friends, which means catching up with you, so send me an email or Facebook message. I’ll have high speed Internet; something else to adjust to. cmgilman@gmail.com So, until then, fo watti doo, fo sila kotenke, fo natoo, until next trip...

Kaiyra dorong & kanoo
Peace only and love,

Mariama Camara
Courtney Gilman

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Duel Identity

Two years spent residing in a remote African village is just the right amount of time to cause someone to have an identity crisis. This I believe. Spend six months, and you’ve convinced yourself you have learned everything there is to know about the causes and even the solutions to the afflictions of the people with whom you are working. Make it a year, and you’re convinced everyone would be better off if you just went home. How much more homesickness can one person endure, anyway? Stay on for a whole other year, and something else entirely happens. I believe, at this point, just the right amount of time has elapsed in order to have an advance grasp of the local language and culture, but only enough to realize you can never become a native national. It is also just the right amount of time to recognize all the entertainment and technological advances that have taken place back home while you’ve been gone, and to begin not to mind about catching up on them. Confliction sets in.

Upon joining the United States Peace Corps two years ago, my group was advised to pack light; leave valuables at home, among those, our expectations. Perhaps the culture shock or lifestyle transition would be cushioned if we did. I wanted to follow that advice and tried to. Yet all I could think about upon introduction to my temporary three month training residence, a two room mud hut with pit latrine, and host parents who didn’t speak a lick of English was: how on Earth could anybody do this for two whole years?! Then, just as shock value began to wear off, we were ceremonially given our Muslim names, to which we were supposed to answer for the rest of our service. Looking back now, I am still not sure how I got through some of those really low periods, almost psychically predicted by our medical officer.

But I believe spending two years outside a comfort zone allows another one to be created. And when I think about saying the final goodbyes to my Gambian family, heartstrings I never even knew existed begin tugging and aching. Some of the most valuable friendships were acquired during this time, which in turn, led to the re-evaluation of some other relationships back home.

Despite the misconception that time hasn’t been suspended while I’ve been away, it’s hard to mentally ascertain the degree to which this revolving world and its people, have evolved. Internally, I can feel that I’ve grown as an individual, and even though a reflection is the closest someone will ever get to view their own self, mirrors can still be deceiving. With that said, I believe, in order to ultimately understand the degree to which I’ve personally progressed, it looks like I’ll simply have put my faith in others, and let them be the truest judge of my new identity.

Friday, February 13, 2009

22+2=Re-turn 2 Home

The other day I was re-reading through some older posts with the idea that I would read one of them at our COS dinner. This one, in particular, stood out to me. The dinner setting wasn't conducive to a 5 minute reading, but I figured it might be interesting to re-visit a projection of the last 22 months, with less than two until official completion!

The following is a re-post:

I want to try to give some mental pictures of a few things that repeatedly stand out in my mind, especially in the areas of culture, race and religion. The end of this month will bring 5 months in country. To me, that signifies that one of my closest girlfriend's 2 week old baby is actually going to be 5 months old. It means I've seen the moon wax and wane (yes, dear Gambian child, the same one we have back in America)and the stars disappear and reappear under this bountiful, African sky, through a five-cylce period. It means 22 more months of service; which seems like quite a bit of time to dedicate to help improve the lively hood of the support group members, as well as exchanging cultural beliefs, but will probably fly by. It means 22 more months of not meeting friends back home at my favorite pub after an endorphin-filled-my eyelashes are going to hurt tomorrow-climbing session at the gym, playing fetch with the dog, or seeing that hyped-up summer flick. It means a pretty good chance at becoming near fluent in Mandinka, and if you are a believer in that saying "you are what you eat", look for the person in the airport 2 years from now that highly resembles a mango. It means a chance to teach my sis and her kids some English and how to read a little, as well as watch her youngest take his first steps. Twenty-two more months will allow me to hear approximately 3,350 more prayer calls over the mosque loud speaker. I've come to find the entire process of Islamic prayer mesmerizing to watch, comforting to hear, and overall beautiful to live among. At first, I thought the idea of subjecting an entire country to the ways of Alla was disrupting so many church and state, not to mention noise violation laws, that a complaint box somewhere simply had to be overflowing by now. Wasn't there such a thing as separation between mosque and state?! Apparently not when more than 95% of the country's citizens claim the same religion, in this case Islam. Now, only 5 months later, I look past 22 months and wonder what it will be like not to live among one of the only constants that I can immediately put my finger on. Five times a day, corresponding with sunrises and sunsets (currently: 5:50am, 2pm, 5pm, 7:42pm, and 8:42pm), the Imam (prayer leader) flips the bull horn to the on position, mats are rolled out, shoes are removed and women's heads are covered with brightly designed scarves, and every practicing Muslim in Gambia faces east. From there, they start their eloquent series of Arabic versus while first bending from the hips, then knees, ankles and finally the neck. I am naive to the number of times and the significance to it all and I can't help but feel that my nervous glances towards and away the mesmerizing movements are somewhat legitimate; like the same feeling of uneasiness I would get from taking communion during mass where everyone knows I'm not Catholic. I'm encouraged more now than ever to seek out an English version of the Koran, as well as other religious texts, to add to my repertoire of the dozen of books I have a good chance of finishing by the end of our "3 month challenge".

Five months in country has also allowed me to whole-heartedly recognize that frightened look on a toddler's face as we nervously stroll towards each other, unsure of one an other's intentions so we stay away from sudden movements. Did I forget to take off my Halloween mask that I wear to bed every night? I'm guessing that's not the case. Am I the first person of unlike pigmentation they've come across or remember during their short life thus far on this giant earth? This, a more likely explanation, makes me wonder if the hurt, uncertainty and struggle I feel from this hysterical, retreating child is at all similar to the pain that those of unlike pigmentation felt (and possibly still feel) in the States. I'm not really willing to go there right now, but it defiantly makes me think, so I want you to think, too.

I also want to try to explain how there is a whole realm of how people live. First and foremost, most people seem pretty happy. Yes, it is true that they are without a lot (a lot, a lot), but they are happy. For some reason, happiness has always been high up on my important things in life, so I'm glad to witness happy people. Of course, I work within the health sector, so I also see not-so-happy people. I see people who are illiterate, walk up to 1/2 k to fetch clean drinking water (think about that the next time you flush your toilet), people who work SO hard Monday so their family will rice for supper on Wednesday-get the idea? But, please, don't think that because people are missing out on tons of luxuries we are accustomed to, that they are sad, poor, people. They are people who live in a developing world, where their culture and religion is of utmost importance, and brings a since of pride and happiness to their world. Yes, they could use money for schools and teachers, health care, transportation, infrastructure (my list could go on and on), but I am glad to witness that most people are fairly happy.

On a lighter note, I get mangos hand delivered to me by a naked 3 year old on almost a daily basis! My sister and the kids are going to Basse tomorrow (where I hear it fluctuates between 100-130 degrees on a daily basis) and I'm tagging along for the ride. I'm excited to see where she and her family stay, as well as see the rest of the country. Rest assured, I'll give a full report when I get back!

Work is good. I went to a workshop with some support group members this week. It was for Mutapola, a women's empowering movement for women support group members around the country living with HIV/AIDS. It took us 2 hours to get there on public transport, and 30 minutes to get home (we started walking to a car park and one of the members was recognized by a car passing by and gave us all a ride home!) The Home Based Care Volunteers also had their graduation ceremony last week. It was great to see them so eager and excited to get out there in the field and celebrate their hard work thus far. I also took a hot shower for the first time in 2 months and it was the best feeling in the world! One of my friends had to go home due to family reasons, so we helped her say goodbye by spending time with her at the PC hostel, which means hot showers and an oven that melts cheese on things.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

T'was the Season...

Pick a season, any season, don’t tell me what it is. Do you have one in mind? Good, does it involve highs of a mere 90 degrees F and lows at night of bone-chilling 70 degrees F, thus causing all to don their second-hand African church clothes drive-Kathy Lee collection knit sweater? (I snagged one with toggles for five Dalasis, about the equivalent of twenty cents.) Is it one where the full moon hangs like a picture on the horizon, as large as a saucer and as yellow as a traffic light, as if to say “you’d better slow down and take this moment in; it’s not often one observes me under such cow-jumping caliber?” Does it happen to involve a fa├žade of a certain Christian holiday, where the consumer reminders such as tinsel and carols are so subtle, it feels akin to being reminded of your birthday 30+ times on a seemingly ordinary day? Surprise! You’ve chosen season 1.5 of the Gambia’s two season year, also known as the cold season. If you’d happened to be a PCV during this time (more specifically one with the alias, Mariama Camara), these are a few other activities in which you may have participated…

About 24 full moons earlier, bright eyed, green and bushytailed, a plethora of handouts and sign ups were given to us. Among them was the monthly mail run participation sheet. Inscribing my name along side a partner’s, a place became held for a month that seemed so far away, Neil Armstrong would have felt it out of reach. I guess you could say the next 24 months were spent shooting for the moon, understanding that even if it was missed; landing among the stars was just as rewarding. And, just like that, my friend Sarah’s and my month to try our hand at the postal service for a week arrived. The next six days were spent in incredibly close proximity to each other and John The Driver (JTD) (literally three strong in the front of a Land-Cruiser-esq vehicle) with the entire back packed, organized strategically and neat, with some 80 volunteer’s packages and mail. Well, that is until JTD moved the gear out of park and drove the vehicle the 3k from the office to the hostel to pick us up at 5am. A less determined (or stubborn) person might have taken the 5am rolling push start, just like the public geles, as a sign, but Sarah and I had come this far, even generously granted the approval of an appeal to move mail run up a few days so as not to conflict with a visit from her mom and Christmas Eve. Stopping at each volunteers site, regardless if they were home (unless otherwise pre-arranged), we assumed the roles of Santa’s Little Helpers, complete with a rice bag full of grab-bag gifts and that finger fortune teller game you make out of paper and play as a kid. Each day we eventually made it to our slumber destination, but not without at least one solid inch-worth of caked on red dust and even more likely, a handful of entertaining events to relay to our gracious hosts… Like the day we got two flat tires slightly outside a village so far off the road that JTD’s first instinct was to start walk-rolling the tire 10k to the road, from which he’d need to catch a car to the nearest main town another 10k away in hopes of finding a mechanic. THEN make his way back to change the tire. Luckily, out of nowhere, and I do mean nowhere, a cement-hauling truck appeared and agreed to take him to the main road, thus only setting us back 3 1/2 hours… Or maybe the day we started having fuel pump problems on a dirt road to a village 35k from Basse. Thankfully, though, the real pump failure ensued on the main road on a Friday at 2pm (the holiest prayer day & time), when everything was closed, testing our patience while we waited two full hours to buy a two ounce tube of super glue, to be used as the car’s panacea. All and all though, the two year build up of this six day event will be recorded as one of the most memorable activities in Peach Corps, from which now I can say I’ve visited 85% of volunteer’s sites in Gambia, listened to the same Jola tribe tape approximately 13 times all the way through, climbed in and out of the car 30 times a day, ate 8 peanut butter sandwiches, became better (not worse) friends with Sarah and can thank my lucky stars I don’t have late onset car sickness.

Next came the “birthday” holiday, which was the first time I’d spent Christmas away from a close family. Like I mentioned before, though, if other people hadn’t reminded me, it would have come and gone just as silently as Santa’s sleigh on that holy night. The crowd at the Kombo hostel was small this year, as many had traveled elsewhere to celebrate. We compiled our local resources as well as those special occasion items sent from loved ones to create an intimate, but delicious Christmas Eve dinner, which even included wassail and mulled wine. The festivities continued, as they typically do when one year comes to an end and a new one begins. Even though Muslims aren’t known to celebrate the end of the month of December the way Christians usually recognize (they celebrate their new year a few weeks after), fireworks still exploded all throughout the Kombos, which I was able to observe, along with some of my favorite people in the Peace Corps, from a volunteer’s atypical dwelling of a roof-top apartment. A pre-firework pot luck, followed by dancing till nearly dawn was combination which resulted in one of the most exuberant and unforgettable New Years Eve in my life thus far.

And perhaps it’s because I force-fed everyone black-eyed-peas on January 1st (which apparently, unbeknown to me is NOT a nationwide American tradition; in fact I’m beginning to think it was just a genius, but cruel trick my parents and their friends played on us kids to eat something healthy), but 2009 has turned out to be pretty dandy so far. I began working at a farm called Gambia is Good (GIG), which is one of the projects under the NGO, Concern Universal. Their website can fill you in on the gaps, but basically GIG works with local farmers, introducing improved techniques learned from their “show” farm (where I go), then purchases their highest quality produce to distribute to the tourist and ex-patriot communities. I’m currently working with a couple of women on experimenting with processing some of the produce that cannot be distributed to those communities, including the local market. We made a local solar dryer out of suspended, doubled up mosquito net and placed one variety of tomatoes to dry for a couple of weeks. We then put another variety of tomatoes in a dryer made by the Solar Project The Gambia to do a basic comparison, with the end goal of jarring the tomatoes in an olive oil and spice recipe, to promote to those visiting the farm. We’ve also been trying out new recipes in the solar ovens made by the Solar Project. For some reason, I felt the desire to make a corn bread to bring to a VSN-sponsored pot luck I had coordinated for the volunteers in and around Brikama. I ended up having to buy whole kernel corn and take it to the milling section of the market because I couldn’t find corn flour, but I bought the rest of the ingredients, including sour milk, purchased from a Fula woman and biked to the farm; the entertaining voice of Ira Glass from This American Life leading me through my bi-weekly commute. At the farm, I mixed up the batter and added some sun dried tomatoes for an extra kick and let the sun once again do its amazing job of making things hot and after about two hours gave us a hearty loaf of sun-dried tomato corn bread.

Man, I can only imagine how high the Obama fever has risen in the States. I mean, if on an entirely different continent, market stationary shops are changing their names to “Obama Stationary” and the neighborhood village boys whistle and sing a new catchy reggae hit which consecutively repeats the name at least 5 times and the number one request from a host country national to Americans has shifted from cell phones to Obama paraphernalia, what the heck is it like over there?! The sentiment has indeed changed for the positive and it’s amazing to observe from this position, in this environment. A group of volunteers and Gambians got together at the local restaurant in Brikama with satellite news to watch the inauguration. I got chills listening to the speeches and left the restaurant holding my head a little higher and my skin a little more harassment repelling. Entering the Peace Corps, one of the last things on my mind was the election. But lately, the buzz among this country could pollinate a field full of flowers and I’m realizing in what a rare arrangement we volunteers abroad have found ourselves.

Last but not least, this past weekend 15 of us from the April 2007 Health and Community Development group went through our Close of Service (COS) conference. It was a three day conference at a more traditional lodge, but the rooms had hot showers and the food was incredibly delicious (and I don’t think it’s just because of the other diet I’ve been on for two years…) The whole weekend was a bit overwhelming, but in a good way! It was the last time we were all getting together as just our group and although I knew some of the friendships and memories I’d made were incomparable, I hadn’t realized to what degree. While making the decision to move to Bafuloto and stay in the Gambia for another year was one of the most difficult I’ve ever made, discovering I’ll be completing my 27-month Peace Corps service has proved to be one of the most rewarding. COS is designed to give you the tools and resources you need to help complete a successful service as well as transition into a life afterward, whether it is back in the States or internationally. We participated in session after session, discussing everything from resume writing and completing a professional description of service paper, to signing up for adult things like health insurance, to how not to be that volunteer who loses it because there’s so many options at the grocery store (I’m buying mint scented shampoo and conditioner-hopefully knowing that much at least will save me there…), to how to say goodbyes to host families as well as PCVs and the importance of staying in touch. So, now we’re all officially COSers. Two years is a long time. You all said it to me before I left, I’ve been reminded by many while I’ve been in the Gambia and most of my friends here completely agree when we say it to each other. But these last two months will go at it’s own pace, and just like a free donkey cart pick up to the main road, I’ll gladly go along for the ride…

See you guys soon (later)!

Love,
Courtney


Friday, January 23, 2009

Tracey & Sarah's project: Check it 2 time!!

Hey guys!! Long time, I know...

The following is from a couple of my friends' blog, detailing one of their current projects. So take a minute to read it and see if this is something you think you might like to help out with.

"HELP AFRICA

As many of you know, I work at Bansang Hospital, a rural,underfunded hospital about 10 hours by bush taxi from the capital inGambia, West Africa. Blood supply is a chronic problem--causing the deaths of many new mothers and their babies. The hospital is runningon a B.Y.O.D. (Bring Your Own Donor) system which, as you can imagine,is not effective. We have begun a program of trekking to nearbyvillages and registering people as donors. We have also begun a blooddonation club at the local high school. Once we saw that we couldactually get blood for storage we decided we needed to do somethingabout the blood bank and storage facilities. With the help of two other volunteers and with the staff of the hospital we have decided to build a basicblood bank facility, complete with a 24 hour fridge. We are seekingdonations to cover about 75% of the cost and the hospital will providethe other 25%. Donations of any size are highly welcome. If you wouldlike to donate or find out more please visit the Peace Corps websiteand click on "donors" - "donate to volunteer projects" or click on

this link:https://www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=resources.donors.contribute.projDetail&projdesc=635-056

Thanks for taking the time to read about our project. Please sendthis email on to anyone you think may be interested in helping andremember, by donating you are saving babies :-)"

I hope everyone is well. I'm working on a post, so will be updating soon. In the mean time, I hope everyone enjoyed the inauguration and the holidays.

Love and miss you,
Courtney

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Take In Directly



Despite the tumultuous travel we endured, the trip to Mali was indeed magnificent. Hiking through the cliffs of Dogon country alone made the hours on the road worth it. Well, almost… It reminded me of the Mesa Verde dwellings, creating a sense of the southwest, all the way over in West Africa that sent me longing to share the beauty of these lines with my climbing comrades. No doubt they would have shared the same clammy hands and jittery feeling I seem to get just thinking about climbing.

It’s that time of year again when it’s hard for me to relate to those back home in terms of weather and holidays. I distinctly remember writing the Thanksgiving blog post last year; stating something like the 90 degree won’t let me wrap my mind around the fact that this Thursday is Thanksgiving. This year, though, it’s easier to grasp that soon we’ll be entering a new year. Most probably, though, because with the new year, comes the commencement of the analogical new chapter of my life. The end of April is only 5 months away, but the beginning of a life I’m not sure I remember, or perhaps more correctly, a life I’ve never known, is still 5 whole months away.

Regardless, the past couple of months have rolled on and I’m sure the next 5 will travel in the same fashion, collecting enough speed on the way and barely allowing for the documentation of memories. But I have a moment now, so I’ll use it to back track on the months you all call fall and that I have come to know as hot, just a little less than before. Most devastatingly, my grandmother, the matriarch and 80 year old human power tool of the compound, had a stroke right before I left for Mali, in September. When I left, she was bed ridden, as the stroke affected the left side of her body, including, it appeared, her speech. I left, uttering goodbyes as if they were as permanent as the affects of the stroke, just in case… She didn’t look good. I called as soon as I got back to Basse, preparing myself for the worst, but received news she was getting better. Still, in Mandinka and other indigenous tribes, the phrase “getting better” could mean anything from a full recovery to hanging on the last breath. However, I was pleasantly surprised to see in person, that she actually appeared to be getting better. Before I went away, I had arranged with someone from Hands on Care, the NGO I worked with my first year, to make a home visit to try to begin physical therapy. By the time I returned home, it looked like she had started gaining strength to display the mobility left in her left leg, she was feeding herself and swallowing with less trouble than before, sitting up on her own and her voice was becoming more audible. Little by little, we are practicing standing. She’ll probably never be tending the fields again like she once was, but every now and again, the kindhearted disciplinarian of the under five peanut gallery will flash me a toothless smile that goes straight to my heart.

Well, shoot dang folks, we’ve got a new president elect! Who’s excited about that bit of news? I’ll go ahead and declare that I’m right there with most of my American friends, and Gambian friends and even strangers in this “forgotten corner of the world” that can’t wait to see what the other side of this new leaf looks like under the administration of Mr. Obama. It was a unique experience to be abroad during this entire process. I can’t even imagine what kind of election stimulus overload all of you guys experienced this past year. My nightly tune-ins on the shortwave with BBC and month old Newsweeks were about the extent of the media buzz I received. On election day, however, we PCVs were invited to share a little slice of Americana in the form of a generous Embassy employee’s home, which included pizza & tortilla chips, hot water, cold drinks, comfortable couches to curl up on and satellite TV. We donned the few pieces of Obama paraphernalia that had either been sent or brought over or hand made (mainly in the form of bumper stickers) and prepared ourselves for the first purposeful all-nighter since Professor Hard-Ass’ final exam, starting with the most important viewing, “The Daily Show” and “Colbert Report”.

Hmm, what else… The newest, and last training group to come into country while my group is still around got here right after the elections. It’s a combination training of Environment as well as Health and Community Development (my sector) because of all these budget cuts we’ve been hearing about but are not sure where they are stemming from and who’s cutting one of the most successful and well regarded government instituted programs. I could go on and on about the changes that have been suggested and ones that have been implemented, but I’ll just say this: I’m currently reading The Village Of Waiting by George Packer, which eerily comparably describes his experience as a PCV in Togo in the early 80s, except for his $200 a month stipend and motorbike. Please, Mr. Obama, please pay attention to us PCVs again who are working in the fields, crossing cultural barriers on our bicycles, not motorbikes, and who get excited about tortilla chips and hot water, all for $175 a month in 2008. Anyway, the group started their training bright-eyed and motivated and I got to help present a session about emotional health during training as the VSN coordinator because most of us have experienced a bushy tail gone wiry at least once, while over here. They swear in January 14th, with my Health and Community Development ’09 sector’s close of service (COS) conference just a couple weeks behind. Speaking of VSN, Western Region held our first sponsored event, which consisted of a tour of a magnificent eco-lodge only about 2k from Bafuloto. I knew of its presence since my predecessor pointed out signs during 3 month challenge, but never had I fully explored to see what existed beyond the wooden gates. Fortunately, my friend Rachel had not only crossed the threshold of the gates, but she had befriended the owners whom have casually worked on and off with Peace Corps Volunteers since the culture forest was built, 17 years ago. A tour of the manicured overgrown bush and traditional wooden paddle boat ride left those of us who attended the event relaxed and yearning to make a habit of venturing into the calming quarters.

I hope everyone’s Thanksgiving was filled with full bellies and cornucopias of grace. Ours felt more like a really extravagant Fourth of July backyard BBQ cookout, but I’m confident that those wearing wrap skirts even had to re-tie and loosen them. There was soooo much food! The Thanksgiving weekend also allowed for the scheduling of the bi-annual all volunteer meeting, including individual sector meetings, as well as an evening of opportunity to present one’s nose whistling, song writing or picture taking talent at the 2nd official Open Mic-Night at one of the favorite and frequented bars in the more touristy area. I personally searched long and hard to get tap shoes made, but alas settled on reading the Mali transport terror story.

Well I think that about does it for the time being. It’s getting close to the end, but I’m sure there will be enough time to write home again about new work developments and frustrating market moments. Oh! Guess what’s all the rage among school aged and young women: ballerina style jelly sandals! I’ve got my pair and if you want to be hip like me when I come home, let me know and I’ll get you a pair as well.
Pictures have been posted to the Picasa site, so check 'em out :)
Love you all and miss you dearly.
Courtney

Saturday, November 29, 2008

HEY! HEYYYYY!!!! _____ YOU! Mind your own _____ing business!

Hi there! Long time, eh? The following is a little story about one of our days in Mali. It's a bit humanly uncharacteristic, as you'll read, but unfortunately not situationally. There will be more to come about what's been going on the past couple of months in the near future, but for now, enjoy a bit from This West African Life...
Oh, and hello to Charlie and Jackie all the way over in K-town. I enjoyed meeting the O-bros and I know they were taken care of very well while over here. :)


Love,

Courtney


HEY! HEYYYYY!!!! _____ YOU! Mind your own _____ing business!

I really want to punch him in the face right now!!!! My friend, Ellie, yelled emphatically, after spouting off a serious of censorious words to our 6ft 5 Malian gele apparantee. I’ll do it!, was my apparent response, after feelings of anger and lack of control of the situation came over me. In reality, I pictured my fist making contact with this man’s face. In reality, I attempted to make contact with his face, but he dodged. In reality, I made contact with his chest, then felt the need to kick him in the butt. What brings two passive, yoga practicing, save-the-world, peace & love Peace Corps volunteers to act as if they’re proving their rank in prison? One word: travel. West African public transport travel to be more specific. Thus, I’ll take you on a little journey that would have inspired a completely opposite type of train to ride if Cat Stevens were with us.


Once upon a time, three kind hearted and patient female PCVs just wanted to get back to Gambia without too much trouble after an adventurous and culture-filled visit to magnanimous Mali. P squared (aka the word transporter in French), Lil’ Pimp (our ticket to great bargains and cheep rides) and McGellan (who needs a compass when you’re in a Muslim country?), as they became known to each other, awoke diligently at 5am from their food comas- or rather they were awoken by their gurgling bellies, thanks to a bizarre, yet generously exquisite dinner consisting of food their stomachs hadn’t digested in over a year and a half, with 2 Austrian diplomats, followed by a night of Bamako’s finest live music and dancing (which is a whole other story more fit to be shared over additional fine dining). Despite frequent trips to the toilet, they managed to pack all their belongings and souvenirs and make it to the bus station with more than enough time to spare (especially with the new departure time of “1 hour later”), to catch the buss that would carry them in comfort, more than 2/3 of the way back to the home people. Between continual payments of 50, the 3 took turns watching bags and searching for green tea strangely packaged in animal print instead of the familiar “gun powder”, to quench the thirst of the obligatory family trip gift. Then, during a routine toilet trip, McGellan noticed the tail end of a bus snake around the corner and out of site. Frantically whipping her head around to locate the bus once situated soundly in its sleeping spot, confirmed her worst possible fear at that exact possible moment: the comfy bus set to carry them 2/3 of the way home had just left the building, without 3 of its biggest fans. Well, they only practically had to kick and scream their way onto the next overbooked bus that wasn’t nearly going as far, although they were assigned isle seats. No, not that one. The isle, bidong optional. 7 hours later, the 3 tuckered travelers reached their destination, where several extremely accommodating host country PCVs delivered the Worlds Greatest Combination: running water showers, clean sheets and a bed net. Taking a moment to exhale the days travel turbulence, they settle into a slumber dreaming about quickly filled geles and road side icees, but not before indulging in a rare tasty treat in the form of Nutella. Now, you’d think one would learn their lesson about ingesting foods outside the “white” food group, especially while traveling. But a honey bee rarely passes a bated hive and for the 2nd morning in a row, it wasn’t the 5am mosque call that summoned McGellan to the porcelain hive.

A little authors observation: I think you really have to be an optimist if you want to remain somewhat sane while traveling in Sub-Saharan, and by optimist, I mean one who is ignorant of foreshadowing, because if I had believed diarrhea at 5am was a prelude of what was to come; if I’d realized the least frustrating part of the day had already been flushed down the toilet, you’d be hearing about a Gambian PCV who went AWOL in Mali instead of this short story.

Anyway, P squared, Lil’ Pimp and McGellan finally set off late morning only to turn directly around in the taxi upon realization of forgetting probably the most important travel item: a frozen Nalgene bottle. Okay! Now we’re off to the car park! Wait, why are we slowing down to a stop, their furrowed brows non verbally communicated to one another. Once the driver filled the taxi back up with gas, they made it those 10k to the care park no problem. Once at the car park, they assiduously paid the ticket dude and promptly began their wait for the gele to fill. Then, after about 45 min, they realized they were waiting directly on the main road, so decided to test their luck in flagging down a moving car. Success in flagging down a big rig, ultimately led to the dialogue at the beginning of the story, at which the gele apparante told our big rig ride to leave us there on the road because we were already on HIS gele, even though we had already paid and willing to forfeit our tickets for the ride with the big rig, who we'd also need to pay. It was none of his ____ing business... Accepting defeat, they took to grieving in their own ways until the cursed gele was ready to roll. There was barely enough time to get wind blown hair when the back left tire, itself, blew, resulting in about a 45 min tire changing session. Back on the road again, it only took a few k for the 2nd and 3rd tires they had fixed on the same axle to become rubber road kill. It was time once again to wait.. Well, they don’t call her Lil’ Pimp for nothin’ and soon her golden finger was hailing and stopping out next ride: a car from the railroad company, whose gas and driver were both paid for, thus the agreed payment to take us as far as the gele was planning, was going straight in the pocket. Finally, 4 cars (including an ever so persistent border taxi dude) and approximately 4 hours later, they had crossed into Wolof Wonderland. Surprisingly swift, they boarded the equivalent of a Senegalese Ragin Party Gele that told them they’d be taken to the point at which they were to be dropped by the comfy bus. However, looks can be deceiving and nothing is ever the way it appears, especially when you’re being driven by the Mad Hatter. About 2 hours before dusk, the RPG rolled into a dusty, desolate car park. It was soon apparent this was not the anticipated final destination of the gele’s passengers, but it definitely was for the gele. Blood was beyond the boiling point, but it does not good to lose your cool, as the 3 had experienced earlier in the day. Nonetheless, nerves were wound and as the sun was setting over the savanna that seemed a little too unfamiliar, even to McGellan. At the prospect of spending the night somewhere an unknown number of kilometers away from their goal sleeping spot, they pulled each other up, like buckets of water from the darkest well and continued to take matters into their own hands. After flagging down yet another big rig, P squared turned on the translation charm and convinced the saintly driver that there was indeed room for 3 grown women and their 3 small children-sized backpacks, in the crammed space of 3 wool blankets. On the road once again, just as the sun passed behind the clouds, the 18 wheeler rolled passed a mile marker denoting that the RPG had stranded its passengers 115k from their destination. Finally, a total of 24 butt-seat prints and 10 excruciatingly long and frustrating hours later, P squared, Lil’ Pimp and McGellan arrived at their last temporary place of slumber, a mere 300k from where they began their day.