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)!