Saturday, April 25, 2015

I Love My Bednet

When I was little, I dreamed of having a canopy bed. I'd be a princess with bedposts and curtains and throw pillows and ruffles and tassels and my American Girl doll there on the pillow. Oh yes, this was the dream.

Well, my dream didn't come true as a child but upon arrival here, I joked that my bed net was the canopy bed I'd always wanted. Finally, Queen Yamundow sleeps in luxury. Luxury, that is if luxury can be considered laying inside an insecticide treated bed net to the ambient sounds of donkeys braying and 5 am calls to prayer while watching rats tight-rope along my clothesline.

Joking aside, I love my bed net which protects me from many things beyond mosquitoes. The photos below are all creatures that are frequently inside my house or on my bed net.


Praying Mantis 

Giant Moth
Giant Grasshopper

Flying Termites? Not entierly sure


But most importantly, the reason I love my bed net is this.

The Gambia is home to the world's most lethal animal in the world. It's not the lion, the black mamba, the great white shark, or the hippo. It's the mosquito which carries several lethal diseases, the worst perhaps, being malaria which, according the World Health Organization, kills more than half a million people very year. Malaria is caused by a parasite transmitted by the female anopheles mosquito. There are a few different strands but the P. Falciparum, prevalent in The Gambia, is the most deadly.

Today, April 25th, is World Malaria Day. Generally, I'm not a big fan of disease awareness campaigns. People talk about it for a moment, and that's the end of it. People say, "Oh, how sad." They watch a video and shed a tear. But is there change? 

Here's why I think World Malaria Day is different. 

Malaria is preventable, and malaria is treatable, yet a child dies of malaria in Africa every minute.

Malaria continues to kill because of misconceptions and ignorance among those at risk and because of insufficient resources to prevent, detect, or treat the disease.

As I live in a village where malaria is a problem, I am taking the momentum gathered from World Malaria Day to educate on prevention and encourage people to seek treatment when suffering from malaria. I mentioned this in my Ebola post, and it's true for malaria too. Oftentimes, people suffering from an illness will go to a traditional healer because they distrust the clinic, or they simply won't go because they can't afford the treatment. A major difference between Ebola and malaria, however, is that malaria is treatable! Medication taken timely and properly works! Half a million people do not need to die each year.

Across the ocean, support organizations that work in the fight against malaria through bed net distributions and provision of diagnostic tests and treatment. Many such organizations exist. The one that I see on the ground  here is Catholic Relief Services.

 In a couple weeks I will have a program in my school to educate and motivate students on malaria prevention and treatment. I'll be sure to post about it. 

Malaria's a buzz kill. Bednets save lives. With enough momentum, maybe someday soon there will be no World Malaria Day. Because that's the goal, that's the dream. A malaria free world. It can be done, 

Friday, April 24, 2015

A Day in the Life

A typical village day looks like this

Wake up in my outdoor bed. Because my house is essentially an oven, I prefer to sleep outside where it is less hot.

I crawl out of bed and head to the pit latrine (toilet).

Then if I was a good Gambian, I would sweep my house every morning to prevent ants, mice, and roaches from making themselves at home. However, to be frank, I’m not winning this battle, and I’m doubtful daily sweeping would really give me the upper hand.

I make breakfast which most often consists of a tortilla made from scratch and coffee made possible by the wonderful people who mail me grounds to use of my French press. I usually put dege, the local peanut butter, and honey, also local, on my tortilla, but pictured here is Nutella. All yummy. 
I get dressed and walk between the baobab tree and termite mound on the path to school.

 A variety of tasks await me at school.

Such as work with my reading club

 Co-teach a lesson,
Or work with teachers to create resources and teaching aids.

I usually head out during 2 o’clock prayers to avoid congestion on the path.

While waiting for lunch to be ready, I’m probably either playing guitar

Hanging out with a 5 year old, 

Or doing this.

When lunch is ready, close to 3, the men receive their own foodbowl while I join my host mothers and sisters to eat rice using our hands.

I’m happiest when it’s benechin (pictured below), but we may be eating domada, a peanut sauce, or chu, an onion sauce.

After lunch I head back to school for a couple more hours. Returning home around 5:30, I am met by my welcoming crew.

Then I’m off to join the other women at the tap to fetch water.

Now that the sun isn’t so hot, I head out through the baobab trees and into
the bush for a run.

In the evening, I clean off with a bucket bath,

Help with some homework,

And then lay out under the stars with my family until 9 o'clock suppertime. It is almost always cheri which is made from pounded coos and corn. I love it.

Photo by Beth Eanelli

After supper, I head to bed with my fan, kindle, and flashlight, just the necessities

Nu faanan ak jaama. Be suba!
*Let's spend the night with peace. Until the morning!

Saturday, December 27, 2014


It’s common to hear that life’s a roller coaster, you've got your ups, yours downs, and your upside downs. Join Peace Corps and the intensity of your rollercoaster goes from the Corkscrew at Valley Fair to the level of the Millennium Force at Cedar Point. Sometimes you’ll be up for a month; your projects are flourishing, your community feels like home, and adventure is thriving. Then a loop in rollercoaster sends your project back to where you started, your community feels foreign and intrusive, and adventure wanes into monotony. Sometimes it is week by week, but oftentimes the high and lows come in one day as they did on October 28, 2014.

The day, like usual, begins with a cup of coffee and a crossword. I’m on the upward trend.

I go to school to find that my second graders have come for reading club. They’re supposed to begin tomorrow but are so excited they came today. I decide to meet with them. Still going up.

Three minutes into reading club, I begin to suspect that one student has dyslexia. The educational system is already struggling to teach reading effectively. They are not equipped to provide for her individualized needs. On the decline.

At recess I see children playing a game of dodge ball using limited resources, aka throwing rocks at each other. They’re giggling something fierce. Moving up.

I start to think about how, in America, people would get sued for this situation. America intimidates me. Going down.

Oh, children here also cry with they are hit in the face with rocks. Small down.

Walking home for lunch, a man I don’t know stops me to ask if I will come to see his compound in an aggressively friendly manner. He has orange and mango trees he wants me to see. I tell him I’m not agriculture volunteer. I don’t know anything about trees. “But I know you. I asked you if you had a boyfriend. I want you to come to my compound tonight. You have no boyfriend…” I walk away, not unaccustomed to the offer but irritated nonetheless. More decline.

Home for lunch, and it’s pumpkin season! Sharp increase.

My little sister, Yago, is late for lunch. Corporal punishment will be her grandmother’s discipline of choice. Back down.

I returned to school for the afternoon shift. I get news that a friend from home is facing a time of serious trial and difficultly. While I couldn’t fix it, I want to be there to help her through it. Missing the big stuff, good and bad, for the people back home is the hardest part of Peace Corps. Further down.

Returning from school I learn that an old woman in the neighboring compound passed away after lunch. Downward.

I go into my house to put on traditional clothes and a veil for the funeral which is happening immediately. My compound is full with more than one hundred women, and I don’t know where to go. I feel isolated and out of place. Downward bound.

My host mother sees me looking lost and uncomfortable. She directs me to the young women who are sitting by the water pump. My friend Soxna is there with her baby, Muhammad. He is a beautiful, healthy, and giggling baby boy. Going up again.

The woman who died is said to have been 130 years old. They don’t keep very close track of the years here but either way, she had a nice long life. Continuing up.

I sit with the young women for several hours, past dark, feeling like we are waiting for something but not knowing what. Eventually my host brother’s wife, Maram, who is in grade 12, goes inside to study. I decide to go inside my room as well. As I walk past my host mother, she asks me “You’re going inside? Good. Yes, go inside and rest.” I can’t put my finger on it, but something in the way she says it fills me with gratitude. I feel like she really cares for me. I feel at home amidst such foreignness, amidst joys and sorrows. I have been invited to share in the daily lives of people who hadn't even met me when they agreed to open their home to me. I feel peace.

Each day has its ups and downs. I am grateful to see the joys and sorrows of daily living because it is the mingling of the two that is the essence of life. The ups and downs will weigh differently on different people, but we all experience them. I am thankful to notice small moments of happiness. I am honored to share in the burdens of sorrow.
Life’s a rollercoaster.
Let’s go for a ride.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Using Cardboard to Make Math Concrete

Math is a subject that many people find challenging. Gambians seem to have a special fear of the subject. Seeking to improve student performance, we recently held a workshop on math methods. The main ideas of the training were establishing a solid foundation of number concepts, moving in a gradual and building pace, and making math concrete. 

How do you make math concepts concrete? Use manipulatives that allow students to both visualize and interact with place value, fractions, area, and the four operations. But we live in West Africa, and our school struggles to purchase enough chalk. The solution: use locally available resources (some would use the term trash) and create learning aids. Here's what we made.

In rotating stations, discussing how to use the teaching aids in class

Are these manipulatives as attractive as those for sale? Nope. I don't do cute things, but if you're into that, I'm confident you could make them more attractive. Are they durable? Not especially, but it is more sustainable to teach teachers how to create and use these kinds of learning aids for their classrooms. When I came to my school, my headteacher showed me a handful of teaching aids that had been donated by well meaning people. Teaching aids they had no idea how to use so they sat in the corner for years. Should we give fish or teach fishing? Creating learning aids from trash, not only allows teachers to create more when they change schools or lose parts, it also helps remove a bit of the garbage strewed about in a country with no waste management system. Is it a small difference? Yes, but that's how these things go and countries grow: slowly, slowly.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

How to Eat Every Part of a Ram

One of my favorite things about travelling is the opportunity to try new foods. Frankly, the diet of The Gambia has not been something I've especially loved. It’s a lot of rice, three-meals-a-day-kind of a lot of rice. The rice is served with some sort of sauce. The ingredients for these sauces are usually onions, oil, okra, pepper, bitter tomatoes, fish, and/or local peanut butter. There are 3 major types: benechin described in another blog post here, and then domada and chu, described below. Many Wolof families, mine included, also eat cheree, or pounded millet. When first acquainted, many people think they are eating sand. I admit that it does look like wet sand, but prepared correctly, it is actually quite nice. I prefer it to rice which is lucky for me, because we eat this cheree almost every day for dinner.

But for one week in October, my palate got to taste something that wasn't the same-old fish bones and onion sauce. During the Muslim feast of Eid-ai-adha, or Tobaski, we slaughtered a ram and proceeded to eat almost every part of it over the next 3-7 days. Here’s the menu for this year’s 3-day feast.

Day 1:
        ·         Appetizer: Grilled Ram testicles and ribs
        ·         Meat sauce and bread-Mutton, bones, onions, peppers, mustard powder, oil

        ·         Appetizer: cooked my own meat marinated in Tony’s Creole seasoning*
        ·         Cherre (see above description) with organ and intestine sauce

Day 2:
        ·         Cherre with organ and intestine sauce again

       ·         Meat Domada on rice-Domada is a sauce with local peanut butter as its base

       ·         Appetizer-Ram head-Exactly what it sounds like. It was, I think, boiled and still whole. We ate the cheeks, tongue, and cartilage, and then broke open the skull to eat the brain.
       ·         Cherre with organ and intestine sauce again, again

Day 3:
        ·         Cherre with organ and intestine sauce one more time

        ·         Rice with meat chu- the sauce is cooked like an onion stew and poured on rice

        ·         Leftover Rice and Chu

*In the morning while cooking, my host mother handed me a chunk of raw meat the size of my head and said my host father wanted me to have it. I told her she could keep it and that we’d all eat it, but she insisted. Culturally, when you slaughter something, you should give a share of the meat to respectable people in the village, members of your extended family, and to needy families. My host father wanted to show me honor and respect so I accepted the meat.

After the third day of celebrations, the meat continued to appear in our sauces for another week. My family salted the meat heavily and dried it in the sun to keep it from going rancid in the land of no electricity, however, by the sixth day it was starting to taste funky. I am happy to report that my health was not seriously affected, and I enjoyed my Tobaski menu. Believe it or not, the cheree with organ and intestine sauce is incredible! Easily one of my favorite things I’ve eaten in The Gambia. Likewise, the ram testicles and brain were great. The testicles, grilled over charcoal, tasted like chislic. I’m not sure how to describe the brain beyond mushy, yet tasty. Cheek, tongue, and cartilage, not my forte, but I’m happy for a new experience.

Nuleen, nu leeka! (Come, let’s eat!)

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Ebola Fears and Reality

It's probably time that I talk about the elephant in West Africa: Ebola. Yesterday, September 2, CDC Director Tom Frieden said the outbreak is "spirally out of control," while another source says that the world is "losing the battle." It's scary stuff, and many of my family and friends have rightfully expressed their concerns for my safety. I'm not a medical expert, but I do live in West Africa and I recently watched the movie "Contagion."  It's off of those credentials that I want to tell you what this outbreak means to The Gambia and Peace Corps's response.

Peace Corps informed me of the Ebola outbreak several months ago when it first appeared in Guinea in March. At that time, our medical officer informed us of the symptoms and what we should do to avoid contracting the virus. Since then, it’s spread to the other countries as highlighted on the map above. Senegal, which completely engulfs The Gambia, borders Guinea to the South (The Gambia can be seen at the top edge of this map). In the last few days, one hopefully isolated case of Ebola has been confirmed in Dakar, in Northern Senegal, meaning Ebola is both to the North and South of me. 

At the borders, officials are looking for Ebola symptoms and taking temperatures of everyone crossing. The Ministry of Health is going on education campaigns to inform people of the severity of the virus. Village health volunteers have attended trainings to know what to look for and what they should do in the event of a suspected case. Posters and flyers have been posted throughout The Gambia warning people to avoid eating "bush meat," especially monkeys and bats. 

Both Peace Corps The Gambia and Peace Corps Headquarters are monitoring the situation carefully. Our country director is working closely with the Ministry of Health and The United States Embassy here. All volunteers have an emergency action plan to implement in the event of an evacuation. The Peace Corps office is sending out regular updates via text. The risk for me as an education volunteer working in schools is very low. Ebola is not an airborne virus and must be transmitted through bodily fluids- saliva, blood, urine, semen, sweat. I am not a health care provider. For me, it shouldn't be difficult to avoid. 

That being said, Ebola is out of control. Peace Corps Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone have temporarily suspended all operations and volunteers have been sent home because of the severity of the outbreak. Should the outbreak spread to Senegal and/or The Gambia, the same may or may not happen here. Living here, I see firsthand the challenges involved in stopping its spread.

For one thing, West Africa, though consisting of many countries, is not a large area and there continues to be a lot of travel from country to country. I myself plan to travel to Dakar for a conference next week. Yes, they are checking for symptoms at the border but the symptoms can take anywhere between 2 and 21 days to manifest. Culturally, if someone is sick, they receive many visitors, and people are sick all the time. We’re talking about third world countries with poverty, limited infrastructure, a vastly uneducated population, superstitions, malnutrition, poor sanitation, and disease. It’s malaria season right now. The majority of people here get malaria at some point, usually multiple times in their lives. The symptoms of malaria include fever, headache, fatigue, nausea, and vomiting. Onset symptoms of Ebola include fever, headache, body ache, weakness, nausea, and vomiting. Do you see the problem? People die of what is assumed to be malaria, the body is prepared for burial, and the belongings (clothing, sheets, etc) are given away. The number of cases could be much higher than reported. Ignorance, superstitions, and distrust of Western Medicine have led to multiple cases of kidnapping or "rescuing" of Ebola patients and those in quarantine. 

It’s serious.

But not hopeless.

For those of you worried about my personal safety, (hi Mom), I reiterate that Ebola is not airborne, transmission is difficult, I am not a health care provider, and Peace Corps has a careful eye on the situation. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t had any Ebola-inspired nightmares, but I do feel informed and safe.

For the bigger and more important picture, education, treatment, and vaccines are all in the works. The Gambia is listed as a country where possible trials of a vaccine would begin, though I have not heard any estimated timeline. This strain of Ebola carries a 50-60% fatality rate, much lower than the 90% fatality rates of previous strains.

I believe in the power of prayer and prayers can be heard throughout the world. I ask for the international community to keep West Africa in your prayers. Pray for the recovery those infected, the families of those who are lost, the safety of health care professionals, and the effectiveness of education campaigns and preventive measures. Our God is bigger than Ebola, and our world is best united. International support, resources, and expertise will be necessary in order to control this outbreak. Let us stand with West Africa, and persevere in hope. 

-A Not So Hopeless Wanderer

Sunday, June 29, 2014

A Year In

The new education trainees have arrived to begin their 10 week training to begin their service. As a member of the Peace Corps training team, I get to witness the excitement, calm the nerves, and answer a lot of questions. The trainees arrived just two days ago, but seeing them begin this process has made me realize that I feel at home here.

A year after leaving the states, I've finally settled and figured out what I'm doing in West Africa. If you ask a Wolof "How is the work?" the reply will be "We are on the work, slowly, slowly," and it's true. The pace of life here is slow. Yet, somehow, my Peace Corps service has been flying by.

After one year, things are the things that challenge me the most.

1. Missing the important events in the lives of my loved ones at home- the babies born, knots tied, careers begun, trials and sorrows, celebrations and hoopla. I want to be there. I want to help carry the burdens for my friends who are suffering, and I want to toast to the exciting new beginnings.

2. Living in a fishbowl, always be a spectacle, living like a celebrity.  A local Mandinka proverb says that "No matter how long a log lies in the river, it will never be a crocodile." I can fetch water on my head, where a traditional complet, and speak the local language, but I'm an American in an African village. I cannot go about my business without shouts of "Toubob, Toubob!". I cannot do a normal task without it becoming a show to see if this toubob can really eat with her hands. I cannot travel about the country without people trying to sneak a picture of me on their phones. Everything I do is just fascinating to both children and adults. Here's a cultural difference, staring is not considered rude here.

3. Solicitation from men. Sex tourism is big here. It's also not uncommon for women to come from Europe looking for a husband, and it's very common for Gambian men to want a visa to these countries. I've never felt as though I was in danger from these men, but these "bumsters" are a persistent source of irritation.
Good thing I can say no in several languages.

4. No cheese. Do you realize how much you eat cheese in America?! I miss cheese.

These challenges are hard. I still get homesick, and I still get irritated. ALL THE TIME. But on the other hand, here are the opportunities that being a Peace Corps Volunteer has blessed me with.

1. New friends. Peace Corps The Gambia is a family that includes fellow volunteers, phenomenal staff, and many smiling Gambians. My fellow volunteers are a diverse group of people who are hilarious and supportive. My village has taken me in as sister and friend.

2.  A new perspective into the human experience. Yes, as I said earlier, I can lie in the river as long as I want. I won't be a crocodile, but the other crocodiles have made me feel welcome. They are excited that I'm trying. I don't always appreciate the fuss made over me, but do appreciate this window into a new way of life. It's a big world, and there's a lot we can learn from each.

3. Speaking of learning, there's so much to learn! I love learning and using a new language that is useless in America. I love attempting to garden and graft trees. I got to go bee keeping with an environment volunteer. I saw a hyena (worlds ugliest creature) and touched a crocodile. I read a wide range of books. The last four I read were The Communist Manifesto, Peter Pan, A Thousand Splendid Suns, and The Princess Bride. I practice my guitar and take traditional kora lessons. My host family is teaching me how to cook. I finally figured out how to do the bridge when shuffling cards, completed a crossword, and changed a bicycle tire. Are these things as impressive as I like to think they are?

4. Meaningful work. I work at West Africa's greatest school. Not all volunteers feel as welcomed or useful to their schools here, but my school has been exceptionally open to new ideas. It's amazing to see teachers implementing alternative behavior strategies we've discussed instead of corporal punishment. The kids in my reading club have made great improvements. The school's library is now functioning. We are still thinking of creative ways to make teaching more interactive in a limited resource environment.
My fellow PCVs in my region

Peace Corps has been a daily challenge in patience and humility, but if I can maintain a present mind and a grateful heart, I'll be able to soak it all up for the year (and a few months) that remain.