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. 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 how 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.

Friday, May 16, 2014

A Day in the Kitchen

The other day, I helped in the kitchen to make my favorite Gambian dish, benechin. Here in The Gambia, we eat a lot of rice. I mean 3-meals-a-day-kind of a lot of rice. This dish, benechin, is Wolof for one cooking pot. Unlike other Gambian dishes which are usually plain rice with a sauce on top, the ingredients of benechin are cooked in one cooking pot so that the rice takes on all that yummy flavor. 

1. Go to the market and buy your ingredients. 
Tomato, cabbage, eggplant, onions, tomato paste, jumbo, salted fish
 2. Clean the kitchen, be sure to have enough firewood.
 3. Scrape the scales off the fish. Do this with a mostly dull knife and just scratch at it for a while. Don't stress about removing the bones. Save time by doing this while you eat.
This fish is a treat for people in my village. Every once in a while a
 truck from the river will bring us some fresh and delicious fish.
Once in a while.
 Luckily, dried salted fish is always readily available.
Today we're grateful for a treat. 
 4. Fry the fish in oil.

 5. Cut up the vegetables and add them in.

6. Give the American a small task so that she feels included in the cooking.
Chopping onions with a dull knife and no cutting board like a professional.
 7. Pound the onions, pepper, jumbo, garlic, and a flavorful-tangy-bean-thing-that-I-forgot-the-name-of together. Set aside.
 8. Remove the cooked fish and vegetables.
9. After sifting through the rice to remove small rocks and noticeable bugs, steam it over the pot. Tie a wet strip of fabric between the sieve and the pot to prevent any leaking of the steam. 

10. After steaming for a good while, add the rice into the pot.
 11. Stir, then let the rice soak up all that flavorful broth.
 12. When the rice is finished, divide it amongst the food bowls. One for the women, one for the men, and another for people out working to eat when they get back.

13. Evenly divide the vegetables, onion mix, and fish among the bowls. 
14. Enjoy the fruits of your labor. In my host family, we all use our hands, and of course everyone was very impressed that I cooked the lunch (remember the onion chopping).

Nu leeka! (Let's eat).

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Gambian Wedding Photo Tour

Last week my host brother got married. Here's a few photos for how it all went. 

In the morning, the bride sits with her grandmother and younger siblings. She had to be guided around as she cannot see anything through her veil.

 The village elders gather to offer prayers for their marriage. 

After prayers, she is ushered inside this temporary room for some intensive hair and make-up while the rest of us chat and eat breakfast. 

Following breakfast (served around noon), the bride's ready and it's time for gifts. 

The night before, the party was centered in the bride's home compound. People visited and brought her gifts. Now it's time for the bride and her family to give away gifts to family and friends. 

Many of yesterdays gifts are given to the bride for the purpose of her giving more away. 

 Most of the gifts are fabric or wash buckets. 

Almost everyone receives something, myself included. The way the family system works, as my host-brother's wife, this bride is now considered my wife too. 

 When the gifts are all dispersed, my host father, the man sitting amongst all the women, offers words of thanks and prayers for blessings. Then the people go home, shower, and put on their asobees. In Gambian culture, families will buy matching fabric and get their clothing made out for special events. These are called asobees. 
Kristin and I got asobees with my whole family. Unfortunately no pictures with everyone.

Once everyone's ready, the hired DJ begins to play music and everyone dances well into the night. Some weddings will do traditional drumming instead of a DJ.

Meanwhile the bride and groom (note matching asobees) roam about, greeting and taking pictures.

Photo shoot continues for several hours.

  The celebration continues late into the night with dancing and eating-I believe supper came after midnight but by that time, I was tuckered out and had gone to bed. Gambian celebrations wear me out!

Monday, April 21, 2014

Literacy-It's Important

Prior to coming here, I had not realized how much my daily life is affected by the fact that I am literate. Sure, I knew that if I was illiterate, I wouldn't be able to read intellectual books or books for pleasure. I knew I would not have written research papers about “Promoting Prosocial Behavior in Young Children” or “The Causes of the French Revolution” in college. But these things are only important because I am a teacher or because I live in the developed world, right? It’s not like the woman farming groundnut in Ngayen Sanjal would really see a change in her daily life if she could read, right?

Wrong. I didn't think about the ability to read the names of my contacts in my mobile phone. I didn't think about the ability to read over important documents from the health clinic or local government concerning identity papers. I didn't think about how often I write notes to other people or even to myself as a reminder. I recently watched 3 illiterate people divide responsibilities and money to prepare for a workshop. They couldn't just hand over a list with the prices budged down. Each individual had to remember exactly which items and how much of each to buy. It was a long list-not easy.

Obviously, literacy is a big deal, and it is a top priority for  Peace Corps The Gambia. To celebrate Worldwide Read-Aloud Day, I participated in a literacy bike trek. With three other volunteers, we biked to five schools in different villages to give a training on how reading aloud to students in a class can build their own reading skills. 

The bike-trek was successful and many teachers said they feel better equipped use books in classrooms to build literacy. But literacy is a high hurdle to jump. I spent 4 years studying in a university to get a reading endorsement with my teaching license. A day-long training is not going to eradicate illiteracy in The Gambia, but it can help. That's why I'm posted in a school for daily mentoring, co-teaching, and advising to teachers looking for more training on the subject. Still not over the hurdle, maybe, but closer.

Another thing that helps build literacy is a school-library. If you want children to be able to read, give them something to read. Unlike the developed world where we help our children learn by reading road signs, advertisements, and bedtime stories, my village has nothing to read. A few months ago, my school received a donation of books (about 10 boxes containing hundreds of books) to put in our school library. Upon my arrival, the school had a library, but it was in need of repair. The vast majority of the books were either destroyed by termites or entirely irrelevant (my favorite irrelevant books are a book of Irish Baby Names and Their Meanings and a Field Guide to the Birds of Great Britain-how these books got to West Africa I do not know). When the new shipment of books arrived, my headmaster decided that we could use an empty classroom as a temporary library while we wait for the repairs in the library to finish.
So I set to work color-coding the books based on reading level and topic. It took several days, but I’m happy to say that the library is now up and running and children are excitedly checking out books to read at home. The books are still not to the ideal level of cultural relevancy, but it's one step closer in the work to create a literate Gambia.

Board Books and Book Return Cartons
Fiction and Literature

Saturday, April 19, 2014

My House

Welcome to My House 

Fuddan Feet

My host family had a wedding recently, and like all cultures, a wedding means everyone must be looking their best. Part of looking your best here means dying your feet, a process called fuddan here in Wolof. I went with Hincha, my host brother’s wife, to her mother, Yama, along with Mam Tutti, my other brother’s wife. Yama had already prepared for us by cutting tape into what must have been hundreds of thin strips.

Then Yama spent the next two hours taping my feet.

While doing the first foot, they realized they forgot a very important step, especially for the “toubob.” They forgot to apply something, I have no idea what it is, to my feet to keep them from sweating. This something comes from putting these hard crystal/rock things (again no idea what they are or where they come from) in water and rubbing the sticky solution that results onto my feet.

Y-C - Yamundow Ceesay, (my Gambian name)
After taping the feet, we applied another mixture that I know really nothing about. They mixed a powder with sugar and water until it had the consistency of thick mud. Then it was applied to my feet.

Then both feet were wrapped in extra fabric, and I put some socks on over the fabric and went to bed for the night.

Waking up at 4 am the next step was to rub off the first mixture, remove the tape, and apply another. This mixture smelled very bad, but again I don’t know what it is. Its purpose was to turn the color black, but it doesn't have the same effect on white skin as on black. We applied it to my feet, rewrapped them and went to bed for a few more hours.

Finally, the next morning, my feet were finished! I washed my feet and set out into the village for all to admire them. Of course, everyone questioned why it was orange, not black, but nonetheless, they were a big hit. I’ll be rocking my new feet for the next few weeks or so.

The final result

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Unconventional Resources

Funds for and access to resources in The Gambia are limited to non-existent. My school does not have smartboards to show a video on. There's no google to search for information to clear your own understanding of the topic your teaching. With no access to pintrist, teachers in my school rely on themselves for ideas on how to teach the content. Even the most basic of teaching aids are problem. We have a library full of irrelevant books about snow and Disney princesses. We don't have enough textbooks for every child to use one. Teachers have to be mindful of the written work they give to students because the families cannot afford the 5 dalasi ($0.13) exercise books for writing.

Teaching aids make the content real for the students. They are able to see the concepts instead of just hearing about them. This is even more important for our students who are learning in a language that is foreign to them. Instead of listening to 1,000 English words they don't understand, they can see it.  Ideally teaching aids will allow students to manipulate and interact with what they are being taught.

Faced with the lack of available teaching resources, my goal has been to encourage my teachers to create teaching aids from local materials. Back in November, I conducted a short training for my teachers on creating teaching aids, pushing them to use local materials creatively and emphasizing the importance of students interacting with and manipulating the content taught. We discussed that, while not easy, materials are available all around us. With no system for waste disposal, tin cans, cardboard, old fabric, wires, and tires can be found everywhere.

After the training, my headmaster had an idea to do a teaching aid production competition for our teachers. We designed a competition in which each teacher would create three teaching aids. We invited judges from outside our school to award marks based on the teaching aid's impact on learning, versatility to be used across grade levels or subjects, durability, use of local materials, and attractiveness.

I was thrilled with the results:
A working fan made of discarded materials. The fan blades are cardboard and the motor was taken from broken radio.
Categorizing of food groups, each food is connected by bent paperclips.
Additionally, each has a slot in which a word card can be matched the picture.
Simple, yet so useful, overlay cards to teach
place value of numbers. The reverse side has another number to identify
place value.

A map of slave trade made of cardboard pasted onto thrown wood.
Many of the people stolen into slavery left Africa from The Gambia.

Math chart for number sentences,
patterns, or ordering.

Circulatory System with labels for veins and arteries.
A digestive system with labels for the different parts.

A model ferry with full of the various forms of transportation
found in The Gambia. Due to a lack of bridges, travel here
requires the use of ferries between the north side and the south side of the river. As they don't travel outside of the village often, many students have never seen a ferry, though they  hear about them frequently.

Conductors and Insulators Test made of an old flashlight
and various materials to be tested.
A map of The Gambia, colored using chalk dust and sand.
The key has labels for the regions with tinfoil(gathered from cigarrette cartons)
A battery would be placed in the key and the light to the region.
If correct, it would light. If not, it would not light because between layers of cardboard
the key and the regions are connected metal wire.
A Sentence Building Stick was partly hollowed out.
Cardboard words and pictures could be inserted into the slots to spell words,
write sentences, or correct punctuation.

A paper mache map of The Gambia with labels organized in a rice bag to identify
landmarks, cities, regions, and tributaries. He used baobab fruit to create the paper mache.

These are just a taste of the aids produced by my hard working teachers. Others included spelling games, model lungs, clocks, scales etc. Community members were invited to attend the event. The vast majority of adults in the village have never attended school. It was great fun to see them learning about history, geography and science.


At the finish, prizes were award to first, second, and third place, but all came out proud and excited. We have created a resource bank where we store these teaching aids. What's most successful is that everyday the teachers are coming to use these teaching aids, many of them using the aids made by their colleagues. We've spent a lot of time admiring our teaching aids in the resource room, discussing their possible resources. As one teacher told me, "Yamundow, this is the best kind of teaching. Now our students can see what we teach."