Sunday, September 20, 2015

In The End

I've started this post several times, and I never seem to get it done.

People ask me "How was Peace Corps?" and the question leaves me a little flustered. How do I give a small talk answer to such a meaningful, foreign, and life-altering experience?

I like to tell them that I survived both an ebola outbreak and an attempted coup, but that's probably perpetuating stereotypes.

What I want to share is a real a reflection of my Peace Corps service. What did I do? What did I learn? How did I grow? How did I fail?

Well, that's a pretty ambitious task. Do I talk about growth and change through a photo series of my Peace Corps hair styles?

Preparing for Dreadlocks, long healthy locks July 2013
Pretending to be a hippy flower child May 2014
Straight up dreads for swimming March 2014

Chopped off August 2014

Long enough again for some braids July 2015
Because my hair definitely experienced change. Like me, it was stressed, knotted, and broken.  In time, I cut it off for a fresh start and let it grow anew.

Or maybe I should describe my service in terms of work because, after all, didn't the United States Federal Government send me over to do some actual good in a developing country?

I mentored 20 + teachers on student centered methodology. I promoted behavior management and the eradication of corporal punishment by facilitating several workshops for 50+ teachers and overseeing the creation of classroom rules, routines, and procedures in 13 classrooms. I tutored adults and children in English, math, science and computers. I created a library and established a teaching aid competition to make treasures out of trash. I educated more than one hundred individuals on malaria prevention and treatment and hopefully motivated a few to actually take action. 

You want to know how much of my typical day was actually spent working?

Maybe 1 hour.

On a busy day. 

Because the pace of life, the importance of work, and the definition of progress are very different in The Gambian context. I spent about 8 hours at school every day but much of that time was spent reading a good book, sitting under a mango tree, and just shooting the breeze with the other teachers.

Maybe a few lists would be a good way to describe my service.

I read more than 100 book including the entire bible. 

Here are my top five, not necessarily in order:
-Till We Have Faces-C.S. Lewis
-A Severe Mercy- Sheldon Vanauken
-The Grapes of Wrath- John Steinbeck
-The Book Theif- Markus Zusak
-Born To Run- Christopher McDougall

Or these songs which, for one reason or another, will forever take me back to West Africa
"Bugana La"-Titi
"I Lived"- One Republic
"Night and Day"- Baha Men
"Let It Go"- Idina Menzel
"That's Not My Name"- The Ting Tings

I could try to describe the adventures I went on by telling you about the sickness, strange food, and dangerous wildlife I saw.

Would you like a list of diseases, illnesses, and ailments that I thought I had?
  • Bot Flies*
  • Malaria*
  • Measles
  • Cancer
  • Bed bugs*
  • Scabies
  • Giardia*
  • Dysentery*
  • Ebola
    *Denotes something that other volunteers did actually get
Fortunately, I made it out ok.

Here's a list of things I actually had:
  • Mysterious skin infections
  • Mysterious stomach somethings causing vomiting
  • Mysterious stomach somethings causing the runs
  • A nasty cold or two
  • Skin burns
  • An ear infection
How about weird food eaten?
  • Sour milk
  • Cow foot
  • Warthog
  • Sheep brain
  • Many, many fish eye balls
  • Ram testicles
Or the wildlife encounters?
  • Cobras
  • Scorpions
  • Unidentified snake that may have been a black mamba (my greatest fear)
  • Huge spiders, beetles, and other crawling things
  • Monkeys
  • Baboons (evidently apes and monkeys are very different things)
  • Warthog
  • Hippos
  • Crocodiles
  • Hyenas

This crocodile wasn't exactly wild, but I also some "wild" ones in the river

I could try and describe all I learned through a list of new skills
  • Changing a bike tire
  • Pouring liquids without spilling everywhere
  • Handling hot things without burning
  • Cooking over a fire
  • Washing laundry by hand
  • Carrying buckets and other heavy things on my head
  • Speaking Wolof
  • Communicating without language 
But these lists and accomplishments don't tell the story, and that fact leaves me feeling frustrated.

Because the story lies with the people-good people, bad people, young and old, men and women, educated and illiterate. People I greatly admire, and people who have lost all of my respect. Relationships are where I found the most fulfillment, and relationships are where I experienced my greatest failures.

And that's not Gambia-specific. That's really the way life goes, isn't it? 

While making painful goodbyes to the people that were everything important in my Peace Corps service, I learned a couple aspects of Wolof culture that I want to share. The first is the left-hand shake. 

Your left hand is generally used for dirty work in a land without toilet paper. Because of this, to give someone your left hand is extremely offensive. But when one is leaving on a long journey, they'll offer their left hand. That way their return is guaranteed. They must return to make up for the offense.

The second thing is that, generally, Gambians won't really offer gratitude for the work you've done unless they're saying goodbye, It's then that they'll offer you compliments and gratitude and ask for forgiveness of any wrongs they may have done. 

So, let me do the same. To those whom I lived with, worked with, and sat in sweaty gelly-gellies with, thank you for your hospitality and warmth. Thank you for going out of your way daily to teach me to eat, speak, and live in a whole new manner. Thank you for being patient and forgiving. Thank you for becoming my friends. Forgive me the many moments of impatience and frustration, cultural insensitivity and anger. May God grant you the needs of the flesh and the desires of your heart. 

"What was Peace Corps like?"

Peace Corps was a beautiful, challenging, dirty, sweaty, exciting, wonderful, and adventuresome opportunity to share in the lives of normal people, who talk about weather, crops, and gossip, on the other side of the world. 

Jerejeff. Be Beneen Yoon.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

What She Deserves

          There are a lot of things that I love about Gambian culture. I love the sense of hospitality. I love that relationships are more important than work. I have even grown to love greeting everyone I pass and asking them how their family, morning, work and weather are all fairing.
            Like any culture, however, there is something that I don’t love, and it honestly surprised me. When applying for Peace Corps, my recruiter asked me how I would respond to women in traditional roles. I told her that I didn’t expect it to be a problem. I’m from a big family, and my mom stayed home with us. I respect women who stay home to care for their families. Of course, I believe women can have careers and all that jazz, but I didn’t anticipate living in a culture with traditional gender roles to be an upsetting challenge.
            But it has been, and there’s more to it than traditional gender roles.
Caveat, I have met Gambian men who are respectful and believe women to competent and equal. These are not the men I am about to take about.
            Women do not have equal opportunity. Yes, legally, women can go to school, have a career, obtain a driver’s license. But if you look at my school’s log of dropouts, the vast majority are female students. The reasons listed for pulling the child out of elementary school include helping with chores in the compound, babysitting younger siblings, and early marriage. Yes, women can have careers. My school has four female teachers and about twenty male teachers. That ratio is similar in all fields here. Most teachers, nurses, cooks, restaurant owners, and bankers are male. I’ve never seen a female shopkeeper or tailor. I’m told Gambian women can have a driver’s license, but I have yet to see a female behind the wheel.
            If I am honest, though, these aren’t things that upset me. I am upset that women, denied these opportunities, work harder than anyone else early morning till late night, sweeping, gardening, farming, collecting firewood, cooking, laundering, pounding, fetching water, caring for the compound, and raising the children, and all this isn’t considered work. Meanwhile I see many (admittedly not all) men sit by drinking attaya, sleeping on the bantaba, and complaining that dinner is late. Not to worry, though, because once dinner’s ready, they’ll be served first while the women wait. I’ve heard a lot of nice lip service from men about how women work hard, but I have hard time considering it anything beyond lip service when they sit by watching them do it.
            Soon I will return to the US and begin my career teaching. I am excited to live independently and relieved that I will soon go about my business without the perpetual verbal harassment I have come to expect here. But there’s another feeling there too. I’m not sure whether it’s guilt, anger, or heartache but whatever it is, it comes when I think about the women and girls here whom I have come to love.
            I think about my best Gambian friend. She’s her husband’s first and only wife, but she doesn’t expect that to last. She tells me it is selfish to want a husband to yourself, that women should share their husbands because there aren’t enough men to go around. I think about her telling me she cannot come to an event in the village because her husband wouldn’t like it, because if he found out, he would become angry and beat her.
            I think about my little sister. She is in 5th grade. She’s smart, sassy, sharp. She works hard and is serious about school. Her parents actually live in another village, but she stays in our compound to help her grandmother and to go to school. Her chores often steal her time to study. Her grandmother has an unpredictable temper. Sometimes my sister has a fat lip.
            I think about another brother’s wife. She married him last year when she was in 11th grade. She seemed serious about school and even had a European sponsor who was supporting her schooling. When she came to our compound I asked her if she planned to finish her last year of school. She told me of course. Shortly into the school year, she became pregnant. Her baby was born just before the exams she needed to finish high school. She says that maybe she’ll take the exams in the future when her son’s older, but I’m not holding my breath.
            Maybe there will always be extremes. I know girls forced to marry men who could be their fathers. I know women who are raped by their husbands repeatedly, but it’s not considered rape because he is her husband. On the flip side, I know fathers who have stood up for their daughters and intervened when their husbands abuse them. I know husbands who genuinely love their wives and show them great respect.
I don’t know what will happen to my friend or my little sister, but I know what I want for them. I want my friend to be in love with her husband and know what it is like to feel confident in his love for her. I want my little sister to finish school and pursue her heart’s desires. If her heart desires getting married, staying in the village, and raising a family, all power to her. I’ll be very proud. Whatever they do, I hope they know their dignity and their rights. I want them to command the respect they deserve. I want them to seize opportunities. I pray they experience joy. No, I don’t know what will happen, but I know what they deserve.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Transition Begins

I leave soon, next month kind of soon. Now that two years have passed, I have moved out of my village and into the Peace Corps training center to spend my last two months leading the pre-service training for new batch of education volunteers.

Leaving Ngayen Sanjal was hard. I felt ravenous for every detail during my final weeks. I savored moments writing by candlelight, the call to prayer sounding from the mosque over the drumbeats of Nigerian pop music at a wedding on the far side of the village. Moments sitting outside my door after an evening run in the bush, watching my host sister chat while her 18 month old on her back leans around to see the bats awoken in the evening twilight as they swoop past corners. Moments visiting a friend, lying on a mat as chickens peck and squawk all around. My friend sits with her newborn, Ebrima, lying beside her as she takes out a little girl’s braids with a stick. Lizards round the tree. Vultures circle the sky. Her co-wife brews attaya, the smell of burning sugar fills the air. We chat a little about work, the fields, the heat, and my impending departure as she repeatedly pours the tea from one small cup into another. But mostly, I just lay and listen while they chat about who’s doing what in the village.

Then came my last week in Ngayen Sanjal, and it certainly was memorable. It is no surprise that sometimes Peace Corps Volunteers get sick. I have pooped my pants twice during my service. Once during training, and the second time was that last week. I guess you could say I came full circle? The week also saw the president pass by three times on his agricultural tour. When the president travels, all the school children go to the road to welcome him, along with most of people from the village. They put on their best outfits, many of them wearing fabric with the president’s face on it, to stand and wave as his hundred plus vehicle motorcade drives by. I stood at the road for three hours in the morning waiting for him to pass in his white robes and dark sunglasses. He passed by again in the evening and once more the next morning. Each time the students went to greet him.
My last day there was busy visiting many families. The father of my good friend had passed away the day before. I covered my head and went to their compound to offer condolences. I also greeted the chief of village and thanked him for his hospitality. I went to the compounds of my closest friends in village and at their request, gave them pictures of me to remember me by. I received parting gifts of photos, peanuts, and fabric. I spent the night as I spent most nights, lying outside with my family, staring up at the stars. Some of my friends over to drink attaya and listen to the radio.

The next morning was emotional. Once the Peace Corps driver arrived, my little sister began to wail. She didn’t cry; she wailed! Tears escaped my own eyes as my head teacher, family, and friends came to pack the car. People prayed for my wellbeing and safe travels and thanked me for the work I’d done in the school. They asked me to greet all my family and friends in America for them. I thanked them for their hospitality and for their patience. Tears continued to flow as we drove away.

There is a Mandinka proverb that says no matter how long a log lies in the river, it will never be a crocodile. For two years I lived in this village, a member of a family, a part of the community. My biggest fear when I started Peace Corps was that I wouldn’t be a part of the community, that I’d remain on the edge without making genuine connections with people. Now as I reflect, I see that this is not important. I can live as a Gambian as long as I want, but I will still remain an American woman. But while I can’t say that I felt completely integrated into the community, I still made genuine connections with people I won’t forget. I played the role of teacher, student, mentor, friend, and sister. Maybe the log will never be a crocodile, but that doesn’t mean that relationships can’t be formed, experienced shared, and lives impacted. There are people in Ngayen Sanjal who will forever remain in my heart. Below are a few of them.

I like to think that they feel the same way.
Aret, Hincha, Mam Tutti and Me
Yago and Me
Me, Kodu, Mam Tutti, and Hincha
Musa and Me

Pa Kebba and Me

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Mosquitoes Make Me Bonkers!

Don’t tell Peace Corps, but probably the greatest job I ever had was as a camp counselor. It’s exhausting, meaningful, and an incredibly good time. I was a counselor at D-Camp for three summers, and each camp began with a game of bonkers. Simply put, campers get points completing various tasks at stations while “bonkers” run around bonking campers with flour-filled socks. If bonked, you have to sit and wait for a medic to rescue you. Only two people are safe in line at a station. The rest better run.

My friend Kristin, a former camp counselor herself, had the brilliant idea that we adapt this well-loved camp game to compact malaria.

So we did. And it was awesome.

We began with some classroom learning. Fifth and sixth grade students rotated through three 30 minute lessons taught by Peace Corps Volunteers paired with teachers from my school. One classroom on bed net care, 
Photo by Michael Alvarez,
Another on malaria prevention and mosquitoes,
Photo by Michael Alvarez

Photo by Michael Alvarez

And one on symptoms and treatment.

Photo by Michael Alvarez

Photo by Michael Alvarez

Now that students had heard the content, it was time to apply it.

In the form of bonkers.


Children earned points by completing malaria-related tasks at stations.

They did things like cover standing water to prevent mosquitoes from laying their eggs.

Photo by Michael Alvarez

They searched through a pile of clothing to find protective clothing for nighttime wear

Photo by Michael Alvarez

cleared the area of grass and fallen leaves where mosquitoes spend their time,

Photo by Michael Alvarez

and completed a puzzle and answered questions on the importance of taking prescribed malaria medication as directed.

Photo by Michael Alvarez

Other stations included acting out 3 malaria symptoms and properly tucking in a bednet.
But there’s a problem. Mosquitoes carrying the malaria parasite ran about the field. They infected children with the deadly parasite, also known as bonking children. Students with malaria were out of action until a community health nurse came to save them with the malaria medication. Bednets were hung throughout the field, but there was only room in each for 3 children at a time.
The children loved it! The adult teachers loved it! I loved it!

Here’s what it looked like.

Photo by Michael Alvarez

Photo by Michael Alvarez

Photo by Michael Alvarez

Photo by Michael Alvarez

Photo by Michael Alvarez

Photo by Michael Alvarez

The kids had to put discussed malaria prevention techniques into practice. They controlled mosquito populations by clearing grass and covering water. They protected themselves from mosquito bites by wearing long sleeves and using bed nets. They identified symptoms and displayed proper treatment seeking behaviors by getting medicine from a health care worker and recognized the importance of taking that medicine properly. Just as medicine would cost money in real life, getting bonked in the game cost the children a point. The message: prevention is the best route to take.

In the end, the team with the most points remaining after subtracting medical fees (bonks) won the game. Not only was this game fun and memorable, it was meaningful.

Being a camp counselor is the best job ever, and in this heat, Peace Corps is really just a two year long summer camp.

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!