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." 

Saturday, December 21, 2013


Last month, I visited my friend Kristin to share American Thanksgiving with her family. While many of the Peace Corps volunteers traveled to Kombo to spend the holiday together and eat fantastic food, Kristin decided to spend it in her village. She stays with my host family each week to visit her second school, so I thought it would be good to return the visits and get to know her family too.

I biked the 20 km to Kristin's village on Wednesday evening, and as she had been talking Thanksgiving up with her family for weeks, everyone was excited. Thanksgiving day, the kids went to school, the mother and father to work, and Kristin and I prepared for our Thanksgiving "program."

We went to the market and bought five cans worth of peanuts, a bag of sugar, and a packet of dried milk. In the afternoon we made our peanut cake - heat the kettle in the fire,
add the sugar, milk, and peanuts, along with a bit water. Cook, stirring constantly until the peanuts are roasted and caramelized. It should turn almost white in color. Let it cool and eat-delicious.

When everyone returned home, it was time for the main event. Kristin and I reenacted the first Thanksgiving with a pilgrim(me) landing in America after a long journey and a Native American(Kristin) greeting the pilgrim and inviting her to eat. They eat peanuts and corn, thank God, and that's the story of Thanksgiving as told by Yamundow and Ndey Salli. A simple version, but done completely in Wolof so we're pretty proud of it, and her family, they loved it! A video can be found here. After the skit they made their own paper hats, being either a pilgrim or a Native American. We ate the peanut cake, and took an abundance of pictures. Everyone was joyful and so excited that we were spending our "happy celebration day" with them. Then, when it was time for supper, her family surprised us with beans and bread, food that they would eat on their holidays which we hared with her host father, Momodou.

Some very excited Thanksgiving participants
It was a great time spent together, but we didn't realize what would happen the next night. On Friday, Kristin's host sister had a drama competition in another town. Though they considered staying overnight, she returned late that evening instead. Kristin, Momodou, and I were chatting under the bantaba, and she told us about her drama competition. After a bit, she went inside and we talked with Momodou until 11:30 pm or so. Kristin and I said good night and went inside. Momodou, stayed outside almost asleep in his chair. A couple hours later, we suddenly hear Kristin's host mother yelling. Rushing outside, we find Momodou unconscious.
Running, screaming, shouting, panic.
We try to take control. Kristin looks for a pulse, I look for a phone number to call
-no pulse, no 9-1-1.
Kristin looks to see if CPR is possible. My hands shake as I look through my contacts for any one to help. A foam has filled his air-ways. No chance for CPR. Trying to take control, we find ourselves utterly helpless amidst the chaos around. Momodou passes away.

We spend the next two days with her family. The elders and his wife bury his body during the next day. Those throughout the village pay their respects. They bring gifts and money. Families bring the rice, oil, and vegetables needed and together a dozen or so women make the meals to feed all the family and visitors for the the next few days. Returning from the burial, the imam speaks to all present. Kristin and I spend the days with her host sisters, all high school aged. We chat, we cry, but mostly we just sit together. Momodou was well-known for his generosity. As their village has one of the few high schools in the country, many students have stayed in his compound as part of the family so as to be able to go to school. He has welcomed several Peace Corps or VSO volunteers into his home. Talking with him, you knew very quickly that this was a man who was kind, virtuous, and good. His friends and family gathered, near and far, to celebrate his life, as it's done in many cultures.

I stayed a few days to be as supportive and helpful as I could before going back to my village. Biking home, I reflected on my unexpected turns of my Thanksgiving weekend. There were a couple things that stood out to me. The first was the overwhelming helplessness that I felt as he lay dying. I'm the American. I'm educated. I can read. I understand basic science. I'm here to help. I'm here to make a difference. I wanted to take control, trying to call a doctor. I saw the frantic chaos, the running, the screaming in the night, the man who lay dying before me, and I wanted to save him. I was frustrated that I wasn't a health volunteer because then maybe, just maybe...

But the fact of the matter is, had Momodou collapsed as he did in the United States, the end would not be any different. It happened so suddenly and quickly that even in our developed world with 9-1-1, ambulances, and professionally trained medical doctors, we're not in control.

Instead of being unnerved in this revelation, I was relieved. I'm not in control. I can't fix everything. I don't know all the answers. I'm not a god, but that's ok. It's ok because we have a God who is in control. Our God reigns.

Looking more closely on the preceding days, I saw God's providence, even in the details. Momodou's daughter could have easily stayed the night at her drama competition and not returned in time. Kristin could easily have been in Kombo for Thanksgiving. I could easily have gone to Kombo myself. Being present that night meant that his daughter would not have to face the news alone but could instead have the support of the whole family to walk through it together. As a welcomed member of the family, it was important for Kristin to be there. My presence meant that Kristin would not have to encounter death in a foreign culture alone. It was not an accident that we had spent Thanksgiving enjoying one another's company, taking pictures, and discussing gratitude.

For what better reason should we be grateful? We don't have to be in control. God knows the very hairs on our heads. God gives; He takes away. Our lives are nothing but gift, and they can end at any minute. Christmas is upon us, and as much as I want to be home with my family, I've been put here for a reason. I don't see the plan, but God controls even the details. Praise God. I am grateful for the prayers, letters, and support that I receive from home. Say a prayer for Momodou's family as they grieve and seek what is next. May we all come to know the gift of one another, and live each day in peace, trusting in God's providence.

Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’. For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well- Matthew 6:31-33

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Babies and Tobaski

The beginning of October found me homesick as my brother’s first child was born stateside, but here too, babies were born. The same day my host father’s daughter gave birth to her first child, also a little girl and within the week another host sister had a baby. When a baby is born here, the child is not named until the 8th day. A naming ceremony is held that day, attended by family and friends. The baby’s head is shaven and the name is announced. Kola nuts (a large and very bitter nut) and soap make appropriate gifts.
Then in mid-October was the big celebration of the Muslim holiday, Tobaski. Tobaski celebrates when Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son at God’s command, but Muslim’s believe that the son he went to sacrifice was not Isaac as Christian’s believe, but instead Isaac’s older half-brother Ishmael. The story, as told to me by a friend here, goes that God told Abraham to sacrifice his son on the mountain as an offering to God. Ishmael knew what was happening and told Abraham to blindfold both of them so that Abraham would be able to do what God asked. Abraham blindfolded himself and his son, took the knife, and just as he was about to kill his son, the angel Gabriel switched Ishmael out with a ram. Abraham who could not see this switch, removed his blindfold and found that God rewarded his faithfulness and Abraham had not killed his son but instead a ram.
The holiday, as celebrated in the Gambia, requires an entire week off from school and work. Monday found my family cleaning every corner, dish and cloth insight. On Tuesday, family members who had moved away returned home, extensions were weaved, braided, and sewn into hair, and complets were ironed. Wednesday was the day for prayer. The men and children went to the mosque to pray in the morning. Then when they returned it was time to slaughter our own rams. My good friend, Kristin, stayed with me over the Tobaski, and she and I went with my host father, our ram, and two goats. The other families also brought their rams, but my host father, a prominent member of the village, was the one to butcher most of the rams as they faced Mecca.
Then we returned home and the cooking began. As meat is both expensive and scarce in The Gambia, we were all very excited. Kristin and I peeled and diced probably three dozen onions while some of the other women prepared the meat. As any good cooks would do, we snacked as worked- charcoal-grilled ram meat, organs, and what I’m pretty sure were the testicles. It was delicious and felt like a barbecue back home. After several hours cooking, lunch was quickly devoured around several food bowls. Someone had even gone to the town 20 kilometers away to buy ice. Hello cold juice! The afternoon was spent brewing attaya and meew. In the evening we got all done up to go to the drumming and dancing program.
Thursday was day two of celebration and this was the day that everyone broke out their brand new complets, shoes, and nicest of their nicest things. We continued to eat and eat and eat some more. Children went around the village asking for salibo, usually a dalasi or a candy handed out. More hot attaya, more cold juice, more drumming and dancing in the night. Friday was the big football (soccer) game- Village boys versus Kombo boys and all the women dressed to the nines to go out and cheer. They tied 1-1.
Celebrating Tobaski felt so much like celebrating Thanksgiving at home. How to people celebrate? Food, food, family, friends, some more food, and sports, the necessary elements for any festivity.
Now the upcoming month looks very busy. Next weekend I will be working with my headmaster and a teacher to put on a training on Learner Centered Teaching. We’ve also begun a reading club at my school, meeting with five students from each class, two times a week to catch up their reading skills. There will be another school training in a couple weeks, but one that I am not facilitating. After that, I’ll be interviewing community members and writing my baseline survey, the assessment of the needs of my village and what possible projects would be desired. Some of the adventure and newness is wearing off but I feel energized now by my work in the school, that an d it’s finally cooling off some. Hello “cold” season!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Gelly-Gellies and School Days

Just a brief update here. I'm back in Kombo for a day or two with an ear infection. I saw the Peace Corps doctor this morning, recieved some medicine, and will make my way back to site tomorrow. I took public transportation here. Gelly-gellies, as they are called, are slightly longer than typical vans. They are often in less than mint condition. During training, my first gelly-gelly's side door fell off. The trip from my site to Kombo is about 120 miles but takes a good 6 hours. Yesterday took me 8 hours. Our driver hit a motorcycle at low speeds. No one was hurt, the bike didn't even fall over but there was damage. I then waited with 23 adults, 3 children, 1 infant, and 1 squaking chicken on the side of the road in a Lundvan sized vehicle while the drivers yelled at each other for 30 minutes. A cop arrives. Now 3 people yell at each other for 20 minutes. Suddenly they stopped, the driver came back, and we drove on.... until we suddenly pulled over at the police station for another hour. My Wolof helped me enough to find out that they needed money and did not have money. "I see. So when will they finish? What will they do?" I asked. -"They need money," someone replies. And we waited until suddenly they were finsihed, the driver returned, and I survived my first solo gelly-gelly experience.

I've been at site for less than two weeks. My initial impression is that the village is very social and supportive, and my school and headmaster are the best in The Gambia. We've been fast at work this first week of school to create action plans for committees and organize school based trainings throughout the year. I will be working with my headmaster and another teacher to lead a training on learner centered teaching and math methods of teaching primary grades. I've been getting to know the teachers and students. My school is supported by the Dutch Ngayen Sanjal School Fund. I've included a link to their website on my blog now. The students do not have to pay tuition to attend school, but they do need uniforms, pencils, paper, and some money for lunch. Through this organziation, the students recieve the assistance they need to not only go to school, but stay in school. The leader of the school fund came to visit last Friday. Gifts of money, mattresses, and even a goat or two were given to children and families. The organization has help fund the school's library, office and staff room, and solar panel. They are working to provide the families with solar lanterns so the children can do they homework at night.

I also added a wish list to my blog for those who have asked what they should send me. Packages are wonderful, and letters are my favorite.

That's all for now. I'll brave the gelly-gellies again tomorrow to head to site. Love and prayers.