Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A Time for Crying in Sadness and Happiness

My time in The Gambia is coming to an end. A lot has happened in the last few months. The most exciting news by far is the birth of Maimuna. I could not help but worry about the health of Banna, her mother, and of the baby herself especially just before she was born. What if there were complications? What if the baby was breech or had the cord wrapped around her little neck? Happily no such problems occurred and mother and baby are both very healthy.

While there had been much talk of Banna naming the baby after me if she was a girl I didn’t know if I should take such talk very seriously. It turned out that I should have. A week after the baby girl was delivered the traditional naming ceremony took place in my compound. Her delicate baby curls were shaved off, a chicken was slaughtered (a goat was too expensive) and after paying a man something like D5 or D10 to remember baby’s name, he came up with Maimuna, my Gambian name I was given when I first came in country. I don’t know if I’m a little over excited but now I’m a toma. I really couldn’t be happier. I can only say it’s something like being a godparent.

Maimuna will be two months old when I finally leave The Gambia. In so many ways I wish she had born sooner so that I could see her so all the things that babies do—sit up, crawl, stand, walk. But then again I would want to see her at all the other stages of her life as well. I am lucky that Hawa, my father’s fourth and youngest wife, and Banna, my father’s younger brother’s wife, came to live with us last summer. It was a great relief to me to have these two women close to my age living in my house. Neither has been to school and they have only picked up a small amount of English in their lives but they have really brightened my life in my village and in my compound. When they came I remember hearing, “Effo, cut!” so many times I thought cut (stop it) was Effo’s last name. It turned out that she was just the willful three-year-old daughter of Hawa. She is now a willful four-year-old. I also remember hearing the screechy crying baby that wouldn’t let me near her or hold her because she feared my white skin. Nyanya is now a rambunctious two-year-old, the youngest daughter of Hawa. Mariatou is still a little quiet and shy but is very happy to be a big sister to baby Maimuna. Though I have numerous nieces and nephews at home I have never lived with any of them or any other babies until Hawa and Banna brought their babies to my compound. I know I will miss many people when I leave but it will be difficult to say I won’t miss the babies the most.

The Jola people are just one of the tribes of people living in The Gambia. I was lucky enough to be living with them. Gambians know how to have a good time for sure but you can ask anyone—the Jolas, they know how to dance. As a parting celebration and thank you to my family, my compound and my village I paid for a nice party, or program as they call it here. For about $200 I had food and entertainment for maybe 200 or so people in my village. The women spent all day cooking the food in two of the largest cooking pots I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s a lot of work for them but it’s also a great social event as well. I was allowed to peel potatoes and onions but that’s about all. It was some of the best food I’ve eaten. It reminded me a lot of a kind of Thanksgiving. I ate food all day. My friends that came ate all day as well. As good as the food and the company were, my favorite part of the day was the drumming and dancing. I paid a drummer to come. I have a hard time believing that after all the hard work the women do all day (I was exhausted just doing the small number of things I had to do which was not cooking over hot open flames all day) they still have the energy to dance the was they do.

The women love to dance or like me, watch the other women dance. After we are all full and happy from the excellent lunch, the women and I bathe and put on our esobees (outfits of matching fabric). The clapping sticks are passed out; the drummer is beating hard and the women fly into the circle with an unbelievable energy. It is so loud all one can think about it the beat of the sticks and the drums. It’s tiring just watching. After it is dark, it is time to eat again. The small children fall asleep, I feel as though I easily could, my tired friends from nearby villages go home and though the compound and the village seem quiet, shortly the drummer begins again and dancing goes well into the night. Anyone who was too shy to dance in the daylight might now be brave enough to enter the circle and dance now. I can only watch for a short time before retiring to my house. I fall asleep around 12:30 am to the sound of the drums just outside my compound.

There have been many difficult times here. There have also been many happy moments. I’m glad I had the opportunity to come here and meet the people, Gambian and volunteers, that I did. I have plans for when I am home but they really feel more like dreams now. For instance, I plan on going to at least one World Series game that the Royals are in. I think for now I will just do what I think will make me happy knowing that doing so has had good results in the past.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

I'm on it slowly slowly

It has been brought to my attention that I need to update this thing so here I go. I don’t really feel like I’ve been all that busy lately but I suppose I’ve been up to a few things. At the beginning of February I went to Mauritania. I thought that would be such a great thing to write about but then I remembered that I was just a tourist there and I don’t live there so what can I really say about it? I did have a good time and I met a lot of really nice people. The desert is a beautiful place and maybe someday I’ll go back for a camel trek. It’s really hot there and I’m glad I’m living in The Gambia instead of Mauritania. It really made me miss my host family.

Back in my village I’m anxiously awaiting the arrival of a new family member. Bana and her daughter Mariatou came to live with my family (Bana is my father’s brother’s wife) last summer. I didn’t realize until probably January that Bana is pregnant. She’s very pregnant now. When I first suspected she was pregnant I asked my sister Binta (about 14 years old) if she knew for sure or not and she told me, “I don’t know.” Sometimes I think that’s all she will say to me but she told me that when the adults want to talk about something when she’s there they talk in Wolof instead of Jola so she won’t understand. There are certain taboos about talking about being pregnant so I wasn’t sure if Bana would admit to me that she was pregnant but she did and I often ask her how the baby is doing and what she will name the new baby when she comes (I really hope it’s a girl). It all made sense to me Bana’s strange behavior once I found out. She seemed to be tired a lot and was vomiting sometimes but didn’t look sick. She was also always coming to me and telling me she was hungry and I would either share some food with her or give her some money to buy bread or whatever else she was craving. It’s not a secret anymore though. A few weeks ago she was coming from fetching water and someone passing by her in the compound gave her a typical greeting, “Bu kanee,” –How are you to which she replied very loudly and in English (she knows very little English), “I’m not fine. I’m HUNGRY!”

Right now I’m on vacation. It’s not really vacation; I just have leave days built up (2 a month since I swore in as a volunteer) and since I didn’t use them all I’m using some to just spend in Kombo and touring the country a bit. Before I left my village to come to Kombo this last time, I asked her when her baby is coming. She told me tomorrow. I hope that’s not true. For my own selfish reasons I want to be there when she has her baby. I hope the baby doesn’t come for a little while longer.

Along with Bana and Mariatou, Hawa, my father’s youngest wife, and her babies Nyanya and Effo came also. I’ve totally fallen in love with these girls. They are all about a year apart and I’m pretty sure they love me, too. I’ve maybe given special attention to Mariatou but only because she lets me hold her and sometimes falls asleep when I’m holding her. Over Christmas I was gone for two weeks. When I came back everyone was very happy to see me including the babies. Mariatou was very happy as well until she realized she was mad at me for being gone. The last time I went to my village a Peace Corps vehicle had come earlier the same day to drop off my mail. I was told Mariatou was again angry that I was not in that car but at least she wasn’t mad when I came. As I recall, she came running full speed until she crashed into my legs. That’s definitely something worth coming home to. I think I’ll miss them the most when it’s time for me to go home in July.

One of the things I’ve gotten a little involved with this year is my family’s garden. There is a community garden that anyone in my village is welcome to work in. My family has about a dozen beds. Mostly they grow sorrel from which the women can cook my favorite sauce kucha. They don’t have many different seeds so I think I’ve only seen carrots and maybe two or three other different plants. Garden work is very hard. Twice a day the garden has to be watered. Throughout the garden are a few wells to pull the water from. The women bring 3 large basins and a few smaller buckets to the garden. One person will pull the water and fill the basins and someone else will carry that water in the smaller buckets to the bed. This is a women’s project. There will be boy and girl children helping out sometimes but one would never expect to see a man helping out. It’s unfortunate since the women who sell things from the garden can make a lot more money than the men who only worry about groundnuts, coos or corn in the rainy season. I enjoy going to the garden with my family because it’s the one time I can really work along side them and be productive. My family is very protective of me though. Once I scraped my knuckles on the base of the well and they thought I just might die and I shouldn’t work anymore. I suppose it seems very serious because of the stark difference of blood on my white skin.

I guess mostly what I’ve been up to is getting closer and closer to my family which of course will only make it more and more difficult for me to leave. I’ve told them many times I will take them all back with me. While daydreaming I imagine bringing them all home with me to a giant kitchen with things to help them cook like running water and an electric or gas stove and attaya and liat for them to drink all day.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Animal House

One of the things I’ve had to get used to here are the animals. I used to think I could have more control over them. After all in the States a lot of animal you see are pets or cute neighborhood animals like birds and squirrels. It’s not quite like that here.

Shortly after I moved into my house at my permanent site a rat moved in above my ceiling. I couldn’t believe it! I thought my family would be more than happy to help me. My 18 year old brother perhaps thought I was a little crazy but communicated to my family that it was bothering me and tried to help by buying ‘medicine’ for the rat. The worst part of him living above my ceiling was that I could see him entering my home from outside and I saw his very long tail more than once dangling in one corner or another. This was a bush rat and happened to be the size of a cat—no joke. I even know where he was building his nest. I remember waking up one night and being convinced that he had found a way into my house and was eating my food. I started crying since I didn’t know how to get rid of him. At best I could chase him out but he would know how to get back in so it seemed hopeless. Luckily the chewing sound I heard was coming from above my ceiling. I was still a little outraged that my family didn’t seem to be doing more to help me out. This animal was keeping me awake half the night running around on my cement bag ceiling and chewing on the wood support beams of my roof. Since I wasn’t sleeping I would sometimes chase him around poking at my ceiling with something that could reach it. I would hear him run to one end or another and poke again. I’m convinced he finally moved out because he couldn’t take it anymore. At least I have more patience than a bush rat.

Then sometime in the spring maybe a mouse moved into my house—not above my ceiling. At first he was chewing on anything he could find. I would find little bites taken out of my lid of my oatmeal container and every other container I had whether or not it had food in it. It was the beginning of mango season and he managed to take little bites out of every mango if I didn’t put it on top of my water filter—I figured that was about the only thing tall enough that he could climb on top of. I forgot about some sunflower seeds I was eating and he went through those in one night. They had gotten stale anyway. I went away for a weekend and when I came back he’d chewed through the cord on a pair of headphones (luckily I’d brought 3 or 4 pair with me) and the cord on my little speakers. I fixed the speakers but haven’t had any luck with the headphones. I found him twice building a nest between a 3 inch thick foam and the wall the foam was next to. He had chewed a hole through my back screen door which I had seen him going out of and when I patched it there was a nearly identical hole chewed through the screen right next to the first hole it the next day. I put a bigger patch on it and haven’t gotten a new hole since. Eventually he stopped chewing on everything. I knew he was still there since I’d hear him sometimes in the night but it was only sometimes and he wasn’t getting into everything anymore so I let him be. Mousetraps are hard to come by here and I really didn’t want to poison him and not know where he was. Dead rotting mouse in my home is just not very appealing. I remember telling my sister Binta about this mouse running around keeping me awake. I’d convinced myself there were baby mice, too. She kinda laughed at me and told me to see their mouse. We were near the kitchen and she showed me the small food store room next to the kitchen where the mouse was. It was dark so she shone her flashlight around the room a few times. There were dozens of mice running around the rafters, the walls the floors. I was disgusted. She didn’t know the plural for mouse. And here I was complaining about one mouse. After living with me for so long one night I heard a little splash in one of the half full buckets of water sitting next to my bed. I immediately knew what it was. I was a little disturbed, a little panicked. I got up to use my toilet (hole) in my backyard. I shone my flashlight in the bucket on my way in. There he was swimming silently in circles unable to get out. When I woke up in the morning he was dead. I was relieved and saddened at the same time. However, I won’t miss him.

Gambians hate cats. Even though cats can catch and kill mice and rats that get into food stores they also sometimes get into food if it’s not properly covered so in the end the cats lose. Living with mice and rats is not a big deal since they can’t get rid of them. However lizards and geckos they are very afraid of. I’ve seen them screaming and jumping to avoid them and tear my house apart trying to kill one. I’m a little indifferent to the lizards and geckos since they don’t bother me by getting into everything and destroying things. They are also very afraid of snakes. There are a few poisonous ones here. I’ve heard some good stories about them but Gambians will kill any and every snake they see. I’ve also seen pictures of a snake that had eaten an entire adult goat. The snakes do eat chicken eggs and chickens so a hatred of them is not unwarranted. I managed to get a hold of a green rubber snake and I’ve had a lot of fun with that. Women and children running and screaming and me laughing very hard. When the other kids and adults started egging me on when someone new came to the compound who hadn’t seen the rubber snake I knew it really was funny and not just me.

I hate roosters. They don’t just crow at dawn but a few hours before dawn and then all day. I live with too many. Last year in my compound there was at least a half dozen or more. They compete for loudest crow and once they start they don’t stop crowing. There aren’t as many this year and I’m very thankful for that.

The goats aren’t so bad. The babies are pretty cute. Goats get sick just like humans especially during the dry season with all the dust being stirred up every day. I remember one goat who every night would wake up and go to the middle of our compound and baa. BaaAAH-SNEEZE, baaAAH-SNEEZE for half the night. Or maybe he was just outside my window near my bed. Either way I didn’t sleep much my first year at site for all the animals keeping me awake half the night.

Other animals that I live with can be classified as bugs. The ants are annoying but don't do much damage unless they are sugar ants that find a stash of candy. There are also black ants that I call 'bitey ants' because they bite and it stings and later it itches for a few days. They build in my mud brick walls and occasionally break through and I'll have little ant hills around my house. The termites live in the walls, too, and only bother me when they eat my door and window frames. The main problem with that is finding a carpenter that will finish repairing the windows and doors. I had a carpenter come maybe November 2005 and from time to time he'll stop by to do an hours' worth of work and still hasn't finished the work. I was mad at first but have stopped caring mostly because I made some of the repairs myself since he left wood in my house. It's a good thing I brought a Leatherman with a little saw.

I think that's most of the animals that I live with. I'm sure there are some smaller ones that live inside me that I won't get rid of until I go home but that's only 6 1/2 months away.