01 - PST (Pre-Service Training)
|If I were to describe everything you might find interesting about my first three months in The Gambia, I'd have to write a book, which you'd never read. Here's some of the highlights.|
|July 4, 2005 was my first official day as a PCT (Peace Corps Trainee). You, like me, might initially think that since this is a pretty significant day in American history that us Peace Corps folks might get to take it as a holiday. You, like me, would be wrong. I spent it and the following two days in Philadelphia where I and the other 17 trainees in my Education group were given a crash-course on the Peace Corps. The mission is three-fold: (1) help developing nations with selected skillsets (e.g. Education, Health, or Environment); (2) learn about a foreign culture to later teach others about it; (3) teach people in foreign lands about American culture.|
|Oh, and we were told all the ways we can officially get kicked out of Peace Corps. (Since you asked: drugs, getting political, and sex with minors are the big no-no's.)|
|A bus took us to JFK, a plane to Brussels, and another through Dakar, Senegal to Banjul (aka Bathurst), The Gambia. Everyone in my group was asked what their first thoughts were getting off the plane. Most answered "Damn, it's f*****g hot." Hot, and humid. I could wring out my shirt before I got my bags.|
My first week in-country was spent near the capital in day-long training sessions where we were told about The Gambia, a really small sorta-rectangle about 30km tall and about 400km long on the far West coastline of Africa, about one-third of the way south of the continent, with one side on the Atlantic Ocean, the other three surrounded by the country of Senegal. The Gambia used to be a British colony, Senegal a French one. This may come as a shock, but there's a history of tension between the two that continues today (the border finally re-opened to commercial traffic after a two-month spat).
|Yes, the official name is "The Gambia". Everyone knows the story as to why there's the "The", but unfortunately none of the stories match.|
|There's a river that runs through the middle of the country called, you guessed it, River Gambia. (No, there's no "The".)|
|There's maybe a dozen different ethnic groups. Official language: English, but most speak three or more of the other local languages which include Wolof (what I'm learning), Mandinka, Fula, and a handful of other less-spoken ones. Vocabularies are limited compared to English, so it's not uncommon for a conversation to switch back and forth between three or more languages to use the right words to express the desired meaning, even within the same sentence.|
|The next ten weeks were spent in technological seclusion in "training villages" up-country (i.e. no 'Net. I'm serious. Imagine for a second life without Google… But wait, there's more! No electricity and no running water. But that ain't nothin' compared with NO GOOGLE!!!!)|
|The goal here is to give us PCT's a chance to learn the culture and one of the local languages (I'm a Wolof – Naga Def?) in a setting that is nearly identical to one like where most of us will be volunteering. To save us from ourselves, an HCN LCH (Host Country National [aka a Gambian] Language and Cultural Helper – how Peace Corps LOVES the TLAs…) lives in the village with us to help lubricate the cultural exchange and teach some language classes. To further smooth out the transition, my Gambian host family honored me with an nginté -- a Gambian naming ceremony -- where I was given a sweet outfit and the name of my Toma (namesake, who is my host brother), Abdoulie Njie, but everyone calls me Lie (as in "I cannot tell a Lie").|
|Distance here is best measured in time. My training village is maybe 200km (~125mi) away from the capital, but it took a good 8 hours to get there. The two main roads that parallel the river are TERRIBLE, and generally it is better to drive on the dirt shoulders than navigate the connected potholes that remind you that once there was, in fact, a road there somewhere. Some of the sections are MUCH better than others, and rumour has it there's a correlation between where those sections begin and end, the district boundaries, and the voting results of the last elections. My village is 7km (~5mi) off the main "road", but it takes 10-15 minutes in a 4x4 to get there.|
Village Life is a total trip. Each of us lives with a host family, in a hut of our own in the family compound. My family was tiny – My father, his two wives, my brother (Lie, 9, who is my "Toma" [namesake]), and sister (Haddy, 7). (There's some other kids in the picture, but as was often the case with people hanging out in my compound at any given time, I'm not sure whose family they belong to.) Other PCTs lived in huge compounds with a father and up to four wives (the maximum as dictated by Islam) with as many as couple dozen kids aged 0 to 25.
|My hut is a single room, maybe 10 feet x 10 feet. Two doors, one to the front, one to my backyard (and toilet). Two windows. Small desk and chair. One trunk, and my bags. See picture.|
similar to how time passes in village…
|8:00am: Battery-powered alarm goes off. OUCH. Open mosquito net, scan concrete floor for any new ant hills / spiders / scorpions / thatched roof detritus / lizard poo that has accumulated over the night. Open front door to let my host mothers know I'm awake so they can start my breakfast. Brush teeth using bottled water. Use "broom" of dried grass to move the night's dirt delivery outside. Hang up soaked sheet and pillowcase.|
8:15: Grab towel, soap, toilet paper (I splurge because I just can't get used to the local custom of using my left hand, which IMHO actually makes MUCH more economic and environmental sense), large cup, and bucket. Walk out to "wanuk" (aka "bathroom" aka "toilet" aka "concrete slab covering hole in ground"). BE CAREFUL NOT TO STEP ON SCORPIONS!!! Take off clothes. Lift toilet cover. Squat and use toilet (aim wisely). Return wanuk cover. Take "Bucket Shower": use cup to pour water over targeted body part, apply soap, cup redux to rinse. Plan wisely – the bucket is maybe 8 liters, which is fewer cups than you think (or want).
|8:45: Eat Breakfast. I get tea and biscuits or, if I'm lucky, day-old stale bread – there's no bakery in my village and day-old it about as fresh as it gets, the (maybe) two days a week we can actually get it.|
|9:00-Noon: Language lessons, where I'm reminded that I'm TERRIBLE at learning a language. The most humiliating part of my day.|
|13:00: Food Bowl. This is a big bowl of rice or noodles (if we were lucky) with chicken and potatoes and maybe a carrot on top. Eat with your right hand, making balls of rice and tossing them into your mouth. This takes LOTS of practice to get right. Using your left hand for anything is a BIG NO-NO (see toilet discussion above).|
|Afternoon: Did I mention it's f******g hot? Attempt not to move much. Sometimes I have to to survive, like when I took this horse cart to the market for supplies.|
|17:45: Finally give in to the barrage of kids who come to my door screaming "Lie Njie, Frisbee? Frisbee?". I grab my disc and play a game of Ultimate with most of the kids in the village. This is my favourite time of the day (and theirs). I taught the kids how to play the first week so that I'd have people to play with, and because their football (soccer ball for the Americans) was flat and there was no patch kit and working pump – you don't need to patch or pump a Frisbee!. They got REALLY good REALLY fast.|
|19:00: Take my two buckets to the hand pump, about 10 minute walk from my house. Watch sunset as I listen to the incompressible Wolof banter between the girls who are waiting to pump and the boys who have come to hassle / flirt with them. Pumping both of my buckets takes about 5 minutes if I pump fast, and always elicits laughter since pumping is a woman's chore. Sometimes I'm lucky and my brother will break with tradition and take one of my buckets home with me (guys aren't supposed to carry water, either) .|
|19:40: Fill drinking water filter with 2/3 of one bucket. Add 6 drops bleach to kill things I don't want to think about.|
|19:45: Bucket Bath number two. The sky is AMAZING. SO MANY STARS!!! NO AMBIENT LIGHT!!! (It's so sad Gambians generally avoid looking at them – the story I was told is that they believe there is a star for each person and if you count the stars and come across "your" star you instantly die…)|
|20:30: Njoganal. This is "supper", which is a food bowl of leftovers from lunch. I usually pass because I know in less than an hour is...|
|21:15: Reer (dinner). Sometimes I eat "cous" with my family. Not be confused with cous-cous, which is edible. Cous (I think its pounded millet, but I'm in Education, not Agriculture) is a substance that looks, feels, and tastes like dirt. I'm serious. It's an acquired taste, which I never acquired. What kills me is that it takes hours of hard manual labor (hand-pounding, hand-sifting, cooking) to produce this stuff. Instead, I generally get my own food bowl of rice porridge. I LOVE THIS STUFF. Recipe: Light firewood, boil water, add rice, boil more, add sugar, eat. Can't get enough of it, and my family is stoked because rice is less valuable than cous. (The economic metric that is generally cited is a 50kg sack. It might feed an average family for a month or more and currently costs 650 Dalasis, or at the current rate of $1 = 27.6D, sets you back $23.60, or about 20% of the standard PCV [Peace Corps Volunteer] monthly stipend.)|
|21:45: Cards by candlelight with my brother and sister. I taught them War, and let them play with a deck I brought. I make them say the numbers out-loud in both Wolof (to teach me) and English (to teach them). This has surprisingly good results, both for pronunciation and to quicken their number recognition and comparison skills. Usually I read while they play because ten weeks of War was just too much (I'd rather practice Peace). (Side Note: Wolof is base-5, just like your hands, so the number 7 is "juróóm naar", or literally "five two". This makes things long, as 687 is "juróóm bena teemeer ak juroom neta fuka ak juróóm naar", so pretty much everyone just uses English numbers regardless of what language they speak.) They LOVED when I played music for them (if they liked the song they would get up and dance, and Lie and I really liked the chorus of Simon and Garfunkel's "The Boxer").|
|23:00: Blow out the candle, get into bed, close the mosquito net, lie down, try not to notice the fact that as I sweat (I only really stop during the bucket baths) the bed is getting more and more wet. Attempt to ignore the noises of crawling in my hut, the livestock outside, or the dirt (?) falling from my roof.|
|My transparently feeble attempt at humour may have masked it, but I *LOVED* village life and often really miss it.|
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