Lie's FAQ

(last updated briefly in 20 Sept, 2008.  NOTE: needs serious updating to reflect the fact that I'm not a volunteer anymore, but don't have the time just yet.  Maybe in a few months...)

    I was once but am no longer serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in The Gambia, West Africa. During my in-country training, my Gambian host family honored me with an nginté -- a Gambian naming ceremony -- where I was given the name of my Toma (namesake), Abdoulie Njie, but everyone calls me Lie (as in "I cannot tell a Lie"). Part of the various development work I have beeninvolved in includes teaching classes: Introduction to Information Communication Technology (ICT) and Introduction to Programming at the University of The Gambia (UTG) and Digital Logic and Design at the Gambia Technical Training Institute (GTTI).

    Here are some of the questions I've been asked from friends and family. Please send any questions or comments to:

Question Groups

Peace Corps -- Questions relating to the Peace Corps (application, training, administration, etc?)

FAQ_1-1 - Peace Corps: Does the PC provide teacher professional development or do you just jump in and teach?
Basically you just jump in and teach, although I spent two months in Peace Corps training, which did have several discussion sessions on various topics including alternative discipline, team teaching, and background on The Gambia's educational system. We also had a two-week "model school" where we were put in front of students and asked to teach, which would have been a good time to test various styles. But I've pretty much just jumped in and taught by instinct, and have so far noticed that I'm doing some things pretty good (I ask lots of questions, and get some of the students to come up and work out some of the problems on the board), and some things really bad (I talk REALLY fast, and I skim over things that I shouldn't, and I spend way too much time lecturing and not nearly enough time interacting with the students).

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The Gambia -- Geography, Politics, etc specific to The Gambia.

FAQ_2-1 - The Gambia: What's economy of The Gambia dependent on?
Almost exclusively substance farming, primarily cous (millet, I think), corn (what we would call "feed corn" -- there's no white or sweet corn here), and a preponderance of "groundnut" (aka peanut), which is not the "confectionery peanut" we are used to in the US but a peanut which is much lower in quality and taste. The trending decline in the world markets for peanuts over the last decades have basically decimated most of the chances of The Gambia's economy improving.

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Culture -- The world is a very strange, different, and wonderful place.

FAQ_3-1 - Culture: Is there a cultural barrier to understanding the concept or importance of computer knowledge?
Yes, and it's not just limited to understanding what/why you learn with computers, there are subtle cultural differences in how people hear, in the cultural subtexts, and in the language (they've got a modified British accent heavily dosed with African tones and local phrases [i.e. "small-small, slowly-slowly"] that don't translate well. I find myself speaking clunky in distinct words, much slower, using a MUCH MORE LIMITED version of English. My tiny, terrible vocabulary is actually atrophying before my eyes, and I find myself saying really silly things without thinking about it now, which is good because it does help foster understanding.)

FAQ_3-2 - Culture: What are the cultural educational expectations of the local families?
This is impossible to answer quickly. Generally school has been ignored until VERY recently. Some families see the Western education as a tool for the destruction of the family and cultural, primarily Islamic, values. Some see it as the only way out of persistent poverty. Many think it is a good idea, but don't know if it is worth it, especially when they see kids go to school only to end up back on the farms, and then the very valid question comes up of "why did they waste 6-12 years at school if they were only going to end up on the farms anyway?" This is VERY true for women -- why spend any of the little money a family has on uniforms and books if their daughter is just going to get married off at 15 and spend the rest of her life as a housewife? My gut is to say "an education pays for itself many times over regardless of what someone does with it", but I'm starting to wonder if that "truism" is actually true. After all, if you're a woman subjugated to (basically) a life of servitude in a male-dominated society, does an education help you, or just make you less happy with your fate in life? Obviously I think that everyone should get an education, but what if it only ends up making you depressed in the long run?

It's hard to have these kind of discussions with Western-educated people because there is such a HUGE cultural significance placed on education and sexual equality that is drilled into your head from the earliest ages that it's hard to look past all those programmed instinctual responses and really understand and honestly debate the reality in a world where those cultural values are nascent or just don't exist.

FAQ_3-3 - Culture: How involved is the community in the schools?
Generally not at all. One of the primary goals for Education PCVs is to work on changing this.

FAQ_3-4 - Culture: How do they feel about an 'outsider' teaching their kids/citizens?
Depends on who you talk to, and how educated they are. The more educated, the more they are all for it, as they acknowledge the lack of talent in the country, and see everywhere else as offering better opportunities, especially the UK and the USA. Most people really like the Peace Corps, and it's amazing how wonderful the majority of the people are to us. Some people don't care, and some people see us as a threat to "traditional" beliefs.

Sometimes it's sad as many, if not most, people believe that because we have white skin, we're inherently "better", "smarter" people who are more capable. It's really hard to break out of the cultural values instilled into the populace after decades and decades of colonial rule and racial subjugation.

One example: my "host family" in my training village is a TINY family -- my host father has only two wives and only two kids. Because the family is so small, they don't let my host brother go to school (he's about 10) because they (1) need his help in the fields, and (2) don't want him to get educated and leave the family. Ironically, they asked me on several occasions to take my host brother to Banjul with me to teach him English, and would love it if I took him to America. There's a huge belief that there is no opportunity in country, and everyone dreams of one day leaving, finding a job, and sending back money to their family here. But they don't see how linked that opportunity is to education which is available in their village.

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Food -- Food options, quality, styles, etc?

FAQ_4-1 - Food: What's the food like there? What do you usually eat?
I'm a bit spoiled living in the Kombo area (the area south of the capital) because this is the main tourist destination, and thus there's lots of good food options. Unfortunately, the vast majority of it is outside the budget dictated by my incredibly meager stipend (which if I didn't subsidize with my own money would dictate a max of $4 a day for food and drink), since the stipend is really focused on providing up-country volunteers in villages with what they need -- most subscribe to a "food bowl" for one or two meals for about $10-15 a month.

The majority of the local food is based around a large portion of rice or cous (pounded millet, I believe) lightly covered with a sauce and often a small piece of fried fish or chicken which is shared among everyone in the family (so you don't get very much). Vegetables are expensive because they are primarily imported, so they're very rare in most villagers diets. Many things have a season -- cherry tomatoes, squash, and eggplant are pretty available now. Potatoes are pretty available, along with salt, chilis, garlic, pepper, and small tomatoes.

Food is traditionally served in a "food bowl" which is a huge, deep bowl with a large base of rice or case (maybe a couple inches deep, depending on how many are in the family) and the sauce on top. People eat with their right hand (NEVER with their left, as that is used as an efficient and economic and environmentally-friendly replacement for toilet paper.) Larger families will let the kids eat first, then the adults, or will have two food bowls. Sometimes, and with increasing frequency, people will eat with a spoon instead of their hand, especially if your hands are incredibly dirty from a day in the field or heavy work -- the spoon must still be held by your right hand only.

In places near a bakery or within short distance (think time, not length, but this still covers most of the country), bread is cheap and very tasty. Bidiks (small family-owned shops) are pretty much everywhere, and you can usually find bread there. I *love* the "tapalapa", which is shockingly close to San Francisco-grade sourdough. Where I live the bidik often has hot, fresh tapalapa, and I like it better than the breads I generally got from Whole Foods in San Fran (except for the hot-from-the-oven sourdough baguettes the few times I luckily stumbled upon them -- they melted in my mouth -- mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm).

There's a local shop across the street from the Peace Corps office -- Omar's -- that serves a daily "plate" of food for 20D (about $0.75) which is a big mound of rice, a good sauce, and a small piece of boiled chicken. I eat there a lot.

My other favourite meal is "half chicken with chips" which is half a rotisserie chicken served with french fries. For those of you who know me, you won't be surprised at my near orgasm when a 24-hour restaurant opened up near my house that serves an awesome half chicken and chips for 75D (~$2.75). They even have fresh, home-made desserts including very tasty baklava, but unfortunately at $1 a piece, it's outside of my daily budget. A happy treat, tho.

Another very popular favourite is schwerma (spelling?) which is basically pieces of meat in a pita with some potatoes and sauce. It's EVERYWHERE here, and costs 35D (~$1.25).

And I can't forget to mention my personal highlight -- three or four times a week I get an AWESOME fresh watermelon for $1 a piece from my friend Abdoulie-the-Watermelon-Guy who sells on the side of the road just down the street from where I work. YUM.

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Entertainment -- What I do when I'm avoiding justifying my existence as a volunteer.

FAQ_5-1 - Entertainment: What is there to do for entertainment?
Again, I'm lucky because my job has me located in the tourist area, so I have access to the things that cater to them. Up-country, because there is no power, everything is done when the sun goes down.

Even here in the middle of it all, there's still not much to do. Because most people here are Muslim and don't (officially) drink, bars are few and generally don't have many locals, but they do exist. Beer is provided by the single brewery in The Gambia, Jul Brew, but at $0.75 a bottle it's a treat and outside of the daily budget. (I've broken down and subsidized on a few large nights out, tho...)

There's a karaoke bar that lots of the PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers) like to go to, which can be fun after a few Jul Brews. There's a few dance clubs that play pretty much exclusively pop hip-hop, which feeds my need to dance but really makes me miss the thumping Electronica that I love to bounce to. I generally go out dancing with other PCVs, and occasionally with some of the VSOs (Volunteer Service Organisation, a Peace Corps for volunteers from the rest of the world) or foreigners who work for other NGOs (non-governmental organisations). Usually we're the only people at the clubs we go to, which is somewhat on purpose -- there are lots of "bumsters" here, people who hassle the tourists and are a real downer -- the clubs we go to are expensive but keep the bumsters out.

There are a surprisingly large number of all-night "casinos" that are exclusively electronic slot and poker machines. I don't understand it, really, since most people don't gamble, but they're everywhere, so there must be a large number of locals who secretly do. I haven't been to one for more than a minute to look around -- gambling on a machine just isn't my thing.

I spend a lot of my entertainment time watching DVDs on the laptop I brought over. (So VERY glad I splurged for the bigger screen. ;)

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Transportation -- The bumps and bruises of getting around.

FAQ_6-1 - Transportation: How do you get around?
There are small car taxis which seat one up front and three in the back and have set routes and cost 5D (~$0.20) for anywhere along that route. You share them with anyone who wants to ride that route.

You can also hire a taxi for a "town trip", which is a point-to-point trip like you'd expect of a taxi in the US, only the fare is negotiated up-front and will cost you as much as you can get the driver to agree on. Prices are all over the map depending on your negotiation skills, the time of day, and how much other business the driver could get if he doesn't accept your offer. It's not uncommon to spend five or even ten minutes negotiating a price before I'll get something reasonable, especially since I'm white and they instinctively see me as a tourist with cash to blow and a low desire for hassle. It helps that I know a tiny bit of Wolof and I push the "I'm a poor Peace Corps Volunteer" angle as far as possible. Generally it'll cost me 30D (~$1) for a short trip, or as much as 70-100D (~$2.50-$3.50) for a longer (10 minute) trip with a full car load of people (4). Sometimes you can even convince the driver to allow a fifth person to ride on someone's lap, but be warned -- at night there are random police checkpoints on the roads and if your overloaded taxi comes up on one, the driver will make someone get out and walk past the checkpoint before letting the person back in.

There are also "Geli-Geli"s that are minivans that squeeze as many people as possible in. These also charge 5D for the main routes, but I prefer the taxis. However, they are the only means to getting up-country -- price depends on how far you want to go. All the way to the end (~400km) would cost you maybe 150D (~5.50) plus more for any bags and could take you as much as 18 or 20 hours. The don't have shocks and the roads are horrible. They stop often, and will usually wait as long as it takes until they are full before leaving for a destination. They often break down, often several times on a single trip. There's no a/c, and they're really cramped. Getting pee'd on by a goat tied to the roof is a definite possibility, as is getting pee'd on by a baby squished in next to you. It's not the worst way I've ever travelled (Cambodia had similar roads, Vietnam had horrible drivers), but it's damn near close.

I spend a lot of time walking.

Most volunteers have Peace Corps-issued bikes. However, because of the high traffic in my specific area, I'm not allowed to get on one, which makes me very sad. I really miss my bike and the late-night rides on the empty streets of San Francisco...

I'm also not allowed to get on a motorbike, or to operate a car. If I'm caught doing any of these, I'll get ET'd (Early Termination), which would suck because then I'd have to phone home to have someone pick me up at the airport [and the drums go: buh-dum---bum].

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My Work -- What I do to justify my existence as a volunteer.

FAQ_7-1 - My Work: I am a teacher at heart and have worked in education reform for a while so I'd love to hear everything about the educational system in The Gambia.
Sure -- questions are great because they spur my thinking on specific topics (which is why I'm liking responding to this, and why I'll be using some of this in my mass-mailing). What's REALLY hard for me is the broad-based questions some other people have asked like "What's it like there? What are the differences?" -- I'm like, "uhhh, where do I even begin!?!?"

FAQ_7-2 - My Work: How will the work you are doing for the Peace Corps help change the economy?
Good question, and not one I have a full, or even satisfactory answer to. The technology industry is nascent here, and there's no talent to fill the absurdly tiny need that exists in the few companies and government organizations that are just starting to adopt technology.

FAQ_7-3 - My Work: Do you have the same students in all your classes?
No -- my GTTI class is a single class that meets twice a week. My UTG courses are like standard college courses -- each class will be open to enrollment, and there are no people in my programming class who are also in my intro to ICT class.

FAQ_7-4 - My Work: How big is your classroom?
At GTTI I have 20 students, and on Mondays I teach in an electronics lab that is pretty full at 20 but could hold a very tightly-packed 30, and on Thursday I teach in a classroom that could hold maybe 25 students comfortably. At UTG I teach in the Computer lab that should only house 15 students, but could hold 25 or 30.

FAQ_7-5 - My Work: How do you structure your classes?
So far my Digital Logic classes have been taught from a set of lecture notes that were put together by a previous volunteer. The next couple of weeks will continue to be all lectures, then once we get through the background/review material, we'll spend one class hands-on in the electronics lab, and the other period in lecture. I need to plan out that class, which is on my task list for the next few weeks. My ICT classes will be taught in the UTG's computer lab, which is in the process of being upgraded to new computers being given to the UTG from ActionAid, a NGO based out of the UK. My programming classes will be primarily lecture-based with lots of programming homework assignments. I plan on giving my GTTI students a homework for each lecture, once a week.

FAQ_7-6 - My Work: What's your teaching style?
So far it's been primarily lecture-style with homeworks. I plan on having my Introduction to Programming course have a large amount of hands-on lab work. I'm toying with the idea of pulling one student aside every so often and working with them to prepare a lecture which they will give.

FAQ_7-7 - My Work: Do you teach to different learning types or is it too difficult to even deal with the language barrier?
No -- I haven't even thought about this. I'd be curious if you had any advice/suggestions...

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Africa -- Geography, Politics, etc general to the continent of Africa.

FAQ_8-1 - Africa: What's Africa like?
I get this question so often and I have no idea where to even begin. It's fun and crazy and different and surprisingly similar all at the same time. It's HUGE -- a by-land circumnavigation of the continent with minimal sight-seeing supposedly would take over a year.

As of my first three months I've only been to a small portion of The Gambia, which is representative of only a tiny portion of sub-Saharan West Africa, which is representative of only a tiny portion of Africa, and yet I've already come into contact with dozens of different ethnic groups, cultures, languages, and people. Most everyone in The Gambia is incredibly nice, and they generally love talking with you.

There's a persistent tone of political instability throughout the continent -- Mauritania (only a few hundred kilometers north of here) just had a coup. However, The Gambia prides itself on being peaceful and I haven't ever felt unsafe.

It was the hottest, muggiest season when I arrived (worse than the worst I remember of Miami, Florida), and I spend most days with a soaked shirt providing nourishment to a sea of blood-sucking, malaria-carrying mosquitoes. I've been told the best, coolest season is coming (late November thru February), which will bring temperature happiness and less mosquitoes along with the onslaught of (primarily European) tourists.

There's a general feeling that most anywhere else is "better" despite that fact that here there is much deeper cultural heritage and much stronger familial bonds vs. most of the developed world, which was my experience throughout the developing nations that I've visited. The grass is always greener...

Most Africans use the term "Third World" in reference to themselves, which is opposite of my expectations that "Developing nation" would be the better term.

Power and running water are only available in the areas near the capital, and even so they are totally sporadic -- you might have one or both for days, or for only a few minutes a week.

Internet here is really slow, and generally unavailable, although I'm lucky to have probably the best access of anyone between the University (a single 64K ISDN line shared among everyone) and the Peace Corps office (slightly better bandwidth, but totally locked down network because it's US Government property -- a big USB Flash key with Portable Firefox and Portable Thunderbird have revolutionized my views on computing).

Foreign aid and development work is visible everywhere. This has strange cultural side-effects.

News is primarily spread through the radio, as it's the only means everyone has access to.

I live a five-minute walk from the beach of the Atlantic Ocean on basically the western-most part of Africa. It's a strange parallel to San Francisco (only I don't need a winter jacket to visit the beach here).

I really, really like it here. I *LOVE* that I'm volunteering, that I'm teaching at the university level, and that the company I work for has "peace" in its name, doves on its logo, and pays me to teach peace and do whatever I can to make the lives of people here better.

Send me specific questions on what you want to know, and I'll try and provide answers.

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Education in The Gambia -- Questions specific to the Educational system in The Gambia.

FAQ_9-1 - Education in The Gambia: How many years do they go to school?
University is normally 4 years, but like the US there are people who don't pass classes who are on the 5, 6, 7+ year plan. Others stop being able to pay and drop out without a degree.

FAQ_9-2 - Education in The Gambia: Do they funnel people into specific fields at an early age or provide other types of separation between "types" of students?
No. There's no separation. There's not even a separation of skillsets (e.g. remedial, normal, honors), although there's discussion about putting something like this in place. The separation that DOES often occur is that students who under perform or didn't understand their previous year(s) are pretty much ignored by the teachers and focus and attention is given to the ones who care and are capable. This only compounds problems, and means that kids who have trouble early spiral downward as the years progress and generally don't even make it to Secondary school, let alone grade 12.

The teachers are generally lacking in modern teaching skills and methodologies and almost exclusively teach by the rote method of learning -- I write "England is in Europe" on the board, and my test says "England is in _____". There is basically NO creative thinking taught in the classroom, so if you said "what country is in Europe?" no students would answer "England." And students are generally afraid of answering questions for fear of giving the wrong answer.

FAQ_9-3 - Education in The Gambia: What % goes to school?
It drops off after each grade. I have the exact numbers somewhere, but it's generally not good. They're working on increasing the percentages.

FAQ_9-4 - Education in The Gambia: What are other people teaching at the university?
The majority of the classes are Agriculture-based, some small sciences, and some econ/business. There's also a nursing department.

FAQ_9-5 - Education in The Gambia: How big is the University of The Gambia?
Small and nacent. There are about 1500 students, and (I believe) it was founded in 1999.

FAQ_9-6 - Education in The Gambia: How do they pay for school? Do they even?
"Basic Cycle" (1-9) and "Senior Secondary" schools (10-12) cost different depending on if it's public or private. Public charges a minor fee which is generally much less than the cost of the uniform and books, but when you make less than a dollar a day, it turns out to be quite expensive and some families can't afford it at all. Boys have traditionally been the ones who focus on schooling, as most girls get married and start having children by their mid to late teens. This is a HUGE problem, and three years ago the government made it free for girls to attend the basic cycle schools for free (although they still have to pay for uniforms and supplies, which is still a HUGE expense for many rural families.) This has worked really well, and there is now slightly more girls attending basic cycle schools than boys (because it is free, more girls can go). Boys are still generally doing better in classes.

There's also private basic education of various levels, from catholic schools to really expensive schools that only expats and high-level government officials can afford.

Everyone has to pay for Secondary schooling, which means that there are LOTS more boys than girls. Doesn't help that lots of girls have to drop out because they are married off and/or get pregnant.

EVERYONE graduates to the next grade regardless of their performance. This results in kids in 12th grade who can't read or write or speak basic English.

Post-secondary schooling has only recently emerged in The Gambia. The university was founded in 1999, and this is the start of the fifth year. There's no official campus, and classes are scattered around at various places which generally donate facilities, which causes huge commuting hassles (you might have one class in Banjul, then another in Brikama 60 minutes away [IF you can find transport, which is getting increasingly harder as fuel is getting scarce], then another at the computer lab 45 minutes away... It's a mess.

The Gambia College is a teacher-training school. If you want to teach basic cycle you have 2 years of classes and a year of in-school teacher-training. If you want to teach at a Secondary school, you have three years of classes and another year of teacher training. You don't pay to go to Gambia College, but once you graduate you HAVE to work for the government as a teacher for two years before you can do anything else. Being a teacher in The Gambia is hard -- once you get your certification you go into a pool of teachers, and the week classes start you are told where you will be teaching, which could be 15+ hours away from where you live (transport is REALLY slow getting up-country, so even though the whole country is less than 400 km long and less than 40km tall, it could take you two days or more to take transport from one end to the other...). You're likely to be assigned to a tiny village with no running water or electricity (the VAST majority of the country). LOTS of teachers quit before they retire (age 55). Teachers starting out make about $35/month.

The University only offers Bachelor's-level degrees -- there is no option for getting a Masters or a PhD in The Gambia -- you have to leave the country if you want one of those.

There's a number of private post-Secondary education options kind of like our technical trade schools (DeVry, etc...). GTTI is one of the best of those. There are also small courses that let you learn stuff like how to use MS Office, etc.

FAQ_9-7 - Education in The Gambia: How do they decide who gets to go to the University?
There's a final exam after your 12th year that's put together by West African Examination Council (WAEC) which is administered to several West African countries. There are 9 subjects tested. "Passing" a subject means that you get at least a 40% on the subject. A LARGE number of students who stay in school through Grade 12 do NOT pass any subjects, many students only pass one or two. You need to pass 5 subjects to get into the College and get a teacher's certification. It is free for anyone who wants to go (you pay back by teaching for at least two years.) You need to pass 6 subjects to get into University. I've been told that everyone who qualifies can go. The university costs money, but you can apply for a government scholarship, which most students apply for. If you get the scholarship, you have to stay in the country for 5 years to "pay back" the scholarship, but I'm not 100% sure what, if anything, you have to do during those 5 years.

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Contacting Me -- How to contact me, how and where to send mail, etc...

FAQ_10-1 - Contacting Me: How can I send you mail and/or packages?
I'm no longer serving in The Gambia, but you can send packages to the office or other volunteers.  Send anything AIRMAIL ONLY with the customs forms marked "School Supplies" and LOW dollar values ($20 or so) to:

US Peace Corps
P.O. Box 582
Banjul, The Gambia

Anything other than AirMail will take 6+ months to get there, if it arrives at all.

Things to consider: it could take up to a month to get there. During that time, the package will sit around in places with ants and rats, so any food smells will attract. Put everything in lots of heavy-duty ZipLocs, or if you're really good, in Tupperware (the cheap stuff in the supermarkets works great but thicker is better) Also, there will be no temperature control for the package in transit and storage, so if it can melt, it probably will.

FAQ_10-2 - Contacting Me: What would you like me to send you?
Send email with news and stories from your world are the most interesting to me, even boring things that you might think everyday are totally foreign to me right now.  Please don't send me any mail or packages, I'm not in The Gambia anymore.

FAQ_10-3 - Contacting Me: How can I call you?
Not in The Gambia anymore, I'll update this when I get a stable phone number.

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How to Help -- How you can help Peace Corps, The Gambia, and/or the world's developing nations.

FAQ_11-1 - How to Help: How can I help you / the Peace Corps / The Gambia / Developing Nations?
I'm in the Education sector, so my replies are pretty limited to that space, but there's lots you can do very cheaply that will have HUGE impact on people here.

Books: There's a dire need for books of any kind. Kids here are insanely thirsty for the written word to learn about the world -- there's no electricity or Internet in the majority of the country, so books are their only source of information. You can send books via US Mail "M-Bags" that cost $1 per pound. The best idea I've heard is to have some sort of informal or formal book drive at a workplace / school / religious group / etc. The "book and a buck" scheme works best: ask everyone to bring a book or two and put a single dollar in the book to cover sending it overseas. You can send it to me direct, or you can contact the Peace Corps for the address of their office in any of the 70+ countries that Peace Corps volunteers serve in.

School Supplies: Most classrooms here are totally barren. Even simple things like glue, scissors, and markers are huge helps as they greatly allow the teachers to make classroom teaching aids. You can send anything the cheapest way possible (so what if it takes 6 months) to myself or to the Peace Corps office anywhere and it'll get into the hands of someone who can do real good with it.

E-mail me if you'd like other ideas...

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