June 11, 2011


This is actually being posted after I am home. I wrote it while in the Gam, but I didn't have the heart to admit to the World Wide Web that I was leaving. So here it is, after about a week of electricity and family time, with some tears on the side.

There are few things worse than goodbyes. They encompass a spectrum from saying goodbye to someone on their deathbed to a goodbye until tomorrow or even a few hours. Goodbyes occur between friends and enemies alike; one says “see you later” and the other “see you never” with some variations in between.
 A particular pet peeve of mine is the repeat-offender. With two weeks left this has already occurred. The awful, “O you are leaving so soon! I may not see you (explanation inserted here: I’m going upcountry, I have a wedding to attend, classes are over now, etc.). “Then of course the next day you are invited over to a friend’s house for lunch, and the very person who you bid farewell too for fear you would never meet again is actually that person’s cousin and just stopped in for a visit. Let the series of goodbyes occur again.  Repeat, Repeat, Repeat.
After not being at the beach for over a month (GASP) because I was doing work (GASP AGAIN) I looked forward to a week or two of leisure time. Time with Club Toubob, shopping, stocking up on my Vitamin D via sunlight, eating mangos in mass quantities, taking pictures and some alternate activities in between, but little did I know that Goodbye-ing is a sport, which includes lots of time and energy (very little of which appears to be spent at the beach).
Goodbye-ing involves hanging out with friends that I might not see for a very long time, and buying stuff for those I will see soon. Goodbye-ish involves last bits of “culture” that I may not have absorbed yet (like going to a massive circumcision party). It involves getting clothes made from the awesome African fabrics I have collected, while giving away my America clothes so there is enough room in my suitcase.
Two weeks of:
A. Domada –Rice dish with peanut sauce
B. Salamallekum- Peace Be With you (Used as Hello)
 C. Nescafe- gross, but effective, instant coffee. The only kind of coffee available
 D. EnShallah- If God Wills It.
 E. Gully-Gullies –public transport at its best, after hitchhiking
F. Being the only white person for miles
G. Doing, learning, or meeting someone new everyday
H. Ndanka Ndanka- It will be done when it is done
I. Beach PLEASE!

Two Weeks till:
A.Mac and Cheese
 D. Not being deemed a lesser human for being a woman (ish)
 E.my car
 F.being anonymous
G.  Malaria or parasites are not a concern
H. Power-consistently
I. My family and friends              

Party for What

Coming Out Parties are something I envision in a grandiose Southern or New England social calendar, for all those who see their “traditions” slipping away from them, and maybe something else to spend money on. That is why when I was invited to one this weekend I was baffled. A time and place for meeting up was mentioned, but no details were provided. I asked about appropriate clothing I was told anything would do, or I could borrow something to wear. A bit more prying resulted in learning that I was attending Circumcision Party...for some young women.  So then I tweaked a little, by a little I mean a lot. 
            Female circumcision is practiced at a percentage uncomfortably near ninety percent. I’m not a fan, more than not being a fan I am morally and humanly opposed to it. FGM is unnecessary, dangerous and makes child birth far more difficult. It is a distasteful means of gender control, and socialization. Now with that out of the way I can say that I felt in the pit of my stomach more than a bit of guilt for wanting to go.
            I always envisioned a woman with a knife dragging a crying girl into the forest laughing as the clitoris is removed as well as the labia or worse. I was so curious as to what the hell these people were celebrating. Congrats… you just made your daughter suffer so that she can suffer more in the future. Love the logic, now please help me understand.
 Fatou, Dr. Fourshey, and I arrived in Bakau a large village on the outskirts of the Kombo Area.  There were hundreds of people, hundreds, dressed to the nines with drums dancing, singing and waving tree branches and banners. I learned that about one-hundred children, fifty boys and fifty girls, had been circumcised two weeks earlier.  Explanations abounded about how they had entered into woman and manhood (their ages range from 3 to 7) and how proud their parents were.  This coming of age ceremony had far less to do with the kids involved than their respective parents and relatives. The village throws a massive party for everyone involved; you as an adult or parent have the honor of introducing your child into society and maybe make some money and have some fun in-between. I still hate it, but now I see that there is no dragging into bushes or terror. Instead circumcision is a cultural tradition, perceived as educational and beautiful lending itself resistant to change. Why would anyone want to disturb a practice that results in festivities, maybe a reason to buy a new dress and shoes? A practice, which in Gambian society, breaches the luminal state between child and citizen. It is a practice that is viewed as beautiful and necessary for marriage. FGM , and circumcision in general , has become so intertwined and melded between the lines of culture, religion and time that life without it at this time seems impossible to those I spoke to. To remain uncircumcised means no marriage and no children. It would mean never becoming a fully fledged member of society. Having all of your sexual organs intact and undisrupted makes a woman unclean, prone to promiscuity and evil spirits.
            Even those I spoke to who were opposed or at least responsive to the facts that FGM is dangerous and unnecessary on multiple levels still have to look at their children and think do I want them to have a life? Do I want them to get married and have children? Do I want them to be accepted by my family and community? I don’t know the answer to those questions for those who need to make that decision. Which is worse? Intact clitoris, but no husband or husband and continuing a harmful practice for generations to come.  You tell me; but sometimes I think the best things for a community just might be the hardest things to change.  

May 16, 2011

Hippos and Benadryl

Bright and early on Friday morning before the second round of prayers went ringing across the country we made our way to my favorite ferry to make our way to Barra, the village on the other side of the River to begin our journey up-country. Our van, similar size to an Astro Van or a small VW bus, contained 9 people and our bag which was a welcome break from the average 12 to 14 people normally crowded into their worn in seats. We made our way onto the ferry without incident, except for a two hour wait for the ferry to slowly make its way across the choppy waters with its single functioning engine (there should be four). As we made our way across this slice of water for potentially the last time, I sat there mesmerized by the people around me wanting so much to be a part of this world and my world at home simultaneously.
Two-hundred miles east of Banjul is a small village named Janjanbureh otherwise known as my home for the past few days. So off we go to the middle of the country, through a desert to eventually reach the jungle/forest that surrounds the River Gambia. I being a rather petite individual snuggled up with the bags in the back of the van and slept for a majority of the 6 hour trip with the aid of some Benadryl (this will become a theme). We stopped at the Stone Circles of Wassu aka the Stonehenge of Africa which is a burial ground from some thousand or so years ago. We kept driving, passing villages of mud brick and thatched roofed homes one after the other in what is called “the bush.”  The bone dry land, with a few baobaob trees and minimal plant life dotting the landscape passes by with herds of goats and cows searching for long lost greenery that has not been eaten up by bush fires.  It has not rained here in 9 months, but in the next two or three weeks it will begin to pour with the advent of the yearly rainy season. We suddenly emerge upon our site, right along the river, where the greenery stretches a mere mile or two beyond the edges of the water.
We settled into our respective lodges (circular huts with thatched roofs), with monkeys fighting and screaming overhead, dogs barking around us, and birds clamoring among the branches above. Who knew the middle of nowhere could be SO LOUD?There is no power and it was only nine o'clock and dark out with mosquitos everywhere so I  decided to drug myself into a semi-comatose state with some more Benadryl knowing that the combination of nature and 100 degree weather would diminish my superb sleeping abilities.  My snuggle buddy/bedmate, Bridget, stayed up all night with the animals/multitude of bats in our ceiling and floor, Shelby and Amy spent the night with mice in their beds, while the boys just had them scampering around on the ground beneath them. (PS. creatures of the night are way scarier when you don’t have any lights to turn on) The next day I awoke having a full night of drug induced sleep, with Dylan standing at my door after not sleeping all night saying “Hollllly let me in, Holly I won’t talk I promise! I know you hate mornings, but I am bored.” He lied. He did talk, and there was no coffee to remedy the situation, so I just rolled over until I was guided out of bed by my zombie like peers, who don’t believe in drugging oneself to sleep, to eat some breakfast.
We had breakfast with the monkeys, who love me unfortunately, and went on a awesome seven hour journey even further up-river. We saw a ton of birds, monkeys, and baboons but my eye was on the ever vanishing hippo. I have heard about hippos every day of my stay in the Gambia and I had yet to see one. I really wanted a hippo to pull its massive body out of the water and gracefully bumble onto the shoreline perhaps stopping once or twice posing just for me; its toubob admirer. No such luck. We saw lots of hippos…. As they slipped into the deep murky water only to reappear with their big heads slightly above water to suck in some air. No posing, no National Geographic worthy photos, just noses, ears, and eyes sliding away into the water. When did nature get so stingy?
After a long day in the heat and sun everyone was sure they would be able to sleep despite nature and all its fury… I, being a clever self-medicator, realized that two or three Benadryl would be just the trick and that my sleep was not going to be left to chance. No one wanted to take my PHD level advice and pop a few pink pills to ensure a hives free and sleep filled night, so I again was the only one who slept. The next day involved a long drive home… I did not pop any pills. Instead I sat awake and watched the country fly past me. I sat there and thought about the hippos and life with no running water. I thought about how yummy macaroni and cheese would be and my little nephew back at home.  I thought about life after college and how I hope it just all works out and maybe, just maybe, I can have a piece of both worlds. I really really hope so.

May 3, 2011

We Are All In This Together

I went to lunch at a local restaurant designated mostly for tourists and the wealthier Middle Eastern sector of the Gambia the other day; mostly for its Wireless and real coffee, but also for its somewhat serene environment. I had heard earlier in the day about Osama Bin Laden’s death and as a self described news junkie I needed to sit for several hours and pour over the happenings of the world for my own sanity. New York Times, Washington Post, The Guardian, and the Economist being my main spots online, but since the recent royal wedding I had avoided them for fear of seeing another comment or article about Kate Middleton’s makeup or dress. I went through my usual series of clicks on Nytimes. Home page, see if anything strikes my interest, open it in a new tab if it does, next go to “WORLD”, repeat the previous step, then I go continent to continent and then region to region. My favorites are of course “Africa” and “Asia Pacific” because of my current location and subconscious turned conscious desire to be Asian.
On my usual turn on the “Africa” home page I scan through the articles I have already read, click on one about Land buyouts by Western and Asian nations in Africa, and its damages to society and agricultural practices. A voice behind me says, “Africa has too many problems.” I responded to the man, a waiter named Justin from Sierra Leone that “Africa is a big continent, and problems happen everywhere.” He responded “But today America is celebrating because their enemy (Osama Bin Laden) is dead, we African’s don’t get to celebrate that much.”  Shortly afterwards I invited Justin to sit down with me (the restaurant wasn’t very busy) and talk. Justin had fled Sierra Leone during the war and had moved to The Gambia five years earlier after brief stints in Liberia, and Guinea.  We sat there and talked about what was going on in the world. How the revolts in Tunisia had spurned the revolution in Egypt, but how the world only cared about Egypt because “They are Arabs not Africans.” We talked about how some people in the Gambia still support Gaddafi, and how “America shouldn’t intervene in African problems.” We talked about the split in Nigeria and the two country solution in Sudan and Cote d’Ivoire’s ridiculous leader who refused to leave power.  We talked of corruption, colonialism, and America.  “America is a nice country, a good country,” he said. I told him “It is, but not for everyone, we still have a lot of problems ourselves.” “I know of your problems, but they are not like ours, not like Africans.”
I know in my last blog post that I said that not all of Africa was the same. That we don’t get to stand at the side and call it all the same and ignore the distinct nations, cultures, peoples, and experiences. We being Americans or westerners, but perhaps from an on the ground perspective it is more appropriate. It was not until the age of colonialism that Africa had a single similar experience continent wide. That was when the west pronounced these lands as “ours”, and parceled it off without concern for empires, kingdoms, regions, ethnic groups, cultures, or religions. After all it was all Africa, what difference could it possible make?
Now Africa is faced with all of the inherited problems of a previous era along with the idea that “You are all Africans.” We use it out of ignorance, because we never had geography tests in middle and high school on the various African countries as Europe was deemed a more pressing topic of concern. It is used because often we don’t know better and choose not to, but here the concept of being African has transformed and stayed since the Independence Era into a Pan-African ideal. I like to think of it as Globalization at its highest level: “We are all in this together.”  
Perhaps this all contradictory and doesn’t make any sense, or maybe I am just putting a Post-Modern spin on world affairs with no real data and limited experience. But if you were sitting there with Justin and I at lunch, it would have struck you as a conversation worth having, and perspective worth learning.  Our conversation ended abruptly when a group of people came into the restaurant, but our conversation ended with me saying that America has had a civil war, we have our own apartheid, we have corruption, and the streets are not paved with gold, but we too hope that it will all work out in the end.

April 29, 2011

Je Ne Parle Pas France

There is kind of an unspoken consensus in the United States that Africa is a country. “How is Africa?” “Africa is good.”   West Africa, North Africa, Central and Southern they are all the same. Somehow Egypt is part of the “Middle East” and South Africa is the country with white people and Mandela.  This is not a dig, but merely an explanation for some of my own perceptions and faults. Ignorance allows us to become a little too entrenched in the idea that we know something or anything at all.  If A + B =C…. Just kidding I couldn’t use that analogy if I wanted to. (Too mathy for me).  In short, I thought I knew the Gambia, which in turn means that I know West Africa which in America means that I know all of Africa. This was a self deception worthy of notice and public apology.
On a recent trip to Senegal I experienced a side of West Africa that was all new to me. Senegal surrounds the Gambia on three sides (all except for the few miles at the mouth of the River Gambia). It is a snake amongst a field of grass; the grass being Senegal.  Senegal has the same ethnic makeup of the Gambia (Mandinka, Wollof, Jullah, Fullah,…) but it was a French colony so they speak French, eat baguettes (called Senfoo), ride around on little scooters and say Madam.
 Side Note:  Now I will admit I have my biases when it comes to countries. I have never been too fond of the French. They fall way behind other countries in my own personal ladder. They fall behind Canada (affectionately called America’s top hat), Mao’s China, The former USSR, and Fascist Italy. I it have no specific qualms about France or the French, but I just not a fan.  There is just some combination of wine, cheese, arrogance, fashion, smoking, the language, poetry, humanism, EU politics, and crepes that I don’t enjoy. We stayed at the same hotel as the French Military. I know right? The French has a military; yeah they do and trust me after 4,000 introductions  to men who have been in training for 4 months and all the  kisses on the cheek (an invasion of personal space if I have ever seen one) along with being called Olley my French quota was beyond fulfilled.
Back to business, Senegal is similar to the Gam. It is poor, traditional, rural based and it is still easier to drive on the side of the road than on the road itself (we think potholes in the Burgh are bad. HA). Senegal has 14 million people whereas the Gam has a little over 1.5. They had very different colonial experiences and Senegal to this day has intense connections to the French. There is also Dakar. Dakar is a real city, with real roads, traffic lights, buildings over 3 stories tall, highways. There are highways. Do you have any idea how scary highways are after not seeing them for 4 months? Scary.  Infrastructure is something that is hard to come by in the Gam, but after a few short days in the internationally renowned city of Dakar I was ready to go home. Home to my small Gambia, where I see the same people all the time and there are no highways, tall buildings, or anything reminiscent of America. I wanted to be back to the familiar, my Gambia, my West Africa, my Africa.
I might be considered some kind of expert on the whole Africa when I go back to the States. I am sure to encounter the “So how was Africa?” question. I am not quite sure how I will respond entirely and it will probably depend on my mood and level of interest in the ensuing conversation, but hopefully I will be able to portray The Gambia accurately with some love thrown in there too. Perhaps it will start with “Well ever since they broke off of Pangaea it’s been a bit lonely out there in the ocean, but then the Portuguese came and they were alright, but then came the French came with their awful cheese.”
PS. If I ever become famous for some bizarre reason, please don’t tell the French how I feel about them via this blog post. I will try to broach the topic of my ethnocentricity a bit more delicately. Also if you are French, just remember that I am a Pollock and Italian. Poles have never really done all that much for the world at large except for utilizing cabbage and potatoes and if you check out Berlusconi and that Italian situation all should be forgiven. As for my whole American citizenship thing… we can talk about that later.

April 15, 2011

A Guide to Ferry Riding in the Gam

           I don’t know about you, but sometimes in life you just really want an instruction manual. I have heard the joke before about how there is no manual on how to be a parent; except there is. There are 9 million parenting books, (although they continuously contradict one another) but there are none about how to ride a river ferry in the Gambia. Well there certainly should be.  So I have created a list/all inclusive guide for you to enjoy… and maybe laugh at a little
1.      Leave early, if you are traveling on a Friday leave earlier. There are no standards or carrying capacity in the Gam. The number of people that fit on the ferry goes across. There is no counting, weighing, or anything of the sort.
2.      There used to be three ferries, then two, now one… with one engine. It only goes in reverse.
3.      Cars and trucks load onto the ferry first then passengers. Though with the new and improved bribing system people can get onto the boat with the vehicles.
4.      Since some people can load onto the ferry before others, sitting room shrinks quickly. This brings me to a series of points.
a.       There are no lines, you shove your way in. (No seriously, I have never seen a line here… not even the National Assembly… there was even more shoving among parliament members than the average citizen.)
b.      When the women in their full African print dresses, head wraps, heels, and massive purses start to run; you do too.  No seriously, RUN.
c.       There are very few seats on the ferry, especially when you are well beyond carrying capacity. Everyone else has to stand for the hour-ish trip across. Mind you everyone stands because there is no room to sit. (Now do you understand why you should run?)
5.      With temperatures hitting as high as 106 degrees at midday you should bring a hat and a rag because you will sweat… and burn.
6.      You will be physically touching another person the entire way. This Ferry will not be full in American terms...it will be packed, sardine style. Personal space is not an option.
7.      The boat probably won’t sink, in case it does, don’t expect a life vest just swim hard. There are no hippos at the crossing so it should go relatively well.
8.      When departing the Ferry, cars and people embark simultaneously. This is potentially the most hazardous part of the journey. Just breathe. Avoid the tankers and gully-gullies. Weave through people like you have never weaved before and go to a designated meeting point if you are travelling in a group.
Congrats! You have survived your first hypothetical journey across the River Gambia. You are now in Barra, a village-ish-town with tons of hawkers selling the fruit of the season (mangos now), peanuts, bagged water, car parts, chickens, soap, coke-a-cola, rope, saws, tires, and anything else you may need for a journey into the bush aka up-country.
I must admit, I may or may not have avoided standing in the hot sun on more than one occasion with my minimal knowledge of the local language and a few smiles. (Sometimes exhaustion wins out over my feminist tendencies)  Once I sat with the captain as he drank tea and asked about my stay in the Gambia. Another time I requested to sit in one of the cars aboard as well as an 18 wheeler truck with a dangerously high view of the ocean and river waves meeting to creating a motion which eventually rocked me into some level of sleep despite my fear of immediate death.
O life in the Gambia… where everyday transportation is a story in and of itself.  

April 11, 2011

Child Tossing

I have perhaps mentioned before that many “brothers” and “sisters” in the Gambia are not actually brothers and sisters… in fact many are not even blood related. Some are just very close family friends, or have some marital connection, or they grew up in the same compound… some are the product of something I affectionately call Child Tossing.   None of this might make sense to you, the reader, but I will try my best to explain. Then again, I don't get it so I don't know how in the world you will.
In its simplest form Child Tossing is when the child of one family, generally a girl, is removed from their nuclear family and sent to live with a neighbor, aunt, uncle, brother, former employer, family friend, business partner, wealthier acquaintance, community leader, namesake, or someone they know within their same ethnic group. The namesake aspect is when someone you know, or don’t know, who respects you or is acquainted with your family names their child after you. You in turn have a lifelong obligation to the child that bears your name. Similar to a god-mother or father, but with more strings attached.  The child, once tossed, is forever that family’s responsibility. They in all respects become that child’s caregivers and parents.
The reasons for child tossing have almost as much range as who they can be tossed too. Sometimes, due to the very large family size in the Gambia (families range from one husband and one wife with 3 kids to a husband with 4 wives with 25 kids) Parents will frequently toss their children to wealthier relatives who in this society have no right to deny the child. They can also toss the child to relatives with less money, but who have fewer children. A child can also be tossed because of the ratio of female to male children or age. For instance, our caretaker’s wife, Haddy, was tossed to her biological aunt when she was 4 because her aunt had 3 boys who had grown up and gotten married and she needed a girl around the house to help with familial duties. Haddy’s biological sister, Senabu, stayed with her nuclear family in her village. When Haddy married Mohammed several years ago, Senabu was tossed to Mohammed because he could provide for her school fees. Haddy and Senabu, while they are biological sisters, have never known each other until 2 years ago. This may sound rare, and unusual, but I have literally given up trying to understand the family dynamic of my Gambian friends because not only are their families massive, but they are not necessarily related to their family members. In one instance a friend of Club Toubob (the name we have assigned our home of Americans and Swedes) had 2 siblings we knew of. He, his brother and sister, had all or do attend college or university. They all have jobs, computers, phones and bright futures. He has a biological sister who at a young age went to go live with an aunt. She has never seen the inside of a classroom. 
Gambians consider strangers to be family in one way or another. Everyone is mandated not only culturally, but from God (aka Allah), to take care of one another. It is a built in safety net, with no savings account or 401K required. You are in some way responsible for someone else and someone is responsible for you. Families live in compounds with 20 or more people and sometimes only one or two members of that family is working, but they are responsible for everyone. If you are the son who is lucky enough to be sent to school, you are forever responsible to whoever scrimped and saved to send you. If a man marries a woman, he is now responsible for that woman’s entire extended family. No objections can be made, because in this web of relationships, when one persons leaves it weakens the entire structure.  This is a level of interdependence, and complexity that I am pretty sure no one in American can fully wrap their head around. Even other West Africans don’t get the pervasiveness of the Child Tossing that Gambians employ, but it serves a purpose. It keeps families and communities undeniably intertwined. How can you fight with a neighboring village when they have 7 of your children? How can you deny a man a place to stay when he is your cousin’s neighbor’s second son? How can you say no to the daughter of your former employee’s sister? The answer is you can’t. You just can’t say no and no one can say no to you.
At the end of the day, I am still a bit put-off with Child tossing and in a state of confusion I just really wanted it too all make sense. I wanted Child Tossing to have an ultimate good, something that would seem logical to my western mind, something rational and solid. Maybe something written down in formal legal terms that would make it somehow more official instead of kids just moving away at the age of 4 never to return home…. Nope. I didn’t get my answer; my reassurance that cultural relativity would somehow lead me to understanding of these people and this culture did not rest well with me. I sat baffled by what I felt was potentially a very cruel practice, but what I did get  was this. 
 Me:“Don’t parents miss their children when they send them away? Don’t they miss their kids? How can they just let them go?”
Mohammed: “To be honest, I don’t think they do. This is just what they do… we are one community, no child belongs to one person, and no person belongs to themselves so there is no one to miss.”