February 26, 2011

Worlds Apart: Coexistence


In the search for some food excitement to appease my insatiable appetite my friends and I made our way down to Kairaba Avenue, the main shopping strip in the Gambia. After a quick ride to the traffic light we walked past the American Embassy, with its green grass which probably cost more to maintain than the entire building, as well as one of the larger mosques in the area with the call to prayer ringing out. We lazily walked out of the heat in a The Lebanese Restaurant with a buffet. Let me repeat… A Buffet. After haggling the price down, we proceeded to stuff our faces with Middle Eastern goodness. An abundance of pita appeared. Plates of baba ganoush, kebabs, falafel, and the all important hummus competed for space on the table. As the feeling  of “real” fullness made it increasingly difficult to breath, I looked outside to at the heated sand to see the familiar row of roadside stands with women sitting underneath hawking bananas, cashews, and oranges. Each stand, one after another on every stretch of road, has women huddled under a tree or umbrella (often with an abundance of children) selling what they can to feed their families.  The stark contrast between the two scenes did not escape me, but this was not the first time I had noticed such vast opposites existing simultaneously in this small nation of about 1.5 million.
It only takes a walk down my own street in Jeshwang to witness the great variety that coexists here in the Gambia. Walled compounds with glass shards gracing the top to prevent intrusion live on the same street as those without running water and electricity.  In the market down the street one can see: women in black burqas peering through their veils, women wearing traditional West African clothing with their bright patterns creating a blur of color and even some younger women wearing clothing acceptable while clubbing over top pants and long sleeves with head scarves shielding their neck and hair from view.  
-In the Gambia it is often more important what ethnic group you are from than what religion you are, but even so the Mandinka, Woloff, Fullah, Jullah, and other smaller groups all live together melded and intermarried in the more urban areas and sometimes separated in the more rural areas according to which direction you travel. A conversation can at any time switch between any of the local languages with some English and Arabic thrown in for flavor.
 -In every village there are cell phones, but more often than not that same village does not have electricity or running water so they must travel to a store to have their phones charged with a car battery commandeered for a new purpose. Living in an electric age without electricity has its issues.  
- Food prices fluctuate day to day in this semi-agrarian economy. Some days, after a long week of especially high heat for example, food will simply be too expensive for people to buy. While others, like myself, eat at unlimited buffets
- Some of the nicest Mercedes I have ever seen drive on the same sand/dirt roads that motocross bikes would use for competition.  The Mercedes’ comrades on the roads are what I would call mutts. They consist of parts from every other car but the original. For example it is not uncommon for a Ford motor to be in Hyundai and vice versa. It is also a community duty to help the random man stranded on the road with a half mile push until he can start his car. Also, Donkeys are still a very common way of moving products as well as carrying things on your head. I have seen a man riding a bike with a queen sized mattress on his head down the highway.
-Prayers at most events are in two parts- one for Christians and one for Muslims- despite the population being an overwhelming 90% or more Muslim. Although no other religions are even a consideration, the mentality here is that each religion believes in one God, so they focus on the commonality.
-In the Gully-Gullies men in suits sit next to mechanics, Rastas sit aside grandmothers holding live chickens and children jump on and sit on complete stranger’s laps on their way to school.  All social and economic borders seemed to be crossed in an effort to travel efficiently.  It almost is a sense of duty here, that when vehicles, including private ones, are empty they will pick up everyone from army cadets to elementary students. The backs of trucks are often filled with a great mix of people.
Every nation has its extremes, but never before have I seen demonstrated before me the coexistence of so many things that seem so contradictory to what I previously believed could live together in one space.  Perhaps a brief and simplified explanation is that The Gambia sees the “west” as if it really had streets paved with gold. Things like the widespread computer and internet usage, cell phones, western clothing, movies and music all represent our culture to the world at large. But before the west had all these things, the Gambia had its own culture, traditions, and ways of doing things. Now in a Western age of Influence and globalization, these two worlds are being pushed together like never before. Perhaps the Gambia has done an amazing job of allowing these two worlds to blend together, accepting what they want and neglecting the rest; in contrast to nations who have taken less peaceful paths.
All I know for sure is that I have walked into a person’s compound in rural Gambia and while men chatted on cell phones, children ran up saying “Hellllooo toubob” while others ran from my scary white skin. The home I was invited into did not have running water or electricity, but they kindly greeted me and politely asked how my family and President Obama were(because obviously we are best friends).  I said they were both doing very well and asked how their family was. The father of one of the girls nicely told me that his daughter wanted to go to New York City and if she could come with me.  I skillfully (hopefully) danced around the question and had to leave shortly after… but as I drove home I thought about my almost daughter and how one day I hope I get to tell President Obama my story and a lesson on Coexistence in the Gambia

February 21, 2011

Being Jane

           I always wondered what it would be like to be “me,” but living in 18th century Europe as a woman with social rules out the wazoo. Appropriate activities like needle-point, cooking, husband hunting, children rearing, quoting lengthy poetry and speaking in euphemisms would fill my days. (This curiosity developed after reading a few too many Jane Austen works) I have more often than not reached the conclusion that I would eventually be the crazy one in the family that no one spoke of who ran off with my pet dog to Morocco or be imprisoned for starting a riot. My mother and I have often spoken of the similarities between myself and my grandma, who in many ways was limited in what she could do because she was a woman growing up in mid-2oth century America. My fascination and admiration for strong women who shook the world up a bit is part of why I am the way I am, as well as why I tell every bumster that I run into to that I have 3 husbands and they would get jealous of a fourth, just to have a little fun . Sometimes in the Gambia I feel like I am in a Jane Austen novel, with rules abounding. Many joke that the Gambia is “A Women’s Country,” but day in and day out I see the humor in that statement. The Gambia is a place I am falling in love with, but as that love develops so does my insight into what lies below the surface.
I am reminded almost daily when I am asked why I am not married yet and that I need to hurry up before I get to old that, generally speaking, women in the Gambia live in a very male dominated world.  It would be difficult to fully convey the attitude towards women here but as an opinionated American, young woman, student in the Social Sciences, and official blogger; I feel that I must try. I make my greatest attempt to not lead a conversation with my American ideals at the forefront; instead I truly attempt to understand this place and people without judgment. I chose to come to the Gambia because I knew that challenges would arise and I would learn from them if I had the mentality to do so.  I want to learn from those around me and In order to do that I must build relationships, ask questions and listen to the answers regardless of what I think. But unlike many of my Gambian counterparts, I have a blog and it’s time to spill.
Female circumcision is practiced here on about 80% of woman despite it being illegal. Even in families where the father decides that he doesn’t want his daughter circumcised, the girls are often taken in the night and forced to comply with the traditional practice.  -1 point women’s rights
 In a recent discussion with a male classmate on the relevance of women in the role of African development I was informed that “Men are the permanent structures of Africa, it is my lineage that is passed on. It is the women who move from their homes into the man’s compound which makes the men the permanent structure, especially when he has multiple wives.” I asked him if these rules were created by men.  He laughed and said “Of Course, that is why we are permanent.” -1 point for the kid who wears a scarf in 94 degree weather
At a recent Valentines picnic on the beach the theme was “How to create a Sexual Assault Free Society.” A professor stood up and told the female audience that they are responsible for creating lust in men (which has religious value, but no one, including Allah, advocates sexual assault) and that men cannot be expected to restrain themselves every time they see a woman scantily clad. (Really now?) As I sat there, nauseous and very aware of my exposed knees I looked out at the crowd of women. About 90% were wearing head scarves and all but a few were wearing pants/long skirts or dresses. After that, the announcement was made that the bathing suit contest would be held later on in the night. -1 point for the event organizers
Part of my take home assignment for Sociology is to discuss who benefits from a family of 1 husband and 4 wives and how does that fit into the sociological structure of the society (familial ties, economics, religion, etc.). I thought I had misunderstood the assignment and asked my neighbor for confirmation, after a small smile of disbelief she asked if I needed help. I said, “Yes, because I have no idea how to even begin to answer the question.” She asked “why?” “Well… because having multiple wives is illegal in the United States so I am not sure how this works.” “Oh, that’s weird, why is it illegal?” she said. I jokingly responded, in an effort to minimize the awkwardness of the situation, which obviously didn’t work. With a nervous laugh I said, “Well if they legalized it now, women would probably want to ability to have multiple husbands.” She got the joke and laughed, but her neighbor, Moudu, did not. A quick, “That’s disgusting” was venomously sent my way.  -1 friend for Holly
I met a local artist this week at a museum she created to feature female history and arts. She took me to the center of the museum and pointed to a huge cooking pot that hung from the center rafters. She looked out and said “This is a woman’s life in the Gambia, and it is a hard life.”

February 12, 2011

The Things You Learn

Picking classes at UTG is kind of like picking out a book at the book store you have your key sections: Fiction, Non-fiction, etc. or in the case of the University there are the key major courses of study: Islamic Studies, Social Sciences, Public Health, etc. In the bookstore you go to the section you like the most in hopes of scoring a great read. That is pretty much the same way you would go to pick classes. You go to the sections you have interest developing greater knowledge in and hope you pick a class you won’t fail. We are always told not to judge a book by its cover, but let’s be real, that is the initial appeal for the average shelf scanner. Fortunately for us, once you pick up that book with its flashy cover or curious title there is a brief description of what the book entails and you can decide from there. Unlike books in a book store, UTG doesn’t offer course descriptions to accompany class titles; just the name of the class, level, time, and place (not that the time or place are ever correct since anything and everything is subject to change). In a way you are kind of buying a book without any idea what it is about, except that great title.
 Population and Development, a mid-level course for Developmental Studies majors caught my eye when I was perusing the course list. For each time slot I tried to pick 2 or 3 courses because I had been warned that many get cancelled or change times regardless of if you can make the new time or not. Unfortunately for me American History Up To the 21st Century was not available any longer (I just thought it would be such a fascinating perspective) I really hoped as I registered for classes that Population and Development would be interesting and not terribly difficult.  This is what I have learned thus far:
1.) Academic discussions and enthusiasm in class is crazy here. People stand up, call one another out on incorrect analysis, argue over one another, and cheer for each other. First of all this is a little overwhelming in a class of 80 people and I also in my first class was so obviously lost in the “academic enthusiasm” ( as they call it here) that some of my fellow classmates came up and told me that people aren’t really arguing it is just that people really get into discussions here.  Let the learning begin.
2.) An accurate population count here (in the Gambia) is nearly impossible because of the large rural population.  Births and deaths go unreported because it isn’t as though the government is very involved in their lives and there is no social security or wills in play so it is more or less unnecessary to report anything. Secondly it is considered ill-fated or unlucky to do a head count of your village or compound.
3.)People here have a lot, a lot, a lot of children. We were learning about how developing nations have growth ratios well beyond any developed nations.  Essentially Latin America, Asia, and Africa have growth rates triple that of other areas of the world in ratio in sheer numbers. This is when class got really interesting.  Amy and I are the only Toubobs (white people) in the class and the professor likes to use us as a comparison tool. 
Professor: “As we all know it is not unusual for men in the Gambia to have 30 or more children. You know each wife (you can have four) has 8 or ten kids and there you go. Now in America it is uncommon for a man to have more than 5 children.” The room bursts out in sounds of disbelief as I look over at Amy with wide eyes. “As we all know children here are considered a blessing.” The eyes around the room look at us as though we hate children and blessings. A woman in the class spoke up saying that statistically girls with higher education have fewer children also those families with more children tend to have less discretionary income and tend to be below the poverty line.  To which the men in the class clamored with disproval, citing the whole “Children are a Blessing” blah blah blah. I gave the girl a smile for her gutsy stance, to which I received one in return.
  I once again looked over to Amy, with silent prayers for both of our uteruses, saying “Well it looks like I am not marrying a Gambian.” Then the conversation around us took a dangerous turn. “What do you think is the average number of children in a family in the United States?”  “….Well I don’t know what the average is, but the kind of “American ideal” is two kids, one boy and one girl.” Perhaps sensing my discomfort The Professor chimed in. “In developed nations people are too busy, but in the rural areas or refugee camps, no really you should go to refugee camps there are pregnant women everywhere, once the sun goes down there is nothing else to do.”  The class erupted in laughter… On those final words which sent me over the edge of discomfort into what I can only describe as the desire to get into the fetal position and rock myself into unconsciousness, I wrote in my class notes, “Best Inventions Ever: Electricity, Birth Control, Television, and Adoption”

February 9, 2011

The Never Ending Trip To Kanalai

In America time is a commodity packaged and sold to the public. Time can be well spent or wasted.  Time is money, and money is time. We are told that entire meals can be made in five minutes or less. Entire criminal investigations complete with forensic evidence and a trial take an hour tops and even then that’s pushing it. We ( and by “we” I really mean I) check the clock every fifteen minutes in hopes of completing one more task on my list of things to do. There are no lists in the Gambia. There are no time lines and even if there was one it is ever evolving; incorporating setbacks, delays and “Gambia Time.” Earlier I wrote about Ndanka, Ndanka, aka slowly slowly, as being a Gambian phrase which means things are happening, but slowly.  My own interpretation based off the of the story you are about to here is Patience, Patience… and out of that patience some of the greatest moments in your life can appear out of the dust.
            “You should be at the school around 9:30” with Gambian time taken into consideration I decided to get to UTG (The University of the Gambia) around 10. The school was taking a bus to Kanalai, the hometown the ruling President/King of the Gambia, for part of the Roots festival going on throughout the country. Kanalai is located about 2 hours away from the school and we were taking a university vehicle, a massive bus donated by some important Iranian guy. We were supposed to leave at 10; at 11:30 we were told that it was just a few police stops away. At around 12:45 it arrived, but it needed a new alternator…. “No worries it would be ready very soon.” I was worried, not about the time, but that IT NEEDED A NEW ALTERNATOR! So six mechanics descended upon the massive Iranian bus as another mammoth appeared next to it. The six mechanics ripped apart one and redistributed it amongst the “working” vehicle. At this point I was more than ready to leave citing the 4 hours of waiting and engine parts strewn across the ground as evidence.  The reassurances, promises of a great time, and guilt were flying around us like flies and then the engine started. It was 2:15. We reluctantly climbed into the bus and drove.
I met some amazing students on the bus when all the sudden the bus slowed down and never sped back up. We pulled off to the side in front of a village. Children lined up outside staring at all the students as we filed off the green monster. I saw my friend talking to one of the local girls and went over. As we were talking more and children gathered around. I suppose we were on the topic of dancing, but randomly clapping began. About 30 or 40 children and adults formed a circle, complete with an oil bottle for a drum, where people would flow in and out dancing. Children and old women bustled through the human wall and danced with so much joy, charisma, and crazy moves that I cannot even begin to explain how much fun it was. I was eventually pulled into the circle by “Mama” and made to dance, but I am convinced that my 20 year old body could never bust a move like her 60 or so body ever could.
            Eventually the Army arrived (literally the Gambian Army) and fixed our bus, but decided to follow us for safe keeping. About ten minutes down the road the bus broke down yet again, this time it could not be fixed. After some waiting some Gully-Gullys arrived to take us to Kanalai. At this point it was about 5 in the evening with more than an hour left. Unfortunately for the Army, There truck broke down as well. (This is real life)  Most of the students wanted to turn back but the man who planned the event decided we should press on. We eventually arrived at Kanalai about an hour and a half of unpaved roads later. Once at Kanalai our “house dad” called and said that we needed to return home immediately because the nine of us would not be able to get transportation back to Serekunda (about a 3 hour drive) much later because the fairs would go up exponentially and we would all be separated because of the crowds. We literally pulled into Kanalai and pulled back out.  As we sat in the back of the Gully-Gully laughing about the madness of the day Gavin joked that he has never been in a Gully Gully with a flat tire. I am not kidding when I say ten minutes later we pulled off the side of the road with a flat tire. If I may be crude for just one moment, I had not seen a restroom since we left the school at 2:15. Now 4 ish hours isn’t much time to many of you, but when you are trying to stay hydrated in the African heat and you are on roads that could literally bounce your organs into new parts of your body you would understand.  Oh I forgot that the Gully-Gully didn’t have a spare tire… but anyways I decided to go adventuring into the local village to use the facilities. I had been laughing so hard at the absurdity of the flat tire that I nearly peed myself. Well after some greetings in Wolof and scaring some kids with my whiteness I was escorted to the back of someone’s home to do my business and afterwards offered a small child to bring back to the states. (Apparently I am Angelina Jolie)  I respectfully declined and went back to the van. The conductor had procured a tire from somewhere and had just finished changing the flat. We had picked up a few more people while we were waiting and the van ended up overpopulated. Dylan ended up on the floor, but guess what?! Even in the Gambia everyone needs to have a seat for it to be legal. Every so often there are police stops and at one of them, despite Dylan being hidden, the police stopped our van.  After bribes were exchanged we were eventually on our way. We were dropped off in Birkama and charged a ridiculous amount of money to get home for the last leg of our journey (just one hour more) where I met my future husband. A Rasta-man, aged 30, asked me out on a date which I politely declined, I was just playing hard to get in his mind and for the last hour of my trip home I was informed over and over about how we would make a beautiful couple.  Despite my attempts at sleeping; I was elbowed in the ribs repeatedly in order to get my attention. We arrived home around 10:45, about 13 hours after leaving the house initially having driven everywhere and gone nowhere. 
In the Gambia, time is not a commodity. It is often given and taken away without concern. Perhaps some balance of American obsession with time and African disregard would be perfect, but it is only in the extremes that we can find the enjoyment hidden by the absurdity. I laughed until I cried on more than one occasion and wanted to die of exhaustion once or twice, but I wouldn’t trade this day for any other.
Quick Recap:

·         12 hours total
·         4 hours pre-bus ride
·         2 breakdowns
·         1 Dance Party
·         1 flat tire
·         1 meal (breakfast)
·         1 alternator
·         1 potential  Adoption
·         1 potential husband
·         0 Festivals


February 1, 2011

B is for Bumster

Bumsters or Bumpsters in the Gambia are unemployed young Gambian men who have created their own industry within the pre-existing tourism on the Smiling Coast.  The differences in names (bumster vs. Bumpster) can hopefully be determined after reading on.  They have several different functions:
1.       Money Please?
Most are harmless and will generally just want to talk and eventually ask for some sort of money or gift in return or there is some horror story attached that they need money for such as a group of orphans whose family just died in a fire. (Bumster)
2.       Local Advice at the Gambian Price
Others will help you solve a small problem in an effort to “just be helpful”  in an effort to get on a more friendly basis or they offer some sort of excursion for a local’s price only to attempt o extort money out of you later. This can be during or after the trip to the Gambia because many will try to get contact information and will write or call you later “as a friend” and ask for money. (Bumster)
3.       Looking for a Lover
This is my favorite one mostly because it is both hilarious and disturbing to an extent. So here is the deal.  Some Bumpsters look out for “unsuspecting” woman of a certain age who are here on vacation or holiday and befriend the lonely wealthier woman.  Now the whole unsuspecting part is kind of a sham because any 40, 50, 60, or 70 year old woman who comes to the Gambia and has a fling or falls in love with an 18 or 20 year old Gambian man is out of her mind, but to each his own.  The best thing about this quasi-relationships is two part. One, everyone I talk to on a semi-real basis asks if I here to find a lover or husband. Two, the couples you see around the beaches are so easy to spot. You have the 20 year old Gambian (who is generally ripped because as kind of “mating ritual” the bumpsters work out on the beaches in bright clothing trying to out-muscle one another and attract the opposite sex) and a mid 40’s to late 60’s woman arm and arm with the guy holding her purse. It is a sight to be seen.  Plus from what I can see these women talk A LOT and I really think the Bumpsters should charge extra for the Chatty Kathys.
Now if you do ever visit the Gambia, the tourist commission says that anyone who is being bothered can turn in a bumster and he will spend the night in detainment followed by a day of “light manual labor.” I don’t know if I would want to be responsible for imprisoning a man who is clearly just trying to make a living by whatever means necessary, but I would consider sitting these woman down and give them a nice talking to for engaging in the global-sex trade.  Not cool Team Female- I thought we were better than this or at least smarter.

Ndanka Ndanka

There is a phrase in Wolof that is commonly used here. It is “Maang ci kawa Ndanka Ndanka” means, “I am on it, Slowly Slowly.” That is how life works here. Things get worked out in time or not at all, but one guarantee is this; it will go slowly.  Classes officially started at the University two or three weeks ago, and it seems that the quarks are still being slowly ironed out. Welcome to my first day of school in the Gambia, and as you read just think about if any of this could/would happen in the US...
At 7am my Africell alarm went off with “wake up! It’s 7 am” in a feminine digital voice; as if that made waking up better. (I am not much of a morning person, especially since I gave up coffee) Around 8, I made my way to the Gully-Gully and arrived at the University around 9. I attempted to get into my first room, only to find that it has been pirated by another professor who would not leave until 11 (our class ended at 10:15)… Someone said they would maybe have a new room for us next week. As we waited for the next class time to start we met up with some of the other members of our class. One mentioned that this time wasn’t good for him (most people in the US would say “why did you sign up for it then?”but that’s not how things work here) and if we could change it. Now I had been told in advance that this could happen, but it was one of those things that you shake your head and move on thinking “yeah, but do who would really do that?” Well the negotiations began and now I only have that class on Thursdays. K great start to the day, class number one down now on to class number two. No room for class number two, but after Dr. Fourshey chatted up another professor we were put in the student union temporarily… students slowly trickled in after being told about our new and improved location.  
My third class, Introduction to Sociology, did have a room as well as about 80 other students filling about half of the auditorium (Mind you I go to Susquehanna Univeristy, we don’t have classes with 80 people) My fourth class, Population and Development, too had a room, also with about 80 people, but this room was set up for about 40.The Great Chair Chase began sending me throughout campus,  much to the amusement of my peers who laughed saying “What you don’t do this in America?”-not generally speaking.  Class number five was quite the experience. 20th Century Gambian History began with some very intense negotiations on what time should be held. The professor wanted to change it to earlier in the day which some students would be able to comply with, but the majority would not. One student made a lovely appeal on behalf of the class to keep it at the same time to which the professor responded that “It is at my discretion.” O dear. He then asked me and two other girls from my program if we would be able to make the switch, I informed him that we would not, but we had another class option and could transfer into that.(All this time thinking please change the time so I can get out of here!) He being a little terrifying said “No, you are in the Gambia and you will be in this class.” Conversation over. Unfortunately for me the professor decided to make the class 2.5 hours on Mondays only and no class on Thursday. Those last two hours made me want to jump into the local pond with the crocodiles. The 15th century to the military coup in 1994 all covered with dates and dotted with random facts all covered in the span of 2 hours were some of the most painful hours of my life, but class ended and we started on our way home. (PS I am dropping that class)
I am sorry for the length of this, but in real time I was going on my tenth hour of my school day which could only mean tons of experiences. The reason I take so many classes on two days of the week is the distance between my home and the university is about an hour without a lot of drop-offs or pick-ups, traffic, or random police stops and we need to reserve some days for our internship. This ride home was the best yet because A. the door was not attached to the van and was being held on with some kind of mechanism that it was lifted and pulled in from the outside parallel to the ground. B. there was a screaming/yelling match that involved everyone who spoke Wolof, Mandinka, or Jullah. Imagine a VW Hippy Van with about 20 to 23 people yelling in languages you don’t understand; complete with children crying and an unattached door for a good 30 minutes.
I awoke that day at seven and arrived home just in time for dinner at seven-twentyish in the evening. In between there were more than a few moments where I both verbally and internally reminded myself- Ndanka Ndanka-slowly slowly- Just take it slow Holly… along with the occasional mumbling reminder of my childhood favorite -Hakuna Matata - There are no worries... (there may have been some singing too)