March 15, 2011

Candles as a Power Grid

          For the past several weeks we have had more and more power outages that last all day or all night. We often sit around the table, with candles lit, commenting that we can live without the lights but not the internet. We don’t have a television in the house, and I can honestly say I don’t miss it a bit.  We sit and we talk in the candle light. We talk about home, classes, random happenings of the day, but for some reason we are always waiting for the power to come back on. I am waiting because there are so many things I have no idea how to do anymore. I have forgotten how to write in a notebook. I have forgotten the news in newspaper form. I have forgotten how to do research without the internet. I have no idea how to take notes if it isn’t on a printed article. I don't know life without communication to the outside.I don’t know how to study without power points or textbooks. Tonight I wrote 14 pages of notes, consecutively, in a college ruled notebook without spell-check or a backspace key.  I find it difficult to arrange my thoughts when I cannot copy and paste them into the correct order. I have awful handwriting.
As I wait for the power to come back on, and glance with concern at my ever decreasing battery power on my laptop, and I begin to think about life here in a new way. Those differences, the oddities I can describe in great detail with dramatic pauses and facial expressions that would send many into a fit of laughter will forever be in my repertoire of stories to tell, but they will not define my time here. In some ways this is more “African” than riding a bush taxi with a goat, or being offered to be someone’s second wife. It is not the oddities that make us so different; it is how we spend our quiet dark hours by candlelight.
I sat down with a Peace Corps volunteer who had finished his two years of service, but had extended for another 6 months here in Kombo (the greater Banjul area). I asked him a series of questions (which I joked would prepare him for the millions he would receive when he goes home) It began to sink in that those two years had moments that could send a room of Americans laughing till they cried, but that was in no way the goal or outcome. He lived the same life as a Gambian villager for two years. He tended his fields, sat and drank ataiya, dealt with the bribery, learned the language, wondered at the customs, and listened to those around him. He spent his hours like a Gambian not an American.  He didn’t wait for the power to come on because he knew it wasn’t going to.
Every time I get to talk to my family on Skype or message a friend on Facebook I am so thankful for the wonders of technology. After mailing a letter to my mother that took over 3 and a half weeks to arrive and actually cost money, unlike a very instant email or an even more instant Skype session which are both free, I don’t know what I would do without instant communication. But then I think, “What if I was out in the bush, with no lights, no running water, and no internet how would it be?” I have decided that I would be very much there, cemented to the ground with my eyes on the brightest stars in the world. I am sure my thoughts would travel to home, to life on the fast track, to things being easy, to water coming out of a tap, to instant communication. Those thoughts though would never be able to land; they would stay afloat, never to reach a keypad or telephone.  And maybe on nights like tonight I would be able to sit in my compound, in the dark, and compile my thoughts and truly be there. Instead of reaching out to a distant world 4,000 miles away, I can for just a few hours, live here, fully and totally even if I am just subconsciously waiting for the power to come back on.

March 5, 2011

Gambia is a Place Where:

-“You are looking fat today” is a compliment. (calling someone skinny is like suggesting they have AIDS)
-“Who owns you?” translates to “who are you married to?”
-College course material consists of lecture notes written out laboriously, verbatim, from the Professor’s mouth to the paper. No textbooks in sight.
-Your feet will always be dirty; no matter how many times you wash them.
-Hitchhiking is a very economical way to get around. You go with people who are going your way FOR FREE!
-Bumsters walk up and ask “What is your very nice name?”
-Goats, chickens, and children jump into the taxi and sit wherever there owners/parents want them too; including your lap.
-Eat your dinner and go to bed isn’t part of any punishment. Gambians eat dinner very late and go to bed right afterwards. I would personally die under that system; thank goodness I live with a bunch of toubobs.
-If anything costs over 100 Dalasi (aka 3.50 ish. I generally refuse to buy it claiming that it is “tourist price.” Talking down prices has become part of daily life, but sadly I am a pathetic haggler.
-Men with Vietnam Era machine guns and Camo frequently greet you with the standard smile and Salaamalekum as they stop you at checkpoints.
-Hand holding or just your run-of-the-mills pace encroaching activities/invasion of personal bubbles close talking, touching, leaning, petting, hair twirling, and hugging is commonplace.
- In rural areas bordering Senegal “watch for landmines” signs with images of a flash and detached leg mark the roadsides
-It costs a mere $10 to bribe your way to the front of the Ferry line and you might even get to go sit and drink tea with the ferry captain.
-You learn to appreciate paved roads on trips over 100 miles…. I might have a concussion from hitting my head on the ceiling/window a few too many times.
-I have been proposed to approx. 25 times; about 6 or 7 were for the position of wife number two. I wasn’t really game for that.