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.”

April 7, 2011

Fact or Fiction


 Here in the Gambia I have been faced frequently with “facts” and “truths” that range from the comical to the disturbing. Here are some of my favorites.
In a conversation with my friend Maimuna over lunch I broached the topic that President Jammeh was not very tall, to which she responded that he was certainly taller than President Obama, I of course being a Patriotic American as well as being socialized that height is some sort of masculine trait I had to prove that Obama was in fact taller than Jammeh and the average male as well. The power was out at the time (how unusual) so I sat there stewing and arguing that I had proof that Obama was taller than Jammeh… two hours went by. I was dying, and finally the power came on.  A quick Google search provided me the necessary evidence of an official picture of the Obamas, Michelle and Barrack, cradling one Yaya Jammeh in between them with a good 8 inches of air above his hated head. Winner! But I was promptly informed that it was an American photo and it had certainly been doctored for the media…. Ughhhh a loss.
Facts here are negotiable, similar to in the United States. We present opinions as a shield against being told we are wrong. In an effort to calm a discussion, since Americans fear disagreement like McCarthy feared Communism, we agree to disagree with no right, wrong, or progress made. Gambians will argue, with fervor and passion until you literally feel as though you have been beaten over the head. This is a feeling I would imagine is similar to being a guest on the O’Reilly show. There is no winning. Welcome to a world, where time is unlimited, arguing is just part of the art of conversation. Greetings can last 5 minutes, small talk follows, a minor topic arises and boom! Suddenly you are fighting for your life on whether or not rice quality has gone down in the past years and whether long grain is better for you then short grain.
“If you wait till you are 30 to get married you will never find a husband”… “I am sure that I will be able to find a husband.” “No! No you will not and if you do he will be near death, at least 60.”
“Are you talking about a cat?” Buba answers “Yes a cat! If the hair of a cat gets into your food or if you swallow it in your sleep you will die.” “Buba, I don’t think if you eat cat hair you will die.” “Yes, you will die.” “Actually Buba, I know for a fact that if you eat cat hair you will not die.” “You will die; I will not stay in a house with a cat, I know many people who have died or gotten very sick from cat hair...” “Ok Buba, You can die from cat hair.”
“Can you take me to America?” No I cannot. I am sorry. “Yes you can, just put me in the suitcase.” “You don’t believe that I can actually do that do you?” “Yes, Yes, You can, but you will not. I do not need a seat.”
 “In the United States women are allowed to dress how they like and men are not allowed to attack them because we believe that each person has freedom to express themselves how they like, and that men cannot touch women whenever they want because a woman’s body belongs to her and no one else.” “Men are tempted by that… that is not a fair expectation of men.” “Actually it is very fair, because women are not allowed to attack men. Don’t you feel safer now?”
“Do you have to bribe the police in America?” “Umm we don’t really bribe in the States. It is very illegal.” (Surprised) “how do you get anywhere or do anything...?” “…Efficiently, and with lines, lots of lines the kinds where you don’t get to cut anyone.” Laughs…“We don’t use lines here.” “I have noticed.” “Someone will always cut you, so you have to cut first.” “Seems very practical… and inefficient.” “This is Africa.” “Gotcha”

April 5, 2011

Random Thoughts for You

Since I am a terribly blogger here a (almost) month in review… not really it is just the random things that pop up in my mind. Here you go:
I went to the opening of the National Assembly. This could be comparable to the opening of Congress in the US in terms of importance, but it was something similar to a middle school graduation until of course  El Presidente- Jammeh showed up in his stretch limo. I had a fabulous dress made, which ended up being an expensive pair of pajamas because after hour 3 of Jammeh’s speech. I just had to take a nap, and luckily that moment was caught by national TV. As you can imagine I was greeted very warmly at school the following Monday in class by “ Toubob! Haddy, (my Gambian name), Haddy Njie! You fell asleep at the National Assembly! We all saw it!” Perfect. Wonderful. Great. If only they had scanned a bit more to see every single regional chief drooling on their green robes, obviously in a deep state of REM.
Club Toubob- a name we have affectionately given our compound, has had visitors from one Best Friend, and Two Families; one from the US and one from Sweden…. Hint Hint Belkot Fam. All of whom were delighted and horrified at the various day-to-day activities in the Gam. From Haggling, Gully-Gullies, goats, children, lack of electricity and of course our awesome tans.
I have taken three consecutive early morning trips to avoid Sed Setal-National Cleaning Day- only to find that it has been cancelled. (On one Saturday a month every person in the Gambia must go to their place of work or compound and clean from 9am to 1. No one is allowed to travel during those hours. I of course think the beach is a much better idea and bail around 8 to get some breakfast and walk to the beach. I hate mornings, but I hate them even more when I wake up before I have to.) Things get cancelled a mere hours before they are supposed to begin and similarly national holidays can be constructed 24 hours beforehand.
I have fallen asleep on the beach on one of the above Saturdays, accidentally, and had a lovely tan line of my square necklace right in the middle of my chest. It has lingered for weeks. Similarly, my flip-flop tan line is supreme.
I have favorite pet goat. He lives on my street. While all the other goats wander off when they are released from the compounds in the morning. He hangs out; staring at various walls along the street. He moves maybe 30 feet in the course of the day; Just staring, sometimes at the dirt, sometimes at people, but mostly at walls. His name is Patrick. All of the neighbors now direct me to where he is at any given point in the day by announcing “there is your Patrick.”
The kids/children in the Gam have warmed my attitude towards youngsters a bit. Most of it has to do with the lack of supervision they have as they all just play in the street with sand, bricks, tires, plastic bags, cans, sticks, and chickens instead of game boys, X-boxes, popsicles, candy, TV, and parental attention.  Once a fight breaks out over the score of a football game or someone is singing Waaww Waaww  (a famous Senegalese pop song) wrong. A small battle ensues of yelling and a little pushing until the biggest or oldest one smacks someone’s head and lectures them, teams are formed, another verbal battle, laughter ensues, the singing or playing continues like nothing happened.
I have lost track of how many proposals I have gotten, but I would advise anyone with low or faltering self esteem that is male or female to come to the Gam. As a fake celebrity, I feel like a 5 foot 10 inch model with an entourage of young and old admirers (some of whom are creepy) I have no idea what I will do when I return to the US, short and average. Where are all my husbands and men yelling that I am their princess????
            I told some of my classmates about nudist colonies and the Amish last week. They think I do drugs, and that America is a land of should be psychiatric patients. Which it kind of is, but I also think people who live in Nudist Colonies and the Amish are pretty happy people. Naked all the time and a life with no buttons to complicate life… sounds good to me.
            The power goes out all the time. I would say an average of twice a day for about 4 to 7 hours each time. I spend most of my time at restaurants with Wireless and coffee, trying to complete emails, assignments, and messages to family. All of those things that take 15 minutes tops in the US take double, triple, or quadruple the time here. Literally.
            Time to go take a cold shower…. Is it weird that I love this place? Because I think leaving here might be the biggest heartbreak of my life. Can I cancel my ticket??? Just kidding... kind of.