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.