Category Archives: Uncategorized

Getting Robbed 8/4/12

So tonight we sat at one of our favorite restaurants, Mama’s. The restaurant is owned by a sweet elderly Swiss woman who gives her customers off-season deals and threw a large party for Swiss National Day last week. She is well known in the higher-class, restaurant-going Gambian community because of her sweet disposition and delicious food. She is not the best conversationalist, but is clearly devoted to making sure each customer is left satisfied and impressed with her large portions and smart use of garlic. But tonight, it was made clear that I will remember Mama’s for something entirely different. 

 

When we were done with dinner tonight, Marquis and I saw a men we recognized from the YMCA, a man whom we had talked to multiple times. He had often been spotted wearing a security shirt identical to that of our guards, and we had thus assumed that he was another substitute or alternate for our usual guards. The man was easily recognizable because he only had one eye and addressed us as his “YMCA Brothers.” Easy enough. He asked us if we wanted to see his newborn baby and we said no, in attempt to make it back to the YMCA quickly. But he was persistent, and  insisted that his wife and child were on the walk back to the YMCA, so as we began our walk back, he joined us. However after leading us on a “shortcut,” that was much longer than it was short, we ended up in an area we didn’t recognize, but knew we couldn’t be far from our hostel. At this point, the man started talking about “the orphans.” This was a red flag. Generally, if something isn’t a legitimate organization or charity, we try to avoid it, at the risk of donating to the wrong people or being fooled. So many people ask us for money or favors on a daily basis that it is hard to deduce the frauds and those organized and in real need, so my monetary contribution to the Gambia will have to be well thought out and a bit delayed after some research. So when confronted with this idea of the orphans, we tried to continue walking. At this point, the man used the best tool in his arsenal. He told us that by refusing to meet his uncle, the imam, or Muslim leader, of the area, we would be disrespecting his religion and culture. This disrespect and cultural ignorance was  something that we are constantly conscious of and worried about. We stopped walking and waited for the man to go get the imam, incredibly nervous about creating a bad image for the YMCA and causing any problems. Once the imam came out with a Coca Cola and offered it to us, we became increasingly nervous. He expected us to drink it, and we were unsure of what he would expect in return. The “orphans” then came out, with couples who looked suspiciously like their parents. There was no newborn baby or wife. At this point, after declining the Coke, we had clearly made the security impersonator angry or frustrated. He had asked us for a significant amount of money in order to buy a large bag of rice for the orphans. He started spitting on my face, yelling “I AM A BIG MAN” and repeatedly asking if I was “fucking with him.” He got close enough to make me uncomfortable and physically aware of the camera in my bag. He told us that by accepting a meeting with the imam, we had committed to buying this $60 bag of rice for the “orphans.” Yelling ensued. Feeling very duped, Marquis and I stared incredulously at this grown man as he began crying, in truth it was closer to bawling, and screaming repeatedly, “I AM A BIG MAN” at the top of his lungs. I have never been more confused. He was barring our exit, intending to make it impossible for us to leave until we bought the rice. At this point in time, we were still convinced he was a security guard who worked part time for the YMCA, due to the multiple conversations we had had with him in the past. As I could feel the camera weighing more and more heavily against my leg, and as the man’s tears made me more and more uncomfortable, I decided the best option would be to give him what I had left on my person- 200 Dalasis, or about $7, and get the hell out of there. We ran from the crying man and the supposed imam, back to the YMCA, where we asked our guards about this one-eyed man who had just performed what can best be called a peaceful mugging. Nobody had ever heard of him, and nobody recognized his description. It is safe to say he did not work for the security company employed by the YMCA, and our night manager even said to me, “you fell for the newborn baby trick?” I was not informed that this existed as a scheme… I guess the good sign is that I can already laugh about it and nobody was hurt. Plus it’s a pretty amazing story. Not every day you get suckered into giving away $7 to a livid, shaking and crying 40-year-old man. 

 

 

In my last few weeks, I compiled a list of the things I would not miss about The Gambia when I left. I also made a longer list of the things I would miss. However, each thing on the “Things I Won’t Miss” list has turned out to be false, aside from three items, which I listed last. My experience was so overwhelmingly positive that now, in hindsight, even the things I was bothered by while there are things I miss or long for in an almost nostalgic manner.

What I thought I wouldn’t miss and was wrong about:

–       humidity- I had never experienced long-term humidity before, and as someone who is used to the dry heat of the Inland Empire and the cold wetness of the Richmond district, it took some getting used to. But now, back at school where it is 100 and not at all comfortable, I really miss the random moments of heavy ran alternating with the heat.

–       french fries and bread- I love carbs as much as the next girl. While I was there, I always felt full and heavy. But looking back, feeling full in Africa is no burden. In a country as poor as The Gambia, it seems crazy to me that I was concerned with eating too much, an idea that seems almost shameful at this point. But now when my plates come or I enter a dining hall at school, I am secretly sometimes wondering where my giant pile of french fries or my over-sized sandwich bread is.

–       4 AM prayer during Ramadan- There was a mosque very close to my hostel, and during Ramadan, I was woken almost every day by the loud Quranic readings taking place at the mosque blaring from the speaker of this large building. However, something about this was so interesting and so thought provoking. I never knew what was being said, and it inspired a sort of mystery into my days.

–       sand everywhere, always- You know that feeling where after you shower post-beach you can’t get rid of the last of the sand? Well I had that for 2 months. But the feeling of washing off sand? Glorious. I am one of those people who loves the satisfaction of visible results- checking things off of checklists for example. So washing off every last bit of sand from my body was just one of those small simple pleasures.

–       stray dogs- I love dogs. Dogs sitting by the side of the road with injuries or visible cuts was not quite easy to watch, but it was nice to see them all the time. Especially being back at school without the presence of animals I seem to miss them, even the ones that all began to look the same after a while.

–       not having a laundry machine- This is perhaps incredibly diva of me, but I wanted to include this because this bothered me way more than not having power, and about the same amount as my various periods of time without running water. I discovered I truly value feeling clean, and my washing skills are not up to par. However, it forced me to wash my clothes almost every day, something I did not even think about. I forgot about the feeling of not being able to wear something because it was dirty or because it was at the bottom of the laundry heap even if it hadn’t been worn.

–       turning on my water- In order to turn on my water, I had to climb on top of the toilet, turn a knob on the wall, and then climb back down, after which it was almost impossible to control whether or not my shower and sink would turn on. However, this made me save water, as did the cold showers. The water use was an adventure and definitely reminded me of luxuries we deem simple or minute.

 

The three things I am sorry to say I do not miss:

–       honking taxis- I have already expressed my feelings towards honking on this blog. I will never understand the need for constant noise on the road, and if I don’t flag you down for a taxi, it means I probably don’t want one. Thanks though, the honking really made me want to hop in your cab because you are probably not pushy at all.

–       attention on the street- This is a tricky one. I loved people smiling and saying hello on the street. But when people would come up to me and expect a full conversation, ask me for my phone number, or even ask me if they could make me my wife, it was a little bit difficult to deal with. Going out for a pleasant afternoon walk alone was not an existent concept, because of the opportunity so many Gambian men see when they spot a clearly foreign woman.

–       mosquitos- If you know me, you know I am a mosquito magnet. In Africa, this has greater consequences than California.

What I Thought I Wouldn’t Miss

I have visited third world countries before, experienced poverty and seen hungry people, bankrupt businesses and disadvantage. But living in a third world country for eight weeks opened my eyes to new perspectives on it that I had not even considered. As the hopeful sort of person I am, I never thought much of the “you can do anything you set your mind to” mentality. It always made total sense. Cinderella stories and rise-from-the-ashes stories abound, and there was no reason to believe otherwise. Sure, it’s a hell of a lot harder for some people. But during my time in The Gambia, it was the first time I had ever truly considered the possibility that there were huge faults in this argument. Don’t get me wrong, I was not naïve enough to believe that educational advancement and life goals were just as easily accomplished by one in one circumstance as one in another. I recognize differences, and I knew that some people were bound by their economic, social and cultural confines. But I had never thought about the point at which telling someone they could do anything stopped being fair.

For most of the children I worked with at the YMCA, this idea is one that is more than important to ingrain in their brains. They are students who have the opportunity to advance their education, their academic success and their prospects, although not easy, are far from impossible. Their parents are determined to further their education, and they are in schools with resources like pencils, books and paper. These are the students who benefit from the motivation, who need that push, drive and focus, and doors may open. But when does it do more harm than good to tell people they are capable of anything?

But I tutored one girl, outside of the YMCA, with a blind father, a physically disabled mother, and multiple mentally disabled brothers, and it was totally unclear to me how much hope one is supposed to give. Her situation didn’t warrant much hope, but her drive to do well in school was inspiring and promising. But when she is 18 and in school and counted on to support her family, how am I supposed to know what to say? At what point does installing false hope in people become cruel, and who has the right to make that call to stop? And I realized, that she can make the call herself. She knows the limits much better than I do, and she knows her determination and levels of success in a way I will never even understand. The attitude with which we approached her studies was the only way she seemed to understand assignment by assignment, day by day.

I have visited …

Ramadan

 

For almost the entire second month of my time in The Gambia, the 90% Muslim population has been observing Ramadan. I was told that tourist activities, restaurants and even work would slow down significantly, but to be honest, it is not incredibly noticeable aside from the overall energy level. Of my coworkers, four of the six of us are fasting, leaving only me and my Ponce.

As a whole, with the country fasting from 5:30 AM to 7:45 PM, you can imagine how tired everyone is. Not just that, but apparently water is also not permitted, which I had no idea of. When I was thinking about it, there are definitely times, on days of a big test, or lazy days at home or travelling, where I have not eaten until dinner, maybe around 7 or 7:30. But water?! And for 40 days in a row? The exhaustion level increases every day, and it’s entirely apparent that the country just wants to be taking one big nap. There are varying degrees of observance of the month-long holiday. The less devout Muslims, maybe those who drink and smoke cigarettes, use it as a cleanse, spending the holy month observing all the laws of their religion that they may not consistently obey during the other 11 months of the year. Some girls have even admitted to me that it is an ideal opportunity to lose weight, cutting out the available time for snacking. But for most of the Gambian population, this month represents a recognition of God, and more than anything, a time to reflect.

For me, however, Ramadan has mostly represented a higher tendency of people falling asleep at work, taking midday naps, and odd restaurant hours. A few weeks ago, the men who live downstairs in the hostel told me they didn’t think I could handle a day without food. I told them they were on, and I did it pretty easily. But as with anything, it clearly wears on you. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Time for a snack.

Ramadan  For a…

I have so much gratitude and thanks to the people of Gambia that helped me over the past two months. Without these people and these lifelong friends I have made, I would not have been as comfortable or as happy, and definitely would not have learned in the way that I did. More than anyone, I am thankful for my boss, Poncelet, who aside from creating an interesting and stimulating work environment, introduced me to his friends, toured me around the area, placed a great amount of faith in me and gave me the opportunity to connect with students. More than all of this, he gave me the encouragement to take the reigns in a program I knew nothing about. That required a great amount of confidence for which I will always remain grateful. Without this faith, my experience would not have been close to what it was. I am thankful for Ponce’s friends, for their support and friendliness at local restaurants and street interactions. I am so appreciative of my coworkers, Anet, Oumie and Kebba for accepting the red-haired foreigner with the accent they thought was so funny. They brightened my day with their jokes, their quarrels, their amusing anecdotes and all of our hilarious lost-in-translation moments. Having such a young staff to work with made a huge difference in my experience. Connecting with other young people made me constantly and more rationally evaluate how different my life would be if I lived somewhere else, and gave me the opportunity to make friends I know I will keep for a long time to come.  I am so grateful for my security guards and hostel managers for keeping me company on the electricity-less nights, making me feel safe, and sharing their life stories with me. The friendliness and warm heart of each individual changed everything for me, and the generosity of the people who had no obligation to accept me or listen to me opened my eyes to the nature of kindness of strangers in a way I had never seen in the U.S, even in such a liberal and open city like San Francisco.

But a lot of people I am thankful for and appreciative of are the ones whose names I do not know, and who I cannot personally thank now. I am thankful for the woman at the bakery at the back of Karaiba Shopping Center who always smiled at me. If I was serving someone food during a time when my religion forbade me from eating, I don’t think I could have done it with a smile. She told me New Jersey was her “dream country,” and insisted that I come say goodbye before I left for home. I am thankful for the very few taxi drivers who did not try to swindle me. I am thankful for the tailor who cut me a deal on a special-made dress. I am thankful for Alfred and Ramatoulie at the Reform Club next door who were so friendly and let me change the channel to the Olympic events I wanted. I am thankful for the gardener at the YMCA who worked so hard and so often, despite his age and despite the heat. I am thankful for the man who finally came and fixed our water tank after five days of bucket showers and outhouses. I am grateful to the whole of the beach community that let me play soccer and rugby with them, and for the Dutch woman at the beach hotel who always let me leave my bag behind her bar while I swam and ran around. But more than anything, I am thankful for the entire Gambian community, who made my 8 weeks so memorable and exciting. My trip would not have been the same without the men who proposed to me on the street, the cab drivers who helped me find various restaurants and meeting spots, the women at Serrekunda market who helped me match fabrics and understand various produce, or the children who sold me mint on the side of the road.

I have never met people with such wonderful attitudes. The generosity and openness of the Gambian population made an impact not only on my experience there, but will also, I hope, impact how I interact with people for the rest of my life. In my first few days at home, I have found myself smiling at people on the street and saying hello to people I didn’t know,  just like the Gambians taught me.

Thank You

While in The Gambia, I wrote enough to fill three journals. Although I am safe and sound back at home now, and on my way to CMC, I want to post a few more of my experiences. Besides wanting to share some of my more unique stories and a few of my opinions, I want to make sure I preserve the memories and thoughts that created the most interesting and eye-opening two months of my life.

When I got home, people kept asking me if anything bad happened, if I got sick, what happened with my bags, how the heat was, etc. But for the sake of my safety and perhaps at the loss of some crazy stories, my time in The Gambia was incredibly accident-free. My bags arrived and returned safely, I never got sick or even had indigestion, and I was injury-free. I didn’t even witness any accidents. However, I did get robbed for $7, which so far has been one of the favorite stories amongst my friends. My time in the hyena cage and at the alligator pond was trauma free, and I didn’t even get blown up by the multiple taxis who found no issues with filling up the gas tank with the engine running. My experience will be remembered as challenging and strengthening, but altogether positive and educational.

The next few posts are a combination of reflections on my time abroad and pieces I wrote while in The Gambia. The reverse culture shock has actually gotten to me more than the jetlag. Who would have thought that it would be strange to return to the place you have known your entire life?

While in The Ga…

So I have made it home safe and sound now, with a surprisingly small amount of catastrophes! It’s great to be home and I can’t believe I go back to school tomorrow. I have a few more journal entries I wanted to share before I went back.

I think it’s about time I wrote something about one of the more interesting, inspiring and mysterious people I have met since coming to The Gambia. I asked him prior to writing this if he minded me posting his personal story on my blog, to which he responded, understandably, by asking me what a “blog” was. After I explained blogs, delving into the realm of Twitter, Facebook and social networking, he agreed. Because of the religious, political and personal nature of our conversations, and because he is a cautious and meticulous man, he asked me to refrain from using his name. For someone who did not know what a blog was, he is certainly more internet-smart that many of us. For the sake of my post, I’m just going to call him John.

John is a local security guard. Despite the lack of violence and low crime rate here, many large buildings have private security. John does not have a night stick, nor does he have a phone, but his incredibly tall presence is enough. John has one of the more distinct, draw-able faces I have ever seen. Filled with deep crevices, lines and sharp angles, I wish I had artistic talent every time I see him.

John was born in The Gambia, and is, by my guess, around 40 years old. He comes from a small farming village, son of a Senegalese father and a Gambian mother, joined in an arranged marriage, and has three older sisters. When John’s paternal grandfather fell ill, his father had to go back to Dakar to take care of his family’s shop and his mother. John had not yet been born. This was before texts, e-mails, phone calls had come to The Gambia, so his mother and father wrote letters every day. The unreliable nature of the post office meant these letters were rarely delivered, and after two years of waiting, John’s maternal grandfather ordered his mother to marry a family friend in a village further away, tired of supporting her financially. She was deemed a widow, not a divorcee, so it was acceptable in her particular social circle that she find a new husband. 16 years later, she died tragically and suddenly, and by some serendipitous luck, John’s father was in The Gambia on business and heard her name mentioned in a list of deaths on the radio. He jumped out of the bus he was on and walked 40 miles to the site of the funeral, where he met his son for the first time. He had not stopped writing for five years, but had eventually assumed his wife had died or had been married off.

John went back with his father to Dakar, where he eventually got married and had three children, one of which he lost within its first five years of life. Soon after, they moved back to a rural Gambian farm, where John still grows maize. His wife makes soap, and he travels an hour each day each way to work security from 7 PM to 6 AM. Despite this being considered a fairly lucrative and desirable job here, each member of his family lives on less than a dollar a day. If you ask him when he sleeps, he will just laugh.

In our conversations, he has referenced Marxism, Nelson Mandela, the Holocaust, the ICC (to which a Gambian woman has just been named chief justice), and feminism. He has shown me how to make a strong Gambian green tea called assaya, drawn and identified birds, and last night explained the danger of the centipede. Apparently if they spit in your food, you have about a 50-50 chance of survival. When I brought him a 300 page book on Winston Churchill, he finished it in one sitting, and couldn’t wait to talk about it. We have talked about cremation, Michael Jackson and basketball, and one night discussed the concept of drive-thru’s for almost 30-minutes, an especially difficult concept for him to grasp. He has asked me to explain American holidays, Starbucks and snow.

But the most interesting thing to me about John is his incredibly fascinating view on politics, religion and their tendency to become tangled. His ability to phrase things in a careful, decisive and precise manner is amazing to me. In The Gambia, religion is free and the people claim religious tolerance and openness. However, you are either a Muslim (90%) or a Christian (10%), no exceptions. The first time I tried to explain I was raised without a religious background, I was met with incredulous, borderline disgusted and appalled stares. That wasn’t an acceptable answer I soon learned. But John, I discovered, has no religion either. His reasoning, he explained, was “it’s too much.” Curious, I pressed him for details. After about five minutes of silence, a common occurrence with John, and something I have grown to admire, he explained. He asked if I had ever seen the sign at Traffic Light, reading “a vote for him in 2012 is a sacred duty for all Gambians,” with an absurdly and astonishingly large photograph of the president. Indeed, I said, I had. He replied, “in what way is that not a threat?” He explained further. John says he has never lost faith in God. He believes in a higher power, but to him, politicians and extremists have taken what he calls “the magic” from religion. He no longer knows what to believe. What is authentic, and what is just a trick, used to manipulate the people to the liking of the government or institution. He says when people use religion, its power transfers to them, and he has resorted to his own beliefs, a belief in karma, in kindness, in responsible behavior, and in having faith in those around you. He said all of this to me in a whisper, making interjections regarding the behavior of this specific president, and the development of his country. “The trust in religion is too great,” he explained, hitting a mosquito off his ear. “Why can’t we just trust ourselves, and each other instead?”

So I have made …

I can’t believe I am heading into my last week in The Gambia. After being very homesick for the first few weeks, the past couple of weeks have gone by incredibly fast. The students’ arrival has made the full 8 weeks worth it, as if the other experiences weren’t enough. Teaching ages 5-16 has definitely been a challenge thus far. The students really do have an incredibly wide range- some students have never even touched a computer before, and had to be helped to turn it on, while other students were ready to show me their animations on Microsoft PowerPoint and their skills with shapes, colors and fonts. When asked to write a short story last week as a wrap-up typing exercise, I had some children writing imaginary stories, others struggling to type a full sentence in the 30 minutes provided, and one 11-year-old boy who wrote me a shortened, African version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Following this, a nine-year-old girl proceeded to ask me my “stance” on the “upcoming election of the United States of America” and whether I thought the “new Republican candidate” would “overtake Barack Obama.” How many nine-year-old American kids could have talked to you like that? Hell, how many 16-year-olds have asked you that lately? 20-year-olds? Working with these kids is going to make it very, very hard to leave.

Although Gambia’s national language is English, many of those who live here spend the majority of their time speaking their first languages, Wolof and Mandinka, primarily Wolof in the area I have been staying. As I mentioned before, all of the signs and menus are in English, making my life very easy, but it is always funny to me how many things get lost in translation. For example, I have yet to see a “salon,” and instead, everyone goes to “saloons” to get their hair cut. Many American phrases and concepts are lost here, and I spent about 45 minutes the other night explaining to a friend what a “drive-thru” was. In a more potentially dangerous moment, at a nature reserve this past weekend, we found ourselves at the end of a walk at an animal orphanage, where there was a large enclosure of hyenas and a smaller one full of a family of very hairy baboons. When asked if they ever entered the hyena enclosure, they told us it was unsafe, and that only one specific man could enter the fenced area. As a sidenote, I have always thought that hyenas were like dogs. I feel like along the line someone neglected to inform me that they are large like bears and have very strange paws. I blame the Lion King for my misconceptions. I was also expecting them to be very loud and laugh at me. They did not. However, about four minutes of photography after we were told the enclosure was unsafe, they asked us if we would like to enter. It is unclear to me whether this was a moment of failed English or simply a dare, but we said yes, and they took us into the corner.

This is one of the multiple slightly idiotic things I have done since my arrival in The Gambia. Others include not checking if the running water was working before going on a run in the middle of a 90-degree day, the many times I have said “I don’t think it’s far, let’s just walk!” and telling the man at the cafe down the street that I like spicy food. However, I am writing this to you now, so clearly the hyena experience did not end badly. As for the run, it was quite a sticky situation (sweat + humidity = fun times for all), and my neighbors can probably tell you how pleasant that one was. It wasn’t a one-time-thing either, so I send out a public apology here.

This being my last full week, I went with two of my female coworkers to the market this past weekend to pick up fabric for a traditional Gambian dress. On Friday, since everyone wears their traditional clothing, I thought it would be fun to finally do the same, and have a beautiful garment to take home with me. We picked out 6 meters of fabric, which cost me around $5, and then went to the tailor, where he had us look through books and magazines and find a pattern we liked. With the help of Oumie and Anet, one was chosen, and he asked me how soon I wanted it. When I said any time before Friday he laughed and said most requests he gets are within a few hours. Because of my “kindness” in needing it in almost a week’s time, the tailoring job only cost me $5 more. There will definitely be photos to come of me in my orange and blue dress (“You have to get orange, it matches your hair!”) this Friday.
With the 800 photos I have already taken, mom and dad, you are in for a long evening on my first night back. You bring the snacks.

Another thing I will miss about The Gambia is the natural aspect. I knew going in to my trip that The Gambia was famous, especially among Europeans, for its beautiful beaches and its birdwatching. Many European tourists flock here for beach season, much as Americans do to Hawaii or Mexico. The water is so warm, the beaches are huge, and the waves are not at all menacing. If you know me well, you know that my fear of birds (deemed by many as irrational, but have you seen The Birds?) was going to mean that I probably wouldn’t go on too many bird watching expeditions here. I haven’t had to though. From the beach, to the forests, to the river, to the almost desert-like feel of the area I am staying in, I have seen more types of birds than I can count. And from quite a pleasant distance. The Gambia provides beach scenery, open fields, hikes that make you feel like you are in a deep tropical rainforest, and this is all in a fairly urban area, or within an hour around it, without even traveling up country or into the much more rural areas. The colors of the flowers, plants and trees in this rainy season are all levels of green with splatterings of flowers and the red dust beneath everything. It makes being an amateur photographer easy, and a nature enthusiast even easier.

I can’t wait to be home, but as each day ends, I realize how much I will miss the people here and the lifestyle I have grown to truly appreciate and admire.

 

P.S. If you want to see stars….go to Africa.

I can’t believ…

The kids are here! The kids are here! The anxiously-awaited summer program began today, with 25 students descending upon the YMCA computer lab. They range in age from 5-16, and we spent this morning doing introductory exercises and name games. The younger kids will start coming from 9-11, and the older ones from 12-2. Very few of them can pronounce “Cameron” so I spent 3 hours this morning very confused when I kept hearing them address someone as “Aunty.” It took about 2 hours and 58 minutes to realize that they meant me. In the next two weeks before I leave, I will start them on typing, Microsoft Word and the Internet, at which point another teacher will take over and introduce them to Excel, PowerPoint, and introduction to programming. Many of them have used a computer before, but some of them couldn’t even figure out how to log in. A definite challenge for me is going to be making sure that nobody gets forgotten or left behind in the instruction, while keeping the interest of the more advanced students. I have worked with students in a classroom setting, in a summer camp setting, and in a coaching setting, but have never had such a wide range of experience.

On a completely separate note…..

Growing up in San Francisco I am definitely food-spoiled, especially in the Ruby household (shout out to Caryl and Lucien, hey guys). The amount of fresh food in our house was never lacking, and we live in one of the best cities in the world for food. And going to a college in California with five dining halls and endless options hasn’t helped my very pampered taste buds. Coming to West Africa, I was nervous. I had heard that fresh food was hard to come by and that my options would be very limited. Also, having a one-burner kitchen and constant power outages at my hostel, cooking didn’t seem like it would be much of an option, so I knew I would be relying on the restaurants in my area. However, I have been surprised.

Every menu I have experienced here is abundant with simple pastas (“carbonnarra” being a big favorite) as well as various pizzas, sandwiches, burgers and such. Every dish is served with french fries. The Lebanese influence is big in food, with lots of shwarma restaurants, the dish making an appearance at the Gambian and European-style restaurants as well. Even at your more local-looking hole-in-the-wall lunch spots, customers are greeted with a few sandwich options, primarily egg with ketchup, mayonnaise or french fries. The sandwiches are wrapped in printer paper and usually these spots have lines of school children outside. Especially now, during Ramadan, when only the smaller ones get to eat during the day. The supermarkets are primarily Lebanese-owned, and the ones in my area are American-style, with European products and bakeries or butcher shops in the back. The fresh food is scarce in these, however, and the women by the side of the road, selling food almost as brightly colored as their dresses, have healthier looking fruits and vegetables than the big stores. They sell tomatoes, mangoes, cucumbers, onions and cabbage, as well as the occasional banana. When I tried to order a “salad” at a restaurant a few weeks ago, I was served a pile of shredded carrots and cabbage, much like coleslaw, completely drenched in mayonnaise. I haven’t been faced with much adventure food-wise, but I have tried a few local dishes, including fish and chicken benechin (a local rice and protein dish with tomatoes and onions), chicken yassa, a variation on chicken preparation, and m’bahaal, a chicken cooked in an intense groundnut sauce, much like peanut butter. The groundnut is a huge national product here, and is sold in bags on the street as well as in pastes and powders.

Alcohol consumption has been an interesting thing to observe. Because 90% of the population is Muslim, and Islam strictly prohibits alcohol, a large portion of the population does not drink. However, I have met plenty of Muslims who do, and the “club” next door is full of middle-aged men gathering for afternoons of drinking JulBrews, a Gambian-produced beer that tastes light but has a higher alcohol content than many American beers. The men also drink palm wine, a wine designed to get you drunk faster, and comes in packages similar to that of ketchup packets. My boss and his friends are members at the Reform Club and spend time there catching up and discussing the world, their jobs, their families and funny stories, of which all of them have plenty. They are a group of Christian and Muslim men and have spent time in all parts of the world. They include a judge, a human rights lawyer, a graphic designer, and a composer who has had his tunes featured in Jackie Chan movies.

By far my most exotic food adventure, however, has been the trips I have taken to Serrekunda market. This local market is not frequented by tourists, and contains fabric stores holding colors I didn’t even know existed, blacksmiths with gorgeous rings and bracelets, live chickens and goats, clothing, toiletries, and lots and lots of food. Trying to maneuver my way around the food areas of Serrekunda is definitely a challenge. Children are running, grains of all varieties are being explained and measured, women are brushing flies off their tomatoes and onions with homemade brooms, and most commonly, fish are being pestered by flies. The smell at Serrekunda, of peppers and fish and onions and animals, is a lot to handle, but definitely beautiful in the most colorful and artistic way, and has been a way to experience true Gambian culture. Even during Ramadan, the market is packed, with honking taxis trying to make their way through seas of reds, greens, yellows and blues. Women carry merchandise on their heads, a skill I have unfortunately not been able to perfect, but I’m working on it. Maybe my head is too round? It doesn’t even look like they are trying.

I have to say my most often purchased dinner is the $3 chicken, vegetables, and french fries. They serve you a half of a chicken, grilled and spiced heavily with onions and carrots in a pepper sauce. Even though they only have one burner so it takes an hour and a half to make two, it is definitely my go-to next door. They also have a delicious fish, and one other dish I haven’t tried yet: cow foot pepper soup. I haven’t quite worked my way up to that yet, but I promise to try it before I leave.

More later, because as of this weekend, there is wireless in my hostel! It is shifty with the power outages but I will try to write another post tonight.

The kids are he…

So it’s been quite a while since I last posted, for a multitude of reasons.I have so many stories, so many new experiences, and simply do not know where to start. I’ve been very busy. The internet has also not been very cooperative, and the power has been particularly temperamental.

Ramadan started last Thursday, and I have been warned by many that what they call GMT, “Gambia Maybe Time” is even more accentuated by the fasting, however it has been hard for me to tell so far. Of my co-workers, 5/7 are Muslim, leaving just me and my boss, Poncelet, able to eat during the day. I am curious as to the long-term implications of this, and if the further into the fast we are, the more irritable everyone will be, but so far not much seems to have changed. In the supermarkets in my area (there are many right around me, up to five on one block), they are promoting Ramadan sales and Ramadan hours, open later into the night to accommodate the bellies of the 90% Muslim population. Although very few women cover their heads, and I have met many Muslims who drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes, faith is definitely a point of pride for many, and Ramadan is recognized and celebrated as a sacred and spiritual month.

This past weekend, I convinced Poncelet to drive Marquis and I to a local nature reserve, called Abuko. I was told it was peaceful and beautiful, and had been excited to go for a few weeks. However, as soon as we got there, there was rain like I have never seen. We are in the rainy season here, so it has rained lots and rained often, but this was beyond anything I have ever seen. So there we are, the three of us, sitting in a small hut with six Gambian tour guides, hoping the rain will pass. It didn’t. We decided to walk a little bit anyway, in a moment when it was slightly lighter, but as soon as we had walked for about 15 minutes, it was back, full force. We couldn’t even see five feet in front of us, and the path seemed to flood immediately. It was definitely an adventure, but I hope to go back and enjoy it another time. Later that evening, two other guests at the hostel, Nigerian interns at the Gambian Tourism Board, taught me how to make a Nigerian stew. I was skeptical when I saw we would be using chicken, shrimp, fish, clams, pork and beef, but it turned out well and it was fun to share with them. Sunday, we went back to our favorite brunch spot, an $8 all you can eat elaborate brunch, viewed as one of the nicest restaurants for miles. It is delicious, and it had finally stopped raining which was a good break. We relaxed a bit and walked around our neighborhood, and then YMCA director, John, took us to dinner in Senegambia. Senegambia is a very touristic area, where the majority of the nice hotels, dance clubs and many restaurants are located. I find it hard to walk around there, because Gambian men always want to talk to you, to “be your friend” and to accompany you to taxis or help you find something, in exchange for a tip. There is always someone who wants to sell you a lion statue (there are no lions in Gambia), a necklace or a pair of sunglasses reading “RayDan.” The hotels are gorgeous and all overlook the beach, but I find it far too much to handle. The dinner was delicious, and we listened to live music afterward, crowded into a bar with dozens of European tourists.

While we were sitting there, John got a phone call and told us there was no work Monday. Worried, we asked if everything was ok, if something was wrong. No, he told us, nothing was wrong, the president had just decided, on Sunday night, to name Monday a national holiday. Banks would be closed, and nobody has to go in to work. Sunday, July 22nd was the 18th anniversary of his take-over from the previous president, but he chose to announce a national celebration in his own honor for Monday, Sunday already being a day of no work. So yesterday, we visited a monkey park, where the monkeys were friendly, with dozens of brand new babies attached to their stomachs and backs, looking like little ET mini-me’s. The babies were pretty ugly but I got some good photos which I hope to upload later. Last night, I decided to return the favor and cook a little bit, so I made Mexican food, something nobody here had ever tasted. I made onions and peppers, beans, salsa, guacamole, and an attempt at Mexican rice I am pretty proud of. Throughout this process, I was playing very loud country music, and Malang, my caretaker came into the hostel kitchen. He danced to Sugarland, Jason Aldean, Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood. So at least I know that no matter what else I do, I will leave here having spread the joy of burritos and American country music with the Gambian YMCA.

As a side note, I had quite a few near-death experiences this weekend, or so I was convinced (don’t freak out Mom and Dad I promise I’m ok). Firstly, there was the cab driver who did not turn off the engine while filling up the gas tank, telling me to stop worrying and “be happy.” Then I almost got run over by a man, his bicycle, and his live chicken on the handlebars on my morning run. On the same run, the only person I have seen here with a gun, one of the many guards of the American embassy, stopped me and asked me to take my headphones out. I spent about 30 terrified seconds racking my brain regarding my passport, my visa, my activities since being in The Gambia….for some reason at that moment it made sense that if they weren’t in order he would shoot me…but he just wanted to tell me it was “respectable” that I was “training” so early in the morning.

The outlook towards physical fitness has been very interesting to me since my arrival in The Gambia. Because I am not in a big city, and areas here vary from incredibly crowded markets, banks, supermarkets, embassies, offices, schools, open fields, farms, etc., the beach seems to be a very central meeting point for locals. They gather at Fajara, the beach we prefer over the Senegambia beaches because of its fewer number of “bumsters,” as the local government calls them, and the significant amount of local/foreigner interaction, in a much less incentive-based manner. The first time I went to the beach, I was astonished by the number of men doing push-ups, sit ups, squats and sprints along the sand. They call this their “training” and usually follow it with a soccer game. I have never seen a Gambian woman involved in any sort of “training.” So when I run on the beach, near the YMCA, or anywhere else, I generally get a lot of stares. Not only do I stand out, but who is this crazy girl running on the side of the road? Many people stop me curiously, ask me if I am training, and I get thumbs-up’s from a few. One very old wrinkly man even offered me some water and told me my face was “burning.”

For now, at work, I am editing English essays, writing grant proposals and project proposals, and starting to get one in particular off the ground. I have applied for funding through various sources for the creation of a web portal through the YMCA Computer Center. The portal will allow local businesswomen to call in through their mobile phones-many people here have phones, but most do not have access to internet- and report what goods they are selling, at what prices and where. Many women in this area make their living by selling produce on the street, and Poncelet has been trying to work on this project for a long time, a women-helping-women idea, as the site will be managed by a young Gambian woman at the YMCA, fresh out of the Computer Training Program. Not only will it be an economic help, serving as free advertising, but it will also empower women and remind them that what they are doing is an important part of local society, culture and economy. I am finalizing our summer program curriculum, making handouts, and getting excited for the kids to come next week! I only get two weeks with them, but I know it will be a great way to finish out my trip.

For a while, I was incredibly homesick and felt very far from home. This was in no way a reflection on the incredibly friendly, welcoming nature of the Gambian people, but very little here reminded me of home, and it was easy to miss a lot of the things I take for granted on a regular basis. But as time goes on, I am already realizing how much I will miss it when I leave. I am excited to come home and see you all- either in the frenzy of eight days before going back to CMC, or at CMC- but as time starts getting faster, I know it’s going to be upon me before I even realize.

Hugs,
Cameron

So it’s been q…