Today is a very exciting day over here, firstly because I found somewhere that serves chocolate milk. The chocolate milk sold in supermarkets here is non-refrigerated. And because that has terrified me and I do not understand how that is possible, I have gone chocolate-milkless for 4 weeks! If you know me well, you know that this is incredibly uncharacteristic and somewhat shocking. But even more exciting, I have good enough internet connection to upload photos onto my blog! I have posted some photos below and will hopefully be able to upload more in the future.

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The beaches here are incredible- the water is warm, the sand is soft, and in the evening everyone gathers to exercise and play soccer, rugby, volleyball or just take a swim at the beach.

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This photo is from the local marketplace, called Serrekunda, which is so crowded it can sometimes be hard to move at all. There is an overwhelming amount of color and some quite interesting smells, and it’s where many locals go to buy their fish, fruits, vegetables, spices, etc. It also houses the local blacksmith, live goats and chickens for sale, and lots and lots of flies.

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Sleeping vendor at Serrekunda market.

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Another vendor at Serrekunda market with his groundnuts.

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Women selling charcoal at Serrekunda.

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Lebato beach, where we often eat dinner and play rugby on Tuesday and Sunday.

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My neighborhood!!

So far I have taken over 300 photos, so this is just a small portion and I have many more to share. Hopefully I can get some more added soon. For now, I will continue editing grant proposals and reading peoples’ English essays for grammar. Ramadan starts tomorrow, and I have been told that the slow nature of the country (be here at 9 really means try to be here before the day ends) is furthered by the fasting, which I completely understand. If I wasn’t allowed to eat between sunrise and sunset you probably couldn’t get me to do much either. More to come on that later.

Hugs

Today is a very…

When a little kid is walking along alone, hitting anything in his path with a stick, it’s safe to say something is bothering him. In fact, I’d say that is a fairly universal sign for “I am having emotions and I have no idea how to deal with them.” Although hitting random objects with a long, dead piece of tree is not the most constructive, I can think of many more harmful coping mechanisms.

 
When the scene is accentuated by swells of red dust, a dirty school uniform, and goats by the side of the road, the pathetic nature of his distress ends up outweighing any anger he may exude. The disgruntled look on his little brown face made me think about what problems could be weighing down on his sweat-covered head. Maybe the girl he likes held another boy’s hand at recess. Maybe he is scared to tell his dad about a bad grade he got on a spelling quiz. Maybe he dropped his PB&J on the floor at lunch time, or a bully stole his chocolate milk.
 
But I realize, while watching him pass one goat, then another, that these are not his problems. I am projecting my American elementary school storybook problems on a little boy who has never even seen a skyscraper, let alone ridden in an elevator. He has never seen a movie on a big screen or flown in an airplane. And yes, while the angst of puppy love and bullies and parental disappointment are the same in every language and true in every country, a place like The Gambia provides you, quite frankly, with a much more abundant selection of problems. When poverty, sickness, lack of resources and an overwhelming national obligation to succeed are placed on every student, it’s a miracle this kid, with his Power Rangers  backpack  and too-big green shorts, isn’t doubled over under the weight. 
 
When the national goal is to “get out,” to leave and find refuge in a place like the UK or US, it’s hard to understand the immense pressure on each member of society. Being here, it is more than clear that each and every young person is encouraged to use their home as a stepping stone. The Gambia isn’t somewhere you stay, it’s somewhere you start. Taxis have American flags in them, stores advertise “genuine American food products,” and the US and UK Embassies are basically forts, reminding passerby’s of the countries’ inaccessibility. The best schools here are all the “international” schools, more respected than the normal private schools. Because at these, you can find further education, advanced learning, in a country viewed as entirely superior to your own. 
 
But by viewing your country as a trap, as something to escape for something that is better, what does that mean? I recognize that many countries feel this way, but here it is publicized, encouraged. This is not a country with rebel groups, not a country where the leader is feared or viewed as oppressive. They enjoy freedom of religion and safety is recognized as a national point of pride.  The leader is revered and his methods appreciated. This desire for movement, the desire to seek refuge in Europe or America, has nothing to do with politics or discrimination. Instead, it lies in the view of success. Success is leaving The Gambia for school, success is getting a Visa to another country, through the long, grueling, usually impossible process. Success is realizing that where you are has no influence on where you should be going.
 
So keep hitting the rocks, the fence, the stump with that stick…because you know, some kid in America is probably doing the exact same thing. And if you ask me you have a little bit more of a right. Just don’t hit the goat, he didn’t do anything to you.

When a little k…

So people keep asking me what the hardest adjustment here has been.  Oddly enough, it has not been the power outages, the food (very much American) or the lack of hot water (don’t even notice it). It hasn’t even been the humidity or the language barrier or the heat. In fact, it has been the attention I get and the traffic/driving techniques.

In the area of The Gambia in which I am staying, the cars on the road are split about 50-50, taxis and regular vehicles. In the term “taxis” I include vans (usually quite full, serving a very similar purpose to buses), taxis that provide “town trips” (these serve the same purpose as at home) or regular taxis, which, for a fee of D7 (25 cents) you share a taxi with up to three other people and the taxis go on fixed routes, dropping off and picking up in various places. These have been hard for me to maneuver but I often take them from “Traffic Light” back to about three blocks from my hostel. Taxis often try to charge me more than the normal rate- apparently I look like a tourist, imagine that! – so I have strategically asked my coworkers to help me remember how much each town trip around here should be, and often try to take the shared taxis. “Traffic Light” is one of the central locations of my area, known as a destination because it is, you guessed it!, the only traffic light around for miles. You could call it a monument. Next to Traffic Light is a giant billboard of the president reading “A Vote For Him in 2011 Is A Sacred Duty for All Gambians,” and across the street is a bakery selling bread for D5 (17 cents)per  loaf, always fresh and always warm.

Around here there are no stop lights, lanes, stop signs, yield signs, or traffic guards, and absolutely no cross walks. I do not know how, but people and cars always seem to know where to go. Mix in the goats, rams, stray dogs and constantly flooded roads and it seems to me to be a miracle that there are not accidents every few minutes. A much more difficult adjustment as a pedestrian, however, is the honking. Taxis and cars here honk constantly. When you are walking along the side of the road, they want to know if you want a ride and will repeatedly honk at you until you wave them off, which ends up being quite the arm exercise if you’re on a long walk down the main street. Cars will honk and pass each other, honk at bicycles to get them out of the way, honk at each other if they are going under the unlisted, too fast assumed speed-limit, and sometimes seem to honk just to remind everyone that they are on the crowded street too. I haven’t quite figured it out. I often get a lot of amusement from the stickers that many drivers have pasted to their back windows- some of the highlights include “Get Rich or Die Trying,” “Rasta or Bust,” “The Rasta Never Dies,” or one that I road in that had pictures of Celine Dion, TuPac and Bob Marley decorating the interior.

Because I stand out here (I know, shocker again), and, aside from often visiting a beach very popular with Peace Corps volunteers and Ex-Pats, we try to stray away from the more touristic areas, I get a lot of attention. It is very common here to be greeted with “how are you?” or “what is your name?” on the street, instead of a nod or a “hello,” and this comes from a multitude of people, men, women or children. Young children will often yell after me “toubab,” a name here used to identify a white person. Most commonly however, men on the street often try to strike up a conversation and it usually includes one or more of the following: “do you want to be my friend?” “do you have Africell?” “I love you,” “will you marry me?” “where is your boyfriend?” or my personal favorite “Take me back to America with you!”  I never feel unsafe or truly threatened, although I have to say that watching my friend get offered a large sum of cash in exchange for me as a bride was quite a culture shock. The man had just finished telling us about his Native American fiancé in Seattle and his 11-year-old daughter, so it was especially hard to pass up.

On Saturday, I went to the local crocodile pools, a sacred area, however home to many school trips and tourists. The pools are said to be able to cure the woes of an infertile woman, and the crocodiles are not dangerous, so you can walk over and touch them. Following that visit, we went to Serrekunda market, a local market where women and men come to buy produce, fish, meat, fabric and live animals. Lots of fish and lots of flies. No visitors in sight, I was clearly the only “toubab” for quite a distance. I have never seen so many colors in one place. Or experienced so many smells in such a short time. It’s quite difficult to explain without a few photos-I unfortunately had to take my pictures pretty inconspicuously to avoid people asking for donations or telling me they didn’t want their photos taken, so some are at weird angles or the subject is a bit cut off, but I will try to post them anyways. Saturday evening, we went to a free concert held in the Gambian soccer stadium hosted by the local cell phone provider, Africell, and co-sponsored by the American Embassy. The Artists, typically, and even more accentuated by the customs of The Gambia, were 4 hours late, but we had left before the time they came on. Before we left, we watched children dance to the DJ’s and women balancing goods on their heads (groundnuts, mangoes, and bags of water), selling them to the concert-goers. There were no metal detectors, no rules, no tickets, and no problems. I can only imagine what a free pop music concert t in the US would have entailed. Gambian pop is pretty catchy, and even after only a few weeks here, there are a few songs on the radio I already recognize and know some of the words to. One of my personal favorites includes the line “I can’t believe you’re still a virgin.” Not sure if that’s a compliment or not but it’s a pretty peppy song.

Love and hugs,

Cameron

 

A few estimates:

Number of mangos I have eaten since I have gotten here:  3 times a day for 19 days = 57 mangos

Number of marriage proposals I have received: Approximately 15

Number of times I have been chased by a costumed man who is traditionally allowed to beat you if he catches you: 1

Number of crocodiles I have touched: 3

Number of snakes I have seen: 0 (LET’S KEEP THIS ONE GOING STRONG!)

Number of mosquito bites I have right now: 47 (this is not an estimate, I counted)

 

So people keep …

I had a truly incredible weekend. I had previously met one of my boss’ board members, a computer engineer from Norway who has grown increasingly interested in Gambian issues over the past few years. Marit and I met at the YMCA last week while visiting the ICT Training Center and we exchanged contact information (as a side note, Africell has had full service everywhere I have gone, even in the rural areas…take note AT&T). She comes back to The Gambia every few months to see how her projects are holding up. On Friday, she stopped by and asked me if I was interested in getting out of Kanifing (my area) a little bit. I said absolutely, and met her at her hotel on Saturday morning.

We drove to Nema Kunku, a small, very poor village not far away. There, she helps to facilitate the growth of a farm with a British couple and their children, who live there full time. On the farm, local, unschooled children can come drop by any time of day, and 15 at a time are allowed in to learn mathematics and spelling on five iPads stored in a trailer. Some of the others are drawn to the two huts housing large collections of legos and duplos nearby and then about 15 more children are allowed to come inside to do what the farms primary purpose is: teach effective and efficient farming techniques. The British couple, Mick and Jenny, used to have a farm in Brittany, but uprooted their family to come here, to a mango farm in The Gambia. Soon, they will be starting free summer programs for kids, and more farm education classes for adults. They use solar power and other specialized techniques and help keep the kids productive while their parents are hard at work at their own farms or businesses. The farm makes incredible mango jam and mango chutney, and a type of green powder harvested from wispy looking plants that apparently serves as a mega-superfood. Any requests please let me know! I will definitely be back to the farm and the jam was incredible!

After we couldn’t eat any more jam, we traveled to another village, called Lamin, which is also the name of about 50% of the men I have met in The Gambia. Apparently, it is traditional to name your first son, so I can only imagine the confusion in grade school. In Lamin, I had what was probably my most incredible experience since getting here. Marit introduced me to a woman named Yassin, the founder of a program called Starfish Girls. I was curious about the name, so she explained with the following story, copied below from the Starfish website (www.starfishinternational.org).

One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed a girl picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean. Approaching the girl, he asked, “What are you doing?” The girl replied, “Throwing starfish back into the ocean. The surf is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.” “My daughter,” the man said, “don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can’t make a difference!” After listening politely, the girl bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the surf. Then, smiling at the man, she said…,

“I made a difference for that one.”

And Yassin truly is making a difference. We sat in a circle in a small courtyard of a one-room building, while each girl introduced herself and said why she loved Starfish, part of their Saturday program. The goal of the program is to empower young women and teach them to follow their dreams “even if your culture is telling you that you cant.” The girls, many of them from very poor families, are encouraged to work on their public speaking skills, their service to their community, and most importantly, their confidence and self-respect. I strongly encourage watching the videos and reading the articles that can be found on their website. Hearing the obstacles they had to overcome to reach even basic levels of schooling was something I had known existed in this country, but these girls brought it to plain view. The way they interacted with each other, clearly respected such an educated Gambian woman as Yassin and embodied the stressed characteristics of “Nobility, Independence, Courtesy, Knowledge, and Service” was truly inspiring.  As I was leaving, they were watching a video of a paraplegic man talking about what it’s like to fall and to get back up, and that somebody always had it worse. It was truly a striking moment realizing these girls were being taught that they didn’t even have it hard, that they should have compassion and empathy for the next person, and to be thankful for what they have received in their lifetime.

Sunday, I was privileged to meet another of Marit’s acquaintances, a young woman named Sambo, who came from a truly sad story. The daughter of a blind man and a physically disabled woman with four struggling younger brothers, she had asked for some help on her English speech for school. We sat together for about four hours, and it was amazing to hear her story and discuss her motivations to keep up with her education. Her ultimate goal is to become a UNICEF ambassador and work to stop gender-based-violence.

Since then, I have been back at the YMCA, working to prepare for our summer training program, which starts in a few weeks. I have been visiting schools, making forms, creating a curriculum, and getting very excited for the kids to come! Until then, I will be continuing to visit schools to promote ICT training, and helping teach business owners ICT classes in the morning and 9th grade ICT programs in the afternoons.

This weekend truly opened my eyes to where I am, and I strongly encourage everyone to visit the very well constructed and up-to-date Starfish website. They have photos of each girl, their dreams, and lots of amazing photographs, entries and videos about their activities.

I miss you all and have a wonderful July 4th! Maybe Marquis and I will convince some people here to celebrate with us…or just sneakily decorate the YMCA hostel with lots and lots of red, white and blue balloons. I wonder if they sell fireworks anywhere around here……….

I had a truly i…

I’ve decided that it’s too difficult to outline each of my days on here, so I think I’ll stick to a few select tidbits and stories. Many of the ones I feel like posting right now sound like those ridiculous headlines you can often find on Yahoo’s homepage- including “3-foot Dwarf Rapper Performs in Made-Up Language at Gambian Beach Hotel,” “Girl Receives 24 Mosquito Bites in 2 days,” “Development of World’s Most Unusual Sandwich- Onions, Mayonnaise, Ketchup, Fried Egg, Sausage, Cucumbers, French-Fries, and Cabbage.”

I’ll provide a few visuals regarding my living situations and my experiences instead of play-by-plays. Last night, we went to Leybato Beach, a quieter beach in comparison to the one we had gone to this weekend. It was breezy and absolutely beautiful, and when we were there around 5, local men and women were all over the beach playing soccer, running, doing pushups- it seemed like the time slot allotted for physical fitness. The hotels there house a lot of ex-Peace Corps volunteers, Ex-Pats, etc. less tourists, but still some Europeans and foreigners. Marquis joined in a co-ed, all-ages, touch-rugby game, with locals and foreigners and beginners and skilled veterans, while I watched with three girls who approached me, asking me what my name was and where I “stayed” in broken English. We are occasionally asked for money or approached relentlessly by vendors, so when this girl asked me if she could ask me a question, I reluctantly said yes. However, she asked me if I was here for a long time and if I could teach her to read. I was sort of taken aback, and didn’t know if she expected me to teach her right then and there, but she said she would come back on Sunday and if I was there I could help her with her homework. I said sure, unsure of my plans, and told her maybe. She said it didn’t matter, she came to watch the rugby every night at this time, and did not mind if I couldn’t make it.

Some of the most interesting conversations I’ve had here have been with the two men who stay at the hostel during the night- the night manager Malang and the security guard, whose name I cannot even attempt to spell. Our conversations have, thus far, ranged from Michael Jackson and Tupac to cremation and afterlife to Texas to snakes and magic. Every night I sit out there, for longer when the power is out. They have a lot of questions about America and me and my family and basketball, and I do my best to answer and to help them with their English.

In my bathroom, the toilet is broken, so in order to use any of the water from the toilet, sink or shower, I have to climb on top of the toilet and turn a nozzle on the wall, turning on the water for the room. Once I’ve done that, I can step into the shower- which pours down not in a steady stream but in dribbles and then a huge burst of water every few seconds. The shower hangs over both the sink and the toilet, so by the time I’m done, the water has sprayed pretty much all over the room. It’s a lot to wake up to in the morning, but at night, it’s pretty refreshing. Difficult though, when the power is out, which is every other night from 8PM-1AM. I’ve avoided a few near-death slipping accidents but no real disasters.

Now you’ve read this whole post and are probably still waiting to hear about the dwarf, so I will oblige. Sunday night is the big social/party night here and we went to another volunteer’s hotel at the more touristy beach. There were hundreds of people and very lively live music- covers of American songs by Aretha Franklin, Bob Marley, and many more, and as we were leaving, a small dwarf took the stage, his jeans sagging to almost his knees. He took the microphone and started vigorously rapping in a language that seemed incomprehensible to everyone in the beach bar, but everyone was enthralled nonetheless. I sort of stood there in shock for a while but when a very large woman got up and started dancing with him, I couldn’t look away. He was so determined, and not bad in terms of rhythm and beat, I just simply had no idea what he was saying. And he was three feet tall, tops.

Next time, more on my work and my experiences at the Y. Missing everyone,
Cam

I’ve decided t…

So I have been in The Gambia for about 36 hours now. Flight and travel was easy, and I was picked up at the airport by Poncelet, my boss for the summer. He took us to the YMCA, where the building I am living in and the building I will be teaching in are less than a soccer field’s distance from each other, and we were greeted by Malang, the night manager, who I have yet to see without a smile on his face. My room is on an upper floor, and has a fan, a closet, a table, a bed, and a bathroom. Everyone was incredibly friendly to us from the start (us being myself and Marquis, another volunteer traveling from San Francisco), and the next day we were welcomed into the YMCA staff.

I am working with a young group- Ponce is our leader, and then Umi, Annette and Kebah (leave room for error on the spelling here) are all in their early twenties and working for his Computer Training Center. Upstairs is Adriana, the head of his digital studio, a woman from Spain who lives here permanently. We are about 10-15 kilometers outside of the actual city of Banjul, but it’s a pretty populated area, with lots of elementary schools and taxis and buses everywhere.

After meeting with the staff yesterday, I was invited to Poncelet’s house for lunch, where his wife made us traditional Gambian fish and rice dish, and then taken to his club- The Banjul Reform Club- the oldest private club in West Africa, since 1911. The building is a large indoor auditorium with an outside patio, and his friends met us there to have drinks and chat. Two of his friends were very familiar with the US, one a graphic designer who studied at art school in LA, and the other who lived in Texas for 9 years. The best part of my day was listening to them discuss the various accents, foods, and experiences they found to be so strange in the US.

After each of them had finished about 6 or 7 drinks and an entire pack of Marlboro’s each, I walked back to the Y which is less than a city block away. A few hours later, Malang informed me Ponce was outside waiting for me, ready to take me to his usual Friday night hangout, a karaoke bar called Churchill’s, filled with locals and British retirees who I can only assume live at the beach nearby.

Today, I have been helping to administer a TOEFL test- Testing of English as a Second Language, an exam required to go to universities or colleges in the UK.

 

Pretty tired and out of it,a little shocked at how far from home I am, but excited for the adventures to come.

 

Cameron

So I have been …

48 Hours!

It’s hard to believe, but in less than 48 hours, I will be beginning the first leg of my trip with my mom to Amsterdam. I have never been to Amsterdam, Brussels or Bruges, and I am excited to get to spend some time adventuring with my mom, museum-ing, walking, photographing and eating, which happen to be four of our favorite shared activities. For now, I am finishing errands, packing, and squeezing in what I can of San Francisco. The last few days, I have alternated between giddy excitement and what can only be interpreted as a very high case of nerves. I know this is going to be an incredible experience and I just can’t wait to get started.

In case, like me, your background on The Gambia was limited until very recently:

  • Approximately 1.7 million people live in The Gambia.
  • The current president of The Gambia is His Excellency Sheikh Professor Al Haji Dr Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh.
  • The Gambia is less than 30 miles wide at its widest point.
  • The Gambia is known for their music and dance (won’t they be disappointed when they see me try…)
  • The Gambia gained independence from Britain in 1965 and was declared a republic in 1970.
  • Agriculture (peanuts, livestock, fishing and forestry) account for 30% of the country’s GDP.
  • Almost 33% of the country’s population lives below the international poverty line of $1.25 a day.
  • The Gambia is ranked 168 out of 187 on the Human Development Index, which serves as a measure of life expectancy, education and income.
  • Life expectancy at birth in The Gambia is 58.5 years.
  • The expected and mean years of schooling in The Gambia is only 0.334 years.
  • The Gambia has provided the MLS with many players over the past 10 years, and soccer is a favorite national pastime.
  • There is no national religion established, but approximately 90% of the country’s population practices Islam.
So…next time I post, I will be on my way or have already arrived in Banjul. I can’t wait, and please everyone keep in touch. See you in 8 weeks-and if anyone else out there is keeping a travel or other kind of blog this summer please send it along.
Cameron
P.S. Thank you Mike for meeting with me this week and calming my nerves a little bit, my parents for putting up with my nerves, and my personal DJ Kendyl Klein for providing me with a soundtrack for my trip.

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 ( YMCA Hostel in Banjul ) 

The Countdown Begins!

I have created this blog to serve as a travel journal for my 8 week adventure to The Gambia this summer. I just finished my sophomore year of college at CMC, so what better time to travel 6,492 miles away for a summer internship?! The Center for Human Rights Leadership at CMC has been a great help to me in terms of planning and funding my internship, and Mike McConnell, a close friend of my father’s and the former director of the Peace Corps in the Gambia, has given me wonderful guidance and advice throughout this entire process. On June 15, my mom and I will be flying to Amsterdam, Brussels and Bruges for 5 days, after which I will hop on a plane and fly to Banjul, the capital city in the smallest country on mainland Africa. For 8 weeks, I will be working with an institution very familiar to me, the YMCA, in a country and lifestyle that is definitely not.

I have secured an internship at the YMCA in Banjul, where I will also be living. The YMCA’s website can be found at http://www.ymca.gm. I will be working in the Computer Training Center and Digital Studio, helping with technology and documentary education for local children and schools, and getting to coach some basketball on the side. Needless to say, this is a once-in-a-lifetime adventure and I am counting down the minutes until I board that plane. Until then, enjoying what we call “summer” in San Francisco, probably called “fog and wind” for the rest of you.

The concept of a blog is pretty new to me, but here’s hoping I can somehow put into words my travels and experiences this summer.