"The · darkest · thing · about · Africa · has · always · been · our · ignorance · of · it"
All views expressed here are mine and do not represent those of the Peace Corps
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Typed Saturday, April 12, 2009:
As I type this, I am sitting in an undisclosed location, currently in hiding from most of the people I know in the
Typed Monday, April 13, 2009:
Sunday morning, after breakfast burritos and fruit salad (courtesy of Anna, Claire’s roommate), I put on my fanciest Gambian outfit, and Claire drove me to Mountain Range Church. We timed our arrival in the parking lot for just after the service would have started at 10 am. I hid low in the passenger seat and we awaited the call saying it was safe to come in.
Just then, we got a text message from
We pulled back up at the church just in time to see Stephen and Chelsea walk in the door. Claire parked and I resumed my hidden position slouched down in the passenger seat. We were just in time—not five minutes later, we got the call that it was safe for me to come in. The church secretary, DJ, and Pastor Dan’s wife, Linda, were a coordinated team to rush me in the door and straight to the women’s restroom to hide out for a few more seconds.
Then, it was time, and DJ ushered me to the side door of the sanctuary, and I walked in.
Pastor Dan was standing facing the congregation, with Mom and Dad on his left and Stephen and Chelsea on his right. As it turned out, Stephen and Chelsea were positioned slightly facing me, so Stephen’s eyes bugged out almost immediately, but he stayed silent. As I walked toward Mom and Dad, who had their backs to me, Pastor Dan talked about how Easter is a time for surprises and answered prayers, and that something they were looking forward was going to happen a little sooner than they thought.
Mom & Dad were so focused on the pastor that they didn’t notice I’d walked up and was standing just behind them. After Pastor Dan finally motioned for them to look behind them, Mom turned around.
“OH MY GOSH!!!!!!!!!!” She started crying and grabbed me, and hugged me so long I began to feel bad for Dad, who was standing there waiting his turn. Dad was teary and, while Mom was quite vocal, he was speechless. They immediately harassed Stephen for helping me, and were quite surprised to learn that my co-conspirator was NOT my brother, but his fiancée! I went to high-five
Once things calmed down a bit, I was given a chance to thank the church for their support and help, both with Peace Corps and this surprise, and Dad was given a chance to respond, but it took him a while to say anything.
The rest of the morning (especially at brunch) was spent straightening out things I’d told them. Things like no, my phone wasn’t stolen—just couldn’t have you call after I left
So, with Julie checking my email and Facebook (to delete messages from PCVs blurting things like “HEY HOW’S
Thanks for all the help!
First of all, click here for new pics!During my two years in Africa, with minimal supervision and only a mildly annoying amount of paperwork, I've apparently forgotten that, as a branch of the US government, the Peace Corps must kill the forests of small nations with the paperwork hoops you have to jump through.
The application process was a long, ridiculous series of forms with numbers like 423-5C instead of names ("Doctor's Exam"), followed by follow-up forms with occasionally absurd questions. "Why didn't you tell us you had a thyroid imbalance? We're putting your medical clearance on hold." "Um, I didn't tell you about my thyroid imbalance because I don't HAVE one."
Leaving the PC is a similar process. You're given a book with sections for nearly every staff member in the office to sign. It looks easy enough, but that's a trap designed to draw you in and make you think PC actually WANTS you to return to America. The reality looks more like this:
- Try to pick up the check for 1/3 of my resettlement allowance from Juliana. (The other 2/3 comes in the mail after you return to the US.) Am told I'm not allowed to do that until I've settled up financial stuff with Peace Corps
- Pick up a form from Juliana that says how much money PC owes me and a form from Fatou that says how much money I owe Peace Corps.
- Go to the cashier to try to settle up, then get her signature on the appropriate line
- Cashier tells me that the form I got from Fatou has to first be taken to Juliana to be put into the system (the first form was a typed document, too--apparently just not typed in the right format)
- Go to Juliana to get the form put into the system
- Juliana passes the form to Yaya to put in the system
- Wait for Yaya to have a chance to put it in the system
- Yaya finishes the form, but by that time (10 am-ish), Patti, who has to sign off on the form, has stepped out to meet with or show around (not sure) the new British woman on staff
- Go back to the transit house to do other things, as I am now in a deadlock until Patti returns
- Return to the office around 2 pm, haunt Yaya, who tells me that Patti is still not back
- Pester Yaya several more times, finally find out around 3:45 that Patti is back
- By 4:00, Yaya is able to get the form signed by Patti
- Return to the cashier's office to turn in the forms and finally settle up
- Cashier's office is closed. Oh yeah. The cashier only works til 3.
- National holiday declared the next day. Stake out the office anyway, trying to catch any PC staff member who decides to drop by work for an hour. End up spending 7 hours on the couch by the front door, first waiting for Juliana (who I pressure into giving me the check, b/c my financial stuff is mostly done and who knows how many more holidays there will be before I leave) and then for the country director, with whom I'm supposed to meet at noon but who forgets and thinks it was 1 pm. Am unable to leave said couch except for rushed trips to the bathroom 2 feet away. Desperately hungry but can't go get food, less I miss someone. Fellow volunteer finally takes pity on me and goes to buy me food.
- Run into Patti, too, and express worry about getting all the appropriate signatures and forms done with all the holiday declaring going on. Patti is helpful in coming up with a back-up plan, but then tells me, "that's why I tell people they should really come in and start on the whole process as soon as you get to Kombo." Silently seethe inside and don't mention that I could have finished everything I'm stressing about if she hadn't been out of the office for 6 hours the previous day. DO mention that I arrived in Kombo Tuesday night and then spent nearly all of Wednesday and Thursday AT the office, running up and down the two flights of stairs.
When I sat down to watch the movie Bolt yesterday, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
I'd never heard of the movie before seeing it. Had I, I might have guessed that the plot goes something like this:
- Girl has super bond with dog, who thinks he's a superhero created to protect the girl
- Dog takes himself too seriously and is overprotective
- Girl and dog get separated
- Girl sad
- Dog wants to find his "person," but in the meantime, is learning how to be a normal dog. This includes learning how to play with dog toys, befriending other animals, riding with his head out the window, and living in a regular house, none of which he'd done before.
- Dog doesn't understand why he was separated from his person and begins to wonder if she really loved him
- Dog and his person are dramatically reunited, girl decides to give dog a more normal life from now on
Does any of this sound like someone you know?
This is not a good movie to watch if you've been in a situation where your safety and mental health hinged on your overprotective dog for two years but now you're separated and your dog is off learning how to be a normal dog.
Let me just say, it's embarrassing to cry while watching a Disney cartoon. Especially in the first five minutes.
It's frightening how often my blog entries seem to need an introduction of "I swear, I am not making this up."
On that note, I swear I am not making this up:
I have one pair of tennis shoes that I brought to The Gambia with me two years ago. As it turns out, PCVs here live in flip-flops, the $1 pair you can buy anywhere in the village, and just throw away when they're worn down. So my tennis shoes have sat basically unused except when I was flying somewhere (England, home, Senegal) or when I was playing softball at WAIST in February.
Kombo is a little more tolerable temperature-wise than my site, though, so yesterday, I decided to don tennis shoes.
The following is a blow-by-blow account:
Me *talking to the other Beth, picks shoe up and gets a whiff of it*: Whoa!
Beth J: What?
Me *picks shoe up and smells it gingerly*
Beth J: What are you doing?
Me: It smells bad!
Beth J: So why are you smelling it?
Me: I'm trying to figure out what the deal is... *begins examining the shoe*
Beth J *jokes*: What, something died in there?
Me *pulls shoe open and looks inside*: A MOUSE!!! A MOUSE DIED IN THERE! AAAA! GROSS!
Beth J: Wait, you're serious?
Me: Yes! It died in there and it's been decomposing since then! EW!
I then had to extract said decomposing mouse from my shoe, and after seeing how many bits of decomposed mouse were left even after I'd pulled the body out, I realized two things:
a) There was no way I could get my shoe clean enough (not to mention deodorized enough) to wear again, without a washing machine, something I haven't used in two years except when traveling outside Gambia
b) I'm not sure even a machine could've saved that shoe. Remember, the most recent time I can vouch for that shoe NOT having a dead mouse was two months ago!
This left me with no choice but to throw my tennis shoes away. End result? I'll be flying through freezing cold (to me) New York and Denver wearing flip-flops.
I'm going to freeze.
I woke up before 6 am today, and couldn't sleep, so I decided I'd just come to the PC office for a while.
When you COS (Close Of Service), as part of the medical clearing process, you are allowed to photocopy and take any part of your PC medical record you wish. Incidentally, this is also the first chance you get to actually see firsthand what was written about you.
I hereby challenge you all to a Mancala tournament upon my return to the States.
What's Mancala, you ask?
It's that game that everyone's seen but most people don't know how to play:
I learned how to play it about a month ago, and sat there with a few other volunteers who'd gotten equally hooked, wistfully discussing how cool it would be to get a mancala board hand-carved here.
Then yesterday, I was at the Fajara Craft Market (which my parents and I found when they were here) and discovered one. I like the Fajara Craft Market, because it has mostly the same stuff as the other craft markets here, but is less well known, so people are more pressed to make a sale and I can get much lower prices there. (A tourist can't, and sometimes when I hear the prices they're bargaining at, I have to resist the impulse to jump in and tell them they're being charged triple. But hey, it's the price you pay for coming to a country without any grasp of the language or culture. End soapbox.)
It started at 800 dalasi (over $30), but I got it down to half that. I'm really excited because Mancala's a great game (easy to learn but lots of strategy), plus the set makes a cool looking souvenir. I bought the really big one that'd make a cool display piece in the middle of the room or something. Probably my favorite souvenir from Gambia (and I've bought a lot of them). It's a good thing I have a bit of wiggle room in my luggage.
So, starting next week, I'm going to teach you all how to play!
****************************In other news, last night was Peace Corps' third open mic. I did a couple things, but they had to be a capella as, alas, I've sorta set the guitar aside during my PC service. (I brought my guitar, but I'd get it out to play when I was feeling stressed out by Gambia, only every time I played my front door would be mobbed, which just stressed me out more.) It was cool though. PCV's are, seemingly by definition, a very artsy and musical bunch. (Intimidatingly so!) Cass usually reads a poem or two about PC life, and they always make me teary. In November she read one called "Touch," about how as PCV's we get almost no physical contact and so are constantly wrestling our host siblings for SOME human touch, though it's still not enough. Last night she read one about how we're leaving the people who understand our stories and what we've gone through the past two years for people who are just going to nod and look at us blankly. (Nothing personal to people back home! That's just how it is.)
And finally, as of approximately this week, the new must have fashion item in Kombo iiiiiiisssssss *drumroll please*...........
The propeller hat.
I know, I know, you have that picture in your head of what I mean by propeller hat, but you're telling yourself "that can't be what she means..." Allow me to clear up the confusion:
Yes. You are correct.
It's so bad that I was late getting somewhere because I'd gotten in a taxi whose driver decided to interrupt the route to drive in circles trying to go around to different vendors for the best deal on a propeller hat. I eventually got so mad I yelled at him in Mandinka, got out of the car, and walked the rest of the way, even after the driver pulled back up in his propeller hat and tried to get me back in the car.
I will NOT be bringing home a souvenir propeller hat. So don't even ask.
Quick! When was the last time you took a sledgehammer to something?
My answer: Thursday.
Backstory: In Kombo (the urban coastal area), Peace Corps has a transit house, where volunteers can stay while they're in town to go to the PC office or the bank... or the beach. We call it the stodge.
Inside the stodge's walled compound is a small house in the back. Currently, that house is being used for a few PCVs working in the Kombo area to live in permanently.
It hasn't previously been used for volunteer housing, so it's only recently been remodeled and brought up to PC housing code. This means that some of the bugs haven't exactly been worked out.
The house is sort of fortress like, with bars on all the windows and metal doors riveted to the house. Even the lock is super heavy-duty. Which wouldn't be a problem if it worked correctly.
As it turns out, there have been occasions where the lock has jammed and people have been locked in the house. They had to jimmy the lock around quite a bit before getting out. Not a huge problem, so long as the house isn't, say, on fire.
However, Thursday night, Beth J (the other Beth) tried to get into her locked house and failed. She called a few other PCVs over for help, and we all took turns jimmying and jiggling and jerking. No luck. It was late at night, so we decided not to call the hard-working Gambian PC staff member whose job it is to fix these things. Instead, we took things into our own hands.
Someone found a hammer, and we decided we were going to just bang the lock out of the door. One by one, Alicia, Buya (real name Amy, but we all call her by her Gambian name, Buya, pronounced "Boo-yah"... great, huh?), Pete, Beth J and I pounded at the lock -- great stress relief! Alicia was looking wistfully through the window into the house, where the fridge held her precious stash of Thin Mints cookies. She was perhaps a little more motivated than the rest of us to get inside...
We continued making progress, having thoroughly mangled the lock and loosened it a bit. But Buya went for reinforcements and returned with a sledgehammer. Yes!
It was right about then that Ellie came home and found us destroying her front door. "Umm, guys...? I have the key...."
Finally, we decided to ask the guards for help. Gambians are great at inventive solutions to the weirdest situations. Also, they're stronger than the mostly female group we had.
When they came over and we explained the situation, their first question was, "well do you have the key?" They (like Ellie, apparently) were pretty sure that these stupid toubabs had lost the key, and decided to bang the door down rather than wait for the spare. We explained (in both English and Mandinka) that yes, we had the key, but the lock was jammed and the key didn't work, so we were just knocking the lock out of the door.
Still in doubt, the guards asked for the key, which we handed over, then watched as they tried to open the door. It was difficult to hold back the snickers when one of the guards informed us, "well, the lock is bent. That's why the key's not working."
Ok, yes, the lock is bent now...
But that's because we've been at it with a sledgehammer for the past half hour, making a ruckus that the guards couldn't possibly not have heard!
So we explained, again, that the lock was bent by our sledgehammer after the key didn't work. Eventually, we convinced the guards to just start swinging, and they successfully busted the door apart and voila! We were in!
As for the girls living in the house, they're relieved to have that lock off the door, and are requesting a fire escape be made if PC admin wants to put another industrial strength lock on there. A wise decision.
I feel differently about Gambia different days.
Today is a "punch Gambia in the face" day.
Our president is a Jola, that's why.
See, Gambians identify more strongly with their tribe (Mandinka, Wolof, Jola, etc.) than with their nationality as Gambians. As such, most still fall into predictable stereotypes about their tribe. The Serahules are businessmen, the Fulas are the most humble (having been everyone else's slaves a few generations back)... and the Jolas? They like to party.
I don't just mean once in a while. I mean that Jolas will party it up at the slightest provocation. So what happens when you put a Jola in the most powerful seat in the country?
He declares national holidays at the drop of a hat.
This is great for Gambians with office jobs, who often find out late at night that they don't have to work the next morning. It's a problem for anyone who ever wants to accomplish anything. Peace Corps volunteers are constantly trekking into Basse or Kombo to withdraw their monthly living allowance, only to discover a holiday's been declared so, surprise! The bank's closed!
This is an especially huge problem if you arrive in Basse or Kombo without enough leftover cash to feed yourself or get back to site. Because then you're stranded... and hungry.
I once biked all the way to Basse to go to the bank, only to discover that a holiday had been declared because Senegal and Gambia had played each other in a football game and Gambia had... won, you say? No, no, no, silly... It was a draw. So yes. Our eminent prez shut down the country to celebrate Gambia's draw in a football game.
So back to why I want to punch Gambia in the face today.
Gambia's under-17 team is off somewhere for a football game that was yesterday. (I don't care enough to know who or where they were playing.) They actually won, this time, so last night, a national holiday was declared. It's for today through possibly as long as Sunday. But then Monday is when they return to Gambia. The last time this happened, the day the team returned was also declared a holiday. Oh! And next Friday through Monday is declared one long holiday for Good Friday through the day after Easter. (Did I mention this is a Muslim country?)
So, in short, despite the fact that I still have A WEEK AND A HALF left, I have a grand total of THREE DAYS in which to do ALL of my medical checks and Close Of Service paperwork. Because even the PC office is forced to close for every last ridiculous Gambian holiday.
This is a problem.
And yet... I've been here for two years... I should've been able to foresee this type of thing by now.
*punches Gambia in the face*
In a miraculous turn of events, the Basse internet cafe is actually working today! This is doubly miraculous, because a) I've been here at least five times this month, sometimes waiting up to 45 minutes, before finding out the internet doesn't feel like cooperating that day, and b) the Basse government powers-that-be have decided they can no longer afford the fuel that powers the generators that produce Basse's intermittent electricity. They have resolved the problem by randomly leaving sections of Basse powerless occasionally. Makes it hard to use a computer...
So anyway, I can't promise that my luck will hold out much longer, so I'll make this quick and give you the highlights of my life right now:
- I'm pretty sure I have worms. The faint-of-heart won't want to know how I know, so I'll skip that part. Let's just say I had to send some interesting "samples" to the PC med unit with the PC mailrun car on Sunday. PC screens and treats all that kind of stuff when you finish service anyway. I probably have schistostomiasis too, which is kinda fun because I remember discussing it as this rarely heard of disease in my college biology courses. I get to go home and be the person who's had every exotic disease ever. If I were a girl scout, I'd have earned my "weird disease" badge several times over. (No, such a badge does not actually exist, to my knowledge.)
- I shipped out half my belongings on mailrun to other volunteers in-country. I sold it all to make a few hundred bucks, which I'll put toward paying back Minty's shipping. So now my house is so empty it practically echoes. I can't help thinking though, that the wide open floor would be great for a dance party.
- I get picked up in a PC car on Monday! That's when I'll say my goodbyes to my host fam, probably crying so much that it'll scare the children and they won't want to hug me. Then Monday night will be in Basse for a farewell party, at which we'll make smoothies with the new PC Basse house blender. That is, if the government deigns to grant us electricity that night.
- By now, due to Gambian gossip circles (the only thing which outdoes the Peace Corps gossip circle), pretty much the entire country knows I shipped my dog to America. The image I've tried to convey is that I put him in a box and shipped him as luggage on top of the plane. (Ask any Gambian where luggage goes--on top of the vehicle!) I make sure to reiterate to them that I did not have to buy him a plane ticket because he's luggage, so no I will not buy you a ticket to America either. And no, he will not die in the box. Yes, I'm sure.
Despite having shipped Minty almost two months ago, most people seem to envision him still floating out in the middle of the Atlantic on a boat, being smuggled illegally into the US. They are shocked to hear he's already at my parents' house.
Just yesterday, my host father (who I swear I've told eight times already) gave me the "what?!? He entered there already??" To prove it (because he was clearly in doubt), I started regaling him with tales of Minty's new life. "So, I have this chair in America, right? [I don't know the Mandinka word for couch.] And it's my chair, but it's at my parents' house. And even I never let my dog on that chair! Even my America dog! But now, my parents call, and they tell me 'your dog sleeps on your chair', and I say 'bii lai wo lai tii lai'!" [That translates to some cross between "WHAT?!?!" and "Oh no you didn't!"]
Host fam: "He sleeps on your chair?!?!"
Me: "On my CHAIR!! Even here, I did not let him on my chair! And even my America dog, I did not allow her on my chair! I tell them 'no, I do not want dogs on my chair,' but they say, 'but he likes your chair TOO much--and he is sleeping.' Bii lai!!"
Host fam: "On your CHAIR?!?"
Me: "On my chair!"