July Recap…

Too much has happened in the last few weeks, so here’s a summary:

  • Saalaamalekum! Hono mbadaa? Hono subaka o? Tana ala? Hono pindaa? Greetings greetings and more greetings! The Gambia is a country where greetings are a very important part of the culture. You have to great people everywhere you go, and you have to great them multiple times, not just a simple hello or how are you. You have to ask about the person, his/her family, his/her work, if he/she slept well, etc. Even if you pass the same person multiple times in one day (say walking to and from the market), you have to greet the person with all the same greetings. After a while, it kinda becomes natural to greet a person, but I’m still getting used to all the various greetings. Sometimes when someone says something that I’ve never heard before, I just respond with my usual response “Jam tan” (which translates to “Peace Only”). Typical greeting conversation:
    • Person 1: Saalaamalekum!
    • Person 2: Maleekum Salaam!
    • Person 1: Good Morning.
    • Person 2: Peace Only.
    • Person 1: How did you sleep?
    • Person 2: Peace Only.
    • Person 1: How are the home people?
    • Person 2: They are at peace.
    • Person 1: How are you?
    • Person 2: Peace Only
  • I took part in a Gambian Naming Ceremony and was given a Gambian name. My new name is Musa Bah. Musa is my first name, and Bah is my host family surname. I’m named after one of my host brothers.
  • Rain in the Gambia is intense. Lightning and thunderstorms stir up the night, shaking up my roof, windows, and doors.
  • I have to take malaria prophylaxis meds every week for the entire duration I’m in the Gambia. I also have to filter my water and add bleach drops so that it’s drinkable.
  • Getting water everyday (or every other day in my case) is quite a chore and very heavy work. Everyday woman go to the water pump and return with a large bucket of water on top of their heads. I commend them for their hard work and diligence!
  • An ice cold Coke is heaven!
  • I wear sandals everyday, all the time, even in the rain. They are filthy!
  • I’ve relearned how to use the toilet (aka latrine).
  • I enjoy taking bucket baths in my back yard in the open air in the middle of a starry night sky.
  • I had bed bugs in my house in my training village, and Peace Corps had to fumigate the entire place and replace my bed, bed frame, and mosquito net.
  • I had a small piece of my wall broken because mushrooms started growing out of it. My house is made of mud brick, and according to my host dad, the mushrooms were probably already in the walls to begin with. They just sprouted out.
  • I found 3 snakes in my house. One was on the windowsill, the second was near my bags, and the third was in the ceiling cover crawling under the rafters. This happened when I got home from my classes one evening. My host brothers ran into my room and killed 2 of them, but couldn’t find the 3rd one in the ceiling. Needless to say, Peace Corps transferred me to a new house and new host family. I still hang out with my old host family since they’re just down the street from my new host family.  Here are pictures of my old house:
  • All the training villages are near each other, so all the trainees decided to take a bike trip to the beach one Sunday afternoon. Biking in the Gambia can be tricky, especially since most of the roads are dirt and unpaved, and right now being the rainy season, the roads are muddy and with huge puddles where cars can get stuck. It took about an hour to get to the general beach vicinity. When we arrived, we spent about 30 minutes at a store just buying cold drinks since we were so tired from the biking and the heat. The beach itself had a fish market (Tanji Fish Market), and I think it’s the largest fish market in the Gambia. It was also very smelly… fish everywhere, on the floor, in the beach, in the streets. Think Chinese fish market, but far stronger scent. Finally we get to the beach, relaxed in the water, and chilled on the sand. Still a lingering fish odor in the air, but it was a nice relaxing break from village life.
  • One of my host brothers got married, and the wedding ceremony lasted 3 days. The first day was a western wedding ceremony held at the wife’s compound. I didn’t attend this part of the wedding. The second day was a more traditional ceremony where the wife is transferred to the husband’s compound (aka my host father’s home). The third day was a day of prayers and then dancing at our compound. Each day, the ceremony lasted well into the night, the longest being on the second day, where I didn’t sleep until 3:30am since the party was going on that late.
  • I love attaya tea. Look it up… enough said.
  • Gambian food tastes a lot like Filipino food. Some of the foods include: benacin, domada, chew, gosi. One of the classes we’ve had was how to make food using a Gambian cook house. I got to help make benacin, one of my favorite dishes here. Oh, and you eat with your hands.
  • Random Fact: every year, volunteers have to complete a survey about their cultural training and experience in their country of service. Last year in 2011, the Peace Corps in the Gambia had the highest positive rating in all of Africa. Makes me really happy that volunteers in the past have ranked the Gambia PC experience with such high approval.
  • Items Needed (aka care package list): hand sanitizer, baby wipes, toilet paper, Qtips, Clif Bars, protein bars or power mixes, Gatorade drink mixes, Crystal Light drink mixes, CD or DVD of new music in MP3 format, plastic grocery bags (e.g. Ralphs , Albertsons), office/school stationary (e.g. pens, stapler, staples, envelopes, etc), hand soap, shampoo, a pair of Chacos sandals or Havaianas flip flops (mine are getting worn out), Benadryl anti-itch ointment or lotion, duck tape, granola bars, fruit strips, dried fruit, hard candies, beef jerky, bbq sauce, Splenda (sugar substitute), Starbucks Vias, coffeemate powdered creamer, current magazines, crackers and cookies, surprise me!
  • Sending packages using Flat Rate USPS boxes work the best (according to my Peace Corps Volunteer friends).
  • Tomorrow, I visit my permanent site for a couple of days. However, we’re not officially moving there just yet. We still have a month in our training villages, but we’re off to our permanent site for the rest of the week to get acquainted with the location and the people, and to meet our host families. My permanent site is on the North Bank, very near the Gambia/Senegal border. I was told that I could be in the middle of the village and literally see a tree that marks the border.

OK, that’s it for now.  Keep the messages, letters, packages, and comments coming.  Haa yesso!  (Til later!)

Saalaamalekum…

Saalaamalekum.  I’m in the Gambia.  I arrived in the country last Thursday, June 28th.  It was quite a trip: Los Angeles to San Francisco to Philadelphia to New York to Brussels (Belgium) to Freetown (Sierra Leone) to Banjul (The Gambia).  I was in Philly for 2 days for Staging (aka Orientation).  It was great finally meeting the rest of the Peace Corps The Gambia invitees.  After we turned in our registration paperwork in Philly, we officially became Peace Corps Trainees (PCTs).  Yay!

I love being in the Gambia with such a great group of people!  The fellow trainees are so nice and friendly.  We’re a small group… only 17 total, but everyone is very welcoming and open, and a few just crack me up with their jokes and sarcasm.  I think I found a great family here.  I mean, I’ve only known them for a couple days, but everyone’s already watching everyone else’s back.

I don’t really know where to begin in trying to describe the Peace Corps The Gambia experience. The first thing you notice about the country when you step off the plane is the heat.  It’s just damn hot here.  And humid!  You feel sticky all the time, but it’s something that you just get used to.  The Peace Corps host country nationals are very nice.  They smile a lot and joke a lot, and are very encouraging.  They do their best to make us all feel comfortable and at home. Depending on where I’m at, either at the Peace Corps house or the village resort where we do some of our training, electricity can be constant or very sporadic.  Same goes for running faucet water.  Internet is only available at the Peace Corps office and house, but none at the resort.  The food is excellent in The Gambia.  I’ve enjoyed every meal so far, and there hasn’t been anything that I didn’t want to eat.  The Peace Corps also provides us with lots of food, so we don’t go hungry at all.  Gambian food tastes very much like Filipino food.

For the past several days, we were learning greetings and leave taking phrases in 3 of the main Gambian languages: Mandinka, Wolof, and Pulaar.  Yesterday, we finally got assigned our language, as well as our training village.  I was assigned Pulaar.  I’m quite happy with the language I was assigned, but I wish there were more people in our cohort that was learning the same language.  Only 3 of us are learning Pulaar, and the majority are learning Mandinka and Wolof.

Tomorrow, we head out to visit schools to shadow.  We will be talking to the headteacher and looking at the facilities.  I’m a bit nervous, but we’ll see how things go.  We were informed about the Gambia school system, but I still don’t really know what to expect.  I hope I don’t get overwhelmed.

Haa yeeso!  (“Till later” in Pulaar)