HIV/AIDS Bike Trek quick recap…

From Nov 17 to Nov 21, 30 Peace Corps volunteers biked to 4 villages in the North Bank and Central River Regions of the Gambia in a Peace Corps event known as the HIV/AIDS Bike Trek.  Partnering with the National AIDS Secretariat (NAS), the Agency for the Development of Women and Children (ADWAC), and local Gambian students, teachers, and village community members, PCVs taught grade 8 and 9 students about HIV and AIDS in Njawara (NBR), Njaba Kunda (NBR), Panchang (CRR), and Kaur (CRR).  Started in 2010, this annual event focuses on increasing students’ knowledge of HIV and AIDS and strengthening their public outreach skills so that they can have an impact on the fight against stigma and discrimination associated with HIV and AIDS.  By educating Gambian youths before they become sexually active, this project also hopes to reduce new infections rates and prevent HIV/AIDS from becoming a national epidemic.  Over the course of the trek, the project reached over 500 students, but by having many volunteers present and staying in these 4 villages for several days, entire communities and schools were sensitized about HIV/AIDS.

I was in charge of the NBR team, and another PCV was in charge of the CRR team.  Aside from just lecturing about HIV/AIDS, there were many games, skits/dramas, singing, and dancing during the trek.

There are hundreds of photos and videos to still sort through, but here’s a taste.  Below are photos from the NBR team.

For more information on the bike trek, check out the Facebook website:  https://www.facebook.com/HivBikeTrekPCTG

Fulas on Human Planet…

I’ve been showing my host family episodes of Human Planet on my laptop… to teach them a little about geography and expose them to other cultures and peoples of the world. Tonight, we watched an episode on Deserts. The episode showed people from both Mali and Niger, and it turns out that the people they were highlighting were Fula people… and I was able to understand some what they were saying despite being a different dialect of the Fula language that I know. My host family understood them perfectly! It was so cool being able to listen and understand an African language on a TV show 🙂  Totally something that I wasn’t expecting.

Here’s some info about the Fula culture:
http://tariganter.wordpress.com/2011/09/17/who-are-the-fulani-people-their-origins/

World AIDS Day 2013…

Sunday, December 1st.  I was in Kombo after a week of meetings and also celebrating Thanksgiving with other Peace Corps volunteers.  I took the 8am express bus heading east to Soma (that bus, by the way, fills up by 7:15am and its like a Black Friday Sale every time you try to board it).  My counterpart for the HIV/AIDS Bike Trek was in Soma for the World AIDS Day celebration.  He works for the National AIDS Secretariat, and he invited me to check out the event.  After 3 hours on the bus, I arrived in Soma just as the World AIDS Day parade was about to get started.  Not only did I find my counterpart at the event, several other Peace Corps volunteers and trainees were on hand.  One volunteer was part of the parade.  She lives near Soma and works with many health organizations nearby.  The other volunteers and trainees just so happened to be in Soma that day, not realizing there was an event going on.  It was a lot of fun getting to hang out with the PCVs/PCTs at this event, and also listening to the HIV/AIDS talks at the event.  My project, the HIV/AIDS Bike Trek, wrapped up just 2 weeks ago.  In the project 30 PCVs biked to 4 villages teaching grade 7-11 students about HIV/AIDS and ways to speak out against stigma and discrimination associated with HIV/AIDS.  Overall, these last few weeks have been a good 2 weeks in terms of HIV/AIDS awareness and learning.

Note: More info on the HIV/AIDS Bike Trek in a later post.

Groundnuts…

It’s groundnut season here in the Gambia (in the US and many other parts of the world, groundnuts are better known as peanuts).  You can find them everywhere here… sold at the street corners, kids munching on them while walking around the village and town, farmers harvesting them, they’re even littered on the floor of my high school computer lab (Rule #1… No Food in the Computer Lab!  Damn those disobeying students!)…

One day at home, I was sitting around in the evening and my host dad decides that he wanted some groundnuts to munch on.  He had a bush of harvested nuts just sitting around from the farm, and he decided to roast them.  I knew people sometimes roasted groundnuts by burning them over a fire, but I had never seen it done before.  (I’ve been here for over a year, and my family never burned groundnuts last year… they just ate them raw all the time.)  So my host dad just takes the bush of picked nuts, then lights them on fire with a match… and well… the result was some very yummy roasted groundnuts.

I’ve been eating lots of freshly roasted groundnuts ever since.  Last week, I even went to the groundnut farm and helped with some of the harvesting.  The groundnut plant was already pulled from the soil, and they were all piled up in the middle of the farm.  The next step in the harvesting process is to separate the nuts from the roots.  To do that, you have these 2 long sticks with a hook on one end.  You take these sticks and you just hit the bundles of roots to separate the nuts.  It’s easy to do at first, but when you add in the hot sun, dust, dirt, and the constant banging vibrations on your hands and wrists from hitting the groundnut plant, and it can get very tiring and make your hands very sore.  Nonetheless, going to the farm with my host father and learning to thresh the nuts was a really nice bonding moment.

In the Pulaar language, the process of threshing the nuts is called baccugol (pronounced “baa-chu-gol”).

Check out the video and pictures roasting groundnuts over a flame:

I’m back!

It’s been a very, very long time since I last updated my blog.  Since my last post, lots of things have happened, and hopefully I can write a more detailed blog post about each major event later.  In short, however, the school year has resumed (and my counterpart at the school quit at the end of last month).  My project, the HIV/AIDS Bike Trek (teaching students about HIV/AIDS across the Gambia), had its “training of trainers” weekend in Sept, and the Bike Trek itself is next week.  I traveled to Europe to see my family and friends in October.  I’m happy to report that I gained 5 lbs during that vacation, but I’m sad to say that I’ve probably lost it already.  But I’m super excited that Thanksgiving is around the corner :O nom nom nom…

In the meantime, here’s a little video that I made using my GoPro camera. It’s of me biking in the bush to my village. The video is a bit shaky because of the bumpy/sandy roads. Enjoy!

Storms, Falling Fences, and Flying Roofs

Two times in the span of a week, my corrugate fence and grass roof has been damaged by strong wind and rain storms.

The first time it happened was last Wednesday, July 3rd. It was early evening, around 6pm. From afar, there was darkness. My host family knew a storm was coming, so they were getting ready for it by moving everything inside… the animals, the buckets of water, the sitting mats on the floor. In the Gambia, storms tend to begin up country in the east and move their way west to the coast. I was standing outside in my backyard looking at the easterly distance. Clouds were forming, and close by, bearing straight towards me, was a cloud of brown and grey. Unlike other storms where clouds were grey, dark blue, or near black, seeing the brown clouds gave me an unsettling feeling. And it was moving fast.

I decided to go inside and just as I was about to close the doors, a huge gust of wind, dirt, leaves, and sticks knocked my door shut. And then I heard a loud crash. That instant, I knew my corrugate fence had fallen down and was now banging at the wall of my house. For a good 15 to 20 minutes, the winds kept pounding away. Then, the rains began. It didn’t start off as a trickle. No. It was as if someone turned on a shower and started spraying my house. Winds, rain, flapping corrugate… I was a bit shocked and nervous about what would happen next. And then I found out. Drip. Drip. Drip. My grass roof started dripping small drops of water onto my rice bag ceiling (ok, it’s not really rice bags… more like cement bag). Thankfully, however, the drops weren’t frequent and so my ceiling was able to stay fairly dry throughout the night. Later that evening after the rains stopped, my host dad, my neighbor, and I assessed the damage. It was bad, but not too bad. My fence had fallen and a few of the wooden sticks holding it up had been unearthed. Corrugate that was once fastened to the sticks were now just dangling by one or two nails. The top of my grass roof looked like the hair of a person who stuck his head out the window of a moving car.

The following morning, the 4th of July of all days, my host dad and I fixed my corrugate fence. We repositioned all the sticks to the ground and made sure they were better secured, and then we nailed all the corrugate into place. My host dad had some extra smaller, thinner sticks, and we used those to temporarily lean against my fence so that it would not fall should another strong wind come try to knock it back down. The better solution is getting more strong sticks, fixing them to the ground, and nailing them to the corrugate, but for now, since there are no extra sticks available, this would have to do. Later in the afternoon, my host dad, another neighbor, and I worked on re-roofing my house. I’ve never seen how grass roofs were made, and this was a cool thing to witness. I didn’t really do much because my host dad wanted to make sure that it was made correctly (and I’d probably mess it up), so I just took pictures and videos of my dad and neighbor tying up bundles of straw together.

Then, they rolled it up, went up to the roof, and unrolled it at the areas where there was damage.

Afterwards, a straw cap was attached and everything was tied together with the existing grass roof. So that was that. My roof and fence were fixed, and all’s well that ends well. Right? WRONG!

Today (July 8), biking back from town and heading home, I saw darkness in the distance, AGAIN! Ok, so it’s dark, it doesn’t look too bad. And there were no brown clouds in the sky. That’s a good thing! But wait, the darkness was moving towards me fast. And I was moving towards it on my bike! Bam! I’m still at the outskirts of the town and halfway to my village. I still had about a km to ride before reaching home, but the winds were kicking up so much sand and debris that I had to walk my bike. A man rushing to his home called me and told me to come to his house, and I did not argue. Just in the nick of time! The winds decided to kick it up a notch and even the corrugate roof of the man’s house started to rattle and lift off its supports. And just like last time, the rains eventually arrived, pounding on the corrugate roof as if rocks were falling onto it instead of water. I sat in the man’s house with his family for who knows how long. 30 minutes? 1 hour? I’m not sure. I even was served lunch and ate in the food bowl with his family. I was there for some time! And the entire time, I kept wondering… is my house and fence ok? Finally, the rains stopped. I thanked my hosts numerous times for their hospitality and generosity, and I rushed home on my bike. By the time I pulled into my compound and entered the compound doors, I realized that I was watching a rerun of last week’s storm. My fence was partially knocked down, but thankfully, mostly still standing. However, the top of my roof had flown and was now on the floor next to my house. My host mother was outside assessing the damage, and she was even kind enough to tell me that she took everything that was in my backyard (my propane gas tank, my bucks and soap) and put it into her house for safe keeping. And my neighbors were already at the scene making a new grass rooftop for me! I was afraid what the inside of my house would look like. I unlocked the door and to my relief, everything was pretty much OK. My rice bag ceiling prevented the rainwater from making a mess of my house. There was a small puddle of water trapped on top of the rice bags, so I poked a small hole to drain it into a bucket. There was also dust everywhere – on my shelves, trunks, bed, the floor – but at least my things were undamaged. To keep it short, my neighbors fixed my roof, and I fixed my fence. Everything now seems back to normal, but we’ll see what happens after the next wind and rain storm.

Health Mural Paintings…

From May 24-29, I finally organized and executed a small mural painting project at the Farafenni hospital (AFPRC General Hospital). I was able to get five Peace Corps volunteers and a village community member to come and help me with the drawing and painting. Kathy, another PCV that lives somewhat nearby, let me use her paints and drawing materials to make these murals. Three of the murals were painted in the hospital’s Pediatric Ward, and two were painted in the Maternity Ward. According to the comments from patients, nurses, and other hospital staff members, the murals added a lot of color and character to the wards.

Pediatric:
Mural 1: Road to Health
Mural 2: Proper Hand Washing
Mural 3: Proper Wound Care

Maternity:
Mural 4: Exclusive Breastfeeding
Mural 5: Proper Hand Washing

Thank you Nichole, Jackie, Sebestian, Peter, Maggie, and Alagie for helping me with this project, and thank you Kathy for the painting supplies.