Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Student ponders life in The Gambia vs. life in Fairbanks

Samantha Straus (right) in The Gambia.

By Samantha Straus
SNRAS Master's International student and Peace Corps Volunteer

Off the grid and off the main paved road, in a ‘dry’ mud hut, (not cabin) you’ll find UAF MIP student now known as Roxe (Rowhee) Ceesay living in a small West African Wolof village of some 250-300 residents. From Alaska to Africa you could say. And while the climate here is somehow stiflingly different and the mosquitoes a bit more potent, potentially carrying that fatal cerebral coma causing malaria, I find my life here to be not all that different from the one I left back in Alaska.

Instead of warming myself, I spend my time with a hand fan trying to keep cool to avoid heat rash and the many other skin infections catered specifically during the rainy season. And while I’m not starting the fire or even making one for heat, I discourage the use of plastic kindling which does burn hotter and faster, while also hurting lungs, soil, and atmosphere, by shredding the cardboard from care packages, and splurged-on mac and cheese boxes etc. (which are sold here for about $1!) for my host family’s cooking needs.

Instead of a slop bucket I have a Mauritanian made plastic wash bowl and kettle embossed with the Islamic crescent moon and star. The bowl holds considerably less than a slop bucket (maybe 12 L), but serves the purpose of both kitchen and bathroom sink. It comes with a draining lid to discourage the practice of dipping hands in dirty grey soapy water. The common hand washing practice, if practiced at all, is to shake dirty hands into a bowl of clean water. We then proceed to eat, with our right hands, (not the left! The left is reserved for wiping, if you know what I mean) out of one large serving bowl, not individual bowls or plates. When I moved into my permanent site, I gifted another Mauritanian wash bowl to my host family with whom I live, to encourage better hand washing practices, like simply washing with running water from the spout of the plastic kettle.

Unlike Fairbanks however, when it’s time to dump the slop water, it doesn’t leave pink brownish stains in mounds of snow, stubbornly waiting until spring breakup to disappear back into the thawing soil. When we dump our laundry or hand washing water here, the plants or ducks reval in it, soap and all, to get a nice drink or wet their feathers in the relenting heat of the day.

Like Fairbanks too we have a window of about four months or so to grow our crops, depending on the rains! In theory it is possible to grow year round here. However in some areas, especially up country and farther from the river, the water table can be as much as thirty or more meters in depth. Some of these areas further require either strong woman power (water duties in West Africa are predominantly the responsibility of women, rarely will you ever if ever see a man fetching water for his family) to pull twenty plus liters (~5 US gallons) up the length of the well. Some villages have wells so deep that horses are employed to walk back and forth from the open well to lift water from the dry depths of the nearly desertified soil.

The Japanese and Taiwanese governments have assisted several villages throughout this country with solar powered boreholes or taps. Fortunately I get to benefit from one of these projects where my water hauling is almost as easy as it was in Fairbanks if not easier as you never have to worry about freezing, and the tap is within walking distance, maybe less than 50 meters, to my hut. Of course here I’m the one hauling the water and not my car, but like I said, it’s not too far and I’m sure it’s a good strength building exercise!

Because we have solar powered taps, the pump is only unlocked for use in the morning and evening. Both of these times correspond with compound sweeping time where women will sweep the dirt around the compound to make nice manicured looking… dirt. This may sound ridiculous and was perceived as such by me initially. But now having lived here for a while (almost seven months in village and nine in region!) I have come to appreciate this practice as it clears any and all manure and food scraps left over from harvesting which can help to reduce the number of house flies which is typically high in village. There is no Waste Management infrastructure to speak of. Instead of a transfer station there are communal dumping spots which experience their fair share of scavengers, besides just from goats! Also like in Fairbanks, and perhaps even more so, people will use an item and re-use that item again and again until it is completely exhausted. Scrap pieces of fabric become rope or sections of a blanket (aka quilt), oil containers become water containers which become bike baskets, which become watering ‘cans’ which become vegetable nurseries, which become fuel for the cook fire, etc. and so forth. Trash that does not get used or re-used, or after it’s use has been exhausted, gets burnt permeating the proximal area with toxic aromas of burning plastic and metal.

Perhaps the most reminiscent thing to home is the beanie style hats worn by men. Part of Muslim culture is covering the head. So even at 80-90˚F, you’ll see men wearing impressively warm beanies both traditional and non-traditional (as from all those donated clothes coming to West Africa from Europe and the States. Those donated clothes are sold in piles on the streets for about fifteen US cents).

Besides comparing and contrasting The Gambia to Fairbanks, an entertaining but mostly painful game as Fairbanks tends to win more often than not, especially in the climate category, I’ve been working on small projects, slow slow as we say here, both with Gambian counterparts and fellow volunteers. Due to the small size of the country and thusly small number of total Peace Corps volunteers (averaging around 80), a number of projects here are large scale involving several volunteers from the various sectors of environment, health, and education. Those of us interested will work together to sensitize large areas of the country on projects that include HIV/AIDS sensitizations, gender and development including empowering women and encouraging men to work with and support women as partners (called MAP or men as partners), environmental and global awareness, community leadership, healthy lifestyles, etc.

One downfall to these large scale projects is that it often takes the volunteer out of his or her site for a period of time and rarely can include all of our communities. A plus to this though is that we often can bring a representative from our own communities to partake in the particular training or event, and then between the volunteer and counterpart, we can bring that information back to our places of posting to further help in our own areas.

My village, one of many small villages in a cluster, has a small community with no NGO’s, no extension workers, and really not much English to be heard. Working in those conditions requires a lot of patience and creativity. I find most of my work these days to be at the local school about 200 meters from my house. Because English is the official language of The Gambia, it is the language that is taught, rather unfortunately really as these students speak only their local languages at home. This would be the equivalent of being instructed in French or Spanish only in the States. At any rate it allows me to communicate well with the teachers and from there discuss the best ways we can support each other in our work as improving environmental education and education/environmental interest in the community.

Some teachers started an Environment Club with an initial enrollment of 60 students from grades 4-9. The main motivation for the club is the end-of-year excursion, if the funds can be raised. This is sometimes the only opportunity for the child to ever leave their small village to see what the rest of their country looks like. Besides the environment club, the school has also started to rehabilitate the school garden. The main barrier here is that the hand pump is once again broken down, a common and tired story in West Africa. Without water, there is nothing to grow in the dry season. But the students cleared the space and have been bringing thorny bush cuttings to re-enforce the locally made fence. The school is showing great interest and dedication even without my input which is a great place to be!

Outside of the school I am trying to work with members in the community. I am able to work fairly well within my host family in particular. My host mom has a garden and my host father several acres of farm. This last rainy season we planted some Cashew, Mango, and Leuceana trees. I bought my mom the ingredients needed to make laundry soap and she’s been making it ever since from the profit she receives from selling it. I hope to work with her and more women in the community on more environmentally focused income generating activities like homemade fertilizer (compost), tree nurseries for sale at the weekly markets (people love cashew and mango trees!), plastic bag crocheting to make coin purses etc., etc.

I also have a counterpart who is interested in starting beekeeping. If he and his team continue to show interest, we’ll start with making grass hives and go from there. Beekeeping is a strongly encouraged activity to engage in within the environment sector as it is a forestry supported non-timber product activity. Bees love trees and honey makes good money, if gone about correctly. But starting can be costly and timely and is a risk which is why we’ll start slow and move from there.

I’m not sure if that sounds like a lot or a little anymore as I’ve lost a lot of that American work sense in the need to integrate into The Gambian work ethic in order to work effectively here. That ‘go-go-go’ and ‘get to the point’ thing is not only ineffective but debilitating here. You have to always greet one another for at least a few minutes before any business can be discussed. For me it’s a lot to focus on for now. And it doesn’t even include the inherited project that has taken most of my time thus far in the neighboring town some 10-12 km away from me. A volunteer had to leave their service early but before doing so had written a food security grant in cooperation with USAID to secure the funds for constructing a space for a school garden from scratch. The grant rehabilitated a hand pump, procured a chain-link fence, garden tools, seeds, a garden training, and labor for all of the above. The students at the Upper Basic School (grades 7-9) will work in the teaching garden to grow vegetables for the school as well as community with any surplus. We’ll have some ally-cropped citrus trees and perimeter mango and cashew trees. This has been a difficult project to pick up in the middle of its life and beginning of my service especially as it’s not my community. Just knowing and living with the people you work with, forming relationships and gaining an understanding of how they fit into the hierarchy etc. is so helpful and supportive for sustainable effective work. But things are finally starting to take root making all that effort feel finally worthwhile!

On top of that all I have my master’s research to tackle. I’m interested in documenting the traditional ecological knowledge of my community to support us in our approaches toward environmental education. In addition we may be able to embark on a community forest project through the German forestry program here. Whatever I do I want it to be community based and so need the support and approval of my community which makes the process even slower.

So that’s it, in a groundnut shell. If you need a place to thaw out during that cold and dark winter, you are always welcome to enjoy our version of the “cold season” here in The Gambia, the smiling coast of West Africa. The lowest of the lows might be as low as the high 40s but that’s probably the extreme. And no, there’s not really any cheese here, but the food is good and the people are some of the most hospitable, and the music and dancing, at least where I live, is non-stop! Bisimillih, meaning you are welcome, in Arabic. If you have more questions or greater interest you are welcome to email me and peruse my public blog documenting my service. See you all in a year and a half, Inshallah!

Samantha Straus's mud hut.

Black face monkey at Janjanburegh camp in Macarthy, CRR North Bank, The Gambia.

Mauritanian wash bowl and kettle on left.  Laundry pan front right.  Blue bucket for bucket baths and rinsing laundry top right. Liter sized cup for pouring water, center.

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