Waato Siita. The Time Has Come.

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Mmang daalo kumbo nga mira na taala nña le la. I don’t cry because we are so familiar with one another, but I think about how our separation will be.-Mandinka Proverb

 If you would have told me initially that leaving village at the end of service would have been the hardest part of Peace Corps, I doubt I would have believed you. Especially in the beginning, especially on the more demanding days and the homesick ones. I never could have imagined that the driving away from village would be infinitely harder than driving towards it for the first time. I remember getting dropped off in the beginning in the middle of the night, wondering what I had gotten myself into, the early weeks of finding contentment and comfort. Those seem painless now.

The past few weeks have passed by in an indistinguishable blur, studded only by milestones and events that have defined by life here: Seeing my friend Kikingking’s new baby girl Safiatou for the first time, impetigo in both ears and all over my face, watching Bubakary sit up for the first time, the night it felt as though cold season had finally come, some friends coming to visit, lunches in the market with the women whose produce I frequent, seeing downtown Basse completely underwater, sleepovers in my hut with my kids, and a few naming ceremonies and funerals. There was the day Nano plaited my hair to make sure I looked beautiful when I arrived in America (and those braids were taken out the second I got to Kombo). And the evening I spent sitting under a mosquito net until the middle of the night while my friend Ntou taped and covered my feet with West African Henna. There was the afternoon Bubakary projectile pooped all over my already-packed bags (A sign of a safe journey with no troubles, I’m told.)

Otherwise, I felt only a strange melancholy. My thoughts were only on leaving and envisioning the inevitably awful goodbyes. I tried to enjoy every minute, to relish the long-awaited victory of speaking a common language, knowing names and understanding rituals and habits. And I tried to soak in the moments that have made me the happiest here: holding my babies and watching the sun rise in the bush every dawn and set over the soccer field every evening. But I had a sensation of just wanting to leave, to rip off the band-aid and get home and process my service. For me, anticipation is often the worst emotion and when my time in village dipped below one month, much of my enjoyment was replaced by the anticipation of leaving and chats about how lonely everyone will be.

While I was processing my emotions, my friends and family in Taibatou were processing their own and I noticed hints of melancholy in routines and conversation. Hawa started to push me away, and a somewhat distant alter ego replaced her warm demeanor. Molamin kept on telling me, “Mariama ning I tata, m be kamfala.” Mariama, when you leave, I will be angry. Or even worse, “Mariama ning I tata, m be kumboo la.” Mariama when you leave, I will cry. Edrisa pulled me aside to tell me how much he was going to miss me. Lawo desperately tried to have me configure email on the phone he doesn’t know how to work. Fanta sent the girls from Basse to see me. Karimoo kept on staring at me, shaking his head, and saying “No no no no no.” A little less than a week before I was picked up, I bought Kola Nuts, the ceremonial nut that is distributed when men ask a Father for her daughter’s hand and a stranger is announced in the village. In this case, I wanted them to be distributed to the elders as a symbol of my gratitude and to tell the village I was going to depart. From that Friday, at those 2 o’clock prayers, my leaving became inevitable. Throughout the week, people would come to visit, to give me their hand, and issue prayers. In the few evenings before my departure, older women who have been my best friends came to sit and chat as yellow light bathed their beautifully weathered faces. What shocked me the most was what they had said. Almost no one mentioned my work. They remembered the day I was pooped on by one of the babies in their compound, the day I cooked lunch with them, the day I fell in the mud and we laughed together. They remembered the days I didn’t speak Mandinka and mixed up words like “Cold” and “Pee” or “Cat” and “Crazy Person” and the evenings we walked the bush together. The last week brought back memories I had forgotten about but people in village still cherished and I could barely believe that my habits like stopping to greet Junduba when I go to the road or going around with Mafanta to bathe newborns, like putting Bubakary on my back to go into village or carrying water for a woman at the tap were the things I spoke about during last conversations. It was a beautiful, heartfelt way to reflect on my service and seemed so fitting as I ended my time.

I don’t know how many times I have cried the past few weeks. I bawled while I translated a letter from my friend who left 7 months ago to her family. I cried saying goodbye to each compound I have come to love, where the women would comfort me by saying “Mariama, don’t cry. Crying is not good!” right before they burst into tears. I cried while I laid next to my little ones in my hut my last night, their deep melodic breaths in slumber and my own gasping ones in hysteria. My family was husking corn the day before I left while I laid on a mat, tears streaming down my face, Fanta laying next to me saying “Mariama you’re making me crazy!” All the while I was thinking, I will never have this again, I will never speak Mandinka in this way, I am saying goodbye to this life and these people and it seems somewhat permanent. But the worst was the morning I left.

Peter, my driver, called me at 6 to let me know he was on the road. He was driving a bush road because the ferry to Basse was closed and I knew my hours in village were short. I woke with the stars and I woke my sleepy children to go out to pray and heard Hawa in the smoky kitchen shack crying. I tried to embrace her and found, as I have over the past few weeks, that Gambian women will pull away, instead of leaning in to be comforted. Hawa handed me the baby, who giggled when he saw me and I kissed him over and over while I watched the sun rise over the bush. We ate hot millet porridge, and sat in silence. I finished packing. I ran into the village for last goodbyes and cried the whole time, when the Alikalo’s mother took my hands to deliver powerful prayer and when the elders of the old compound prayer for me in unison, when my favorite kids ran to me for one last time and when women told me how they miss me already. And when the vehicle finally pulled up, the women and their children from around the area ran to my compound, stood in my doorway and stared at me. We cried and we embraced and I held their babies and said Abaraka bake!!! Over and over, knowing that Thank you was an understatement for the gratitude I feel for my time in Taibatou. The women swarmed the car, and I panicked because Karimoo had gone to the bush, Yusupha and Haja were still at school, and I hadn’t said goodbye to everyone. Peter took my things as I walked around in what seemed like circles for what seemed like hours. I took Molamin in my arms and he wrapped his around my neck and I kissed his head and whispered, “I love you.” I found Lawo hiding on the other side of my hut and my Mothers sitting together, their faces wet with tears, their eyes unable to meet mine. I kissed them and I hugged Lawo and issued a Fo Waati Do, Until next time, to the crowd of four dozen that had gathered as I got in the front seat, deciding that I could stand there all day but it was time to go. We pulled away as some more women were arriving, and I blew them kisses as they burst into tears. We ran into Yusupha on the way to the road and I kissed his head and he ducked his head to allow tears to stream. Peter told me I could stop where I wanted, but I told him to keep going, because I knew that I could cry and say goodbye all day long. We continued to the bush road to take us towards Basse, and I cried the entire way to the city I’ve come to know best. Peter held my hand and told me that he was dreading coming to get me because he knew how my goodbye would be. I sit here writing, crying again, mending a broken heart from leaving so many people I love, but also knowing that leaving with any other emotion would mean my service wasn’t as meaningful as it could have been for me.

And here I am in Kombo, a place that was once so comforting because it was the closest thing I, we all, have to America. But the air conditioner whirs and I wonder whether the hot days in village were really so bad and I drink my water with ice with nostalgia for the clay jar which cooled my water. The silence here seems too quiet, and I miss the donkeys that cried outside of my door and the babies that did the same, the call to prayer and Mandinka chatter. The comforts here are not as nice as they once were and now that America is at the tips of my fingers, a concept I longed to grasp during difficult days, I don’t necessarily feel the same urgency to get there as I once did. It’s not to say I’m not ready to see my loved ones, to celebrate the holidays and catch up with those I have missed for two years. It’s just that I don’t think I ever realized how much this place could have seeped into my soul and leaving is something that I underestimated.

I could and I do intend to return. But it likely won’t be for years, and much will have changed. My Mandinka will leave me, my body will forget the warmth, and I will revert to old habits and ways and the mindset where the urine of a newborn makes me cringe and greeting dozens of people stresses me. I will lose the rhythm my body has adapted to of fetching water and releasing my mosquito net over my bed, of swinging a baby into position to wrap him on my back and folding rice between my fingers into circular form.

It’s funny how my service started and ended with what seem like bookends. I laid on a bantaba with the kids in my training compound, looking at the stars, exactly what I did with Hawa Dingding and Molamin on my last nights. We took the same, unpaved and wretched but simultaneously beautiful and peaceful road to my village for the first time and back away for the last. I distributed Kola nuts to announce my arrival and then, two years later, my departure. The women who came to greet me, the people who eased me out of village, were the same who welcomed me. I will always remember those early days of overwhelming emotion. Only the beginning was filled with hesitation and the end with the absolute certainty that I was where I needed to be for the past two years. Nothing could have prepared me for my service, and for what has turned out to be nothing less than a perfect two years.

Gratitude is an understatement for how I feel, to the people in Taibatou who loved me as one of their own, to my host family for welcoming me as a daughter and sister, to my family and friends in America who supported me along the way. I am in awe of the kindness of humanity, I am mending a broken heart, I am excited to see those I have left behind and am forever indebted to The Gambia for changing me.

With love, with appreciation

Xoxo Beth

P.S. I will continue to post the last few blogs I never was able to get to during my service. Until then, Fo Waati Do.

Letting Girls Learn

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I usually come back to village after some time away to unexpected news or gossip. This time, Isatou was missing and I asked where she had gone. The answer was unexpectedly wonderful.

Isa will be attending school this year in Basse, at a private institution called St. George’s. The kids study all day, the teachers are qualified and it is removed from village.

The best part? She fought to get there herself.

I have spent my two years in an interesting compound: the mindset is a perfect mix of old and new. My host father stresses education and will not allow the girls to be married before they finish school. But all too often, he is his own hypocrite and the stress of being the leader of the compound means that the girls skip school to cook lunch, and he is so intent on keeping the girls under his careful watch that he fought Isa and wouldn’t allow her to go to school outside of Nyakoi, despite its incredibly poor schooling system. He has done the same to Matida, but since Fanta is also a passionate advocate of girls education, she has arranged for Matida to go to school in Kombo.

Taibatou is sometimes a toxic place for young girls. It’s so traditionally Jahanka that many kids never go to a public school and some only to Arabic school. Girls rarely go beyond Grade 9 and if they are over 16 and unmarried, they are considered anomalies. Most of the girls in Isa and Matida’s age group have had babies over the past 2 years and this is heartbreaking to see, especially when you have seen a young lady who could have come far in her education.

My girls have changed a lot since I have been here. Isa fought Lawo when I first arrived, sneaking around and wanting nothing more than this early marriage that all of her friends were being forced into and she was being prohibited from. She would use any excuse to go into the village, to gossip and flirt and Matida was still young, barely pubescent. Matida and Lawo are now the two fighting, but she seems to be coming around. Isa has acquired a calm maturity, at peace with the decision of her father to make her wait and the knowledge that the husband her father chose and she agreed to will wait for her.

Two of my most simultaneously intense and proud moments have involved this concept of early marriage. One was when I walked out of my hut to see Lawo speaking with the girls. He had just come from a long meeting at the compound, where the elders told him it was time for the girls to be married off, they were old now and the rest of the girls in the compound were already betrothed. Lawo told them his position and delivered a heartfelt soliloquy to me which left me in tears: he wanted the girls to go as far as they could in life, to become educated and leave the village, to have the opportunity to go abroad and to study as he did. He will allow them to choose their husbands and he doesn’t believe in early marriage.

The next was this past week, when I learned of Isa and Matida and how Lawo had fought them, not realizing that his desire to keep his eye on them was going to be the barrier to their education. How Fanta stuck up for them. And how they had appealed their case by the lessons from the Peace Corps Explore Your Country program last year. Hearing this was one of my most prideful moments as a volunteer. I had been able to help give my girls the tools to be their own advocates.

This is exactly the premise behind Let Girls Learn, the partnership between Michelle Obama, Peace Corps and USAID which is trying to change education and empowerment for girls all over the world, starting with Peace Corps countries, including The Gambia.

I was able to help create the script and vision for this video highlighting the struggles of girls here:

My girls, I am so incredibly proud of them. I can’t wait to see where they go from here.

Xoxo Beth

The Food Bowl

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I counted eighteen people at the lunch bowl last week. Eighteen right hands alternating motion as not to grasp one another instead of the rice glistening with red oil and eighteen bodies staggered on seats and feet. I sat on a wooden stool, my host father to my left on a plastic chair, Bashidifo on my right, squatting so his rump touched the ground and his knees touched his face. Fatounding sat on my right foot and Molamin on my left, and I procured the space between their heads, taking advantage of my height on my stool, but still blindly scooping handfuls of rice and molding the grain into greasy balls, occasionally passing one to Fatounding. Hawa sat across from me on a mat, Bubakary latched to her breast, and Fanta and the girls were on a wooden bench.

I often wonder why my compound hasn’t split the bowls yet. Sometimes, we do, when we have guests and so many bodies cannot physically fit around a single bowl, and the boys will circulate a smaller bowl below the bantaba and the women, my Father and the girls will sit underneath the protective thatch. But the kids have gotten bigger since I’ve come, now one bowl feels too small for so many hands that are larger than they were 2 years ago. Most compounds split their bowls by age groups and genders and I really do wonder why we haven’t done the same. But I love this time as a family, our jokes around the food bowl, the chaos before and after as we rush to bring water, to sweep fallen food morsels for the chickens and lay down to digest. Late afternoon lunches are easily my favorite part of any day.

I often eat in the village if lunch is served and I am there. One of the best parts of this culture, I’ve described, is that any time you are present when people are eating, you are invited to eat, regardless of whether or not there is enough food, whether you’ve eaten, or whether you want to. It’s polite to at least take a bite. Now that I’m comfortable, I love eating in other compounds and I know people in Taibatou love feeding me. Like so many other cultures, feeding people is the greatest expression of love and hospitality.

Doing this has allowed me some insight into how food varies compound to compound and season to season. In my compound, Isa and Matida would cook when Hawa wasn’t there and Fanta was in Basse, and now that Hawa is back, she and Fanta will rotate. This is the norm in most compounds: the women of the compound rotating who cooks when. In the case of a compound with multiple wives, the days a wife cooks are also the days she sleeps in the house of her husband. In the case of Salli and Tida, they are considered new wives to the old compound, so they travel there every day to relieve the older women from cooking duties, even though they reside elsewhere.

Sometimes, the older men eat together, sometimes the women, sometimes in the house or more often, on the ground under the shade of a tree. Food is put aside for the kids at school or in the bush. And the younger kids will eat dinner early, or leftover dinner at morning prayers, the rice stuck to the bottom of the pot is heated with some sauce for the morning. Millet is pounded in the mornings, fermented during the day, brought to the milling machine in the evenings and strained through some fabric and in the morning made into porridge, which will be a snack throughout the day until it’s finished. These are things I’ve only learned from two years here, the culture behind food more interesting the more I learn.

Food here is seasonal and the harvesting and time of the year dictates what is in our food bowls. The rainy season brings green sauces of sorrel and okra, the rice freshly harvested and tinged a light taupe and the millet is nearing the end of its store from the previous year. Dry season brings life to the gardens as the work in the fields reduces and the cold brings squash and hot peppers, eggplants and cabbage, lettuce sometimes. As the cold comes, the groundnuts become ready for harvest, shelling, sorting roasting and processing into groundnut paste and sauces become rich again, healthier and heartier as the paste is mixed in. Domoda and tiyoo durango, my favorites, are heavy in groundnut butter and infinitely more filling than oil-based chu or bennachin. The Gambian diet revolves heavily around only a few ingredients: MSG-infused jumbo seasoning, oil, tomato paste, dried and fresh fish, ground nuts, ground nut paste, onions and the occasional vegetable. Food often becomes ubiquitous, often too fishy, sometimes too salty, and unfortunately, not always enough.

Those who know me know that cooking is a part of me. I thought when I first came that this lack of emphasis on food as pleasure would be hard for someone who is such a foodie. But it has given me a shared interest with women here, who all learn and have an obligation to cook. I love that my integration can partially be contributed to the days where I sat by a smoky kitchen or took a turn with the over sized mortar and pestle. Women here love that I can eat at their food bowl, and identify that their sauce is different because they put pepper in it, or they used palm oil instead of the standard yellow vegetable oil. And I love that I can contribute to conversations in this way.

I love the chatter that happens around a food bowl, when a child is yelled at for not holding the bowl, or when rice falls between a baby’s fat folds. I love the symphony it creates. You hear the call to prayer, the person cooking begins to dish the rice or millet. A giant ladle to break up the white gluttonous mass or sand-like powder. The food is carried from soot-covered pot to enamel bowl, until there is enough to feed whoever will gather. It is spread evenly, a divet in the center where sauce will go. Anything other than liquid in the sauce; vegetable or protein, will go in the center, and the sauce spread around it, but never straying from the center, unless it is chu, which requires pieces of onion to be spread throughout the bowl, or bennachin, which has no sauce at all, or kuchaa, which is placed in spoonfuls around the bowl, or millet, which soaks up whichever watery sauce that was cooked to accompany it. When everyone returns from prayer, we gather and move around until everyone is comfortable and Lawo issues a “Besimilah” which means we can begin. We eat in quadrants, the walls we create only broken down when more sauce needs to be added, fish bones strewn around our feet. We take the vegetables and protein from the middle in small bites, the children thrown pieces into their sections by an adult or older sister.  The rhythm at a food bowl is something to savor and I remember awkwardly sitting at my first few bowls in Kaiaf not knowing where to put my hand, who to sit by, how to form rice into a ball, or how to swallow millet.

It will be weird to be back in a world where I eat from my own plate, with multiple utensils, no children, and no chickens.

The food bowl: It’s something I initially dreaded, learned to adapt to, learned to love and now am sad to leave.

Some recipes:

Domoda

Bennachin

xoxo Beth

Colloquy, Chatter, Jargon

I love speaking Mandinka. It’s something I am going to miss and I know the language will fade from memory and this makes me sad. Mandinka is a strange language because, as a non-native speaker, it’s incredibly challenging. And then all of a sudden, it makes sense. This happened about 9 months ago, where I was using words and phrases only from memory and then I realized that their meaning was embedded deep in the language. A lot of terms and chatter, which I thought were untranslatable are actually literal, and often, beautiful. For instance:

Suuwokuta: We could translate it to “late.” But suuwo means night and kuta means new. So we only use this when it’s late in the evening and the sun is setting, the night coming.

Sanku Neemo: The beginning of cold season. It literally translates to “Harvest call” because it is the time where corn, groundnuts, millet, sorrel are all ready for harvest.

Saanjiyoo: Rainfall. But it can be translated as water (jiyoo) from above (santo)

Hadamadingo: Kind person. But it literally means the child of Adam. Hadama is also attached to other terms of endearment and adjectives.

I could go on but these are just a few of my favorites, that lead to “Ahaaaa!” moments when trying to figure out words I have only heard.

I’ve been thinking lately about what my favorite word or phrase is in Mandinka. I say so many things so often.

My most frequently used words are probably:

Suumanaa (Pee)

Denaano (Baby)

Tona (Truth)

Kuwoo (Wash)

Kori (Hope)

And phrases:

Wo manke tona ti: That is not the truth

N la fita___________: I like/ want_____________

N kata ____________: I do go ____________

I nung faama: Missing has happened

But my absolute favorite phrase, the one I use the most frequently and wish there was an English equivalent for:

I ning barra

I love this phrase. It can be translated to something along the lines of “You and thanks” “Thank you for working” “Hello I see you are working and I am acknowledging it” “You rock!” It has become my Hello here and since the majority of people I greet are in the bush, have a baby on their back or water on their head, it comes in handy.

You and thanks. This phrase, nearly without exception, emits from my mouth before I even say Salaamaleekum. I stop to ponder whether I’ve used it correctly and then realize everyone is always doing some type of work that deserves acknowledgement. And it’s a beautiful thing to acknowledge this upon greeting.

How I wish I could issue an I ning barra to the barista who will soon create my coffee, the woman walking her dog, the man on his way home from work on the subway, the family toting 4 kids into a car. I wish it was culturally appropriate, because we all deserve to have our work acknowledged, no matter what it is.

Yes, this is definitely my favorite Mandinka saying. I can’t even count how many times I’ve used it today, or have threaded the phrase together in a continuous steam. I don’t know what The Gambia would be without the issuance of Thank Yous and I Miss Yous as greetings. The chatter here, I love that it makes sense to me now.

Xoxo Beth

Close of Service 

  

I am headed back to village for my last 3 weeks at site. Those words feel surreal. I am finished with my close of service conference, a few days that allow volunteers in every country who are about to leave the opportunity to reflect and be with the cohort they came into their country of service with. This group of people, 18 two years ago and 16 now, has made my service complete. We’ve gone through the hard stuff together, celebrated the milestones, we had our first illnesses and language blunders and shared many aspects of service. I love these people and the goodbyes to them will be as difficult as those in village. 

Motley crew, thanks for teaching me to take it easy, for picking me up off the floor when I fainted, and for your company and support. It’s been a pleasure to serve and learn, laugh and struggle, grow and feel right alongside you for the past 2 years. 

Xoxo Beth 

An Ode to My Little Ones

I discovered when I arrived to Taibatou that I would be living with 5 toddlers who were under the age of 3. Two more little ones would come into existence during my 2 years in village, but I never could have predicted how special these children would become to me, how they would signify my evolution of service and how I would fall so in love with them that my thoughts of leaving them leave me in tears.DSC_0295

These are the sweet faces of the girls who have made my service. They made me laugh on the long and difficult days and I had the incredible opportunity to watch them grow. I saw 2 of them take their first steps, heard all of them speak their first words and my favorite memories of my time in The Gambia have involved sitting and holding at least one of these little bodies in my lap, whispering words and loving insults in her ears and playing with her braids.

DSC_1194And here are the little guys who have made me believe in miracles. I didn’t think I would see Molamin become a big brother and the past few months watching Bubakary grow have been some of my favorite.

Let me tell you a little about these little ones and why I have fallen so in love and let me show you how I have seen them grow…

Hawa Dingding

I heard that she would never come to the volunteer here before me,and would run away and scream. For the first few months, I was indifferent to her, saddened by the fact that I was living with a child so afraid of me. We had a breakthrough when she fell asleep on my lap and she began to sit by me. She has matured and become a wide eyed, mellow and sweet little girl who is easy to be with and smart. She is an observer of the world, a lover of sweets, who learns and helps. I love to watch her sweep the compound, attempt to pound when the pounder is a little too heavy for her little hands. Since Bubakary has come along, she sits and rocks him to sleep, allowing his heavy head to rest in her thin arms and she has a look of contentment on her face, she is a proud older sister. She is the baby of Fanta’s, which is apparent by the way she is spoiled by her older sisters and how easy going she can be. I loved the day we blew bubbles and chased them around the bantaba and the afternoons napping on my mat, the walks into village and the chats we had at night while we laid side by side, counting stars.

Molamin

Most people have best friends in village, a man or a woman of similar age. I often think that Molamin has become mine. We call him Baba (Father)  because he’s mature and intelligent. He was teaching people to make oral re-hydration solution when I first got to village at the age of 2. He’s easy to fall in love with, this little guy. Funny and rambunctious, he walks the compound with no pants on, usually on his hands and knees as he tries to impersonate a donkey or a horse. He was my first teacher, and we spent time at the beginning where he would point to something and repeat the name of it, allowing me to memorize and learn. In the months he spent in Kombo with Hawa, the entire compound seemed quieter, the boys missing their brother and all of us recognizing how entertaining he is. I fell in love with him when I would hold him and he would grab onto my neck and nuzzle his face into my own and chant my name. Lately, he’s been running by my side, his little legs struggling to keep up with my own but when I ask if he is tired, he will never admit defeat. When we go into the village together, we sit and gossip and make observations about others and we have been going on bush walks in the evening and talking about our likes and dislikes, memories and joking as any friends would. This boy has made me laugh like no one else in this country, and he has a zest for life I’ve seldom seen. He gets great pleasure from taking the donkey into the bush, from running by my side and from a soda, a candy, holding his little brother, or a baby on his back.

Fatou Mata

“Mama te mama te kono futa baa!” We chant to her and Fatou Mata giggles and smiles, even though we are melodically telling her that her stomach is big. The word Gambians use to describe her in “Proud” but we would call her “Shy.” Fatou Mata was the last of the toddlers to talk but the first to come to me and she spends her days wherever her mother Tida goes, sitting and smiling with her almond-shaped eyes and her worm-infested belly. She and her little sister Fatounding are the best of friends and since Fatounding has been a little one, she has held her on her lap and made her laugh. She never gets yelled at and always does what she is told and when you joke with her, she purses her lips in a smile that insinuates that she wants to return the joke but is still too timid. My sweet Fatou Mata will come in my hut and read with me or come into village and be so quiet that I may even forget I brought her with me. A few months ago we had a breakthrough and we began to chat, most of her speech under her breath so you could barely hear it. I have seen her cry only twice in my time here, once because Tida forgot to buy her a pair of underwear and once because she fell.

Fatounding

Everyone in Taibatou knows how much I adore Fatounding and I try to explain our bond in the sense that she is my time here. I held her as an infant at site visit, commenting on the unusual shape of her eyes and taking note of what a happy baby she was. I think because I am not a Mother yet nor an aunt, I have never had the opportunity to watch a child grow like this. I held her hands to allow her to stand and she took her first steps into my arms and now she is learning to speak in one or two word sentences. I wake up daily to her chanting “Mamamama” outside of my door and when I open my corrugate, she runs into my arms and puts her head on my shoulder. Seeing and playing with Fatounding is the best part of any day. We go into village together, her on my back or my hip, or more recently her hand in my own and we meander about. We can’t talk quite yet but we love each other and maybe we don’t understand what makes us so close but she has been a light in service, a motivation and a beautiful presence in my days.

Nyima

I’ve spent the least amount of time with Nyima. Her mother Salli is usually at another compound, constantly working and cooking and Nyima is by her side. She’s smart as a whip, this little girl and we joke that she is from Salli, who speaks faster than I can understand most times. Nyima has a smile that makes her eyes disappear. She will randomly show up wherever I am in village and I am usually confused where she came from but grateful for her company. She insults me and tells me I am not nice and the candy I give her is not sweet, just as she breaks out into one of her grins. She is the oldest of the toddler crew and seems more mature at times. Even though they only span a few months, her language exceeds Hawa and Fatou Mata’s and her sassiness is on par with the teenagers.

Maymouna

Another one I have been lucky enough to see grow from infant to toddler. Maymouna has done nothing but smile and giggle since her motor skills allowed and, like Nyima, she is smart even at a year and a half. She speaks in syllables but you can almost guess when she is trying to say. I have loved seeing her first smiles, and helping her learn to walk was one of my favorite memories here. She has a laugh that sounds like a recording and you can’t help but laugh right back when you hear it. Maymouna is beautiful, a stunning baby, and has been since the first time I saw her at a day when I walked into Salli’s hut and held her for the first time. I regularly watch Salli give her baths, just to see her gasp and giggle and this May, I would go to evening soccer games and we would watch them together. I often put Maymouna on my back with a piece of fabric and we venture around village to give Salli a break from holding a little one while she works. She has been my test subject for malnourished baby food and we spend a lot of time eating peanut butter creations in my hut. Another light in my service.

Bubakary

The thing that makes me sad about Bubakary is that I won’t be able to see him grow. In his 3 months, he has smiled and come upcountry, he has met his siblings and proved himself to be the easiest infant, only crying when he wants to eat. He will be 4 months when I leave and I will never hear his first words or see him walk and I may barely even see him sit up on his own. There are few things more perfect than holding this little guy in my arms or watching my siblings do the same. I am going to miss it.

I’ve always liked kids, and enjoy plenty of kids in my village but these little ones are special. They’re family here and they’re the ones I spend my days with. I’m integrated enough where their mothers hand them to me and also where I know what to do with them. We are comfortable with each other, and like family, we know each other’s habits and needs.

These are the children who have taught me what it means to appreciate the little things and to live in the moment, to imagine and create. These children have no toys, and their futures will not be easy. They already spend their days being dragged back and forth between compounds, on the back of their mother who is cooking, or in the bush while their family works.

I have watched these little ones pretend to be donkey drivers and the little girls pretend to be mothers. They brew fake attaya and make food bowls from dirt and dance to any music that happens to fill the empty space of the compound. I will always try to emanate the joy Molamin has when he runs alongside me and remember the sense of pride he has when he comes back from a day at the bush. How he loves to go and fetch water for the day and how Fatou Mata and Fatounding love to go to the fields for the day. Something as small as a candy will make Nyima’s day and something as habitual as a bath is the highlight of mine.

I will never forget the feeling I have when coming back from Basse and Hawa and Molamin come and jump on my bike to greet me or when Fatounding squeals when she sees me. I will always have Maymouna’s gap-toothed smile in my mind and Fatou Mata’s big belly will always make me giggle.

These little ones have been my livelihood here and I literally cannot fathom leaving them. Will they remember me? Will they know what’s happening? I don’t know and I tear up when I think about how much they have meant to me. I came into this country knowing I would learn and open to change, but I never thought the change would come from 7 toddlers and babies. They have been my teachers, my gurus, my friends and my posse and words cannot describe my gratitude for them.

Thank you little ones, you don’t even know how you have changed my life.

xoxo Beth

Lately

Biking across the country to my close of service conference, Jinack Island, Trying to fit Fatounding in my suitcase, Tobaski prayers, Bubakary (lots and lots and lots), Italian food bowl with my family, Kombo time with other volunteers and as always, random bits and pieces from village life. Sorry for the delay-I left my computer in Kombo and was finally able to access them. Enjoy!

xoxo Beth

A Glimpse Into Basse

  
I have been so slow about posting lately and I apologize. These are the roads I’m facing this rainy season. I’m en route to kombo for my close of service conference and hope to post some updates and photos then. Lots of love from The Gambia.  

Xoxo Beth

 

In a Heartbeat

Last week, during a typically unceremonious day in village, I turned 24, bringing me into the era of my mid-twenties, which came with a startling revelation that I feel like I haven’t done much yet and still don’t feel like a real adult. Peace Corps has been my first experience other than university and I came here like most others, starry eyed and optimistic. While I never intended to change the world, I have spent the past few months in deep reflection, wondering whether I have done everything in my power to change my community for the better. I’m at the end, my days numbered, and whenever I do something noteworthy I criticize myself and think back to all the days I never left my compound, or could have had a health program, or maybe I found a wonderful person I wish I had spent more time with or worked with. How did I let so many moments pass me by? How did I go two years with barely any tangible work? What else could I have done?

It’s easy to forget the oppressive heat, the broken health system, lack of counterparts, prioritization of farming, language barriers and the seemingly infinite obstacles that prevented me from doing what I wish I could have done. As I look at my village, with its inaccessibility to medicine, the mosquito nets not being slept under, and the babies who are still too small, the young girls being pulled from school and the older generation who still refuses to go to the health center, I can’t help but wonder whether it was worth it.

Was my time here worth the frustration and the homesickness and the missed holidays and milestones? Was it worth those precious two years of my early twenties that could have been spent in a new city with friends who speak the same language and share the same culture? Was it worth the dozens of fevers, the incurable skin rashes, the toll on my physical health? The harassing hisses and emotional turmoil as I tried day after day to validate the morality of this world and navigate this culture.

I could say no, on a bad day when work doesn’t work and the culture was too much, the language incomprehensible and my health uncooperative. I could say no on a rough day when all I want to do is be in my bed, under my covers (a luxury I haven’t indulged because it is always too damn hot) and hug my parents and congratulate my friends on their milestones in young adulthood-engagements and promotions that I have yet to experience. I could say no every time I have felt worthless here, or like I let down the people of Taibatou. Life will go on when I leave in less than 2 months, astonishingly identical to how it was 2 years ago. So, with this knowledge, I ask myself, was it worth it?

I write this as I hold a sleeping 2-month-old in the crook of my left arm. He whimpers when I move and smiles as he dreams. It rained last night and is pleasantly cool, the clouds turning pink as they gather near the setting sun. I spent the morning at 11 different compounds and understood and could contribute to every conversation. I greeted everyone I passed by name as I meandered about, ate a loaf of bread straight from the clay oven with a pregnant woman named Isa and her co-wife Fatou as we discussed Isa’s birth plan and made arrangements to take Fatou’s disabled daughter to Basse next week. A woman from my health school came to visit earlier this evening to say hello and question last week’s lesson. Later, when the stars emerge, they will light the way on the footpath to Tida and Karimoo’s and we will chat as Fatounding and Maymouna crawl into my lap to sleep. I don’t even hesitate when I think of my day and say I would do it all again. In a heartbeat.

Mother Theresa once said, “We can do no great things. Only small things with great love.” I have little to show for my time here, but despite what I could or couldn’t or should or shouldn’t have done over these months and days, I stayed true to myself when I joined this organization and allowed my community to show me the way. On the bad days, I gave myself breaks to allow myself to be present, and on the good ones I tried to soak it all in. I never intended to build a hospital or to pave a road. But I did believe I could learn and contribute in small ways. In retrospect, I came and did exactly what I intended, the knowledge and language and culture I now have is the source of this regret-I forget that I didn’t have it all along.

I didn’t do much here, I’ve realized, but what I have done I have done with my soul. I don’t have a hospital to show, but I do have a village I fell head over heels in love with and 1800 people who I have the deepest admiration and respect for. This has allowed me to say, not only was it worth it. But it was perfect.

Xoxo Beth

Mail Run

You may wonder how, in my village, in the bush, I am able to get the packages and letters sent to me by my loving family and friends. Years ago, before cell phones and email, many countries hosting Peace Corps volunteers would deliver mail to the volunteers with a car that traveled the country. Well, in The Gambia, we still do that. Without reliable postal services, sporadic cell network and no way of getting our packages to us other than horse cart or on the back of a bicycle, we deeply rely on this service every other month, which sends a land cruiser,a driver and 2 volunteers to every village hosting a volunteer in the country. This month, my friend Michael and I were able to explore The Gambia in its humid, green, glory. You can essentially divide the country into 2 main roads, the North and South bank, with villages on either side of the road, either directly on the road, or, more often, into the bush. Our week was wonderful. It went something like this.

New Map

Friday, August 14: I send out a text to volunteers asking for requests, organizing the mail room and deciding the best way around the new “No plastic bag” policy in the country. The request come rolling in, ranging from, “I won’t be at site, but my host Mom has my key,” to “Can you deliver 10 bundles of wire for my foods storage project?”

Saturday, August 15: I begin to organize boxes in the rat-infested mail room, by the day we will be going to each village. The ones we go to last go in the back of the trunk. I see who has boxes, who has letters, and who has some newsletters and who has already taken their mail back to site. I write it all down because I know memory will fail me.

Sunday, August 16: Peace Corps drivers are the absolute best. I can go on all day about this. They work relentlessly, make sure we are all safe and healthy and they are the ones to drop us off and pick us up at site and also to check on us throughout the year, such as when they go on mail run. Sam is our driver this time and he is wonderful. He is kind and quieter with a hearty laugh and ridiculous work ethic. Case and point-he is at the office at 8 am on a Sunday to pack the car with me and we brave the heat to pack the land cruiser to capacity before we leave first thing in the morning. I go back to the house to make brownies. Baked goods are a mail run tradition.

Monday, August 17: Sam tells me to meet him first thing in the morning and we wake up to a dark and stormy Kombo day, where the streets flood and the mud runs deep. I wait at the office with my backpack and brownies and greet the staff as they arrive. We go pick up Michael and we are off. We begin in the capital of Banjul before crossing the ferry to Barra, where we will go on the North Bank of The Gambia to the central city of Farefenni. It rains throughout the day, but we pass the lush, palm tree-filled region and stop at various sites. The sites are mostly Wolof, the ethnic group Sam belongs to and Michael and I are immediately grateful that we have come at the point in our service, where we can chat with ease and walk into a compound and already have an idea of where the volunteer lives and who is their Mom or their Father. Between Michael’s Pulaar and my Mandinka, we can communicate at every site and it is a joy to greet the families of the people who host us, to see a volunteer in his or her element and to see their space and the bush surrounding their village. We sleep in Farefenni, and I stay with my friend Stephen from my training group. We drink tea and laugh about how far we have come since training, eat dinner on the floor of his family’s home and we both cannot believe how little time we have left.

Tuesday, August 18: We begin our day in my favorite way-at a Gambian coffee shop. They are generally shacks on the side of the road with some thermoses for hot water and a gas burner, some eggs and onions, lots of oil and condensed milk. I love the vibe here, where the morning is slow and you greet your neighbors as so few do in America. We eat egg sandwiches and drink Nescafe and condensed milk and are on the road before 8. Most of our sites today are in the bush, down reddish and muddy dirt roads. We see people farming ground nuts and millet and corn and rice and, as always, we thank them for working. We get stuck in the mud and Sam has to ask those working on their farm to help us out, while yelling at Michael and I to stop taking pictures. It’s apparent today how diverse the Gambia is. You would think, in such a small country, that it would be topographically similar. But the North Bank where we are is far more dense with trees and riverside than the arid Upper River Region. The bush looks different everywhere we go and it is so cool to see it evolve in a short amount of time. We begin our day near palm trees and dropping mail to volunteers who mostly speak Wolof and Pulaar, marveling at how, every time we arrive in the interior of a village, it looks similar, no matter how different the bush around the site appears or how far a volunteer is from the river, from the road or from another volunteer. Compounds vary but Michael and I only notice because we have been here for two years. We are familiar with the differences within a compound now and we know enough to recognize a young compound versus old, one with more money floating through or less. We know that, even though we all have the same Peace Corps approved housing, this ranges from a single room thatched hut, to a block in a family’s row home, to a stand alone house, to a room next to a store house. We chat about this, and so many other things with Sam, the three of us squished up in the front, the back teeming with boxes. We arrive in Janjangbureh by early evening and grab some food at a local restaurant where they go out to buy the food after we order and we fall fast asleep at a lodge by the riverside.

Wednesday, August 19: I know this road today. It’s the unpaved North Bank Road that goes from Janjangbureh to the end of the country in Fatoto. I live here and I have suffered on this road, with its potholes and bushiness. It’s absolutely beautiful and I find it endearing but by the end of 14 hours on it, my back is killing and I can’t even fathom how exhausted Sam is. We get a flat tire right before arriving in Nyakoi and the entire day takes us 12 hours, even though we only visit 8 volunteers. We are able to see some people from my group who I haven’t had the chance to visit, the treacherous bike ride always too intimidating or too hot, and I am able to greet the family I have heard so much about. We arrive in Nyakoi to an empty compound and it feels so strange to come and go in less than 10 minutes and even stranger to see everyone out in the fields. We arrive in Basse, eat plates of rice at my favorite restuarant near the car park, after waiting for the ferry and go back out to the edge of the country. We stay at the Basse house tonight and I am able to hang out with a big group of people from the region. We go and grab plates of chicken and oily spaghetti and sleep even better than we did the previous night.

Thurday, August 20: Today is our longest day because it is the most populated with volunteers. We leave the Upper River Region after breakfast at our favorite Basse shack, Kumba’s, and continue to the Central River Region. I’m unfamiliar with this region, even though I pass through it every time I travel and its beauty is striking. We pass unpaved roads lined with rice fields. And, like the Upper River Region, every village is almost exclusively thatch, and the contrast between the green fields and huts is stunning to me. I finally begin to find people to speak Mandinka with, and I am having so much fun greeting and laughing with everyone’s families. I love seeing the diversity of people’s villages, whether it is in their proximity to Senegal or to site mates. We realize, throughout this week, how similar yet diverse our experiences are within The Gambia. I could do my service all over again in a Wolof village, a Serahule community or even in Kombo. The range from city life and proximity to the capital is so apparent. My site is unique because, although it is in the bush, it is close to Basse. Michael’s is unique because he lives nowhere near any cities, deep in the bush. My village is a certain sect of Mandinkas while the people Michael lives with speak a different variation of Pulaar. I live with an almost nuclear family while some people live as a renter. The list continues. How lucky I am to have learned all of this. Today, we go all the way to Soma, the city near where I trained. I am able to stay overnight with Jacy, a volunteer who essentially lives on the Senegal border, and we arrive in a downpour which we witnessed forming as we flew down the paved highway. She just got power lines in her village and we are able to cook by lightbulb and watch a movie which seems fitting on such a stormy night.

Friday, August 21: The rain has finally stopped when Sam comes to get me from Jacy’s and I am thrilled because I was able to spend the morning playing with the gorgeous kids in her Fula compound. We go to the sites around Soma, all of which have a little more corrugate and concrete than I am used to, and continue towards Kombo to the area known as the Fonies. The proximity to Banjul is apparent in the development here, with large compounds and iron gates, most thatch replaced by corrugate and huts replaced by row houses. There are young children greeting me in English, which is shocking to me. The Fonies are known for their year-round lushness, and the area doesn’t experience the same type of heat or dryness. It’s a different type of beauty, just as every region of The Gambia is. We finish handing our brownies, we listen to a few last songs, we laugh with Sam for a few more minutes and we arrive in Kombo exhausted after a hard week’s work.

How cool it was to tour the country, to see volunteers receive some love from home and to meet the people and see the places that everyone lives here.

Xoxo Beth