Janjanbureh: A piece of paradise
After residing in the beaten down truck stop town of Soma, I was excited to visit what is supposedly the most beautiful part of The Gambia for a Peace Corps field trip. The drive alone convinced me the rumors were true. As soon as we exited my village, the roadsides turned to lush landscapes. Ancient trees with twisted trunks made the perfect playground for dozens of monkeys. We even spotted a group of baboons.
Once in Janjanbureh, a scenic village on the river, we stopped for chakri, a yogurt-like porridge made from sour milk and coos. The snack immediately bumped the village’s rating in my book. We visited the Regional Education Office before meeting the area’s governor. Both stops were interesting, but not directly useful for me since my permanent site will be in a different region. It did, however, give me a sense of the filibuster-esque meeting style of The Gambia. Essentially, everyone repeats what the person before them says in what I am sure must be an unspoken competition on who can talk the longest without saying anything new. This is apparently how school staff meetings will also be run.
After a long afternoon of official business, we took a little boat across the river to a cute lodge where we stayed the night.
Huts (with running water, score!) were nestled back in the forest. Monkeys swung in every tree, swooping down to steal our mango peels right off our plates.
It was nice to see my volunteer friends. We played cards, chatted and just generally enjoyed our escape from village life. With the afternoon sun still blazing, a few even jumped in the river to cool off. The swim was interrupted, however, by two (luckily, not hungry) hippos.
A boatload of tourists came as the sun was setting. It was strange to see so many people in tight, short shorts and I felt uncomfortable — worried that because of my skin color I would be grouped in with the culturally insensitive “toubabs.” The moment also reaffirmed my beliefs for how important integration is here in gaining respect from the community, which in turn will help the reception of my work. I felt a sense of pride for how well my integration is going so far, but also realized how quickly my image could be torn down by others.
The tourists probably thought equally negative thoughts of us come mealtime. When the buffet-style dinner came, we were like a pack of hungry wolves descending on the food. I wanted to go tell the tourists that we had been stuck in a village for the past two months with little access to other food options, but they did not speak English. We had tomato soup and garlic bread for a starter. A starter! Ah! Salad, spaghetti, coos with lamb, and domoda were served for dinner. We scarfed it down and went back for seconds, right there on the riverbank. Can you say paradise?
After dinner, some villagers came to the lodge and put on a drum and dance show where Roberto, one of our trainees, totally stole the spotlight.
The morning’s breakfast was a whole new level of good. We had bread with local peanut butter and honey, fried dough or “panketos,” which are like donut holes, and omelet with cheese. Cheese! And not Gambian “grease egg” omelet, either. It was a real omelet. I realize that none of you understand the concept of how amazing these meals were, but that is OK. Since Ramadan, the food situation in my family has not been as good as it was so this was a real treat.
We then observed a methods class at the teacher training college, and I was surprisingly impressed after hearing about the lack of qualified teachers in Gambian schools. The instructor incorporated student interaction in his class, called on both men and women, and did a decent job eliciting how the teachers-to-be could show their students how to calculate differences in time. After speaking with current volunteers, I’ve learned that many teachers don’t apply these methods; however, so I am interested to see how it goes when I start working at my school.
Perhaps the best part of the field trip was arriving back in Soma. I walked through the gates of Colley Kunda to smiles and open arms of my family. The kids ran to hug me as they do every time I return home, even if I’ve only been gone an hour. My mom told me Sainabou, the sister who is “assigned” to take care of me, had woken up early out of habit to make me breakfast and was sad when she remembered I was gone. She said 3-year-old Modou repeatedly asked where I was all day long. And my sister Abie who had been away for weeks had finally returned home, eager to hear about my trip.
“I missed you all after one day, too,” I told my host mother. “What will I do when I move to my new village in just three more weeks?”
She turned to me, trying to respond in her broken English so that I would understand: “You come! You don’t need invite. You come. This is your home.”