Guest Blog: My mom’s Gambian experience
Guess what always happens when I go on vacation? Of course I have a great time, but that’s not what I was thinking. I gain weight! Not just a little either, typically around five pounds in just a week. Well, my vacation to Africa started out much the same. The eating frenzy began in Morocco where I met my daughter, Jessica, for a holiday break. My final destination would be to The Gambia, where she is currently serving in the Peace Corps. I only bring up Morocco as a reference to help share my experience in The Gambia.
After we both arrived, found transportation to our destination and settled a bit, we went out into the Medina where our Riad (guest house) was located. The first thing I noticed was Jessica seemed to be in awe over the food in the market. Her eyes lit up when she saw someone selling strawberries and stopped and asked if we could buy some. She said, “I haven’t seen a strawberry in over a year!” In my head I was thinking that must be an exaggeration, but just kept it to myself. During our 10 days in Morocco, food seemed to be the focus; Jess wanted to stop and try the food at the stands, couldn’t wait to order in a restaurant, marveled at the fruits and vegetables, and was amazed at how accessible food seemed to be here in this African country just a short flight away from the one she was serving. All the while in my mind I was thinking, “How bad could it be?”
Ten days into my vacation I was about to find out as we headed to The Gambia. We arrived at 3:15 in the morning and were greeted by a friendly young man who Jessica had arranged to pick us up. This was far different than the grumpy, not so friendly drivers we happened to encounter in Morocco. I’m not sure if it was the language barrier that made them seem grumpy or if they were actually just grumpy. Anyway, this friendly young man took us to our hotel, well, I’d call it more like a hut, on the beach. After catching a few hours of sleep, we went to breakfast which was literally a stone’s throw away from the beach. What’s not to like, I thought, I was already in love with The Gambia! Breakfast however, was much different than the pastries, eggs and fresh fruit we had in Morocco. Our breakfast was a hardboiled egg, coffee and watermelon. That’s a healthy way to start the day, I thought.
After breakfast Jess and I ran errands to pick up some things before we would later head to her village. The first thing I noticed was how friendly everyone seemed. No matter where we walked we were greeted with “Salam malekum and Kasumay” and Jess would respond as if she had been speaking the language her whole life. This too was so different than the people we encountered in Morocco. There I felt like people were only nice to you while they were trying to get you to buy something from them. On one encounter, a young child most likely not older than 10, told us to “F” off when we wouldn’t give him what he wanted. A vast contrast to the people we encountered during my stay in The Gambia. Here people who were trying to get something from you, were insulted when you told them no, you’re disturbing us. They would immediately apologize and move along.
As we continued our errands, the next thing that struck me was that everywhere we walked, we were walking in dirt. It didn’t seem like such a big deal at first, but when you’re trying to pull your heavy luggage full of food your daughter asked you to bring her, then it becomes quite cumbersome as the wheels won’t roll through the deep sand! On our trek through the “city”, mind you not like the Las Vegas city I live in, but none the less, a city, we hit the “grocery” stores: “Target”, “Safeway” and “Kaimart”! The only thing these stores have in common with our stores however, is their names.
We stomped through all three stores in search of cream of chicken soup and egg noodles. I was thinking I could make some sort of pasta dish with one of the packages of chicken I was lugging around in my suitcase. Jessica told me to get whatever I thought I wanted because there isn’t much in the market in her village. I think she should have been clearer, because I figured “How bad could it be? I’m sure I’ll be able to find something to cook.” She also said if you want any snacks between meals, you should get them now. I said, confidently, “I won’t need any snacks. I ate too much in Morocco and need to lose the five pounds I gained anyway.” We finished our shopping by stopping at an outside cart to buy some apples and oranges to take too. Of course, there is no refrigeration, so I could only buy what might survive on the counter of her house. I knew they would only last a few days. I didn’t realize how precious those apples and oranges would be until after a few days in village where there didn’t seem to be any in sight.
Our journey to village started with a taxi dropping us off at the bus station. I marveled at my surroundings; the tires lined up for what looked like car spaces, although there weren’t any cars there, the goats roaming around, the beautiful dressed women with their babies tied to their backs as we waited for the bus. A friendly young fella in the seat next to us agreed to hold one of our bags, so we only had one in the aisle. Another example of the friendly people I encountered in The Gambia!
Our two-hour journey to village took a bit longer with all the stops and people jumping on and off the bus along the way. When we arrived Jessica’s host brother, Ebrima, was waiting at the road, the only road I might add. He picked up my heavy suitcase and threw it over his shoulder as if it were a sack of cotton balls! I followed the two through the dirt to their nearby compound. There I was greeted by the rest of her host family, including Leo, the dog she has seemed to adopt. After a few minutes of the usual greetings, Jess dismissed us and we went into her two rooms of the compound. She swept incessantly for at least 20 minutes trying to get rid of the dirt that had blown through the barred windows and screen doors. Little did I know this sweeping would become a daily ritual three times a day! She explained the water filter system, how to light the propane tank with a burner on top, showed me where we’d be sleeping — a one inch mat on the bamboo frame covered with a mosquito net — and to the backyard where the pit latrine is located. Here I’d do my business and take a bath with a cup!
A few hours later, I began our first dinner in village; you remember the hunt for noodles and soup. That was it. Not too bad for limited supplies and a one burner propane tank to work on. That night I lay awake listening to the scampering of who knows what above my head on top of the bags that made her ceiling. I had hoped it wasn’t a rat like the one I found in the shower of our hotel in the city the day before. After what seemed like an eternity, I must have fallen asleep because I woke suddenly to the cockadoodle doos of roosters! My phone read, 4:30 a.m.Yikes! Way too early I thought. I lay there trying to fall back asleep when I heard someone next door getting up. “What’s that?” I asked Jess, and she told me it was one of the women getting up to start the fire to begin their breakfast. This is how every day in her village started.
A few hours later, we finally crawled out of the mosquito net. I stumbled out to the pit latrine cringing as I swatted away the bugs so I could do my business. Jess started a T25 workout on her laptop, and I tried to keep up with her morning routine. We ate one of the precious protein bars I had lugged across the ocean, dressed in our matching complets she had made for us, and headed to school for the first day after holiday break. We were leaving about an hour after the “official” start time, but Jess said not to worry because we wouldn’t be late.
Well, this is where things got interesting. I’ve been a teacher in the United States for nearly three decades, so figured I knew what to expect. Things are quite a bit different in a village in The Gambia! First of all, we walked down a dirt path greeted by everyone we passed, crossed the only road and continued down another dirt path which finally led to school. Outside the brick building stood a young boy ringing a bell while other children ran in to line up near the headmaster’s office. This ringing continued at least 30 minutes longer before the headmaster finally addressed the students. During his address to the students he drove home the importance of being on time and doing your duties before dismissing them to clean their classrooms, dirt playground and garden. I found this a bit ironic since he was lecturing the half of the student body and teachers who actually showed up. The other half didn’t bother coming, apparently because they already knew there wouldn’t be any learning going on that day. We stayed for a bit while I checked things out. Kids fetched water from the pump, others swept their classrooms and library and some just ran around the dirt playground and climbed on the turned over tree they used as their jungle gym.
I was quite fascinated by the events taking place, and I think they were just as fascinated by my presence. They said hello “toubab” which means whitey and Jess who finds this insulting told them so and reminded them of a proper greeting. They also seemed to be fascinated by my camera and jumped up and down like monkeys into my view so I would snap their pictures and then would ask to see them. After an hour or so of observations, talking with teachers we planned to visit the following day and taking pictures, we left back to Jess’s home, so we could take a nap before lunch. It was a bit exhausting watching all those kids at work.
We both actually fell right asleep under the mosquito net and woke when one of her host sisters brought us our lunch. Jess usually eats from a shared bowl with her family during lunch, but it is custom for guests to be served their own bowl. We ate on a mat on the concrete floor of her house. She uncovered the bowl and gasped with excitement when there was an entire piece of fish, head and all, in the middle of the bowl of rice. She then said, “I knew they would cook good stuff while you are here.” At this moment I knew my little girl had grown up; she wouldn’t even eat chicken off a bone well into her teens. I too was suddenly thrust back to my own childhood visitations with my dad, and though I was just as creeped out by the fish staring at me as I was as a child. I dug in knowing if I didn’t I’d go hungry. I was thinking I should have bought those snacks in the city. We ate what we could, fed some to Leo and returned the rest to her family. Then Jess said we needed to fetch water.
We strolled down the dirt path, buckets in hand, to the tap where Jess would get a chance to make fun of my efforts of carrying water on my head. I did give it a shot, but quickly gave up and carried it by the handle instead. I even tried to carry two buckets during one trip to the tap, but had to stop to rest several times on the way back to the compound. Her host sisters found this funny since their skinny little bodies and arms can carry buckets like they’re empty!
After water fetching we strolled down the dirt path to the market, stopping to greet everyone in sight.
Apparently the market is the biggest in the area, but the instant we walked into the market I knew why Jess had been in awe of the food in Morocco and wanted to eat everything in sight. Seriously, how do people make dinner with these options? Jess bought eggs, tomatoes, a couple of potatoes, a piece of pumpkin and a few onions. Not because that’s all she wanted, but because that’s about all that’s available besides the fly infested fish, some being ground. Again, I thought of those snacks I should have bought in the city.
That night we had taco soup using some soy product another volunteer had recently left her. The next night was tuna cakes, Jess’s version of crab cakes using two of the tuna packs I had sent her in a care package mixed with an egg and flaxseed. Another night we had potato soup using potatoes, pumpkin, and powdered milk. You definitely have to get creative when trying to figure out what to eat unless you just want to eat rice. Breakfast was a bit easier with scrambled eggs and tomatoes. I like my omelets with cheese, but apparently cheese is an anomaly since there isn’t any refrigeration. Needless to say, I didn’t have to worry about the five pounds I gained in Morocco! Between the lack of food and the sweating, I was pretty sure it was melting off me.
The day after school was supposed to start we made our second visit in hopes we could observe a couple of classes and think of a lesson we could teach together the following day. After visiting the classrooms, I saw there were few if any materials. We stopped at the library that Jess developed with the teachers and students during the first year of her service. There on the bottom of one of the shelves was the third grade basal series I had used when I taught 3rd grade ten years earlier. I opened it and turned to an African Folktale, “Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears.” I decided it would be fun to use a story I had used in America and since we were in Africa, I figured the children would be able to relate to this African tale. Later that afternoon as I reread the story and prepared a lesson, Jess kept telling me to keep it simple. I decided I would focus on vocabulary and the obvious concept of cause and effect.
Time sure did pass slowly, slowly as there isn’t much to do in a rural village. We spent time just chatting, visiting with her host family and neighbors and making jewelry with some schoolgirls who came over to Jess’ house to hang out.
The next day I excitedly walked through the dirt path to school ready to teach a lesson. The day before while observing I noticed the teacher had some difficulty engaging all of his students, especially those in the back, so I told Jess I was going to wander back and forth in the middle to back of the room, and she should do the same in the front as well as write on the board when I needed her to. She began by introducing me. I then began by trying to teach the 3rd graders a quiet signal and asked them if they had ever watched a movie. The stared at me with blank faces. I explained as slowly as possible my “lights, camera, action” signal, so they would know when I was trying to get their attention. Jess warmed them up with a song with actions and everyone seemed to enjoy this song and dance. I started my lesson with excitement and told them how I had taught the same story in America to 3rd graders. I was quickly deflated as I struggled trying to get them to understand the vocabulary before beginning the story. Luckily, Jess’s host father sat in on our lesson and translated to help me get them to understand what in the world I was talking about. By the time I got through the story and my graphic organizer demonstrating cause and effect using the characters in the story, I was exhausted. I’m not sure if it was the task of trying to teach a lesson to kids who speak very little English, me trying to swat away the flying insects that buzzed around me or the fact that I was sweating in this non air conditioned classroom with temperatures above 90 degrees. And let me remind you, it’s cold season, so no one else seemed to be bothered by the heat.
I left school after a few hours and thought about how difficult it must be to teach school here in The Gambia. First of all, The entire country is ESL, here in the villages they have no running water in their houses, some have a pit latrine inside, but most are out back, they have to cut and gather wood for their fires to cook on, fetch water at home and school, there are no windows or lights in their classrooms, and even the teachers are not all properly educated. Oh, I forgot to mention that most of the classrooms had between 30 and 40 students. Now I understood why Jess has faced discouraging challenges in trying to make a difference. None the less, I reminded her that even a small change for the better is better than no change at all.
As we walked back through the dirt path to her compound, I thought about how grateful I am to live and teach in America, and how I will share this experience with my own students. That evening we chatted with Jess’s host father who asked if I understood the challenges they face in education. I said yes, but thought to myself the challenges they face go way beyond education. Even trying to raise crops is difficult with no watering system. I can barely remember to water the one plant outside that isn’t automatically watered by my sprinkler system and here in The Gambia they have to water all of their crops by hand with water they fetch from a nearby well. From my perspective, I also understood why education seemed to have less value here. Getting an education in America means a better opportunity for a better job which translates to more money and more things. “Things” are not of importance here. Families working, playing, and praying together are what is important. No matter where I went while in The Gambia I was greeted by happy people who have little and it didn’t really seem to matter; they were just happy living.