Sunday, November 22, 2009

In Repose, Reconciling Generations

Sometimes the best way to have an enlightening conversation is to repose at the village bantaba. The bantaba is a a meeting place in the form of a covered slab of cement or bench made of timber. This cool, relaxing locale is frequented by the village elders, the keepers of tradition, the minds of whom have absorbed much from their surroundings.

As with every generational change, the elders witness the youth adopt new attitudes contrary to those of the ancestors. They glower at the youth from a distance, occasionally deriding them for their unfamiliar manners of dress and speech. Change is always difficult to swallow, yet in the globalized world of today, this process has happened extraordinarily fast. Thus, any talk of development or change at the bantaba is bound to be interesting, exhuming perspectives of bygone times. Here, with wizened frames, clutching weathered canes, the bygone generation blends tales of the past with interpretations of the present.

On a journey that brought me quite far down one of the Gambia's countless rocky roads I found myself in repose at such a bantaba. Soon I was exchanging words with a grandfatherly man who was unabashed in challenging my views. I commented that I was impressed that so many of the villages youth regularly attended school and many were even able to have conversations in English. The old man chortled, exposing his haphazard, jagged teeth before getting into his rant.

“Hah! School is the scourge of the community,” he said. “We've all sent our children to that infamous place, even me, but what have we gotten out of it?”

I nearly began to answer the question, but he drove right back into his tirade.

“We send our children to school, we labor to pay for the fees, but we see nothing. In fact, it's worse than nothing. It puts funny ideas in their heads and they no longer want to stay here. If they leave us here for the towns, when they visit us they are disgusted by their own former homes, repulsed by what they now see as unclean. They think us uncivilized and backward, forgetting this is where they themselves were raised. They reject our traditions, choose wives and husbands for themselves, and think only of their personal welfare and that of their children. We up-country farmers, with our simple and irrational ways are nearly forgotten as the “educated” ones are focused on developing themselves. They rarely send us any money to help us get by. Yes, the school has corrupted the minds of the youth.”

Meanwhile, I had been making mental notes of how to refute his arguments. I had been preparing myself to suggest to him all the benefits of education, to explain the idea of development in the world we live in today. But by the end of his speech I simply sighed deeply and smiled. I knew he had a point. The man seemed rather reasonable and I sensed that he was in fact aware of the positive aspects of education. He appeared to be presenting his argument through a traditional lens to study my reaction.

I nodded my head in agreement, acknowledging the wisdom of the nation's older generation.

“Yes, I see,” I finally replied. “Very interesting.” Clearly, he had implied with his story, development is complex. Even the issue of education must be handled with care and respect. Foreign concepts can easily conflict with local realities, thus finding a balance that recognizes the value of the traditional systems while promoting innovative ideas (wherever they come from) is the sagacious path to follow.

A real conversation, loosely translated, slightly embellished.

2nd PC-The Gambia Photo Contest

In honor of the 2nd Annual Peace Corps The Gambia Photo Contest which took place this weekend I want to share a few of my own photographs because it's about time. For the second year in a row I organized a photo contest to inspire other volunteers to take more pictures of their villages and their experiences so all of us here can admire the splendor of The Gambia and remember just how entertaining life here can be.
Some of my images in no particular, chronological or even logical order:

Saturday, November 21, 2009

My Mali Sojourn

You may or may not know, but I traveled to Mali via Gambia and Senegal last month. It was a rather stellar trip that took my cohorts and I down the long road to Bamako and beyond to the red rock cliff villages of the Bandiagara Escarpment in the heart of Dogon country. Brenden, a fellow PCV in my distant Upper River Region of the Gambia, wrote a description of our adventure on his own blog a little hungry that is worth a read. The guy is not a bad writer, I'll say that. I shall provide some photographic accompaniment.

Click on Mali Journal.

This region of Mali was especially beautiful because of the manner in which the people lived with the rocky hills. For anyone who enjoys a solid hike, a visit to this area of the world will blow you away.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Death and Grasses

The day I cleared my farm -sweeping grass and sticks into piles which I then set ablaze- became the day I never wanted to see. It doesn't matter where I was when I heard the wailing, it doesn't matter where any of us were, we all came running. As I ran across fields of freshly plowed earth I hoped it was a house fire, a case of damage goods, an opportunity to quell an inferno with the community, then join hands together to rebuild. A fire wouldn't be so bad I thought, please let it be I fire, but I feared worse, I was running towards a well. Soon, I, and everyone, arrived chests heaving at the perilous well. There was no fire to be seen and those already on the scene were peering down the abysmal cement-lined cavern, some of them frantically trying to prepare a pulley. Someone has fallen.

Before long, the whole village materialized, women at a distance wailing and men surrounding the well, watching helplessly. The average heartbeat of the village must have been the highest in the world. An intrepid young man offered to descend to retrieve the one who had fallen. I wanted to believe someone could survive the drop, could salvage some kind of life, yet from below we heard nothing. The young man finally went down with an improvised rope harness, his mission to secure another rope to the incomprehensible form at the bottom.. A team of men slowly lowered him in to the depths of the well. I tried to imagine what it must have felt like to be inside, the overwhelming heat and the obscured reflection of the clear blue sky on the water below. Before long his voice echoed information skyward and the team was pulling him up. He placed his feet on solid ground and hastily stripped off the ropes. He sighed deeply and walked away from the well, having seen enough.

Our optimism was diminished now, little doubt lingered about the fate of the fallen one. The ropes were pulled once more and the fallen one began to rise. It was then that I realized I didn't know who fell, whether man, woman, or child. I hoped it wasn't someone from my host family of someone I knew well. I hoped it wasn't a person at all, but a beast instead, for there was nobody I could think of whose passing wouldn't bring suffering. The pulling of the rope, the shrill screech of the pulley seemed to go on for far too long, a testament to the depth of our water table. When the fallen one was too emerge however, we collectively felt it, and instinctively began to move towards the well. A donkey cart was secured as transport and a cloth was provided as cover.

Here we go, I thought.

The sun shone hot and bright on the illuminated body as the rope was removed and the cloth quickly draped over its face. Through the crowd I took a glance at what we all simultaneously wanted and did not want to see. A small crumpled frame, tattered jeans, a little boy. There was relief in seeing, our imaginations could now rest and we could begin to fully accept the outcome. The masses of people began to walk slowly down the road to the boy's compound, everyone looking forward and towards the ground. It wasn't far to the compound and we all entered solemnly. ***(See the note at the bottom.) Every sitting place was taken and those of us behind were forced to stand. In the compound the wailing of the women refused to abate. The arrival of the boy's body ignited a whole new round of emotional cries. The cries swirled through the air like the rapid winds of a cyclone. A few women collapsed on the ground and were taken inside.

Leaning against a compound wall I glanced from face to face. People seemed unabashed in expressing their sadness, even a few men had the distinct trail of tears shining over their dark skin. Every time I met the eyes of someone crying I too came close to tears. They never came, though sweat dripped down my forehead past my eyes and I imagined the droplets as tears. I kept my composure breathing through clenched teeth and with rumbling tremors in my stomach. Respected men went into the room where the boy was taken, I presume to inspect the body. I was glad I hadn't gotten a better look at the boy when they raised him from the well, a fall like that must be pretty brutal.

I then noticed a chicken with its throat cut lying lifeless in the middle of the compound. I pondered its significance and I wondered why nobody else seemed to be paying any attention. When the group of men charged with inspecting appeared again, it seemed like the right time to depart. I ambled home, all the while finding it difficult to summon my voice, even for greeting. As I walked, I thought of my farm and how most of the grass raked and burned was dry and old, yet some of it was green and fresh. In the end though, it all came to ash and was returned to the soil.

*** Author's note - At this point I was called as the only skilled photographer in the village with a camera to take pictures of the body for the police. I reluctantly agreed and walked back to the boy's compound. I found the police officer at the compound entrance and suggested that he borrow my camera to get the needed shots. He replied simply, "You're the professional." Inside the compound many people had remained and were praying together. I kept a straight face as I walked past them, camera hanging off my shoulder, pausing to remove my shoes as I crossed over a prayer mat. I could tell all eyes were on me. I summoned all my poise, took the required shots and left. One from the front. One from the back. One from the side. I was curious and a little nervous to see him. Though I'd finally heard the boy's name by now, I hadn't recognized him upon the photographic unveiling. He had a gash, long and deep, across his swollen face. His unfamiliar features made it easier to take his pictures without flashbacks of his life running though my head. I'm sure however, I'll eventually figure out where I know him and then he can do his running.

Quotes to consider.

I recently finished reading an enlightening book about a young woman living in Ghana, Burkina Faso and Togo during the 1960's and 1970's called Hustling is Not Stealing. The book is a near direct transcription of stories told by the girl to an American sociologist. The American, John Chernoff, prefaces the unique and entertaining stories with by explaining rather accurately how Westerners perceive Africans and also places the life and lifestyle of the girl into context. The stories themselves are worth a browse for being told in a West African English very similar to Gambian English and because the protagonist, Hawa, is a rather talented raconteur. However, the quotes I want to present for consideration are from Mr. Chernoff's introduction. They convey a profound insight rare of commentary relating to Africa and are worth a solid pondering.

"Sometimes knowledge is not what one knows or can say; rather it is what one cannot say and can no longer think." -page 8

"For many people, wealth and power energize a persuasive legitimacy, but wealth and power do not energize what they do not reach." -page 22

Saturday, September 26, 2009

In Defense of Poor Grades

I was commenting on the less than amazing quality of education and low standards as is so easy to do, when I came to a realization. I had been criticizing students who aim for a passing grade in a system where 40/100 and above is a pass. My original comment was to say that most of the time in the American grading system, a 60/100 is a pass, but why would one want to be satisfied with a mere pass anyway? Why not shoot for an "A" or a "B"? As I made the statement I noticed I was sitting near an ethnic Fula girl who had not completed school. She had either never attended or had performed poorly and dropped out early. But I knew the girl and I understood she was a hard worker and that she was generally interested in learning. That was one of the main reasons she was involved in a youth training/loan program. To expand her knowledge and increase her opportunity in achieving financial independence.

All of a sudden it hit me as I pictured this girl in school. She wouldn't have failed to achieve high scores because of lack of will power, on the contrary, she very much appreciates the value of education. If she had received poor results, it would have been because of a lack of encouragement and assistance. Coming from a background with illiterate parents in a largely illiterate village the older generation and some of her young peers may not be fully aware of the benefits of school and thus are unwilling or unable to support the current generation of students.

In that social situation achieving a 40/100 could be considered a moderate success and such a student should be highly praised considering the conditions they're up against. Ideally however, people should start waking up and realizing the benefits that formal education can bring. The reality is that not every parent can help students with their school work, yet every parent should have the prescience and motivation to help their children find assistance, even if they have to seek it outside of their compound or home village. Later on I hope the parents will be able to advise their own kids. Lets hope were moving closer to that vision.

Formal education and literacy are essential to development. Period.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A Developed Rural Africa

Time has passed with little word from me on this website lately, but that's what happens when you try to maintain a blog from rural West Africa. It's hard enough to make a local call from village to village in the rainy season if you're not on top of a water tower, let alone post content to the internet. However, just because my fingers have been absent from a keyboard for quite awhile doesn't mean my pen (or should I say Black Warrior pencil if you know me well) has been packed away. I'm now in the greater Banjul area for a couple of days and so I decided to share some thoughts I'd saved up. I've become obsessed with finding practical ways to improve the lives of the community members that have welcomed me in. The contributions I make are small in the grand scheme of things (the crude measurements of economic development/growth), though I like to think if embraced, the changes I've catalyzed together with my Gambian counterparts have been steps in the right direction. There are so many issues that cross my mind, I'm bombarded by them every day. I don't always have the time or energy to flesh out every worthy subject, but I have been able to scribble a few into the pages of my notebook. The following series of posts are entries from my current notebook,a black, lined Moleskine, the third volume since my arrival. These topics are very far from exhausting the material that makes for solid analysis and debate surrounding development in rural Gambia, yet I offer them as a sample of the concepts, visions, questions, ideas and critiques that run through my head.

A Developed Rural Africa
Written on the highway from Gambia to Dakar, Senegal March, 2009

What does African Development ideally look like outside of the urban centers?
The vast majority of rural Africans are engaged in farming. Thus a more developed rural Africa entails improvements in the agriculture sector. Under favorable conditions I imagine a highly productive agricultural sector that efficiently and effectively uses the land and resources available to produce the largest gains.

African communities have always been able to successfully utilize the various plants in their respective environments. It's now time to use these biological resources with more control to achieve higher levels of production while ensuring that environmental resources are sustainable. Ideally, gains from agriculture would produce surplus agricultural wealth that could be used to invest in other trades or create new industries. A significant surplus would allow farmers to readily send their children to schools as well as to improve household health and nutrition. High yields and profits would come from the harmonious use of modern machinery and technical knowledge tailored to the particular environment individuals and communities find themselves in and an understanding of what is demanded by the market at what prices. Solid infrastructure would relay market and production information as well as physically facilitating the voyage of crops to market.

Qualified and skilled workers are essential if agricultural gains are to be made. This means offering high quality educational services and the constructive use of those services by families. You can't get rich by sitting around. The wealthier societies on this planet have high levels of formal education. It's not a coincidence. All children must go to school. People like to say that education is a human right. Well, then to not send your child to school and to not support them financially and with motivation if you have the means is to deny the human rights of your child. Families friends and neighbors must support each other in area of education as they always have in other ways. Communities themselves must act as coherent units to demand quality services from the teachers and the systems as a whole. Education salaries should be competitive with other jobs so as to attract solid talent. Countries that are relatively poor in natural resources have to invest heavily in their human resources to develop social capital. A literate society will attract investors and create jobs in the knowledge sector. Much of this requires a values shift, a reevaluation of priorities that may reorganize the way people spend their time and limit overindulgence in luxury items.

Development requires a certain consciousness of the challenges that lie ahead and a willingness to sacrifice to achieve one's goals. Overall, standards must be raised. Ignorance is becoming a poor excuse for inaction with the proliferation of mobile and information technology. People must join others in claiming math and science as their own, a valuable creation of the human race for the advancement of technology that eases our labor. Science and math are not menacing tools designed by one particular group to enslave the world, they are ever-advancing tools for all.

Development in not manifested in illegal migration that finances a mammoth house for one's mother and father. It's about using exiting knowledge and resources to create sustainable livelihoods. The African environment is not homogeneous and certainly it is not the same as that found in Europe or America. Africans should take a step back and find examples of groups and individuals operating successfully in a similar climate to their own, then seek to replicate those successes. Those positive role models hold the key as to how to manage one's resources in an innovative and more prosperous manner.

Ultimately the product of a "developed" rural Africa will not look the same as developed areas elsewhere in the world and it shouldn't because Africans have their own diverse cultures. The image of America as the ideal Africa is just a mirage and unrealistic for social and environmental reasons. The true ideals of development lie in the opportunity to rise from the bottom to the top with hard work, determination and a little luck. Development is not just something that sounds like a nice idea to people as they hope someone will deal with their problems and help them to realize their desires. Development is a conscious action, a change in lifestyle, a search in which all avenues are tested in the journey to the higher standards of living that people want. What people want is defined by themselves, but in the globalized world of today, those wants are often influenced by those other people we happen to share our planet with. Its not only the reality that we're getting more and more connected, but it's also simply good to know and understand each other, as shared experiences strengthen cooperation and build peace.

A developed rural Africa is a peaceful place in which the people are healthy and live with comfort and pride.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Afgan women protest for their rights

The story of women protesting in Afganistan a week or so ago is a bit old now but it's still worth mentioning. I brought up in my recent post about honor killings that within cultures and regions in which abuse of human rights is common (particularly fundamentalist Islamic communities), especially against women, there is a serious need for some lifestyle reflection that will ideally lead to respectful values shifts. It's no longer tolerable in the 21st century to rape and beat women (who knows why it ever was), and disturbingly to integrate those rather obvious injustices into a legel system. Because, we as the human race, have not quite moved beyond those regretable acts, action must be taken to demonstrate that people wont just sit down and accept systems that are abusive and cause immense suffering. In Martin Luthor King's famous "Letter from a Britmingham Jail", he speaks out against what he calls unjust laws and prescribes civil disobedience as the wakeup call for society to realize its errors and hopefully right them in the future. In a society where women are normally quite subservient to men, when a group of 300 women march through the streets of the capital and reject what they believe is an unjust law, that's a very powerful act.

The story goes, that a law was passed recently by Afganistan's two houses of parliament and even signed by President Hamid Karzai, that fobids women of the Shiite Islamic sect from rejecting the sexual advances of their husbands. Basically the law made legal spousal-rape. Second and third provisions of the law called for Shiite women to be prohibited from leaving their own home without the permission of a male relative and forceed the women to dress up any time their husband so requested. Seems worth protesting to me.

So this group of women braved a counter-protest crowd, reportedly more than three times the size of their own group, to criticize the law and repudiate its grounding in the Islamic scriptures. The women took a solid analytical look at the human rights aspect and the religious aspect of the law and found it to be based on pure fantasy. In reponse, they were met by a violent mob that threw stones and shouted "Whores!" at them. Not exactly a scholarly response. Simply exclaiming "Allah Akbar" is not a legitimate argument in the present time when the issue of human rights is on the table. The counter-protest was based purely on emotion, it made little or no attempt that I could discern to refute the fact that this new law had no basis in Islam. There should be more to the Koran than simply memorizing it, and reciting it. It must be interpreted as a guide to living a kind and honest life. The calls must be heeded that suggest a modern reading of the Koran that encourage spiritual living and allow for equality and prosperity. Put your fist in the air. The more these issues are covered by the media the more they must be confronted by the offending societies and the greater the pressure will be to reform. These few hundred women have performed a courgaeous act and hopefully their brave example will be followed, emulated, until values shift and freedom is realized.

I first came across the protest story on a new political photoblog I discovered called BAGnewsNotes. The site is a prolific commentary on American and global political affairs focused on the images that accompany them. Check it out, I mean, what could be better than politics and photography together? Its quite a happy family.

This New York Times link should be checked out too, it has a great video from the protest. Afgan Women Protest New Law on Home Life

The Lost Generation?

Once of those clever viral little videos that just has to be seen. It's not about the visuals this time, its about the message. Courtesy of AARP. Oh how the elders are wise. Occasionally.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Geogement Day or Judgement Day

Here's a little short story I wrote a few months back. It's mostly true.

I'm sitting outside in the morning sun, feeling the faint warmth of those golden rays, waiting patiently for a bus to town. But this ain't simply catching a bus like it is in the states. We're not into schedules or any of that here. How would we get our excitement if we knew the exact moment the bus was set to arrive? The excitement comes from not knowing whether or not you're going to get where you're going or what manner of vessel will escort you to that destination, wherever it may be.

So I wait, with the other travelers from my village, by the red dirt road on a bench that's threatening to collapse at any moment. After a little while a man on a bicycle rides by. I ask him if the bus, locally known as a gele gele, will pass today at all. He seems to think that it will. But is the man credible? What foundation is his word built upon? We raise our hopes up simply based on the fact that the man, now out of view, just so happened to be coming from the same direction that our small crowd expects the desired vehicle to emerge as the vehicles usually do, each one careening over the red Mars gravel until it slows, probably a little too quickly, to a halt near the roadside bench.

But it's not coming and it makes one wonder -I tend to use “one” when I want to think that the way I think is at least somewhat similar to the way other other people think, though I could be way off- if it will ever come, if it's even there, where is it? Is the driver on his way? Did he pass before I arrived? Is he sleeping? Still nothing. I'm antsy so I ascend a log and try some jumping tricks for the crowd. I was always a fan of freestyle walking as a kid. The show wows most of the onlookers with incredible aerial maneuvers, though a couple still appear skeptical of my skill and seem to suggest with their eyes that I could easily fall. I laugh and continue carelessly until I do in fact fall and scrape the shit out of my leg. But I play it off trying to avoid the “I told you so” lectures. I feign tiredness and sit back on the bench, attempting not to limp as I go. When nobody is looking I take a quick glance at my leg and sure enough, the injured area is streaked with red scratches and bleeding. I ignore the wound.

Humming tunes in our heads now to pass the time we still cling our foolish hope that the transport will come. Taunted and teased by churning motors in the distance we a re repeatedly disappointed by the sight of motorbikes coming our way. Motorbikes that often refuse to take along a single passenger let alone a ragtag bunch of four adults and one child with the absurd amount of luggage we are employing for our respective journeys. Motorbike after motorbike, creaky bicycle after creaky bicycle, old man after old man on foot leave us in their dust. It looks endlessly hopeless until I catch a glint of sun out of the corner of my eye and I rejoice as the gele gele comes roaring towards us.

This is it. Our hands grip our bags a little bit tighter and we start to feel at ease. But the vehicle refuses to slow on its approach. In fact, it doesn't appear to have the intention of stopping at all. As the gele gele, first appearing as a speck in the distance, a beacon of salvation, transforms into a raging beast before us, I realize how full it looks. Full to the brim. Actually more than full to the brim. Overflowing with people and their belongings, belongings stacked five feet high on top. There's even a few people taking each bump extra hard as they hang on to the precariously tethered goods on the roof. Needless to say the feeling of ease was premature. The vehicle zooms past, unconcerned with trauma it has just created, the hearts it has just shattered and steamrolled. It basks in its own self-importance as the only regular commercial passenger vehicle that passes our isolated village.

Disheartened and broken we all begin the walk home. We walk slower than normal or baggage just a little bit heavier with the weight of our resentment and humiliation. Solemnly we go on the sandy path. In the middle of mourning our somehow not entirely unexpected misfortune there is shouting about a seemingly supernatural sighting. A second gele gele is miraculously making its way down the road. Without hesitation I take off back towards the roadside stop. Some of my faithful companions are able to make the turnaround too. Looking out towards the vehicle to discern my chances I'm not encouraged. There are already a good six or seven people on top thus indicating the car has reached capacity. Regardless, it slows on its approach to check out the scene. Deciding he is not interested in adding to his already overloaded cargo, the driver continues past. My arms flail wildly in protest and in dream-like slow-motion the driver, second guessing himself and/or having heard my call, stops the car about 50 meters up the road. Together with one of the guys I'd been waiting with all morning, I run to catch up with the gele gele, still unsure if we'll get the ride. The guy I'm running with slows down and appears to be struggling under the wait of his bags. The driver casts us an anxious look like he's not going to wait much longer. I extend arm and offer to take the heaviest bag from my fellow runner and without reply he transfers it to my grip, his burden eased. We both stumble on, the contents of our luggage rattling with each stride. We make it, barely it seems. When we arrive the driver lets us in, but he makes it clear he in not happy and has done us an incredible favor. We both know he wants the extra 30 dalasi ($1.20). No matter now, I climb inside as someone gives up their spot and scrambles up the poorly welded ladder to the roof of the vehicle. My village friend goes up as well. In a cloud of illuminated red dust, we're off. Not fully tamed, the gele gele sputters and whines with each revolution of its wheels, but trudges onward.

Living in isolation as we do at the ends of the Earth, or at least at the furthest reaches of our beloved narrow country The Gambia, we do not expect to encounter any paved roads. There are none in these parts, in the most distant of provinces. Children have never seen pavement, they don't know what it is. Upon encountering it for the first time they probably think it's some impossible freak geological phenomenon that just happen to run with the occasional painted line down the middle of certain streets. Be we're used to no pavement, no flatness (that's for you Thomas Friedman), an absence of lanes and an overabundance of rocks jutting out chaotically. Actually we take pride in our road, it means the worst for us is the norm. It proves how strong we are.

An earthquake on wheels we drive. As I look out the lacerated windows towards the now harvested fields my eyes encounter seemingly misplaced pairs of legs, all hanging bodiless from the roof. They are slightly unsettling in their swaying, untrustworthy. Who knows what those people are doing up there. They could be eating ice cream for all I know. Looking past the legs to the fields I find them barren and dry, having been picked clean by herds of cattle and other ruminants. What grass remains is a combustible auburn brown, scatted across the tired soil. One, two villages down, past the crumbling health center with the staff who work themselves sick, on to the cluster of four villages with the friendly, yet deranged man who fancies himself a traffic controller with his reflective neon vest and whistle. He sends us by with grand gesturing. We are the only vehicle on the road.

Closer now. Only six kilometers to or so until we reach the river side, the finish line. We are packed uncomfortably close and I can no longer feel my foot, but we're a team and we're unstoppable in our crudely welded leviathan. Then the unthinkable occurs with a phhhhhheeeeww -actually the highly predicable occurs based on the massive amount of stress the tires must have been experiencing- and we roll to a stop. We descend to the Earth, mortals again by this untimely flat tire. A professional at changing tires the driver gets right to work. Professionals at watching tires being changed we pace around in the dust and make mental judgments of the other passengers.

She's kind of cute, but wow, only one attractive woman in the whole car. I wonder how many kids she has? Does her husband treat her well? Is he even around? Maybe he's abroad. Will he ever come back? Probably not for a few years. Bastard.

Shouldn't that girl be in school? Maybe that's where she's going. But it's Saturday. Could be Islamic school, but no uniform? I hope she's a serious student. I hope she has no life outside of school like American students. I hope she goes to school 364 days a year and is taking a well deserved holiday only today. Enjoy the vacation my friend.

Why do all men over 40 have that same hat with the Charlie Brown zigzag?

Heads nod in satisfaction. Relief is demonstrated with sighs. The signal is give to board and the dust begins to twirl behind us again. Before any of my limbs even have a chance to go numb we are somehow idling again, then the engine is cut. We've been expelled from the heavens once more, not 200 meters from our previous diversion. People are worried now. Will this flotsam ever make it to the river? It's walkable, but the distance seems just a little too far. Anyway, the driver owes us something; we're his responsibility. The shady driver disappears around the side of the vehicle apparently looking for tools. The passengers who boarded the gele gele first are complaining about us latecomers now. We should never have been picked up. We're scum and should blow away with the wind, but not in the direction of the river because then we might get there first. At this point a truck rolls up and actually stops. It's a full passenger vehicle with Senegal plates and a gigantic speaker mounted on the back. After checking out the situation they climb back in and take off, helping the best way they know how by blasting prayers through their speakers.

Motorbikes berate us going by, never stopping. With nothing else to do I decide to take a closer look at our vessel. Its front license plate is upside and there are no actual tail lights, just paintings of tail lights where the tail lights should be. As I continue to get acquainted with the car I discover that it has a name. It's called “Geogement Day”, a somewhat comical corruption of Judgment Day I assume. It's as if riding in this vehicle is some kind of test, its blowouts inevitable and purposeful as if it was designed to observe our reactions to its perils in order to discern the character of our souls. “What's done is done,” the car seems to say, “I have seen what I wanted to see.” I take a deep breath and ponder my fate and the fate of my fellow travelers.

I think our driver must really be sweating now, but he soon emerges tired, yet vigilant, carrying a second spare that must have been buried somewhere. I'm not sure what kind of sorcery the driver used to produce that second spare. Maybe it was the prayers or maybe it was a simple understanding of how much of heap his car was, but either way, I'm impressed. Before long the wheel is on and we're moving once more, ever so slowly now to prevent a third blowout.

The last bit of the journey passes uneventfully, we only make one small stop to let all the roof-dwellers down so we won't get busted as we pass the police check point just before the river. At the river we all unload , pay our fares and go our separate ways, reflecting on this small odyssey that we will carry with us for the rest of our lives. This judgment day.

New Honor for the 21st Century

I have read from a few sources recently about a phenomenon called "honor killings" that occurs throughout the world to varying degrees in the name of traditional values often influenced by Islam and upholding family honor. The victims are usually women or girls, though sometimes men, who have committed acts believed to have stained the image of their family. In reality, the accused are behaving in ways that are totally in line with modern free society values. They have boyfriends, they chat online using Facebook, they refuse to veil their faces, they reject an arranged marriage, or object to abuse by their husbands. In very extreme cases (though all honor killings are pretty extreme) women pay with their life for being raped, a traumatic, non-consensual act in which they had no choice. I guess the mentality is for the killers that if the goods are damaged the must be discarded. The only problem is we're talking about people's lives. In the meantime, other simple non-violent conflict resolution strategies are forgone in favor of force. The cases that get the most attention are obviously the killings, but it makes me think about all the people who have been abused in the name of honor, but did not lose their lives. Instead they have to live with the shame (and maybe some scars) as well as face their family and community in an environment of disapproval.

These are examples of how closed minded belief systems intertwined with traditional values come into serious conflict with the modern globalized world. It is almost as if those responsible for the honor killings think they are living in another time, a time before the well established norms of human rights. Though some parts of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights may be disputed even now, murder seems to be one act most people can agree violates human right. Leaders of the communities in which these killings are taking place need to clearly take a stand against these horrible acts of violence by denouncing them as dishonorable. I wonder how many people really find them honorable in the first place? Anyway, the legal codes throughout the world need to be, reassessed to ensure that people can live responsibly while respecting other people, their culture and the cultures around them. It is really quite disturbing to see how the laws in some of the countries where honor killings occur most often (particularly Pakistan and Jordan) are actually structured in such a way so that punishing the killers is quite difficult or sentences are reduced compared to other violent crimes. Its seems like these governments would actually rather ignore the killings than take any action. An interesting twist is that through new technologies like mobile phones that can record video, some of these horrific killings are finally being shown to national and international audiences. Hopefully that exposure will bring pressure to reform. The honor codes of the world need urgently to be updated to maintain core values that respect human rights and emphasize acts that bring honor to the family name.

Along those lines, here is list (in no particular order) of some other ways to maintain or gain honor. This is a collection of honorable achievements that I think most people can agree on. Let these acts replace "honor killings" in the 21st century as the concepts that are associated with honor. Keep in mind these are targets to shoot for. Those that fail to reach the targets are not dishonorable, they just have room for improvement. That being said almost everyone should be able to achieve at least a couple of the honors regardless of financial or social constraints, but some are far more difficult.

-Great skill in a craft or trade
-Self sacrifice for others
-A cohesive family unit
-A loving relationship
-Performing heroic acts
-Sustainable use of environmental resources
-Great athletic achievement
-Creation of an innovative tool or concept
-Literate children
-Well-nourished children
-Completion of Secondary education and beyond
-Publication of art or literature
-Expertise in an academic area
-Ability to sexually satisfy your significant other

The list, by the way, is not exhausted here. I'm sure you have a few more ideas.

Here is a video CNN story about an honor killing that occurred in London a few years ago and the debate surrounding the issue.

Another CNN video featuring disturbing footage captured using new communication technology.

I am...

I am a splattered canvas, a national ambassador, a role model, an open mind, a simple example, a global educator, a capacity builder, a perpetual learner, a resource sharer, a brother, a son, a friend, a lover, a truth seeker, a zeitgeist documenter, a guerrilla journalist, an ideas generater, a photographic storyteller, an experience sharer, a growth seeker, a listener, a correspondent, a trust builder, a compliment giver, a change inspirer, a taste broadener, a community organizer, an image maker, an environmental steward, an enjoyment seeker, a foolish dancer, a knowledge instiller, a new perspective bringer, a team builder, a cultural exchanger, an keen observer, a keeper of secrets, a stereotype challenger, a memory treasurer, a philosopher in training.

What are you?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Take Action Against Malaria

Quite a long time without updates. That's the nature of affairs out in the bush. But I'm back and I have a few things on my mind. The first is Malaria, others to follow. I have decided to get involved in a campaign to purchase and distribute insecticide-treated mosquito nets in my region of The Gambia.

I see the effects of Malaria in my community all the time. Mosquitos (the transmitters of Malaria) are present in my community throughout most of the year. People often come to me with malaria-esque symptoms complaining of fatigue and pain all over their body. Everyone in my village knows of at least a few people who have lost loved ones to the illness.

Every year Malaria infects hundreds of millions of people worldwide. In sub-saharan Africa alone the loss in productivity due to illness and death is said to be more than $10 billion. Malaria is a preventable illness. One of the ways proven to be most effective in preventing malarial infection is to sleep under a treated bednet. That's why I am excited to get involved with this project. If fewer people contract malaria because they were protected by mosquito nets, then the chances of people contracting malaria in the future will be reduced because fewer people will have the malarial parasites that are passed on by the mosquitoes. It just makes sense for people to use the nets.

The Against Malaria Foundation, which I am contributing to, spends 100% of it's donations on long lasting insecticide-treated bednets. Peace Corps Volunteers in The Gambia are part of an effort to raise $40,000 for nets to be distributed in The Gambia. A generous donor has offered to match every dollar for a potential total of $80,000 going towards nets. At about $5 per net, the idea is to ship a container of 16,000 nets to The Gambia and distribute them in conjunction with a community sensitization campaign about the importance of the nets, how to use them and how to take care of them.

I'm usually a little skeptical of efforts to just give handouts to poor communities and expect them to manage the gifts themselves. These types of donations are perceived by the communities as aid from the outside as opposed to a partnership that values them as an equal stakeholders. With that in mind, I plan on seriously attempting to seek contributions to the bednet project from Gambians, particularly those living abroad with more disposable income. Gambian contributions are essential to the sustainability of this project and will demonstrate to everyone that Gambian people are aware of the dangers of Malaria and value taking action to ensure their families remain in good health.

Because many of the recipients will be from my own area, I hope to be actively involved in the whole process, from fundraising to distribution to sensitization.
If YOU want to contribute please follow this link and donate towards the purchase of treated bednets.
I honestly think this is a worthy cause if the Gambian involvement can be strong enough and I'm excited to be a part of the whole effort. I too sleep under a net every night in my thatch roof hut and it's quite comfortable. It's like having your own little castle. My Gambian friends deserve to be kings and queens of their own castles as well. Let's make it happen. Hopefully follow up to come.

Here's a past distribution of some treated nets in Senegal through the same project.