Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Secret to Being a Happy and Integrated Peace Corps Volunteer

I wanted to post the piece I wrote for the Peace Corps health newsletter in Gambia that was published shortly after I departed. Having heard a number of volunteers vent their frustrations with the experience I wanted to share some thoughts with newer volunteers and even people looking towards the Peace Corps in the future about how to make their time worthwhile. The piece has been adapted slightly for appeal to a wider audience. I'm on my way to Lesotho next week for my third year as a Peace Corps volunteer. I hope to hit the ground running with these thoughts as my guide...

The Secret to Being a “Happy and Integrated Peace Corps Volunteer”

Relax. Nearly all of us struggle to find a sense of purpose as Peace Corps Volunteers. Our challenge is to maintain a semblance of sanity and good health while actually making a worthwhile contribution to the development of the country where we live. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that I have enjoyed my service and when I leave I'm going to genuinely miss the Gambia. Because most of us wish to look back on our service as productive and beneficial, not a complete waste of time, I want to share a few strategies that I've found to be effective in making me feel good about my service.
Number one is language. Being able to communicate well with your community is essential for revealing the true opinions, attitudes and needs of the people around you. Having language skills in your toolbox helps put your mind at ease in that you can be more confident that you are not insulting people with your strange American behavior. You never know when a casual conversation will give you an idea for a new project or present an opportunity for an ad hoc, informal teaching session. From young, squirrelly children to wizened elders of bygone generations it's important to be aware of the sentiment people harbor about development issues in your community. Good communication will help exhume village ingenuity and contribute towards the sustainability of your efforts. Plus, it's comforting to know that when you make connections with people instead of them talking trash about you behind your back, you can feel more confident that they've got your back when you need them. Of course it's possible to make solid connections without amazing language skills, yet the ability to understand others' needs and preferences and for you to articulate your own certainly helps. Anyone has the power to become proficient in at least one local language during their service, but doing so takes commitment. I suggest making best use of the Peace Corps resources, writing down new words as you hear them and seeking out local language adult literacy books that tell stories and progress in difficulty. Of course just speaking the language regularly will be the best way to train your tongue and sharpen your ear. I'm far from being a social butterfly, I've even been called an outcast and I may not reply to your texts anytime soon, but yet I have been able to reach a very solid level of Mandinka. Yes, language, the nemesis of many volunteers, has greatly enriched the quality of my service. And if you get good enough you can always go back to America and open a school to teach your language and make a lot of money. Oh wait, almost nobody has ever heard of Mandinka.

Number two is legitimate counterparts. If you are having difficulty finding meaningful work, take the time to observe who is active in your community and link up with them. Nearly every village has a couple of motivated individuals who just seem to get “it”. People who aren't afraid to try new things will be the most receptive your ideas. Assisting them in their work or collaborating with them on projects you propose will ensure sustainable and simply make it more likely that quality work happens. Working with solid counterparts is also a way for you to utilize your best skills, whether artistic, technological or whatever. Good counterparts present you with a platform to really show your stuff. I've heard many volunteers saying the maxim “No change in the Gambia.” Oh, I get it, it's a pun. Funny. Except that it's not true. Almost nobody is saying that change is particularly fast here, especially social change, but let me assure you that change is happening. Imagine what the Gambia was like 20 years ago with no mobile network, few paved roads, more conservative gender roles for women, lower school enrollment etc. The Gambia has come a long way and the people you take as counterparts are the change agents that make the process happen. The same can like be said in every country where Peace Corps operates. That's why it's so important for us as Peace Corps Volunteers to share ideas with local people and expand the scope and quality of projects that we deem to be truly worthwhile. I've met many Gambians who are intelligent, innovative, respectful and want to see their country develop. Those people are out there waiting for you to partner with them.

Number three is attitude. In experiencing life in West Africa and other developing countries you have to be open minded. If you think Gambians are fatalistic, listen to many Peace Corps Volunteers. It doesn't help much to make generalizations or condemn people for their views. Try to realize how people form their perspectives and see if you can chip away at any misconceptions they may have. The process goes both ways however and it's enlightening to know that once you spend a significant time in the Gambia, you will never be able to think about Africa the way you did before. But to be enlightened you have to get out of your hut or whatever type of shelter you call home. You have to put away the 100 in 1 Disney movies DVD and the blue films and get in the dance circle. Sure, a foreign culture can be overwhelming at times and we all need a break once in awhile, but don't let the periodic escape characterize your service. Instead take difficult local circumstances to be a challenge to your American ingenuity. Know that the way we approach our community will determine how they view us and how they respond to our ideas. Personal time is important, but use that time to recharge so you can stay positive and have fun with people in your community. As Americans we come from very different backgrounds as the people in the communities we're posted in (of course even Americans are a diverse crowd) so there's plenty of learning and exchange to be done. A little cultural sensitivity with Gambians can actually be quite enjoyable if you know what I mean. Learn to appreciate the simple things such as cold water and electricity as luxuries and not rights. Life can be a struggle and my colleagues here all know it's one hell of a struggle here in the Gambia, but the struggle demonstrates our strength and gives us some damn good stories to tell.

Lastly, number four is creative release. In a stressful environment, especially one with ample free time, catharsis can soothe the soul. Personally, I'm a madman of a photographer. My cursed photographer's eyes sees inspiration everywhere. If I'm not carrying my camera I'm probably wishing I was. Writing can be enjoyable as well, except if I'm dripping sweat all over the paper. In the Gambia my views about development are changing all the time, so there's plenty to write about. I think pretty much everyone feels an urge to creatively produce from time to time. And there's no better time than now to hone your skills and get the creative juices flowing. In the Gambia there's always open mic night and the annual Peace Corps photo contest to present your genius to the world.

That's about all the advice I have to share. From one “happy and integrated” volunteer to another, I hope you can have a worthwhile experience wherever you are. Oh yeah, one more thing. Relax.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Welcome to Nigerian Pop

Besides Nollywood, Nigeria has developed a burgeoning pop music industry. I would say the quality of the music is on par with anywhere else in the world. Many of the music videos too have the look and feel of something that could be on MTV. Good production quality and directing are making Nigerian pop music a hot export. It helps to have a huge domestic market (150 million people) driving demand and a diaspora of enterprising Nigerians probably in every country in the world. Here a few of my favorites:

First "Do Me" by P Square
This was a major hit in the Gambia and had kids of all ages singing "Do Me".

2Face "African Queen"
This showcases the beauty and sophistication of African women. Love that shaved head.

Timaya "If 2 say"
Heard this one at the shop where I used to buy my Nollywood posters. The guy looks kind of hardcore, but he actually seems quite playful.

Bracket "Yori Yori"
Another hit with the Gambian ladies.

P Square "Danger"
Gotta love the wide angle.

Ikechukwu "Wind am well"
Nice effects and some solid shakin'.

Fela "Army Arrangement"
Still, nobody puts on a show on like Fela.

Catchy stuff, too bad MTV doesn't play music videos anymore otherwise I think these guys could catch on. These guys are making Yoruba and Igbo relevant world languages. Pay attention.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Esther: Randomista

Esther Duflo is kind of a big deal right now. At least among the Economics and Development crowd. Duflo is a French economics professor at MIT who is at the vanguard of a movement for better data in economic development research using randomized controlled trials (RCTs). Randomized controlled trials are an attempt to make real life into a laboratory with studies that include control and treatment (intervention), much as scientific medical research does. The idea is to get stronger evidence about what actually works in development. For donors, its about knowing whats going to get the most bang for their buck.

RCTs have been around for a number of years but the debate surrounding them has gotten really lively and actually quite interesting as of late. So much so that Ms. Duflo was invited to give a prestigious TEDtalk about randomization in economic research. While RCTs have pros and cons like pretty much everything, the idea of using better information when donating to social causes is important to everyone. At the very least people should be thinking about how aid groups are going to spend their money and on what type of intervention. The data is a lot stronger for some interventions than others. I suggest everyone take a look at Esther Duflo's Ted Talk here. And even if there's are points that are debatable, the average person should be enlightened by her message. She even admits that its not a magic bullet and that poverty is going to be around for a long time, but why not employ it if it provides us with useful data? If the content isn't quite up your alley, I still encourage you watch the video if for no other reason than the fact that she has a slightly humorous French accent.

If the idea of RCTs really resonates with you then I would recommend you pickup a book I just finished reading called WHAT WORKS IN DEVELOPMENT. It's a collection of essays edited by the popular economist WIlliam Easterly about the merits and drawbacks of using randomized controlled trials in development research. RCT detractors claim, among other things that there's an "external validity" problem, in other words, what appears to work in one place may or may not work elsewhere. Confounding the problem is the fact that once a certain type of intervention study is published once, there's less incentive for researchers to replicate it because its easier to simply trumpet the original findings than spending the time fundraising for and coordinating replications.

Still the debate has fascinated me as I've begun to delve deeper into the realm of more complex economic research. Who knows if these types of experiments are just a trend or not, but at least the conversation surrounding them is making people more aware about the importance of measuring results when it comes to poverty reduction efforts. Another blog hits the nail on the head with its title "Good intentions are not enough". Not every idea is a good one in development and not everything works. A flop of a concept called 1 million t-shirts is an excellent example.

The whole aid effectiveness discussion is about results and accountability. Because seeking better information about what works is something we can and should do. Better data can spur innovation in business and social enterprise. It can lead to initiatives that are more efficient at helping people to lead healthier lives and opening doors for future generations by convincing them to get an education. A great example of the freeing of data is

I'm a newcomer to all these issues, but I'm enthralled and I'd like to see where this conversation goes. Now has anyone done a RCT in the Gambia?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Things: Part 1, What I'll Miss

Two years is a long time to spend in a foreign land. Thus, it's inevitable that I would come to appreciate some aspects of the Gambia's unique culture so much that I will be seriously nostalgic about them wherever I go. Of course there are some peculiarities of the Gambia that I will be more than happy to part from. Here are the extensive lists.
Warning: this is a bit long.
I'm sentimental, what are you going to do about it?

Things I will miss:
Mangoes-They come in all shapes and sizes. Sweet, sticky deliciousness. Cheap and plentiful. Oh, the things you can do with a ripe mango!

Riding my bike-Two years of riding my gleaming Trek through the bush and the roughest roads you'll find in the Gambia has left the beautifully elegant vessel seriously battered. But the memories we've shared. A smile always crossed my face as I weaved my bike through cows, bush fire and puddles.

Attaya-The ubiquitous, highly potent Chinese green tea to which 99% of Gambians are addicted. Brewed in a tiny kettle and served in shot glasses, usually in a series of three rounds. Poured elegantly from kettle to glass with awe-inspiring precision My host father was a regular drinker and thus I received messengers holding steaming glasses morning and night. Attaya can be found all over West Africa and is marketed in a seemingly infinite number of packaging styles, each with it's own comforting artwork. Eventually, I became an attaya collector with more than 40 brands.

Cashews-Who knew cashews had a fruit? Well attached to the nut on the tree is in fact a fruit of rather impressive juiciness. There is no way to eat a cashew fruit without getting the juice all over your pants, creating a stain that never can be removed. The trees themselves exude a subtle, yet pleasant and tasty odor that can be discerned by a passerby. The roasted nuts are a delicacy, especially roasted individually fresh from the orchard. The fruits can also be exploited to produce an acoholic brew of various degrees of toxicity. Just limit your consumption. You don't want to go blind.

Domoda (Rice with Peanut Sauce)-By far the best food item in the Gambia. My stomach was a bottomless pit for the stuff when it was prepared well.

Being a part of a family with a different racial, ethnic, and religious background than my own-The idea that a family with such a vastly different background in so many respects would not only allow me to live with them, but to genuinely accept me as part of the family (to the extent that I had decision making influence as any son would) will forever remain a compelling concept to me. It proved to me the profound tolerance of the Gambian culture and of Islam as well. You can never escape your own cultural identity, but this experiment in being part of another society was successful.

Living in a circular thatch hut-It's still hard to believe that I just spent the last two years in a mud hut shaped like a circle with grass and sticks for a roof, but somehow that was my life. The architecture style is actually quite functional in that the mud/thatch hut is substantially cooler than cement and corrugated metal. This makes a HUGE difference when the temperature is 120 degrees F. Yes, the winds blew off part of my roof in a storm (actually twice) and yes, I shared the house with a number of rats and yes, flat edged furniture doesn't quite fit against rounded walls but my house was a work of art and it served it's purpose well. Shelter.

Ramadan--I'm still not quite ready to declare myself a Muslim, but I did enjoy the challenge and the shared suffering that is the fasting during the holy month of Ramadan. No food, no water from 5:30am – 7:30pm. When everyone around you is in the same weakened condition it make the arrival of the break-fast time extra special. I love that nervous countdown, waiting for the prayer call as everyone guards their preprepared cups of tea and loaves of bread, hearts beating fast in anticipation. Then the time comes and we gorge ourselves tea, beans, porridge, rice, one massive endless meal until passing out early from a food coma. Repeat.

Gambian fashion-Batik, chia, wax, gold teeth, jujus. And then there's the fulas.

The rhythm of life-Music is everywhere in the Gambia. Anything and everything is a drum. Dancing can go until 3 or 4 am. Children and adults of all ages know how to shake it, even if they tell you they can't.

The river-The Gambia is geographically defined by it's river. From fishing to transport, the river is a hub of activity. I lived a ways from the river myself, but traveling to any town of legitimate size involved a ride on a rusty vessel across the Mighty Gambia river. Some boats had sprung leaks, some crossings involved pulling the ferry by hand with a metal cable, but the smooth waters were always a sign of life.

Jumbo-Some people bemoan the amount of artificial MSG beef flavoring utilized in Gambian cooking. But you have to admit, whatever is in that sparkling brown cube, it's addictive as hell and cheap. It has been scientifically engineered in a lab to be chemically amazing.

Mandinka language- This is the language of the village I was posted in and the language I subsequently learned. Of the languages I've studied, Spanish, French, Swahili, the way I speak Mandinka (at this moment) is the most fluent I've ever been in a second language. I was rated superior (having achieved fluency) on my exit language test. That's saying something about immersion. The sentence structure is radically different from English and besides some recent borrowed words, it's a whole new vocabulary. But damn is it fun to speak. It ties my tongue in knots, but I love it.

Kankurangs and other creatures-Though the Mandinkas don't wear carved masks in the area in which I lived they still had an incredible masquerade phenomenon that appeared from time to dime during different dancing programs and ceremonies, especially the circumcision of boys. The Mandinka mask creature is the Kankurang, whose body is covered with various kinds of organic material. The creature usually carries around a machete or two, mostly to protect the circumcision children and beat anyone it doesn't like. Some of them are for show, just to dance and sing but others are more serious. When they come out for the circumcision they roam the streets and howl. Warning people to beware. Get too close and they can chase you or beat you. Sometimes a bit of money can assuage the threat, but even cash can't be counted on. The Kankurangs have even been known to kill. Other ethnic groups have their own versions of these creatures. Some of the more interesting ones come from the Jolas in the Casamance region of southern Senegal.

Treeplanting-One activity whose importance for rural areas I recognized early on was treeplanting. I was able to involve trees in many of my projects and once they matured they were heavily utilized. It was truly amazing seeing the process of the trees growing, some of them quite quickly. It's kind of exhilarating putting your full weight on a tree that you had planted only a year before. And it's fruit tastes so much better.

Ice-When it's blazing hot the first thing that comes to mind is that I need some overly sweet neon colored juice in a bag.

Dark dark nights-Being from a moderately large city in America (Madison, WI) is a disadvantage when nightfall comes. The stars are obscured. But in the village, every single clear night provides an incredible view. And when the moon is absent, even white skin can be invisible...

Julbrew and its brother export, the best (and only) beer in the Gambia-No where else would Julbrew enjoy such fanfare, but to the captive Peace Corps audience, Julbrew is King. It makes you realize when its hot outside, anything cold can taste amazing.

West African Music that West African people actually listen to- Look these up: P square, Titi, Mamadu Yalti Gole, Jalex, Jalibaa, Youssou N'Dour. Just a taste:

Nollywood-Nigeria's film industry is well entrenched in the Gambia and Nigerians themselves are plenty. The Nigerians have their own little subculture in every major town and their lives sometimes reflect the films of their homeland. Though Nollywood (get it Nigeria + Hollywood, just like Bollywood) get assailed for being cheap, predictable, violent, having bad acting and terrible sound, the films are actually pretty damn entertaining. In the stories no good deeds require vindication, there's love affairs aplenty and a whole cast can go 6 feet under by the end. Plus, people can get cursed! The posters advertising the films are rather amazing themselves, packed with emotion and attractive women. And hey, the acting isn't that bad. Nollywood is up and coming, look out. Buy a film at the African goods store near you.

Opportunity for development analysis-Being a Peace Corps Volunteer is a perfect opportunity to observe “development” in action. Whether efforts by the government to hold workshops and build infrastructure to NGO's and international agencies hawking their agendas, PCVs have a front row seat in watch how all these groups communicate and make deals with each other, sometimes bing part of the process. As an integrated member of the community and trained in community needs assessment strategies, Peace Corps volunteers have a pretty good idea about what would benefit their community. Sadly, when organizations step in to give aid, they often do more harm than good, causing in-fighting, dependency, opportunities for theft and wasting their money on projects communities neither want nor need. Of course you see when people get community development right as well, with participation, responsibility and sustainability. More than anything, PCVs learn just how challenging “development” can be.

Generosity-The Gambia has to be one of the most welcoming place in the world. Everyone always says that about everywhere, but these guys actually walk the walk. In the Gambia you can meet anyone on the street and end up eating lunch in their home, maybe even getting a place to sleep if you need it. Gambians never want to see a visitor go or to ever be full of their food, regardless of how much the visitor ate. In my compound in my village, my host family required me to pay no rent at all and was still willing to provide me with three meals every day for 2 years! I ended up giving them 50 kilo sacks of rice from time to time but it was by no means a requirement. The only thing I was told by my host father when I first arrived was that besides the fact that god brought me to his family, he would hope that if his son was in the same situation with my family in America, that I would do the same. I certainly would.

Insulting-Teasing other family names for eating too much or caring too much about cattle is a part of life and never gets old. I'll miss being able to tell someone, “Your family eats donkey meat!” and having it being insulting/hilarious at the same time.

Outdoor bathroom-I had a pit toilet at my house no big deal. The voyeuristic part comes when the grass fence surrounding your toilet starts to fall down. Then you realize people can probably see you. Then you stop caring. And bucket baths with sun heated water feel amazing.

Food bowl-Moving beyond the sanitary concerns, there's a great communal feel about eating from a shared food bowl. Some guy always takes control and starts tossing fish to everyone whether you want it or not. And then there's eating with your hand, which after 2 years I never mastered. There's just something about feeling the oil between your fingers and why wouldn't you want to lick it off?

Exclamatory sounds-Every culture makes it's own sounds in speech, to show surprise, disgust, approval and pain. Gambians have some funny ones. I definitely started to say most of them naturally by the end.

Greetings-Its a greeting culture in the Gambia and while it never stops, it nice to get that recognition.

Consuming very few resources-I can't really calculate how much water or power I used while in West Africa, but I can say that it has to be a tiny fraction of what someone in America uses. I felt empowered with the minuscule impact of my bucket baths and solar panel.

Growing my own food-In a farming community I would have felt bad not making a contribution when it's such a huge part of life for so many months of the year. Thus I farmed rice and peanuts on a small plot both years during my service as well as gardening and treeplating. I did everything from plowing the field, planting the seeds, weeding by hand, harvesting, even marketing the produce. It was an enlightening way to fully experience the agrarian lifestyle that rural farmers endure West Africa.

Reading by candlelight-With that entrancing orange glow I never never bought a bulb even though my solar panel could have handled it just fine.

The African Sun-I swear it's bigger here

Good friends and counterparts-What can I say they made the experience worthwhile.

All photos were taken by Zach Rosen, except for the one on the beach, some weird rasta guy took that one.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

This Place is Cold.

Well, after 4 drudgerous flights I finally made it back safely to the small hamlet of Madison, having evaded the volcanic ash like a pro. That's right, I'm back in the land of freezing rain, celebrity zealotry and technological obsession. I'm sad to have departed from my beloved Gambia, but life goes on, doesn't it? But oh there were some wild and enlightening times.

I now have a couple of weeks ahead of me in which I can finally get back to doing some regular posting. Hopefully I can pluck a few things from my mind in that generous allotment of time. At this point, after living in the Gambia for two years I think I may be permanently confused by American pop culture. I stopped recognizing the bootlegged films being sold in Serrekunda a long time ago. The fresh young faces on the covers of entertainment magazines are completely unfamiliar to me. Somehow, I don't feel bad though, I'm the curator of my own cultural phenomena. I have a stellar Nigerian film poster collection, a wardrobe full of West African wax prints and woven clothes, some classic newspaper headlines involving witchhunts and more CDs and DVDs from Gambia, Senegal, Mali, and Guinea than I can even count.

Pop culture may be beyond me, but now that I have the world at my fingertips 24/7 I've been catching up on all international affairs news that I've been distant from. My channels for news consumption were limited in the Gambia because of the whole living in an isolated village thing. That was fun, but now I'm enjoying reading the hundreds of posts I missed on Google reader and downloading gigs of podcasts on itunes. And I'm excited for the 15 books I ordered on I feel energized and I think it's time for me to make some contributions to the worldwide collective interlocution.

Oh and this place is cold.