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.


The Gambia is Really Hot said...

Amazing. Thank you for that.

Zach said...

Hope you noticed that I linked to your article in part 2.