Moving Stones

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Location: Gambia

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Trash and Treasure...

A little story...

It was the label of Ray’s Downeast Schooner Mustard that was pressed on her forehead, its golden label shining bright in the sunlight. Its words described its quality and uniqueness as a small mustard mill from Maine, but this was strangely detached from its new role as a beauty aid. I had enjoyed the jar of mustard that it had come from, scooping spoonfuls into my mouth, my body craving its strong flavour, and in reality, craving any flavor. The staple Gambian diet cannot be considered a pinnacle of culinary delight, but more as an act of necessity. It becomes so mundane, rice and sauce, millet and sauce, and then rice a sauce again. An exotic flavour like mustard is enough to strike those memory chords to bring you back to different days, flavour escapism one might say. And it wasn’t the only one, spoonfuls of mayonnaise had become a favorite, along with a spoonful of tahini and not to be forgotten, the spoonful of peanut butter dipped into the strawberry jam as a dessert.

The jars of far off flavours had piled up behind my door over the course of months. With these were cans of different things, baked beans, sardines, canned corn and others. These being the foods that I ate when a lunch of boiled tomato paste and rotten fish sauce over white rice wouldn’t quite do it for me, and a spoonful of flavour wasn’t enough. Maybe this represented some weakness on my part, an inability to show what some may call my solidarity, to really live like the locals, eat the food they survive on. Probably a couple of years ago I would have thought of my self being better than this, but somehow when you feel like your starving to death even though you’ve eaten your entire bowl of rice, these academic thoughts don’t seem so important. And at the end of the day, there are just certain things I just can’t let go of, weakness or no weakness. Food is one of them.

So yes, I don’t just eat the food of the locals and spend a fair amount of my income on buying alternative food. This presents an array of on the ground issues I have to face up to or outright avoid. The major one being that I can’t afford to share my stock of food with those I live with, there are twenty of them in the compound. So for their sake (what they don’t know can’t hurt them) and for mine (trying to maintain a reasonable feeling of nutrition), I feel obliged to hide my gluttonous desires. So I keep a low-profile when I’m cooking these luxury food items and I don’t eat in front of the window as to avoid a level of envy or jealousy. To put it into perspective, to eat a can of sardines every day would place me as one of the wealthiest people in the village and maybe the region. To have a pile of empty cans on the scale that existed behind my door was enough evidence to point me out as the selfish glutton I describe myself as, but would hate to be seen as.

My problem was trash, pure and simple, the evidence of my actions in the most visible form. So what to do with it? Carry two sardine cans out into the bush every day in my pockets and dispose of them out there? Maybe, but the smell of the pile was growing every day and the slow secretive disposal would take months. And I had also just found a scorpion living under a sardine can, an unsettling discovery so close to home. It had to be done in one fell swoop, I had to get rid of it in one day. But this would mean certain discovery of my horde, an admission that I, the generous and good intentioned volunteer that I liked to be seen as, would be found out. The debate in my head went back and forth over a couple of days until finally I went out one morning and the cloud of flies and the overwhelming smell nearly choked me.

I decided to own up. To finally let those I live with see me for who and what I am, a fellow who cannot fully let go of what I consider to be simple pleasures; a spoonful of two of mustard a day, a can of sardines at lunch and every so often, a plate of steaming baked beans. If they could connect the dots of my relative wealth and my lack of sharing, than so be it. I packed it all up in one of my empty rice bags, the cans and bottles tinking as I dropped them in and I lugged it out in the face of numerous curious eyes. What I occurred next was unexpected by me. Those curious eyes and ears, sensing those tell tale shapes and sounds of bottles and cans, lit up on the faces of the onlookers as they fell in behind, following me. Feeling a little bit like sad expression of Santa Clause, I dumped the bag in the back field of the compound, it making a massive noise as glass hit against glass, can against can. Then came the rush, women and children, my favorite old lady who cackled with a pipe in her mouth, came running, elbowing each other to get first dibs on what they appeared to see as priceless treasure. They completely ignored me I might add. The cans were pawed over, the biggest taken, the glass jars argued over, the eldest members succeeding in wrestling them out of younger hands, the children seemed content with the sardine cans and I stood there shocked by what I saw at the time as a crazy display over what I considered ‘my’ trash.

I was completely unsure how to intepret this whole scene and still have trouble thinking of this as normal. In some ways it could be seenm as a sad expression of poverty but I suppose in the most positive light, in getting rid of my trash, the people in my compound, my "family" here, were happy to have many of the things that I hid behind my door. They didn't resent me for eating sardines or beans, in fact, they were willing to race for the cans which would mean new kerosene lamps in the houses, the jars that would be used to keep cooking oil in and the sardine cans that would be fashioned into a whole range of toys by the children (be it slightly dangerious, but I suppose you should see them with knives). It was a treasure trove of containers in a place where containers are scarce. By no means was the gift of my trash a triumph of development, but maybe an interesting exercise of perception. That is, to live with people, respect them and enjoy them, and then have them fight over what you consider to be your trash. That what I see as my trash is not necessarily the same as what they see as their trash, something I didn’t fully appreciate until I saw that golden label of Ray’s Mustard adorning the forehead of a women I know.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Hello! Hello!

I am so sorry for not writing more in the last, well I guess almost five months... Somehow life became normal, almost mundane, the quiet rural life with seemingly nothing exciting to report. But I suppose that isn't quite true. Life is good, and maybe the normalcy of it all means that I have now adjusted, the screaming children have become like the morning roosters, the sound of women pounding is the ryhthm to my work, and maybe the work has actually felt like work. The rains have come, they were late though, but we've been planting millet and squash, and a large field maize and watermelons. Its a facinating as well as frustrating process to watch unfold. All of this work is dictated by the whims of nature, the late rains meant long days of waiting for work to begin and when they did come, they were infrequent. We had to replant the millet field twice due to the seeds sprouting in the early rains, only to be burned by the sun when the rains didn't come back. But the farming is archaic one might say. When our turn of the century seeding machine towed behind a tired donkey broke, we resorted to the technology of millenia, simple iron hand tools and a lot of sweat on the brow. I can't say it was pleasurable work, one might find some satisfaction in fighting back the bush to grow a meager subsistance out of poor soil, but it purely is toiling under the hot sun for hours without much in the way of benefit. But I suppose planting might be the easy part of this process. The bush never seems to stop trying to reclaim its land and there is endless work clearing grasses and other weeds from around the plants. All of this is done with a small hand hoe, and when it takes you an hour to do and thirty by ten foot area, looking up at the sprawling area of unfinished land, its about the most depressing feeling in the world. It all seems a bit phyrric. So this has been where I draw the line for myself. It sucks up to much of my energy just to mindlessly scrape away grass from around the stalks of millet and only see that land be reclaimed again in two weeks. But I suppose it is all necessary to achieve some level of subsistence out there for the locals. This is definitly the reason they have so many babies, the minute a kid hits eight years old, he or she is out in the fields working, doing his part for the family. Interestingly enough, the relationship between parents and children here is quite the opposite than what we have become accustomed to in America. Here its the children who care for the parents, that is, they act almost as servants and definitly as farm labourers. And when they reach an age to be semi-independent, they have to continue to support their parents financially. People joke here that the more children you have, the better your social security will be. And thus, men can have four wives and as many babies as will come.

I just wanted to give you a brief snapshot of my current life, I'm back to the bush today. I hope to put some pictures on here in the coming weeks to give you more of a glimps of life. Hope you are all well where ever you are.

Lots of love

Thursday, March 22, 2007


Another cloudless day has arrived here in the Gambia, another day of this funny little African life that I've found myself in. Its been about since six months since I arrived in the Gambia, three of those in my home in Janneh Kunda. Its hard to think about where to begin, so many days blend together, the routine of rural life, stumbling along learning Mandinka and adjusting to the never ending status of celebrity tubaab (white person) in a place where they're rarely seen. It certainly has been an adjustment period and I can't say that I've been optomistic the entire time, but as the days pass I'm finding myself returning the excitment I felt when I arrived. There's a freedom out here that I have never found in the US or Canada and maybe that comes from living in the bush, where people still live off the land, hunting and gathering what they need. The bush is amazing, I can walk outside of my door in the evening and look out into the Manduar forest as it stretches for tens of kilometers in every direction and know that theres not a single house or person out there. All there is are the giant mahogany and silk cotton trees speckled around with numerous baobabs and rosewoods. And then there all the bush animals which I've been able to see from time to time, bush pigs, antelope, guinea fowl, baboons and lots of varieties of monkeys, not to mention all the birds.

I have really enjoyed riding my bike in the evenings the ten kilometers through the bush down to the river village of Kemoto. The light and stillness at that time are beautiful, the river itself is like glass and most days I can look out from the shore and see dolphines playing. I can also buy all sorts of seafood from the fishermen there of which lately they have been harvesting oysters. For less than a dollar US I can buy almost a bushel of oysters which are piled high in the dug out canoes as they are paddled from the harvesting area. I can also get shrimp, cat fish and tiger prawns as well smoked fish. I feel pretty lucky to have all this close by I must say.

Work as they say here in the Gambia is going slowly, slowly. Lately I've been spending a lot of time in the bush observing forestry in my area. A group has come to town to harvest Mahogany trees and its been fairly wild watching them fell these massive trees. Its got me thinking about tree planting and beginning a tree nursery so that towards the end of my time here I can out plant a number of the more desired trees. Its been fun getting into it though, collecting seeds and identifying trees, and learning all of the different uses for the trees. I sometimes wonder how much knowledge has been lost in the US about such things, as here the trees really do provide so much. Just walking out in the bush a short way one can find sap that makes a glue equivallent to epoxy, can fashion rope out of the fresh bark of baobabs and eat the the leaves of the moringa tree which are more nutritious than most vegtables we know of back home. And this isn't even the tip of the iceburg, there are hundreds of species of trees in the bush and it seems almost everyone has a different local use.

Thats most of the excitment in the last little bit. In the coming days, my former roommates from South Africa, Theo and Jori are coming to visit and were going to spend a couple of weeks in Senegal and travel up to Dakar. It will be nice to have a break and spend time with them, a little reunion back on African soil. I hope all of you are doing well and I think of people often, wondering what life is like back in familar places. Lots of love from this end

Thursday, February 01, 2007

More Pictures

A recent sunset through the trees outside of my house. Its a rare day with clouds these days but when they come, its so nice.
Trying to make my house a bit more comfortable with things I'm familiar with. I built this little kitchenette after getting tired of cooking with my gas bottle on the floor. This is an early picture, I've now painted my house blue and added shelves underneath the counters and above them. The people in my village don't quite know what to make of these things, but they all stop by to look.
Me out visiting in the evening after all the ceremonies. This is with my friend Bakary and a number of his children. He speaks a bit of English and with my Mandika, we have a fusion I now call Mandinglish.
A number of the women who live in the compounds surrounding mine. As you can see they all have babies, in fact there's children everywhere in Janneh Kunda. In a village of just over seven hundred people, four hundred of that are children under the age of fifteen.
The ram slaughtered in our compound. While in the US we seem to take great care with having nice cuts of meat, the actual butchering of this ram involved only a machete and no regard to whether meat or bone was being chopped through. Good though! We just gorged ourselves on meat, this large ram being finished in the day.

The culmination of the procession was arriving at the praying ground which was under a large cleared area under a Cola tree. The elders of the village were at the head with the Imam at the very front while the younger men and boys sat behind. All the women and girls sat behind the youngest boys.

Tobaski time which falls just after our New Years. Beginning at my end of the village with all the elders leading, we walked through the village stopping at every compound until the entire village was walking in procession. As we walked there was a slow drum beat but all else was quiet while everyone was dressed in their finest and brightest clothes.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

A few pics...

The gentlemen of my Peace Corps group looking very cool. As you may notice we all grew mustaches for our Swearing in Ceremony, quite fun really but I think it will be the last time I will have one. The guy in the blue shirt on the left is named Rob and is the closest volunteer to me, only about 25ks.
Some of my new family members sitting in my house brewing Ataya which is a fairly sweet and potent version of green tea. Gambians love drinking the stuff and when I'm in village there isn't a day that goes by without atleast one pot. Really good though!

From my time in training village hanging out in the evenings with some of the usual characters. As the dry season has come on, the nights have been getting colder and the campfire has become the buzz of social activity.
An early morning bush taxi ride from Janneh Kunda back to the main urban center of the Kombos. A beautiful ride, watched the sun come up over the sahel as low lying fog hung in the limbs of the baobabs.

Looking out over the mighty Gambia river in all of its glory from one of the largest national parks called Kiang West. This spot is about fity kilometers from Janneh Kunda and looks much like what I see there.

Friday, December 01, 2006


Hello All!
Wheew, where to even begin...
After two months up country we've finally made our way back to the greater Banjul area for the last week of training. It only took traveling all told for seven or so hours in a cramped and hot bush taxi to make it from my site in Janneh Kunda to reach the great metropolis here. The bush taxis are great experiences though, goats tied to the roof, chickens roaming about the floors, people grabing them and asking in angry voices, "Whose chicken is this?" Its a great place. The whole expereince has been incredible and even humbling, presenting the whole spectrum of emotions. Most of the time I was in my training village called Wurokang, learning Mandinka and how Gambians live, farm, socialize, eat and everthing else that comes with living with no electricity, running water, machinery, or anything we take for granted back home. I have really loved it, Gambian life is really nice, lots of time to talk and sit under mango trees during the heat of the day and at night sitting out under the stars around a small fire chatting about how things are in the world. With no lights to crowd out the stars you really become in tune with the moon and the night sky. Never in my life have I known what day of the moon it was and be certain when it will be rise and set. It presents a nice rhythm to time, the dark nights people go to bed early but on the waxing days people are lively and its almost like a big spotlight shinning down from above. All in all I've made some great friends both in the Peace Corps and also many Gambians. I tried to get out as much as possible to live the life that the people here live, heading to the fields to help harvest millet and groundnuts, went fishing on the river, collected oysters and ate them raw on the bank, so many beautiful things. My language is progressing slowly in my mind, but I've learned how to greet people (which is fairly long process in itself), tell where I'm coming from, the direction I'm going, basic questions, and of course plenty of flatery words (especially for the the food!). Always better to be on the good side of the cook! The culture here is amazing though, people are so friendly and eager to talk to you, wanting to know everything about you, and incredibly welcoming. Most days I ate up to two or three lunches as well as a couple dinners just because people wanted you to come share their food with them. Its really hard thinking about how to describe this place, so many things that cannot be conveyed in words. Like the way I thought the countryside would be quiet in the way it is back home, where there is no sound at night. But here, there's noise all the time, louder than Boothbay at the peak of tourist season. The women pounding grain in the morning as you wake up, the low tone of the rhythmic thumping eminating from their mortars and of course the constant braying of donkeys and roosters announcing the sunrise. All through the day this continues, at night the children recite qarantic verses around a roaring bon fire, parties are thrown for a new marriage with dancing and drumming, people listen to local music blasing from their battery powered radios and just the low tone of the village of 300 or so people talking in close proximity to each other. The place is alive with no hum of electricity.

I got to spend about two days in my permanent site placement which is the village of Janneh Kunda which is a small village about in the middle of the country on the south bank. Its about the most isolated peace corps site in the Gambia, about 50ks from the main road down a dirt track. Pretty wild I think. I spent my two days touring around, meeting local leaders and trying to feel out where I could work the most. The three projects I am thinking of so far are building a library and refrence area for the school, helping develop the existing community garden into a functional garden, and develop a market for the oysters that grow all along the banks of the river. So many things to think about and do though, I'm really happy I'm here for two years to try to do even half of them. I shouldn't get ahead of myself though. I do miss all of you back home, abroad in foreign lands, Canada, and where ever you are. And if any of you care to take the time to write a letter, I always love getting mail and will certainly try to write you back. My address is c/o Peace Corps..... PO Box 582.....Banjul, The Gambia.....West Africa. Simple as that.
I send you all of my love from here and only hope that you are all doing well
Lots of love

Friday, September 29, 2006


Hi All!
Made it! I have arrived in the hustle and bustle of Banjul, The Gambia amoungst the crowd of 24 other Peace Corps Volunteers that are in my program. The flight was great, the easiest one yet, slept most of the way and woke up to us flying over the Sahara. A beautiful and endless mass of sand stretching out across the horizon. We've been in Gambia for a solid day now and its been very hot and humid. Hotter than I thought and I'm very happy that I brought so many light clothes. We've spent our first real day getting interviewed by the bosses and beginning our training in language. The language training is so much fun! Lots of good phrases that are sending my tongue and lips in directions that they never thought they could. Its really exciting and our Gambian teachers are great, full of smiles and happy to meet people. Were spending about a week in the greater Banjul area getting orientated to the country and then off to Tendaba Camp where we will partake in our next round of training. The line up of things they have for us looks really good, field trips to stone circles, croccadile parks, and other such locales. We're finding out tomorrow what language we will be speaking so I'll be either speaking Wolof or Mandinka I think. I hope all of you are well and enjoying life! Lots of Love from this end!