Sunday, January 12, 2014


‘West Africa is not a flat, hot place!’

I forgot that after living in this small bubble of  country.  I really needed some reminding and another West African country, also starting with a G, helped me remember. And Guinea was its name.  I was going on my third and final trip but it wasn’t going to be a vacation.   Guinea is one of the lowest ranked countries on the Human development scale – meaning, poor road, poor people and poor education system.  Ranking almost ten spots below The Gambia, this was going to be an adventure.  But of course that is my favorite kind.  We started the trip  days after thanksgiving, which involved over landing it through three country – Gambia, Senegal and Guinea.  On a good day it would take 18 hours to make the trip but there hasn’t been a good day in a very long time.  The dread of the car ride got much worse when it came time to get in the car.  If you read the car manual it would say we were driving in a 7 passenger vehicle.  We had 5 PCVs, 3 Gambians, 3 Guineans, 4 children, a driver and his assistant but who reads the manual anyways.  Ohhh ya you read that correctly, that is 17 people in car the size of a Subaru family wagon, oh and about another meter high of luggage. That’s an adventure with a capital A.  And it wouldn’t be Africa if the car didn’t start on the first try.

                We were going pretty smoothly until we were leaving Senegal and about to enter into guinea.  While we were getting our papers checked my immigration we got some pretty freighting news.  Two day earlier a car just lie ours in the middle of the night were stopped by bandits.  They killed the driver and his assistant and took all of the passenger’s money.  Our driver was pretty concern, he said this used to happen often but not in some time.  This man drives this road 2 to 3 times a week and when he is pretty concerned that means something.  But he had a plan.  There was a road side village were most people stop to get dinner. He said we would only drive until we reach that place before sundown.  We would wait until there were enough cars ready to leave and we would all go together as a caravan.  He encouraged that we would be safe in big numbers. The other volunteers and I weren’t ready to go back. We trusted the driver, so despite our nerves, we would go on.

                We made it to the out post just before darkness fell.  All 17 people were happy to get out of the car and take a break from the bad roads and squeezed bodies.  West African hospitality never fails, we were given mats to sleep on shop keepers floor. At 4am the driver woke us up as the caravan started to gear up and go.  At sunrise we reached a hand pulled ferry. An industrial chain stretched across a 100 meters of river (that same water turns into the Gambia river) a hand cranked wheel and  barge takes the cars from one side to the other.

                After the 30 hour journey we finally reach of destination of Labe.  But not use we still had yet another 2 hour bumpy ride to our final, final destination Duki. In Duki a man about 5,’ 60 years old and a ball of energy greeted us at his compound.  He was the man we came for and the one everyone raved about.  Many groups of PCV from the Gambia had come to his lodge before.  He had a hug guest book of Gambia volunteers new and old to prove it.  It takes the PC type to make that journey to see Hassan Bah.  You can ask any of them and they will all tell you that the hellish car ride is worth the experience of Hassan Bah’s home.

We can to hike some mountains and hiking is what we did.  For 5 days straight we hiked nearly 10 miles a day.  This is a bold statement but I would venture to say it was some of the best hiking I have ever done in my life.  We hiked through waterfalls, caves, canyons, climbed rock faces and cliff dove in to fresh water springs.  Every hike had a name, like Indian Jones, where we felt like we were on the set of Raids of the Lost Ark. Or there was this other one called chutes and ladders were we climbed down a cascading water fall and climbed back on another one with local ladders made only of branches and bark rope.  There was sore feet all around but nothing less then smile in sight. 


Health Murals

My grandmother was an artist but I really had no gag of my own ability because honestly, the last time I painted a picture was kindergarten.  Despite my lack of all things color and in light of my heritage, I figured what the hell.

 Sooooo…. I painted 6, 2 by 2 meter murals in my village.  Each outlining a topic we cover in the health school, with a little help of course from the beautiful and talented Sarah S.  My intentions were that these murals would be a daily reminder of living a healthier life.

  In two weeks time, my counterpart and I will walk 90 women around the village and discuss the morals.  I hope to refresh their memories and help them better understand the murals.  The use of pictures and symbols is not a common practice, so it is best to make sure they understand the messages that are being displayed.  You have to remember that nearly all of the women have never gone to school and learning through imagery is a learned skill.

I was satisfied with my art work as a first time muralist and I hope the very least that the color will add some beauty to the community. 

When I’m long gone the memory of my legacy will still be painted on the walls of a small village in Africa. A little color is a nice mark to leave.

Work Environment


Exclusive Breastfeeding

10 Steps to Hand Washing

Dirty and Clean Compound

Bed Net


Friday, October 4, 2013

Four Dentist

I always hated dentist and that is not about to change for a long time especially after the run around I have just gone through.  I have just finish what a dentist phobic person might call, hell – 4 dentist, 3 countries, 2 crowns and 1 root canal.

It all started with a Gambian dentist who want to put a mercury filling in my mouth.  My first thought was, shit, didn’t we stop using those 50 years ago in the states.  Then came the thought, hold on, I used to have one of those but I had to get it removed because g-d blessed me with corrosive, cavity carving and over active salivary glands.  Not to be confused with a friend of mine who drools a lot but the kind that sends me to the dentist on a constant bases despite proper care.  So I told the dentist I need to consult the PC doctor but in my mind I was thinking ‘oh NO!’

I talked the PC doc to letting me get it fixed in the States on my upcoming visit.  He agreed and off I went to the good old United stated of America.  I showed up at the dentist ready to get a quick fix with a great American doctor of dental care. She was like ‘oh NO, sonny you need a crown and maybe a root canal. No actually you don’t need a root canal. Well I don’t know maybe…NO, you are good.’ But I was like ‘it was an American dentist, they know everything.’  That also meant I needed a different form from PC and getting this form was almost like the government had shut down to decide to let me have the crown, oh wait, it really did (luckily my form came first, so they got a little practice)!

Bam! Got the crown done easy because it’s America, right? Then I went on my merry way and had a great trip visiting friends and family.

I landed back in Gambia a little fatter, more in love with my girlfriend and ready to finish off my PC service with a renewed sense of excitement.  My tooth still hurt but I quickly brushed that off with the thought of long flights and cabin pressure. It continued to persist over the next two weeks, especially when I was on a bumpy dirt road or riding my bike. There is no shortage of bad roads and my bike is my main source of transportation.  I had no choice but to see another dentist.  The third dentist said that it was apparent that I needed a root canal and ‘the first dentist should have diagnosed the problem.’  I was pretty pissed at this point; it took not but one dentist, but three dentists to figure out the problem. One those dentists was even an American dentist.  I guess Americans don’t always get it right either.  To top it all off, PC protocol requires that we go to Senegal for all root canals.

Here I sit in Senegal after the 4, 3, 2 and 1 count because it takes one week to make that second crown I needed because the dentist had to cut the first one off.  This has all taken way too long but I am happy to be just about done with everything.  PC and Africa really teaches you what patients means.  

Monday, August 12, 2013

A Ride on the Blue Moon Express

There are two ways I can travel in the Gambia: on a local gele-gele (think of a Frankenstein car/van with Flintstone size holes in the floor board that you would never in a million years ever imagine could move in a forward motion or for that matter hold 30 people when it should only hold 20) or a Land Cruisers newsiest mobile aka Peace Corps Vehicle (which may happen once every 5 months).  You can ask me another time the hundreds of ridiculous, scary, crazy and hilarious stories I experience on a gele. This time I want to tell you about my ‘once in a blue moon’ rides on a Peace Corps car.

I recently went to Morocco (which was amazing and beautiful), and although it is a developing country it is leaps and bounds past this place.  Not having left The Gambia in over a year it was truly an eye opening and at times, a mind blowing experience.  It helped my girlfriend, Sarah and I remember how different the world is outside of the smallest country in Africa.  Let me see, how can I help you best understand this?  In the 1930s the Empire State building was completed and in 2013 the tallest building is isn’t over 8 stories high.  The Gambia is at the bottom of the world’s list of infrastructure.   Needless to say, being on a train in morocco, going a hundred miles an hour was a little bizarre (and at times nauseating, when we have not gone over 40 miles an hour in a long time). 

I forgot how much I loved trains, shit, I forgot how much I loved a lot of things.  It was almost like Sarah and I were two kids again experiencing things for the first time.   We had that feeling of both apprehension and thrill of what felt like a new experiences. Just imagine you are sitting on a train and you get a feeling beginning to bubble up and you can literally feel the electricity of your nerves firing inside of your body as the beautiful Moroccan landscape wising by at million miles an hour.  It is like you are a kid again and every train ride is a landscape filled cinematic adventure.   It was hard to constantly re-live old, but which now felt like new experiences.  But ultimately, despite the train full of emotions, the trip was fantastic adventure and exactly what we needed. 

After a few weeks in morocco and a couple of days in Spain, Sarah and I got a heard reality our lives in The Gambia are not easy.  From transportation to proper nutrition, everything takes 10 times more effort and energy.  This realization was an enormous relief.  We have been extremely hard on ourselves trying to adapt and thrive in this new environment.  We hardly gave ourselves a break when things did not go as planned. We beat ourselves up when we did not have the energy to get a glass of water, forgetting how easy it used to be and only knowing how hard it is at the present.  All we really need was some prospective and it really changed the color of the situation.  Gambia is a third world country but in our minds up until recently, it was the country that we live and work in.  The whole country is fighting that struggle, we were not the only ones struggling and we neglected to remember. ‘It’s not easy dey’ (a common English pseudo African phrases).

So all of these thoughts really came to fruition on that ride I have been trying to tell you about.  I was sitting in the back of the Peace Corps car going 50 miles an hour.  Which mean we are flying past all the other donkey carts, motor cycles and car on the road.  I am sitting there in an a/c with my own seat and I am watching the world fly by (just like the train).  I was amazed at how different everything looked, I am used to see things  at Gambian pace in a POS but for the first time I was moving faster than the pace of life – and my eyes were widened.   I felt like I was peering in on this small little African country from a window standing on the outside while having and intimate understanding of what I saw.  That’s when all of these realizations hit me like a ton of bricks.

This is a beautiful place. The place is hard as hell.  I have been doing a good job. I can continue doing a good job. I have deep respect for anyone who even attempted PC. That’s a beautiful smile.  I live in a mud hut.  I only eat rice.  Damn its hot outside. Slowly, Slowly things will get done. Relax. Take a breath. Everything is going to be alright (to the tune of Bob Marley).

Perspective perspective perspective.  I just try to keep telling myself that.  It really is one power thought and I just got to keep working on it. 

I will leave you with this one last thing. I have never in my life felt so free to think my own thoughts.  It is truly an empowering feeling.

Jama Rek 

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Project Trails and Tribulations

I finished my project. Does that mean my work is done in the PC? When I have finished my 2 years of good deeds, do I need to do any more in my life time? Of course not! Who is to say when the work is done? I guess that is for me to decide. So far I have come to the conclusion the answer is never, the work is never done. You just have to be content that you did satisfactory work and time is the true indicator of success.

I said  I finished my first PC project. It’s a real badge of merit in the PC community but not as satisfying as I expected it to feel. It is hard to pat yourself on the back when poverty and malnutrition are the same issues as before. Some volunteers say murals are some of the most satisfying projects because it paint on the wall and you see the final results, where as my health school may take years for impact to occur. The lessons learned and the knowledge handed down to children and family members in order for it to make a lasting impact. America is such a results driven culture. I am still an American even though now I may be 1/32 African, and I would like to see results. But that is one of the many daily lessons I learn here- patience and faith. So I move to my next endeavor- with those lessons in mind. Myself and 2 other volunteers are putting on an HIV/AIDS football tournament. Will we cure AIDS? No but we sure as hell are going to educate some football players and start a conversation about prevention.

Wait…I still haven’t told you how my project went….

From my point of view, I would rate it as semi-successful (success being signs of sanitation and nutritional improvement). My counterparts and I taught 7 topics over a 4 month period. We encouraged involvement through a competition, which they gain points and get prizes. My counterpart and I recently visited every woman to evaluate their learning and application of knowledge.

The first house we visited my counterpart ingeniously asked the children how and when to wash their hands. Upon asking a 7 year old girl demonstrated the technique perfectly as we did in class. Washing the front of her hand, then the backs and under her nails in the rhythmic sing-songy way we practiced dozens of times in class. My heart dropped, I had to look away to maintain face. Do you know what that means; the mom actually went home and taught her children about hand washing. All talk before about success and results, this child was a real glimpse into the reality of it working. We aren’t totally there until there is a wide spread practice but there is a dam good start. After we check the 80 some households, we found several more children just like the 7 year old girl. It wasn’t enough so im going to put some paint on the walls (aka murals) to remind them to wash their hands and so much more.

We celebrated their accomplishments of the competition with a big party. Decked out with a sound system and a tent, this also included chicken dinner. All the women received prizes of some form. Those with the highest points got prizes starting at 200D ($7) down to the lowest points. Getting 50D ($1.50) prizes. We celebrated and ate a nutritious meal of veggies, meat, and grains.

I put this project in the win column. I keep my chin up as best as I can and I move forward. 

Friday, February 15, 2013

Photo Tour

Schools IN


This is how Africans dance

My Students

(what's next) AIDS Football Tournament

Mini Peace Corps Adventure

After a 6 hour bumpy uncomfortable journey, Sarah and I arrived in Dakar, Senegal. That evening I was picking up my mom in from Los Angeles. Not only would it be my mom’s first time in Africa but it also was her first time meeting my girlfriend, Sarah. Let’s just say I was nervous. But everything went swimmingly. No bags were lost or stolen and I knew just enough French to get us back to the hotel. And yes yes, Sarah and my mom got along great, except for ganging up on me a little bit.

Dakar is one of West Africa’s most metropolitan cities. So Sarah and I eased her into African life. But it was kind of the opposite for Sarah and I. Not having been in a city with buildings over 3 stories since leaving America. Riding an elevator was a new experience again. Don’t even get me started on grocery stores with 20 different types of cereals. We are used to only having one option- corn flakes. We were only in Dakar for 2 days because she wasn’t here to see Dakar, she came to see The Gambia.

So we took what Sarah and I called uncomfortable and my mom called amazing, 6 hour ride to Gambia. We crossed the border and decided to take a taxi instead of local transport back to my village. We would stay only one night this first time being that it was late and its easier to cross the river in the morning time. As we pulled up to the village the taxi started spitting black smoke and spraying fluids, I said, “Welcome to the Gambia!”

It was December 29th and it was my mom’s birthday. It was my first time in 5 years spending her birthday with her. I think it meant a lot to her but you will have to ask her. The three of us spent the day on the beach just relaxing after many days of traveling.

The coastline of Gambia is not what you expect of a 3rd world country. Beautiful white sandy beaches with dark blue clean waters. Resorts have capitalized on the natural beauty and started a semi successful tourist track on the coast. The brits call it the budget vacation. It’s like a $100 flight from England and very inexpensive once you have arrived. I told you all that to tell you we stayed at the Sheraton Resort at the cost of the Holiday Inn in New York. HAH. Sarah also partook in our luxury tour of The Gambia. Neither of us had been there before and we were both blown away that this kind of stuff existed in Gambia. At the same time, the staff were blown away that we could speak local language. One staff member almost fell over laughing so hard that Sarah could speak Mandinka. Needless to say we talked more with the staff at the Sheraton than the other guests. In reality, at this point in our lives we had a lot more in common with the staff then the rest of the quests. When it came time to leave we had 3 guards, 2 gardeners, and a driver walk us to the gate of the Sheraton. Gambians are naturally very hospitable people, so what these men were doing was walking us out of their compound as friends that had came to visit. From the Sheraton we went to Sarah’s village, which is one of the poorest regions in Gambia.

There we did what you do in village, relax and greeted(chat/visit)people in village. Sarah’s family taught my mom how to eat with her hands as we all ate from the same food bowl. At nights we played with the kids and sat by the fire (in cold seasons, nights get into the 60s).

Being a mini PC experience it was important for my mom to give something back to the community. She brought graphing calculators to donate to another PCV for her calculus students. This volunteer works at the oldest school in Gambia and one of the only boarding schools in the country. The volunteer is involved in a project to build a math room at the school for tutoring and other math resources. Before my mom donated the calculators there was only one graphing calculator for 10 students. It is so important to contribute to higher levels of education because these are the students that will help shape Gambia. With more highly educated students, Gambia has a great chance for further development.

The last 8 days of my mom’s 3 ½ week visit was in my village. It is customary for a visitor to meet the village elders. So on the second day she was here she walked around to see the alkalo (village leader/chief), the Imam (head of the Muslim mosque) and several village elders whom we would be offending if we didn’t greet them. The head of the women’s group Mam Gaye, was by far the most animated. She started out with a squeal of excitement, 2 kisses and a hug (all being quite abnormal for a Gambian woman.) Then she proceeded to speak really fast, a little too fast for me to translate everything, say how happy she was to have her in her village and what a great job I was doing. Then she started running around the house trying to find something, it you can’t tell, she has a lot of energy for a 60 year old woman. She finally came back with a necklace that she wanted to give to my mom. After that we did some more laying around for the next couple of days. Energy gets zapped really easy here in Africa with the heat and the low calorie intake of food.

While my mom was here we also had to prepare for the opening ceremony of my health school. So that meant going to the weekly market called a lumo, to buy supplies for food. The lumo is a bustling African market full of raw foods and fabric sales for clothes. A place where you see the butcher hacking away at meat on a table on the main market road. Live animal sales are going on at the far end of the market, including sheep, cattle, horse and many more. It’s the kind of place where you can buy colorful African fabrics and have them tailored into anything you like. It’s an ADHD person’s nightmare and an all-in-one shoppers dream. If you can’t get it here you can’t get it anywhere. I actually love going to the lumo because there is such a great energy and social atmosphere. Every time I go I usually make 2 or 3 new friends and it’s not hard to forget me [Queue white joke]. I have a breakfast lady, a fabric guy, and a phone man. The markets in the capital are full of tourist traps and looters. The lumo is full of friendly Gambians looking more for your friendship then your business. So if you are going to buy, you buy it from a friend.

The opening ceremony went great with a little help from me. (One of the PC goals is to be a facilitator, not a worker, several villagers took charge of the program and it went very smoothly).  Gambian Programs are always filled with lengthy speeches and lots of repetition- this one was no different. We had about 2 hours of lengthy speeches and long drawn out thanks. Including my speech in Wolof but mine was very short. Then we ate lunch and most importantly, we danced! No African celebration is complete without clanging pots and pans. With a shortage of real drums they bang on pots and pans but with their amazing abilities you wouldn’t know the difference. Aimee even got up there moving to the beat of the drum with Mom Gaye’s help. She went out with a bang.

Literally, 3 days later she had to get on a plane and fly back to the States. A departure filled with laughter and tears and an imprint of yellow, red, and green in her mind. Don’t be surprised if her English sounds a little weird. That’s just Gambian English. Don’t ask ‘why’ if she asks: How are you? How is the morning? How is your family? How is the work? Peace Only. She is only greeting you. So take it easy on her for a while because she saw those African children that everyone talks about when you don’t finish a meal. But the truth is she knows what their smiles look like.