Sunday, May 03, 2009

No Pants!!!

Below is a final tribute to of my favorite kids in my host family. This is a brief retelling of what I experienced the morning I said goodbye to my host family and village...

My things of two years passed are smooshed into the front room of my comfortable house. All linens are stripped from the bed, books stacked in boxes, and my belongings strategically packed into two bags and two trunks. Items are organized to be donated to other PCVs who requested them or the famous 'PC free pile' at the transit house. The 'stuff' that's coming with me were pushed against the far wall; the items, like worn, but still good, buckets and clothing, were placed on the other side of the room. Those items were to be left for my family. Early in the morning, I gave explicit instructions to my host mothers (3) and host uncle that they are to divide the items accordingly only once I've left the village. I did not give them much because I did not have that much to give, nor did I want them to expect anything from the next PCV who would be coming there next year. If there's anything I've learned these past two years, giving hand outs does not solve problems.

The PC driver, who's also a close friend, arrived 15 minutes earlier than he originally told me. He ordered the young, teenage boys to help him carry my belongings out to the truck. As we were loading items into the truck, Paabi, the 4 year old who I've watched 'grow-up' for the past 2 years, stood behind the open doors of the truck, with his mouth wide-open. His expression doesn't really strike me as odd as he's had this expression on his face for the entire two years I've been living in the compound. It's the epitome of Paabi---either his mouth is wide-open or he's dancing (with or without music).

However, as I looked down at him, merely trying to determine if he really knew what was going on (in that I was leaving...permanently), I realized that Paabi decided to give me a send off I wouldn't forget. Paabi, who's infamous for parading around the compound before bath time in the buff, decided to not put on any pants that morning. There he stood, with no pants, t-shirt on backwards, and face unwashed, staring blankly at my stuff disappearing into the back of the truck. I looked down at him and started laughing...

In Mandinka, I said---

'Paabi...Where are your pants?'

Blank stare.

'Paabi...where are your pants? Your wife (me) is returning home today, and you can't even put on your pants?'

Blank stare...near muttering of words as indicated by lips moving. However, no sound emerges...

'Paabi...I'm leaving in a few minutes, and if you want to join me (jokingly...we always joked I would take him back to America), you really need to wear your pants. You won't be able to enter the plane because you're not civilized.'

Blank stare, slightly bigger eyes, drool begins to fall from the corners of his this point, Paabi's mother, Fana, yells at him to go and put his pants on. She, too, then tells him he's uncivilized. He hears her, but doesn't move and remains expressionless. She finally gets up from where she's sitting and drags him, with his mouth still wide-open, into the house.

A few minutes later, the truck is all packed, the doors are shut, and my host uncle gathers the family around the sitting area outside. Some neighbors (my friends and counterparts) are arrived to see me off. We sat my host uncle offered me prayers of thanks and for safe travels. I cried briefly, but not hysterically. My one host mother quietly cried, and a few others wiped their eyes, while mouthing to me 'Don't cry.' We said 'Amen'. And I shook hands, ran in my host mother's house to give goodbye kisses to Mero and Buba, two kids that were still sleeping, and hopped into the truck. As I hopped up into the passenger seat, Paabi stood by the passenger side door, in pants, with the blank stare still upon his face. His wife was really going.

I didn't take any pictures of my goodbye that morning as I wanted it to remain as a memory in my mind. I'd like to think that Paabi kept his mouth wide-open that morning as his way of absorbing or even capturing the last few moments of this 'stranger' in his compound. Perhaps his mouth was like the shutter of a camera, with the exposure setting left open just a little too long to capture all that he could, while he was able...

I miss you, dancing, no pants, little man.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

A Sort of Homecoming

And you hunger for the time...
Time to heal, desire, time....
And your earth moves beneath your own dream landscape...
Oh don't sorrow, no don't weep...
For tonight, at last I am coming home...I am coming home.

-A Sort of Homecoming, The Unforgettable Fire

On Saturday, April 4, I left my village, my home, for the past two years. Leading up to my departure, I had a month and a half of overwhelming emotions, frustrations, ups and downs, joys, and annoyances. Overall, though, I expected the worst and hoped for the best. I learned to be flexible and make the most of the moment. These 'mantras' helped me leave my host family and villagers after two years without too many tears and a feeling of contentment. I accomplished something, not necessarily anything large scale or even noteworthy to scrutinizers, but I achieved a lot in the sense of self-discovery and self-awareness. I am still the same 'Steph' that left the U.S. 26 months ago. I am the same merely because my traits that brought me to The Gambia, fundamentally, have not changed. I am still curious, compassionate, hardworking, and dedicated, but I am more assertive than I once was. I have the ability to speak up for myself and others. I am a bit more realistic, yet still remain optimistic. And maybe I'm just a little bit bolder and dare I say, brighter...

Leaving site was like, for lack of a better term, tearing off a Band-Aid. It was quick and painful for a mere second, and in hindsight, somewhat uneventful. It was better that way. I had no party, no program. I wanted to slip away, quietly. I told those that were close to me when I was leaving and made sure we said our goodbyes earlier in the week. I spent time with people, took pictures (check out the links), and just enjoyed people's company for one last time. Goodbyes are terrible in America, but they're worse here...either dramatic or emotionless.

Due to last minute medical clearances and prioritizing time with PC friends before my final departure from The Gambia (and a quick vacation to Spain), I'm now completing this blog post after being home for a little over a week. I am very glad to be back in America, but admittedly, I miss my Peace Corps friends and the kids from my host family. Readjustment will take some time, but I'm determined to enjoy all those 'things' I've missed for two years, while I try to figure out what's in store for the future...

Thank you, everyone, for your support and your interest these past years. Both have made a world of difference to me as I've walked through this journey.

Friday, February 20, 2009


Returning to The Gambia
So it's been a while since I posted, and it turns out, I'm back in The Gambia. I've been back for about 1 month now and quite honestly it feels as though my visit home was forever ago (possible reasons for that detailed later). I was excited to be coming back to The Gambia for I felt like I wasn't quite finished here yet. After a long, sleepless flight from New York to Dakar, and another dusty, yet speedy car trip from Dakar to Banjul, I returned to 'my home'. Sadly though, despite a fairly flawless trip to and from America, I knew I returned to The Gambia as soon as I walked across the border from Senegal to The Gambia. If it weren't for the shouts of small children exclaiming 'toubab! give me pen!' or a government official bothering me instead of doing his job, I would have thought I was still in Senegal. Thankfully, I kept my cool during my 20 minute taxi ride and 45 minute ferry ride because I wanted to be happy when I was picked up by a few of the people I missed most while I was home.

After a short time re-readjusting to The Gambia, via visiting a reptile farm with fellow PCVs' high school current events group and eating some very fancy cuisine at some top restaurants, I headed back to site. I was near tears as I wandered into my compound. The kids turned and cheered as I stepped through the space of the non-existent gate and grabbed by bags. It felt good to be back.

Later in the day, I made sure to greet all my family members who were not present when I arrived. And after I just sat with some of the teenage girls. Admittedly, it was weird, not because I felt uncomfortable, but because I realized I had just re-entered a life so different from the place I just came from (America). And for the first time in a long time, I realized how humbling life really is here.

After an hour of sitting and chatting, my host father awoke from his afternoon nap. My host mothers called me into his house for me to greet him. I tried, but the old, frail man was incoherent. Sitting up, he tried to talk to his wives' and to this day I have no idea if he even realized I was home. He'd open his mouth and gurgled. 'Gosh,' I thought to myself, 'he's not going to make it this time.' I'm not a doctor, but it was apparent, he was dying of pneumonia. The next morning, my host father BaAlaghie Saikou Fatty, died. I was sullen and my compound was sad, yet loud thanks to intermittent wailing when a new mourner arrived. BaAlaghie lived a good, long life for someone who's life expectancy is approximately 55 years old in this country. My host father was at least 75. May he rest in peace.

Admittedly, returning to my host father's death was not quite the welcome back I had expected, although I've always had in the back of mind that he could possibly pass away during my service here. My family compound is complex and is comprised of two separate families, that do not necessarily live peacefully together. However, there usually is no arguing, but it is more passive-aggressive behavior that indicates tension within the compound. After my host's death, my host uncle became head of the compound. And based on cultural and religious practices, one is to not do anything without notifying the compound head. This became a problem when I had to pay my January food money to my host (formerly my host father). Unfortunately, I got caught in the middle, but after much advising by Peace Corps' language and cultural trainers (thank you!), I managed to uphold an agreement and follow the appropriate cultural customs without ruffling any feathers (that I know of). And I'm still very impressed with how kind and diplomatic my host uncle remained during the whole situation. He's one of my favorite men here.

Even though I was not close with my host father, his absence is felt at the compound. My host mothers are still in their 40 day mourning period. But oddly enough, right after his death, the family seemed somewhat relieved. Perhaps they were celebrating his life and felt he was now in a better place. They were able to see family from all over the country and even the world, as my host brother working in Spain flew home for the funeral and to take care of compound business. Needless to say, I didn't handle the mourning process very well. My family is Muslim; I am not. For Americans, death is something that is held close and is private and personal; for Gambians, it is private and personal as well, but theirs consists of a cultural practice of wailing that can make you doubt one's sincerity during the mourning process. I'm not saying it is wrong, but just different and quite jarring when it happens in front of you. It was a tough time.

Close of Service Conference
Amidst all the chaos in my compound, I left my village a mere five days after returning to attend my Close of Service Conference with 14 of my fellow training group members. On that cold day in Washington, DC in late January 2007, we started with 21 people; there are now 15 of us remaining. What can I say...Peace Corps is a challenge and for those that left early, for whatever reason, they gave it a whirl, and that's a pretty big deal right there. (You were all missed at the conference.)

Anyway, the Close of Service Conference was to assist us in reviewing our service and accomplishments and to begin resume writing and post-Peace Corps plans. It was a great conference and it was wonderful to catch up with group members and talk about the future.

Frustrations in Village
After the end of the conference, I returned to village, to find that the stresses I left at my compound had not yet been resolved. However, after a few sleepless nights at site, they were and I could move forward with my work. Progress on the women's garden has been phenomenal and even more so that they took initiative to finish the project during my absence. However, it was the little things, like organizing a work day without notifying me, or telling me that my presence is requested to help build the garden gate, when I was just about to go for my evening run. Or having a difficult time reading the expressionless faces of some members (not all) of my host family when I presented them with my traveling gifts from America. Or when one of the girls I mentored asked if I brought everyone a mobile. Or lending my bucket, knife, cups, and bowls in a time of need only for them to be returned to me (with my asking for their whereabouts) broken or cracked or not clean. Or a trusted counterpart being fired for eating money that was to be used to buy supplies for the clinic. Or just feeling like I've been taken for granted.

Turning the Page
Alas, however, I got over it. I'll always have a few doubts about my service, role, and purpose here, but I'm still a big proponent that I've made an impact on a handful of people here, who do respect me, honor me, and trust me. And for me that is enough for I have grown and matured and perhaps become a bit more realistic about the world and its challenges, but they're all part of what makes us tick. So I'll just keep on ticking, making the most of it while I can...

Sunday, January 11, 2009

More Random Videos

Paabi's Dancing...Again!

-The Strangers Have Come-The Village Welcomes My Family
(I was walking backwards while trying to film...obviously, I have no future as a cinematographer.)

Random Videos I Couldn't Upload Until Now

A taste...

Of what it's like on the road to Dakar, Senegal


Amadou Hops

Baby Paabi Dances-May 2007
(sorry, I recorded it with my camera being held vertically...oops).

Paabi Plays It Up for the Camera

Through the Window

Many people have asked, how does it feel to be back home?

It feels wonderful, comfortable, and so familiar, but at the same time, it feels as though I'm looking through a window, and doing just that: looking through a window at a world that I'm not quite a part of. I don't feel this way because I feel unwelcomed, but instead, I've been realizing I have a life here and a life in The Gambia, and I just haven't quite figured out how to have the two of them merge. When will I no longer look through that window, but when will I open it and let the two worlds collide? I have a feeling I won't for a while, but oh, how exciting to think about the possibilities!

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Gratitude and Grace

As many of you know, I'm currently home in America, and my primary reason for coming home was to help celebrate my Grandma turning 100! There was a nice party, full of catching up, laughter, and even some tears. Not only was it amazing to spend such a day with my Grandmother, but it was wonderful to see and reconnect with so many relatives. Although the time with the extended family was short, it was just what I needed---a time to hear the latest family news, see how big the cousins' children have grown, and more personally, to flush out 2 years of my life and to reflect.

It was big news, knowing that the niece, or the cousin, or the granddaughter (depending on who was talking to whom) came 'all the way from Africa' to join in on the festivities of such a joyous day. I was asked the same questions, in different forms, with different accents, and despite the 'interviewer's' concerns, I honestly didn't get too tired of answering (maybe they got too tired of listening). And at times, I found myself saying things over and over again, but rather than it be redundant (to me), it was reaffirming. An affirmation that I lived to tell about my crazy two years of living in the middle of the African, no...just kidding. Seriously, my dialogue reminded me, that this whole experience, this 2 year life, will never be just that, but it is something that will be carried with me wherever I go. And I was also reminded that the influence of my Grandmother also travels with me wherever I go.


Valentina, or Val, is my Grandma. Believe it or not, she's one of the reasons why I decided to join the Peace Corps. Hearing her story always fascinated me when I was little, and it stills does today. She traveled, by ship, to America with her family, who wanted a better life from that in Russia; she arrived at Ellis Island, and settled in a foreign land. What a life. She couldn't speak the language, but learned it over time. She served as interpreter for her parents, and she worked hard because hard work yields benefits. 'What was it like back then, with no electricity or running water?' my sister and I would ask. 'How did you wash your clothes?' 'What kind of food did you eat?' And oddly enough, I, too, 97 years later after her stepping foot on American soil, I am answering the same questions about living in West Africa. My travels to Russia and Poland in high school and college always baffled Grandma. She never understood why I wanted to study the past so much. She was proud that I was returning to the land of our heritage, but for her, my studying the history of where we came from reminded her of days that were maybe not so romantic, but much more realistic and even, heartbreaking. But I told her I wanted to learn not only about the past, but more about how the past shapes people. When she heard I was going to Africa for two years, she was curious as to why, but expressed happiness and pride; she knew I wanted to challenge myself.

The day I arrived at Grandma's residence with my family, we sat in a private room off the dining hall. We caught up, my aunt's family and mine and Grandma, while eating lunch. Grandma was delighted to see everyone. However, the look on her face, five minutes after my sitting next to her in silence, when she realized that I traveled from 'all the way from Africa' to America for her birthday, was priceless. Her eyes lit up as it clicked in her mind, and we both smiled at each other, without saying a word. We knew what the other was thinking--- gratitude and grace.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

There's joy in so many things

I'm posting this picture because I like it. It's from a few weeks ago when I was visiting my host family that lives in Kombo. Every time being with other PCVs gets overwhelming, I'll stop by my host family members that live in Kombo and it gives me that village experience I love, without the hectic travel of going up-country. Sometimes, things just make me smile, even when I'm missing the people I love. Today happens to be one of those days when I realize even though I'm far away from people I love, I'm still really happy to enjoy the moment while it's here. Miss and love you all.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

An Update (or maybe 10)

Here are bits and pieces about recent events and upcoming happenings:

1.For all of you that shared your concerns about Mero, she's better and almost fully healed, with little scarring.

2.Exciting news! The work for the women's gardens is finally moving along. The land has been mowd down, literally with only one minor mishap. The tractor driver accidentally ran into the cement wall of one of the garden's wells. Ooops. I can't really blame him as it was an accident, but seriously the weed growth was over 1.5 meters high. Unfortunately, this project has moved slowly. For one, things really do move slowly here and rice planting interfered during the rainy season and then we had a month of Ramadan, where people are fasting for most of the day. In addition, my travel back and forth to village and Kombo also affected the progress. However, much to my surprise and happiness, the garden committees met during my absence and collected money from every woman in the village in order to pay for the tractor use. I was so proud of their ability to get the job done! And once again, thanks to all of you for your support.

After returning to site, I was fetching water one morning and someone approached me saying that the tractor arrived! It literally was like Christmas, except no one told me Santa was stopping by unannounced.

3. I have less than 5 months left here now. It's bittersweet. Then I hope to travel a bit with my sister.

4. I'll be home on Christmas and will stay for a 3 week vacation, primarily to celebrate my Grandma's 100th birthday!

5. The cool season here and I'm back to wearing long sleeping pants and using a top sheet at night. How glorious!

6. Thanksgiving was absolutely fantastic this year. And it was great to spend time with some of my closer Peace Corps friends and staff. Many Volunteers (including this one) helped to make food and bake delicious desserts. Our American Associate Peace Corps Director of The Gambia kindly opened his house for about 100 Americans (and a few Brits). It was great, and the turkey was amazingly. Despite all the food and the fact that it felt like it was America, the power went out at one point in time and we didn't turn on the generator, and we were reminded that even though we had our little America, we were still in Africa. It's great to be able to have feelings of thankfulness and gratitude and I think they become even more apparent when one is away from home. Despite a great Thanksgiving, I missed my family and look forward to celebrating in the U.S. next year.

7. Training is going well and in two weeks, I'll leave my site again to assist in a few more training sessions where I am teaching about Community Assessment Approaches. Then, my job as part of the PCV training team will be finished. While I'll miss it, it's nice knowing that we've hopefully made a positive contribution to this year's training and future ones.

8. I'm so excited to be heading to site for 2 weeks. I have a lot to do while I'm there, and despite the limited time schedule, I hope to be fairly productive. There's work with the garden committees, possible local beekeeping training with a few of my counterparts (we'll make local grass hives), clinic work, tutoring/mentoring of my host brother and his friend,
souvenir shopping, and the Muslim holiday of Tobaski, for which I'm very excited as I already have my fancy African dress made. Can't wait to don it!

9. I had another infection on my leg this week, but it healed fairly quickly. Woohoo!

10. I still miss you all...A LOT!