Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Random musings and a Coconut Story

Teaching Frustration

I think that Plato got it all wrong when he decided to take the angle he did when writing the "Allegory of the Cave." He completely forgot to mention the teacher and the way that person feels when helping her student. I've always respected teaching as a profession and what teachers do, but I never fully appreciated how hard it is.

One night, I was helping my little brother, Sainey, do his 5th grade maths homeowrk of writing numbers into words. Things began pretty well with some small "spell me this" and the sort, but he knew the numbers and could say them which is better than some of my junior high kids. We made our way to the number 1,536,563. Well, I introduced the word one-million to his word bank . Ten minutes later, I was still saying five-hundred sixty-three what, Sainey? The reply was five-six-three. All of this despite the fact that the previous question was 100,243 which he got on the first try.

Well, we worked hard and I did a good job of not giving him the answer but I had that behind-the-eye ache of frustration/agitation that I think I must be one of the only people lucky enough to experience. He HAD it one question before -- how could he have forgotten? Well, we worked even harder and finally finished the assignment. Maybe Plato got it right when he spoke of the struggle to gain knowledge but he totally left out the person who allowed the prisoner to escape and the guy who takes on the kids from him compound and helps them with numbers and long multiplication.

Coconut Story

My host brother, Ebu, and some of his friends and I went on a coconut harvesting mission. To begin with we had to find an Acacia type tree and lopped some fairly large branches off. The limbs we carried to a pre-chosen palm tree where we pulled some palm fronds down to make some lashing. We also used some bark to make some rope and tied the limbs end-to-end. The limb on top was crooked and we proceeded to hoist the contraption up into the canopy to hook it. Well, this tree was a little too tall and the tower dropped a couple of times before we moved to a smaller tree. Once we got the thing hooked, Ebu's friend shimmied up to 10 meter pole and started climbing around the canopy chopping off the coconut bucnhes with an axe and big crash.


Well, kids, I'm heading back up country tomorrow so I can make it back in time for Tobaski. The holiday commemorates Abraham and the aborted sacrifice of his son Ishmael. There will be a gigantic amount of goat meat and slaughter along with some praying and fun which I am excited about. Who knows when I'll be back down...but I will have to come to the bank once a month starting in January so with any luck you'll get to hear from me a little more often! Peace and Love!!

Monday, December 25, 2006

Feasting and Wrestling

Well, I've written about some of this to some of you in letters I've posted and some of it is new but all from my journal so it should be interesting, well maybe.


So let me start off by saying the Kortiteh was kind of a bust of a holiday. This is the "big" feast that happens at the end of Ramadan and was very welcome by yours truly because I decided to fast with the folks in the village. Not drinking water during the day was pretty tough because of the heat but the food for the breaking fast meal was awesome! The part of this holiday worth mentioning is called Lailat al-Quadr. After the sun has gone down, the faithful gather at the mosque and sing the Q' uran from beginning to as far as they can make it. The scene looked like something out of a National Geographic, but, as usual, I assumed it would be inappropriate to take pictures when it was fine and I missed it. Next year.

So the sun has gone down and you can imagine a little white concrete block building that is about 15 ft by 15 ft. surrounded by grass roofed houses. The stars are shining brightly and the old women from the village are gathered outside the mosque around a fire with some of the girls making treats and singing. They're not allowed to enter the mosque when men are present. They're dressed beautifully, however, in flowing completos (dresses with low cut arm holes that are large and baggy) made of colorful African fabrics with their heads wrapped in matching fabric. Their song and rhythm are set by the men inside the mosque who are singing very loudly. I walk around the women greeting furiously with my friend Mamadi, slip off my sandals at the door and enter the the little building and sit along the wall. The place is filled with the young men of the village accompanied by one of the elders who is sitting in front of a large burning candle. The candle is surrounded by a mountain of wax and is situated on an old tin of Nescafe. The light bounces back in forth, almost in rhythm with the chanting as the old man in his long, flowing, kaftan gets up to distribute some sweet, sugary dough for all of us to eat.

We are sitting along the walls, singing and bouncing to the rhythm, all of us, lit by one single candle. Interspersing my views of the other side of the mosque and the leaders of the singing are older men that come in, dressed in 50-cent t-shirts and windpants, that are there to prostrate and pray. Only half of their faces are lit and I can see their lips moving as they whisper "Allah aqubah" (forgive the spelling) underneath the din of the night of power. By around two in the morning, I get too tired to continue and get up to leave with my friend and am sung to sleep by people celebrating the revelation of the Q' uran to Muhammed.


The Friday before played host to one of the big sporting activities that takes place in my village, wrestling. A place in the field is cleared the day before the event takes place and people begin to show up around 10 or 11 at night. There is no such thing as fashionably early here. Two circles have formed, but my ears have informed me of the presence of drums the entire walk down to the field that is maybe a kilometer south of my home. We arrive and see the drummers' circle illuminated by a fire of palm fronds and dead wood. The men are playing huge djembes, large round bass drums, and smaller "singing" drums. The other circle, a little farther removed from this one is composed of a writhing mass of men and a few women surrounding the wrestlers who are the preview to the main event. Two or three men with large sticks control the ground by feigning to flog the members of the circle surrounding the wrestlers and sweeping the dust.

An eery glow emanates from this place because of the fires and all the dust that has been put into the air. The boys wrestle in a different way that we would. They are wearing very little, a t-shirt and some short, tight shorts. The grab each other by wadding up the material around the hips and grabbing on. They circle around for a small time, while men who are brave enough to face the men bashing the ground like stick jump into the circle and dance in a way that I can't describe. High knees and fast legs with their legs, upper bodies, and arms all moving in different directions at different speeds, obscure my view of the wrestlers until one of the boys is picked up and thrown to the ground. The contest is over and three more have begun.

Around 1 or 2 in the monring the main event starts and people stand in an orderly manner (something that is not usual here) as a gigantic fire is made of large palm fronds at the far end of the circle from me. Each village from the surrounding area is represented by one wrestler and his entourage and they stand in a large group like a picture one would take of a soccer or football team. This orderliness becomes colluded by smaller groups of this larger group when they take off running towards the fire and jump over it. They run circles around the fire like crazed animals and the rest of the crew joins in. All the while the drum beats have never once stopped and the wrestlers begin their pre-event dance to show the vitality and strength.

The wrestlers begin to engage each other in a dance competition that is not quite as funny as it sounds. They strut their stuff like roosters and are still interspersed by bouts of fire jumping. Some of the more virile men will flip and back handspring through the air and never miss a beat as they dance. This continues for another hour or so and then the wrestlers begin to get to business. They are dressed in much the same way as the boys were earlier but they have on some sort of green, white and red waist band with 3 thin pieces of fabric hanging down to the ground. The men grapple with each other, spin each other around and toss each other through the air. The loser gets up and starts dancing like nothing happened, after being straddled and stared down a little. The winner throws his arms in the air and begins dancing again as well. There are ten men doing this all at once and the flow of dancing to wresting to dancing to falling to flipping to dancing to wrestling is constant with no visible system to who is matching up. This continues for hours until by about 4 am I am falling asleep where I sit and decide to walk home. As I open the door to my hut, I remember, oh yeah tomorrow (err...this morning) I have Saturday class at 9 with my 9th graders.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

2 months of training in a small, small nutshell

To set the time up for everyone, I've just arrived back in Kombo (the capital city metro area) after being up-country for about two months for Peace Corps training. We were moving around between my small, Wolof training village and a tourist camp called Tendaba and a few other places.

While in my training village, Sare Samba, my training group and I tried to learn the language and started getting used to traditional Gambian village culture. There were two groups of 3 for the classes. I lived in a small family compound of a mother and father and their 4 children. After the 2nd day there we'd all received our Gambian names in a semi-traditional naming ceremony. By the end of the first week, my small group had begun alternating nights of yoga with lots of onlookers and ultimate frisbee games with lots of the village kids.

After that, we went to Tendaba camp for some technical training and running water and intermittent electricity. I don't really remember too much about that...It was pretty uneventful. We returned to Sare Samba and spent two weeks trying to wrangle the language with 20+ pronoun tenses, no verb conjugations and some crazy, repetitious grammar that I have come to love. I helped the family farm some peanuts, taught them a few card games and got to know my fellow training village trainees a little better. At the end of that stint I went to visit a volunteer up-country and learned a little about what he does. It was a fun trip and then we commenced two weeks of model school at Tendaba again.

Model school was pretty interesting and we were able to explore some of the realities we might be facing when we begin teaching in the schools. Some of the difficulties are kids who have a hard time understanding/reading/speaking in English and getting participation out of them. The American education model is much different that what is used here. There is not too much to report about all of this but I enjoyed my classroom time and the opportunity to see everyone again.

We returned to Sare Samba for another few days without much happening and we left permanently to visit our permanent sites and head back down to Kombo for swearing-in. My site, Nyanga Bantang, is a smallish village on the North Bank in CRD where I will be teaching junior high science and working on some other projects at Nyanga Bantang Basic Cycle School. My family is great and absolutely gigantic. They have been extremely welcoming and helpful. My host brother is probably one of the most important men in the village: he is the Al Kali (village head), Assistant Imam at the Mosque, owner of one of the two bitiks in town, owns the tailoring shop and telecenter, and has some gardens and farm land! Another host brother is a nurse at a nearby clinic and the women are all hard working. One of my favorites is a 1 year old named Lamin with a wild laugh and big toothless grin.

The school is nice and has been fortunate enough to have an addition put on of three classrooms and a staff room. The teachers that I have met seem very dedicated to the school and excited to teach. My counterpart, the headmaster, has been very welcoming and I'm definitely looking forward to getting to know all of them.

Well, that brings me to the present. Sorry about the lack of detail but I think that is about as good as I can do for two months worth of summary in one post. Swearing-in is on Friday and I'll be heading up to site for three month challenge. I'll probably be out of access for the next few months so I hope that all is well!