VOLUNTEER: people who make a difference
Living in The Gambia
by: Jes Walton
My name is Jes Walton, and I am a Peace Corps Volunteer in The Gambia. THE Gambia. Not to be confused with Zambia. The Gambia is the smallest country in continental Africa and one of the poorest. My job title as an Agro-forestry Extension Worker does my work little justice, as is the case with much development work. Eight months into a 27-month term, I find my life consists of garden work, cracking peanuts, and just about anything that I can do to help me learn more about the language and culture that surrounds me. This is just one of many emails I’m sending back home; I’m trying to stay in touch, and I’m fulfilling one of the Peace Corps’ goals in which volunteers share their experiences with people back home.
I am learning to live with the smell of death. I have perfected this method of breathing through my mouth with my tongue lifted up, to avoid choking on the decay. The black strip of pavement glistens on the horizon. Scarce food and water lead desperate animals to the road, and the smell of failed attempts to drink the shimmery heat wave lingers. Horses. Cows. Donkeys. Dogs. Goats. Sheep. The stench of their rotting corpses makes bike rides between villages seem longer than they sometimes are. I keep my eyes straight ahead, but I know when I’ve passed the worst of it. The enormous figures of vultures stand tall in my periphery.
The villages also reek of it. I see small children with big bellies and broomstick arms—always eating but never full. Millet. bird food. And not much else. Some leave silently in the night, bringing early morning sadness. Some just drift through the days, with their eyes on the sky hoping for rain, new growth, food. Some just get sick. Dehydration reduces them to little piles of fabric. Compounds mourn losses.
The sky is beginning to look a little more like home. I spy clouds for the first time since I came to this country (around eight months ago). We experience a few lightning storms powerful enough to turn night to day. The rains are coming. Deluges glide smoothly off my palm leaf roof to dig a perfect shadow in the dirt around my hut. The rain is nearly three weeks late. People’s crop stores are running out. But the little that wets the ground has awakened a roar of insects and small shoots that come out from between every grain of dirt. Acacia trees find themselves surrounded by something resembling Astroturf. People fight with their cows and horses to plow the fields of clay. Now we wait for consistent rain to plant.
I should have waited, too. I cry in frustration at the swarms of birds and locusts that reduce my garden and tree nursery to little green sprigs. The rats come at night to dig out the seeds and anything remaining… just for closure it seems. They seem to say, “See? Now you don’t even have to worry about them growing back. There’s no hope.” I watch my host sisters bring 20 or 40 gallons of water to the garden. Water has become increasingly scarce, as one of the two pumps in our village recently broke. The water table recedes and only yields turbid water for drinking, washing, bathing, cooking and life. I planted with the hopes of providing food, if not even just a small distraction, for my family at the end of the dry season. My sisters seem to have expected this failure. They winced with each drop of water that I splashed outside of the walls we carefully built around each garden bed. Not even the weeds make it. Either they expected it, or they are accustomed to this sort of disappointment. They roll and unroll their head wraps explaining that we should focus our energy on the fields now. I am sad to have lost my sunflowers. I thought I could introduce a new protein source…
Instead, we focus on the rice fields slowly filling with the salty tidal river. We watch the moon, knowing that Ramadan is close around the corner. The work load, pushed later this year due to the late rains, will coincide with this month of fasting. I have decided as a part of my ‘cultural integration’ that I am going to fast with my family. I’m going to try. I will, however, be drinking water—there is no reason, really, to be so extreme as to forgo water. Mama Hawa said that Allah would forgive me for that small weakness. Also, I have promised some of my personal time to assist with the rice fields. My sister Isatou is pregnant with her third child and is due any week now, so I proposed that I take her place in the fields. I know that I can certainly not do the amount of work she does, but even a day or two a week might help ease her load a bit. I look forward to the manual labor. My family is amazed at what I can do sometimes. And sometimes at what I can’t do. Ha Ha!
So, I work to find solace in my peers. It’s not difficult. We compare stories about our unpredictable bowel movements and their possible origins. Giardia? Dysentary? We share thoughts about how difficult it is to be in this setting, all the while knowing that none of us are starving and that we will always have clean water—no matter what. We rub ointment on each other’s skin funguses. And we share horror stories about all the new bugs that awaken with the rains. (Have you ever heard of scorpion spiders? I’m not sure Google has either, but it’s worth a try. Try an image search!)
Really, all things considered, I’m happy and faring nicely. Village life is certainly at a major cusp: the end of a season of no work and hunger, into a season of bustling activity and more hunger. It might not seem like much of a change, but the anticipation of food makes the actions of people hum. I am keeping very busy. Work presents itself on all sides and in many descriptions. The school is progressing nicely. I am beginning to hear more of, “A nani!” instead of, “A nanani!” meaning, “You hear” instead of “You do not hear.” Such a short and simple phrase that can make my day. Or my week. It’s astonishing how, despite my attempt to live for myself, I find that nothing makes me happier than approval from my family or village people. And I’m finally getting it.
I of course look for the approval of my “home people”, too. For literally the first time since coming to this country, I had an old man in my compound ask me if I missed my home people (as the Gambians refer to my family and friends at home). It’s amazing that people here put so little consideration into how difficult and trying being here is. That being said, I think of you often. I miss you all but have found a comfortable home with people who were once the strangest strangers I had ever met. Now they legitimately feel like family. And I love them, quirks and all. Thanks, everyone, for your support and amazing letters and packages. I don’t think you’ll ever understand how much they mean to me.
Love to the Home People- Jes