July 21, 2015

Meet Jammeh Kunda

I realize I'm a little late to the party.  I'm getting ready to leave my compound and move to the city, and I realized I never introduced my people.  So without further ado, may I present to you… Jammeh Kunda!

Many of the pictures were taken on Koriteh, the celebration marking the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting from sun-up the sun-down.  They're in their "salibayo" or "prayer fabric," their fancy new clothes to add to the festivities.

Ousman - host dad
This man is about as good as they come.  Highly welcoming, ultra kind, generous and hospitable, Ousman has made my stay in his compound second to none.  He is a timber businessman in the city, so he's frequently traveling and not around as much as I, or his family, would like.  But when he does come home, the kids are overjoyed.  Unfortunately, his business is one of the many that are contributing to the worrisome deforestation - large mahogany trees are cut down and sold to foreign dealers at an alarming rate.  But I cannot hold that against him - many people are unaware of the long-term effects of their actions.  Logs mean money, money means food for the family.  Anyway, Ousman's a great man and respected by the entire village.

Jahnke - Grandma
Grandma is a sweet lady with a stern side - perfect for a family matriarch, I think.  I've seen her advise younger folks before, and it's probably one of my favorite things about this culture.  The young folks always listen to her.  Always!  Unfortunately for Grandma, her hips have pretty much gone out, and she's been able to do little more than shuffle since I've been here, and it's only gotten worse.  Decades spent bent over in the rice fields will do that to a woman.  But friends and family are constantly dropping in to chat and see how she's doing - another favorite thing about village life.

Fayi - Jahnke's sister
Though she lives in a different compound, Fayi is considered one of ours.  Whenever I bring "silafando" (gifts from my travels, even when I just go to town), Fayi is considered part of the beneficiaries.  Confident and businesslike, Fayi's one of those ladies who would have been running a business or sitting on boards if she'd only gotten an education.  In any case, she's a village voice and definitely a force to be reckoned with here in Jammeh Kunda.  [This photo perfectly exemplifies a typical reaction to a photographic portrait.]

Jilan - First wife
In other families, I would probably call her "mom," but since she's younger than me, I just use her first name and we joke about how we're sisters instead.  Jilan is feisty yet friendly, and we get along fine.  I'm not a huge fan of how she deals with her kids sometimes, but it's something I just have to bear.  Jilan is tough to understand, as she speaks quickly and rarely attempts to slow down for me, but we've been able to communicate once we figured each other out a bit better.

Fatou - Second wife
It's common, and often expected, for Muslim families to consist of a man and multiple wives - up to four, per the Koran.  Fatou is lucky number two, but she and Jilan co-exist very peacefully.  And as you can see, she's stunning.  Fatou and I tend to  get along better than me and Jilan, and that comes from Fatou's ability to speak clearly to me from early on.  Beautiful and stoic, Fatou is a dutiful wife who isn't too afraid to tell Ousman when he's being unreasonable.

Lamin - adopted son
Lamin's parents died when he was just a little kid, so Jahnke took him in as her own, and he's been with them ever since.  He's a little rough around the edges, having dropped out of school, but he's working in the fields and has an apprenticeship with the local carpenter.  Lamin's good with the kids, especially the little ones, when he's not too busy being cool with his cronies.  Jahnke and him have a touch-and-go relationship, which just goes to show you that mothers look out for their sons the same the world over.

Fatou, aka "Effo" - Ousman's daughter from a previous marriage
Effo's about 14 and way more respectful than I was at her age.  She likes her glam, but she's sweet tempered and not show-offy.  Most of the time she stays at Fayi's compound, but makes frequent appearances at Jammeh Kunda, especially when one of the wives is out of town.  Effo's not the greatest student in the world, but she's certainly not the worst, and I speak almost exclusive English to her.  I hope beyond hope that she continues her education and makes the big leap from Grade 6 to Grade 7.

Molamin - Ousman's son from a previous marriage
He's definitely a looker - parents should lock up their daughters in a few years!  He's excellent with his little sisters, and I definitely see Ousman in him.  Molamin's not a very good student, but honestly, most kids aren't good students, and it's not for lack of trying.  I'm hoping he doesn't fall by the wayside, because he's a good kid that just needs to find something he's really good at.  And it may not be found in school.

Bubacarr - Ousman's son from a previous marriage
Bubacarr's probably 12 years old, and he's definitely the sweetheart of the family.  Rambunctious like a typical 12-year-old boy, but obedient and sensitive, Bubacarr claims math as his best subject.  I speak as much English with him as I can too, and he loves playing Mahjong on my iPod.  And dang it all if he's not getting pretty good at it!

Binta, aka "B-Girl" - Ousman's daughter from a previous marriage
It took me over a year to realize that this girl's name is Binta.  You see, Ousman calls her "Mariama," which is Jahnke's second name, and everyone else calls her B-Girl, which I thought they were saying Biga.  That's not a name.  Anyway, I got it straightened out.  She doesn't often stay in our compound - she generally lives with an older female relative - but she's over constantly and making her presence known with her reedy shouts and laughter.  This one needs some guidance in terms of appropriate and safe behavior, but I've perfected my "look" and she shapes up instantly.

Ousman, Jr. - Jilan's son
This kid.  Oy.  He can be sweet as pie one second and throwing rocks at animals the next.  If you want my opinion, I think Ousman, Jr. could do with some hardcore guidance from the men in his life.  He's at least better behaved when Ousman, Sr. is around.  He's a very poor student, but he's good at art.  Maybe he'll make a good tailor when he grows up.

Kaddy - Jilan's daughter
Another sweetie pie with an infectious giggle, Kaddy is my little buddy.  I love tickling her and playing with her braids, and she can't keep a straight face EVER.  I wager she's 8 years old, and she'll have to repeat 2nd grade, which isn't a bad thing.  I think she's got potential.  She just needs a decent teacher.

Alimatou, aka "Li" - Jilan's daughter
This little pudger is like Amie's dopey sidekick.  She turned 2 in April, and she's active and playful when Amie's around.  Li and I get along fine, but she prefers the company of her brothers and sisters.  I will say, however, that I am often the only one who can get her to stop crying when she's had a tough time of it.  Win!

Kaddy - a cousin
This little girl finds the light out of every dark situation.  She's worked hard in the compound, being about 9 years old and just the age to start learning the womanly ways of this society.  No matter how many pots she's washed, floors she's swept, or buckets of water she's hauled, I can always eek a smile out of her.  She's eager to help me whenever I need it, but I usually seek the help of the other Kaddy, since she's less busy.  This "big Kaddy" as we call her does get her fun, and the family treats her as one of their own.

Sarjo - a friend's daughter
Sarjo came to us last year after the rainy season, though I'm not sure exactly why.  Except instead of a plentiful harvest, she brought more storm clouds with her.  She was always causing drama in the compound, fighting and wailing about who knows what.  I assume she was causing too much trouble at home, so her parents sent her from the city to the village to sort her out.  After awhile though, she calmed down and has grown to be a courteous teenager of around 13.  Sarjo entered school at Grade 2 and placed first.  This year as a 3rd grader, she placed third.  Here's hoping she keeps going, despite her older age.

Aminata, aka "Amie" - Fatou's daughter
Amie's probably the most temperamental kid I've ever met.  One minute she's giggling and agreeable, the next she's stoney and stubborn.  But she's mine :)  Amie's gonna be 3 in September, and she is every bit a terrible two.  We enjoy lots of snuggles, when she lets me, and I taught her how to kiss me on the check, again when she agrees.  Definitely the leader of the Amie and Li duo, Li follows her around like a puppy dog, it's pretty funny.  I think the word "twerp" perfectly sums up Amie.

Sali - Fatou's daughter
This one is so uber special to me, and it's going to be heart wrenching to leave her.  I'm not really a baby person, but I love this baby.  She's got a huge smile, especially when she sees her mom, and she's turning into a little chatterbox.  At just over 6 months, she can't crawl yet, but she recently learned to roll over, and she's getting better at grasping, which is dangerous because she puts EVERYTHING into her mouth.  I'd say she's a perfectly lovely and normal baby.  Which, in West Africa, is a very very very good thing.  We're lucky.

Ninja - the watchdog
No, we didn't rename Bo the Wonder Dog.  Rather, Bo, who was very unpredictable and often inexplicably vicious, was poisoned by some punk thugs who'd had their masculinity challenged too many times (seriously - they'd scream like little girls, and they didn't appreciate my laughter).  Yeah, not cool.  But our family took in Ninja as a puppy and he's been nothing but sweet and unassuming, causing zero problems and fitting in just fine.

And this is me, the other Sali, in my own salibayo.  I tend to stay in the compound, especially since little Sali was born, and don't venture out into the community too much.  My family, or my solitude in my house, suits me fine.  Guess I'm more of a homebody than I thought.  I like doing yoga or rudimentary gymnastics with the kiddos, stumbling through Mandinka conversations, and rocking little ones to sleep.  Jammeh Kunda is a good thing for me.

June 20, 2015

Team ExTreme Hunger Games

At this momentous event, Michael Alvarez of District 1, dressed to the nines, and Katie Bolander, Victor of Johnny's Goats Hunger Games, officially opened the Team ExTreme Hunger Games with nothing less than snarky remarks and dark humor.  There was a brief moment of silence followed by four cannon shots (or backfire shots from a gelly - we still can't decipher) in remembrance of the Team ExTreme tributes that had fallen before the games even began.

Although he had excessive camouflage, war paint all over his face, and a Rambo-style ammunition belt, Peter D. stepped off the starting platform with a rebel yell only to be immediately decapitated by a flying axe from Kristin Brodie who had already reached the weapons supply, being a career Iowan athlete.  The Bowman of course immediately grabbed a quiver of arrows and shot her cupid's dart into the heart of one Bush Man Dan Tan, another fierce competitor, fatally wounding him.  In a haze of confusion from the unfolding violence, Bonnie Foxwell was tragically eliminated because… What?  Why?  Huh?  The rest ran for the mangrove swamp forest, mostly quietly, and Nick Porras didn't get a speck of mud on his tie, but managed to sweat through his finest Mauritanian shirt.  Meanwhile, Brie and Kristin stood in the middle of the arena yelling, "Come out you sissies!" and "Here batter batter batter!"

Then began the difficult process of hiding in the half-desert landscape behind scant shrubbery (the environment was modeled after the North Bank).  To nobody's surprise, Sarah D. was quickly spotted and eliminated due to her haloing cloud of cigarette smoke and raucous laughter.  Brie tried to make a self-defense bubble out of local trash and recycled materials, but it quickly decomposed by the concussions of exploding water balloons flung over by the hired minions of guest tribute Elizabeth Cherry Livingston, who sat by the river with a cooler.  In place of a cannon shot, the announcers boomed, "YOU'RE OUT! YOU'RE OUT!" over the loud speaker.

DJ P.Delight was then found sweating and playing sick beats, but was quickly strangled with a microphone cord by Jeff who was enraged and shouting profanities because he wasn't hearing enough Drake.  Rachel, the ever loving person that she is, tried to perform CPR to revive him.  But while doing so, Stephanie crept up from behind and stabbed her in the back.  Nobody saw her coming because she hid the bush for so long that people forgot she was even a tribute.  But then, she was so grief-stricken over the death of her wife that she poisoned herself in a tragic Romean-and-Juliet manner.  All the while, Laura Lyons was hiding in the trees concocting a master plan to use a combination of booby traps, sabotage, treason, and Stockholm syndrome to conquer the remaining opponents.  Yet when the time came to implement the plan, she had mixed her special bush fruit with her trail mix and ended up falling into one of her own traps.

With only a handful of fierce tributes left, the game masters decided to take things up a notch and set a raging bush fire.  Some got nervous and started to run.  But just then, leaping through the flames like a wild jungle amazon, Cara Sandquist came screaming to the attack carrying only a rusted kitchen knife and 24 months of pent-up anger.  It was all she needed as she blacked out and effortlessly slaughtered Jacy, Kristin, and Jeff to pieces while murmuring catty, sarcastic remarks over each of their corpses.  She is currently making a video of the whole ordeal using the musical score from her brother.

Alas!  Cara Hussein Sandquist is the Team ExTreme Hunger Games Victor and will be granted an extra year to live and blog in the Gambia.

June 10, 2015


So I'm staying in The Gambia a little longer than expected.  I'm going to be one of those weirdo, possibly obsessive Peace Corps volunteers who stays in their country for a 3rd year.  In The Gam, we call them "extendees."  I used to call them psychos.  But now I'm one of them.  Surprise!

What was I thinking?

Peace Corps volunteers are shameless gossips.  And who can blame us?  For hours on end, we lay around (often on the cement floor), covered in dirt and sweat, with literally nothing to do but sweat and and text friends about how much you're sweating.  We need something to talk about.  So without any adequate world news source available, we turn to the next most interesting thing: each other.

So here is my attempt to dispel any myths surrounding my decision to stay in The Gam, and what my role will be here.

Back story:  I have officially resigned from my teaching position in St. Cloud.  I never had any intention of returning to teaching, namely that job, once my Peace Corps service ended.  That said, I never came up with a sufficient plan for myself.  I know I don't want to teach anymore, but anything I have vaguely considered doing would require me to go back to school.  Some of my "ideas" would take years to accomplish.  Not knowing if I am ready to commit to that quite yet, I tossed around another idea of staying in The Gam to a) take some more time to think about it, b) prepare for some entrance exams, or at least prepare for being a student again, and c) learn some new skills and beef up my resume.

So in March-ish, I spoke with my program manager and told him that I was thinking about extending my service.  In what capacity exactly?  Well I had an idea.  Last October, Peace Corps The Gambia created a new position called "Communications Specialist."  I was asked to apply, as the admin had appreciated video work, but I turned down that offer because that would have require me to extend through October 2015 - about a 2-month extension.  I was not interested in extending at that point.  Long story short, I had a change of heart (see above) and wondered if I could extend to take on that communication role as a 3rd-year extendee.  My program manager encouraged me to seek out that opportunity.  So I did.

I applied for that communications position immediately after it was posted, and waited.

Insert turn of events here.

Also in March-ish, our current PCVL (Peace Corps Volunteer Leader), took a trip back to the States and while there, she landed a job.  Yay!  But that meant that her position would be open in August instead of December, which was the original plan.  So - surprise! - the position of PCVL opened up.  (FYI: PCVL is the person in your sector who's responsible for training, developing sites for new volunteers, and is pretty much the main contact person.)

I'd had some issues with the way training and program communication was run in the past, so I applied to air my concerns.  I didn't think I'd be taken seriously for the job, but I wanted to make sure my concerns were taken seriously.  Little did I know…

With two applications out and my Close of Service conference coming up, I was on pins and needles.  I needed to know what I was doing and when by the time my conference was over.  Not easy.  Several meetings with programming staff later, several meetings with administration later, and they still couldn't give me an answer.  Ugh.  Surprise…  Here's why:

Communications Specialist application: It was between me and another volunteer.  We were deemed of equal qualification on paper, and in order to make a decision, the Country Director would have to add a second application component.  I didn't have the job in the bag.  And it would be weeks before I knew if I'd have it or not.

PCVL application:  They listened to my concerns and took them seriously.  They also took me seriously.  Without another applicant, they were comfortable of placing me in the PCVL role.  Surprise!

By Friday of my conference, I'd had enough.  I pulled the Country Director aside and literally said, "I can't take it anymore.  I just want to know what I'm doing.  Can I be PCVL?"  Not my most eloquent moment.  But she said yes.  Surprise!

So with that, I'l be assuming the role of of PCVL in August and therefore remaining here in The Gam for one more year.  I'll be home for a few weeks at some point, but I don't know when that will be.  Until then, I'm going to go back to laying on my cement floor, dirty and sweaty, texting my friends about how much I'm sweating, probably wondering what the h-e-double-hockey-sticks I've gotten myself into.


June 2, 2015


I visited a fellow PCV at her site about a week ago, who knows a mother/daughter batiking and tie-dying team.  Having never even seen the batik process, I jumped at the chance to get my hands dirty (dyed, actually) and learn this popular craft.

First, you start with a blank piece of fabric.  Washed, dried, and ironed, this fabric served as the canvas for our soon-to-be masterpieces.

Using a paint brush dipped in melted candle wax, we "painted on" the wax.  This prevents the dye from soaking those particular parts of the fabric.  My design represents the places that have been most important to me in the The Gambia: cassia and mango leaves, the two trees found in my compound, and mahogany leaves, the tree under which The Happy Place was founded.  I'm no artist, but the point gets across.

To get the speckled edge common to many batik patterns, Fanta laid a piece of leather to make a sharp edge and flecked wax onto the exposed fabric.  She's a master of specklage and always gets an even edging to her work.

Once the wax was all in place, it was time to dye our first color - yellow.  Though it looks purple below, it turns yellow once dry.  If I were to wash the wax off now, I'd have white spots and white leafy outlines.  But the wax will stay put - we have more colors to do!

Our next task was to make the green leaves pop, so Fanta painted the green dye directly onto the leaves.  Mixed with yellow, the green dye was made brighter.

Not wanting to spoil the bright green leaves, I put wax over those as well.  The wax serves as a waterproof/dyeproof barrier.  Anything you want to keep as the color you see, cover it in wax.

With the bright green leaves protected by wax, we dyed the whole thing again, this time light blue.  Mixed with yellow, it turned this darkish green.  Hm.  Green on green wasn't what I was going for.  After it dried, we tried again.

We opted for a purple mixed with a bit of yellow.  After this round, we knew there wasn't much else we could do.  Any more dye and it would just turn out brown or black.

After a few minutes to letting the dye soak in, Mariama plopped it in boiling water to remove the wax.  The cloth, unharmed, left some color behind, but not much, and the wax was later screened off the top and saved for reuse later.

Once out of the pot, we washed it with caustic soap to help preserve the color.

It worked!

I'm really happy with my little piece of artwork.  It will serve as a great reminder to the places I have called home.