Hannah's Peace Corps Adventures

This is for those who know me so that they can keep updated on my adventures in Gambia. Or for anyone whose interested in the babblings of a recent college graduate trying to figure out what to do with her life.

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Location: Hershey, Pennsylvania, United States

Monday, June 16, 2008

20 Days...

Alright everyone, I won't write again until at least July 6th, when I come to Kombo for my COS. I'm not coming to Kombo until then so that I soak up memories and take an insane amount of pictures and tape recordings. Starting Friday, finals will be in full swing, plus I need to say good-bye to my friends at the hospital and watch a few last surgeries (yay!), plus I need to clean out my house for the fifth or sixth time, plus I need to plan my little going-away party for my compound ("puff"corn with sugar, lei and attaya and juice mix to drink, possibly meat/fish pies and panketos, possibly ebbeh—ground cassava with palm oil, lots of pepper, jumbo, etc., you can drink it but I don't because of the palm oil). I'm keeping everything to just the people in my compound because my compound is big enough (50ish people) for me to deal with. I'm going to see if I can get chicken domodaa for my last meal. Since I'm not being replaced, I'm giving all of my furniture, clothes, most of my dishes and cooking utensils, and lots of knick-knacks to my family. The day before I leave, the upper basic school will have their "Speech-and-Prize Day" and I plan to attend in the hopes of someone in Gibba Kunda winning an award; plus I can say goodbye to my friends at that school. It makes me glad that I didn't try to leave earlier. A long, drawn-out ceremony will be a perfect good-bye to village life. Then I'll have six days in Kombo to get all my paperwork and souvenir shopping finished, then home again, home again, jiggedy jig.

Good News: one of my professors asked to help sponsor Ebrima to go to school! Ebrima now is registered for school starting in September, is sponsored until he finishes his sixth grade year, and also has a school uniform, backpack, schools supplies, and new shoes for school.

Sad News: The last time I went to his compound to visit I discovered that the family doesn't have any food. Literally. They didn't eat lunch that day. Ebrima's mother Tuuti asked me to buy the family a bag of rice, but I don't have that money. Tuuti asked me three or four times during the time that I was sitting with her to help her feed her family, but at the time I didn't have any money. Because I am her "friend" she expected me to help, plus the fact that I'm white. I realize now that I was naïve going into the situation. I wanted to help one boy but didn't realize that his entire family needed help. Out of eight children in the compound (five that are school-aged), three will go to school next year. I helped one child, out of the eight I met in this family. I felt so helpless sitting with Tuuti while she asked me over and over for help feeding her brood. She told me she has ten children. I admit once I left the compound I started feeling that drowning feeling (too many people want help from me, who do I say 'no' to?) and to try and rationalize it I started blaming her: she should have gone to the hospital to ask for birth control pills, she should put more pressure on her husband to take care of her (he lives in Kombo), she should find a way to earn money for her family like selling mangoes or caba at the hospital. In the end, it is not my responsibility to take care of her children—Ebrima's father was supposed to come home from Kombo last week but still hasn't come, and that's why the family has no food. I'm going to try to help (200-300 dalasis) but then I'm finished unless I can find a way to help pay for other kids' school fees.
Reflection: I truly believe that Ebrima could go far if he just gets the support he needs. When I was taking pictures of him, he asked to use my camera and he actually took good pictures of me and his siblings. I could see him growing up to be a photographer if he could be apprenticed or something, if he's still interested in that sort of thing in six years. I think I'm going to have to come back to see how everything is going with Ebrima and my family at Gibba Kunda. I'm trying to figure out now how to keep in contact with people and it's not easy!

More Good News: Hawa's TB of the skin is cured so she'll be going home soon, maybe even next week! After seven months in the hospital, she'll finally be going home!
More Sad News: I've heard rumors from the nursing staff that her mother is thinking of leaving Hawa's twin sister Adama and younger sister Anna with my host-mother in Gibba Kunda, though I'm not sure for how long. I could maybe understand if it's for another month because Hawa will have to travel back and forth from her village to the hospital for a month or two to keep receiving her TB medication, but if it's longer than that, that's just taking advantage. Hawa Sanneh (the mother) is younger than me by two years and has three young children (all under 4 yrs.), so I can appreciate how difficult it must be for her, but I've also heard other rumors about her mothering skills (including from her husband) that are not favorable. It makes me wonder if she is trying to free herself a bit from her children/husband/family responsibilities in general.
Reflection: I cannot imagine having three young children right now, but I'd like to think that if I did, I'd be responsible enough to devote myself to them. I worry about Hawa Kujabi (the girl) and her sisters.

Great News: I'm almost positive that PC is going to be able to work with World Food Program to deliver the cheap (in price, not quality) rice from Sapu , which will definitely help the women in Dabong. The rice will be delivered to one of the schools, I'll pick it up and sell it to the women, then whatever is left I'll return along with the money that it cost per 50 kilo bag.

Happenings: This past weekend, Fatima Senior Secondary School had its graduation ceremony. I was on the reception committee so I showed up at 7am and helped cook until almost 11, when the ceremony finally started (it was supposed to start at 9). Gambia Radio and Television Stations (GRTS) came to film the ceremony—all three and a half hours of it—and important people came who usually don't show their face at the school, like the director of the Regional Education Office (REO). The ceremony was great: the students performed songs, poems, and hilarious skits. Important people gave speeches that were over most peoples' heads. The posts of Head Boy/Girl and Deputy Head Boy/Girl were passed on, and then it was finished. Oh wait, the staff at Fatima also gave me a present for helping them with this school year. I now have six meters or beautiful and very bright purple fabric, which I need to figure out what to do with. I'm thinking of bringing it back with me to the states until I can find a nice pattern and a seamstress to sew it into a Western style outfit.

Remember all of that cooking? Well, the important people received chicken and potatoes with sauce, plus cake and canned drinks (which means they're special), the teaching staff/ex-Fatima students/graduating students/parents received meat pies, cake that the Sisters from the mission made, prawn crackers and bottled drinks (cheaper than canned), and everyone else (a.k.a. students from the lower and upper basic schools) waited to see if there were scraps. It makes me upset that these important people who may never have been at the school before receive a "special" meal, while the teachers/students who are there everyday and the parents who support their students receive snacks, and everyone else goes home empty handed. However, since I helped cook, I had a bit of everything. It was after eating and bringing some home for my family (I scored an extra chicken meal and a canned Fanta, plus some crumbled meat pies), that I went to visit Jallow Kunda and Tuuti told me that she and her kids hadn't eaten that day. It's not fair!!! And right next door to Tuuti's compound there is a bitik (bitik owners do well for their families), and the owner is friends with Tuuti, and yet he let her children go hungry. Tuuti is probably too proud to let her friends know the kind of trouble she's in, but she can tell me, which in essence transfers the responsibility onto me (that's how things work here). This situation in turn makes me think of how often it happens in America; that our next door neighbors are in some sort of trouble or the kids down the street are going hungry, and we don't know it.

Over the weekend my host mother traveled to another village for a circumcision ceremony for one of her nephews, which left 15-year-old Ma Binta in charge of cooking, cleaning, and managing four unruly children, plus me. Saturday I was sick because of the food I had eaten at the graduation ceremony, so I was pretty easy to take care of, but Fatou, Adama, plus Kadiyatou and Sey (who were thrust upon us so that the mother could go to the futaampaf) are unruly little wild ones who enjoy hitting each other and climbing on me. Kadiya especially enjoys hitting on me and hanging from my shirts—sometimes this is endearing but mostly it's annoying. Explaining to her that children are not supposed to hit adults garners no reaction, so I spent the weekend hiding in my house with the door locked. Yes, three-year-olds make me run and hide—big, strong, 24-year-old that I am. The children here can be absolute terrors because they are spoiled until they annoy an adult or older sibling, and then they are beaten. As I don't like hitting (though I confess to occasional slaps on the top of the head), my remaining choices are to run to an adult or teenager, explain the situation, then have him/her administer discipline, or run away and hide. One time when Fatou was being a pill I put her in time-out, and that actually was quite successful, but I can't do that with Sey or Kadiya because they are sooooo willful and aren't used to me. Ma Binta did an admirable job taking care of the house and children over the weekend, but I personally was extremely relieved to see my host-mother again today. I think Ma Binta will be a good wife and mother when the time comes, but I hope she will also be able to have a job and thus some independence as well.

I'm going to miss Dabong and Bwiam so much. The idea of extending my service has actually flitted across my mind on a few occasions: "If I stay for another year than I can work on this…I can help so-and-so with that…" Today a grade eleven student approached me and asked if I would be at Fatima next year. He wanted me to be the staff advisor for the Red Cross Club (he probably noticed my wicked-cool first aid skills when I was patching up kids after the bicycle race). Plus I could work more with the women's group, help the women's garden get more seeds, help fix up the science labs, improve my Jolaa skills…on the other hand, I just want to be back in America with people who love me for just being me.

Anywho, these are the thoughts that pass through my head as I count down to the day that the PC vehicle comes to take me away. 20 days!

Kasumai kep,
Hannah Banana :-)

Friday, May 23, 2008

Counting Down to America...

In the time since my last blog, plenty has happened. I’ve gone through my COS (Close Of Service) conference and now have slightly over six weeks left in country. That’s six weeks to write my DOS (Description Of Service), any letters of recommendation I want my bosses to sign off on, tutor my new student who’s retaking his grade twelve exam in biology, help Mariatou with her reading, write and give my final exams, say goodbye to people at the school, hospital, etc., make sure my family will be okay when I leave (i.e. buy them rice and oil to last them through the rainy season), pay Binta’s school fees and also Ebrima’s if his family will allow me…The list goes on.

Ebrima’s situation is one that happens often in The Gambia: his three older brothers are in school but the family doesn’t have any extra money to send him. Ebrima is currently eleven years old and despite the fact that he has only ever been to Dara (school for learning the Q’uran), he understands English very well. I met him when I bought peanuts from him at the ‘cafeteria’ area where the children go during their break. I befriended and over time came to learn his story. My goal is to gain permission from his parents to allow him to attend school from grade 1-6 if I pay for it. I can leave a deposit at the school which they would withdraw from each year to cover his schools fees, plus draw up a contract and make several copies of it to insure Ebrima is able to complete school up through grade 6. By that time his older brothers should be mostly done with school and it is hoped that there will be money within the family to continue his education up through grade 9, maybe even grade 12. But he is too smart for me to not to try and help him complete at least up to grade 6. Of course, my idea of ‘saving him’ might not work out—his family may need him to sell peanuts or other things to help earn money. Keep Ebrima in yours thoughts and prayers.

Last week I had the unique opportunity of seeing a nursery school for refugees from the Cassamance. The villagers of Jilanfare, a Jolaa village very close to the border with Cassamance, has been taking in refugees since 1983. A few years back, some of the farmers started an informal nursery school for the children, although it was difficult because some of the children come from a very long way so school often cannot start until 10 and then has to close by 11 so that the children can be home for lunch. Besides that, the school often can only be in session from October to May because the farmers need to go to their fields. They are entirely unpaid for their time. With some help from a local NGO called St. Joseph’s Family Farm (known by locals as simply “poultry”) and the US Embassy, the villagers of Jilanfare were able to build a beautiful two-room school for the children to study in. The new US Ambassador came to the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the school and some of us local PCVs were invited to the event. The villagers put on a lovely ceremony (with too many officials talking too long, as always) with the children singing and findoo (like coos) for lunch. Afterwards we went walking along a road and one of the workers from St. Joseph’s came running after us, shouting and waving his arms for us to stop. When he caught up with us he informed us we were in Cassamance—we were still in site of the women cooking!—and if we kept walking along that particular road for another couple kilometers we would probably run into landmines. Very sobering thought. All in all, it was an uplifting experience to see locals who took the initiative. The school currently needs a fence to keep the children from wandering away, plus a kitchen (once they have a kitchen, they can apply to World Food Program and thus be able to give the kids lunch so the school day can last longer), pay for the teachers would be nice, and the village could probably use a new well. They asked the ambassador to help with these projects; I hope the embassy can help, though if not I know St. Joseph’s will do their best and the villagers will find a way.

In other news, I have switched from Oregon Health and Science University to Georgia State University for my Master of Public Health degree because Georgia State has given me a GRA (Graduate Research Assistantship), meaning they waive my tuition and give me a small living stipend. I don’t know which lab I will be working in yet, but there are a few labs interested in me because of my strong desire to do international research. So I’m trying to figure out the details, like finding an apartment and eventually a car. The apartment is more important to me because of the fact that I have been living in a compound with more than 30 people and I desperately, desperately need a quiet place that is mine and mine alone. As nice as it is waking up to women pounding each morning, I can’t wait to fall asleep someplace where reggae music isn’t blasting at eleven at night. Plus the fact that children won’t be sneaking into my house when I’m in my backyard or calling for me when I’m grading papers… *sigh* I will truly miss being mobbed by ten to fifteen children at a time whenever I come home from the school or hospital, though. The other day they were fighting over who would be the next to sit in my lap and have their fingernails clipped—add that to my list of “Things I never thought I’d do in Africa!”

I am freaking out more than a little about readjusting to America. I leave The Gambia on July 12th and thirty-one hours later I will be back in Oregon after two years and seven days without seeing my family or America. Then I’ll only have two weeks with them before I have to move to Atlanta since GSU starts August 18th. Yikes! I’ll definitely be jumping right back into the culture. I’m worried that I have changed too much, that I’ll have too much disdain with American consumption or not be able to handle the huge amount of choices Americans make every day. I’ve heard stories of RPCVs (Returned Peace Corps Volunteers) breaking down in supermarkets. Plus there’s the fact that I was a stress-junkie before I left and while I know that with grad school, then medical school and residency, I’m going to have to be one again, I don’t want to lose the part of me that’s come to appreciate sitting in the compound and watching the baby goats run around for hours at a time. That’s part of the reason I want to do international research (I’m more interested in improving public nutrition in impoverished countries than studying obesity in the states); so that I won’t go too long without seeing people that I can help.

Speaking of which; I’ve only heard a little bit about the food crisis hitting the world. Rice in The Gambia has jumped up more than 200 dalasis (about $10) per kilo, from 600 to 850, and will increase again at the end of the summer to at least 1,000. President Jammeh has put an artificial cap on the price of rice until September so that there are still a few months to try and stock up. I’ve come to accept my role as provider for my family since Tofey still hasn’t come home. I’m the only one with a steady job, so it is my duty to look after the women. That’s why I’m buying rice and oil before I go; my last paycheck from Peace Corps is going towards food for my family. There’s also going to be a mandatory meeting around the beginning of June about more ways that PCVs can help their families and villages to cope with the food crisis. That’s when I’ll be back in Kombo so I should be able to update then with what’s going on.

Kasumai kep,
Hannah Banana

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Fun Never Stops!

More adventures in The Gambia! Last month Anna and I went on mailrun, so in five days time we stopped at each volunteer’s site and delivered their mail. One of the drivers, named John, drove us around since volunteers aren’t allowed to drive cars. So we had a good time seeing everyone’s site, laughing at John whenever he yelled at children, or other drivers, or animals in the road—“Hey, move out of the way you donkey *insert appropriate noun here*!”—and trying not to mess up the mail. For some reason I thought that the truck, which was packed to bursting when we left, would empty as the trip went on. I was wrong. Very wrong. As we went along people would send thing to people further down the line or back to Kombo, so as the boxes diminished they were replaced with bags, soccer balls, books, and things like guitars. Many a time could one here from the back of the truck “Where the hell is that last box?!? Can we put some of this crap on top so we don’t have to keep moving it around?” It was pretty much fifty-fifty whether it was Anna or myself back there…Anyway, it was a good time, even with Jaliba (one of the local artists) playing on endless repeat.

After mailrun I went back to village for a week. Besides watching lots of hernia operations, I’ve started helping the family with watering their beds in the women’s garden. Hawa is still in the hospital but doing well. After a week of teaching I went on my spring break. It was supposed to be spring break for the entire region, but the schedule changed. However, I had already purchased my visa for Guinea and received my vacation days, so I went on my own spring break trip to see my boyfriend. Yes, I have a boyfriend. His name is Bob and he’s a recently COSed volunteer in Guinea (I met him on my last trip through Guinea, then we saw each other again at the softball tournament in Dakar, Senegal, and he took me out for my birthday). He’s staying in Conakry because he loves the country. He’s a mechanical engineer, from Tennessee, and treats me like a princess.

Oy, what a wild trip! I left for Basse on Friday and made it in eleven hours. Saturday morning I was at the carpark by 5:30 in the morning and wait until noon to see if a car going to Labe would fill up in time. No dice. At that point I asked for my money back, walked half an hour to the other side of Basse to the carpark going to Vellingara, Senegal. As I walked I called Bob to let him know what was going on, and he suggested meeting up in Koundara instead of Labe. After waiting a few hours at the Velingara carpark for a car to fill, we made the trek safely to our destination. In Velingara I made friends with some people heading in relatively the same direction and they told me that the best way to go to Koundara was to go to Manda and get a car there. So I went to Manda, and waited until nightfall thinking there was only a space left to fill the car. At that point I offered to buy the space, but the driver said no. Fine. I ended up sleeping in the taxi that night, thus kicking the driver out of his usual sleeping space. Meh. He slept in the front seats. The next day everyone waited until 9:30 before approaching me to say there were two spaces left, the other passengers were going to buy one space, will I buy the other? I say no, but I'll pay half (I still end up paying more than anyone else). So hours later, after being hit on at each and every checkpoint by icky police officers--sometimes it's good not to understand French--I made it to Koundara and tried to contact Bob. After several hours of trying unsuccessfully, I called the Peace Corps Director of Guinea, Steve. Steve told me the last time he talked with Bob, Bob was in Gaoul. I don't know any Guinea geography so I didn't know what to do other than wait in Koundara. And wait, and wait, and finally it was dark outside and I found a mat to sleep on in one of the bitik verandas. People weren’t happy with me, but they left me alone because I was crying (I was feeling extremely sorry for myself) about being lost in a country where I didn't know the language and I had no idea where I was except that I wasn't in Labe. So passed another night. The next day I bought water and some snacks from the bitik owner so he was a bit kinder towards my staying on the mat. It was my safe haven by that point and I was loathe to leave it for any reason. I managed to let people know that I was waiting for my 'husband,' and so they were nicer to me in general. So a full twenty-four hours after I arrived in Koundara, Bob arrived with an even worse traveling story than mine (car broke down, he slept on a table in a restaurant while they were still serving people, finally he bought a seat in a passing semi truck). By that point it was evening on Monday, so we found a place to sleep for the night, then Tuesday we headed to Labe. It took about eleven hours to get there, and we ended up sleeping in the same dive of a hotel that Becca and I stayed at when we passed through--I even slept in the same room!--then Wednesday morning we grabbed a car going to Conakry. Because the taxis in Guinea Conakry always oversell places there was no room in the back (two big people, one medium person (me), and one small guy who kept complaining in French), so I ended up sitting in Bob's lap for almost the entire trip. The annoying skinny guy then started making jokes in French about how Bob should have the other lady in the back sitting on his lap, she could be his first wife and I would be the second, blah blah blah. I wanted to tell him in English to shut up because he was the one complaining about there being no room, but I held my tongue. So I finally made it to Conakry six days after I started my journey. If I had traveled back by land I would have had to leave the very next day to make it up country, but Bob said he “kinda wanted to spend time with me other than in a car” so he bought me a plane ticket to get back. Thus I was able to spend four days in Conakry. It’s a pretty cool city, and I was lucky that there weren’t demonstrations, because there were supposed to be. But all in all, I missed the relative quiet and smallness and familiarity of Kombo. Plus everything is in English or an African language I can understand at least some of!

In other news, I’ve enrolled in the Fall 2008 Epidemiology/Biostatistics track of the MPH program at Oregon Health and Science University. I decided I should be closer to home for at least a few years (I haven’t had Thanksgiving at home for the last 6 years!), plus OHSU is a school with a good reputation and as a resident of Oregon, it’s considerably cheaper than Emory (I was accepted there, but cannot afford the $45,000 a year). So, in three month’s time I’ll return to the states, enjoy a few months of readjustment, then head off to Portland at the end of September.

Okay, that’s all for now! I go back to site tomorrow and probably won’t be back until COS conference!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Yay for Vacation!

Well, I made it back from my vacation in one piece, despite the best intentions of various peoples. Here are the highlights of our three-week adventure through West Africa:

Basse to Labe—Becca and I left at 11am on Christmas day because that’s when the car was leaving. Thirteen people piled into a Pugeot taxi meant to seat seven people in comfort. The road was okay in The Gambia, better in Senegal, then turned into a 4WD nightmare in Guinea! The child sitting on his mother’s lap next to me vomited on me after a few hours, so I had that to enjoy for the rest of the 20 hour trip. It would have taken less time if we hadn’t had to stop at 10 at night to weld the underbody of the car back together, and if we hadn’t run out of gas at 4 in the morning and had to push the car to the next village to look for gas. We finally reached Labe around 7 am on the 26th, but we were dropped a ways outside of Labe for reasons unknown and had to trek in and find our dive of a hotel. We passed out until the afternoon, shivering against each other because the nights in Guinea are cold.

Doucki—After resting in Labe for the day we headed out to Doucki for some hiking. Hassan Bah has a tourist complex and leads tours all over the mountain on which he lives. We stayed for three days, four nights and hiked 44 kilometers. We enjoyed the gorgeous scenery, went swim in waterfalls, and hiked some insane trails that involved rock climbing (we’re talking literally climbing the face of a mountain where if you slip, you’re going to fall a good ways and get hurt). Empowering, but also exhausting, so we had to rest a few days in this nice town called Dalaba. The craziest thing about the trails we hiked is that these are trails the locals use everyday to get up and down the mountain for market, herding, etc. And they do it all with baskets on their heads and in flip-flops! We met some really cool ex-pats, Annoushka from Czech Republic, and Romain from France, who do development work in Guinea Bissau. They loaned us money so we wouldn’t have to try and find a Standard Chartered when we went to Conakry. We owe them a lot since we weren’t ever able to find a Standard Chartered where we could cash checks and we would have been completely stuck halfway through the trip.

Dalaba to Conakry—What a trip! First of all, the car was dirty and so it had cockroaches, which enjoyed crawling up and down my legs. Ewww! Our driver was a crazy man driving way too fast on a winding road coming down off the mountain. This made the girl in front of me so nauseous that she threw up numerous times, and one time she missed the barf-bag and ended up vomiting into the car. The only good part about this is that it detracted the roaches away from my legs and they didn’t bother me the rest of the trip. However, the sounds of her vomiting were making me queasy, so I shut my eyes and tried to think happy thoughts. The next thing I know, there’s a BOOM sound and I’m thrown against the seat in front of me. I open my eyes to see that we’ve run into a truck which was going at a significantly slower pace than the one our car had kept up. Only one woman was hurt—she had hit the door frame and was a bit bloody with a hen’s egg sized contusion on her forehead. The twelve of us climb out of the car, look after the injured woman, wait for the drivers to finish yelling at each other, then pile back in the car and coast to a sort of mechanic’s shop on the side of the road. Back out of the car. We wait for and hour and a half for them to ‘fix’ the car—‘fix’ meaning removing the hood, front bumper, and remaining glass from the shattered headlight, then banging the engine with a hammer, checking the fuel line, and starting the car. So back in the car, with the hood and front bumper attached to the top on top of our bags. It’s actually a good thing the car parts were there because at the next stop a woman decided to buy a cow leg that dripped blood and fat onto the car for the rest of the journey.

Conakry—It is a very bad idea to visit a Francophone country when you don’t know French. We were able to get by up-country with the Pulaar I had learned for the trip, but it was no dice in Conakry. So of course we get lost looking for the US Embassy, but not entirely our fault. I blame the embassy for moving to a completely different side of town within the two years since our guide book had been published. Tens of mil Guinea Franc later, we find our way to the embassy, and they contact PC Guinea and help us get a taxi to the compound, which was a life-saver because it was 8pm by this point. Once we reach the compound, check in, and make our way to the hostel, we are greeted by a group of very cool volunteers. Truly, the Guinea volunteers that we met were just good people, and they helped us so much, especially with stuff like where to find food and the appropriate costs for things. So, we stayed for a few days and tried to leave Friday morning. However, the president of Guinea fired his Minister for Information on Thursday, so when we were driving to the carpark in PC transport, things were crazy at the traffic circle. It took us twenty minutes to get through the traffic. We dropped off the Guinea volunteers at Bambeto carpark, then headed to the US embassy to pick up a security official. We received a call saying we should probably go back to the Bambeto carpark in order to find a car going to Sierra Leone, and this time when we went through the traffic circle it was completely empty. There was maybe one other vehicle and three police officers on the road. Becca and I were wondering what the heck was going on, and when we reached the Bambeto carpark the gates were locked. The security official jumped out of the car, ran inside, found the Guinea volunteers, and we all loaded up in the car, which sped back to the PC compound. Half an hour later the riots started, with rock-throwing and tire-burning. One person died. All the volunteers were stuck in the PC house trying to figure out what to do and where we could find any food since everything was closed because of the riots. Thankfully, things quieted down and we were able to leave for Sierra Leone the next day.

Freetown—We made it to Freetown despite the scary people at the border asking for bribes and being way too suggestive. Because we brought silafando, we were able to stay with some relatives of our Doucki guide for a few days, then we moved to a hotel a few kilometers from the beach. We went to the beach for a few days, but one time when we were walking to the beach we noticed this creepy guy following us. We ended up escaping, no helps to our driver who ended up being in league with the stalker, and making it to the beach we wanted to go to, only to see the stalker when we were leaving. I looked him dead in the eye, we recognized each other, and he looked pissed. Becca and I freaked out a little while we tried to get back to our hotel, then tried to check out. We couldn’t leave because we couldn’t get our deposit back until the next day (and we couldn’t afford to go to another hotel without that deposit), so they put a guard n watch for the night and moved us to a room on the second floor. Needless to say, we didn’t sleep well, and were out the door on the way to the US Embassy as soon as we had cash in hand. Trying to find the US Embassy was quite the experience, seeing as how it had moved just like the one in Guinea, only this time to the top of a hill very far away from anything except other embassies. We ended up having to walk up several hills so that by the time we arrived, we were cursing the ostentatious nature of the American government and whining about what is the point of having an embassy really far away from where American citizens actually live. How could citizens get to the embassy if something bad were to happen? Anyway, when we reached the embassy we were told we’d have to wait until 2 o’clock, so they let us wait in the library. When we checked in after 2 and told our story, we were basically told to be careful and not to go back to that area (ya think?) and sent on our way. It might have been different if we could have talked with an American, but they were nowhere to be found. Anyway, we moved to a new hotel in Central Freetown which ended up being a nicer place for the exact same price, and we had people to look out for us. We spent the rest of our time walking around and going to markets. We were supposed to return on Friday but the airline we booked with doesn’t actually have any flights on Fridays (no idea how the travel agency’s computer let them book our flights for a day when no planes are flying), so we just had to show up really freakin’ early on Saturday morning so we could make sure to get a seat on the plane. Everything worked out, and now I’m back in The Gambia. *sigh of relief* And tomorrow I go back to site to write all my lesson plans for the week, then start teaching again on Tuesday. Wait! I’m not ready! I need to relax from my vacation first!

Friday, December 07, 2007

So.....I may be addicted to surgery

Holy crap! The first time I see a birth and it's an emergency C-section done because the mother was eclampsic! And this time in the operating theatre I actually helped, albeit just a little. I held down one of the woman's arms when she was starting to convulse and sometimes I had to hold her gas mask on, and then I helped an orderly open her legs so he could change her cathater (because the maternity nurse put a pediatric-size cathater in and the bladder was too full for the doctor to get a good grasp on the baby's head). At the time it didn't feel like anything special, except maybe when I was holding the gas mask and I could feel her short, shallow breaths, but now when I think about it I get a rush. During the surgery it seemed very surreal, as if the doctor was just performing a dissection like biology majors do in various labs, except the specimen was bleeding and warm to the touch. And Dr. Spencer was very calm about it all--it's all old hat to him I suppose. I mostly stood out of the way, but whenever I was called over to hold something I was very calm as well. It's only looking back on it that I think it's amazing. Maybe this means I have the needed distance for becoming a good doctor: empathetic but not losing myself in the problem of the patient. Anyway, it was really frickin' cool to watch Dr. Spencer pull the baby out of the womb. At first I didn't think it was alive because it was all grayish (remember, we're talking about an African baby here, not a wrinkly white one) and not moving or breathing. But a midwife and an orderly took the baby aside, used a suction machine powered by a foot pump, and sucked out the mucus in the baby's throat and mouth. Eventually it woke up and there is now a very healthy baby boy with a larger-than-average head. The mother's BP had dropped once the baby and placenta was removed but she was still twitching a bit when she was wheeled out to the maternity ward.

And earlier this week I walked with Dr. Spencer to see a patient with severe lower abdominal pain in her right side. The first (and only) thing I thought of was appendicitis, but Dr. Spencer said it could also be an ovarian cyst or ectopic pregnancy. Anyway, he did emergency surgery and it turned out to be appendicitis (Total points for me: 1). There was actually a seed, maybe baobob, that had become trapped in the appendix and caused the inflammation. It was ready to rupture by the time we did surgery, so Dr. Spencer saved the patient's life. How cool must that be?!? I used to say that I can cut up dead things but I wouldn't trust myself to cut something that's living, but now I think I could do the cutting. It's the suturing that would get to me. Definitely something needed, but the interesting part of the surgery is over by that point. Ah well. I'm just a toubab trying to play doctor with insufficient knowledge and my personal first aid kit (not the one given by Peace Corps, the one I brought with me).

One thing that struck me today though is how similar patients are when they come to the doctor, whether in the states or here. They have a pain, and they want the miracle drug that will make it go away. End of story. They don't want to have to change their lifestyle to improve their helath; they want a pill to make everything better. And the doctors eventually give way and prescribe some sort of antibiotic (today it was mostly doxycycline, which is the anti-malaria medication I had been on that gave me stomach ulcers, so at least the women are safe from malaria for a week or so), which leads to antibiotic-resistance among some of the disease-causing microorganisms, and then things get worse.

When I was in the scanning room watching ultrasounds the orderlies were talking about how some women want the ultrasound (even though it costs 100 dalasis) because they think the scanning wand will actually heal them. That kind of blind faith in medicine and the doctors and nurses who practice it can be scary sometimes. Like when people in village come to me with a health problem, and I have no idea what it is and tell them to go to the hospital, but they think if they sit and stare at me long enough I'll change my mind and give them some aspirin and everything will magicly be better. It's a sort of transfer of the old animist beliefs into medicine, but the "magic" is still there. That's why if people are given medicine to take for ten days, and after two days they don't feel any better, they stop taking the medicine and go to the local marabout for traditional healing. What to do? What to do?

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Things that I've been pondering....

Days until Christmas: 23
Days until vacation: 25
Days until Dad's 50th B-Day: 40
Days until my b-day: 72
Days until I go on mail-run: 110
Days that I've been here thus far: 513
Days until the date I can hopefully come home: 182
Date at which there will hopefully be only 100 days left: February 22nd

Life in a Gambian Hospital

I'm back in the Kombos after a long month in village. What with teaching 100+ tenth-graders, weighing babies, trying to organize a night class for hospital staff, working with the Peer Health Club to put on educational skits for the up-coming World AIDS Day (Dec. 1) celebration we're having, still trying to figure logistics out for finishing the well at Babou Jobe, helping my sitemate with her micro-business manual (and her countless venting and "I think this is the first thing I'll do when I go home, no this, no that" sessions), and trying to figure out information about solar panels for the community lodge, I've been busy! I came down to Kombo this week to celebrate Thanksgiving (we ate at the ambassador's house, even though we don't have an ambassador right now), celebrate the 40th anniversary of Peace Corps, The Gambia, and attend the all-volunteers meeting. Needless to say, there were several nights of partying on behalf of fellow PCVs, but luckily these were not at the hostel, so a friend and I did things like making manicotti and layered jello or go to the beach. What is it about living overseas which drives PCVs to unnecessary drinking bouts whenever groups of three or more gather? I have had a few times when I would like to have a drink, but frankly I don't feel safe doing so, especially not around other PCVs (the rumor mill is insane), plus there's a little voice in the back of my head saying "What would your host mother think?" Ah well, everyone needs a way to let off some steam. As long as they don't wake me up whent hey come stumbling in at 4am, it's all good.

The biggest thing that's happened to me this month is that Hawa came to visit. Hawa is a four-year-old girl who had a very gross malignant skin ulcer for the last three years! Her mother said the "wound" just appeared (maybe it started as a burn from boiling water) and everytime they went to the doctor the wound ended up covered in iodine or just bandaged, but regardless they were sent away each time, and because the wound was itchy, Hawa scratched at it with her dirty fingernails and the wound spread. So I went with the mother and Hawa to the hospital where my toubab status pushed her to the front of the line, and some volunteer Cuban doctors thought she might have anthrax so they signed an admittance paper and told me to take her to the "ward." When I asked which ward the doctor just said "the ward" and shooed me away. So one of my friends who works in the lab took us first to the pediatric ward, but that wasn't it. Go to the surgical ward, so we went to the surgical ward, and that was the correct place, but Hawa could only be admitted if the surgeon cleared the paperwork, so then we had to go to the surgical clinic and get in line. Again, my toubab status assured that we were at the front of the line, but we waited more than two hours for the surgeon to come. After 11 he came, but hospital staff kept pushing their friends through the door to his office while everyone else was waiting patiently (Gambians are very patient people; they're used to waiting). However I, at this point, was quite frustrated and finally just knocked on the door and went in. Meanwhile one of the nurses closed the door on Hawa's face. Once she and her mother were allowed in and the surgeon looked her over, he agreed she needed surgery and signed the paperwork. So once we had Hawa safely established in the surgical ward I rushed off to school to teach my lessons, then ran home and ate a quick lunch while I informed my host mother as to what was going on, then back to the hospital with lunch for Hawa and her mother. Hawa's mother asked for a few things like clothes so I returned that night with necessities. The next day Hawa was supposed to have surgery, but because her hemoglobin level was low she would need a blood transfusion. So in between classes I ran home, talked with some people, and found a way for Hawa's father to come donate blood, only to find out at 2pm that the surgery had been canceled and the father didn't need to give blood because a donor with her blood came in a gave blood. Her surgery would be the next Tuesday (as surgeries are done Tuesdays and Thursdays). So we waited until Tuesday, but Tuesday brought with it generator problems, so the surgery was canceled again. On Thursday everything was a-okay so Hawa was the first surgery that day (I requested time off from school and had permission from the surgeon to attend the surgery). Hawa came kicking and screaming, but with some laughing gas quited down. Once everything was ready and I was thinking how much like a doll Hawa looked, Dr. Spencer came in with his rubber boots. Using a lamp that looked more like a flashlight for lighting, the scrub nurse cleaned the area (with soapy water) and dried it, then Dr. Spencer began. It took several passes with the scalpel to make it through the tissue, and Hawa bled so much for someone her size--clamps were just blossoming around the wound--and at one point I aided the surgery (I grabbed adrenaline to put on the cut area to help stop the bleeding). After removing the diseased tissue and cutting it up for preservation and testing (it may be cancerous), Dr. Spencer pulled out an inflammed lymph node the size of a lima bean. It was crazy. Once the bleeding was under control, Hawa was bandaged and the clean-up started. First removing the clamps, then wiping up the blood--some of which pooled under the gurney and congealed into a sheet which was partly stuck in her hair--then one more sweep over with the soapy water, cover her up and wheel her away. I stayed for two more surgeries (during the last of which, the power gave out and Dr. Spencer tried to continue blind while the scrub nurses ran around trying to get the power to start up again), then visited Hawa, who was still asleep. Off to school for classes, and when I returned she was awake, in some pain, and in the middle of her blood transfusion. She was not at all happy with me. For the last week we've been waiting to see how the wound heals, and if everything is healthy then Dr. Spencer will perform a skin graft. Meanwhile, Hawa is running around and happy. Whenever I visit she likes to beat up on me and we tease each other in Jolaa: "ow, ow jakuut!" "nje? haani. ow. ow jakuut!" ("You, you are bad." "Me? No, you. You are bad.").

During the waiting period I was extremely frustrated and emotional, feeling like if anything goes wrong it's my fault for convincing Hawa's mother to admit her, and the world is such an injust place for not letting Hawa receive the medical attention she needs without a toubab bringing it to her, etc. Upon reflection though, the clinics and hospitals she went to before were not as big as Bwiam's, and probably not even staffed by doctors. For awhile I was mad at the doctor for not doing the surgery, thinking he was making excuses, but once I was in the operating room and witnessed what he is up against, I have a profound respect for the work he does with so few resources. The shopital has three generators, two of which are supposed to be functional at all times, but all three are having problems. Meanwhile the director of the hospital is the only person taking care of these administrative issues; he has no help. And the patients just blindly believe whatever they are told because they aren't as educated as the nurses and doctors (none of the doctors are Gambian, they're all either Nigerian or Cuban volunteers). They call the nurses "doktor" because they don't know any better. Meanwhile, many of the nurses are actually still in training. For patients staying overnight in the hospital, they receive one meal a day, and that is for the patient, not the family. There is a cantina on the hospital grounds, but that's for the staff, not family. There are seven beds to a room, no chairs, and nothing to do all day. I brought some Newsweek magazines for surgical patients so they could look at pictures and such, but the nurses took them. Families from the area bring lunches and dinners to their people in the surgical ward, so everyone shares meals. The people on the ward become like a family since they spend at least two weeks there at a time. It's great to be a part of that and greet everyone when I come to visit Hawa.

Kasumai kep!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

October Gambian Update

Hello all you happy peoples!

Well, since it's been about two months since my last email, I decided an update is overdue. I finally began teaching at the beginning of this month, but then Koriteh happened so that meant a week off for prayers, and so now I'm trying to see how many good weeks of teaching I can get in before Tobaski (Dec 20). Although I may be able to go on a trip to Guinea with some other PCVs at the end of November, after Thanksgiving. Inshallah...

Teaching grade 10 is a completely different world from teaching grade 7. My students ask me questions about the difference between alligators and crocodiles or why horses and donkeys can't be the same species if they can interbreed (answer: their offspring are sterile). I actually feel challenged and thus more entusiastic about teaching. I don't have to pull teeth in order to have someone answer a question--half the class will raise their hands. It's a teacher's dream. True, I still have to rephrase my questions a few times for the students who cannot figure out what I'm saying, but they genuinely want to know. On top of that, I work with my sitemate Sara at the middle school making teaching and learning aids for the classrooms or helping students read books in the library. Also, I've taken over a project to sell African-print bags to other PCVs, so I work with a local craftsman who does the sweing while I buy the materials and sell the product. Anyone interested in a bag? They go for about $7. I'm also trying to help the local-run tourist lodge find funding for solar panels and still working on the Babou Jobe Well Project (I have the check, but the dollar has dropped in value from 26 dalasis to 18, so if I try and casha nd convert, we lose tens of thousands of dalasis and will be unable to finish the well a second time). When I come to Kombo I work on the layout for the small-business manual Sara wrote (which brings back fond memories of working on The Pearl

It's crazy and wonderful to have a schedule for each week; I didn't realize I missed it so much (does that make me a workaholic who just fell off the Gambian bandwagon?). Monday I work at the hospital weighing babies who scream bloody murder at my unnatural white skin, checking immunizations, and dispensing Vitamin A, etc. I've been asked to start up a tutoring program for hospital staff who need in-service training, as well. Even though the baby weighing is the most stressful part of my week (I and an attending nurse can weigh 185 babies, toddlers, and pregnant women in 3-hours time), it's also the most rewarding. I am a sucker for snot-covered, drooling babies who look at me with eyes the size of calabash spoons while they try and figure out whether or not to cry. Anywho, the rest of the week I'm at school, and the weekends all the volunteers in Bwiam (3) get together for toubab lunches, so we have pasta instead of rice, and as many types of vegetables as we can find. Sundays I go to the local mission church, which is also something I hadn't realized I missed. I'm still learning the songs they sing, but I wish I could record the singing, drumming, and tambourine-shaking they do.

Compound life is a bit rough right now. There's always a bit of fighting amongst people since the compound holds five different families and wives don't always agree with husbands, or with each other, but an incident this past week really upset me. One of the compound boys, Amadou, was beating up on his younger brother, so my host father decided to break up the fight by beating Amadou. However, he was a bit overzealous in that he used some sort of rod or stick (I didn't see it happen, just saw the effects) and hit Amadou to the point where the boy had open, bleeding wounds. I cleaned and bandaged Amadou (asking my sister Binta to put the antibiotic ointment on so I didn't have to touch the blood, though I'm sure the boy is disease-free) and tried to comfort him as best I could. I sat out with the family for a bit after the event--everyone tryign to pretend it didn't happen, Amadou hiding his sniffles--and at one point I heard another girl whisper to Binta "Your father is very wicked." Binta just nodded her head. At that point I went to bed because I was afraid I would blow up at Tofey, and tried my best to avoid him for the next few days (this is the Gambian way to show someone that you're mad at them). Later, Tofey approached me when my sitemates were around and asked me why I was mad, so I almost shouted at him "You beat Amadou until he was bleeding!" and Tofey tried to apologize to me, but he did it in a way trying to be humorous, even kneeling on the floor and pulling up his shirt so I could beat him on his back. I asked him to just go, and then later that same day I came to Kombo. So now that I've had a few days to simmer down, I realize I need to talk with Tofey and let him know he should be apologizing to Amadou for what he did, not to me, and that as a full-grown man he shouldn't be beating a sixth-grader when he is upset. We'll see if Tofey actually does anything, but I do have an advantage in the fact that Tofey is trying to be friends with me--I guess he wasn't on good terms with the last volunteer and wants a better relationship with me.

I also had a cultural slip-up myself. The second wife in the compound, Hawa, had her baby on the first day of Koriteh prayers, and so this past weekend we had the nyambuuro--naming ceremony--for the little girl. My sitemate Sara told me since it was a small ceremony it would be in the afternoon, so I left that morning to go into Bwiam to buy vegetables at the market (half hour walk each way). When I returned to the compound I discovered the ceremony had just finished. My host mother, Adama, was fit to be tied with me. I had to explain to her three times why I missed it and how sorry I was, and then I went and sat with Hawa, explained what happened one more time, and then was given baby Sarata to babysit for awhile. This entire past week Hawa has been sleeping in a different house and hasn't been allowed outside, so now that she can walk about the compound again I have a feeling I may be called upon on several occassions to play babysitter.

This Halloween my sitemates and I are celebrating by frying up some chocolate-chip cookies and carving jack-o-laterns into watermelons. We're also going to walk around the village and take pictures of us with our jack-o-laterns and really give the village children a reason to point and stare at us. I may end up chasing one or two, if I'm feeling feisty.

I had my dentist appointment to have my teeth cleaned today, and remembering it makes me shiver a little. Luckily, I have no cavities--thanks to obsessive flossing and brushing--but the cleaning process was sort of like those nightmares you have about going to the dentist. No nicks or causing bleeding gums or anything like that, but the equipment was a bit rusty and the scraper he used to scrape the plaque was electric, so it sounded like a drill the entire time. There were a few times when the scraper touched a back molar and the vibrations went up into my head. The electric scraper had a water squirter attached to it so I had a face shower, but there was no suction so every two minutes I had to lean over and spit. Also, the dentist was a bit overzealous with the tongue depressor, pressing my tongue back into my throat so I couldn't breathe. The whole process felt a bit rushed, especially when he used the pumice toothpaste to buff my teeth (some of which he dropped into my pharynx, then scooped up again, all the while oblivious to my bout of gagging), then told me to get up and go to the bathroom to wash off my face (free exfoliation!) because he needed the chair for the next patient. I don't know how clean my teeth are now, but at least they had a wax job!

I guess that's about it for now; I'll write again when I come to Kombo for the all-volunteers meeting/Thanksgiving/PC The Gambia 40th year anniversay celebration in November and let you know if I am able to go to Guinea.

~Hannah Banana :-)