Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Enjoying Ashoura

The Tamba family with a few neighborhood children and the rooster offered as a gift

Sophia joining in the play with the makeshift bus made from an old fridge

Yesterday the Islamic New Year (Ashoura) was observed as a public holiday in the Gambia. While international news showed Shi'ih Muslims marking the days beating their skins raw in mourning for the martyrdom who they consider as Muhammad's successor, nearly 1400 years ago by the Sunnis, the Sunni's celebrate. Here, observers wore their best gowns and robes and visited friends. We also took advantage of the day off and set out to visit some of our family's long-time Gambian friends.

We started the day visiting Mr. Demba Tamba and family, whom I wrote about earlier in this blog. We stayed about an hour, discussing various things, among them the beautiful rooster in their yard – full-bodied, black, with turquoise feathers in its tail. As we were leaving the compound, his wife made an incredible gesture: she held the rooster by its feet and offered it to me! She said that she had been wanting to find us an adequate gift and now that she knew I liked this, they insisted that we take it. I held back a shriek when the rooster was thrust toward me, and once I re-gained composure, I was overwhelmed by their generosity. This family relies on the eggs, chicks, and even the use droppings for fertilizer for their daily existence. The closest analogy to our life would be to offer your new plasma-HD TV to a visitor. My brother-in-law explained in Wolof to Mrs. Tamba that we were very honored by her gift, but we would be out all day and couldn't keep the rooster, but perhaps we could take a picture of their family with the rooster?

Then we drove about 30 minutes from their village, through newly paved roads, bumpy sand paths, and alleys that become creeks and rapids during rainy season – all crowded with people enjoying the day off—to the Badjie family's. He is a school teacher and "only has four children." Sophia enjoyed playing with the 20+ kids from the neighborhood in their makeshift car/ship/truck/airplane. This was made of a discarded horizontal freezer shell, with wooden stools inside it for seats; at its front a hole had been made that fit a bamboo twig through it and that twig held a round plastic lid with a hole through its middle for the stick to create a steering wheel. When Sophia wanted to play with the kids first they all left their ship (they have probably never played with a non-African child), then, when they saw she was ok and wanted to play with them, they stormed back in and it was great fun.

Meanwhile, a visiting Swedish doctor, Charlotte, had contacted some mutual friends and wanted to meet the local Baha'is. So we picked her up from her hotel to have her join us for lunch at a simple and lovely fish restaurant on the beach – complete with hammocks between the tables and the beach and Peace Corps Volunteers a few yards off on the beach. Charlotte was volunteering for the week at a primary health center with a team of 30 Swedish physicians. Ironically, during lunch on the beach in the Gambia on an Islamic holiday, I learned more about Sweden than I have ever known in my life.

She happily joined us for one more home visit and then we stopped at our home to clean up a bit (especially Sophia, who seemed to have been rolling in the dust) before heading to our dinner invitation. We were the guests of a family that have lived in the Gambia since 1970; they grow their own vegetables, fruits, poultry, and even make their golden honey. It seemed that every variety of food was served to us – all fresh and home-made. They had invited a wonderful mix of Gambian and diverse American friends. For almost 40 years, their home has been a meeting place of peoples of all backgrounds and points of view.

Monday, January 29, 2007

New Minister of Parliament

Last weekend before our (now) dear friends Marian and Allan (above, at right) returned home to England, one of their closest Gambian friends, Mr. Seikou Susso (left) came to visit. Accompanied by his secretary, Mr. Tamba Saho (third from left), he traveled about 220 miles, which took 20 hours on public transportation, including crossing three rivers and various security checkpoints from his home village in western Gambia. (Seated second from left is my brother-in-law Bozorg Tavangar.)

14 years ago when Marian and Allan first moved to the Gambia, they befriended a hard-working young man employed at their hotel – Seikou. Over the years Seikou assisted them in building a home and a life in their new country. And in turn, the couple helped mobilize support for an undersupplied and undersupported clinic in Seikou's home district which serves about 30,000 people. (About 80 percent of the clinic's patients have malaria.) The impetus of their support got Seiko involved in the public welfare of his village, through desperately needed healthcare and education initiatives.

Over the years since their friendship, Seikou channeled his new-found confidence, skills, know-how and connections in service to his village and district. With the government's decentralization of decision-making for village development, Seiko got involved in helping organize and register village development committees, women's groups, microenterprise projects and HIV workshops, among others. He eventually entered politics in the most interior district of the country, working his way up from a municipal counselor in his village. He continued to take on more responsibility with various issues and groups impacting local development, to get him where he is today.

He was distinguished in this election as the only unopposed candidate for Gambian Parliament outside of the President's own home district. (N.B: On Thursday, the President's party, of which Seiko also is a member, won 42 out of 46 seats.) This is Seiko's first term as a Minister of Parliament (MP). Now that Seiko is going to take on this important role, he must move his wife and children to Banjul. His wife is a prominent woman of their region in her own right: her father is the area chief and she is the deputy head of the area school.

Per local custom, people from his home area will be calling on him to personally assist them. With his limited government income he will be expected to respond to any and all constituent requests, from paying for medicines to assisting with fees for a wedding or burial. In its own way, this is the country's social security system: whoever has resources must share them with whoever needs them. This generous custom is like a double-edged sword. Some are discouraged from striving for personal wealth, as their motivation is cut when they think of the prospect of having to give so much of it away. And when there is a naming ceremony, death, marriage, birth or other festival, he also is expected to make the long trek home and offer additional contribution. But Seiko shrugs off what appears to a westerner as a burden: "as a politician, the people put you there, so I have a responsibility. Sometimes people even have to take out a debt in order to help out" he explained. And, as a junior MP, he has to "give out even more."

Asked about some of his biggest concerns and agenda items moving forward in his new role, Seiko responded: "How can I get access to international funding to support the needs of my village and my country?"

International donors form a major part of the Gambia's economic landscape and Seiko has seen the power of private assistance through Marian and Allan's contributions and mobilization of their friends back home. One elderly friend of theirs contributed ten pounds (just under $20) and this paid for malaria medication for 100 children.

(Currently I'm trying to find a good non-profit organization that could effectively manage donations from any interested US friends. If you'd like more information, email me and I can let you know what course of action can be taken.)

If the Gambia's House of Parliament is filled with individuals like Seiko, and if he can maintain his strong sense of responsibility for the well-being of his country, I think there is much to be hopeful about here.

Daddy’s Here!

Oh joy of joys…Thanks to the miracles of internet fare competition, charter airlines catering to European tourists, and of course, the credit card, my dear husband has arrived in the Gambia. With about 24 hours notice (since the time we got the letter from school announcing the holiday was being moved to that very week) he scrambled to get work and home in order and searched dozens of competitive airfare websites to find a way to be with us while the girls are out of school. He managed to purchase boxes of pencils, crayons and other goodies for some of the schools we’re helping at, gifts for Gambian friends and even a printer for a long-time American friend here.

This has all come so fast -- I didn’t know until a few hours before he was leaving that he actually was able to find a palatable airfare -- but it is really wonderful to have our family back in tact. Sophia won’t leave his side and is singing most of the time again, and Layla and Anisa seem to bicker less. While he’s here everyone’s on vacation and we’re doing tourist-y things, like going to the beach more, visiting family friends, and checking out venues with cultural music performers and some eco-tourism facilities.

I have to remind myself to enjoy the moment and not think about the fact that he’s only here for one week, until Friday. The cup is half full…it’s all good…

Besides saying something about our own family dynamics, I think this sudden travel plan also shows that if you want to get to Africa, it’s possible. This “dark continent” doesn’t have to be so far away when we all live in One World.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Trouble Connecting

(Note: I wrote this 48 hours ago, and we feel so much better – the sun is shining and our internet is back up; but it does give a glimpse into some ups-and-downs of staying in a new and very different place…)

It's been almost two weeks that we are in Africa and some of the frustrations of this very different life are affecting us. I tried unsuccessfully for about six hours to send a few emails, make a couple phone calls that were repeatedly disconnected, then ran out of credit on the mobile phone, and walked back and forth on the sandy path between the cottage and the laundry area to wash the sheets Sophia soiled last night (to her credit, her first accident since we left home).

Anisa is almost recovered from her sadness of last night, where she lamented the strange feeling of living behind a closed gate that opens into a world of "poor people" and eager young men insisting on shaking your hand then asking/demanding "[what is] you-a name, you-a country"; a school climate that's rougher than she's every seen in suburbia; the oddity of maids in the house – and the color line that goes with it; older sibling and cousins that exclude her; missing her school and especially, missing her daddy. These are all perceptions of an 11-year old. Her cousins are very nice to her and her school is as good as can be found. Some of the adjustment is to a British teaching style, versus an American – we're still figuring out what that actually means. And it really is a strange feeling to be taught all your life about racial equality and then come to Africa to see that there is a longer way to go than could ever have been imagined. And how much of it is cultural? Or economic? Or ethnic? Or education levels? Or… We're also trying to get our heads around the depth of poverty around us – and we might never be able to.

And Sophia is just love-sick for her daddy that is not yet with us. She cries for him on regular intervals, about four times per day. Layla, of all of us, seems fine – too fine. As I wrote to my mother, it seems Layla is Teflon and Anisa is Velcro.

Noone will get used to not having daddy here (although his brother is making Herculean efforts to making Sophia laugh, plays hide-and-seek with her and peels her an orange to fascinate her, with one thin, long, spiral piece of peel – a snake – she can play with), but the rest is all about adjustment to a very foreign place. My experience of living overseas is that no matter how wonderful the people you are with, it takes some time for it to feel like home, so there are inevitable ups and downs. The challenge is to find that place of contentment on the inside that ultimately leads to ease with what's on the outside. So, whether it's with the internet or with the people and the culture, we need to be more forgiving of ourselves and our environment, in order that we won't have so much…trouble connecting.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

2 More Days Off

It's mid-day on Wednesday and we have just learned that the country will most probably also close all offices on Monday and Tuesday to observe the Islamic New Year. Due to the Lunar calendar, no one knows until (what I consider) the last minute which days are holidays and which days are not. So, now, the surprise 5-day weekend will extend to one week!

Elections – We Get a Snow Day

3 house staff in the morning

Mariama's dress reads:
"Jammeh for Stability. Jammeh for Presiden."

Last night on the 8 pm local news we found out that due to the Parliamentary elections that were most probably going to be on Thursday (and now we find, they are), public schools and offices will be closed on Wednesday (to prepare), Thursday (for the actual election) and Friday (for the results). The kids rejoiced like it was a snow day. And we adults are figuring out what to do for a warm 5-day weekend. It may not be safe to be out too much, as crowds of cheering supporters might storm the streets or police patrols might closely monitor whoever is out. Because of the unexpected days off, our private schools' winter/mid-term break also has been suddenly moved -- to this week and next week (now, the plans we were making for a week off in February had to be scrapped at a moment's notice).

Why three days off for a mid-term election? It turns out that citizens must travel to their home provinces to vote. Even though this is a small country, infrastructure difficulties call for many hours to travel a few hundred kilometers. More organized candidates provide transport by bus for their constituents to get home, but not all get this benefit.

Foreign embassy staff and some of the other international organizations' staff based here are busy preparing to serve as election monitors, to ensure as transparent a process as possible.
There are even festive dresses to come out for the elections, in celebration of the President or the political party. The attached picture of Mariama, the long-time, hard-working, kind, and cheerful maid at our home, shows her in a dress celebrating President Jammeh, which she has worn specially for these days. The next picture is of her with the rest of the house staff (Awa and Fatou), arriving to work in their beautiful gowns – an everyday occurrence.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

In the garden of thy heart

Flower Garden at the Sunday School
This was our second week going to Gambian Sunday school. The class we attended is held outside, under the shade of the mango trees (no fruit now, it's off-season). In Sophia's group there are about 20 children between the ages of 3-8. Layla and Anisa also joined a class of middle schoolers. An able and patient young man, Sylvester, teaches the younger children simultaneously in Wolof and English. He first checks them for cleanliness and reminds them of this important virtue multiple times; they sing various songs (mostly in English – I'm not sure if that is for our benefit or they always do this); then take turns sharing a prayer they have memorized. Today they were each given a precious piece of 8.5 x 11 inch white paper and they were to draw a picture of a garden. Afterward, he (and I, the de facto adult helper) would write the quotation the children were learning for each one of them at the top of the page: "In the garden of thy heart, plant naught but the rose of love." As the papers were being passed around, excitement grew, then each child got their own pencil, and turned around off their plastic resin chair to use the seat as their desk.

But Sylvester hadn't counted on the fact that these kids are a bit young to actually draw a garden and then color it in. So, we ended up drawing each individual child's garden as fast as we could, and all the kids waited patiently for their paper to be returned so they could color in their flowers. There were enough crayons for each of the kids to have about one in their possession at a time, and I didn't see anyone fighting over scarce crayons. As you'll see in the photo, they all colored in their pictures carefully – following in an obedient Gambian manner. Sophia's was very different from the rest – exerting her American independence, perhaps.

Once the lesson was completed, trays with colorful plastic mugs of sweet, milky tea were passed around along with bread and butter sandwiches. For some of these kids, this would be their first meal of the day, around noontime.

Something really amazing to Sophia was the fact that these children would go off, one at a time, and relieve themselves behind a nearby bush, or tree, or not really behind anything at all. Even the girls made it look easy. Of course, she wanted to do the same thing (she is 3), but doesn't quite know how to do this, so I had to run after her as she was pulling her pants down and trying to squat right next to the class as their crayons were being distributed. I draw the line at how "local" she can be. There are toilets nearby, and if she really wants to go natural, there is a wall that has begun to be built that she could go behind. In the end she decided that if she can't go next to the class, she could wait until later.

Despite the many differences that this brief experience between young children showed us, in the end, the experience with these kids was so positive and memorable, and above all, unifying. In some small way, a "rose of love" really was planted.

Sunday, January 21, 2007


Dust-covered streets
Layla in the back of the Pajero. Notice the dust on the tire -- it had recently been changed.

This is the “dry and cool” season in the Gambia -- winter. Outside it’s at least 90 degrees at mid-day, very sunny, and dusty dry. In the morning when it’s time to go to school locals feel very cold with the temperature hovering around 75. My girls and I think that’s refreshing.

The Harmatan – the southerly wind that brings dust from the Sahara during dry season and creates a blanket effect – has begun. The heat penetrates but doesn’t escape. This used to take place in March-April, but this year it happened much earlier. As soon as the hot, humid weather ended, the Harmatan started, so it’s been a continuous hot weather pattern.

In practical terms, this means that we stay indoors at mid-day; our throats feel coated with dust after a few hours out (solved by water or hard candy); inside the house floors, furniture and knick-knacks quickly get coated in dust; clothes are coated in sand-dust when the kids come home from school (e.g., their white socks are red-brown when they arrive); walking paths and the tennis court are dust-covered; and all those flip-flops we brought to Africa have stayed in the suitcase. After a couple of hours running errands with Auntie Sherry and me, Sophia’s dress had a film of dirt on it. When I washed her hair last night, the water from rinsing the shampoo out was literally brown. A shower at the end of the day is more appreciated (and necessary) than it’s ever been.

With all this dust I can almost picture the desert gobbling up once-fertile lands as the earth continues to heat up. On the bright side, though, the mosquitoes – malaria carriers – don’t have much room to breed.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Refugees Everywhere

Homa with Rosaline Idowu, UNHCR Regional Representative

On Wednesday I was sitting under the shade at a nice café across from the American Embassy with some time to wait for friends to pick me up. As I was looking around, I noticed a distinguished African woman at a nearby table.

I normally would not approach a lone diner, but something told me it was alright. And it was. I took four pages of notes and learned so much from Mrs. Roseline Idowu. She is the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) Regional Representative, based in Dakar, Senegal, originally from Nigeria. She oversees matters for tens of thousands of refugees from five nations in West Africa that have been going through various civil wars. While we in the US are just getting our heads around the crisis in Darfur, northeast Africa, for the past two decades this region has experienced civil wars in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea Bissau, Togo, and in the Casamance region of Senegal.

The problems of refugees are staggering. No one knows how many there actually are, as many don’t make it to a UN camp (only those who register at a camp are counted among the statistics). At one point, as many as 150,000 individuals were being served at various camps throughout the region. Conflicts I have never heard of, like that between northern and southern Togo following the death of its President-for-Life 2.5 years ago generated 25,000 refugees fleeing to Benin in a short period, and this past August the low intensity conflict in Southern Senegal saw 5,000 seek refuge in the tiny Gambia.

The UN provides non-food items like blankets, mats, and cooking pots through its regional stockpile in Ghana, for this region. It arranges for medical facilities and for police to provide a measure of safety. Anywhere they have a presence they partner with local non-governmental organizations to provide on-the-ground assistance. She described their operation as: “We work like an accordion, according to the member states’ interests and demands.” So, they are responsive not only to the humanitarian pressures of horrific civil conflicts, but also to the agendas set forth by delegates in New York.

The life of the refugees is “dysfunctional” and “de-humanizing.” Family structures break-down when many people (women and men) sleep under a tent, when they have to stand in a line for rations to feed their families, fathers lose all authority, and no one knows when they’ll go back home or what they’ll return to. For women in particular – from traditional (often Muslim) societies operating with age-old rules of conduct – the threat of domestic and community violence grows, and they must suddenly take charge of all matters for their families. As Mrs. Idowu described “She’s suddenly swimming in the deep end.”

One benefit of traditional African society in the refugee equation is the fact that often times the same ethnic group lives across various national borders. For example, members of the Jola ethnic group live in Senegal, Guinea Bissua and the Gambia. If one can get away to other Jolas across the border, he will be treated like family, and those who already have little but live in relative peace will share whatever they have.

When asked about the biggest challenge she sees, Mrs. Idowu answered with little hesitation: “globalization.” Conflicts eventually end, but then what will young, idle people do? There are fewer jobs for them and then they become economic refugees, with no way to make a living. When they try to return to their post-conflict home, what do they return to? With no capital and devastated infrastructure, how can they make a living? Also, those that stayed behind to brave the circumstances do not welcome with open arms the returning refugees, adding to the challenges.

Just as it felt too overwhelming to bear, Mrs. Idoku shared the “bright light” of her work:

“When I see the results of our care and maintenance: young people acquire skills to go back and cope with life. Women gain safety and self-sufficiency. Children are able to go to school and with education they can do so much more…”

Thursday, January 18, 2007

President cures patients

(Top story this week in the Daily Observer ( – Gambia’s official newspaper, with the largest circulation in the country. This was the main headline on Monday and on Tuesday this had a story plus two pages of pictures in the centerfold. This was also covered on TV news. All the text is verbatim from the newspaper; none of my opinions are included here. Jammeh is the President of the Gambia:)


“The curative power of the Holy Qur’an and traditional medicine were yesterday put to effect at the Accident and Emergency Unit and the Private Ward of the Royal Victoria Teaching Hospital (RVTH) by President Yahya Jammeh.

Jammeh combined both the spiritual power of curing and traditional medicine to alleviate the suffering at the emergency unit, as well as restore the health of patients in critical conditions. The process was so effective that patients responded to the healing techniques within a short span of time. His medicinal application was simply the Holy Qur’an combined with a few traditional herbs.

The curative power of the Gambian leader left many mesmerized and stunned, including his entourage, doctors, nurses, patients and other staff of RVTH. It was his second consecutive day at the hospital, after attending to the patients on Saturday.

[The President told journalists:]

“…I believe in two things. If somebody is sick and you cannot cure the person with the Holy Qur’an, the person is certainly going to die. And it would not take 24 hours. There is no disease in this world that you cannot cure using the Qur’an and some natural herbs that are existing either in the forest and/or at our homes.”

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

American Idol in the Gambia

Today after school my girls and their cousins were thrilled to sit down at 5 pm and watch the premier of American Idol via Dubai TV carried on the Gambia satellite cable TV company. Lounging on the couch, the six of them were enjoying people making fools of themselves, singing off key and watching Simon cringe at them, when all of a sudden, the screen went blank. We had our electricity, but the satellite company that supplies the feed lost their electricity. So, until their generators went on, there was no TV, and that’s why there was no American Idol premier in the Gambia.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Visit to Mr. Demba Tambo

Yesterday evening, just before sunset, with my brother-in-law Bozorg, and two British friends, Marion and Allen -- who lived in the Gambia for 6 years until 3 years ago -- we drove out into a village to visit Mr. Demba Tambo. Demba Tambo is known as a very honorable and respected man. He is a French teacher (he grew up on the border with Senegal) in a public school, as well as a farmer, active father, community leader, and member of the national governing body of the Baha’is of the Gambia. He owns a plot of land on which he farms sorghum and has built his home out of mud bricks, piece by piece, with his own hands. He has four children of his own and many neighboring children came to visit while we were there. Marion and Allen are sincere and close friends of Mr. Tambo’s and they showed each other the greatest mutual respect.

When we arrived – for Sophia’s first village visit – Marion instructed us to shake hands with everyone we saw…don’t worry about germs. So we all did -- even Sophia. This broke the ice for her with the other children. Marion had brought sweets for all and had the children (about 15, with the neighbors) line up to take their turn for one. Sophia was happy to line up too (for candy!), and was about the twelfth in the queue. For the ride home, it was pitch dark, the stars were out in full force, and the ride made us laugh like a bumpy roller coaster.

There were many things that struck me about Mr. Tambo. Among them:
* He was caring for the children while his wife was in town (shopping at the market or working, I’m not sure which).
* His standard of living is relatively good, with his own plot of land, but by our standards he lives in abject poverty: mud floors, thatched roof, no electricity, tattered clothing, a piece of corrugated tin on the side of the house to support it.
* His bearing showed great dignity. The only thing he asked of his friends from England was if they were able to get hold of the Virtues book he has been looking for, so he can proceed with his children’s moral education classes. He didn’t ask for anything for himself.

Monday, January 15, 2007

1st set of photos from Gambia

1st day to school in Gambia with cousins

Sophia's new school friends

On campus with the new classmates

Teens getting snacks before school

Morning Sounds

Before going to bed the first night here, Aunty Sherry told Sophia to expect to hear lots of different sounds at night and in the early morning, as she goes to sleep under her mosquito net (Sophia’s has pretty little flowers, from when her cousin Amelia slept in the little bed, so we call it the “princess net”). Here’s some of what we have heard:
  • Our (2) dogs bark every time any car approaches (behind a gate). The little dog barks the loudest. They also bark when the wind blows.
  • Nine cats in the back of the house;
  • Various birds;
  • Chickens;
  • Rooster;
  • Bats – sometimes loud and moaning;
  • Rats - though not so many;
  • Monkeys;
  • Pigs from outside the gate;
  • Discotheque down the street (the live music on Saturday night felt like it was coming from down the hall); and
  • Call to prayer from the mosque down the street.

Monday – First Day of School

Sunday night was filled with anticipation: final try-on’s and fittings of the Marina International School uniforms, early showers, organizing backpacks, setting alarm clocks for 6:30 a.m. The uniform is nothing like I imagined – it’s much more cheerful. Boys and girls wear the same top: a blue and white tie-dyed shirt (like a Hawaiian summer shirt) with a white cotton Marina school logo patch sewn on the left chest, and for girls, a knee-length full-pleated royal blue skirt (boys wear blue pants). Everyone wears black, traditional school shoes and white socks.

We arrived just after 8 a.m. to meet the school director and get the girls settled. I was amused to find that the teen-agers would not walk in to school with their parents and they always ask their parents to drop them a bit farther from the entrance so they are not seen to be dropped off by mummy or daddy. One group of older students was hanging around across the street of the school (also not paved, made of sand, very dusty) at a food stand set up by local women living in the compound facing the school.

While this school is based on a Cambridge British curriculum, it is really a Gambian school (there is also an American school nearby). 90% of the students are Gambian-African and so are most of the staff. The school director is a lovely, gentle, petite woman of Caribbean-Chinese descent, who grew up in England and was a director of an international school in Germany prior to the Gambia. She exudes capability, but also warmth. The academic director is an exuberant and friendly British man, who was previously at an international school in Thailand. He was informal in his own version of a tie-dyed African shirt, but also conveyed his dedication to the school and the kids. Many staff are African. We met the honors French instructor, an African wearing a tailored three-piece suit. One physical education teacher is Danish, the other Gambian. Anisa’s “Form 1” (6th grade) team leader is a warm and elegant Indian woman, wearing a striking pink and green sari; Mrs. Ansari immediately took Anisa to her classroom and made her feel at ease.

On our way out of the school and our initial meeting, I wanted to take a quick look around the grounds. I spotted both of my girls. Layla was walking with her cousin Amelia (they’ll be in the same class) and three other African girls, to buy a math instrument set from the school store. Anisa was in the distance in the sports fields, already changed for her p.e. class and starting a jog with her classmates. They purchase a snack at mid-day and come home for their lunch/supper, the big meal of the day, at 3 pm. I can’t wait to hear how the day went.

(Pictures forthcoming under separate file.)

The First 48 hours – What I Know

Here’s some of what we’ve learned in the first 2 days in the Gambia:
  • It’s hotter than we thought it would be
  • The water (for drinking) is better than we thought it would be
  • It’s dustier than we thought it would be – it’s dry season and they’re not kidding. (And when it’s rainy season I’m told the whole place is inundated with water and moisture, with 100% humidity from July through late October.)
  • Most roads are not paved. So, paths that are driven on are made of sand or soft red dirt – I’m not sure of the difference.
  • Most women we have seen are strikingly beautiful and are dressed in traditional, long, brightly colored, multi-patterned West African dress and headscarf. These dresses look formal but they are worn through all manner of work, everyday.
  • Electricity service, gasoline and everything that isn’t grown here are more expensive than in US.
  • Electricity service is available only in limited locations. We’re in one of them.
  • Many “nice” houses and businesses are located where there is no electricity – just down the road from us. They generally get their power from generators run by gasoline (which is about 50% more expensive than what we pay in US).
  • While English is the official language, few local people actually speak fluent English, particularly the vast majority of laborers and unskilled workers.
  • The pressure to stay within traditional Muslim-African clan structure is intense. Young people who want to follow new ideas will lose all family support (and usually, food, shelter, work) if they dare to stray from this network.
  • White rice, all imported, is the staple food. It is eaten three meals per day, if it can be accessed.
  • There is lots of bird watching here. We saw an egret next to the pool yesterday.
  • It’s papaya season, not mango season.
  • When it is windy (or slightly breezy) we lose internet connection. Phone (land) lines are consistently down or scratchy.
  • I’ll keep adding to this list. It’s what I can think of for now.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Dilemma for a Saturday

For our first full day in the Gambia, my brother-in-law and family are invited to a naming ceremony. This is an age-old tradition embedded in West Africa’s social fabric. No one tries to choose baby names during pregnancy, as this is considered very bad luck.

A double-edged honor is being bestowed on our family, as the baby is being named after my 16-year old nephew. He’s taking both his first and last name. While this implies a measure of respect to the family, it also comes with the expectation that the person whom the baby is named after will pay the child’s school fees, buy him new clothes for festivals, and even care for him whenever the family drops him off at their home. And, in this case, there is a moral dilemma. The father of the baby (I’ll call him Lamin, the most typical local name), a long-time friend of my brother-in-law’s, is a member of the Baha'i Faith, but this is the naming ceremony for the first baby of Lamin’s second wife. Taking a second wife violates Baha'i law, and also goes against one of the Faith’s central principles, the equality of women and men. At the same time, respect for cultural diversity is another important belief. So a fine line must be walked between standing up for principle and respecting local customs.

The act of taking a second wife is so engrained in traditional Gambian society, that it is something most families take pride in. As it was explained to me, the first wife is usually an arranged marriage and the second is usually someone the groom chooses for himself. With so many men taking as many as four wives, this practice has become integral to this region’s social and economic life: the wives represent labor at home, on the farm, and of course, they bear children. The more prosperous you are, the more wives you can “take.”

So, there is a very real dilemma for Saturday. Lamin’s family thinks they are giving an honor to my nephew by naming his child after him, but the hope was that he would know better than to take a second wife. On the other hand, this is a crucial part of the social system here. How can real, systemic change take place when such practices and inequalities perpetuate, even among those who embrace more progressive principles? We decided that the two more crucial members of the family will attend the ceremony and offer a gift that would benefit the child’s education. Sometimes, change needs to come slowly, through a relationship of trust and friendship.

Arrival in Banjul – Kids’ View

The first thing the kids noticed as we began to descend was the bright shining sun and how suddenly hot it got – even in the plane. We arrived in late afternoon wearing several layers of shirts, jackets, and sweaters. The British charter flight was very strict about excess baggage, so we re-packed our bags, left some things behind at our wonderful cousins’ home in England, and wore our heaviest sneakers and multiple layers of clothing on the plane, with a light extra bag on board to discard them into.

Drummers, dancers, and colorful men on stilts were greeting the tourists before they boarded the hotel busses, but the girls were content to hear them over the fence by the car pick-up for the locals. Anyway, Sophia was a little afraid of the idea of masked men in stilts, but excited about the prospect of sitting in her uncles’ pick-up (inside the cab) without a car seat (it had been thrown in the back of the truck – it almost seemed silly to have brought it along).

The girls commented on the vegetation, but the two things that grabbed their attention most were the ubiquitous cell phone billboards lining the road from the airport, and the many people gathered in groups along the side of the road, conducting their business, but stopping to wave hello at our pick-up truck. “I’m so excited; everyone is waving and smiling to us…” This was a very good beginning.

Arrival in Banjul!

Banjul airport as we stepped down from the plane

Iranian plane at the airport

Today we finally arrived in Africa. From the sky our approach to the West was greeted by unlimited stretches of undulating Sahara sands, and after we started the descent and hit the ground, we saw tall brown bush grass, red earth, palm trees, and… an airplane from the Islamic Republic of Iran.

My family is originally Iranian, and in my entire adult life I have never seen an Iranian airplane, due to the U.S. embargo on Iran since the 1979 Revolution. So it took me aback to have an image of Iran be the first man-made thing I saw upon hitting African soil. This drives home an important trend that remains unknown to most Americans outside of the intelligence community: the influence of countries like Iran and other “enemies” of America, all over Africa. They are making a big effort to win the “hearts and minds” campaign.

Coming home from the airport we saw a small amusement park under construction by the Libyan government's investment agency, and once at home, the TV was switched on to a fast-paced, high-gloss, 24-hour news channel – Al Jazeera in English, featuring the venerable British anchor, David Frost.

But this isn’t what my kids noticed. That’s in the next entry…

(Pictures forthcoming -- I'm having trouble uploading images due to the weaker connection to the internet -- but I'm lucky to have a connection in the home!!)

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Conveniences I Already Miss

In order to type and send the last post, I needed to brave the blustery British winter weather and come to the lovely neighborhood library in Henleaze, Bristol to use the internet. I got a one hour slot and am surrounded by middle aged people slowly checking their email. In the middle of this process, Anisa informs me that Sophia needs to go potty. "Well, fine, take her." "But there's no bathroom in the library," she answers.

So, we bundle up and go outside, cross the street to the Waitrose grocery store and find our way to the unisex loo in the back of the store. But, we're quickly back and now my internet session is up and there is a queue waiting for my spot at the computer!

En Route in UK: We Make the Headlines!!

On Sunday night we set out for our big journey, with a stop for a few days in England. This allows us to visit with cousins, adjust to the time difference to hit the ground running in the Gambia, and to make one of the two times per week flights into Banjul (Tuesdays were booked, so we'll take Friday's flight). We were several hours delayed in Newark and no one at Continental would tell us why. Fortunately, my cousin called and told us the problem: the airport in Bristol had shut down to repair the tarmac. So, when our flight did finally arrive in Bristol, we were the FIRST FLIGHT on the newly repaired runway. This airport has never had such an emergency, so it was big news when the first flight dared to touch down on the questionable tarmac (it was being inspected for arrival as our flight circled overhead). The landing was fine; a non-event -- fortunately. But, the media loved the potential for disaster. Swarms of newscrews awaited us. Upon my exit from customs and baggage claim, a BBC Radio microphone was stuck in my face with a nice reporter asking: "weren't you afraid to be teh first flight to touch down after the emergency closing of the airport?" Fortunately, as a passenger with no access to media, I wasn't afraid at all and conveyed all the calm and enthusiasm I could muster after the trans-Atlantic flight with 3 kids and 4 hours of delay. Then, that evening our plane kept

Friday, January 5, 2007

One World, Many Africas

Yesterday my husband Alex asked me if I intended on anyone in Africa reading this blog. "Of course I do, why would you say that?" I replied. He pointed out that in my post about packing I clumped together all of Africa and labeled it "corrupt" when talking about the difficulty of sending packages by mail.

It bothers me when people summarize Africa as a monolith, and in my distance from the reality of Africa, I did the same thing. While I'm passionate about thinking of the world as one, I feel as strongly that cultural differences be appreciated, like the diverse flowers of a garden. The different colors, textures and scents that each one brings makes the whole more interesting.

The Gambia, where we're going, is the smallest country on the continent, with about 1.6 million people in the whole country, and just twice the size of the state of Delaware. The capital city, Banjul, has just about 35,000 people, and its metropolitan area has over 520,000. Despite (or maybe because of) its smallness, the Gambia is the fourth most densely populated country in Africa. It's a very safe place. The culture is colorful, proud and rich, and is known for its tolerance of diverse races and religions. To my knowledge, there are no animal safaris.

Many Philadelphians who hear about my trip ask me two well-meaning questions: 1)Am I looking forward to seeing all the wild animals? and, as of last week: 2) Will I see Oprah's leadership academy? This is pretty much like asking someone who is going to Sacramento if they look forward to commuting to work via New York City subway or if they worry about a New Orleans hurricane destroying their home. Actually, it's even less likely, as Africa is triple the size of the United States, and the continent is divided into 54 countries, with over 1,000 languages spoken. There are diverse types of food, clothing, music, homes, cities, natural resources, climates, economies, forms of government, and places where different features known as "African" are located. For example, the animals one sees on safari are generally located in Kenya and Tanzania (to the far east of Africa), or Botswana and South Africa (in the south). Oprah's wonderful leadership academy is in South Africa. I worked for one year in Nairobi, Kenya 17 years ago and visited the Gambia 15 years ago. At the time I was struck by the strong differences between these two countries.

To find the Gambia on the map, look for Senegal. This tiny country is bordered on three sides by French-speaking Senegal and on the fourth by the Atlantic Ocean. English-speaking Gambia is split in the middle by the river Gambia (which is why it's "THE Gambia" and not just "Gambia."), which runs the length of the country. Since the Gambia was a British Colony (until 1965), business and government are conducted in English, but if you leave these environments and go to the countryside, or even to many urban neighborhoods, conversations are conducted in local languages, like Wolof and Mandinka. Despite lower education levels, it is common for Africans from most countries to fluently speak 2-3 languages, and to know more about the US than we in the US know about them.

Within seconds, many facts about anywhere in Africa can be found through a simple Google search. In less than a week, when we're on the ground in the Gambia, I will try to fill in these facts with the sights, sounds, textures and scents from a little slice of Africa.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Busy Being Blessed

In preparation for the trip, the past 48 hours have been nothing but surprises and delays: health insurance glitches, new car breakdown, long downtown meetings, unavoidable waits at the doctors' office; and good things, like a lovely Persian-German dinner party at my dear friend Maryam's home, which was so nice we didn't want to leave.

Another long-time and dear friend, Candyce, shared with me that when she tried to explain where her days go and why she is so busy all the time, she realized that she is "busy being blessed." Without being mindful of these blessings, we end up stressed, harried, maybe unhappy. So, when the meningitis vaccine took 2.5 hours of my day today instead of the 15 minutes it should have, I practiced deep breathing, hugged Sophia close, played with her in the waiting room, and remembered the wisdom Candyce passed along. Besides, everyone at Paoli Traveler's Health is just so nice...

"When there is love, nothing is too much trouble and there is always time." I try to live my life by this quote from the Baha'i Writings ( I need to keep remembering this idea during these days of preparation, and especially, once we arrive in Africa -- where the pace of life will be so different from mine in the US.

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Packing-phobia Part I: The Math

Like most people I know, I dread packing -- especially for a long trip. For this longest-trip-I've-ever-taken-with-my-kids, I've been mentally packing for weeks, so that I can avoid a last-minute panic. It feels like everyone I know has told me to "make a list" -- except my kids, who refuse to make a list -- so that it won't be difficult to pack. But what am I supposed to include on my packing list? The obvious: pants, jeans, capris, skirts (for country visits and for city socializing), shorts, bathing suit, t-shirts, long-sleeves, etc., etc. I just need to actually do it. I like to make a big pile of everything I think I want to take and then see how it fits in the suitcase. I've been victim of packing too lightly for a trip and hating the amount of recycling the same black pants and t-shirt, and I've also over-compensated with an embarrassment of too-much-stuff on other trips.

This packing exercise is particularly tough, as we're spending a few days in England, which says will be in the 40's and raining every day we're there. We'll be with family and friends, and will want to look "smart," as we won't be anonymous tourists. Then, once we arrive in the Gambia, the same British site shows high's deliciously around 88 degrees and lows at night around 63F. So, my primary packing is for summer weather. However, the Gambia is a predominantly Muslim country with a high incidence of malaria and any savvy traveler won't be wearing shorts all the time like a Carribbean vacation. On top of this, I'd like to take practical, versatile items that I rarely wear anymore, so I could give them to someone else when I leave.

This packing equation is complicated by airline baggage limits. Continental (our flight from Newark to UK) allows two bags each at a maximum of 50 lbs per bag. But "The Gambia Experience," our British tourist charter flight from Bristol to Banjul, allows 30 kg (about 66 lbs) per person - total.

Another complicator is that I have piles and piles of non-clothing items that need to be packed. For example, I offered to carry 50 copies of a junior youth (middle school) literacy and virtues teaching workbook called Breezes of Confirmation, prepared by the William Mmutle Masetlha Foundation in Zambia but printed in Florida (!). I'm taking a specific type of blankets as gifts for the four staff at my sister-in-law's home; three large Costco-sized bags of store-brand Starbucks coffee beans; two Costco-sized bags of chocolate chips; 1-months' supply of toiletries for the 4 of us (Alex can bring more when he visits); books for 4; and more...

Why not ship these items before we leave, you reasonably ask?? Well, this is part of the equation of going to Africa. Nothing is really that easy. Infrastructure is weak, the volume of commerce is low, corruption can come into play if a package looks valuable, and so shipping is expensive and you're lucky to get the package in a few weeks, IF it arrives. This is an example of how poor economies with little foreign investment remain that way, with difficult situations reinforcing themselves ... but I stray from my focus on packing my suitcase. This is what happens when I mentally pack.

More useful than a basic list, for me, as a former student of economics, this all comes together in an equation: corruption + struggling economic development + new airline security restrictions + people doing good work needing to get supplies to the right people + gifts + damp in the UK + tropical in the Gambia = what I pack in my suitcase in pounds, converted to kilograms.

And I still haven't put anything in my suitcase...