The Loosely Updated Journal of African Travels

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The end

It's unreal to consider that this is my last day here in Gambia. Tomorrow we start our day-long journey to Dakar, and eventually back to the US. Thinking back over the last 7 weeks it's hard for me to grasp everything that happened. Just looking back through pictures I've taken I couldn't believe how much I had already forgotten. Somehow two months turned into two weeks. I was expecting that a wave of inspiration would hit me today and provide some sort of meaning to everything that happened here. I figured that today everything would become clear. No such luck.

Last week we spent a few days traveling up river to a safari camp as part of our allotted vacation time. The camp represented everything I don't like about being here in Gambia. The camp was designed for tourists and everything about it just felt fake. It was a big compound with running water, nice rooms, and a fully stocked bar, all surrounded by the reality of African living. The price of a dinner at the camp restaurant could have supported a family outside the compound walls for a week. I don't mean for this be a critique on the tourism industry, but the entire trip made me feel guilty. It got to the point where I would rather walk into the surrounding village and eat food from the local shops than stay in the camp. To make everything worse, when we were settling our bill the management decided that we didn't spend enough money on their buffets or guided tours so they charged us per person instead of per room. There was nothing we could do except pay twice as much and leave bitter. The problem wasn't dropping the money, the problem was that these people just saw us as whites with money. What we were doing in the country was absolutely meaningless. On the ride back home I was ready to leave, it was easily the lowest point of the entire trip.

When we arrived back home in Jambanjelly I was reminded why I'm so glad I came here.
Seeing our friends in the village and realizing that there was no questionable motives behind their kindness was incredibly relieving. It reminded me what I liked so much about this village. The generosity and sincerity of our friends here is impressive. One of our good friends here, Mustafa, is a perfect example. He's a mason in the village and was hired to help with all the masonry work at the library. Halfway through our time here the village ran out of the funds used to pay him. We didn't even know this until last week because he just kept showing up. He can't even afford a ma tress and yet he's willing to work everyday with us for nothing. He rolls up at 8 every morning with his boom box and car battery in the wheelbarrow bumping beats, even if he's not getting paid. On top of this, he spends all his free time making shirts and crafts for all of us, just as random gifts. Seeing people like 'Stafa makes me realize how much I'm going to miss Gambia.

When I showed up here I wasn't really sure what to expect. I was hoping to find out what life was really like here, to discover what Africa is. To say the least I was incredibly naive in these goals. What I've learned over the past two months is that two months is not nearly enough time. I'm leaving with more questions than I arrived with. Yet,despite my lack of understanding, I will still leave with an experience, and an incredible one at that. Maybe all of these pieces won't click together until ten years from now, but at least I have the pieces, and in the mean time I'll still have the memories of the African biking journeys, the stray animals we took in, and all the amazing people we met.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Welcome to rainy season

The rain showed up today around 11, and since it's relatively difficult to get paint to stick during a downpour,work ended immediately after. By the time we packed up all the paint and brushes there were already small rivers flowing through the field next to the library. All the little kids here live for the rain and at least 30 of them had already congregated in the biggest puddle. Robby and I decided this was an opportune time to wash off all the paint and go see what all the commotion was about. The kids took this as a threat and started one the biggest water fights in village history. We took no shame in the fact that we had at least 100lbs on even the biggest one. I think it's safe to say we won, and now they all know who owns the puddle. After the brawl was over we looked around and all the adults were just staring at us like we were absolutely crazy. It gets worse.
We managed to appropriate one of the local dogs here and turn it into our new pet. Yesterday, when Boots (the dog) developed a limp the girls loaded him in the wheelbarrow and brought him home. It was weird enough that we were giving up food to this dog and showing affection, but carrying it around town just killed them. I can only imagine what goes through their minds when they just sit and watch us as if we're some strange animal at a zoo.

Even with only two weeks left here, our plans continue to change. The library is now almost totally completed and we're just waiting for the books to arrive from the US via freighter. The ship was scheduled to come into port last week, but it didn't. This shouldn't have been a huge surprise since they originally told us the books would be here in April, yet it was still disappointing. We were hoping to have all of this week to transport the books, sort them, and get them into the library. Now we're going to rearrange our travel so we leave this Tuesday and come back for Saturday, the new estimated arrival date. Moving our travels up has made it pretty clear that we really don't have much time left here. By the time we get back from our mini vacation we'll only have about 4 days remaining in the village. It's hard to believe that we're already planning our ride to the airport. Part of me is anxious to get home, sleep without a mosquito net and not have to worry about the 5am call to prayer waking me up, but it's strange to think about leaving. It feels like we haven't finished our work here yet. I guess we'll just have to sit back, enjoy a few mangoes, and hope that the books actually show up on time.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Just embrace it

To date, each week that I've spent here has felt more and more comfortable. The work is no longer foreign to us, we can finally remember the responses to the Mandinka greetings from the town people, and everyone has discovered the most efficient way to accomplish their house chores. I was expecting this week to follow the same pattern of increasing ease, and yet, it didn't. This week turned out to be an eye opener for me.

A few days ago we were talking with some of the masons at the site and they joking told us how good it is that we were comfortable doing the masonry work. When asked what they meant, they explained that being a mason was a great career, it meant you didn't have to worry if there would be breakfast the next morning. At first I almost thought they were kidding. It's not like we see Mercedes driving down the dirt roads, but I hadn't seen anything to make me think the people here struggled just to feed themselves. I didn't think too much of it until later that night we were hanging out at the compound with some of our friends after dinner. This time Lamin was telling us a story about how a girl he had been dating left him because her family wouldn't let her marry a poor boy. I guess the overwhelming generosity of everyone here gave me the false impression that everyone lived comfortably, even if only by African standards. The more I looked around and talked with friends, the more I realized how obvious it really was.

What amazes me more than the poverty here is how happy and satisfied everyone remains. All of our friends think we're crazy when we tell them that even some of the millionaires in America are unhappy. How could anyone be unhappy with all that money? They thought we were joking. It's so easy to come here and critique everything here. The government is corrupt, the health care system is poor, and they eat way to much fish. Even with all of these problems, it never ceases to amaze me that everyone here still smiles, still jokes around, and still loves the life they live.

That's all the rambling I have time for. We're bringing all of our friends to the beach tonight for a bonfire and the bush-taxi should have showed up 20 minutes ago. Finally, a culture that embraces my sense of timeliness.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Half way

It's hard to believe that it's already been a week since the last time I made it to the internet cafe, and on top of that, we're almost at the half way point of the trip. Day to day life here is really starting to turn into a blur. I'm struggling to remember what's happened since the last time I wrote.

After we left Brikama last week to head back on bike for home in Jambanjelly (it's about a 10K bike, give or take, so it takes us around half an hour) we biked for about 40 minutes before we realized that nothing looked familiar and we were lost somewhere in the middle of Africa. We had no idea where we were or what path to take other than going back through Brikama and starting over again. Due to our biking journeys thus far we have created a tour. The big white kids on little bikes tour. It's been hugely successful with all the little kids along the roadside who run at us and scream tubabo (white) like it's their job. Usually it's entertaining until you realize that you have no idea where you are.

It just happened that almost immediately after I got back from the bike ride I had the fortune of getting some sort of stomach bug and threw up for the rest of the day. I spent almost all of Sunday and Monday trying to recover. This was my first wake-up call that I'm living in Africa and it's not always perfect.

The second wake-up call came on Wednesday morning. Abdulhai, one of our friends here plays soccer on the village team and somehow convinced me to go training with him one morning. As we were walking back from the run on the outskirts of town we came across two kids and a pack of dogs laying across the road. The kids were waiting to take the dogs out into the bush for hunting, which is common here. I didn't think anything of the dogs since they wander the town all the time and have never caused any problems. As we were walking through one of the dogs lunged at us. I was completely oblivious to the situation and was thinking more about breakfast than these dogs. By the time I realized what was happening and turned to see the dog, Abdulhai had already killed it. I can't illustrate the confusion at that point. I was just walking through these seemingly nice little puppies, and then bam, there's a dead dog laying in the road and Abdulhai is telling me to just keep walking.

The third wake-up call came when one of the women who lives in our compound brought her baby to us. The locals here know we have basic first aid so they usually come by when they need a band-aid or two. We were blown away when this mother brought her silent 7 month-old baby to us and showed us the baby's leg. At least 50% was covered in one of the worst burns I've seen. We didn't even know where to begin. None of us really have any medical experience and this baby needed more than a few band-aids. At that young, a burn like that can be life threatening, and the mother acted like it was no big deal. They either can't afford to go to the hospitals here or don't see the need. To their credit, the hospitals here are not really hospitals. A few members of our group have needed to go see a doctor or an optometrist and they don't offer help or are no where to be found. For the first time since I've been here I've realized that they simply don't have the resources that we've grown so accustomed to. In other words, this is Africa.

Despite the seemingly chaotic week, it was incredibly enjoyable. Work at the site has been going really smoothly and it makes the time here go by so quickly. We finished up the carpentry work on Wednesday and all of the interior masonry work today. I'm finally starting to get the hang of the work here, and it's really nice to be able to help the masons, instead of just watching. We had a half day today due to the Muslim tradition of prayer at 2 on Fridays. We took the opportunity to check out a new section of the beach, and with the recent rain bringing in cooler temperatures I plan on passing out immediately when I get back.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Arrival: Round 2

Alright, I'll try this again. I've underestimated how slow things move here and how fast 30 minutes goes by. I'll attempt to actually complete this post.

We officially arrived in Jambanjelly around two weeks ago now. It took us about 48 hours of travel to get to the village, but we made it and the village was so excited to see us. Settling in to life here has been easier than I expected. The people are incredible here. Everyone is so nice, and so willing to take the time to make us comfortable. Within 10 minutes we had all been given our Gambian names and inundated by small children. We're living in a compound right near the center of the village. All families live in compounds here, which are basically a piece of land with multiple cement dwellings that house most of the extended family. I've been impressed with how civilized our living conditions are. I guess I just expected to be living in a hut in the middle of a forest. It's been a welcomed surprise to have electricity and a gas stove.

It took a few days to deal with the preparation for the start of construction, but we're now making progress. They say if you accomplish one thing here a day than it's a successful day. Most of the work left on the library is skilled labor. Our job is to aid the carpenters, the masons, and the electricians with whatever we can. At first they had zero faith in our ability and were hesitant to let us touch a saw or hammer. They eventually realized that we were capable of helping and working with the locals has become really enjoyable. We're never sure if they're laughing at us or something else, but they seem to enjoy our company. We're hoping to finish the ceiling and electrical work within the next week so we can start to focus on the floor and shelves.

The hardest part of the building here is dealing with the logistics. We have an incredibly limited budget (even by African standards) and it's going to be difficult to fit everything in. The original plan called for a septic tank and toilet system for inside the library. Unfortunately it's come down to us choosing between paying for shelves to hold the books or putting in the septic tank. It's hard to tell the village what to do with their library, but I guess it doesn't make much sense to have a library with no books and a nice bathroom.

Life outside of the work has been great. We've discovered the beach here and some of our friends have been nice enough to loan us bikes. There's no question that it's one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen. During our free time we usually just relax at the compound or roam the village with friends. I've been amazed at how much I've learned about the people here and their culture just by walking around.

That's all I have time for now, hopefully I'll make it back to Brikama by next weekend.

Thursday, June 26, 2008


So much has happened in the last 5 days that I don't really know where to begin. I was hoping to get online a few days ago but as I've quickly figured out, nothing here happens in a timely manner.

I guess I'll just start from the begining. Last Thursday all of the Crossroad participants met up on Long Island for an orientation before heading our seperate directions. The orientation was surprisingly laid back and more of an opportunity to get to know our groups before we got on the plane. Since it's the 50th year of Crossroads we finished orientation with a dinner at the top of the UN building in the Deligates Dining Room. None of us packed formal clothing so we all looked ridiculous but it was still pretty solid. Sunday we finally left the US and flew to Casablanca. I was initially dreading our 12 hour layover in Casablanca but it turned out to be a gift. Air Moroc paid for each of us to get a hotel room for the entire layover. We dropped all of our bags off at the hotel and took a taxi into the city. I think I pissed myself atleast 3 times in during the ride, but we made it out alive. Trafic rules and lane lines are more of a suggestion than a standard. Either way we were able to go to the market there, see one of their famous mosques, and go swimming.

I have run out of computer time so the rest of the trip to date will have to wait. I guess I'll learn time management eventually.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Deal

In the middle of fall semester Ithaca College announced the possibility of traveling to Africa for the summer to participate in a service trip with Operation Crossroads Africa. Although I was initially interested, I didn't give too much thought to applying. Oh yeah, I'll do that next weekend. Right. Needless to say, a few months went by and it wasn't until the day prior to the application due date that I finally recognized my procrastination. I remember sitting in the library trying to figure out if I cared more about studying for that final tomorrow or attempting to complete the application. Eventually I realized that I didn't have anything to lose by filling out the application (aside from that final grade), and a lot to gain. As I wrote the essays I slowly started to comprehend how amazing of an experience this could be. Even after I completed the application, I couldn't stop thinking about how incredible it would be if I was able to go. I couldn't get the trip off my mind. When I found out I was one of students selected for the trip I was overjoyed, but the reality of me actually going to Africa is just starting to set in now.

Tomorrow (June 18th) I head to NYC for a few days of orientation with my group before flying to Senegal and taking a bus to our final destination of Jambanjelly Village in Gambia. My group, none of whom I know, will be spending the next two months working on completing a library for the village. Jambanjelly has no running water, no electricity, and no all-you-can-eat buffets. I've gotten all 400 shots, pretty much finished packing, and feel about as prepared as I'm ever going to feel.

Although I know relatively nothing about what will be in store for me over the next two months, I can comfortably say that this will probably be one of the defining experiences of my life.

Before I forget, I want to thank Dean Lynch, Bob Iger, Michelle Diemer, and Reginald Simmon's family for everything they have done. This trip wouldn't be a reality without all of your help.

This blog will be my primary source of communicating with everyone out in the 1st world. I will attempt to check in as often as possible, but I can't make any promises. I can still receive e-mail at but please understand I might not have the time to respond. Also, please attempt to forgive my spelling, grammatical, and sentence structure errors. Let's just say writing has never been my forte.