Greetings from the Gambia

Originally sent February 10, 2011

Dear friends and family,  
I am Travis no more. My name is Abdoulie--Abdoulie Darbo.


The transformation happened several weeks back, while I sat in a molded plastic chair in the center of a crowded, walled-off compound in the heart of Madiana, my home while in training.  Standing before me was my host father, a man who seems as old as Africa itself, my village's akalo, an elder and political leader who demands respect, kindly given by all, and a griot, who wanders the countryside playing music and reminding people of their oral history, for a small fee, of course. All around me were dark-skinned faces--some old, some young--their bodies clothed in bright colors and vibrant designs.  The women kept their hair tied up in elaborate headwraps, perfect for pleasing their god and balancing any number of unwieldy objects, from firewood to laundry to buckets of water, on their head, while the men wore small caps, decoratively designed, like crowns. And despite the celebratory, charged atmosphere, all were quiet, their eyes fixed on me.

The griot looked to my father, who quietly offered my name, and then turned back to the crowd. "Abdoulie Darbo" he announced, then, using a simple razor, he took a small chunk of hair from my forehead. The crowd burst into applause and several members of my family raced up to give me Dalasis, (The Gambia's currency that is worth far less than the printed value would suggest), which I quickly passed onto the griot--payment for being named.  For such is the tradition in The Gambia: on the seventh day a child (or in my case, a Peace Corps trainee) is named, and the village comes together to celebrate. And celebrate we did.

Following the naming ceremony, wherein all my fellow trainees were also named, everyone filed out onto the sandy street and formed a tight circle in the shade of a large mango tree. Our host fathers and brothers said the goodbyes, while a handful of women collected the necessary tools: a five gallon water jug--known as a badong--and two sticks to beat it with, a thick metal lid and a short stump to bang it against, and a wide, thin metal plate and two more sticks to make it ring.  The woman with the badong started it off, coaxing a variety of rhythmic thuds out of the yellow jug, all with a natural ease.  Soon the second woman came in, accentuating the down beat with the full-bodied sound of her lid striking the stump.  Already the circle was starting to clap and sway with the beat; by the time the third woman came in, offering high-pitched bursts of syncopation to the growing rhythmic din, it had worked itself into a frenzy.

Then the circle started to collapse in on itself. A woman dressed in a bright green fanoo and matching headdress burst into the middle, stomping forward with each successive downbeat, and made straight for me. She took me by the hands and led me into the center, where I tried to match her movements, fully aware I stood no chance of doing so with any grace whatsoever. But I couldn't have cared less; I threw my body this way and that, taking in the energy surrounding me and throwing it back one ridiculous dance move at a time.  For months and months, years it felt, I had known I would be moving to Africa, but now it was real. I had finally arrived.



Greetings everyone! I sincerely hope this email finds each and every one of you healthy and happy. And to those of you that may have been worried that I had fallen to disease, or been eaten by a lion, worry no more. I am alive and content, though I must admit I would kill for an American cheeseburger right about now.  The Gambia has many great things to offer, but good food is not among them!  But I digress. 

It has been a little over a month since I left the relative comfort of home. Thirty-five days to be precise; or a lifetime by any other standard. The reasons for this are many.  Shitting over a hole in the ground, bathing out of a bucket, reading by candle-light, eating dinner out a communal bowl with your hands, pulling your water out of the ground with a bucket and rope, or dancing all night at a circumcision festival could all be to blame, but it's more than that. Life here simply moves slower.  There are five major tribes here in the Gambia, each with their own language, yet all share one common phrase.  In Mandinka, my new language, it's "Domanding, domanding." Or, in English, "Slowly, slowly," which, to put it plainly, is a way of life here. Why rush when you could stop and chat and maybe brew some attaya (Chinese green tea brewed with ludicrous amounts of sugar)?  And while this can undoubtedly be frustrating at times, I have already come to greatly appreciate it. 

What I appreciate the most, however, are the people themselves. Despite the hardships they face, which are many, Gambians are exceptionally friendly people, among themselves and, especially, to us, the Tubabs (i.e. white people).  Whereas in the States you are lucky if a passing stranger gives to much as a "hello," greeting in The Gambia is of great importance, and unfolds life a well rehearsed dance time-in and time-out. People I've never met before will call out my name--Abdoulie, remember--and ask me where the home people are (sumoolu lee?), if I am at peace (kariya be?) and how work is going (dookuwo be naadi?), to which I dutifully reply that they are there (I be jee.), peace only (kayria dorong.), and that I am on it, slowly, slowly (a be kan, domanding, domanding). This dance will continue, into infitinity it seems, if you let it, and will start from the top come the next passerby. 

The stage for this drama is unlike anything you'll find back home.  While The Gambia has its urban centers (like the one I'm at right now), with its shops and restaurants, paved streets and taxi cabs, the majority of the country is rural and overwhelmingly poor.  In Madiana, a village of roughly 4,000 people, the houses are made from mud brick and perpetually appear on the verge of collapse.  There is no electricity or waste management, so, subsequently, trash is everywhere.  Water is either pumped out of the ground or drawn from an open well, and livestock, mainly goats, sheep, donkeys, chickens and cows, is allowed to roam free through the village.  But there is great beauty as well.  Fruit trees are found everywhere (currently oranges are fruiting, but the mangoes are well on their way) and large community gardens surround the village. Beyond that the bush opens up into wide flat plains, which are farmed during the rainy season, punctuated with towering trees, such as the stately mahogany or the utterly massive baobob, and thick undergrowth.  The River Gambia is never far, nor is the Seneglese boarder, and, for the moment, the weather is ideal. 

I live in a two-room "apartment" at the end of a row compound--a single building with several such apartments lined up next to each other.  Sixteen other people, none of whom can speak English, live with me, most of them children.  Children are, in fact, everywhere; roughly 45 percent of the population is under the age of 14.  A tap is located just outside the compound, a blessing to be sure, and two other trainees live across the (unnamed) street. Together the three of us tackle learning Mandinka, not to mention the myriad of cultural oddities we must adjust to.  The rest of my language training comes from spending time with my host family or wandering around the village talking to people, and, trust me, everyone wants to talk to you.  When we're not working on language, we bike to a "lodge" in a nearby village and do health, safety, and technical training with all the trainees (we are 29 strong). As an environment volunteer, the majority of my training focuses on gardening, tree identification and uses, and the possible projects that can be done at the village level.  Needless to say, I will come back much more resourceful and with a much greener thumb than when I left.  And while we are taught many things, once I am at my permanent site--a village named Si Kunda, near the town of Soma, about half way up the country--I can choose to pursue whatever projects I think I might work and really do whatever I please, which is both exciting and more than a bit intimidating.  I will be sworn-in as a full volunteer in just about one month, on March 11. 

So there you have it, a quick glance into my new life in Africa.  There is, of course, more to share, and so much more I have yet to even experience, but all that will have to wait till another time.  I would love to hear from all of you, so send me an email, or better yet, a letter if you get a chance; my address is below.  I will surely write you back, and I will try to send out more emails such as this one every month or so.

Life here in West Africa is more exciting than I can say, and I look at each new day as a new adventure, but know that my heart lies with all of you, my friends and family.  Keep me in your thoughts, and I will do my very best to make it back alive.  And when life gets you down, just remember to be grateful that you have a grocery store down the street, a hot shower to bath in, and a toilet to shit in!
Sincerely, and with love,