The Path Forward

Originally sent March 3, 2013

It has been nearly two years to the day since Sam the driver and his dusty Toyota Land Cruiser first delivered me to my mud-brick world, and as I sit now beneath my favorite mango tree, standing immortal in a wide flat field behind my compound, I am yet again reminded of the sweep of the seasons. It is March: the mango blossoms are all but gone, as are the battalions of shrubby yellow flowers, and my field is a dusty bone-grey. Here and there seams of wild grass shoot out across the field like rivers of gold, and everywhere you look there are small foot paths leading off in this direction and that. 

At first these trails seem happen chance, as if made by animals, but this is not the case. Every trail has a purpose: it connects two places (as trails are want to do), usually a compound and some public area, be that the well, the garden, the school, the road, or somewhere beyond the village. More noteworthy, however, is that fact that seemingly every two places are connected by a trail, or series thereof, allowing people to walk between them nearly as straight as the crow can fly.

But the seasonal see-saw from drought to flood and back dictates that the vast majority of these trails will disappear with the rains, and the people will be relegated to just a few muddy roads. That is until the sun pulls this corner of the world back under its oppressive rule, at which time the swamps recede, the immitigable tangle of flora dries up and burns, and the vast network of trails is renewed once more. So it was this year, so it has been through all history.

This annual process, all but invisible to the average observer, reminds me of the ingenuity of the human race. In a world devoid of cars and other modern connivances, people here continue to use their knowledge and their community to shape their world and get where they need to be. But this raises questions. What of the man that seeks his destination without knowing the way? Will he not get lost? And will that not ultimately cost him more time?

But of course it would. The real question is what is the harm in that? With a trail, as with life, the journey is just as important as the destination. Should you take a wrong turn, well that’s simply more for you to experience. A paved road may lead straight to the top of the mountain, but what then is the point in going there? If your direction is true, and the obstacles before you manageable, you will, with a little luck, reach your destination, and be the wiser for it.

So now here I stand in my field with two years behind me and innumerable paths before me. Where now do I go? As always, there is the highway and the plane ticket home, but this field and this village and all the experiences therein have taught me that my destination need not be synonymous with home. What I have found is that my desired destination is not a place at all, but rather the ability to do what I love. And I love nothing more than to tell stories.

Which leads me to the ultimate purpose of this letter. Given my destination, I have decided to delay my return home and instead extend my journey, first here in The Gambia, then to the southern regions of Africa in search of both adventure and the quiet solitude needed to write. But first! First there are stories yet untold here in The Gambia. Two months ago a good friend of mine, a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer named Remy Long, shared an idea for a project with me, and I knew right then that it was the project for me and that I needed to try to make it happen. And so I extended my service till mid-July to do so.

The project, titled Preserving The Oral Tradition of The Gambia, would seek out traditional storytellers, known locally as griots, in order to record, translate, and compile the folk tales of the Gambia. I view it as an opportunity to give a compelling narrative voice to these stories that have stood the ages, passed down orally from generation to generation, and to make them available both to the public and available for Peace Corps volunteers to share with their host families (the stories will be translated into all the local languages), thus propagating their cultural heritage while also building relationships and language skills. 

It is a modest project in scale and budget, but one that I would dearly love to see through to fruition. To do so, however, I need your help. The project is being funded through something known as a Peace Corps Partnership Grant, which relies on private donations. These donations, which can be made on the Peace Corps website, are one hundred percent tax deductable and guaranteed to make you feel good about yourself for at least a day! So, if you are at all interested, please follow the link below and read more about it, and should you be moved to donate, you have my full unfettered appreciation.