Friday, June 4, 2010

Cleaning up

There’s a special sort of feeling you get when you’re raking flaming bones and offal with a pitchfork, as the fetid stench of decay roils with the greasy smoke in a horrific miasma of choking death. It’s called civic pride.

In a noble effort to clean our streets, get people invested in their communities, and really irritate the hell out of everyone, the bureaucracy of the Gambia created a policy called Set Settal. One of the more bizarre pieces of legislation I’ve seen, it requires everyone in the country to take four hours on the last Saturday of every month and, as an act of national solidarity and purpose, clean. It’s like that rule you had with your roommate in college, except it’s enforced with Kalashnikovs instead of passive aggressive little notes.

No one actually cleans, of course. But since everyone’s supposed to be, businesses are closed and transportation slams to a halt. Which is a lot of fun, since every vehicle is stopped at nine in the morning, wherever it happens to be, and doesn’t move until one in the afternoon. If you’re wise, you avoid traveling that day. I’ve never claimed to be so, and have spent more days than I’d like to remember trapped in some town the size of a bowling alley, napping in the scorching shade along with thirty other absent-minded travelers.

So in general, not a fan. I’m marking that a one on the customer satisfaction card when I leave. But the other week I was invited to an actual Set Settal event, where people from the government and community gather with shovels and wheelbarrows to clean up the trash in the street and tidy the miniature landfills. Sounds exciting, huh? Well, after a while you take what vacations you can get.

It ended up being a pretty good time. No one really expected me to do anything except stand there and be white (which is the case a lot of the time. I’m like a mascot or a trophy wife), so it shocked them when I picked up a pitchfork and started to clean. The novelty wore off fairly quickly, though, and before long they were shouting me orders. A group of us would gather all the trash in an area into a pile, then a guy would come around and light it on fire. It was gratifying to watch.

At one point we got into the middle of the largest mini-landfill, the one where they dumped animal bones and mechanical parts. We were working our way inward, when the fire guy got a little overzealous and lit the trash before it was fully in a pile. The flames spread quickly, and soon the ground was burning across the entire alley. I backed off, but the guys with me just headed right in - if anything, they raked faster, so I took a deep breath and followed.

It was a tad disturbing. I saw cow skulls that had been soaked in feces then lit on fire. Discarded machine parts burned along with plastic bags and old clothes. The voices of the other shovelers echoed weirdly, and I could dimly see their struggling forms through the smoke. Everything burned wetly. The stench was like a thick liquid, forcing its way up your nostrils, soaking into your skin.

When I got home none of my host siblings or my dogs would come near me, and I emptied three buckets of water scrubbing my brief visit to Hell out of my skin. Still, it felt good: I’d cleaned something. You don’t get many unambiguous wins here, so you take what you can get.

Life has generally taken a turn toward the macabre and bizarre lately. Keen readers will remember I have two dogs, Brownie and Chulo. Chulo’s the one I raised from a puppy. He's my best friend here, the only constant I have. Brownie’s the one I unwillingly adopted, who manages to be both the village idiot and bicycle, whose puppies I took care of for two months. This was not a pleasant experience, for either the dog or myself, and neither of us was looking to repeat it. So we were both unhappy when she went into heat again.

We did our best. She hid in my house, and I locked her away every night. Chulo was included in the lock-down after he got into a vicious fight with one of the visitors Brownie’s pheromones attracted. When I pulled him off the other dog he was latched on its face, actually pulling the skin away from the bone. I was almost proud; he’d come a long way since the scared little puppy who got beat up every night. Somehow in the tumult I got bit, which led to a couple fun little rabies shots.

But after a few weeks Brownie’s belly started to extend, and we knew we’d failed. For the next month she was prone to wild mood swings and bizarre behavior, like sprinting in circles around the perimeter of my bath room or trying to bite her own ears. When she was calmer she stared off into the distance with a hunted look, and I’m sure she was remembering half a dozen hungry mouths shooting off the floor, like tentacles of a squid, latching on to her and pulling her to the ground. I remember that look from when she would flee in terror from her own children, dragging them along the ground until their suction maws detached.

I went to the capital for a meeting, leaving a key with my host family and a request to lock up both dogs at sundown each evening. When I got back and the children saw me, they all burst into tears.

“Brownie is bad! Brownie is bad!” they shrieked.

“What happened?” I said.

“She eat her daughters!”

At the house I found a thinner, happier Brownie grinning from ear to ear. Of the puppies there was no sign. Apparently when the time had come she’d retreated around the side of the house for some privacy. The family heard some grunting and squealing for a few hours, then Brownie came trotting back, licking her chops and looking pleased with herself.

My reaction probably wasn’t what they were expecting: “Great!”

Now, I’m not heartless, and I’m certainly opposed to post-natal abortion, with the possible exception of the Dallas Cowboys and anyone who says “awkward” when they mean “bad”. But I never met the little meals on wheels, and animals die every day here. Most dogs you see in village have been mistreated and neglected, generally leading pretty miserable lives. And I’m not going to lie, I wasn't going to miss cleaning up small lakes up urine each morning and positioning the heads of idiot puppies that can’t even suckle a teat properly. Brownie made the decision her instincts led her to, and I can’t really fault the poor girl for not wanting to go through that again so soon.

Still, for the next few days I kept my distance from the cannibal mama. Something in the way she smiled...

In village I’ve been trying to wrap up my projects. There’s a month left now, and the shadow of the real world is looming. I’d like to walk out of Africa thinking that something, anything, is different because I came.

The women’s business classes are still going, but they’re frustrating, both for my students and me, because no matter how much I teach them about supply and demand or proper budgeting, it won’t solve the essential problem they all face: there’s nowhere to sell their goods. There’s the local market, where dozens of women all sell essentially the same thing at absurdly low prices to a handful of customers with no money. Or they can trek to one of the weekly markets that are scattered around the region, paying absurd fares and letting a third of their inventory spoil during travel. Once they get there, odds are good that the market is already flooded with whatever they’re selling. If they don’t sell everything, unscrupulous Senegalese merchants will buy the leftovers, usually for a quarter of the asking price. Often the women will let their food rot rather than let themselves be cheated.

There’s an organization here called Gambia is Good that sells produce to restaurants and hotels in the capital. They run a few farms up-country, one of which is up the road past Kerewan. So we worked out a deal. They call me every week, tell me what they need that week, and the women have it ready each Sunday by the side of the road. GiG even paid better prices than you could get in the market. It worked incredibly well – my friends were able to sell the bulk of their crop without ever leaving their village or setting foot in a market stall. Most of them saw about a 15% increase in profits; not a lot in the grand scheme of things, but that little bit put them consistently in the black. It made things just a little bit easier.

It’s is a pattern I’ve found again and again when I work with small businesses here, from restaurants to mechanics to general stores. Nobody’s buying. Nobody has any money, so nobody can make any money. What they have they’re careful with, too careful to spend it on something new, something they haven’t been buying for years, which means that any innovative business folds almost immediately.

I was thrilled when a restaurant opened up in Kerewan. They were in a good location, a nice atmosphere, and they served chicken. Chicken! I can’t remember the last time I was so excited. Although Gambian food takes away your hunger, it never leaves you feeling full or satisfied, at least not for me. Those of you who saw me when I visited the States know how much weight I’ve lost. So this place was a godsend. And it wasn’t just chicken – he made pasta, salad, fish, omelets, it was like mana from heaven. I did everything I could to help him out, designing a menu, helping with the books, and eating there as often as I could.

But less than two months after the grand opening, the owner skipped town, a step ahead of a mob of angry creditors. He hadn’t had enough of a consistent customer base to make a profit. The entire concept of dining out is foreign to the village culture, and no one was willing to try something new. I remember once I wanted to thank my friend Yusupha for some help he’d given me, so I offered to buy him dinner. (Yusupha is the one who brought the severed ram head last Tabaskie, for folks following along at home.) He asked if I could just give him the money and he would eat at home instead. Bah.

Speaking of Yusupha, he’s also just started his own business. He’s selling small, low price solar-powered lights to villages without electricity. These are great little devices, simple and reliable. They were brought to the Gambia by an American couple who thought they could do a lot of good by offering locals a decent product that was affordable and useful. They wanted to set up distributors across the country, and asked me if I knew anyone with the energy and charisma to sell them. I immediately thought of Yusupha, who’s been my go-to guy for just about every community project I’ve done here.

We tried to get him a loan to buy a crate of the lights at wholesale, but the same microfinance company that refused to do business in Kerewan because it wasn’t an urban area refused to give him a loan because he was trying to start a new business.

“Business loans,” the branch manager told me earnestly, “are only intended for people who already have a business started. No one ever starts out with a loan.” He laughed jovially. “That would be ridiculous.”

But my friends agreed to give Yusupha a few lights on commission, with the idea that once he had sold a dozen or so he’d either have enough money to pay the wholesale price for a crate or enough credibility to get a loan. I’ve tagged along with him on a few sales calls, and it’s great to watch him work. He really understands how things work in small villages, knows who to talk to if he wants to shift the opinion of the whole community, when to push and when to let the idea build on its own. There are so few opportunities for talented individuals here, unless they have family connections.

And here’s the thing – Yusupha’s really helping. It’s hard for most Americans to really grasp just how much of a difference having electricity makes. The ability to see at night, without cumbersome flashlights or smoking candles, changes everything. Being able to work, study, or play in those hours effectively adds a third to your life. Yusupha’s not helping by giving grants or building lavish development projects. There’s no patronizing altruism – he’s just selling a product that people need, letting them buy a tangible improvement in their lives.

Again and again I’m finding that it’s only those tiny little changes that are worth a damn. Every Peace Corps Volunteer comes in thinking they’ll build a school, change a village, or save hundreds of babies, and they’re all disappointed when they find out that’s not gonna happen. I know I was. You might remember a long time back I was trying to build a massive car park / shopping center for Kerewan, with restaurants, bathrooms and artisans stalls. I wanted the glory of pointing to some huge edifice and saying “I did that.” It’s embarrassing to read over those entries now.

You see the same mentality in aid agencies the world over. Everybody’s gotta build a hospital or a farm. Drive down any main road in the Gambia and within fifty miles you’ll see ten signs proclaiming that this is the site of an irrigation garden, or a skill center, or a mango dehydrator, donated in the name of peace to the benighted peoples of Africa. Next to the sign is usually an abandoned building or an empty field.

You want to know the best work I’ve done here? Spillways - little ditches next to roads and footpaths. They rarely take more than a week to dig, and cost less than four dollars a meter, but they can save a village. During the rainy season floods are common, and roads can be washed away in a single night. Villages get cut off from the world, making it impossible to get access to food or healthcare.

More often, though, they’re cut off from their fields. Farmers have to slog miles through the mud to do any work. Carts can't get through, which means that everything has to be carried by hand. Animals brought in to plow get stuck or snap their legs. Agriculture in the Gambia is barely at a subsistence level as it is; all it takes it one bad rain and an entire village goes hungry. Spillways are cheap, they’re easy, and they keep the roads intact. I’ve planned dozens of them, sneaking them into budgets whenever I can’t get the funds. None of them have signs telling everyone how cool I am, but I guess I’ll just have to live with that.

In other good news, my drama club finally put a show together. We’d done little ones for the school before, but this was an honest-to-God production, with tickets and a real audience and everything. Very fancy. The whole thing raised my blood pressure enormously, though. Although I like to think I’ve adapted fairly well to the Gambian conception of time, when the actors didn’t show up until an hour after the show was supposed to start and the audience didn’t show up for until midnight, I started seeing red.

But someone knew someone who had a speaker system, and someone else had an uncle who was
a DJ. We blasted reggae across the village and soon the place was packed with villagers, chatting and dancing, most of whom didn’t have the slightest idea that they were attending a play. Still, once we stopped the music and my kids started the scenes, they all shut up and paid attention. They even seemed to have a good time.

I think it helped that I’d finally convinced the drama club that although plays where everyone dies of AIDS are super fun, maybe we should try a little comedy. We had a play where two old men are trying to steal a cow, but the cow doesn’t want to move, so they keep slipping and falling in the mud. There was one where a girl got a magic ju-ju to get revenge on her tormentors. Every time she touched it whoever she looked at went crazy, flailing around and barking or laughing hysterically. This one was great, because it really gave them a chance to cut loose and do whatever came into their head, giving it all the energy they had.

My personal favorite, though, was this weird little scene that only lasted about a minute. I’ve never seen anything that so perfectly captured the human condition. Or at least the male condition. It went like this (translated from Mandinka):

Man 1 (enters): “Look! A bowl of food. I will eat it. Ow ow ow! The spoon is too hot, I burned my mouth!”
Man 2 (enters): “Why are you crying?”
Man 1: “Um… I’m crying for all the poor children in the world that do not have any food. Here, eat.”
Man 2: “Ok. Ow ow ow!”
Man 1: “Why are you crying?”
Man 2: “I’m crying for all the poor children in the world who do not have any food.”
Man 1: “Liar! You’re crying because the spoon is hot!”

I got my own chance to perform again, since we had another open-mike night. I wrote this when I was thinking about the good folks from Washington that might be perusing this blog, and what kind of job that would be. I want to emphasize, in case one of them does read this, that it is meant with love.

Ode to a Peace Corps Blog Monitor

It’s not too gentle and it’s not too quick
As you click click through our tricky secrets.
Our fabulous lies, our dramatic inversions,
Our vaingasp speakings, our spotlight seekings.
In our little words you hunt for our little subversions.

Hunt, then, blog monitor.
Hunt out the blood in our tall dry tales.
Hunt down the breath of a thought of a truth.
Slaughter our stillborn musings, gasping mutely.
Sever what neck we dare to stick out.
Bleed our bad blogs of a hintbit of meaning.

In a ninetofive and a ninetofive,
Infirm days of cubicle withering,
The torture of carpet dust and clean lines.
You blink to the beat of minutes dying,
Stories tattooed on the gleam of your eye.

O! You bane of blogs!
You purifier of posts!
You last best defense against dangerous information.
You grim voyeur of auto-electric masturbation.

My blog monitor.
My glob vomiter.
My lobe limiter.
My friend,

When you sip your stale coffee does your mind taste attaya?
Does the flickerdeath office light burn like a Basse sun?
Where does your underbrain go when your overlife pauses?
Squat with me on my little shit hole while porcelain spreads your cheeks.
Wake with me to prayer calls.
Walk with me through dark places.
Shed my worn-out tears for me,
I don’t mind – I’ve got life enough here to spare.

It’s not too gentle and it’s not too quick,
As we glitter flit our world-saving bit
Past your steady march, your daily dollar.
You turn the gears of the land of the free,
Dreaming of spices you’ll never taste
And worlds you’ll never see.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Points of light

In January I finally got to go hunting, something I’ve been wanting to do for over a year now. I went out in bush one night with a friend of mine, a teacher named Saho, and a few other volunteers. We never shot anything, or even saw anything worth shooting, but it was a beautiful evening, without much of a moon, so the stars were burning. It’s funny, I keep realizing something over and over, and every time I do it’s fresh: Africa is scary at night. I suppose that seems obvious, but it’s really, really true. There’s something about the darkness here that’s thicker, more alive. It seems to bunch behind you in twisted knots, move in the corner of your eyes. All the white people spent a lot of time spinning around, sure there was something behind us. Saho found this hilarious.

At one point we saw a light off in the distance, maybe a hundred yards away. It was just a pinpoint, and I figured it was another hunter and started to wave with my headlamp. Saho clamped a hand on my arm. I protested, and he shushed me violently. “It’s a witch light,” he said.

I’d heard about these. Little lights that appear in the bush, with no cause or explanation. No one knows what they are, mostly because people who see them up close tend to die. I had been wanting to go out some night and try to track them down, but none of my friends wanted to take me. The light flicked out, but immediately flicked back, some fifty feet from where it had been. It’s possible it was two lights, but if so they were perfectly synchronized.

Now, I hope that any regular readers of this blog will know by now that I’m not easily frightened, nor do I shy away from unusual experiences. But something about that light bothered me. Maybe it was because I couldn’t tell what color it was – it seemed orange, at first, then white, then sort of green. Maybe it was the way that looking at it made me feel like I couldn’t quite get enough air, like my chest wasn’t big enough for my heart and my lungs. As a group we opted for the better part of valor and decided to leave this mystery unsolved.

I managed another first this month, attending a wrestling match. This, too, was something I’d wanted to do since coming to this country, but any time they had one in an area near me I had always been busy. Finally they had one in my village, on a night when I was in town, and I got my game face on.

This thing was epic. Hundreds of villagers gathered in a football field on the edge of town. Light was provided in dim islands by a few scattered bulbs that hung from logs shoved into the sand. The power station had been having some problems lately, so the lights flickered drunkenly – they would switch suddenly off, slowly light again, then off a few seconds later. In and around these indecisive patches of illumination, dark bodies twisted and grappled. The multitude of feet kicked up so much dust that the whole field was covered in a haze, and as the men fought in this African fog they appeared and disappeared from view like dreams.

West African wrestling isn’t like what you see on American TV, or in American gymnasiums. There was no artifice, no bullshit name calling or expostulating. No one used any complicated holds or strategies. They wrestled standing up, face to face, and the winner often ended up picking the loser entirely off the ground and throwing him through the air.

It’s worth mentioning that this was also the night I discovered that palm wine isn’t always terrible. I’d had it once before, after being warned by more seasoned travelers, and found it to be the most vile substance I had ever consumed – and I survived on public school lunches for years. It wasn’t harsh like strong liquor; it just had this sickly, nauseous quality that made my entire body rebel and my throat spasm. But a friend from village had some that he said was better (bad, bad Muslim), so I figured what the hell. It was drinkable. Not good, not by a long shot, but drinkable. Also very, very alcoholic.

Now, for the benefit of the good folks in Washington, I want to emphasize that I did not get drunk. However, it is possible that the alcohol had something to do with my agreeing, after a lot of prodding by my Gambian friends, to participate in the contest.

There was a lot of good-natured joshing and elbow nudging as I made my way out into the wrestling area. Quite a few catcalls in Mandinka that I don’t think I was supposed to understand. My opponent was a big guy, with solid muscle sheathed beneath a decent layer of fat, which isn’t a common build in West Africa. If men are muscled here they’re usually slender and ripped. He was wearing a purple diaper, which I thought was a little weird, but far from the weirdest thing about the evening. He didn’t seem to like me, and I’m sure the palm wine on my breath didn’t endear me much.

We stepped close together. He grabbed my pants. I grabbed his diaper. Then I was in the air. Then I wasn’t.

I lay on the ground for a few seconds, trying to resolve the gyrating shapes and the cheering, laughing crowd into a coherent image. The damn flickering lights really didn’t help. My friends ran over to me, asked if I was all right. Their concern was belied a little by the fact they were all trying hard not to laugh. I said I was fine, and they said, good, then you can do the second match. I said, what?

It was the same guy. Now, instead of a contemptuous sneer, he had an amused and contemptuous sneer. Well, hell with this guy. I stepped forward, wrapped my fingers around his diaper, and as soon as I felt his hands on my waist I shoved forward, as hard and as fast as I could. The momentum knocked the chubby bastard on his ass, and me on top of him, right when the lights went out. I felt him struggle and curse at me, and I hopped up, victorious.

Oh, man, he was pissed. Everyone else thought it was hilarious. We circled and were going to come together for a final match, but the lights went out for good. It’s just as well, since that trick would only have worked once and he probably would have killed me.

It’s funny. Nothing I’ve done, none of the development projects, classes, or social functions have won me anywhere near the acclaim that five minutes in the wrestling ring got me. Kids run up to me in the street now and adopt the stance. People I’ve never met shout “champion,” which is funny, since I never won. I think everyone knows that I had no business out there, and that I have no actual wrestling ability. They just like it when they things they care about are taken seriously.

I also got myself all cut up this month. Several of the local tribes do ritual scarring, usually on the face, to signify passage into adulthood. They cut two or three parallel lines, then rub the ash of peanut shells into the wound to make the scar darker. It’s become a tradition with Peace Corps volunteers in the Gambia to get their own scars – though not on the face; that might be a handicap at job interviews or dates. I’ve never had a tattoo or piercing, mostly because it seemed a little silly to intentionally damage your body when so many things in the world seem willing to do it for you. But this seemed different. Something that would be a mark of my time here, a symbol of the changes I’ve been through, the incredible things I’ve seen and done in Africa. Plus chicks dig scars.

So another volunteer and I visited a little old lady who was well known in the area for her scarring abilities. I wonder how you get to be good at that kind of thing. Did she practice a lot? Was there a training program? Maybe she gave away free scars while she was a student, like a hair stylist. We brought our own razors, as well as medical gloves, hand sanitizer and gauze. We were dumb, but we weren’t stupid. We drew with pen where we wanted the scars to be, gritted our teeth, and she set to work.

My friend wanted hers on the sides of her wrists, which I thought was a little odd, especially since she wants to be a school teacher when she gets back. She bore the experience with manly stoicism. I wasn’t quite so tough.

I had two spots where I wanted scars: the back of my neck and my ribs; I guess I’m a glutton for punishment. The ones on my neck weren’t too bad, really, I was surprised when she was done. The ones on the ribs, though… there’s not a lot between skin and bone around the ribs, especially when you’re an emaciated Peace Corps volunteer, really just a lot of nerve endings. It was excruciating, and slow, and the lines were long, and it was in all not a happy ten minutes for me. The old lady maintained a professional demeanor, but every time I gave a muffled whimper I saw a little gleam in her eye, and thought I knew why she’d chosen this particular profession. When she was finally done, and my side was on fire, she grabbed a big pinch of peanut ash and rubbed it hard into the cuts, twisting and pulling at the skin. I swear the witch was humming.

We bandaged ourselves up, pained but proud, glad it was over. She handed us a bag of ash, and said that every day, for the next three days, we had to open the wounds back up and rub more ash inside. This woman was the devil.

It was all character building, I suppose. So now I have the distinct pride of looking like a bored child doodled on me with a pen.

I told this story to an American friend of mine, who’d had a gigantic red dragon tattooed across her entire right side. I described the level of pain, and she looked thoughtful and said, “Yeah, that sounds about right.” I asked how long it took, and she said, “About five hours.” So I guess there’s always someone more badass.

I got my revenge on old African women, though. I showed them but good. Remember that business class I’m teaching for local women? No? Tsk tsk. There’s gonna be a quiz at the end of all this, you know.

Well, as a recap for the slackers, I’m teaching a class to a dozen women in Kerewan who sell vegetables and other goods. We’ve been learning the basics, like supply and demand, the idea of competition, scarcity vs abundance, and so on. The thing we’ve been hitting the hardest has been basic bookkeeping – tracking income and expenditures, calculating profits.

These women have a strange relationship to math. They can calculate change in their heads faster than I can do it on a calculator, even for triple digits. But put those numbers on a blackboard and their minds switch off. They have this idea of written mathematics as this arcane discipline, far beyond the reach of simple minds such as their own. So we’ve been working on that, and most of them can handle basic arithmetic with small numbers. But their businesses don’t operate just in small numbers. They need to calculate expenses for entire crops, as well as seasonal profits, which are big, scary numbers.

So I taught them how to use their cell phone calculators. First I drew a big calculator interface on the board, complete with the phone keypad. I gave them simple math problems, and the women would come up one at a time, press the imaginary buttons, and I would write whatever the screen should display.

In order to really picture this scene I need to paint you a picture of a typical village woman when she’s dressed up. She’s wearing a beautifully cut dress, made of a shimmering, incandescent cloth. It’s always a striking color – neon green, or yellow, or crimson – and it’s usually covered in sequins. Her head is wrapped in a similar cloth, tied in an intricate knot known as a tika. Finally, when it’s hot she drapes a diaphanous cloth over her head and shoulders. It’s incredibly beautiful, and it’s amazing to see, in these villages of dirt and stone and rough metal, these floating visions of color like flowers in a muddy river.

The first woman to muster up the courage to try my fake cell phone was in her sixties, wrinkled and bent, but still dressed to the nines. She was in the toubab’s class, after all, and she had to look her best. She inched forward, staring at the chalkboard distrustfully, then extended a bony finger and stabbed a button.

“Beep,” she said.

“What did you say?” I asked.

“Beep,” she said, and she stabbed the button again. “Mobiles say beep when you push them.”

And for the rest of the lesson, each woman would beep merrily as she dialed the chalkboard.

I just have to take a second to talk a little more about these women. They are absolutely incredible. They wake up before dawn every morning. They feed the children, work the garden, wash clothes, pound rice, and cook dinner in tiny, smoke-filled rooms that about as closely approximate Hell as any four-by-three space can. They work in the rice fields, travel long distances to market to sell their goods, and chop the wood. While the boys and men rest in the shade for eight hours at a stretch, the women do everything that’s needed to keep the massive households together and running, and they do it without complaining, without even being aware that they’re being taken advantage of.

And then they take the time to dress up in their best outfits, outfits they had to work their fingers to the bone to earn the money for, and come to my little business class. The truth that both they and I know is that I need them far more than they need me. There’s nothing I can really teach them about life.

Just a quick caveat - this isn't the standard bleeding heart bullshit about how hard life is for rural women in developing countries. I don't feel bad for these women, and I don't want to lift them out their drudge and misery. They live more and better than just about anyone I've ever met. All I'm trying to do is help them get something close to a fair return on the insane amount of work they do.

Someone complained that I don’t give a complete picture of my work here, that I just dole out funny little anecdotes that I think will make me look good. So here’s a quick rundown on the things I’m working on.

The Council’s strategy plan is still going, although very slowly. I made the mistake of including mostly concrete suggestions that can immediately be acted on, rather than vague policy shifts that will have no real effect, and that disturbed people. So I’m working on blunting it, while retaining some level of effectiveness.

I put got a web page for the Council together, with descriptions of its projects and the major problems facing the region. Finding someone to host it in the Gambia for a reasonable price turned out to be quixotic, so I’m looking elsewhere. Suggestions would be welcome.

The regional strategy plan (which is a bad name, since it’s neither a strategy nor a plan – it’s the thing where we did the play where I got stabbed by a big stick) is going decently well. We did another skit, although we did it two months after we were scheduled to, this time about the importance of planting trees. It was a nice little skit, a lot like the Giving Tree – a farmer takes from a tree to make medicine, food, a fire, etc., until there’s nothing left but a stump.

We used children from the audience to make the tree, and I, as the farmer, chopped one of them down every time I needed something. Now at this point my old theater buddies are shaking their heads at my stupidity. I broke one of the cardinal rules: never work with animals or children. They can’t be controlled. I, in my white man’s hubris, assumed that they would be so in awe of us that they’d do whatever we asked. Turns out they were so in awe of us that they ran away in the middle of the performance. I guess being chopped down and eaten was a little unsettling.

I’m still helping out with development projects for the Council, mostly by following my counterpart, Keita, around and trying not to get in his way. We recently visited a mosque that had been started a few years ago and then abandoned from lack of funds – which is very, very common here. You see a lot of buildings that look like they’ve been bombed, but actually were just never finished. We were called in to assess how much it would cost to finish it. It was a sad little half-building, with no roof, no floor, and crumbling walls.

The alkalo (village leader) showed up and started explaining why it was the imam’s fault that the mosque was never finished. The imam showed up and started yelling at the alkalo. Some of the elders showed up and started yelling at everyone. People were ripping chunks out of the mortar with their bare hands to demonstrate the quality of construction. My man Keita just waited, calmly, like a rock in turbulent waters, until there was a break while everyone took a breath. Then he began listing the improvements that were necessary, and exactly how much they would cost, and who they should call to do the work, and how they could mobilize the labor, all in a perfectly calm, professional voice. After a few minutes everyone was nodding seriously and agreeing to commit resources. This man is a genius. He has a way of cutting through the bullshit, dealing with hard reality in a way that makes problems seem solvable, and everything else unimportant.

My drama club, alas, is not doing so well. Last year most of the talented and dedicated members graduated, and the people I’m left with aren’t so much bad as lazy. Only about a third of the rehearsals I go to actually happen. The rest of the time there’s always some excuse. And even when we do manage to get them all together, they’re watching the clock the whole time, waiting to be done. It’s discouraging, but I can’t teach people who don’t want to be taught. I can’t force them to care. So I’m picking out the best, the ones who actually seem to give a damn, and having private rehearsals outside of school. We’ll see if that goes anywhere.

I recently got to be loan collector, which was a lot more fun than it sounds. It was actually one of the best days I’ve had in this country. Microfinance organizations issue small loans to village businesses. The rates they charge are usurious by Western standards – as high as 30% - but since the original loans are so small, interest payments don’t come to much. There’s an organization called Reliance that offers microloans in a nearby city, so I shadowed one of their loan collectors for a day to learn more about it.

The first thing I noticed was that everyone loved us – well, him, I suppose. He was the market’s golden boy. People gave us free food, called out boisterous greetings, and generally couldn’t be happier to see us. Little old ladies ran up with their hundred-dalasi bills clutched in their hands, then watched proudly as we entered the payment into their account books. There was one guy who three months earlier had taken out a loan for three thousand dalasi – about a hundred and twenty bucks. The loan was for six months. He’d bought some supplies, started a business that took off, and that day he repaid the entire loan, straight out, then immediately took out a five thousand dalasi loan. The money here is printed in a variety of colors, and the big fistful of torn, stained bills that he held out to us looked like a rainbow.

Every project I’ve worked on, just about every development project I’ve heard of, tells a story. In that story, the main character is me, or someone like me, doing noble works and saving the day with daring do. The people being helped are side characters, movable set pieces of misery and need. But in that alley, in the sun, holding out his pride in a rainbow fist, that man was the main character. I was just, I don’t know, comic relief. And that felt right.

So I tried to bring the whole thing to my village, Kerewan. I talked to Reliance about extending savings and loan services to business people in my community, and they said it could work, if I got enough people and organized the payment structure. The problem would be payments. Reliance usually sends out loan collectors every day, which makes it easy to spot and deal with defaulters. Kerewan was over thirty kilometers away from their nearest office. So one of the conditions of the deal would be that someone in Kerewan would be responsible for collecting the payments and getting the money to the company. I said we could work something out.

For the next week I canvassed the community, talking to shop owners, carpenters, vegetable sellers, anyone who offered any kind of good or service for money. Over two hundred people, and most of them were interested. Many said that they’d tried to secure a loan, but the banks had turned them down. I even got them to agree to the payment structure, and appoint two representatives to be the loan collectors. We set up a meeting with an administrator from Reliance. The guy showed up five hours late, during which time most of Kerewan’s business owners came, sat around for a while, and left angry. Finally the representative arrived, so I went back into the town, re-gathered all the annoyed and busy villagers, and we had a meeting. It went well – the locals asked intelligent questions about payment rates and services, and the Reliance representative, while lacking in people skills, seemed to have the answers.

We scheduled another meeting for two weeks later, at which point people would actually sign up for accounts. The timing was crucial, as the shortest loan was for four months and it was exactly four months until the rainy season started and money became tight. Two days before the meeting I called to make sure everything was on schedule. The administrator said, “Oh, yeah, sorry. Upper management decided not to work in Kerewan. It’s not worth the risk.”

The worst part is that my people didn't seem very surprised when I told them. They were used to being ignored and taken for granted, and they expected people not to take them seriously. I was just one more outsider who promised a lot and didn't follow through.

So yay. Instead of ending with that depressing story, I’ll tell you about a game my friends and I invented. It’s called XP, or Experience Points. No, not like in a nerd game. You earn XP any time you have an experience. It can be good or bad, important or trivial, silly or serious. It just needs to be unusual, or interesting. It needs to let you know that this is real, that you are alive. Just about everything I’ve written in this blog is a time I or someone else earned XP.

You earn it when you climb a mountain, and when you get into a car accident. You earn it when you meet someone you haven’t seen in years and you have a great conversation, or when you get into a fight at a bar. You earn it going to your child’s birthday party, or when a relative dies. Any time you’re tested, any time you sacrifice. You get bonus points if you participate, instead of just observe, and you get bonus points the weirder or more powerful the experience is. It’s a great game because it keeps you aware that you are here, now, and you are alive. So the next time something terrible, or wonderful, or weird, or scary happens, be happy that you earned XP, that you’re earning the life you’ve got. The object is simple: get as much as you can until you die.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Role models

The general philosophy in Peace Corps is that the first year is really just a warm-up. You learn the language and you make some connections; you run the gauntlet of pit latrines, cockroaches and bush taxis, watch project after project crash and burn, and slowly learn how things get done. Volunteers aren’t really expected to accomplish much their first year, which is nice, because they rarely do. It’s the second year when things really get moving. You’ve found your stride, made your connections, and you finally start to have a real impact, which is an unfamiliar and disorienting feeling.

For me, things have been steadily improving since I passed the one-year mark, and when I got back from America everything clicked. It’s hard to pinpoint the difference. It’s not that my job is any easier – if anything, it’s harder; my week isn’t complete unless I’ve had a screaming fight with a Gambian. All the old obstacles are there: the apathy, the lies, the pervading atmosphere of fatalism and failure. But when I smash my head against one of these walls, instead of lying down and crying, I keep smashing until the wall breaks (or I get a concussion).

I’ve been learning a lot from my friends. There are a few exceptional individuals here, people who have a spark in them, something strong and hungry. They jump on every opportunity, learn everything they can, usually have multiple jobs and do well at all of them. Those people exist in America, too, but they’re harder to pick out of the crowd. Here, they shine out – just look for the guy who’s a teacher, owns a hardware store, works at the radio and is automatically invited to every village development meeting. Or the woman who cooks and cleans for a family of thirty, sews her own clothes, owns a small business selling beans or ice and runs the local women’s group. These people have something in them that just won’t let them give up or ever be satisfied with where they are. They tend to be fantastically successful, not least because there isn’t much competition.

My closest counterpart is one of those. A guy named Alasan Keita, the Physical Planning and Development Officer at the council, which means that he does all the work worth doing there. He dropped out of the school at fifteen when he realized he knew more than his teachers, travelled around Africa for years, learned farming, carpentry, and architecture, married a woman from Mali, then came back to the Gambia and built them a house. With the skills he taught himself he planted a mango orchard and a massive vegetable farm, built several beehives, started a poultry breeding project combining local chickens with Moroccan imports, kept a herd of goats, and headed up dozens of development projects for the local area council. Keita and I have a simple relationship: I teach him how to write effectively and use a computer, and he teaches me how to be awesome. I think I’m getting the better part of that deal.

The big project I’m working on right now, with heavy input from Keita, is a ten-year strategy plan for the council. I’ve never had lot of respect for things like this, honestly. In most organizations I’ve worked for you keep extra copies of the strategy plan around in case you run out of toilet paper. When the head of the council asked me to write one up I assumed it was a makework assignment that would take me a day or two at most. But Keita pointed out that this was an incredible opportunity. No other area council in the country has a strategy plan; this would be read by every NGO, government official, village development council, embassy, and dog catcher that ever worked or will ever work with the council. It’ll provide the one thing this organization, and every development organization that’s ever existed, desperately needs: accountability. If the big talking heads at the council and the upper levels of government sign off on the plan, then the council will be bound to actually do some of the things it says they will.

So we’ve spent the last couple months interviewing every staff member, from senior councilors to secretaries. I’ve poured over budgets and expense reports for the last ten years, which was fun. None of their files are electronic, protected from the elements or even organized very well, so my afternoons have been spent in a cramped, stifling file room, chest deep in ancient, moldy papers, trying to figure out how the hell this organization has been spending its money for the last decade. The good folks in Washington don’t like it when I talk too frankly about how things work here, so I’ll just say that the results were interesting.

I also found that the council is nowhere near fulfilling its potential, or even its obligations according to the original act that created it, and with Keita's help I laid out a step-by-step ten year plan for how it could do so. Mission statements, internal analyses, budgets, timelines. It revises the way expenses are reported, projects are taken on and completed, and staff are hired. Keita and I have been writing it piecemeal over the last few months, and yesterday we put it all together and printed it out. It's a little intimidating. A printed copy is sitting on the desk next to me, and I swear it growled at me a minute ago. If the council follows even a quarter of the strategies it outlines, it’ll have serious, long-term effects, not just for the council but for the region it serves.

Now comes the fun part: the politicking, the negotiations, the arguing. The strategy plan calls for sacrifices from everyone involved – staff, councilors, contractors, village councils – everyone but me, actually, since I won’t be here, which is causing a little resentment. To get it approved is going to take a lot of dealing and concessions and coercion, which I’m sure will be fun for everyone involved. The nice thing is that I’ve build up enough momentum and gotten enough people excited that anyone who tries to block it risks getting labeled as a dissenter, which is just about the worst thing you can be in Gambian culture. So knock on wood for me, and hope this thing gets approved. And that once it is people won’t just dump it in a filing cabinet and never think about it again.

As least one part of the whole thing will be tested soon. The council's tax collection system has been a mess for years, bringing in about a third of what it should. Some of the missing funds stay in the pockets of people big and influential enough not to pay, some magically disappear on the way to the bank, and some just never get collected because of sloppy records. I've been working with the Director of Finance to completely overhaul the tax record system, with detailed schedule for hitting the entire region, redundant safeguards at every step of the collection process, a fully transparent record and filing system that will account for every damn Dalasi at every step, along with accountability checks so that no one has the opportunity to accidentally slip some cash in their pockets. It's going into effect as I write this, and within the next month we'll see how it goes. By a conservative estimate it should increase the year's revenue by at least 50%. I never thought I'd be so excited by taxes.

Anyway. Enough shop talk. I know that none of you read this thing to hear about the work I'm doing, toiling away to fight the good fight. You want zany stories and wacky misadventures.

Well, you’ll be happy to hear that I sank the kayak again. I had help this time, which made it more fun. For a long time it’s been bugging me that the kayak is a one-seater, and although I can use it to explore the hidden waterways and secret jungles of West Africa, it's a shame that I can only see all that beauty alone. So I made a raft. It is possibly the most brilliant thing I’ve ever done. As I was rooting around an old storage room at the council, trying to find some missing files, I came across four ancient life vests sitting in a cabinet, collecting dirt and rat poop. I cleaned them off, then tied them together in a line, ending up with something roughly the length and width of a person. My vision was a sort of floating couch, like some people have in their pools. I called it the Life Lounger. The finished product was one of the ugliest things I’d ever seen, but it worked, after a fashion. It kept the rider afloat, but not entirely above water, and it had a tendency to buckle right under the waist, leaving one wet but alive. I needed something easily portable to tie it to the kayak with, so I used a busted extension cord that rolled up onto a spindle.

Oddly enough, few of my friends had the courage to try it out, and my genius sat unused and unappreciated for a month. Finally, after a good amount of begging, a girl named Tara agreed to be the guinea pig for my ground-breaking experiment. She clumsily mounted the Life Lounger, balancing with difficulty and soaking herself immediately, I got in the kayak, and off we went. Tara had the presence of mind to ask if we shouldn’t leave our cells phones on shore, but I assured her it would be fine. Ha. Things went fantastically well for about five minutes, just long enough to get a ways downstream. Then the extension cord, a cheap Chinese knock-off that apparently hadn’t been built for its load bearing capacity, snapped.

Reflecting on this later, Tara and I agreed that the stupid part was not trying to head back immediately. Instead I just pulled alongside her and we floated for a while, eating watermelon and enjoying the sunshine. A car full of white tourists stopped on the bridge and stared at us for a while. I’m sure up to that point they had been very impressed with themselves, roughing it through the wildness of Africa, and I like to think that the sight of Tara and I lounging in the river, eating watermelon and sunbathing, ruined that a little. I’m a giver.

But karma, as ever, was not my friend, and the current was a hell of a lot stronger than I’d estimated, so as we were congratulating ourselves on how badass we were we got swept out of sight of the dock. At that point we gave serious thought to how the hell we were going to get back. We tried a number of options. She clung to the back of the kayak, which was of course devoid of handholds, while I struggled in vain to paddle against the current. Every stroke threw a small wave into her face. When Tara fell off for the fifth time she tried holding on to the front. The image of her face beaming at me above the water, arms and legs wrapped around the point of the boat like a demented, backwards figurehead is one of the images from Peace Corps I’ll hold onto forever. Finally she tried to clamber up the back of the kayak and sit behind me. As she was struggling up the inside slowly filled with water, and the boat sank.

It’s funny, at no point in any of this was I worried. Partly because between the two of us we had five lifejackets. But also because the entire thing was so ridiculous, it couldn’t possibly have any negative consequences. We were close to the edge of the river, so we swam-shoved the kayak up to the mangrove trees and wedged it between the branches. There was no bank, only trees, but with great difficulty Tara and I tipped the boat on one side and emptied it enough that it would float. I climbed through the branches above the long-suffering, beleaguered craft and plopped down into the cockpit. She couldn’t row the kayak on her own, so she had to slog through the mud and mangrove fields a few hundred yards to the road. I got mine, though, since the tide was so low that the water was below the pier, and I had to wade through mud up to my chin, finally using a fishing net to haul myself hand over hand to shore.

It’s impressive how one stupid act can build on another, until disaster doesn’t so much strike as inevitable arrive. The kayak was fine, as were both of us, and the only casualties were our cell phones and our dignities. For those of you keeping score at home, the tally is:

Phones destroyed in the river: 5

Times sunk the kayak: 2

Self-respect left: 0

The funny thing is, I felt great afterward. I was walking on clouds all day, even covered in scratches and caked with mud. I'm not sure what it is here, but so much of the time I feel muted, sedated. It's hard to muster up enthusiasm for much of anything, even things I know I'm excited by. Most of the conversations I have, with Gambians or toubabs, are essentially recycled copies of old dialogues. Other volunteers here feel the same way. I think a lot of it is the diet, the fact that we just don't have the physical energy to throw ourselves into something. Another factor is that this country doesn't often reward short-term enthusiasm; the harder you strive or argue for something, the less likely you are to get it, whether it's a project you're working on, a disagreement with a local, or even bargaining in the market. The laid-back approach always works best. That's not something I'm particularly good at, I partly blame the cognitive dissonance for my general lassitude. Hell, maybe I'm just lazy. But having a real adventure, needing to struggle to save life and property, even if it was all caused by my own lack of common sense, was a nice wake-up.

A week later the streets ran with blood, which helped.

It was Tobaskie again. Some of you might remember this from a year ago: it's the biggest Muslim holiday of the year, commemorating the day when Abraham was willing to kill his son Isaac. God had mercy and turned him aside at the last minute, so Abraham killed a ram instead. I like the directness of Muslim celebration. In Christianity they celebrate their leader's birth with decorated trees and blinking lights; they celebrate his death with bunnies and candy. For Muslims, a dude killed a ram, so they kill themselves a ram. Rams, plural, actually. Like, a lot. Each compound that can afford it slaughter one, but I saw some families do in six or seven. My god, the gore I saw that day. No horror movie can compare. The phrase "rivers of blood" is one that shouldn't ever be used literally. I saw more severed limbs than a tree trimmer.

At one point a Gambian friend of mine stopped by my place for a while. We sat in my living room, playing a board game, for about ten minutes before I noticed a strange smell.

"What the hell is that?" I said.

He said, "It's from my bag."

"Oh, you've got some ram meat?"

"Sort of," he said. He wouldn't look me in the eye.

"Sort of?"

"It's the head."

"What?" I looked inside the bag, and sure enough, glaring back at me was a severed ram's head, its tongue stuck out like an insolent child. Blood was leaking through the bag and onto my floor.

"I will boil it," he said cheerfully. "Do you want some?"

I said, "I'm good." We finished the game (he destroyed me) and then he took his head and left.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

24 Hours in Dakar

Not a whole lot to tell this month, because I spent most of it traveling – to America, in fact, and most of the lovely people reading this blog saw me there. It was a great trip. I saw a lot of people that I hadn’t seen in a while (exactly fourteen months, in fact), and it was great to reconnect. Shockingly enough, my job is occasionally lonely, and with the miserable cell phone networks here communication has been spotty, so I’ve felt a little cut off at times. Seeing my friends and family again, even for such a short time, helped me feel grounded again.

Getting there, however, turned out to be tricky. The cheapest flight I could find to the States left out of Dakar, the capital of Senegal. I’ve been there before, and there weren’t any problems, so I was anticipating smooth sailing. My flight was at one-thirty in the morning, a target I thought even I, with Fate’s big bullseye on my back, could hit comfortably.

Before I even left the Gambia the ferry broke down, and we had to wait for the emergency back-up ferry (and you can imagine what a proud and noble vessel this was) to get started up and take us across. The ferry normally takes an hour to cross the mouth of the Gambia river; this time it took five. This same trip I heard from someone that the French had offered to build a bridge there, but Gambia turned them down. They wanted their independence.

Then no-one wanted to go to Senegal. Then everyone wanted to go to Senegal, and all the cars left without me. Then the border official felt the need to cause trouble. Normally these guys see that I’m Peace Corps and basically wave me through, but this particular GI Joe had a problem with the fact that I’d been issued a two year visa, when the maximum was supposed to be one year. I explained that his government had issued me the visa in an agreement with my government, and that although I’m sure both of them had meant to make sure it was all right with him, it had probably slipped their minds. So that took an extra hour or so. Then at the car park people kept lying to me about where they were going, when they were leaving, and how much it would cost. The lies seemed entirely frivolous, not trying to cheat me so much as to see how gullible the toubab was. What a fool am I, to believe someone when they say they will take me somewhere. So that took another four hours, and I spent a lot of time counting to ten.

Finally I got on my way, crammed into a station wagon that had been converted to hold seven passengers, driving on the comically bad African road. This road had been paved, once upon a time, but since then had turned into one giant pothole, with occasional patches of smooth asphalt. No one ever drove on the paved road if they could help it; instead they drove on the medians, gradually widening them until the whole thing was really just a wide dirt road, with a crazy obstacle course as a median. I did the math, and figured I was going to make it with about an hour to spare. That’s when we were robbed.

It actually took me a while to realize that was what was happening. The military stopped us, which is common, but they didn’t search anyone’s bags or check our passports. They talked to the driver for a few minutes, then he started yelling, then they slapped him (lightly, like a bad dog) and walked away. And then we sat there. And sat there. No one in the car spoke English or Mandinka, and I think they were all embarrassed by what was happening, but eventually I figured out that the police wanted money. No justification, not even a pretense. It was highway robbery.

Fortunately, I’ve spent a lot of time negotiating bribes. I got a pen and paper and strode over to the shoulders. We spent an amusing half-hour bickering in the moonlight, scribbling numbers, gesticulating, throwing pieces of paper around, until I got the price for my car’s release down to a reasonable level. All the passengers were put in, and we were off. To thank me for my assistance the driver sped like a demon the rest of the way to Dakar – all on the partly paved section of road. It was like driving a monster truck rally in a Prius. It was actually a lot of fun. Every few minutes I’d shout out how many minutes were left until my flight, and everyone would groan and scream at the driver to go faster.

And in the end I got to the airport half a damn hour after the plane left. The next flight, of course, left at the same time, the next morning. So. Twenty-four hours in Dakar.

The airport left something to be desired in terms of comfortable seating, or places where I could nap without worrying about being stabbed for my shoes, so at three a.m. I headed off into the city. Outside I could see, thrusting up from the buildings, silhouetted by a faint light, what looked like a giant headless guy trying to kill a baby. This was good. I had a goal now.

A garbage truck stopped outside the airport to pick up some trash, and I just marveled at the novelty until it started to pull away, going in the direction of the behemoth. So I grabbed my bags and hopped on the back. When the truck stopped again and the two guys got out they seemed a little surprised to see me. I gave them a little wave, my best Arabic greetings, and then picked up one of the trash cans and emptied it into the truck. I don’t know if this kind of thing happened to them a lot, or if being a garbage man in Africa just makes you generally unflappable, but without a word they loaded up the rest of the trash and moved on, with me standing on the bumper.

I ended up riding around with those guys for about six hours, helping out at each stop. I never got much closer to the statue, but I did end up seeing almost the entire city. I’m not qualified to comment on the amount of funding going into waste disposal in Dakar, but as far as I could tell, this was the only garbage truck running in town, because we went everywhere. The downtown business district, the artisan village, the beaches, the Presidential Palace, the slums (and nowhere does slums like Africa). We stopped to chat, whole communities greeted us. Well, they greeted the real guys. But I got included.
And these guys were smart. It was Ramadan, the month when you fast from dawn to dusk, which means people put a lot of effort into their breakfasts. And, of course, when someone stops by, you invite them to eat. We had breakfast five times. It was delicious, although usually had no idea what I was eating.

Right before dawn we stopped outside this tiny little nightclub in a dirty part of town. People were still partying, and a number of them had taken it out into the street. When they saw us they started chanting something (I can only assume it was “garbage man” in French). As we collected the trash they swarmed around us, dancing a kind of rhythmic shuffle in time to our lifting and throwing. I got annoyed, but the real garbage men started dancing along – pretty well, actually. They were men cut from a very special cloth. We spent a while grooving with the drunken revelers and tossing trash bags back and forth. One girl decided to climb inside a garbage can and dance, which would have worked a lot better if she hadn’t knocked it over once she was inside. She gave a little yelp as she rolled away, and my colleagues and I decided it was time to move on.

We finished our shift and I bade them a fond farewell. One of them gave me an egg. Raw, as I discovered later when I tried to eat it. I got a fix on the statue, the original object of my quest, and set off. Passage was complicated by the fact that half the streets were closed off for construction. There’s a building craze sweeping the entire city, and everywhere you look there are cranes and scaffolds and half-finished structures. This continually confounded my progress and I felt a little like a tip of a pencil line in a puzzle-book maze, until I remembered my magical toubab powers. I found a busted up old hard hat, put it on, and strode through every construction site that stood in my way. My way was unbarred. Doors opened at my touch. No one bothers a white guy in a hard hat.

When I found what I had first assumed was a headless man murdering a child, it turned out to be a little more disturbing. He was indeed headless, also huge and absurdly muscle-bound. Like a cross between He-man and the Stay-Puf Marshmallow Man. It was a baby in his hand, but this was a far from helpless creature. It gazed boldly out into the ocean, one majestic arm stretched forth to point the way. The way to the future. Its baby face was settled into a stern and shockingly precocious expression of the most intent purpose.

The man wrapped a woman in his other arm. She was my favorite. Her Western-style hair swept back dramatically as she folded into his embrace. Her dress, which wasn’t much more than a sheet (although a giant bronze sheet a hundred feet wide), barely contained her… ampleness. And, worst of all, it rode above her knees. This is a big deal. No West African woman ever shows her knees in public. They’ll walk around with their breasts bare without a blush, but a flash of a knee and they’re shamed for life. I was seeing thigh here. Miles of it. I was surprised to find I was actually offended; it seemed indecent.

Having reached the veritable Holy Grail of my quest and found it wanting, I moved on to the next thing I could see on the skyline: a giant lighthouse. Thrusting the mocking voice of Virginia Woolf firmly to the back of my mind, I set off, threading my way through yet more construction sites and fruit markets. On the way I stopped and feasted on a beef sandwich that tasted exactly – I mean exactly – like the Sloppy Joes my mother used to make. This was turning into a strange day.

The lighthouse was one of those strange old affairs where it wasn’t really a functioning civic structure and it wasn’t really a tourist attraction, so you’re never sure if you’re welcome. It was beautiful, though, and the view from the top was incredible. You can see the entire city, and miles out into the ocean. It was like I was on top of the mast of a big urban ship. I amused myself for a while tracing the route of my shift that the morning.

A friend of mine visited this lighthouse once with a guy she liked. They bought a bottle of wine from a grocery store and (discreetly, this is still a Muslim country) toted it up the windy staircase to the lighthouse. I imagine there was a lot of bumping and giggling, although she didn’t supply details on that point. They crawled onto the very top, through tiny winding staircases, ladders and trapdoors, and snuggled on the rickety little metal ledge. They watched the sun start to set as they leaned back, stammered a little at each other, and tried to open the wine, only to discover they had no opener. So the guy crawled back down, found the old caretaker and his family at dinner, and asked them if he could borrow a knife.

They spoke Wolof and he spoke Mandinka, so he resorted to a series of inane gestures to convey what he needed. Why the white man climbed up to the top of a lighthouse, with a young girl, just before dark, and then suddenly remember he needed a knife, they didn’t know or want to know. They just handed him the biggest butcher knife he had ever seen, offered him some dinner out of politeness, and said goodbye. The guy crawled back upstairs, at several points having to hold the small sword between his teeth while he used both hands to climb. Scared the hell out of the girl when he popped his head up. With a glance at the setting sun, he took his machete and pried at the cork of what was supposed to be the ice-breaker.

I can only imagine the frustrated rage that powered his wrists, because he snapped that knife right in half. They both stared in slightly hazy disbelief as the gleaming point flipped end over end down the side of the lighthouse, rhythmically catching the sunset’s light. With heavy hearts, sword shattered, bottle unopened and boundaries unbroken, they limped their way back down to the ground to tell the family they’d broken their knife.

Take that, Virginia Woolf.

After the lighthouse I walked on the beach for a while. Some older men hanging out in a shallow cave gave me a grilled fish. We had a long conversation (in the few words of different languages we had in common) about how, although they were fisherman, and good fisherman, they had an excellent and rational reason not to be fishing fish at exactly that moment, and indeed at any second they might be taken with the urge to do grab a real and go to town, and if they did, woah, watch out. For my end I relied mostly on the time-honored Peace Corps conversational tactic of saying “Eyoh!” (meaning OK) and nodding my head. I’m sure they thought I was a genius.

What was interesting was a latticework structure frame on the wall behind them, woven out of wood, pieces of rebar, and strips of canvas. It stretched most of the way up the cave wall. Tied to it were hundreds of small carvings and talismans made of bones. The meta-fisherman explained that each of these was a ju-ju (they pointed to the one on my arm to demonstrate) to commemorate someone who’d died. It seemed a lot more complicated than that, something about both staying and leaving.
It’s funny. This was exactly what I’d come to Africa to see. This was the reason I’d flown across half the world, braved hippos and camels and bush taxis, pit latrines and heat rash. To see something like this, something totally new. And here it was, in a cave, and I'd found it by mistake.

The beach called to me, and the waves. I stashed my bags under a rickety roof someone had built into the cliffs near the water, got down to skivvies, and went in. These, however, were not the gentle waves of the Gambian beaches, or the soft current of my river. These things were serious. Every time I forged in they tossed me back on shore, disdainful of my puny self. After seeing my feet above my head for the fifth time I began to wish for a surfboard and a Ninja Turtle. The embarrassing headlines that my death here would cause flashed through my head and sent me back onto dry land.

Where there was a guy sitting on my bags. Lots of emotions made themselves felt as I dripped over to him. Anger, at first, of course, then a twinge of unease as I wondered if he was crazy, then embarrassment, as I realized he had on the outfit of an imam, a Muslim priest. I’d been righteously offended at the Big Bronze Striptease, yet here I was in my underwear dancing around someone’s beach in front of an imam. But when I sat down that little bit of unease came back; his eyes were so red they were almost black, and he was spreading dozens of ju-jus on the ground. He was a witch doctor.

He spoke Mandinka, which helped, and he explained that these were not ordinary ju-jus. Not like the crap I had (no offense). These ones would make me Bruce Lee, Donald Trump and Spider-man all rolled into one. He had some for defense, some for wisdom, some for potency, some for avoiding traffic jams. I asked if he ever used any ju-jus, and he lifted up his tunic to reveal what looked at first like thick leather skin, encrusted with jewels. He had thousands of these ju-jus; each one was a square pouch of leather an inch or two on a side. Some had fake gems on the outside, some had pieces of mirror, some had patches of cloth or animal skin. Some were like thin leather belts and some were necklaces, and he had them all. The man was a walking tannery. I was amazed he could move. He also showed me his fine selections of magic powders, which he said would make me fly like an eagle. I believed him.

Then he pulled out the prize of his collection. His face was a mask of reverent awe as he lifted up a long strip of white cloth, with a simple pattern sewn in. I had to admit it was at least better craftsmanship than the others. The maribout (witch doctor) said that this ju-ju would make me invincible. I said, I thought the others ones made me invincible. He said, well, yeah, but this one makes you really invincible. Like, from anything. Bad spirits. Bad thoughts. Bad fate.

I asked how much. He named an absurd price, five or six times my monthly stipend. I told him to go to hell. He came down, but not a lot. It was obvious we weren’t going to make any kind of middle ground, so I said no thanks. He was getting a little agitated, and his dark eyes made it hard to tell where he was looking.

Then he took off. Just left all his stuff and staggered toward the edge of some high rocks. He called out, watch. The crazy bastard was going to throw himself off. I cursed and sprinted after him, and he giggled when I tackled him to the ground. It must have hurt. He said, see? I am safe!

I said, I’ll take it. What can I say, the guy was a hell of a salesman. I pulled out some Dalasi, the currency of the Gambia, and said that I’d have to pay with that. I meant the type of money, but he thought I meant the bill itself, and snatched it. It was only 100 D, about a hundredth of what he’d originally asked. He examined the whole thing carefully, from one end to the other, sniffing at each tear and smudge like it was my fault. He pointed to a number scribbled in the corner and asked if I’d written it. I said no, they all had that. He nodded, satisfied, and shook my hand.

I made my way back up to the road and kept walking, figuring eventually I'd find something else insane. It was the hot part of the day, though, when the air is thick and muggy and seems to be cooking in chunks on the sidewalk. I walked for a couple hours, lugging my bags, in sodden and sandy clothing, and eventually ran out of water. The streets I passed were all residences or office buildings, no restaurants or anywhere to just sit. But damned if that ju-ju did not work as advertised. Just as I was starting to see the upside of passing out, a big wooden building with the words “Gallery and Bar” appeared like a sweet mirage.

Inside was dark and cool, and I blinked away the afterimage of the day outside. Hundreds of masks lined the walls, some sized for a person, some five or six feet tall. Every surface held carvings and statues of fantastic things, some recognizable shapes, some not. They drew the eye in a way that was hard to resist. The hostess appeared from the darkness and asked if she could help me. She was as beautiful and calm as the room was, and I was very aware of my filthy, sunburned, and bedraggled appearance. She explained that the bar was not open yet, they were just setting the business up now, but she had some cold water, would that be all right? At that moment nothing had ever sounded better in my life.

As we sat and I drank we talked. I asked her about life in Dakar, the gallery. It was going to open up at the beginning of the month, a pet project by a wealthy French and Senegalese couple who wanted to compile artwork from all over the continent. She gave me a tour, and it was quite an education. To be perfectly honest, although I’ve always loved African art, I’ve always felt that if you take away its exoticness it isn’t actually all that beautiful. But what I’d seen were the quick tourist rush-jobs, or the Smithsonian anthropological oddities. This was art. These were masterpieces, created by men and women with an understanding and passion for beauty greater than I’ll ever have. The hostess pointed out to me spears from Rwanda, paintings from Tanzania, works I had no name for from places I’d never even thought about.

She showed me the whole place, top to bottom; she was very friendly. I met the management and some of the staff, and helped move around a few heavy pieces that they were still trying to find places for. They were going to have a restaurant attached, and the chef was trying out some different recipes, which they invited me to share to break Ramadan fast. I reflected, not for the first time, that there’s a lot of things we do better in America. But there’s a lot of things they do better here.
As I left the gallery it seemed like Dakar took its bow. Go out on a high note, they say, and it had been a stunning performance. I made my way simply and without incident back to the airport, read and took a nap, then got on the plane to America.

While I was there I saw some of you lovely people. I won’t go into details; this entry seems long enough and no one’s signed off the rights to have the details of their lives exposed and mocked here. But it was wonderful to see everyone I visited, family and friends, and I wished I’d had more time with each of you, especially the ones I didn’t get to see at all. Thanks to everyone who rolled out the red carpet and gave me a bed or couch to sleep on. And thanks for checking in on this blog. I was surprised how many of you had read it. I was annoyed, at times, too, because every damn story I had to tell you’d already read. And I didn’t even get to see your faces at the really big lies.