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.
"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.