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.