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.
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.
3 weeks ago