Friday, September 23, 2011

Into Africa

September 8-21, 2011


Why, you ask, The Gambia in West Africa during the rainy season or what Africans call the “Starving Season? It is a hot, humid, dirty, mosquito infested place inhabited by natives and Peace Corps Volunteers. When you combine one former Peace Corps Volunteer Samoa from Duluth, Minnesota who has a lot of frequent flyer miles which are about to expire with another former Peace Corps Volunteer Samoa, now serving in The Gambia, with still another former Peace Corps Volunteer Samoa whose husband just got back from Samoa, you have the ingredients for adventure. Senegal enters the picture because not only does it surround The Gambia on three sides, but has a real city, Dakar, which can be reached by air from the United States.

Warning: This blog does not necessary follow in any logical or chronological order. In other words, it reflects real life.

The Participants

Hanna Siemering: Hostess, current Gambian Peace Corps Volunteer (2011-2013) as a Public Health instructor at Gambia’s university, former Samoan PCV (2007-2010), retired veterinarian, sailor with seaside property in Maryland and plans for a house.
John Kleive: Former Samoan PCV (2007-2010), welding instructor in Samoa (2010-2011), retired school teacher, welding supply representative, and welder who lives on a boat at a Superior, Wisconsin marina during summers, a house in the Ely woods, and seeks warmer weather on his Harley during the winter months.

Sandy Nelson: John’s friend, world traveler, hospice worker, assisting John’s daughter during her prolonged illness, and lives off the main road in Northern Wisconsin.

Mary Shuraleff: Former Samoan PCV (2007-2008) and my supportive wife.

Nick Shuraleff: Enough said about him.


This West African country is French speaking and Muslim. Dakar, its capitol, is at the Western most tip of Africa with about 1.5 million people. The city seems to be in a half-built, rubble-filled, suspended state awaiting more foreign aid. There is really nothing beautiful about the place, except the stylish women. If Dakar is known for anything, it is the nightclubs which open at midnight and whose original music is really great. Other than that, the only noise is from the short beep from 1.5 million passing taxis and the Call to Prayers.

My favorite place in Dakar is probably the least favorite site in all of Senegal, The African Renaissance Monument, which dominates the skyline and shoreline of the city. Unveiled April 3, 2010 amidst the slums and garbage helps of land near the airport, it is the tallest statue in the world with an estimated life expectancy of 1,200 years. Invented and designed by Senegal’s president, it cost the country no money, but an exchange of land, to the North Koreans who funded and built the monolith. From what I could gather, President Maitre Abdolaye Wade is the only person enamored with the financial deal, stating revenues from admissions could generate billions (I was the only fee-paying tourist during my visit.

The statue represents Africa emerging from the extinct volcano of slavery and foreign domination, reconquering its place in the world. Few Africans identify themselves with the figures or the family portrayed. The child points to the Northwest which is towards North Korea, if you overlook all of North America. Muslims wonder whether the God-like representation conflict with Islamic beliefs and may be used as a deity. I love the views and sheer gall of the monument.
As a side note, the first model of the statue, by a very well-known, but unnamed, Hungarian sculpture, did not correspond to the president’s vision and became a gift for President Bush during his visit to Senegal two days later.

Symbol of African Renaissance
Monument as seen from nearby slums
View of Dakar from the monument's head.
A five ton baby head

Goree Island is the tourist must. Just a short ferry ride from the main harbor it can be likened to The French Quarter with artists, restaurants, museums, weird characters, and a little violent history thrown in for spice. There is never a dull moment as vendors constantly pester and vie for your attention, making a cold beer that much more refreshing. A 30 minute ferry ride with vendors already pecking at your carcass.

Dakar skyline behind Mary and Hanna
School children at the 1776 Dutch building, "House of Slaves"
World War One French coastal gun
John Kleive trying to escape from female vendors.

Hotel du Phare in the Ouakam area of Dakar is our hotel and used to be a favorite place for Peace Corps visiting the city. It is small European-style hotel at the end of a runway at Dakar airport, making it ideal for embarkation and debarkation. Since a couple of months ago when the old Frenchman died and his son with his young French wife took over running the business, rates have increased. The hotel does have quaintness about it, being off the main road on a sandy side, rubble filled side-street. An air-conditioned room, large generator, edible French cooking, cold beer, and attractive help make you aware you are not in Kansas anymore.

Street to Hotel du Phare

With Fatima, hotel clerk.
Senegalese women are said to spend a fortune on their appearance.

The Gambia

The Gambia is the smallest, Muslim, one of the poorest and most densely populated country in Africa. It is known as being a British outpost trying to curb the sale of Africans by Africans to Europeans in early 1800’s. Now its beach side resorts are a destination for Europeans. Sex tourism flourishes, but with a different twist. Men, known as “Bumsters” (gigolos), show their virility on the beaches during the day as they seek business with middle-aged white women looking for a change of pace. Night is when the female prostitutes emerge. Even an old man with his wife is fair game.

Subsistence is the life people lead. Some grow rice and peanuts, while others struggle to feed their families with menial service jobs. All including the government seek handouts from others. The Indians and Chinese are the latest to seek the favor of The Gambia.

Gambians are a smiling, colorful, skinny, and gregarious lot. What they may lack in wealth they more than make up for in attitude. Being English speaking helps as they express their view of life and the outside world to whomever cares to sit down and drink tea (aataya) with them. Maybe their subdued behavior is somehow related to the many roadblocks one encounters on the highway and the walled compounds in which they reside. Law and order does prevail here. Joking is part of their nature with the greatest responses being about the number of wives you have or hope to get.

The food, well there really isn’t much to talk about. The stables are rice, peanuts, and cassava with a little bit of fish or beef thrown in for protein, if available. Unlike Samoa where everyone seems to be eating at all times, they hardly eat at all. I am glad we had a chance to eat the local fare, but the cuisine certainly is no reason to fly across the ocean for it. Hanna Siemering, our hostess, who planned it all, in her Gambian house

Peace Corps in The Gambia

The offices

Peace Corps Headquarters, Gambia

I was forbidden to take a picture of this guarded, gated building housing Peace Corps offices. However inside the building, the computer room, offices, and staff seemed the same as in Samoa, dealing with the same Peace Corps related problems. It also served as the best place to exchange dollars into local currency.

The main street by Peace Corps office.

The Volunteers
Staying in the large, guarded, gated, hostel-like Peace Corps "transit house" for four nights is a great place to rub elbows with others. The Peace Corps now charges a small fee for staying there with a four-night limit. With one of the bedrooms air-conditioned and crowded, and a hired caretaker makes this place the best deal in town. The volunteers are an assortment of people coming in for scheduled meetings, medical and psychological issues, leaving early, and their village to eat a hamburger or pizza.

Of course, the volunteers want to compare degrees of Peace Corps suffering. They are surprised to learn suffering also occurs in Samoa, "The Jewel of the Pacific". My take is that Samoan Peace Corps suffer more psychologically, while Gambia may have the edge physically. One thing is Samoa has The Gambia beat for beauty, hands down!

There are about 80 Peace Corps in The Gambia and the Peace Corps seems to be better recognized by Gambians for their efforts in education, health, and agriculture, as well as being from the United States, than in Samoa. I may be mistaken about this, since Gambians are more talkative and open, speak better English, and get more exposure to America than Samoans. They rotate into country twice a year.

Kelsey, a married Peace Corps serving with her husband. Both have assigned jobs.

Dave is a Peace Corps who has extended for a third year and works in an NGO apiary. Beekeeping and honey are important products in The Gambia. His enthusiasm is hard to conceal, as we tour his domain and learn about the life of bees. He tells us of the beautiful spitting cobra he saw two days before which blinded a dog. The bees seem tamer. I am more than a little jealous of his success with bees after my failed beekeeping experience in Samoa.A Gambian lunch with British ex-patriots Jan, Mick, and their son who live in the bush at the apiary. The meal is domada, a peanut based sauce with cassava over rice. (Rice is served with every meal).

Daily Life

The Regional Hospital, Birkama

Clinics and programs such as this are one of the reasons why infant mortality and death during childbirth are dropping. Mothers dress up and bring their babies to be weighed and vaccinated monthly. They are responsible for their own record card. Breast feeding is common and efforts to reduce malnutrition seem to be making headway. The women are encouraged to give birth in the hospital or at home with a trained mid-wife who can call for medical assistance if needed.

Malaria affects 80% of the population. Much of the problem is due to increases in rice growing and ranching, both of which produce spawning grounds for mosquitoes.

Diabetes is also on the increase and is becoming a major health concern. Just why escapes me for these are the thinnest people I have ever seen!

Weighing babies
Vaccinations given by Gambian Public Health employee

Village markets are a hub of activity with organized stalls, buses, taxis, smells, and flies all adding to the shopping experience. Like Samoa, small family-owned stores keep popping up along the roadside to supply everyday needs. The better stores, restaurants, and supermarkets are owned and run by Arabs, mostly Lebanese.
Please forgive the absence of craft-shop photos. I just couldn't do it.

Market in Birkama

African picture books invariably have pictures of the colorful fishing boats. The local boats fish a few miles off shore with nets and all return about five o'clock to sell their catch. Boys with tubs swim out to the boats before they beach, wanting to have their tub filled with fish. They then take the tub to the market to be sorted and weighed. From afar it seems like a chaotic scramble, much like a New York street may seem to them. Somehow it all works out.

Scene at Bakau

Brewing Aataya
More than a very sweet tea, brewing and drinking Aataya is a ritual done mostly by men. The process is purposely slow, for being with your friends should not be rushed.

Elijah, who lives on Hanna's compound, making aataya. Note: red small teapot on charcoal stove, blue water pitcher, small stand with two glasses, all essential to the elaborate poring to produce a foamy, strong drink. The tea grounds are re-brewed two more times.

Flora and Fauna
If you want to see wildlife, don't go to The Gambia. The forests have long been cut for pasture and cultivation; the wildlife eaten. However, there are a few Reserves and National Parks to bring back some of the lost plants and animals.

Abuko Nature Reserve

Under the strangling fig
Flower with two types of blossoms

Bijilo Forest "Monkey" Park

Green monkey with baby

Gambia River National Park
Getting to and visiting this park is worth the effort located in the middle of the country. The major attraction are the chimpanzees collected originally as unwanted pets and located on islands in the river where they thrive and are studied (Chimps can't swim).
Children watching us depart from Kuntaur, hoping to get empty plastic water bottles for toys.
Girl in pink, a real bully.
Our transportation to and at the parkBackwater scene
Approaching our lodgeRiver scene from lodgeLodge dining and resting area
Safari tent for sleeping. Beds are great. Outdoor showers, simply heaven. Pit toilets for star gazing. Best sleeping ever.Mary with her ever-present Samoan fan.
We feel the Samoan fan moves more air with less effort than Gambian styles, a tribute to the Samoan way of lfe.
See the Chimps
See the hippos
Find the Green Mamba snake

The Good Life
Please don't think The Gambia is all mosquitoes, flies, sand, heat, humidity and vendors. There are beautiful beaches and hotels too.

Leybato Beach Resort

Good food, reasonable prices. Short walk from Peace Corps transfer house.
Beautiful beach with a Bumster for everyone.
(I did pushups with one of them on the beach to deflate his bravado and increase mine)

Coco Ocean Resort
This five star hotel is where those traveling on a government or NGO expense account stay. Since this is the off season, rates are lower, at least before the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation bought out the place for a Cashew Convention. Alas as Hanna, Mary, and I sit dejected in the lobby unable to negotiate a lower and affordable rate, a kindly man hears as we bemoan our financial situation, our new dislike for cashew nuts, and the thought of spending another night at the Peace Corps transit house. He asks if we are Peace Corps. He makes us a deal we can't refuse in a villa we never could have dreamed and drives us to the villa with its own restricted swimming pool. He is the owner, as employees look on in disbelief as what he is doing. We even have enough money to eat in the hotel restaurants!

Built like a Moroccan Palace, Coco Ocean from the sea.

Ah, this is the way Peace Corps should be
Our veranda
So many spa treatments to chose.
Mary had a chocolate scrub. Hanna, hair and nails.
They spent hours deciding.

Our room

The Compleato
I just have to have one. The compleato (complete) is worn by Muslim men to cover the entire body. I must admit the tailor did question my choice of fabric, but then again he did not know his work is also my new Halloween costume to be worn with roller skates, a blue bike helmet, and a 1952 "Ike and Dick" campaign button.

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