1 January 2011: Happy New Year! We are enjoying a great visit from Beth's sister, Krista (her domaa musoo), who arrived safely on Tuesday evening after a very delayed 4 day flight.
Have we ever got oranges! They come with green peals in The Gambia, but taste similar to the orange ones from Florida. Earlier Tuesday Jainiba and Keta enlisted some local help to harvest some of the oranges from the trees in our compound (we have 5 smaller and 3 larger orange trees). They harvested over 1000 oranges from 3 of the smaller trees (about ¾ of the oranges on those three trees). It was amazing. The two teens Jainiba hired for a sack of oranges each did great work climbing the wall and up into the trees. They also used a garden rake to pull the oranges from the branches. Any visitor gets a sack of oranges and Binta and Jainiba are selling some at the market – the going rate is about D1 (4¢) each (the market is flooded with oranges).
The same university driver that picked us up from the airport when we first arrived, and drove me to the campus most days the first few weeks when we were staying at Paradise Suites, was able to drive for us to pick up Krista from the airport Tuesday. It was nice to have some time to talk with the driver, Yusupha (another Yusupha from our friend in Gunjur), while we waited for the flight. The university vehicle also gets preferred parking – an added bonus.
Wednesday we were able to do some gift exchange with Krista, some gifts from home were fun to share, and Krista enjoyed some Gambian gifts. Later in the day Krista and Beth explored the market and the neighborhood (Binta helped as a bit of a “tour guide” through some areas Beth had not been to). While they were out Keta and I staked the tomato plants – we had fun working on that together. That should help the plants that were struggling laying on the dirt. They were able to catch some kids in a game of Crazy 8 as I had talked about last week. They also ran into a Kankurang. The Kankurang traditionally goes through the village rounding up young boys for pre circumcision training. He is costumed in leaves and red bark (from a camel foot tree - including a piece between his teeth, waiving a machete to ward off evil spirits. This one was pretty tame, doing his spirit scaring with sticks.
Since then we've visited some of the craft markets looking for a few gifts to send back home with Krista. As a family gift we purchased a great hand carved djembe drum. Nate, Anna and I are having a great time learning to play. Today we just discovered that Brewer's brother Sam is a drummer and gives lessons – we may have to give that a try soon.
We tried the Paradise Restaurant on the main road between Brikama and UTG – it was tasty good local food (at local prices) – “very nice” (as Gambians will phrase it).
8 January 2011: We enjoyed a great visit from Beth's sister, Krista, over the past week. It was great seeing family from the States – made us feel a bit closer to home. That feeling is amplified by the coming visit from my parents and the frequent video calls on Skype. I can't imagine what it was like to do something like this 50 years ago – it must have felt like falling off the face of the earth.
I like to think we are part of a small start to something big here at UTG with the introduction of renewable energy courses and start of an engineering curriculum built from those courses along with the strong collection of physics courses already being taught. A Gambian proverb states “Giant silk cotton trees grow out of very tiny seeds.” We got close (or at least as close as our hostess wanted to venture without hiking through the grasses – snakes, but more on that below) to an impressive specimen of a silk cotton last Saturday while visiting our friends in Pirang. The group in Pirang one time encircled this tree hand to hand with forty some individuals – it is a massive tree (photo below).
In Pirang I also had the chance to meet Ansu the talented woodcarver that made the Nativity set I mentioned a while back. We were also blessed to spend some time with Aja and her beautiful baby Amie. At the MEHDA center (My Sister's Company) Krista and Beth danced (they'll kill me if I post the video) with Aja as part of a welcoming song the women sang for Krista. Krista is a professional classical singer and returned the favor with an Italian Aria in her strong Mezzo Soprano. Some rather stunned stares followed. We were also able to visit Aja at home and see her compound. A great opportunity for us all.
A MEHDA linked project in Kitti may turn out to be a perfect design project for the student coming from Etown for the spring semester. The MEHDA program is transitioning into local leadership this year (into the very capable hands of Jeremiah), and the goal of a sustainable community center in Kitti is a goal they are currently pursuing. Timing is everything.
Today's Mandinka lesson: luntaŋo (ŋ is pronounced as kind of a softened “ng”) - stranger, visitor, guest. I find it striking that they have the same word for stranger and guest in a “who then is my neighbor” kind of way. People referred to Krista in English as a “stranger” who was staying with us. The last two excursions in our standard toubob luntaŋo package are an afternoon at Paradise Beach and the Black and White Restaurant and a visit to Abuko.
After receiving our call, Moma at the Black and White, went out to the water's edge and waved; summoning a fishing pirogue to purchase butter fish for a bennacin lunch. You don't get much fresher than that – it was delicious. Before we ate one of the other staff at the restaurant very excitedly brought us over to the tables to show us a chameleon he found in the trees – very cool.
After lunch Krista and I walked over to the fishing center with our driver, Mohammad, and saw fishing boats coming in and the women cleaning the fish. Here is one of the few places in The Gambia you see abundant supplies of ice; waiting for the catch of fresh fish. The one woman pictured below with Krista was a card. She was working with four other women cleaning fish in the shade of one of the pirogues. She started out reserved, telling us (half Mandinka with equal parts of sign language and broken English to convey the message) she did not want her picture taken – she was dressed for fish cleaning not photos. However, after a little Mandinka greeting Q&A she hopped up and sang her name out over and over with a little dance. Then, while still not ready for her own photo, she offered up photos of everyone else. Finally with a little help from one of her friends, we got her too – with a nice smile to boot.
I've told you about Abuko previously. This time around we did see a crocodile in the freshwater marsh. The guide was telling us that he could see a crocodile pretty much every day if he was patient enough and pointed out a speck in the water he said was the eye of a croc. It looked like a stick to me and I think we were all looking at different specks. I was unimpressed and pretty sure the guide was full of it when he told us he found another one on the other side of the pool. I would have never spotted him on my own, but this time once we saw him we could see him very clearly – definitely not a stick. We also saw a group of brightly colored bee eater birds and a very large python. You couldn't see its entire length lying in the grass on the other side of small (2 foot wide) stream, but his body was about 6 inches in diameter.
Last week's posting was shorter than usual, so I guess I'm making up for it this week – my final story is a plumbing story. The small storage room off our kitchen shares a wall with the bathroom – it has always been damp, but in the past week it developed a significant puddle on the floor – time to call the landlord. He started to tell me to “tell Keta ...” I decided to hand the phone to Keta. Before too long, Keta was back with a plumber who surveyed the situation briefly before just sort of sticking his hand into the wall where it seemed wettest and pulling out a handful of mud (for a morbid analogy the image that sprung to mind was the witchdoctor dude sticking his hand into the chest of his victim in the Indiana Jones movie). He continued to clear out the soft portion of the mud brick wall exposing the leaking pipe. It took a couple of tries but the plumbing crew got the leak stopped and the neighbor (Modou – from the compound behind us and one of Beth's rescuers from the Jainiba chicken saga – see the 30 October posting) patched up the wall with mud mixed with cement and a number of rocks and pieces of broken concrete.
A few bonus photos of some of the people mentioned this week and in previous weeks.
15 January 2011: “I really want to give you and your family a chicken.” This was Saidou's greeting to me the other day. The next morning I convinced him that we were very thankful for his generosity, but were not prepared for a gift of a live chicken. I talked to him about making a couple of chairs for me to use in the yard, he was excited to do that at a fair price. Gifts are often given in The Gambia. In the past couple of weeks, Keta has given us a basket, and a promise to pray for us everyday. Jainiba gave Beth, Nate, Anna and Krista matching new year dresses. Binta gave Krista a beautiful embroidered dress before her departure.
On Sunday we were heading out for church and Keta was weaving a basket from dried reeds. The baskets are beautiful, and we were admiring his work. A couple of days later he brought one up to the house. In our limited English-Mandinka, he handed me the basket saying “wife.” His gift of prayers came after we told him (through Jainiba's translation) we would make sure the rest of the oranges in the trees were harvested soon. He has been trying to keep the young boys from the oranges but that are at it day and night throwing rocks and them and climbing in the trees. Several of the oranges were in branches over his house, so it was keeping him up at night. He was so grateful to us for helping to arrange the removal of the oranges (most of them went to the landlord and we had to arrange it with him – he had wanted to wait for a better price, but the situation was not safe), he was just pouring himself out – saying he wished he could speak English so he could tell us how grateful he was. He has also discovered orange juice – “Toubobs have such wonderful ideas.”
As of now all the flights my parents and the student coming over from Etown need to take today and tomorrow are showing no delays (and very low risk for delay), so we are hopeful that all three will arrive safely Sunday evening. My parents were supposed to arrive this past Thursday, but their flight from Grand Rapids to Newark was canceled because of weather problems in Newark. At first they were told there were no seats available in the next 5 months going through Brussels to Banjul, and they would be happy to refund their money. After a frantic Thursday morning, they were able to find a charter flight from the UK for this weekend; so they called Continental to get their money refunded for the original flight. The representative they got this time asked if they still wanted to go to Banjul - “let me try.” she got them on the flight arriving Sunday and was able to extend their departure so they will still be able to stay for the full duration they were planning. It has not been easy getting here lately. I guess it just amplifies any delays and other trouble when there are only three flights a week for a particular route.
I was able to put my newly acquired skills in Photovoltaic system design to practical use this week. Our landlord had received three quotes for installing a PV water pumping system for his farm, and asked if I would review them for him. It was good to see that the systems were nicely designed and seemed very appropriate for his needs. It was nice to be able to give him some good insight into the differences between the quotes, something I would not have been prepared to do a few months ago. Hopefully my students learned some of the same things. They will be putting that to the test next semester.
I received a great email from an Etown Engineering Alum the other day offering his support for the program we are putting together here. He works in PV system design and installation and is looking to donate teaching materials and lab equipment for the program at UTG. I had put together this renewable energy curriculum proposal several weeks ago to move some conversations forward. UTG had gathered information on renewable energy curricula at several institutions in Europe, but needed to take the next step. This proposed curriculum is certainly doing that. Dr. Jain, Dr. Yaffa (Sidat Yaffa has been a great help in networking this proposal) and I are meeting with folks at the Gambian Renewable Energy Center to discuss how to collaborate between UTG and the skills center training at GTTI (Gambian Technical Training Institute) and the Ministry of Energy, and are in continuing conversations with a representative of Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS) – who are very supportive of UTGs pursuit of this type of program. It probably won't come together this semester, but it is very rewarding to see the beginning taking shape.
Thursday I attended a lecture on Public Health in the 21st Century presented by Dr. Thomas Cook from the University of Iowa. The College of Public Health at Iowa has had a collaborative relationship with Gambia College for over 10 years. My closing thought for this week comes from the Q&A session at the end of the lecture. A Gambia College Lecturer commented that developing countries need to rethink what they are developing toward in their “march toward development.” He pointed out that the planet cannot support worldwide levels of US type consumption. Dr. Cook agreed (as do I) that the US level of consumption (5% of pop using 20% of energy) was “immoral and nothing to aspire to.”
22 January 2011: Everyone arrived safely on Sunday, minus Gavin's two checked bags. However, even the two bags were here safe and sound (and thoroughly inspected – it seems his military style duffels attracted a lot of attention). All the newcomers are doing great – I had a bout of gastrointestinal challenges Friday but was feeling much improved Saturday. Hopefully the others can avoid that.
We had a quiet week with my parents this week (were planning on heading over to Makasutu, www.makasutu.com, early next week and going on a bird watching trip another day). We did get up to Serrekunda and we enjoyed lunch at the Blue Kitchen and explored the craft market in Bakau. This is the market where our neighbor and friend Yusuph has a stall and we were able to find him. I recognized some of the same batik patterns at the large batik stall. The young man working there told me Yusuph from Brikama was just around the corner and after my parents selected a print he took us over to him. Yusuph started shouting out my name as soon as he saw us rounding the corner. It was a nice visit and it was fun to see his shop and work – he was working on a large (1 meter tall) carved mask when we were there. We planned to go to the Brikama woodcarvers market on Friday, but I was on a short leash with regard to the bathroom so we'll do that later. My parents did find some fabrics at the general market and my dad is having a shirt made by the tailor across the street.
Thursday we walked across town to the family compound Jainiba grew up in. She was very happy to have us visit her family and the rest of her family (brothers and their families) were very happy to host us. Jainiba's brother said he wanted my father to be like a father to him – he was very taken with my father and walked hand in hand with him for several blocks as we were leaving. As it says in our Rough Guide to The Gambia, “Male visitors need to get used to holding hands with Gambian men as they're shown around the compound or guided down the street.” It is hard to describe how joyful the family was just to spend a few hours with us. Even though they and we didn't really know what to say to each other. There was the usual extended exchange of names and how are you and how is America exchanges. Just being together was very meaningful for all of us.
Wednesday Gavin went with all of us out to Pirang and MEHDA. Gavin and I had a chance to discuss the possibility of working with MEHDA on photovoltaic projects with Jeremiah, the Gambian director of the center. One project is a community center for the Gambian Mennonite Church in Kitti – this center could provide a model for community centers in the provinces. Focusing on maximizing local resources to deliver the power needs of a community. A small power system can make a huge difference. Another project possibility will be to optimize the PV system they have installed at the MEHDA center itself. They have a small system installed, but two of the panels are currently disconnected and generation capacity is likely greater than the current storage and use. Again MEHDA is a model improving agriculture, education, health care, family care and community development. Next Wednesday Gavin and I will travel down to Gunjur and Berending with Yusupha Touray to meet with staff at health clinics there. These clinics are two of those we visited last winter which have non operational PV systems. Similar to the MEHDA site the goal is to optimize the use of these systems in a way that is economically sustainable.
I got a call late Thursday evening from my running friend Lamin Sise (See-Say) – he is taking an exam on Saturday for admissions back into school to complete his secondary schooling. Many do not complete secondary school – school is not mandatory or free. I talk to many young men who say they completed through grade 9 or 10. Many are also embarrassed by this talking with a “professor” and talk of making sure their children have more opportunities. Often people will be looking for “sponsors” for their children or for themselves for the university as they cannot afford tuition. I might have Lamin's surname wrong. He told me once, but I don't always get names right (we were running and accents are sometimes thick) and the time he gave me before the race was close to the winning time. If he won (very possible) the race his surname is Sanneh. I guess I'm curious – I'll ask about his name again. He just wanted to let me know about the test. I thought it was pretty cool that he is doing so. We've been able to run together occasionally and that is fun.
We're actually running low on the oranges from the compound. This week we also discovered green grapefruit and sweeter mandarin oranges (tangerines - also green). This got us wondering about the green vs. orange color. It turns out they turn orange when cold weather knocks out the green chlorophyll pigments in the skin and the yellow carotenoids pigments underneath show through. In Florida the oranges are green until the first cold snap or until they expose them to ethylene. In warmer climates (The Gambia) they stay green.
29 January 2011: Welcome to Set-setal, the first National Cleaning Day of 2011. We haven't had one in a while and we've started to assume things would be business as usual, but today the roads are closed from 9 until 1 PM. After the roads reopen, Momodou Jain and I will be visiting a couple of health clinics in Gunjur and Berending, with Yusupha Touray. At least one of these clinics has a photovoltaic systems that is non-operational. Designing a new system using the resources the clinic has into a economically sustainable system that will be operational for the life of the panels has been a project I've targeted since visiting here last year. I will have my first session with the students in the design course on Monday – it will be fun to get rolling on these projects. Many of my students from last semester were on campus this past week – they are excited about putting what they learned last semester into practice.
Over the semester I will also be working to line up other projects (I have a list started) that might be worthwhile for students back at Etown to work on in the next several years collaborating with students here at UTG. Hopefully some will be able to study here for a semester and others should be able to make a short term trip associated with such a project. We'll see how this all works, but it is exciting to think about.
This week with my parents we were in full tourist mode, enjoying Sanyang Beach, Makasutu, shopping for gifts at the Brikama woodcarvers market, attaya tea with our neighbors, and Birding in Pirang. Mama and Mustupha came over for tea under the mango tree in our compound. Makasutu was a great way to experience a lot of The Gambia in a day: forest walk, learning about traditional medicine and other aspects of the culture, a dugout canoe tour through the mangroves, a great lunch of benecin and domodah and music (kora and drumming) and dancing. I love the sound of the kora, a harp like instrument made from half a large gourd covered in cowhide with 21-25 nylon strings.
Beth and I tried our steps with the Jola women at Makasutu for the traditional Jola dancing. If you do it right, your feet move very fast in a high-stepping pattern with your torso bent over and your arms swinging out. Maybe a video will help (see below). We weren't quite so frantic in our dancing (somehow the video of this one was lost - actually Beth threatened death to anyone who tried to record it). It was a good end to a great day.
We did the full attaya tea with all three rounds of brewing, each getting a little milder. The tea is strong and sweet with the full process taking a couple of hours. It is made with green “gunpowder” tea from China, lots of sugar and for a special brewing, with fresh mint. We enjoyed a wonderful time of relaxing and sharing. Mustupha is Yusuph's (from the photo last week at the craft market) brother. Mama coaches the neighborhood football team in the rainy season. It is serious business – this year was a rebuilding year for the local team, with most of the players on the younger end of the range (14-18 years). I've previously described the passionate crowds at the stadium and the parades through the streets celebrating a victory. During school they play for school teams. It was a very enjoyable week, but I am getting restless. I always get this way at the end of a semester break – it will be good to have classes start.
February 5: We are under way. Classes got rolling in earnest this week. In Dynamics I have 7 students, including one repeat customer from the fall - he wants to learn the material better than what he did in the fall. I was able to get three copies of the text carried over from home by our visitors last month. Having the text available to the students will help, even with 2-3 students sharing each copy. I was pleased they were all back for our second session on Saturday, despite my plan to give a quiz every Saturday (definitely not typical at UTG).
Last Saturday evening, I was able to get down to the Community Health Center in Gunjur with Momodou Jain and Yusupha Touray. Hours before we were there, someone had come by trying to sell the clinic new batteries for their existing PV systems. They have 4 independent systems and 3 of those are not working. The functioning system is powering a vaccination freezer - this system is clearly funded differently from the other systems. I think the vaccination storage system must be government funded, with the identical system seen in other clinics, including meticulous records of freezer temperatures. This system had fairly new batteries and a new charge controller, with the old still in place behind the new. An interesting aspect was that the system was operational despite some significant shading on the PV array. This suggests the system may have capacity beyond what is needed for the freezer. The other three systems were for lighting and to power a nebulizer. None of these were working. They may indeed need some new batteries, but the doctor we spoke with was willing to wait and let the students undertake a redesign of the system before they invest their money. They also had a non-operational fossil fuel powered water pump. "We have no lights, we have no water, we need help."
There will be 8 UTG students working on this project in two teams of 4. "This is going to work, we can do this," Musa is impressed with what he thinks his team will be able to do together. Another student, Lamin, came up after class to tell me about similar problems with existing PV systems in his home village. The situation facing the clinic in Gunjur is unfortunately not unique.
Three other UTG students will be working with Gavin (from Etown College) on the PV systems at the MEHDA center in Pirang. MEHDA also has resources to invest in expanding and optimizing their renewable energy systems. They are providing lighting and power for charging phones and computers, and pumping water (I described this project a couple of weeks ago). They are interested in expanding that capacity and adding other functionality. Much of this work can provide a model for other villages looking to develop similar community centers for education, fair trade work and horticulture. I have challenged the students to think in terms of modules that might represent low cost building blocks for other communities.
Optimizing limited resources and designing a system that is economically sustainable is the challenge for both projects. In this way however, the work the students do can move beyond the two specific sites they are working on this semester. Lamin can bring the ideas from this project back to his home village. Momodou Jain confirms that these projects could have widespread impact as the problems and challenges facing both are all too common.
For our family this was a hard week. We learned that our 12 year old cocker spaniel has a large tumor in her abdomen and we are not sure how long she has left. Sadie has been a loving part of our family since before Nate was born. Beth's sister Krista is taking great care of her and delivering a host of hugs for us. Sadie is doing well for now and is not in pain.
On a brighter note, my friend Saidou completed a beautiful chair for us. You may recall I asked him about making a chair for me. I wanted to hire him to make the chair in place of his offer to give me a chicken (Keta made it clear when Jainiba's chickens were here that he does not want a chicken in our compound). I had asked him to make a small simple chair with no carving. Well, it's not so simple - he decided the narrow boards would not be comfortable and made a larger carved chair. We had thought we would use the chair here and leave it behind. But, we'll figure out a way to get this one home.
12 February 2011: Planes [Buses], Trains [Gelleh-Gellehs] and Automobiles [Donkey Carts]: This past week in The Gambia the semiannual International Roots Festival was held ( www.rootsgambia.gm). The festival started with a big kickoff in Banjul last Saturday. On Tuesday the action moved to the President's home village of Kanilai. Here there was to be another big stadium event featuring Senegambian wrestling matches, a ceremonial version of the initiation (circumcision) rites, Jola drumming and dancing, in what the Rough Guide: The Gambia calls the “most exciting and extraordinary two days” of the festival. The university arranged a trip for the international students and others as room allowed. We were excited to be joining in this adventure. That is what we found on Tuesday. The college owned bus was to depart campus at 10:00 AM to make the 85 km trip out to Kanilai. It wasn't in Brikama at 10 – we heard rumors of mechanical problems “it is being repaired and it will be here soon.” The bus needed to be jump started after picking up the students at the business school in Kanifing. After a stop at GTTI for technical help, it was determined that the alternator needed to be replaced. No problem, there is a similar Iran Khodro Diesel Bus back at the Brikama campus – they can just swap out the alternator. The bus arrived back in Brikama at noon and was ready to go by 2:00. Maybe we'll miss some of the speeches but there will be a lot to see - “Let's go!”
As we are tooling along the Trans Gambian highway we simultaneously notice the bus slowing and the absence of engine noise. No problem, “just take a little break, the engine just needs to cool a bit.” Hmm, OK – we have stopped about ½ way to Kanilai near the center of Somita, a small village along the road. We actually had a great time as the bus was cooling its heels. The village residents mostly women and a pile of children started banging out dance beats on a jerry can (the universal 5 gallon cooking oil canisters) as a circle formed we participated in a great cross cultural Jola dance exhibition. Gavin and one of his house mates from the KSAC house took a stab at climbing the massive Baobab tree, and we had a great hour. Then trying to get started again, the first attempt at a jump didn't take, but a large military truck had enough juice to get us back on the road. Unfortunately after a few miles once again slowing with the engine off. Time to seek new transportation options. Not sure where it came from or where it was going empty, but we flagged down an empty gelleh-gelleh van and piled in. Some of the Gambian students rode in the military truck. “Now we're in some reliable transportation!” Probably the first time any of us had that thought while climbing into a gelleh-gelleh.
We did make it smoothly out to Kanilai from there (although the military truck did have some type of mechanical trouble behind us – the other students got there about 30 minutes after us). We took a look around – the 9:00 AM start hadn't really gotten going yet – the stadium was pretty empty and the word on the street was that the festivities would start after dinner, sometime. But it was about 6:00 and we decided to find transport back to Brikama. Feeling a little like Ben and Luke entering Mos Eisley, with the help of Ansumana (our poor friend Ansumana got everyone through all this in one piece) from UTG we were able to negotiate a reasonable fare to take the 13 of us (our family and the other US students and faculty) back to Brikama on another gelleh-gelleh. “It may not look like much kid, ...” Well we were headed home. But now for the Donkey carts – not really, but short of where we left the disabled bus, flop-flop-flop-flop. Now I'm a former Ford motor company engineer, and that there is the sound of a flat tire. And of course, while national law requires the gelleh-gelleh to carry a spare, this particular vehicle had used their spare on the way out; so you see, that tire up on the roof isn't going to do us much good. But our resourceful “Han Solo”, bought a spare off another van (no good, wouldn't fit), and then another and we were back on the road home. Along the way the driver managed to purchase another spare – just in case. We were back at our house in Brikama by 9:30 – Steve Martin and John Candy would have been proud.
In other news, Beth and kids had a nice day at the pool at the Senegambia Hotel on Monday, if you buy lunch you can use the very nice pool. On Thursday, Dr. Jain, Gavin and I met with the Director of GREC (Gambian Renewable Energy Center) regarding getting space at the center to start a Renewable Energy Lab. This went very well and we are meeting again next week with others from the Ministry of Energy and we will be able to have a lab at the center. This will provide a centralized location for collaboration between UTG, GTTI and the Ministry for Renewable Energy Education and Training. After the meeting Gavin and I stopped by MP Trading (the same place I bought my PC way back) on Karaba Ave. and purchased the first equipment for the forthcoming lab – two hand-held electronics multimeters. The students will be able to use these as they assess the currently installed systems at the two project sites over the next two weeks.
The students are off to a great start on these projects and Momodou Jain and I are very pleased with the enthusiastic start. They submitted their first biweekly status report Friday. They will be visiting the sites and meeting with the directors of each center starting next week.
If I can find Brikama Upper Basic School, I hope to see my friend Lamin, run for Botrop School in more of the inter school sport competitions.
19 February 2011: Well, I did not find Lamin's race last week. While I was out looking for the school, Beth called and asked me to come back home – she had just gotten word that our dog Sadie had passed away. We are so grateful for the wonderful loving care that Krista (Beth's sister) and her friends gave to Sadie while we've been away, particularly in her last days. We were grateful that she did not suffer at all and was at peace with Krista as her heart stopped. We will miss her.
Lamin called the other day to let me know he did qualify for the upcoming race – no surprise, but he was very happy. Hopefully I'll be able to make that event.
We had our follow-up meeting at GREC this week. UTG will be able to get space at the GREC center for a Renewable Energy Lab. At the meeting this week, Dr. Jain and I met with two representatives from the Ministry of Energy and two men from private sector companies. We will be meeting again in early March with the purpose of letting UTG (that's Dr. Jain and myself) express what we would like to see come of the collaboration fostered through the new lab. UTG physics graduates have been finding positions in telecom companies, and as they begin to move toward the proposed Renewable Energy Engineering degree it will be very beneficial to have solid input from the private sector. The nation clearly will see a sizable move to increase energy capacity nationwide and renewable energy sources are ideal for that expansion. Developing the UTG curriculum to build skills and abilities needed by that industry will be good for all. We'd like to see the initiative at GREC lead to further collaboration with GTTI technician level training, and MDI (management development institute – part of UTG) education in the economics and public policy of renewable energy. Project teams including students from all these institutions partnering with the growing local private sector and Ministry policy makers would be an exciting development. There are a lot of challenges facing the effort to get communities the energy resources they need, but the beauty of a small country is that when there is a unified will – things can develop quickly.
One of the challenges is overcoming common practice and understanding the cultural environment. We are trying to tackle this obstacle by having multicultural teams of students working side by side with the local communities to solve the problems. Too many of these kind of NGO solutions fall from the sky and are not valued or understood by the users/customers. I've seen too many great solutions sitting rusting in the corner of compounds. This week all three student design groups will be visiting the sites for their projects. Sunday morning I will be meeting 8 of my Gambian students at the Brikama car park to catch a Gelleh-Gelleh to Gunjur. These students understand what they need to do with the folks at the health center, because they grew up in similar villages and know how things work. One problem is ownership. No one owns the system that “falls from the sky” - engaging local resources will help us address this ownership – responsibility problem. I've heard it said that PV cannot work in Gambia in part because the Gambians will not maintain the systems – I believe the problem has been one of lack of ownership and understanding of the systems themselves. No they won't maintain an alien system that fell from the sky. The students are trying a different approach. I will be staying in the background. I insist that these projects are the students projects – when they are done they will know they can do this type of work without me. Gavin and his 3 Gambian teammates will be heading out to Pirang on Wednesday.
We got a taste of a Gambian wedding the other night. The main festivities took place just outside our compound with some seriously loud drumming and dancing. We didn't crash the party, it started about midnight and went on until 2am and again the next night. Beth tried to record the audio – we don't have a great microphone so its hard to appreciate the volume (Listen the the audio file and just imagine you are about a mile closer than it sounds). Somehow Kurt and Nate managed to sleep through it, but Beth and Anna sat up and drank hot chocolate and talked until it was over.
Nate is loving the new chess set. He is getting very good. Now I've never had the patience to be much of a chess player, but Nate is now regularly beating me. We're pretty evenly matched, but he is getting better and I'm not so sure about me.
A family of at least 3 classic Type-A personalities is learning to take life as it comes. A year in West Africa will certainly do that. Further evidence: this afternoon Beth and I enjoyed our own Attaya break under the mangos in our compound. Earlier Beth found the required enamel teapot and glass tumblers, and just a couple of days ago added a locally made charcoal stove. Beth asks “How much for the small stove?” The shopkeeper replies “D25.” “But my friend said 15.” “She must be Gambian.” “Yeah” “OK 20 – toubob price” She paid D20 (about 70¢).
26 February 2011: This was a busy week, as I spent munch of the day last Sunday and all of Wednesday afternoon visiting the project sites with the Design students. On Sunday morning at 9:00, I found myself wondering why I had suggested we meet in the Gelleh-Gelleh car park. The place is hopping as I'm trying to find my students among the crowds while dodging the vehicles and trying not to breathe the exhaust fumes too deeply. After getting pointed in the direction of the vans heading to Gunjur I do find three of my students, a fourth arrives shortly after that. The five of us climb into the van heading to Gunjur and head out. Hassum had called me as I was walking to the car park to say he would meet us there. In fact other than the one student who couldn't make the trip on Sunday, all seven students were at the clinic before our 11:00 appointment. In fact, six of the seven were there by 10:00 and they were able to get started right away. I was very impressed - West African society is not known for its promptness. As the students get started I am impressed again, I faded into the background while they went to work making measurements, looking into system details and interviewing the staff. The students spent 2.5 hours going over all aspects of the system. During that time I was able to catch up with Yusupha Touray - he is now at the Ministry of Education, but as part of a prominent family in Gunjur, he helped me set up this project site.
Adapted from the student group reports: Gunjur Health Clinic needs their solar system to serve the center's daily needs. Its primary need is to supply light for thirty 5-watt bulbs for twelve hours every day from 7:00 PM, onwards. The secondary need is to pump two thousand liters of water every day. Other needs are running the vaccination freezers and charging mobile phone batteries for staff.
At the clinic they found two functional PV systems. One is not owned by the clinic; it is separately managed by a government program for the refrigeration of vaccinations. This is the system that is heavily shaded by a large plant (as seen in the figure below). Despite the shading this system is working adequately - definitely some extra capacity here. The other working system ran off one small panel, providing power to phone recharging and a nebulizer. The other three systems (all currently non-operational) in place included a total of 5 PV modules of various capacity, 5 batteries, 3 charge controllers and one inverter. The water pump in place is powered by a non-operational fossil fuel generator.
The health center has ten thousand dalasi (about $360) on hand to invest in their systems. The bottom line for the teams is to design a system that will optimize the functional use of the resources the clinic has.
On a side note, it was great to spend time with Yusuph, who walked over to the clinic from his compound while we were there. It was great to talk with him about UTG, teaching philosophies and the potential for an engineering program at UTG. The Ministry is also working on getting UTG integrated into the Fullbright Scholars program, which would provide a great path for other visiting faculty.
On Wednesday, I decided to meet the students on their way to the car park, by the Box Bar football stadium. We got out to Pirang just after 2:00 (again right on schedule!) and stayed for several hours. It was a great visit and the students did a wonderful job working with the clients. The students were able to interview some of the staff and really explore the systems: making measurements on module outputs, testing the effect of cleaning the modules, testing the batteries and reverse engineering system wiring.
From this group: "The first three [energy needs for the Center] have been prioritized based on MEHDA’s immediate needs. The remaining items were mentioned but have not necessarily been given prioritization.
1. Expanding the Center’s available water resources.
2. Bringing the non-functional Guest House solar cells back into service.
3. Expanding the lighting and [phone/computer] charging capabilities of the center.
• Electrifying MSC (My Sister’s Company) sewing machines
• Increasing the overall efficiency of the system
• Developing some method of automatically cleaning solar panels
It is very possible to meet the customer’s needs with minimal monetary investment. At the very least, a new 4000 liter tank will be purchased. The remainder of the needs could possibly to met using their current resources: 6 panels, two inverters, one pump, and three batteries."
One issue in Gunjur that is not an issue in Pirang is the ownership of the system. Jeremiah is the executive director of MEHDA and controls the resource management at the Center. In Gunjur, the students recognize an issue of ownership - there is not a clearly defined management structure at the Clinic. They are arranging a meeting with village elders and leaders to help address the issue of who will take responsibility for maintaining the system.
This Sunday we will be celebrating Beth's birthday at our favorite beach hangout - the Black and White Restaurant in Sanyang Beach. My friend Brewer also promised to take us out to his friends place in Sanyang in the near future. The beach will be great - it has turned hot this week with temperatures back well into the 90's. It is much more comfortable than October when those temps were accompanied with 99% humidity levels, but March is the hottest month of the year here. Of course, for those reading this in the snow belt - we are NOT complaining!
On Sunday 20 February, 7 UTG students and I visited the Gunjur health Center. Dr. Momodou Jain was able to meet us at the clinic just before we left and here the students are showing him around a bit. You can see 2 of the 4 sets of PV modules in the background) - yes, shading of the panels is an issue.
5 March 2011: We were jealous of Gavin and the KSAC students this week. They went up river to Tendaba Thursday through Saturday. We spent a few days at Tendaba last January and had a wonderful time there. It is a beautiful location on the river adjacent to two protected areas: a wetland reserve across the river on the north bank and a national park on the south bank. Tendaba is about a 4 hour drive (~120 km) up river from Brikama.
Friday, Momodou Jain and I had another meeting with the Ministry of Energy and an engineer from a private sector company that does a lot of work with PV systems, particularly for water pumping applications. I consider it UTG's first Engineering Industrial Advisory Board meeting. We went through a draft Engineering curriculum (with a focus on Renewable Energy applications) and proposed ABET's a-k learning outcomes as a starting point for discussing a desired set of skills and abilities for graduates of this proposed curriculum at UTG. The ABET outcomes held up well as a target for both the public and private sector representatives in The Gambia. This curriculum would develop at UTG over the next several years starting out with new courses being introduced as electives for physics majors, then a concentration within the physics major, before being fully developed as an independent engineering degree. Progress was also made in developing some internship type opportunities for UTG physics students.
After the meeting, Momodou and I walked the mile or so back to the Westfield junction where we could each catch transportation (gelleh-gelleh) back home. We were talking about teaching and some of the struggles facing colleges and universities. We came to the topic of women in engineering and applied sciences and, not unlike the US, there are far too few women studying in these fields in Gambia (I think there are 2 women in the physics department at UTG). The top women students are all studying nursing or medicine. Momodou works hard to create opportunities for young women in all fields through work with a Norwegian foundation. In The Gambia, like much of Africa, women do the bulk of the day-to-day labor in the villages and are used to working hard. The typical Gambain man – not so much. This cultural landscape makes the shortage of women in technical fields only more sharply felt; the stereotypical Gambian woman is more willing to stick with a difficult task than the stereotypical Gambian man. They are stereotypes, but the cultural reality stares you in the face when you walk through a village and see the women working in the fields while the men sit discussing village affairs under the mango trees.
My young friend Lamin Sise (or Ceesay, spellings vary), is a young man that has chosen to go back to school. I'm not sure how old Lamin is, he could easily be in his early 20's. Many others I've talked to stopped schooling after grade 9. You see, you need to pass exams to move on past each level after grade 9, but most (after hearing I'm a professor) explain they had to stop school to help support their family working at the market etc. Lamin did pass his exams back in January, and with the start of the spring term he is back in school at grade level 10. He called me Thursday evening and we ran together Friday morning. He runs very easily and smoothly. I did have his surname correct and he is not the Lamin that won the marathon in December. Still, he told me his 5k time at the Inter House (inter-school athletics) races is under 14 minutes. Now, my experience tells me Gambian race courses are not always USATF certified distances, but that's fast. His school training is in the afternoons, but his coach told him he can train on his own – there isn't anyone else that can keep up with his paces. I can't either - we ran intervals Friday; I was going all out for 1km intervals and he was just sailing along beside me. As we were finishing our run his school mates were heading into the school and we passed a young lady who was clearly scolding him for heading the wrong direction. So he does have morning classes - most schools in Gambia have two seperate sessions a morning session from 8 until 1 and then an afternoon session from 1 until 6. That explains why I've stopped seing him when I'm out for morning runs. Of course I was quick to tell him not to miss class for training – next time I'll suggest we run on the weekend. I'm not up for the heat of afternoon runs.
The beach and the food was wonderful again out at Sanyang Beach. No butterfish Sunday; we had to settle for ladyfish. There were a couple of other families at the beach this week. A couple of guys were fishing from shore and caught a sting ray about 2 feet in diameter. After seeing that laying on the beach, we stepped a bit more carefully in the surf. I think they sold it to someone, who cut off the tail (more than a meter long) and walked off toward the fishing center with it held up like a waiter holding a tray of food. Later a young boy was playing with the tail like a whip - I decided not to take him on.
12 March 2011: This morning (Saturday) after my class, I walked over to my office with one of my students and we found the chain link gate out front tied shut with blue plastic binding strap. Curious but mainly confused we untied the strap and proceeded up to the building – there we found the doors tied shut with rope. OK maybe they don't want us in the building – there was a pile of stuff in the halls. As we retreated back to the gate one of the watchmen came running over shouting. Yassin (my student) asked him what was going on and he said the University had gotten a bunch of new (cast-off) equipment and the building was closed. I went back to the house.
It has been 5 full months since we last saw rain. After the first 2 months of daily torrential downpours, followed by a few weeks of occasional drenchings (not really many light rains in the mix) it stopped. It likely will not rain again until after we're back in Pennsylvania. It is very strange coming from a place with full seasonal variation and rain (or snow) likely on any day. Here based on the date, I know it will not rain (no worries of having to move the graduation ceremony indoors here – unless of course it is planned for sometime between late July and mid October). Others built new houses from the traditional mud bricks just after the rains and now they just let it all dry – I assume they'll get the roof on before July. I talked with Yusuph (Mustapha's brother) who lives around the corner and he says it's just too hot now – the carpenter (I think that may be my chair maker Saidou) is taking it easy.
The water table is generally high and heavily tapped for agriculture and livestock. As a result, this time of year there are many garden vegetables available in the market: tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, lettuce. We've also grown tomatoes, okra, lettuce, watermelon and carrots at the compound. Last week Beth helped the women at MSC (My Sister's Company) can tomato sauce. You can buy a bushel in the market for about 75 delasis - less than $3. We have NAWEC (utility provided) water at our compound and can just turn on the tap (and pay the monthly bill) most days, others have hand powered wells. However, for agriculture the volume of water needed often requires powered pumping. Generators often do the job, but fuel costs are prohibitive. PV powered pumps have lower operating costs, but up front costs are much higher and often communities just don't have the resources to make that move. Both of our project sites include water pumping (for irrigation at MEHDA and for washing and drinking at the Health Center).
Rainy season crops – most significantly the peanuts (70% of exports are peanuts and peanut based products) – depend on the rains. “Any experienced peanut producer knows that water is the key to a successful growing season... Peanuts in this stage [60 day fruiting period] of growth are highly susceptible to drought” (2002, http://southeastfarmpress.com/timing-critical-watering-peanuts). Bananas are available year around, but do require a lot of watering. I will miss the bananas they are not like what we get in the US – its a whole other fruit. They are really good.
Along with the dry conditions comes the dust. “The dust got everywhere...It was impossible to put anything down or touch anything without it or you accruing a residue of the stuff, and you had no sooner washed and you were covered again... [everything was] scoured and stained by the dust...within days it looked like an antique.” Quote from Mark Hudson's account of a year spent in a rural viallage in the Gambia in 1985, Our Grandmother's Drums. It is impossible to fend off the dust. Between the dust and sand in the air (much of it blown in from the Sahara) and the smoke from folks burning dry brush and trash, breathing can be an adventure in and of itself – fortunately none of us have significant issues with asthma. Also the side roads particularly those lighter traveled become sand traps for vehicles. The sand becomes very loose like at the beach. The truck pictured below was stuck on the corner by our compound for 48 hours last Saturday – Monday.
One of the women Beth works with at My Sisters' Company in Pirang had her baby last week. Beth was hoping for a naming ceremony this week – but that did not happen. Traditionally for the first week after the baby is born the mother stays with the child at the compound. Then after that period the father hosts a celebration and the baby is given a name. An elder first whispers the name the parents have chosen into the baby's ear and then announces it to the rest of the community. The Gambians can't imagine that we have names chosen for the baby before they are born. The elder or father will take the baby out and show them the compound and significant locations in the village. I have a feeling I have been enjoying listening to a naming ceremony most of the day today in Brikama, with constant drumming and music.
On the projects, the students this week submitted what is known as their PDS (Product Design Specification) for their systems. This document, while still open for revision and updates, sets the framework from which the rest of their work is built. It fully defines the problem they are solving for each customer. All three groups submitted detailed specifications (5-6 pages) of requirements and constraints. I need to read through what they have, but at first glance they look very thorough and the students are ready to move forward. They have already begun conceiving all the possible ways they can solve these problems and will begin the analysis to determine the optimal solution within the context at each site. I think both groups will be visiting the site again over the next week; since through the formalization of their PDS, they discovered what additional data they needed before moving forward on particular design ideas. I am looking forward to seeing how things progress over the next several weeks.
Monday we also got to have dinner at Happy Camp, the compound for the St. Mary's students studying at UTG. We had a great time with the 4 students staying at the house this semester, the staff at the house, an alum of the program now serving in The Gambia with the Peace Corps and the resident scholar for the program for next fall. Susana is working on her PhD dissertation in Anthropology, looking at seed distribution policy and the effects on farmers (I'm sure I terribly over simplified that). She has been in The Gambia for two years, and will be teaching at UTG in conjunction with the program at St. Mary's in the fall. There is a great potential for design projects in agriculture.
19 March 2011: Sunday we went back out to Sanyang beach. It was quieter there this week; we were the only ones at the Black & White restaurant. Just before leaving we saw something going on out in the ocean. We're pretty sure it was a whale jumping
out of the water. The best photos are below, but they look a lot like your typical Loch Ness monster sighting, but we're sticking with our story of a whale sighting. Talking with our driver Muhammed at the beach, I found out he can speak 7 languages. He says “my English is not so good, I did not go to the English school,” but he also can speak Portugese, Spanish, French, Italian along with Mandinka and Wolof. He would love to visit Brazil, but he has put in his “paperwork,” and never heard back. The director of the MEHDA center has made several requests to travel to the US for conferences or meetings, but has always been turned down. We just take for granted being able to go where we want when we want (as long as we can pay for the ticket).
Monday was Commonwealth Day; more "paperwork." The Gambia is still a British Commonwealth nation. All the motor vehicle licenses and registrations needed to be renewed for the year on Commonwealth Day. We had a different cab driver later in the week (turns our Muhammed's phone was being recharged when we tried to call). He explained the delay at a police check point was due to "new year" enforcement, as many did not have their registrations renewed yet. He also admitted that while he did have his registrations renewed for the car, his driver's license was expired. “I just give them [police] D25 if I get caught – that's what they want.”
On the road out by Sanyang we saw a kankurang riding on the top of a gelleh-gelleh. He was wielding two machetes with a crowd of boys running along side with branches. He was covered in the shredded bark and looked serious. The traditional costume is made from shreds of camel foot tree bark (the leaves of the tree are shaped like camel footprints). I didn't take any photos – we've been told to steer clear of the kankurang . They are not taken lightly and strongly believed to have supernatural powers in the community. They are also known to treat interference seriously. Further up the road we also saw a “rice bag kankurang” (Anna's phrase). These guys are usually not the “real” thing and are dressed in costumes made from torn up rice bags rather than the bark. This one had sticks not machetes.
We will definitely miss our fresh tapalapa (thin sticks) bread. Earlier in the week I stopped by Saidou's shop to chat. He had been away for the past week since his wife just had a baby. “About six” was his answer when I asked how many children that was. Anyway back to the bread. One of the guys working at the shop was shaping a long pole (about 2.5 m) with a flat paddle like end. It was for the 'local' bread bakeries (tapalapa) – it did look like an extended handle pizza peel. The stone furnace they cook the bread in must be hot to need a 2.5 m handle. There are several bakeries in Brikama and the bread is delivered to shops every morning by bicycle. Saidou told me it was good that we ate the taplapa since it was good heavy bread that makes you strong. Not like the factory made Siifoo bread.
Thursday was Nate's 11th birthday. We had a nice celebration Thursday evening. Jainiba wanted to do something for the birthday, so she (or actually her daughter) made benechin and they came over for the party. We made Nate a checker board for his birthday and he and Jainiba broke it in at the party. Friday we took the day off and went to the Senegambia hotel pool for the afternoon. It was a very nice day and the kids had a great time swimming at the pool just off the beach.
Saturday evening we will be attending the wedding of Jainiba's niece (we think). It will be starting with hair plaiting at Jainiba's compound before moving to her brother's compound for the wedding. More on this hopefully next week.
At the car park in Brikama. You can find a gelleh-gelleh going just about anywhere in Gambia here - a few locations beyond Gambia as well. Folks will come around selling a variety of goods as well - mostly food (those are eggs on the woman's head); rather like stadium vendors at a ball game "Icey, icey get your icey here." There is a captive audience since vans wait until they are filled before moving out.
25 March 2011: We were able to go to the wedding last Saturday, so this week is primarily a wedding report. Things were supposed to start at about 1:00 with the hair preparations at Jainiba's compound. Beth went over at about 2:30, but the bride (Jainiba's daughter Binta calls her “my sister,” but we think she is actually Jainiba's brother's daughter – of course Beth didn't think Jainiba had a brother, so...) is not yet there. Binta called us at 4:30 to tell us her sister, Fatoumata, was now at the compound for her hair weaves and nails.
We arrived at about 5:30 and were escorted into the house. Jainiba has a sitting room with a loveseat, a couch and a chair, a coffee table and a large cabinet in a 10' by 8' room. We were to sit here and they brought us food Jainiba and her daughters had been cooking all Friday and Saturday morning: ebe (a very spicey soup with fish and cassava), benachin and the same banana and coconut smoothy drink they brought for Binta's birthday. We aren't crazy about the ebe, but the rest was terrific.
The compound is full of women prepping for the festivities. Sparkle is the name of the game (mirrored headdresses in silver, gold and blue; a red dress covered in red and silver mirrored discs) and bold mascara – along with the bride the other women are doing each other hair and nails and sharing mascara cases. Some of the women seem to change complete outfits several times. The dresses are complemented with stiletto heels, in the sand. The bride's hair takes several hours with fake hair weaved (sewn) into her hair creating a wedding cake like creation on top of her head. With the hair finished she changes into the glimmering silver wedding dress and complementing (gold and silver that is) mascara and lip stick. Subtle is not the style of choice.
As the action at Jainiba's is winding down, several kids are sent out with plastic chairs on their heads – to the wedding compound, I assume. We decide we will walk over, and are trying to find someone to walk with us - “No, no too far; we'll get taxis" and they do. There is a car for the bride, decorated with tape and puffs of cotton, and the rest of us pile into yellow cabs. The trip is about 1.5 miles.
At the wedding site (actually the street outside the compound) there is a huge crowd. It was dark (about 8:00) although the supermoon helped, the power was out Saturday night; and Jainiba and Binta escort us through the crowd into the empty compound. We were left for several minutes sitting on a bed in a candle lit room with Adama and Binta. After a while, we were led back out into the crowd outside, where a flood light illuminates the scene for video and still cameras. Did I mention the music? It was full tilt: the typical over amplified, who cares about distortion, volume. There are easily a few hundred people (mostly women) at the celebration. Pretty sure we were the only toubabs, and felt like a bit of a side show, several older women surrounded us asking for money. But, Jainiba sharply instructed us “Don't give any money to anybody.”
Except to the screaming lady, I guess. There is a woman who using the PA system (so she might not actually be screaming, but it sure sounded like it) chanting out something in Mandinka (?) - we had heard this before, at home. That music a few weeks ago – it was also a wedding. During this portion of the wedding, Jainiba and Binta take Beth up to the front of the crowd to hand this woman some money (less than $1) then other women start handing Beth money which she hands to this lady and then to the bride. After a while Jainiba says they can go, and someone else takes over the money transfer job from Beth.
After Beth gets back to our plastic chairs (I now have a better appreciation for the sign I've seen on the way out to Sanyang: “Plastic Chairs for Rent”), its time for chicken yassa. Trays are passed out throughout the crowd - excellent. Women have been preparing for several days (we think the money above helped with expenses). Then Beth was again pulled away by Binta to go with her to give her gift. After a photo in the spotlight, Binta put her gift in a large plastic tub with the others. They were all wrapped. Based on the shape of the packages, the set of glasses Binta gave was a popular choice.
At about 9:30 the plastic chairs are moved out, the wedding part was about wrapped up, and we were moving into the dancing phase. At first the video camera and spot light came around and the women danced for the camera (usually turning their backsides to the camera and grooving with the music). Every DJ session we've heard in The Gambia has included several playings of what must be the most popular pop song in the country: “Waaw” by Viviane N'dour of Senegal. “Wow wow wow, I love you, I love you, I love you, Waaw waaw waow” (wow/waaw mean yes in wolof). If you care for the full experience try:
This wedding was no exception, we headed out at about 9:30 after Waaw. We were ready to go, it is tiring to be the center of attraction when you just want to be at the back of the crowd. However, we were very grateful to have the chance to join Jainiba's family today and had a wonderful time. We found out later that the party keep going until 4:00 AM, and then got going again Sunday morning after a break of a couple hours and continuing through to Sunday evening. The men came out after we left Saturday night for the dancing, and at about 1:00 AM more benechin was served.
Jainiba our guardian, she is very sweet and is always looking out for us (her toubobs), decides she needs to escort us out to the main road to find a cab back to the compound. Along the way out to the main road, a cab is slowing down to turn into a compound, it has peace signs decals on the headlights, could it be, it is – its Muhammad our favorite driver. We climb in – he was heading home, his brother's compound is right there, but he is glad to take us home.
On Tuesday there was to be a lecture I was looking forward to on campus: Dr. Frannie Leautier from the African Capacity Building Foundation, "What Role for Capacity Development in Africa After Sixty Years of Independence: Capacity for Extracting Natural Resources or Capacity for in Innovation Approaches to Economic Development." Unfortunately as seems pretty typical, things do not start on time. The speaker had not yet arrived by 4:15 (the talk was advertised as 2:30 – 4:30). I don't know if she ever came, but either way I missed the talk.
The bride, Fatoumata, is in the silver dress, Jainiba's daughters Adama (far left) and Binta (far right) pose with Beth. Adama is too cute - she could not keep her dress on her shoulders all night and she was clunking around in her dress heels (about 5 sizes too big). Binta is holding her wedding gift.
2 April 2011: This past week it snowed in The Gambia. April Fools? Nate and Anna love April Fools Day. They each had pranks planned out for everyone in the family. To our surprise it is also a big deal in The Gambia; our friend Nyamo was telling us of various pranks he pulled, was a victim of, or in the case of Friday morning – stopped in its tracks: “I know what you are up to, its the 1st of April.” Back to the 'snow.' If you remember the photos I had of the huge silk cotton tree, this week we discovered where the name comes from. The tree gets softball sized dandelion fluffs on it which began to fall from the trees – Gambian snow! It did look like snow on the ground and stuck in the dried grass.
This year August was so long, it lasted into April (modifying a line from Dar Williams), so far... It will actually go into next August. The humidity is starting to climb back up. Thursday my student Gavin, mentioned that it actually felt and smelled like it could rain. It didn't; we expect the next rainfall sometime in June, last year graduation ended up during the rains (it was at the end of June). Maybe, I am learning to go with the flow – I wasn't even all that excited when I learned this week that the semester was going to end on April 30 rather than May 7: “Prof., I heard the semester is going to end a week early, how is that going to effect the timing of our projects?” Well, I guess we need to get them done a little earlier. The students are working out the details now for their designs – the Gunjur teams are heading back down to the health clinic this weekend. Actually, exams extend past mid May so we still have time. They have a study week between the end of the semester and the start of exams, but the exams now end on the 21st instead of running through the 28th. Rumor has it this is in part to avoid rain on the day graduation (it is still strange to think you can bank on a dry day, based on the calendar).
I'm also trying to go with the flow musically – I was in jazz band in high school, but was never great at improvisation: I would write out solos ahead of time. I started taking djembe drumming lessons. I finally called my friend Brewer's brother Sam. Sam runs workshops where people, mostly Europeans come and build their own drums and learn to play. Thursday morning I met up with Sam meeting him out front of the Brikama police station, from there we walked over to his compound and he showed me around including a fresh supply of wood for carving drums. Once he learned that I had a drum, but rather wanted to learn to play better, he started talking about two streams of training and who I needed to meet. We headed out of town to the Craft Market, meeting the father of the balafone (like a xylophone) player I met last December along the way. Sam has a performance group as well, and they have traveled several times to Europe. Out at the Market, I met a couple of the guys in Sam's performance group, we agreed that the solo drummer Abdou will start giving me some lessons (I think this is the first stream). Abdou is great, giving me a 90 minute lesson Thursday morning and we agreed that I would meet him at the market on Monday and Thursday mornings before my class. I'll have to figure out what to pay him – he said he will not charge me for the lessons “he and Sam agreed, this was from the heart” – and good business, Brewer and Sam had discussed me prior to our meeting – Sam had suggested I should compensate Abdou as I see fit, and they hope I will refer others to them. So far, that is a good bet, Abdou was very patient and a good tutor.
Mangoes are back – a very good thing. The mangoes in our compound probably won't be ripe until the rainy season but early mangoes are available in the market for as little as 1D a piece (about 4 ¢).
Anna had a great time playing with Jainiba's youngest two daughters the other day. They made sand bowls (see below), by pouring water into bowl shapes they made in the sand. The water was absorbed into a small volume of sand and they could lift out a bowl. Katie and Adama taught Anna how to do it and they had a great time together for several hours. Anna told us the other day she won't want to come again for a year, but she'd like to come back to visit everybody.
9 April 2010: Tourist season is winding down here. As I mentioned last week the humidity is on the rise, and will continue to do so until the rains come sometime in June. The other morning I actually took a picture of a cloudy sky. We haven't seen clouds like this in quite a while (since November?) - we've had overcast days, but it is usually just a hazy gray. Last Sunday, we enjoyed a great afternoon on the beach at Sanyang. Maamaa did say with the end of March she expects fewer customers, but she will come out for us whenever we want to come. We should try to call her on Saturday so that she can prepare, it is harder to get the fish later in the day now, so she wants to be able to get the fish from the market earlier in the morning.
The design teams are digging into the details of their projects now and have discovered the 'peeling an onion' nature of working on a project. The deeper they get into their designs the more they realize they need more data. All three groups will be heading out to the project sites for additional measurements. The Gunjur Health Center has redirected the students to shift the priorities in their design from lighting to water. They do not presently have sufficient funds for generator fuel to pump water. It will be a challenge to move this to PV with the limited resources they have, but at first pass it looks possible and will save significant resources on fuel.
A new NGO moved into Brikama in the past couple of weeks. YEP!Africa (Youth Enterprise Project) opened a center (called an enterprise palace) on the main road between our house and the campus. This week most of the activity seemed to be involved in painting and finishing up the building, but I'm looking forward to stopping in to see what they are up to. I really resonate with the philosophy of the organization (see yep! newsletter). In the story, I saw in the local Daily Observer newspaper, the founder of the NGO, Paul Englishman, was quoted as saying “I am urging you, the youths, to focus on your country’s development, and forget seeking greener pastures elsewhere, as you have a lot of opportunities here.” He went on to explain that the purpose of the project was to “create sustainable employment opportunities” through entrepreneurial businesses in The Gambia. The philosophy is centered on collaborations with “all as equals.” The newsletter states “fighting poverty is not a matter of giving money, but a matter of giving hope” and the Gambian Youth's “future is in their own hands.” Echoing the philosophy of the collaborative and independent work by the Gambian and US students working side by side in the Design course at UTG.
It does sound like my VIP treatment by Sam and Abdou was facilitated by Brewer. He said something about telling Sam to “take care of Kurt; he is like a brother to me.” I have been having a great time with the djembe lessons, I think I've come a long ways in a week and my hands are getting used to the beating. I'm playing for 30-60 minutes every day; Abdou is pushing me to get the rhythms we've done to the point that I can play them instinctively. Then, he'll bring some others over and we'll start playing in a larger group. A woman from the Netherlands came past Abdou's shop while we were playing on Thursday and she was heaping praise on Abdou, telling me about having Abdou teaching drumming to tour groups and running workshops back in the Netherlands.
When I stopped at the convent for eggs this week, the Sister that runs things lamented that the dispute with Senegal is preventing them from getting the feed they need for the hens. They can keep them alive with other foods, but they won't lay. They were down to 11 flats of eggs per day from 40 a few weeks ago. I'm not sure of the details but traffic between Senegal and Gambia is sharply limited right now. I guess if you were traveling into Senegal now you would need to change vehicles at the border. We had noticed increased prices at the supermarket and could not find our favorite chocolate spread anywhere (it is produced in Senegal). As everywhere else the fuel prices are also increasing, last week gelleh-gelleh and taxi fares were officially raised on the main routes, in an agreement between the National Transportation Control Association and the Drivers Union.
In sports news, Brikama United stands atop the GFA (Gambian Football Association) 1st division standings after 5 'fixtures' (games). They play their home games at the stadium near our house drawing large crowds.
16 April 2011: The other day I went out in search of a hydrometer (for checking the water/acid mix in batteries). We are going out to the Health Clinic in Gunjur on Monday and I wanted to have one along. As one of the guy's I met during my quest told me “not easy to find in Brikama.” It isn't hard to find the right places to look though. Most shops have signs painted with the items they sell or have display items hanging out front. I went to a dozen or so shops before heading back to a shop that recharges batteries for customers. He sold me the one he used in his shop. A win-win solution: he can get a new one and probably pocketed a little profit, and I got a hydrometer without having to go up to Serrekunda, for about $10.
We've started to realize that before long we will be getting ready to head back home to PA. At the craft market the other day, the kids were shopping for some small gifts for their friends. We are all looking forward to getting back home and seeing our friends and relatives again.
Beth had Nate and Anna write about some things they are thankful for. From Nate: the pizza at LaParissiene and the Black & White Beach Bar (both the restaurant and the beach), the people we've met (including Gary and Denise Williamson, Keta, Jainiba and more), geckos, and several book series (Nate has discovered that reading is a lot of fun); he is also thankful for Gladys the 1980's VW Golf belonging to MEHDA that takes Beth and the kids to Serrekunda every week for groceries. Anna noted that “Denise was a park ranger” and “Gary is a preacher, sort of. He's not an official preacher or anything, but he preaches at a village.” “Muhammed is our taxi driver...he knows us very well now. Once he even tried to refuse any money from us!” “Jainiba is our house cleaner and she's sort of our bodyguard, because she once walked mom down to our house with a gardening hoe because there was a man following her.”
Beth reflected that “I will deeply miss the simple life that we have here. We don't have to be anywhere at any given time.... I love the resourcefulness of the people here. "God will help me" is a phrase I hear a lot. If you don't have something, you learn to live without it, improvise, or make do with the things that you do have. I've enjoyed the togetherness of our family. My kids are best friends. We talk all the time. I love learning with Nate and Anna. So, it is with some trepidation that I think about returning to the fast-paced, competitive, land of opportunity. Of course, I can choose to live simply. But with external pressures and a multitude of choices, that decision isn’t always so simple.”
I echo Beth's comments on our simple Gambian lifestyle. It's so easy to get a distorted view of needs vs. wants back home. Living with friends in town that support a large family on the equivalent of $50/month, and professional (MS and PhD) colleagues at the University who struggle to pay a few hundred dollars for school fees for their children despite highly respected positions at UTG, really brings our relative wealth into focus. And then you realize that the Gambian families in my examples are considered financially blessed in the community here. At the same time, crime is almost non existent and essentially no one is homeless or starving. The woman who owns the shop where we buy our drinks has lived with her children in London and in The Gambia. She told me how her kids love the freedom they have here because she can just let them run out on their own without worrying about their safety.
Although with my schedule at UTG, I am not quite aligned with GMT (Gambia Maybe Time) as is common in society outside the University. The Gambian people greet you with such a friendly joy and sense of community. When I haven't seen someone for a while the greeting is always “I've missed you!” It often takes me 50 minutes to make the 20 minute walk home from campus after two or three conversations with friends along the way. I will miss my colleagues and students at UTG, we have had a great time working together.
I mentioned previously that Anna thought she would like to come back sometime to “see everybody,” Nate told us the other day that he wants to learn French so when he comes back to The Gambia he can “come the easy way, through Dakar,” Beth will be continuing her work with My Sister's Company with Denise Williamson States-side, and I will continue to collaborate with faculty and students at UTG.
23 April 2011: Last week we spent another great Sunday at Paradise Beach and the Black and White. Before the beach we went with Gary, Denise and Brian (a 2 month volunteer at MEHDA) to the small church in Kitty. Gary thought he would be giving the message, but a Gambian man also came to preach. Gary graciously allowed the other man to speak, but after 90 plus minutes we wished he wasn't so gracious. In Kitty the cashews were further along than in Brikama. In the photo here you can see a ripe 'apple.' We didn't realize people ate the fruit, but the kids and I discovered we really like them. Beth didn't like it as well. The texture is unusual, but the taste reminded me of a concord grape. The fruit is incredibly juicy almost like a sponge. Apparently the tree is equally moist – they are fire resistant, explaining why they are so plentiful in the countryside, despite the relatively minor efforts at harvesting and processing the nuts. At the beach we found a starfish and a shell of a spiny lobster.
The kids have really enjoyed Brian. He has nieces and nephews back home and Nate and Anna love playing with him – he puts up with almost anything they dish out. He has been a great help at MEHDA as well. Brian is a farmer back in PA and has jump started a program of Bokashi fertilizer, resurrected the solar food dryer, and helped out throughout the center.
Monday, I went back down to Gunjur with two of the students to get a final set of measurements on the equipment they have at the health center. The groups will wrap up their final analysis and design recommendations in the next few weeks. On the drive out the students asked me about getting copies of some of the reference books we have used this year. They have decided they want to start a 'group' working on projects like what we've done this semester. Wow! I was floored. I can't think of a better outcome from the course this semester. We talked about setting up a microfinancing funding program for projects that could be organized through UTG, these students are likely graduate assistants and will be able to assist other students with future projects.
For Easter we are taking a bit of a holiday from heat in Brikama and spending a few days at the ocean near Kartong. We will be staying at Sandele, a fabulous resort near this southern village. Sandele is a very small responsible tourism project managed by a great couple from the UK. We met last year when we stayed briefly at the resort during our first visit. The University is closed Friday through Monday for the Easter public holiday.
I am continuing my drumming lessons, and starting to feel like I'm making progress. I am currently playing 4 traditional rhythms along with each unique 'call.' I can now launch into any of the calls and go immediately into the appropriate rhythm. I can play each of the three tones, but my 'slap' doesn't sound as cool as Abdou's. Mine actually sounds like the description I read online, but his has this sharp crack sound. I'm trying to figure out how he gets that sound – he says I need to get my skin used to the skin (develop the callouses). Monday Abdou will teach me two more 'tunes' as he calls them before we bring others over to play with us. The tunes are meant to be played in a group with a collection of different sized drums and the basic rhythm is then improvised upon by the various players in turn. I meet him twice a week at his stall in the Brikama craft market. Anna says I am obsessed with Boom 1-2 1-2 Boom 1-2-3-4-5 Boom 1-2 1-2... (the 1st rhythm of djembe drumming).
My running friend Lamin is back on the road. I saw him Friday morning on a run and plan to run with him next week. He had been slowed by an injury lately. I gave him an old issue of Running Times magazine and he was inspired by stories of African runners.
We've been hearing a strange squeak from around the compound lately - it sounds like a squeaking swingset. See below for more details...
30 April: This week I finally convinced Anna to write a blog entry (previously she insisted that she “didn't want the publicity”). I've added a few comments as well in brackets[ ].
For Easter we went to Sandele for a vacation. [The university was closed Friday – Monday; Friday and Monday were national public holidays. Sandele is a great resort run by a wonderful couple from the UK. They have a fabulous responsible tourism philosophy highlighted by the fact that 25 years after inception (another 15 years or so from now) the ownership of the resort transfers completely to the village of Kartong. I encourage you to check out their website.] We stayed in a guest house, but last time [January 2010] we stayed in the lodges. We had [lunch just after arriving – Anna had] a pie type dish but it was like pizza with pie crust! It was very yummy. Our guest house had a view of the Ocean. The guest houses that were next to us shared our balcony. After we ate we went to the beach and I built a sand castle that was standing for three whole days! Dad put a sphinx in it, a spiral house that’s staircase wove all around it, a car (that was my idea), a weird square building with a dome on top, and a pyramid! It might be still standing! When we went to eat we had a choice of Curried chicken, sweet-and-sour fish and vegetable lasagna. Dad and I picked the fish, Mom picked the chicken and Nate picked the lasagna. For dessert we had lemon cake and I liked it. When we went to bed we could hear the ocean.
The next day we went to a reptile farm (Nate and I went there before) and they had some really big snakes! One of the snakes’ cage you had to walk in and those snakes were called Rock Pythons. They were huge [one was over 3 meters long]. They had the second most dangerous snake species in the world, and one group wasn’t with the guide and they were sticking their hands in the Puff Adder cage! (Puff Adders are the ones that are the 2nd most dangerous snake in the world.) I liked the mammal that they had and he was really cute! He loved hay and to get him out of his box that he slept in they rattled a piece of hay around. They couldn’t let him out, like they could let out the snakes, because he wasn’t scared of humans! I think that I’d be scared of humans if I were him! Nate and Dad put a Royal Python around their necks, but I didn’t because I really don’t like snakes too much. The Royal Python didn’t suffocate them. (If they did they wouldn’t let you put them on your neck!) When we got back Mom and I ate Basil Pasta (Which is like spaghetti.) and Nate and Dad ate Vegetable Moussaka which had lots of eggplant, which, I think, is yucky!
[Looking for adventure? The guy that runs the reptile farm, has been commissioned to measure crocodile populations in The Gambia. Of course they have no budget for this, but if you get together a group of 6-8 of your friends you can participate for the price of expenses only. You will head up river in dugout canoes, and work at night spotting crocs by seeing their eyes reflecting the light of spot lights. Once spotted, you zoom in to try to identify the species. The program does include a day of training before heading out.]
After that we went to Lemon Fish (Which is NOT a fish, in case you’re wondering! It’s an art gallery.) and we walked down the beach for a mile or so. Our instructions were “Go past Baio-Bab resort and then go about that same distance again.” We went past the resort and then Dad started to climb up every sand-dune to check. [Finally, something looked promising and I called Beth up to look.] Then Mom saw a windmill and she said that she remembered a windmill. Dad found a path and we went down it. We went through the bushes and Dad told us to imagine that we were Indiana Jones! When we eventually got out of the bush we saw Lemon Fish! We went inside. One of my favorite pieces of art was a carved dog that had long floppy ears! We went back the same way except Nate and Dad ran. That night for dessert we had chocolate cake with apples and watermelon. It was yummy. The last half day all we did was body surf and fix my sand-castle up. Then we went home! I was exited to get home and I was sad to go home. I was glad because then I could play Legos and do computer time. I didn’t want to go home because at Sandele you can go to the beach, not wash the dishes, and not cook. My favorite part was the beach.
[The rest of this week's post is from Kurt] Saturday was the last day of lectures, and my students are wrapping up their work. Next week is 'lecture free,' but exams don't start until the following Monday. The project teams submitted their final status reports on Friday. Their final project reports will be submitted on the 16th of May. I met an impressive young man this week. Alex is originally from Canada, but is living permanently in The Gambia. He is a computer programmer and musician and will be teaching at UTG in the fall. He taught at UTG previously and had set up a program for students to gain practical experience in programming. Students and recent alumni can work on funded projects as a type of paid internship through this University run program. The client pays UTG, but most of the revenue goes to the student workers. This program sounds like the perfect vehicle for setting up the project group my students were asking about last week. I think most of the initial projects this group takes on will be pro bono, but we want to set up a microfinancing fund to provide loans for villages for upfront costs. As each loan is repaid those funds can then be applied to the next project. This program at UTG appears to be a great way to administer such a program.
7 May 2011: Now that's a block party. Last week Saturday, the local youth football team held a fundraiser. We had been invited a few days before, and were looking forward to the event. As they set up we realized we were attending whether we wanted to or not. The 10 foot speaker towers were erected at the end of our drive immediately outside the gate about 30 feet from our front door. The event started with a drumming ensemble at about 6:30 and we went out into the street to join the festivities. A large (about 40 feet in diameter) circle of blue plastic chairs and upholstered couches was laid out in the middle of the street with the drums and speakers at one side. We were encouraged to sit in some of the chairs but opted to sit instead down the block with Ibrahim on the stoop of his shop. We asked if we could join him and one of his friends laughed and asked if where we come from you ask if you can sit, “here, if you want to sit you sit.” Soon dancing started with one or two women running into the circle and dancing with definite spirit. Other less bold dancers, including a group of boys, danced on the perimeter. Even less bold, such as yours truly, just observed from further back yet. The crowd soon swelled to a couple hundred, with many women decked out once again including lots of sparkle and heels (in the sandy streets – I don't know how they walk). At about 8:30 we went back inside the compound. Keta had a headache and Jainiba stopped by – she was furious “they should not have set up here” and maybe the real reason for her upset “why wasn't I invited?” We ate a late dinner and the kids got ready for bed, then the drumming changed over to the DJ. This was the fundraiser part; for D5 they would play requests. The volume was the usual maximum and I guess they raised a fair amount of money as the DJ continued playing until about 2:30 AM. One song in particular seemed to be a favorite of the mostly ~12 year old boys (the football team?) that made up the crowd late into the night. The kids managed to fall asleep shortly after nine, imagine falling asleep in an apartment above a night club. The next day one of the coaches apologized for where the DJ had set up, “they were not supposed to set up there,” and asked if the party disturbed us. “It was loud” I replied.
I've been able to keep at the djembe. I now know 4 “tunes” as Abdou calls them. For each, I know the bass and mid part. These two provide the base for the soloist (Abdou usually plays solo), who improvises on top. The sound quality isn't great; I'm just recording on the little microphone bulit into my little mp3 player, but here is a short piece of Abdou and I playing tune 2 . One day the bass player that plays with Sam and Abdou came by and the two of them showed me how the tunes I was learning sound 'full speed'. Here is tune 3: . I still have a ways to go, but it is fun.
Nate and I were watching The Fellowship of the Ring again this week. Gandalf tells Frodo, “All you [can] decide is what to do with the time that is given to you.” Simple and challenging words. As the academic semester winds up here at UTG, I am reflecting on the projects we have worked on (Oh, for a bit more time), and where we go from here: setting up opportunities for students from the US to collaborate with the students at UTG on projects to benefit communities in The Gambia; establishing a practical training program at UTG, with microfinancing resources to provide upfront costs, through which students and recent graduates can gain practical skills and assist communities; and sorting through the best way to serve the communities we work with.
I've been longing to have a more grandiose final project to showcase. While the work the students have done is good; after spending the necessary time understanding all aspects of the real problem, doing the site analysis, and reverse engineering of existing systems, time was short as we've reached the end of the semester. The students are working up final detailed design recommendations to get these faltering photovoltaic systems back up to full capacity, and are developing implementation plans for following through on the installation of new hardware. The student's work will be beneficial to the groups they are working with, by providing them with recommendations for investing their limited resources in the most efficient way possible. In Gunjur their work will help them “get the lights back on,” and in Pirang the work will help them know how to get the most out of the photovoltaics they have. Good work, but not exactly front page developments. I have to remind myself to take the long view, and trust that opening the eyes of a few students to the potential difference they can make in their own communities is far more valuable than what we accomplished in these past several weeks. I hope we have laid a good foundation for continued small steps over the next several years. Continuing to take those small steps is what I hope to do with some of the time given to me over the next years.
14 May 2011: Now in our last month of our 10 month stay here in The Gambia, we feel the pull of home and we are all a bit antsy. The school year is finishing up. I have to give an exam in Classical Mechanics next Tuesday and design teams will also be submitting their final project reports next week. On Wednesday we had our final exam slot for the design course and the groups presented their projects as a final status report. They enjoyed questioning each other about their designs. They also submitted a set of reflective individual questions regarding the projects – I've only skimmed through these so far, but I think it will be rewarding to go through them (at least most of them). I've been running through some of the types of detailed calculations the groups need to complete as they finish off their work. I've resisted getting too involved in the teams – I want the student to know that they can do this kind of work without me. But after the presentations, I felt a bit of a nudge on some of the details might be in order.
I read My Mercedes Is Not For Sale this week. A good book describing the author's journey from Amsterdam to Ouagadougou Burkina-Faso in his 1988 Mercedes 190D. He makes the trip for the adventure of the experience and to sell his car in a place where it is still worth something. The book details his experience coming through numerous border crossings (my sources [Edward Brewer] tell me the border between Senegal and The Gambia has been reopened [and Brewer doesn't miss anything locally or globally – he's a CNN junkie and fills me in on world events and US politics when I pass his shop]) and police check points, dealing with various hucksters and hustlers, and getting his Mercedes to Ouagadougou in one piece. “The problem of course is maintenance...Things in Africa come in two forms broken or almost broken.” This does appear to be true at times. Our power and water supply have been quite sketchy lately – the power outages seem to be effecting most of the grid connected areas. At the same time they are running wire out toward Pirang and the site of the new University campus. Brewer also told me they were installing new generators to power this expansion. Often the origin of this problem is found in the premise of this book, castoffs from Europe continue life here in Africa. Things arrive in Africa “almost broken.” The environmental conditions also take a toll, with the extreme temperatures, humidity, dust and downpours. The author runs through a list of possible causes but settles on economics as the principle cause: when you're living day to day its hard to spend the little money you have on preventive maintenance. We've seen this in the projects the students are working on. From a Western perspective, we can't imagine not taking care of our investment with proper maintenance. Of course that gets to the problem of dependency, and why we can't solve the problem with money even though money is the problem. The potential to turn the corner seems ready to emerge, the author sees it in the entrepreneurship and industriousness of the auto repair industry he encounters. I see it in the technicians that keep all that “almost broken” equipment running for 20 years after it's been given up as worthless in Europe.
Well, my next book takes me on a parallel adventure of sorts, shifting from the 1st decade of the 21st century to the last decade of the 18th. I've just started reading Travels in the Interior of Africa, Mungo Park's account of his travels through Gambia and Western Africa.
With the border reopened, maybe we will get one last tub of Delia chocolate spread before heading home – Beth said something about loading a suitcase full of it, but the weight limit may do that idea in. We also finished off our last 5 liter tub of dega (peanut butter sold by the pound in the market); we'll be buying smaller quantities from here on out.
Sunday, Brikama United takes on Wallidan at Box Bar (the stadium by the house). Brikama has never won the GFA 1st division championship, but after 10 fixtures they lead the standings with 24 points and a +9 goal differential (11 scored, 2 allowed). Second place Wallidan has 18 points, but has won more championships than any other club, 15 since the league formed in 1969. The stadium should be rocking.
21 May 2011: The semester officially ended yesterday, with the last of the exams. Earlier in the week I gave an exam in Classical Mechanics and Friday evening my design students turned in their final reports. I'll get those graded Monday and then get out to the clients to go over what the students came up with. I hope to get one or two students to go with me to each site, it would mean a lot to both the students and the clients. Two of the students in the design course never officially registered for the course. Their sponsorships fell through and they were not able to pay their tuition. This unfortunate circumstance was magnified by the fact that both were on the same design team. The remaining two on that team worked hard to finish up the project on their own. All the students came a long way this semester. None of them had ever done an open ended project like this before, and many were skeptical that they could. Like I said before, I found it very rewarding to watch the students discover their own potential to make a difference in their communities.
On Wednesday I went with Beth, Nate and Anna out to the primary school in Pirang. The school covers years lower and upper primary school (up to grade 9): over 1000 students and 33 faculty. As with most schools they use a 2 shift schedule with separate morning and afternoon sessions of about 4 hours each. Class sizes range from 35 – 51 students. Students from Rheems Elementary in Elizabethtown had collected books for us to bring along as a gift for a school in The Gambia. We met the headmaster at the school and Nate and Anna presented the books. We were also able to visit a 3rd year classroom. Anna told us on the way out that she could have gone to this school – except for the bathrooms (pit toilets). School fees are an issue in these public primary schools as well. Many families struggle to pay the fees, buy required uniforms, and purchase other required materials. My running friend Lamin, told me he was out of school last week because he missed a fee.
I pass hundreds of school children walking to various schools along the highway when I am running. They all ask me “what is your time?” If my answer is approaching the start of classes their pace will quicken sharply. Tardiness is not accepted. Jainiba's children have on some occasions come with her to the house because they were late, and the headmaster sent them back home. As the starting time approaches one of the teachers (or often a lucky student) stands outside the gate and rings a hand bell.
On Tuesday evening UTG hosted a thank you dinner for the 11 visiting faculty that served at the university this year. Things are often organized at the last minute; I received a text message Monday night at 10:00 letting me know of the dinner. Not all the visiting faculty were able to attend, but I enjoyed meeting and comparing notes with 4 visiting faculty from the law school I had not previously met. We all arrived within a week of each other last summer, but did not meet for nine months, 2 days before a couple of them were flying back to Canada. The law school is still up in Kanifing, which is more convient for the faculty in the law school, as many are practicing attorneys in the capital area. These four visiting faculty really made an impact, just by being on campus full time. The two Canadians, a couple of years out of law school, sent letters to every English-speaking university in Africa offering to come and teach – UTG was the only reply. They had a great time teaching constitutional law, and a rewarding time (if not so much fun) grading over 1000 written papers this semester. Their students made great strides.
On the drive home I saw a group of at least 50 women cleaning the street. They had closed off one side of the highway for several blocks and were sweeping and hauling away the dirt from the road. It was about 11:00 at night. Musa (head of facilities at UTG) was driving, he told me “they are Jola's, they are very loyal to tribe and will do all they can to ensure the success of the President.” Interestingly earlier in the day I had read a description of the Jola from the late 1700's in the book I mentioned last week: "they display the utmost gratitude and affection toward their benefactors" (Mungo Park, Travels in the Interior of Africa).
No one is sure yet when graduation will be held, but it does sound like it will be held at the new campus out past Pirang in Faba Banta. The facilities are coming along out there, but I think they are still a ways from moving in. NAWEC (National Water and Electric Company) is currently running power lines out toward the campus and new generators have been installed to support the load. I hope they can handle it. Our power has been better since the border reopened last week, but we still have outages. The power went out during the dinner Tuesday night and no one missed a beat. My colleagues and I wondered how long our new found patience and adaptability will carry with us in the less patient and accepting West.
Mangoes are now our primary fruit. Different types mature at different times. Our trees are loaded with fruit, but not ready for harvesting. In July I guess, there are so many you can't give them away. My Sister's Company has canned some previously to take advantage of that short period of abundance. I watched two young men harvesting fruit from a tree last week. The trees can be quite large (see image), one boy climbed the trunk of the tree with a long pole (~10 feet) and used that to knock mangoes from the branches. His partner broke the fall of the fruit with a rice bag stretched between his arms, catching them in the loose fabric before letting them drop to the ground. I didn't have the camera with me so you'll have to do with this description.
28 May 2011: Sorry for the delay in this week's posting. We exceeded our monthly quota on our 3G internet stick and were cut off – so I had to wait until Monday to post this from campus. It was a little surprising, since we had gone over the limit in previous months without a problem. I guess we exceeded the grace limit, too many Windows updates. Having a reliable (if a bit slow) internet connection at the house, something that wasn't available a couple of years ago, kept us connected with family and friends back home and made the world a bit smaller.
Access technology is increasing in The Gambia. Most Gambians have never used a computer and even some physics majors at the university are uncomfortable using them (others have their own laptops). Beth has been teaching Binta (Jainiba's high-school-aged daughter) to use a computer – in particular they've set up an email account and she is learning how to access that at the internet cafe.
My new friend Alex, a resident of The Gambia (originally from Canada) working at UTG has successfully bridged the technical gap in software development. UTG has moved quickly into the field of computer programming with many students studying there. Alex has software development contracts with local companies and with others abroad, and in many cases can engage students and alumni in that work with him. Alex (his Gambian name is Greig Conteh) has also been able to blend his passions for music and programming. He performs with two Gambian musicians in a group called Bafila blending guitar with kora. You can hear his music at reverbnation.com I encourage you to check it out. I also enjoyed exploring other artists on the site.
With the family we are enjoying a few final treats before our departure. We were able to get back out to Paradise Beach again last Sunday for our last round of Maamaa's fish and chips. The tide was in and the waves were large – the kids and I had a great time in the water. Binta also came with us, and while she can't swim and the water made her very nervous (she bravely did venture out into the waves for a while) Nate and Anna had a great time playing with her on the beach. We hope to have Muhammad take us to Lamin Lodge (a place we've heard a lot about but haven't been to) for dinner and a chance to say goodby to him. We also hope to see Yusupha and his daughter Sally later in the week.
Back on the other side of the technical gap, I felt the frustration of the limited access to technology Friday as Momodou Jain and I spent several hours working our way through the commercial center of the country in Serrekunda/Kannifing trying to find lab equipment for the University and scouting availability of equipment for PV systems and water pumps. The country is filled with a particular hand pump, but finding parts for it...well I have two leads – individuals who might know where I can get supplies. There are only a handful of options for PV modules and controllers in the shops. Batteries are even worse; the only readily available batteries are just big car/truck batteries – not optimal for PV systems. Other options if you can find them are priced out of most applications. The car batteries could be OK, if they are not drained very far, but many abuse them and the batteries need to be replaced frequently. Conveying an understanding how to use and maintain (maintenance again) a system is a challenge that must be addressed. Our work with the Gunjur health center has brought us face to face with all of these challenges. We'll be heading out there again this week for a final consultation. I wish we could solve all their problems, but we can't. In fact I needed to remind myself that previously someone did 'solve all their problems' for them, and here we with the same symptoms 'solved' just a few years ago. I hope we have started down a road that will lead us to a better more sustainable solution. Our work here will continue and I am looking forward to our continued collaborations. Hopefully more Etown students will be able to participate in this work. I am glad to have started on this path. The reports the students put together will help the leadership at the clinic make better decisions regarding their PV systems, moving them toward a more sustainable system over the long term.
In Pirang the ownership of the PV resources clearly resides in the hands of the director and he takes the maintenance of the system seriously. In Pirang, the student's recommendations will be immediately valuable as the center as they will be taking delivery of a second water tank very soon and look to increase the capacity of the main PV system soon.
As I wrap up at UTG, amidst many difficult goodbyes (“We will miss you!”), I am trying to put the links in place to facilitate our future collaborations. This will be my last posting from The Gambia – I'll see many of you soon!
Kiyara be (I wish you peace).
6 June 2011: We're home after an exciting, busy, sad, joyful, final, initial, long, short, transitional week. Exciting. Lamin lodge, site visits, anticipating arrival home and seeing family and friends. Busy: so many final preparations – everything we needed and wanted to do before departing had to get done. Sad: so many goodbyes to friends, leaving a home and community we've become a part of. Joyful: being greeted at the airport by Beth's parents 10 months after they dropped us off, coming to the full realization of all the new friends and colleagues we have and how deep even some of the simplest of those have become. Final: students delivering their reports, closing accounts and my office door for the last time, departure. Initial: Creating a fund with the Norwegian NGO Aktive Peace Foundation to provide the possibility of micro-financing student/alumni community service projects, preparing for future collaborations. Long: waiting for the end of the week , close to 30 hours in airports and planes. Short: not enough time to get it all done – suddenly “here we go.” Transitional: all of the above and the cultural shock/adjustment and personal prioritization.
It took us 10 months to get there, but Lamin Lodge is a very cool place. The lodge is a great rustic three level tree-house of a restaurant built in the mangroves halfway between the airport and Banjul/Serrekunda. A few kilometers off the main road, it feels much further removed from the bustle than that. Our driver and friend Muhamad was planning to drive for us on Sunday, but was not able to get back to Brikama in time, but he stayed and took us on Monday. His car broke down (beyond repair) a few weeks ago, and he has gotten a new job driving a private car in the Serrekunda area. He has become a good friend to our family; we never liked calling other drivers – Muhamad was a joy to have around on our excursions. Friday, he came back to Brikama again and dropped by the compound to say good bye to “his family.” At Lamin Lodge while enjoying great seafood, we had fun watching the kingfishers dive, and the monkeys lurk hoping for an unattended plate. Muhamad took charge of the provided “monkey stick” and kept them at bay. We also found a large crab, a mud puppy like fish with two legs, and these unique green almost crocodile like fish in the mud and water of the mangroves.
In Pirang the director of MEHDA, Jeremiah, had begun to put action items into practice and clearly valued the data in the student's analysis that will guide his decisions moving forward. The students came away from their meeting with the director of the center beaming. Next steps at this site would be to work with the center to develop small scale power systems for villages or cooperative sets of compounds. As a center dedicated to developing new ideas for communities, such initiatives could well be in the works. Gavin, the student working on the MEHDA project from Etown, worked on a secondary project this past semester examining background related to the same concept. Many community groups do not have the up front resources for such a system. To attempt to address this difficulty, Momodou Jain and I have set up a fund within the Norwegian NGO Aktive Peace Foundation to provide for upfront costs with interest free micro-financing. We hope engaging the communities own resources in this way will help counter the issues we've seen in too many externally funded projects that fall from the sky into a community. Another positive outcome for MEHDA came out of a budding collaboration with an old friend and professor at Rowan University. She is working on rope pumps in The Gambia. MEHDA has an older generation of the pump (and currently malfunctioning) from Concern Universal that the students and faculty at Rowan are working on. In the process of a bit of ground work for this group, I met one of the principles at Concern and sent contact information for the man supporting these pumps on to Jeremiah. The Gambia is a small place – everybody seems to know each other – Jeremiah did know this gentleman and he will be coming out to MEHDA, either repair or replace their rope pump. The rope pumps from Concern are made completely from locally available parts and technology – yet they don't seem widely used. Parts for the widely used Mark II pumps are harder to come by. Most of these pumps were donated years ago by Saudi Arabia. The Rowan team is working to adapt the rope pumps for deeper wells which would expand their usefulness.
“I think the Pirang group had more fun today.” Hassum summing up their delivery of their report in Gunjur. While the students did pretty much the same work in quantity, content and quality, the difficulty in Gunjur stemming I believe, from the lack of ownership led to a frustrating session. One struggle associated with the ownership problem was the man the students were working with was the chief doctor at the clinic. He doesn't have the time to manage the power systems and understandably seemed to want the students to come in and solve all his problems. Unfortunately, this was beyond the scope of the student's work this semester, and would likely only further propagate the ownership issue. This problem also manifests itself in a total lack of understanding of their system, and therefore improper management of the system and very poor maintenance practices (as I discussed in previous weeks). However, a few paths forward emerged this week as well. The first, on our drive back from Gunjur, as typical when you have room and someone is going the same way, we picked up a gentleman we had met briefly at the clinic who was heading back to Brikama. We discovered he is the accountant for the health center, was very interested in the students' work, and quickly requested a copy of the their report. He promised to act on it soon, as he saw that the recommendations would save the clinic money. A great start, but he is only in Gunjur occasionally, so management and maintenance will have to come from others, potential collaborations with Yusapha Touray, a good friend, a community leader in Gunjur as well as the Director of Research and Planning at the Ministry of Higher Education, Research, Science and Technology; along with UTG and US students in other disciplines, could move us forward.
We enjoyed many touching farewells this week. On Wednesday, 10 of my students came by the house with food and small gifts to say thank you and goodbye. On Friday, there were lots of goodbyes. Several neighbors came over to have Attaya tea, a few hour social ritual. The feeling of friendship across such a cultural and economic divide was powerfully moving to me. In the same way as a family we had dinner with Jainiba, her 4 daughters and Keta Friday evening. We will miss all of them dearly, and look forward to seeing them again.
It was a great year and is a great beginning to many friendships and a long professional collaboration.