Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas…

25 Dec

You all know the song. It’s inescapable this time of year, and it goes “Have yourself a very merry Christmas,” and then continues…

Through the years we all will be together
If the fates allow
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now

If the fates allow… Well, let me tell you about a Christmas that wasn’t merry. At least, it didn’t start out that way. In fact, it started off as downright depressing (Don’t worry, it got better). It was the first Christmas of my Peace Corps service, and this is the tree we had. Yes – that little thing there. You see where I’m coming from.

The dinky tree.

The dinky tree.

Next to it are some packets of Vache Que Rit (aka The Laughing Cow cheese) and a bottle of Maggi sauce. I’m not quite sure why we put them by the tree – maybe as a poor man’s substitute for milk and cookies. The tree was a fake, because we were in Cameroon, and pines are a bit thin on the ground in Africa. My parents had mailed it to me, along with miniature decorations, and we’d set it up in the Peace Corps staff house of Garoua, capital of the North Province in Cameroon, where several volunteers stayed while finishing their language training. The rest of us, having passed our tests, had all gone off to our individual villages two weeks before.

Those were two of the longest weeks of my life. I felt isolated, alone – the only American in a Cameroonian village – and somehow expected to start projects with farmers in the fields. But that could wait until after the holidays. For the moment, everyone said “Rest. Relax. You should adjust first.”

So I adjusted by fleeing back to Garoua and spending Christmas eve at a hotel, watching Cameroonians hold a dance party, shaking and grooving to hip-hop made indecipherable by scratchy speakers. I can remember crying, because I missed my family and wanted to be somewhere familiar for the holidays.

On Christmas morning we gathered at the training house, and looked dejected and lost as we lay on piles of mattresses left over from training. Listening to John Lennon’s Happy Xmas (War is Over) – also known as So This Is Christmas – probably didn’t help. Strike that, I know it didn’t help. A song that says “So this is Christmas / And what have you done? Another year over / And a new one just begun” is not an appropriate salve for the spirits of people who’ve left behind everything familiar to spend Christmas on a foreign shore. What, indeed, had we done?

Finally someone just came out and said it: this was the worst Christmas ever. We all grunted and agreed, and suddenly it didn’t seem so bad. It felt as if merely acknowledging our dejection cleared the air. We began to stir from the mattresses – even to smile a little. I handed out some lollipops I’d bought at the “expat store” the day before, and Lennon stopped singing. But in the end, you know what helped the most? Watching Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Weird, right? Something about those upbeat songs, the connection with childhood, and the silliness of watching a cartoon clock arguing with a candelabra…

You know what? I take it back. It wasn’t so bad after all. I can honestly say the rest of my service went uphill from there, and I learned to be grateful for the little things. So I guess what I’m saying is, be grateful this holiday season. And have yourself a Merry Little Christmas now.

The Emperor’s New Clothes

11 Nov

Yesterday I mentioned the Gambia’s president, His Excellency Dr. Al-hadji Yahya Jammeh. He may have more titles than that by now. He seems to accumulate them the longer he remains in power – and he’s been in power for some time now.

It’s not an uncommon story: young, (possibly) idealistic soldier gets tired of serving under a stagnating regime, said soldier decides to do something about it. Dawda Jawara, the Gambia’s first president, had been president for more than twenty years when Jammeh decided to stage a coup. Jammeh was a colonel at the time, and after he and a few army buddies staged a bloodless coup on July 22, 1994, he took to holding press conferences in army fatigues and Aviator sunglasses. It’s like he took a page from Hollywood’s dictator playbook.

Things had changed by the time I visited in 2004. Jammeh was still in power, having won elections in 1996 and 2001. Since then he’s won elections in 2006 and 2011, but each election is more questionable than the last, and Jammeh’s said that no elections will remove him from power.

I think I met him when the Gambians still held out hope for their leader. He was the man who ended the Jawara regime, and those Gambians I met always said that even if he hadn’t kept all his promises, and even if he sometimes threw opposition journalists in jail, Jammeh was still better than Jawara. And he had learned the art of flattering the donor nations. He no longer wore army fatigues to functions. Instead he favored a flowing white robe, with a wooden staff at his side, and he spoke always of the wonderful connection between America and the Gambia.

He spoke also of St. Mary’s College of Maryland, where I went to school. I suppose it was the least he could do. We’d asked him to speak at graduation, and given him the honorable doctorate he so proudly showed off with his other titles. I wonder how much “legitimacy” we granted him by bestowing that title?

We met him at his birthday party, which he had graciously delayed in order to hold a party for the outgoing American ambassador (a fact that every minister made sure to emphasize when they spoke). No birthday is complete without cake, and Jammeh rose to cut one decorated with the colors of the Gambian flag. His wife Zeinab Suma and their daughter Mariam stood next to him, be all appearances happy and content (in 2010, Jammeh married a second wife half his age).

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But doesn’t his daughter look cute? She looks adorable.

So when people ask me about the president, I’m forced to say that he seemed nice enough when I shook his hand. He seemed nice enough before he suppressed a coup attempt in 2006; before he claimed that an ancestor visited him in a dream and gave him a cure for AIDS (which he naturally shared with his loyal followers, who had no further need of real medicine); before he said he ruled by God’s grace and no earthly power would remove him; before Amnesty International reported that as many as 1,000 Gambians had been abducted by government-sponsored “witch doctors” on charges of witchcraft, taken to detention centers, and forced to drink poisonous concoctions.

He seemed nice enough. But I’m starting to think we should take that doctorate back.

Muezzins I Have Heard on High

10 Nov

When I visited the small, West-African nation of the Gambia, one of the strangest things (to me) was that 90% of Gambians are Muslims. Not that there’s anything innately strange about that – plenty of countries have a Muslim majority. But this was a few years after 9/11, and while I never subscribed the notion that all Muslims are terrorists, Islam itself was still new to me. Prior to my trip to the Gambia, the religion had primarily been represented by the sultan in Disney’s Aladdin, and the nameless enemies of bloody crusaders. That’s no way to foster understanding. Understanding should come from real experience, up close and personal, not from stylized or stereotypical views of “the other.”

But maybe that was one reason why I wanted to go to the Gambia: I thought it was something different, so very different from everything I’d known in my suburban life. Bright colors! New people! Shiny – sign me up.

I felt excited when I got there and heard the call to prayer echo down the street near my hotel. Mosques are ubiquitous in the Gambia, like churches in America. Every town’s got one, or two, or ten. On Fridays in the Gambia, men in long robes crowd the streets on their way to mosque, kneel on mats and prostrate themselves toward Mecca. The men can marry multiple wives (the girls in my traveling group were… perturbed by that). In the capital city of Banjul, the twin minarets of the King Fahad Mosque tower over almost everything else. The only thing that equals their height is the July 22 Arch, a memorial built by President Yahya Jammeh to commemorate the coup that brought him to power.

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It all seemed terrible exotic when viewed from afar, but up close, the Gambians didn’t seem that different. They tried to eke out a living in an impoverished corner of the world, loved their families, worked hard to give their children bright futures – and loved Americans. Or at least, they loved our money. Either way, they were friendly and welcoming, and they made me feel like the Gambia wasn’t some strange land after all. It might be different, but the things that kept us apart didn’t feel as important as the things that brought us together.

Bonus picture: July 22 Arch. From this distance, you can’t even see the cracks!

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What Lurks Below

9 Nov

In the Gambia (and much of Africa), having a big family is kind of a big deal. If you’re a twenty-something woman without at least one kid under your belt, you get strange looks. Is there a problem? Is something wrong? Why don’t you want ten children?

Not everyone thinks that way, and you can always find parents who take a view that’s closer to the modern American one. A couple of kids is enough for them, especially if they want to put those kids through school. But there are still plenty of reasons for large families: less social acceptance of effective birth control, the need for children to help on a farm (or carry on the family trade),  knowledge that some of those children may die young, and finally tradition itself, the expectation that this is what’s normal and what should be done…

So when a woman can’t get pregnant, it’s cause for concern. In fact, it’s cause for enough concern to make some women swim with crocodiles.

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Not just anywhere, mind you. That would be crazy. No, they swim at specific sites, where the waters are supposed to cure infertility, including Katchikally sacred crocodile pool (where the picture was taken). The women who’ve been cured by the waters of the pool form a special group – a family bonded by shared experience rather than blood – and gather to sing praise-songs at ceremonies. As far as I’m concerned, any woman brave enough to swim with crocodiles deserves all the children she wants. Look at that water. Look at that crocodile, just waiting for you to jump in. Would you go swimming? How badly do you want a kid?

Pretty darn badly, I’d say.

Death to the Cannibal-witches!

8 Nov

Say hello to the kangkurao:

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The kangkurao does not say hello back. I don’t think they speak. They’re demon spirits, summoned to enforce social order and drive off cannibal-witches in West Africa. Dressed all in bark, carrying a whip and a machete, the kangkurao is summoned by village elders (there’s nothing like a bark-clad demon to keep the young ones in line).

Sadly, I saw none of them during my time in the Gambia and Senegal. At least, no live ones; every museum had a copy of the costume. The connections to the spiritual world that I saw were subtler, less violent and certainly less threatening: people praying on mats and facing Mecca, the call to prayer from a mosque’s muezzin, and the small ju-jus, the charms made by holy men to keep you safe from evil.

Beginning in the Gambia

7 Nov

There was a movie playing when I went to register at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. It was Tubabs in Africa, a documentary made by Yellow Cat Productions about a field school the college ran every other year in the Gambia. I’d never even heard of the Gambia at that point, but I stopped in the screening and became transfixed. Images of smiling students, sunburned and happy, flashed onscreen, and when it ended some of those students talked about their experiences studying with blacksmiths, midwives, and fishermen.

I was hooked. The chance to spend seven weeks studying abroad, learning about traditional life in a country that looked so exotic, so utterly different from everything I knew… I walked right out of the theater and told my father I wanted to go to Africa. His reaction was mild, but I think that’s only because he didn’t really take my sudden desire seriously.

And why should he? I’d never been particularly adventurous. I’d spent most of my life trying to keep quiet at the backs of classrooms. But two years later I was on the road, and my parents were worrying themselves sick about their oldest son traveling in the “Dark Continent.” The first thing I did after landing was find a call center and telephone my parents, reassuring them that I had, in fact, not yet been eaten by lions. And after visiting the call center, a few of us walked down a small beach to a pier where a fisherman mended his nylon nets. The quiet and peace at the end of that pier felt incredible, but in the picture below we’re on our way back to shore, where other fishermen lurked to pester the girls with persistent questions. Ah, well. Nothing is perfect, but… It was the start of a special journey. If you want to read more, you can always buy my book African Summer (available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback).

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Song for a Winter’s Night

6 Nov

It’s gotten cold here in Pennsylvania. I don’t have many good pictures of fall, so let’s jump ahead to thoughts of winter, the way my mind always does the moment leaves start dropping like flies. So here’s a few pictures taken from winter days at St. Mary’s.

First the sun starts sliding and the moon comes up…

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Then the sun dips farther down…

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Soon all that’s left is the blue, purple and pink of a winter sky.

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I guess what I’m trying to say is, it may not be my favorite season, but mother nature still knows how to put on a show.

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