One Year

I left The Gambia for the first time in one year. Admittedly I didn’t go very far, but it felt light-years away. I traveled to the city of Thies (pronounced Chess) in Senegal to learn all about the ins and outs of Peace Corps attempts to stomp out malaria in sub-Saharan Africa.

It was a culture shock being in an environment where everything and everybody worked, where there was a schedule that was stuck to, where punctuality was an issue, where every meal was delicious. The main shock of it was that the training was for ten whole days. Normally when I get some respite from village life I am away for only a few days. I go to the capital, consume some internet, ingest some nutrients, stock up on wads of cash, and buy some things (mainly peanut butter) and swiftly head back. I don’t go for long enough to adjust to life with electricity, running water and English as a viable language. But ten days was long enough to remind me of the huge benefits to life with what many people in the world consider basic amenities. It’s so much easier to get things done when you don’t have to expend precious willpower on the little things.

I’m a big fan of making to-do lists daily, the problem is here there are some mundane activities which which repeatedly take up space on my list – fetch water, wash clothes, seriously sweep hut, buy vegetables. Getting any of these things done I sadly see as a serious achievement. This I believe hinders me by distracting me from doing other more challenging important work. Obviously this view point derives from a conception of willpower as being an expendable commodity, something finite that can be used up, rather than seeing willpower as a muscle that with greater use gets stronger. I know for some people that having to work harder to maintain a relatively clean and healthy life motivates them, they build momentum out of the daily grind of life here, and at points I relate to that. When you have the energy life here can be exhilarating, there is always something to do, whether it be helping out at the farm, learning some language, planning our water project or doing any of the myriad number of things that need to be done at the school. But more often than not the sheer enormity of the task of living and doing a job here clogs up my motor and I sputter to a standstill. Health and heat are clearly big factors in people’s productivity here. My outlook on a cool day when my stomach is doing what it’s told is poles apart from my outlook on a hot day with a mardy belly. And that is the same anywhere in the world, it is just more of a recurrent theme of life here.

Back to Thies, Senegal. I’m in a rambling bumbling mood, pray forgive me, I doubt there will be much coherence or lucidity to this post. I’ve ticked of all the things on my list that I needed to do today and am now writing on auto pilot to use up the rest of the day rather than writing with a particular story to tell, insight to divulge, or any wisdom to impart. So as I was saying back to Thies, second largest city in Senegal, a leafy junglish urbanity. Begonias straddle the breezeblock walls of it’s suburbs, as plastic bags mask the sidewalks of the inner market. I had traveled here with two other volunteers from The Gambia. Kathy, a delightful ‘older volunteer’ who works in the health sector with an infectious positivity, and Ryan a hyper organized thirty one year old Californian IT specialist. We had been picked up at the border and whisked onward by Peace Corp transport, the customary huge white gleaming Toyota Landcruiser. I don’t know how the decision was mad but all Aid purchased vehicles have to be white Landcruisers. They’re more practical than a white horse and they convey the same message. I hate streaming through the country in them, insulated from reality, cocooned in AC, flaunting your acres of unused space to vehicles overloaded to the point of tipping over and to anybody who futilely tries to hail a lift. Aid agencies don’t give rides to strangers, it’s not humanitarian enough fro them. It annoys me, not quite on a Paul Theroux level, who in the book dark Star Safari denigrates the whole Aid industry seemingly due to the WHO’s refusal to give him a ride in Malawi, but it certainly peeves me. Don’t get me wrong, on a personal level it’s the lesser of two evils. I mean taking Peace Corps transport greatly reduces the risk of being peed on by a goat or having to have an old lady sit on your lap, both realistic risks if you take a shared taxi in The Gambia.

So from the Senegalese border we bumped along the dirt road at a furious pace. It seemed the further we got from The Gambia the smoother the road got. The immediate appearance of so much French startled me. Although I was clearly aware that The Gambia and Senegal shared different colonial pasts and thus had different ‘national’ languages. I didn’t think the difference would become apparent so instantaneously. You can travel along The Gambia and be quite ignorant of the fact that English is the ‘national’ language, there are very few road signs, shop signs and advertisements are near non existent up country. Not so in Senegal, mobile phone service providers bienvenue you from roadside hoardings, extravagant French graffiti greets you from town walls.

After four hours of insulated speedy driving we were deposited we were deposited at Peace Corps Senegal’s Thies training center, a vast ex army barracks given to Peace Corps in the 80’s by the Senegalese government, Peace Corps is not allowed to purchase property so it relies on renting property or donations. We were immediately thrust into our first training session in a pristine air conditioned conference room. Our Gambian cohort were the last attendees to arrive, embarrassingly considering we had the least distance to travel. Participants for the training had come from Peace Corp posts across Africa, from Benin to Uganda, Malawi to Rwanda. It was these people who I would learn the most from over the next ten days. We slunk into the back of the room. Everyone’s faces were aglow from the obligatory laptop in front of them, there eyes looking expectantly at the projected image at the front of the room. The first session was to be an in depth look at the life cycle of the malaria parasite and its vector, the mosquito. The session was delivered by a doctor from John Hopkins University via Skype. My mind was blown. Science and Skype was too much for my unaccustomed mind to take. Furthermore the plethora of acronyms that bombard you whenever you talk about malaria didn’t help – ACT’s, IPTp, LLIN, IRS, MPI, WHOPES – all things that anybody who wants to talk about malaria prevention needs to be able to converse in sadly. It’s all a little pretentious, the use of acronyms within Aid serves mainly to make a lot of people who are not quite sure what they are doing or why they are doing it feel like an expert. It’s also a way of creating a barrier to entering the conversation for the layman. Obviously acronyms give you the benefit of being able to say a long name or phrase quickly but so often meaning gets lost in them, they intimidate, they stifle debate, and much of the time they are just not that quicker. Peace Corps is absolutely flooded with acronyms. –

I’m not going to go into detail about the rest of the training now or I fear this will turn into more of a rant than usual, but needless to say being amongst so much technology showed me that much of the time it doesn’t actually make things easier. Powerpoint and Skype are two of the least engaging ways to teach a topic. It was nice getting back to chalkboards in Ker Sait Maram.

As an aside, there is actually a political party in Switzerland dedicated solely to banning Powerpoint –

Here is Steve Jobs’ view on powerpoint –

I hate the way people use slide presentations instead of thinking. People confront a problem by creating a presentation. I want them to engage, to hash things out at a table, rather than show a bunch of slides. People who know what they’re talking about don’t need powerpoint. The ubiquity of the software and how, because of what it does and how it does it, it limits what can be presented – and therefore what is discussed

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