The Art of Getting a Driver’s License

Ch-1-RGB 2From: Tubob: Two Years in West Africa with the Peace Corps

Peace Corps volunteers in The Gambia were urged to get a drivers license. Most of us would never drive while in The Gambia, but you never knew. My husband Bruce and I were in Banjul, the capitol city, taking care of the many details before we went to our assigned village. We had opened a joint checking account and now I needed to get my drivers license. Early on, when we stayed in Banjul, Bruce was issued his license so he could drive project vehicles. He now had to catch a bus to the Yundum shop to take care of business, so he walked with me to the police department building where I would get my driver’s license. At the police station, we walked down dark dingy stairs and along dirt-streaked hallways.

He squeezed my arm affectionately. “Brace yourself. This is going to take awhile.” He left to catch his bus.

As it happened, no one was in front of me in line, but still I waited for a long time for someone to help me. Many people milled around behind the counter, but it was hard to tell if anything was actually getting done. One woman slept, draped over her typewriter. Finally, I was given a form to complete and I showed the man my Washington State driver’s license. He left for several minutes, then handed me my paperwork and told me to go to another room where they would attach the picture I’d brought. I did as instructed and waited again.

Back and forth I went to four different counters. At the last one, which was also the first, I stood at the window and watched the fellow “process” my paperwork. He shuffled the papers around, then looked at something else on his desk. He went over to another desk and talked with that fellow, glanced at me watching him, returned to his desk, pushed papers around some more. His desk was piled with papers and I could imagine mine getting lost. Like the shell game, I kept watching to keep track of the pea, my application. Seething at this senseless delay, I said nothing but never took my eyes off my paperwork. Finally, he stood, shuffled over to the counter and, without a word, he slid my license toward me.

Three of the five items on the license were incorrect: my date of birth, my middle initial, and the spelling of my last name. I let it go, not willing to make this an even longer exercise.


An Object of Superstition

AlbinoFrom: Tubob: Two Years in West Africa with the Peace Corps


Each week, the Basse Health Centre where I worked in The Gambia conducted an antenatal (prenatal) clinic and a separate well baby clinic for children five years and younger. Sister Roberts suggested that I attend these clinics where record keeping was vital. I agreed, not knowing that I would be involved in a local superstition.

The next day, Tuesday, I helped in the antenatal clinic. The clinic, a separate building in the hospital compound, had rows of perhaps fifty chairs on one side and a couple of tables at the other. Outside, the overflow waited in a covered area. Many of these pregnant women had come from miles away, most walking, some arriving in bush taxis. or donkey-pulled carts. Many carried babies on their backs.

Women and their children stood in line, which, at first, was a phenomenon to me. My African experience so far had been crowds of pushing people, at banks, the post office, the ferries and bus stops. But here the woman formed a queue, as instructed, and stayed in line with their well-behaved children in tow.

At one table, the auxiliary nurses reviewed the woman’s personal health record, took blood pressure, and pulled down the lower eyelid to look for pale coloration, a sign of anemia. Many Gambian women were anemic due to frequent childbearing. The woman then progressed to the next table to see the nurse mid-wife while I recorded the woman’s name and entered information in a ledger. All during this procedure, I noticed women shielding their eyes from me. Some actually cupped their hands around their eyes to avoid looking at me.

I asked the nurse mid-wife why the pregnant women wouldn’t look at me. “Oh, Mariama, it’s a stupid superstition that if they see a white person they’ll have an albino baby.”

I had seen African albinos and it is an unfortunate condition. Their skin is white and very sensitive to the sun. An albino’s eyes are affected with extreme light sensitivity. Having an albino baby would be something to fear. It bothered me that the women felt threatened by my presence.

After clinic that first day, I told Sister Roberts about my concern. She also scoffed at the superstition.

“But still,” I countered, “I don’t want to give them that worry.”

We agreed that I wouldn’t attend the antenatal clinics, but she definitely wanted me to attend the well baby clinic on Fridays. It was a good compromise. I felt odd enough without having to bear the burden of having women think I would be the cause of their having an albino baby.

Egg: The Perfect Protein

Chicken CookingFrom: Tubob: Two Years in West Africa with the Peace Corps


We needed chickens to supplement our protein. I had seen live chickens for sale at the market, but when I talked to Binta, the woman in our compound, I learned these chickens were past laying eggs and sold for meat. She apparently told her husband Mosalif that we wanted chickens.

The next morning when Mosalif came to our door to greet us, he asked if we wanted him to buy chickens. Work that day would take him into the bush and he could buy young hens for us. I asked how much money he needed and gave him money enough to buy four.

Unfortunately, Bruce needed to meet with the UN project lead in Yundum and would be gone for two days. But knowing that we would be getting chickens, he had fixed up the other outside passageway of our hut as a chicken coop. Africans didn’t coop up their chickens since they didn’t eat eggs and had no need to gather them. Besides, they reasoned, why eat an egg when, left alone, it would grow into a whole chicken. Binta’s chickens roosted wherever they found a safe place, often in one of the empty compound huts or on a tree branch. Since we didn’t care to have an egg hunt every day, we needed to confine our chickens for at least the night and part of the day.

Bruce cobbled together a gate to keep them in. We found straw for them to make their nests. To begin with, we could feed them rice that had already turned buggy. While downriver Bruce planned to buy real chicken food, a by-product from peanuts. We began grinding up egg shells to mix with their food so that the extra calcium would ensure stronger shells.

At the end of the day, Mosalif stopped by with four young chickens, two of which he said would give us eggs right away, the other two would produce soon. I was thrilled.
Only having had dogs and cats, I worried that the chickens would run off, maybe join Binta’s brood. To make sure they knew where they lived, I tied strings to one leg of each of the four chickens, long enough for them to get to a nest, drink water and eat rice. My intention was to only do this for one day, until they were used to their surroundings.

On that first day Mosalif came over in the early evening to see how I was doing with the chickens. When he saw the strings, he knelt down to get a closer look. Mosalif was Fula and since I didn’t know that language, he and I conversed only in Mandinka. “A mong beteata.” This is not good, he said, watching the chickens trying to walk around, lifting the tied leg high, giving them a strange gate.

“I am afraid they’ll run away.”

He looked somber, but in thinking about it afterwards, I’m sure it was all he could do to keep a straight face. “You have fed them, Mariama. They won’t run away.” He carefully removed the strings. “When it is dark, they will come back to this place. Then you close the gate.”

Well, I wasn’t at all sure about that, but I’d give it a try. Sure enough, at dusk they all filed into the chicken coop as though they’d done it all their lives. I closed the gate behind them.

During our stay in The Gambia, we derived great pleasure, entertainment and nourishment from our chickens. We were the only volunteers in-country with chickens and I marveled at that. Once a week we enjoyed an egg dinner, usually an omelette, and eggs for breakfast once or twice a week, plus I used eggs in puddings and other desserts. I found I could make a double boiler by inserting my covered enamel bowl into my large pot filled with water and prepare a very good cheese souffle or a delicious bread pudding, both dishes using four eggs.

Even though there were plenty of nests, two or three chickens often crammed into one nest, African style, like people on bus seats. Our flock grew, some we bought, many were given to us. At the most we had seventeen chickens.

We named our chickens, names that seemed to fit their little personalities: Ruth Schultz, Blue, Kunta Kinte, Myrtle and Penny, who was the color of a copper penny, and two that we called Sisters because we got them at the same time and couldn’t tell them apart.


A Precious Gift

Women Dressed up



From: Tubob: Two Years in West Africa with the Peace Corps

One late afternoon, I sat in my hut reading and heard my name sung out. I stepped outside and opened the gate. A woman I had counseled about good nutrition for her baby smiled at me. She reminded me that her name was Sibo and that I had visited her at her compound. Sibo carried a basin on her head containing a parcel wrapped in cloth.

When women went to market, or made a formal visit to one another, they dressed up for the occasion. In this case, Sibo wore a nice top with a matching wrap-around skirt, and matching head scarf. I found their clothes attractive. Most tubobs I knew couldn’t manage a wrap-around skirt, we just couldn’t keep it secure without buttons, zippers or pins.

I invited Sibo into our house. As she lowered her load to the table, I offered her water, which she accepted. She had walked a distance. Her village was well beyond the Health Centre.

After taking a swallow of water, she opened the cloth to reveal perhaps five pounds of rice. Her family had grown and harvested the rice, she said, and it was a gift to me for caring. I was stunned. This was a gift of sacrifice, representing back-breaking work. Not only was the gift wonderful, but she’d walked miles in the hot sun to deliver it. I barely had the Mandinka vocabulary to express my appreciation. “Abaraka,” I said, with my hand over my heart. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Repeated several times, it was about the best I could manage. I brought out my enamel bowl and she poured the rice from her cloth into the bowl, not spilling a kernel.

We chatted for awhile, she looked at our wall hangings, snapshots of our family, a U.S. map and a world map. I showed her our home state, then showed her where she lived. She obviously had never seen a map before. I invited her to see my kitchen and she marveled. By American standards it would be primitive, but to her it was luxury. She surprised me by saying my kitchen was good because I didn’t have time to prepare food the way they do, over an open fire.

I heard a motorcycle putter up to our compound, idle while the driver opened the gate, then a quiet rumble as he rode the motorcycle to our door. Many volunteers who lived in outlying areas were issued small motorcycles, some more like motor scooters. The rule was they were to use them only within a fifty mile radius. Dave lived in Fatoto at the eastern tip of the country and often stopped by when in our area. After I introduced them, he launched comfortably into Mandinka with Sibo.

After a short while, Sibo said she must return to her home to prepare dinner for her family. Dave offered to give her a ride on his motorcycle, but she declined, laughing. When I said, “Sibo, why don’t you? It would be so much faster,” she hesitated. Dave turned his motorcycle around and said, “Na.” Come. Much to our amazement, she hiked up her skirt to climb on, covering her legs as best she could. Dave indicated that she had to hang onto him. She stood her basin on end between them, then hung on and they took off at a sedate speed. She grinned back at me. What a sight.

Gambian rice has a rich, nutty flavor and takes a bit longer to cook than our processed rice. We ate it soon because it had limited shelf life. I didn’t want this precious gift to become chicken feed.

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Dawda, the Tailor

Ch-19-RGB 2From: Tubob: Two Years in West Africa with the Peace Corps

The only place we could buy ready-made clothes was in The Gambia’s capitol city, Banjul, so most of my dresses were made to order at nearby Basse. Because of the heat, I preferred loose-fitting dresses and our local tailors were adept at copying a dress pattern from another sample dress, taking measurements of my shoulders and the preferred dress length. I was impressed with the tailors. Interestingly, they always were men. They used foot-operated treadle machines as there was often no electricity in the market place.

Our favorite tailor, Dawda, set up his business at the Basse market, in front of a Mauritanian-owned fabric store. He happened to be the first tailor I went to with one of my friend’s dresses to use as a sample.

Dawda understood the concept of learning. He always had a spare chair next to him and often invited me to sit and we’d chat in Mandinka. At first he talked slowly so that I could understand and often gave me new words that I could use. He was a wonderful man and very skilled on his treadle sewing machine.

I had a large selection of thread sent from the States for Dawda and he was thrilled. The thread that tailors often used was quite breakable, so he was pleased to have strong polyester thread. He had a scrap of material left over from another project and one day while we chatted, he made a triangular head scarf for me, using his new thread.

By this time we could converse fluently and I asked him about a bulubah, a sort of robe, for my husband Bruce. His eyes lit up. “Most tubobs don’t even know what a bulubah is,” he said. We went into the fabric store together to find suitable fabric, something that would look good with Dawda’s wonderful machine embroidery.

The blue and gold garment would come down to Bruce’s ankles, with loose, flowing sleeves and would serve as a robe in the evenings. It would be my Christmas present to him.

Tourist season had started and would continue through February. We occasionally saw tubobs wandering around the market. They were usually so pale, Bruce and I jokingly referred to them as “cadavers.” Most of them arrived by the weekly boat Lady Chilel, slept onboard and were gone when the boat headed back downriver the next day.

A tourist couple stood by while Dawda and I talked. “Listen,” the woman said, “she’s talking their language.”

Dawda and my eyes locked. We totally ignored them.

Crossing Paths with Crossroads Africa

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From: Tubob:Two Years in West Africa with the Peace Corps

A group of young people from the philanthropic group Crossroads Africa arrived in The Gambia, West Africa. Volunteers pay a sum of money to make a six-week trip like this. Their first destination had been Nigeria, but at the last minute they were denied visas, so the group came to The Gambia. It fell on USAID to design a worthwhile program for the fifty-eight volunteers, ten of whom would be assigned to our upriver village, Basse.

An officer with the Expanded Program of Immunization of The Gambia stopped by on Tuesday and asked me if I would go with the group to the large Serahule village of Garawol on Wednesday to help them with immunizations. I accepted, pleased to be asked.

Working with the Crossroads peope at Garawol was an interesting experience for me. As usual, we first called on the Alkala, the village chief, and then proceeded to immunize the children against polio.

The following Thursday I had a chance to again work with the Crossroads people, this time on a Nutrition Survey. They conducted what they called a “random survey.” It gave me a new understanding of “random.” If I were to pick apples randomly, I would select one here, one there. But the scientific term, in this case, meant to begin with a selected village, then, as protocol demands, go to the Alkala’s compound, explaining our mission to him. We began with his children by weighing, measuring for height, and measuring the upper arm, a good measuring place to detect malnourishment.

Next came the random part. The group leader took out a one-dalasi bill and read the last serial number. If the number was between one and four, it was used as the basis; if not, one worked backwards until a number between one and four was found. Then, facing east toward Mecca and working clockwise, number one was east, number two south, number three west, number four north. After leaving the Alkala’s compound, the group followed the number going the direction as dictated by the number on the dalasi. Then, the next number on the dalasi determines where you stop. If it was a three, the group stopped at the third compound and took the measurements of the children there. We continued to follow this formula, eventually getting the measurements of thirty children. The word “random” will forever have that memory for me.

The reason for the random survey is that it’s so easy to be swayed. People see malnourished children and take their measurements to confirm their suspicions, or see healthy children and want to “reward” the parents by measuring those children. The random survey produces a fair sampling without local influences.

I found the Crossroads Africa workers a nice group of young people, hard working and goal oriented. They performed a worthwhile service to their host country.

It Takes a Village

Basse Health Center

Basse Health Center



From: Tubob: Two Years in West Africa with the Peace Corps



In my quest to line up in-service training speakers for the auxiliary nurses at the Basse Health Center in The Gambia, I found many helpful agencies in our village.

Once I went with my husband Bruce to the hydro-meteorological office, a weather monitoring station, so that Bruce could use their short-wave radio to call Yundum headquarters to order, or try to order, necessary supplies. The hydro-met supervisor, happy with our interest in his work, showed us around. They measured rainfall, when it infrequently happened, evaporation and temperature. They had about 15 different thermometers, some measuring air temperature, soil surface temperatures, and several at various depths in the soil. We were surprised to see that it was 85 degrees four feet underground. No wonder our well water felt so warm.

Another day I encountered a policeman on my way to market and asked if I could visit the police station. Delighted with my request, he showed me around. Stepping inside, the two desks were stacked with papers. The room itself was relatively comfortable with ceiling fans. Since he currently had no prisoners, he asked if I would like to see the jail. I agreed and he opened a heavy door to a dingy, hot, stuffy room with four cells. The place smelled of urine and sweat. If there was ever an incentive to stay on the right side of the law, that place was it.

The policeman took a long time with me, discussing his various duties. As I left, he said, “Mariama, if you ever have trouble, come to see me. I will take care of it.” I didn’t doubt him for a minute.

The Catholic Relief Services was pleased to be asked to speak at my in-service training program. CRS’ main goals are to provide emergency relief, long-term development, particularly in agriculture, and health care education. They were good about gearing their talk to make it clear they were supplementing the Health Center services, not acting as competition.

I also called on Planned Parenthood to invite them to speak at our in-service program. . Apparently Muslims had no problem with Planned Parenthood, though abstinence didn’t seem to go over well. They were okay with the women taking “the pill,” but with the supply chain being chancy, it sometimes caused more problems than it solved. The tubob I spoke with said that in one case, many women in a village had taken the pill, but when the supply ran out, most of them became pregnant, all in the same month! Planned Parenthood was mostly concerned with the mothers’ health after multiple births in relatively few years.

These various groups added to the auxiliary nurses’ knowledge of health agencies available in the Basse area. Learning about the various agencies helped me to understand how The Gambia worked and what it took to manage the well-being of a community. There were other groups, too, such as the Chinese agriculture team who helped teach Gambians how to grow rice, and various missionary groups.

I was pleased with the reception I received from the various agencies operating for the welfare of the Basse area. I found the spirit of cooperation encouraging. Together we could strive toward making a difference.


Practicing a New Language

Ch-6-RGB 2


Mary (Mariama) studying Mankinda


From: Tubob: Two Years in West Africa with the Peace Corps

Although it was supposed to be the rainy season, it didn’t last. We’d had a few “frog stranglers” as Bruce called them, but not nearly enough to get many of the local crops toward healthy growth.

After work one afternoon, as I made my way home I came across a man, also walking toward his village. We exchanged greetings and walked together.

The dirt path wound through a field of thin, withering millet. Although this staple grain towered above our heads, it wouldn’t produce much this year.

“This field is dry,” I commented in Mandinka. My walking companion nodded, his black face glistening with sweat. “Yes, we need more rain.”

Although the nights had been cool, daytime temperatures were again climbing. I tried not to think about the heat, now soaring close to 100 degrees. My dress stuck to my back, the long skirt caught at my legs. “It’s too bad we can’t get … water …” I groped for the correct word.

He prompted the Mandinka word for irrigation. “It is too far from the river to irrigate, Mariama.”

We stopped at a snake’s twisting track, its thick impression in the sandy soil still fresh. The Gambian held out his arm, holding me back until he determined we were out of harm’s way.

We resumed our trek. The trail narrowed and I automatically stepped behind my companion. “Couldn’t water from the river be piped in?”

“But how? Irrigation systems need motors and fuel and they are expensive.”

We reached a fork in the footpath. From the village to the right, pungent smoke from cooking fires greeted us. Voices and laughter drifted from behind woven fences.

My new friend gestured to the right. “I will go this way now.”

“Yes. Thank you for walking with me.”

“Mariama,” he called over his shoulder. “Your Mandinka is very good.”

Highly complimented, it was only then I realized my entire conversation had been in Mandinka; his had been in English. Without my realizing it, we had been practicing each other’s language.



An Assignment: Nutrition Counseling

Ch-11-RGB 2From: Tubob: Two Years in Africa with the Peace Corps

I have so often found that once I make up my mind to do something, or feel as though I should do something, a door opens to show the way. During that week’s Friday Well Baby Clinic, we saw several malnourished children. Two of them were so seriously endangered that Sister Roberts, the head nurse, admitted them to the hospital.

As Sister and I gathered our papers after a long session in which we saw about 350 children, she said, “Mariama,rather than go on trek to the outlying clinics with the team, what would you think about following up with the malnourished children, those we admit to the hospital? Talk to the mothers while they are here at the hospital with their children, then when they’re released, follow up at their villages?”

There it was. My chance. “Talk to them about nutrition? You bet! I’d love to do that. I could also follow up on the ones we see but don’t admit.” My mind whirled with the possibilities.

I had learned from my reading and then later saw for myself the terrible effects of malnutrition. Malnutrition often doesn’t come from poverty–food was usually available in The Gambia–but from lack of education. Two types of malnutrition commonly seen in The Gambia was kwashiorkor and marasmus. The kwashiorkor child eats enough, but it isn’t the right balance of food. For instance, he eats only starchy food. At first glance, he looks fat, but his muscles are thin, his skin dull and hair reddish. I saw a lot of kids who fit that description.

The marasmus child looks very thin, the typical starving-to-death look. This is often seen among those children who have been suddenly weaned. The child balks at regular food, or he gets diarrhea from an abruptly changing diet, weakens and dies.

Breast feeding is the norm in The Gambia. African women have great quantities of milk. Lack of mother’s milk is rarely a problem. Unfortunately they often breast fed exclusively for too long. Breast feeding is a wonderful, sanitary way to feed infants, but local practice was to breast feed until the child was two years old, or until the mother became pregnant, and the child then suddenly weaned. When offered regular food, the child often balked and quickly became malnourished. Unfortunately, this was not an uncommon scenario. The death rate between birth and five years at that time was 50 percent. This was a terrible statistic and the cause of death often avoidable. There were several reasons for a child’s death, but
due to sudden weaning was one of the most common.

I had my work cut out for me.



An Unwanted Guest

Puff Adder 1From: Tubob: Two Years in West Africa with the Peace Corps

While Bruce fixed breakfast, I swept the hut. As usual, I swept the bed. Even though we had stretched a cloth over the bed as a canopy, droppings from the grass-thatched roof still landed on the bed sheet. As I stooped my way around the room with my short broom, I picked up the laundry bag and stopped, broom suspended. There, tightly coiled, a small eight-inch snake glared at me.

“Ah, Bruce?” I called.


“Would you come here?”

He could tell from my tone that something was up. He bounded over to the hut. I held up my hand in caution, and then pointed to our unwanted guest.

“Oh, boy. I’ll be right back.”

“Bring a jar.”

He came back with a jar and his machete. Setting the jar a distance away from either of us, he carefully slid the flat side of the machete under the snake and slipped it into the jar, then quick as a flash reached over and screwed on the lid. After poking holes in the lid, we admired our catch.

Our neighbor Mosalif stopped by and viewed the snake from a distance.

“Can you get word to Peter Moore to come here?” Peter was a good friend of ours who worked in The Gambia for the British Medical Research Council. “We don’t know what kind of snake this is, do you?”

Mosalif shook his head and hurried off to get someone to tell Peter Moore we wanted him. I couldn’t believe how quickly Peter arrived. Within minutes he pulled up in his Land Cruiser.

He studied our snake. “This is a puff adder. Very deadly. Even though this one is quite young, his bite could kill. What I’m wondering,” he said in his dead-pan British clip, “is where are the other dozen or so? This one is too young to be far from its mother and siblings.”

Gulp! Several of us scoured the compound’s huts and grounds. To our dismay, ours was the only one found.

Peter asked permission to take the snake home to test it for malaria, as part of his research. He brought it back in a neat little specimen jar, pickled for eternity.

News spreads quickly in Africa. For the next several days we had a steady stream of people coming to our door asking to see our pickled puff adder.