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.


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.


A Picture for Tombong

Ch-22-RGB 2From:  TUBOB: Two Years in West Africa with the Peace Corps

In the many huts I entered, if there were pictures at all, they were portraits of people, never scenery or artwork. Many huts had no pictures. In a poor country, pictures are a luxury.

My husband’s parents frequently sent us several developed prints made from Bruce’s slides. We didn’t see the slides ourselves, since we had them sent from Kodak directly to the folks. It was always wonderful to see our pictures. Normally those prints his parents sent were some of the best ones that they thought we should see. In some cases, we’d asked them to send us extra copies so we could give them to our Gambian friends.

The folks sent us an exceptionally good portrait of our good friend Tombong, shirtless and muscular. Taken in the evening light, the picture had an unusual golden glow. We decided to have it framed.

We found the Gambian method of picture framing unique. They cut pieces of glass somewhat larger than the picture. In this case, we mounted Tombong’s picture on a piece of blank paper. The framer encased the mounted picture between two pieces of glass and then skillfully taped the glass together with red electrical tape. Then, the framer hand painted flowers in each corner, giving the appearance of a frame. As he did this, a crowd gathered to see what the tubobs were doing.

“Tombong,” I heard many people murmur. Probably two dozen people had gathered to watch the picture framer at work.

That was at the end of a day. We wondered how long it would be before word got to Tombong.

The next morning I saw him coming our way, his steps very quick. He rarely walked that fast. As we greeted one another, I could see his eyes dart to our walls.

“We have something for you, Tombong.”

“Yes.” Though old by African standards, Tombong showed the anticipation of a child at Christmas.

Bruce handed him the picture, wrapped in brown paper. I was surprised to see tears spring to Tombong’s eyes when he opened the package. “Oh, my. Oh, this is fine. Now I will have something to give to my son. He looked at each of us in turn. “Thank you, thank you.”

What Day is This?

calendar  1980-01


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

I noticed the hospital had no calendar. I wondered how people kept track of days, but soon learned they really didn’t. It worried me that the correct dates weren’t always noted on medical records. More, I worried that instructions for administering medications weren’t being followed with an accurate indicator of days.

I had asked Bruce’s mom to send me a calendar for the hospital in our Christmas package. Luckily she air-mailed two calendars, one for the hospital and one for us. It was a good thing since we still hadn’t received our Christmas packages (nor would we until mid-March).

I hung up the pretty calendar and showed everyone at the hospital where it was. “Now we can keep better track of the days.”

The next day it was gone and no doubt decorated someone’s hut. I hated to do it, but I donated our own to the hospital. It, too, disappeared.

That night, at home, I drew two blank monthly calendars on typing paper, using carbon paper to duplicate. I filled in that month’s dates for both the hospital and home. Not surprisingly, no one took my home-made calendar home. I did that each month. At least now the nurses had a way to keep track of dates and medications given.

An African Encounter with Hippopotamus

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

One of our big goals while serving with the Peace Corps in The Gambia was to visit Niokolo Koba National Park in Senegal. We were able to take the 3-day trip with two other couples, US AID people who had a vehicle at their disposal.

The drive getting to the park was long, hot and dusty. After some viewing, we were ready to call it a day and make the next day our main viewing day.

Camping was allowed only in designated areas and we found the camps spartan but adequate. On our first night, the riverside camp had a round grass-roof hut and a cooking hut with a bench. The hut nicely held four people so Bruce and I elected to pitch our borrowed tent outside.

After getting that hot work done, we couldn’t wait to cool off in the river. The six of us rushed into the river and gave a collective sigh of relief. I heard yelling and looked up to see the park ranger frantically waving for us to get out. “What? Get out? We just got here!”

We didn’t want to get into trouble, so we reluctantly climbed out of the river and up the bank, not yet really cooled off. Once he saw us safely out of the water, he pointed upriver. There, we saw a family of hippos, their tiny ears and eyes reflecting red showing just above the surface of the water. Oops. Guess it was the wrong time of day to be cooling off in the river.

As we climbed into our tent later that night, I said to my husband Bruce, “I don’t suppose this little tent is much protection from those hippos.”

“There isn’t room for two more in the hut.”

“I suppose we could set the tent up in the cooking hut.”

“Forget it. I don’t have the steam.” With that, he fell sound asleep.

Oh, well, I thought, and immediately drifted off to sleep.

The next morning, we saw dozens of big, flat hippo footprints leading from the river through the campground. Those huge animals had walked within two feet of our little tent, leaving footprints the size of turkey platters.


Fly-Day in The Gambia

There were always flies. We never got used to them, but in Africa flies are a fact of life. Over the two years we served with the Peace Corps, I spoke to many an African while a fly ran along the rim of an eye and the person barely flinched. We never acquired that acceptance.

When my husband Bruce and I drank anything out of a bottle, we automatically kept our hand over the opening to keep out flies. Woven straw fans were as much for batting away flies and mosquitoes as for stirring up a breeze.

But the day we forever after called “fly-day” was unbelievably awful. It happened on a Sunday and we were home all day. Conditions must have been just right, or just wrong, to create the “perfect storm” of flies. Our screened, thatched-roof hut remained relatively fly free, other than those that sneaked in when we entered, but we could control those few. On that day, the small mud-brick house where we cooked was another story. Flies and other flying critters could enter through the gap between the wall and corrugated tin roof. Flies were on every surface. There must have been three hundred flies on the overhead electrical wire that reached between the kitchen and the dining/living room, where we ate breakfast. We couldn’t bring a bite of food to our mouths without flies landing on it. In the old days we might have thrown out the food, but you’d starve if you did that every time a fly landed on your food in Africa. But this day that scenario was magnified a thousand times.

A video of us would have revealed people who appeared to have delusions with arm waving, hands suddenly going to our ears, nose and eyes. It was a nightmare.

“Whose idea was this?” Bruce asked, using Newsweek as a fly swatter, nailing three at one time.

I laughed. “Not mine! I think coming here was your idea.”

As soon as we could after eating breakfast we retreated to our hut, to spend the day hiding out, reading, and writing letters.

We had to brace ourselves to leave the hut to prepare meals. We worked like a well-oiled team, swatting and carrying on, then making a dash for the hut with our prepared food.
Fly-day lasted only the one day, to be followed by lots of flies, but not at that level.


Writing TUBOB: A Dream Fulfilled

Well, it’s about time. What I had fantasized about for so many years–writing about our two years in West Africa–has at last become a reality. What took me so long? I wonder that myself. I guess in my mind it was such an overwhelming experience, so personal and heart-felt, I wasn’t sure I could put it adequately into words.

For me, it’s easy to make up a story. I’ve done it since I was a little kid. My older sister taught me. I’d beg her to tell me a story and she finally said, “Mary, make up your own story. Think of something you’d like to hear or read, and tell yourself a story.” That first time, she gave me an opening sentence and I took off from there.

Along the way my need to tell stories became three novels, all contemporary western, all well received: Tenderfoot, McClellan’s Bluff, and Rosemount.

But to tell something that’s true, that represents our own heart-felt and hard-won experiences, is different. For some reason I couldn’t get past the idea that it wasn’t a “story,” it was true to life, sometimes painfully so.

Sure, I could write little snippets and I did write about a few experiences on my blog with favorable results and encouragement to write a book. But these were usually positive experiences, and our two years in Africa were not all positive. They were often grueling, discouraging, even scary. But are we glad we did it? Absolutely!

Finally, I decided I would have no peace until I at least tried to write the story about our Peace Corps experience in The Gambia. We had asked our families to save our letters to them. I couldn’t stand the duplication of effort to keep a journal and write home. This was before email, so all our letters were either hand written or typed (I had sacrificed space and weight to take a manual typewriter).

I sorted through all the letters written by both of us, putting them in date order. I began to see I needed to have some sort of index so that I could avoid volumes of data entry, so I created a computer index with various subjects: names, Bruce’s work, my work, animals, etc., and referred to a coded recipient and the date. Soon, I had 42 pages of categorized key words. And I had my inspiration. I relived those years, remembered the sweat and tears, and the joys. Despite the elapsed years, thanks to our letters home, I could recount details that would make the story real to readers.

It took me two months to go through and annotate all the stacks of letters. In January, 2012, I began to write my memoir and wrote straight through to May. Editing and proofing is another matter, but I enjoyed that part, too.

I had worried that I might offend some people we knew in Africa. In most instances, I use actual names for real people. But in a few cases, I have changed the names to avoid hurt feelings or embarrassment. In a couple of instances, in the interest of clarity, I have combined characters.

Bruce took hundreds of 35 mm pictures while in The Gambia. We had mounted the slides in trays and every once in awhile we viewed them or shared the pictures and stories with others. Once I could see an actual memoir in the making, we invested in the equipment necessary to convert the slides into digital form. Bruce spent countless hours selecting and editing the pictures so that we would have meaningful images for the beginning of each chapter. Bruce also designed the book’s cover, using his artistic talent to make a cover representative of the story.

So, finally, we have produced an honest recounting of our two years in The Gambia with the Peace Corps. I have made every effort to be objective, and to fairly and honestly tell the story of our time in a third-world country.

Perhaps I needed to wait 30 years so that I could be more objective. Surely, I have gained in wisdom and global awareness in that time. We have never been back to The Gambia, but I hear from people who have and they report not much has changed. Electricity does not reach many homes, people still haul water from a well, many of the struggles remain the same. Education is more available. With the Internet, Peace Corps volunteers now have better communication with family and friends back home. That would be a huge improvement and eliminate many of the anxieties we felt.

Some lessons I learned remain. You take the bad with the good. You live in the moment. And in the bad times, remember that “this too shall pass.”

TUBOB: Two Years in West Africa with the Peace Corps is available at local bookstores,, or through my website,