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

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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.


Market Day in The Gambia

Ch-26-RGB 2From: Two Years in West Africa with the Peace Corps


Waves of 100-degree heat shimmered off the rice fields as I walked the two miles to market. Carrying my small back pack, a few recycled plastic bags, a quart-size porcelain bowl, and a small glass jar, I slowly passed a tired donkey plodding along, his head hung low, as he pulled a heavy cart loaded with sacks of millet. With each step I took, puffs of red dust settled on my legs and sandaled feet.

Market day in West Africa is a far cry from a quick run to Safeway in Seattle. It’s an adventure.

As Peace Corps volunteers serving in The Gambia, a small West African country, my husband Bruce and I lived as our hosts lived. We hauled our own water from the well, swept our mud-brick hut with a short locally-made straw broom, cooked our own meals, and bought our supplies at the open market and small stores. We didn’t have personal transportation, so we did as the local people and walked every place we went.

I heard my name called as I trudged along.

“Mariama! Salaam Malekum!” The name, Mariama, is the African version of my real name, Mary. The traditional Arabic greeting, Salaam Malekum, is heard throughout West Africa. It means “May peace be with you.”

“Malekum Salaam, Naba,” I answered the friendly African woman. She fell in step with me and we conversed in Mandinka, one of five local languages and the one Bruce and I learned during Peace Corps training.

I found Gambian women to be extraordinary. Their lives were not easy–they worked hard under very difficult conditions. Their strong bodies and graceful bearing impressed me. Typically, Naba carried a baby straddled across her back. Her wide-awake little son observed his world while held close to his mother’s warm body. When he became hungry, the woman simply switched him around to her breast. At the market, Naba and I parted, each to her own errands.

I’ll go to the meat market first, I decided with dread. The butcher’s shop, a small mud-brick building with a corrugated tin roof, was somewhat removed from the regular market. A large concrete counter separated the butcher from his customers. Goat, sheep, and beef carcasses hung from the ceiling. I tried to ignore the dead-animal smell.

The meat market crowd pushed their way to the counter. I, too, elbowed my way through the crowd. Whack! A hunk of beef fell off the carcass, severed with a mighty machete blow. Splat! Bits of meat and bone splattered on my dress and neck. Cringing, I held fast to my hard-fought place. Several flies left the main event, the beef carcass, and landed on me.

The butcher spoke a little English. “What you want?”

“Biff stek, please,” I answered. In The Gambia, previously a British-held colony, many words sound English but are pronounced with a local dialect. Whacking off a piece of meat for me, he placed it in my porcelain bowl. Then, as a treat, he dropped in a little pile of wrinkled tripe (cow’s stomach). Trying to show gratitude, I smiled, but knew I wouldn’t eat it, but I’d give it to our neighbor. As I left the meat market, my personal flies came too. I considered the benefits of becoming a vegetarian.

Fragrances bombarded me as I entered the main market, a large open-sided structure. Spices, sold by the bulk, were lined up in little bins. Large flat baskets displayed fresh roasted peanuts. The peanut vendor tore a scrap of paper–any type of paper–and folded a little package to hold the peanuts, still warm from an earthen oven. We briefly haggled over the price, an expected exchange, and I dropped the equivalent of a dime into his hand.

A baker sold piles of fresh baguettes. The earthy aroma of yeast permeated the air. Pankettas, flat yeast dough deep-fried in palm oil, quickly disappeared, breakfast for many shoppers.

I skirted around unpleasant smelling, fly-covered dried fish. We never bought it, though we’d eaten it in Gambian cooking and found it tasted as bad as it smelled. The fresh fish was lovely though and the catfish appeared to still be breathing. Anything that’s still breathing must be fresh. I bought a catfish, slipping it into one of my plastic bags.

Chickens roamed freely, pecking at the ground. Some weren’t so lucky and hung upside down, feet tied to a rod. They never seemed to struggle, awaiting their fate. As I shopped, I saw many women carrying live chickens in the crook of their arms as they conducted their shopping business.

Noise rose to an astonishing level when a bush taxi’s horn beeped as riders were dropped off. Donkeys brayed as they arrived with their heavy loads. Gambians often talked in a loud boisterous manner and now they shouted to be heard. Children darted about, squealing with their games.

Treadle sewing machines click-clacked in the background. There were no ready-made clothing shops in the village where we lived. When the need arose for a new dress or shirt, one bought the material and described to the tailor the style desired. Because of the heat, clothing was generally loose-fitting so exact measurements weren’t required, but these skillful tailors created an amazing variety of garments on their treadle machines.

I eagerly learned what vegetables were available that day. With no cold storage, the availability of most vegetables depended on the season. Tomatoes were available five months of the year, lettuce only about two months. One of our favorite vegetables, okra, was sold about nine months of the year. All year long squash was available as well as imported onions and potatoes.

Friendly women called my name, urging me to come to their attractive displays and buy the vegetables they had grown. Some men sold items too, usually businessmen who bought imported food to sell at the market.

Approaching one of my regular vendors, I admired her tomato display. Most fruits and vegetables sold by the pile, not by the pound. Each pile of five tomatoes displayed a similar assortment, perhaps one large, two medium, and two small tomatoes, in various stages of ripeness. One selects an entire pile, not one from this pile, one from that. I purchased two piles and a piece of squash.

A large rat streaked by my sandaled feet with a cat hot on its trail. Cats fend for themselves so catching that rat was serious business.

I spotted oranges, also arranged in piles of five. Although ripe, the oranges were green. Their tough skins required a sharp knife to peel. Once I counted fifty-two seeds in a single orange.

I remembered I needed rice and crossed to the other side of the market where a vendor sat next to a burlap bag. The man measured rice into my plastic bag, using a tomato paste can as his measuring device. Rice was grown locally, thanks to the Chinese who taught Gambians to cultivate this essential product. It was good rice but didn’t keep well. After a week or so it turned wormy and then it became chicken fodder. Our chickens loved it.

I needed flour. A warning stenciled on the side of the 50-pound flour sack read, “This is a gift from the United States of America. Not to be sold.” I purchased two scoops and moved on.

I had the feeling of being watched. Now I looked around quickly and sure enough, there she was, peeking out from behind a post. It was a game we played, the peanut-butter lady and I. Either she would sneak up on me, or I tried to come up behind her. We giggled like little girls at our joke. This delightful, tiny woman, beamed a huge smile showing beautiful white teeth. Her family grew peanuts and stored them for use during the year. Before going to market, she pressed fresh-roasted peanuts into a paste.

There was nothing more delicious than this fresh peanut butter, which they called peanut paste. Gambians prepare a sauce with it, called domoda, adding tomato paste and perhaps a bit of meat, spiced with hot peppers, and served on rice. Scrumptious! They couldn’t believe we spread peanut paste on bread, nor could they believe how much we bought! I held out my jar into which she plopped five two-inch balls, plus one more as a gift.

The market loomed bigger than life. The smells, noise, heat, and activity, seemed
to be the essence of these people. I considered the market to be The Gambia boiled down to the essentials. One struggled to conduct business, haggling over prices, jostling crowds, suffering with the heat and flies, but this ritual highlighted my week. While buying provisions, I’d visited with friends and shared with them their ancient marketing tradition.


Working in Sub-Saharan Africa


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


The heat in The Gambia, in Sub-Saharan Africa, made life difficult.

When my husband Bruce and I first arrived in our village of Mansajang, where we lived for two years, women often asked me where my “hat” was, meaning head-scarf. I couldn’t imagine wearing one more thing in that heat. The African women artfully wrapped a length of cloth around their heads. Binta, a woman in our compound, tried to put one on me. With my slippery hair, a scarf wouldn’t stay on, but the effort gave us a good laugh. I had a scrap of material left over from having a dress made and I fashioned a triangular piece of cloth into a scarf that I could tie in the back. I couldn’t believe how much cooler I felt not to have the sun beating down on my head. On extremely hot days, I sometimes soaked the scarf in water before wearing it and that cooled me even more, though it quickly evaporated.

I understood why so much didn’t get done. It was difficult to work in that heat. If it wasn’t the heat, we still couldn’t do what we wanted to accomplish due to lack of supplies. At the UN shop where Bruce worked, shortages prevented projects from completion. At the Health Centre, I often couldn’t visit villages because they only had enough fuel to go on scheduled clinic treks.

At times I felt overwhelmed with the little I could do. I expressed my discouragement to Bruce. His job was actually far more frustrating than mine. Between the heat and lack of supplies, our tasks sometimes seemed overwhelming. Talking about it helped and each time we came to the same conclusion: all we could do was give it our best. We both knew our best wasn’t enough.

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?

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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.

Desperate for Rain

umbrellaFrom: TUBOB: Two Years in West Africa with the Peace Corps


The Gambia was desperate for rain. Flashes of heat lightning and thunderclaps teased us with promises, but other than a few scattered raindrops, no real rain. Even Africans complained of the heat and the thirsty crop’s need for rain.

Our Peace Corps friend Nathaniel invited his colleague Norman to Basse for a work related meeting and invited us to join them for dinner afterward at Jobot’s All Necessary Foods. The walk into Basse was especially humid, hot and sticky. I could almost feel rain in the air.

I grumbled to Bruce. “I couldn’t feel any wetter if it actually rained.”

He agreed. “I’ll bet before the end of this evening, we’ll have rain.”

It couldn’t be too soon for us. We had our usual great dinner at Jobot’s, making a big effort to ignore the heat. We headed over to Pa Peacock’s White House Fuladu East Bar for a cold drink. We’d been there for only a few minutes when it finally came, a few tentative drops, and then a deluge.

Bruce and I stepped outside and stood in the rain, laughing and getting soaked to the skin.

Most Gambians don’t like to get wet and will take great steps to avoid it. Nathaniel and Norman stood in the doorway watching us, amused. An African fellow watched with them and said to Nathaniel, “What’s wrong with those people?”

“They’re from Seattle,” Nathaniel replied.