Brave Woman

Adventures of a future nurse-midwife


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Last Day

Posted by Lucille on July 14, 2011 at 1:25 AM Comments comments (0)

Last minute trips to the tailor (they got my V-neck right!) and hurried packing. We all left a lot of things there--I'd intentionally brought worn out clothes, expecting I wouldn't want to wear them again, and there were a lot of left over toiletries and a couple broken mosquito nets. The people from the lodge were delighted and gladly promised to use anything we didn't take. We gave out the gifts we'd brought (I'd picked out a candle, two pens, and some candy in the Made In Oregon store at the airport, which I divided among everyone from the lodge), took some last minute pictures, and exchanged emails.

Later we walked over to the compound to give our guide and his family our gifts for them. He gave us all a necklace and a Gambian flag, and we went around and hugged everyone. The crying started again. I played with an orphaned toddler I've fallen in love with. Her aunt once again encouraged me to take her and once again I wished I could. One of the women gave me a beautiful striped dress. Wearing a dress made from many different fabrics is said to shield you from evil deeds, so she gave it to me to protect me on my journey home.

It was a quiet night. We loaded our bags in the ambulance, and our driver drove everyone from the lodge to the airport with us for a last goodbye. It was a very difficult parting. I love these people like family and we are GOING to stay in touch. Living in the same city my whole life hasn't given me a lot of opportunities to practice staying in contact with people, but I'll learn fast. When we got to our gate, it was one in the morning. I switched my watch to Portland time and told myself I wouldn't sleep until it said nine so I could try to get jet lag out of the way. I tried really hard, too, and stuck with it for a full two minutes. A teammate woke me up as we were boarding.

Lodge Party

Posted by Lucille on July 13, 2011 at 1:20 AM Comments comments (0)

Sunday was, for the most part, a quiet day. We made last minute runs to the Internet and the tailor and began packing our bags. I went to get my last pair of clean underwear, originally black, and found to my dismay that it was now bright green and fuzzy. Oh well. I took it out with a bunch of other things to the trash pile. Within an hour the kids had gone through it and made a toy out of every single thing we'd thrown away, moldy underwear included (for a slingshot, I'm pretty sure). Talk about resourceful.

A woman from the lodge came by in the afternoon, with a big bag full of fabric. She'd made matching outfits for all of us. Others in the family had ordered their own clothes, so we all had matching outfits in true Gambian party style.

One of the men came over and surprised us all by announcing that he’d put together a relay game, which included carrying a lime in a spoon in your mouth and balancing a bucket of water on your head. Our driver’s flattop was a significant advantage; the rest of us all got soaked.

In the afternoon, the elder's council came by to visit. They thanked us and expressed their hope that we would give them money. "This is the message we want to leave you with. This is just the beginning of our relationship." (Yes! Let's build our relationship. You share your value of community and knowledge of how to get by with less, and we'll share our value of using only what you need and our individualism, and it can be rewarding for everyone... but that wasn't what they meant.) "Now that you've seen the conditions here, you see how many babies die here every day, and you know a dollar, which is not much to you, can make a big difference here...This is our message, that if you, because we know you are good people, send us your extra money, we can build our relationship and make sure it makes a difference..."

We were all looking at each other, thinking, "We're college students. We have negative money to throw around." Yes, even a college student could come up with a dollar, but the fact is I didn't see a single baby die because they lacked oxygen or medicine or some other fancy resource. They died because their mothers didn't feed them. I don't want to increase their dependency on foreign aid because I honestly don't think that's what they need. It probably doesn't hurt, to the extent that it facilitates cross-cultural relationships, but there comes a point when it obstructs it. There we were, sitting around the table with the elder's council, probably the last time we will see them, and we were feeling so awkward that when they left we were all a little relieved.

We spent the day cooking with the women from the lodge, and when the sun went down we all ate together, ran around taking pictures, and ended up sitting in a circle of chairs on the grass. One of the men decided to start. "Chief asked us to give you a message." You could see the covered looks of resignation around the circle. He took a deep breath. "And we have asked him to give you that message himself, because we have our own message. We want to say thank you."

They did, one by one, and there wasn't a single one of us that wasn't sobbing by the end. Then it was our turn. We'd agreed before hand to each be responsible for thanking one person. I'd been assigned to our driver. I thanked him for everything he'd done, always being ready to help get us where we needed to be, pushing us out of puddles that I was sure were going to swallow the van whole, hot wiring it in his underwear when we were stranded at the beach, and winning relays for us with his flattop. We went around the circle, all choking through tears, reminding each other of all the little things I'd forgotten to write about: waking up every morning to the women sweeping, being greeted by the women sweeping the shell walkways every morning as we left for the hospital (Isama? Isama. Cortanante? Tanante. Asinotabake? Ha!), how every day when we got home from the hospital we'd ask one of the men if there would be current and if it was going to rain, and he'd smile and say, "It's possible!" I was hugging one of the women, tears pouring down my face, while one of the men rubbed my arm and we passed around tissues. We sat there for a long time, just looking around at each other, all laughing and crying at the same time.

No Arguments

Posted by Lucille on July 11, 2011 at 1:10 AM Comments comments (0)

When we met in New York at the beginning of this trip, we set some ground rules, and one of them was that family business (like arguments between group members) should stay family business. We wanted to appear as a united front. When a man from the lodge was speaking at our goodbye party yesterday, he said wonderingly that he never saw us argue. First, I thought, "Good, we managed to stick to that rule," and then I realized that no, there actually were no arguments. We were in extremely close quarters under incredibly stressful circumstances, and there were no arguments the entire time.

My Fortune

Posted by Lucille on July 10, 2011 at 1:05 AM Comments comments (0)

When our tour guide was leading us past the traveling fortuneteller, I asked if it was possible to have our fortunes told. "You can," he said, "But it is very expensive." He glanced at his watch to imply that we had limited time.

"Oh," I said, disappointed. "How much?"

He sighed and turned to the small figure in the shadow of the entry and asked a quick question in Wolof. The old man peered innocently but intently up at me from under a thick woolen hat, then whispered something to the guide. He seemed surprised, and they exchanged a few more words. "He says a hundred dalasi." I was surprised, too. That's hardly anything, certainly not enough to live off of if he charges everyone that much.

"Oh, okay," I said, watching the guide. I didn't want to inconvenience the group. He glanced at his watch, then at the little old man in the shelter. The man didn't speak or gesture, but he shifted slightly away from the door as though to welcome me through. Age is a privilege here, overcoming class and gender, and anyone over 60 is treated with great respect. People over 90 are practically sacred. The fortuneteller was 97, and clearly deference was required. The guide smiled a little, looking politely confused. "Go ahead," he said, "He wants to see you. We'll give you some privacy." He escorted the others over to some nearby trees.

I ducked into the small shack and sat down next to the fortuneteller, a tiny, hunched old man, with thick glasses wrapped in a woolen blanket. He was kind of cute.

He reached out with thin and trembling fingers and took my hand in his, then put a small mirror in my hand so that he was looking at my face in the reflection. I'd expected something like this, because it seems like it would be a lot easier to read someone's face than their hand. I wasn't sure where to look, and after a minute decided to look in the mirror back at him. I was immediately startled. While most of his face was the kindly, wrinkled face of an old man, his eyes were ancient, almost noble, staring steadily into mine, and my first thought was that if there are such things as real fortunetellers, this is the face they would have.

We looked at each other through the mirror for a long time. The guide came back and waited silently. When the elder spoke, he translated. "Health," the elder breathed, nodding to himself, "Very healthy. You will live long, long. Long life. You will see your great grandchildren. When you travel, you will come home safely. But if you ever have two minds about something-" I looked confused, so he explained, "For example, you want to go to Makasutu and you want to go to Banjul, then it is better to stay home."

I waited, and he was silent for a long time, holding my hand tenderly in his. He smiled slightly. "You will help many people," he said slowly, nodding again. "Many people will come toward you. You are like the socket of a banana connecting many fruits. So do not worry about money. If you do what you love, you will help many people. People will come to you and you will have what you need."

He paused for a minute. "Something will happen that you will be very proud of...yes. When you look back with an old woman's eyes, you will be proud."

He was silent for a long time.

"What about personally? Will I find a partner? How? And start a family?" I asked him with my eyes.

"There is fear in your eyes. These are a young person's fears. Your spirit guides, but does not determine, your future. I am telling you about your spirit life."

"What about love?" I said softly.

He paused for a minute and I imagined him thinking, “Hey, I just told you you’re going to have great grandchildren, didn’t I?” Then he smiled serenely. "One star in a night sky," which I took to mean, "There will be romantic love, but also so many other loving relationships in your life, that even if that doesn't work out it will be okay."

He smiled again, and this time, instead of just the probing, kindly gaze, there was something like affection in his eyes. He pat my hand gently. "You will have a happy life," he said, "Small disturbances, like in every life, but do not worry about them. Your soul is like water and you will float through waves."

He sighed gently, and began letting go of my hand. "Water is always flowing, and you will have many homes. When you come to a new home, spill a glass of clean water on the doorstep and jump over it. Peace will follow you."

He looked down, the noble eyes disappearing into the thin and wrinkled face. I touched his arm briefly to thank him. He did not give any signal that I needed to pay him, but I pulled out a hundred dalasi and put it in a nearby bowl as I went out the door.

As I made my way back to the group, running through everything he'd said so I could write it down later, I reflected on the probability that fortune telling is a con. If that's the case, I don't think I've ever enjoyed being conned more. It was certainly more interesting and a better story than the sprite I was going to buy with that D100 later.

Day 8: Makasutu, Senegambia

Posted by Lucille on July 9, 2011 at 12:30 AM Comments comments (0)

We went with a woman from the lodge to Makasutu, or 'sacred forest', a tourist lodge in an environmentally protected area. On the way the van got stuck in a puddle ('puddle' in Gambia implies body of water of unknown depth that partially or fully covers the road) and our driver paid some kids that were playing on a nearby termite mound to push it out. (Atcha! Atcha!) We made it back to dry land and decided to overland it, swinging around trees and termite mounds, to the reserve. Quite an adventure.

It was absolutely gorgeous there. They have these floating houses on the river, and jungle houses further in with colored glass and beautiful spiral staircases. If I ever come back to Gambia, I want to stay there for a night.

We met an old fortuneteller who's lived in this little shelter in the forest outside the property since before the park was formed. I asked him to tell my fortune, but that's a long story so I'm including it as a separate post.

We saw a few more monitor lizards and a whole tribe of western red colobus monkeys. They came up close to us, not looking for food like the ones that have been trained by tourists, just not minding us, so we got to see how they act in the wild. We were all awed by how familiar they seemed. Their appearance, behavior, and relationships just seemed so human. As we walked by, one of the mothers gave a quick call to the younger ones that were playing in a tree and they all turned to watch us. You could tell they were talking to each other.

We made our way back to base camp where we were having lunch. While we were waiting, I ran up to this stage area under a baobab for someone to take my picture. As I was coming back down I heard a buzzing by my ear and lifted my hand to brush it away, and a wasp stung me on my ear and hand.

I ran back to the table and told our group leader something had stung me. Being the nurse that she is, the first thing she asked was if I'd ever had a bad reaction to a bite. I love living with people with medical training, because they stay calm when something scary is happening and whatever they ask reassures me that I'm okay.

It started to burn really badly and I started crying. I normally don't like crying in public, but getting stung by a wasp is a situation where it's acceptable. A Spanish tourist gave me some cream to put on it and the guy from the bar brought me a bottle of cold water. Our guide was very apologetic and assured me that it would sting for 10-15 minutes and then go away, which is indeed what happened. As I reflected later, holding the bottle against my ear like a telephone, for an ice-cold water it was probably worth it.

Lunch (fried fish, benachin, and domoda) was delicious. I tried the fish and pumpkin. Toward the end a group of dancers went up to the stage area to perform, and for the last dance they invited us up to participate. There were more than a dozen people up there dancing, and the wasps weren't bothering any of them, but the second I got up there one came over and stung me on the neck. This time I expected it and kept dancing.

As we were leaving, I started talking about how much I'd love to come back to Gambia, and a teammate counted up my betrothals (crazy guy in the market, Senegalese student from outpatient, baby in maternity) and decided I could be the first woman in Gambia to have four husbands.

"I don't think the guys here would like that very much," I laughed.

"No way. So many people would want you, they would make an exception."

I asked the woman from the lodge to be my Gambian mother, and she agreed happily. My host mother in France had the same name, and I told her that if I have a daughter I'll name her Ana after them.

When we got back we relaxed for a while and then went over to dinner at the house of someone from the hospital. I arrived later because I needed to spend some time in the Internet café. My registration at Berkeley is blocked because they didn't get my final transcript, and I emailed the office to say, "Look, I'm in Africa, I'll work on it when I get back." For some reason the room was set up so that there were two mats on the floor, one with chairs and one without. Because all of us volunteered to take a spot on the floor, most of us were sitting apart from our hosts and we ended up with two separate circles of conversation.

People started talking about test scores and grad school applications, and I started feeling really stressed. There's an uncomfortable period of uncertainty around the end of high school and college and I feel like I'm getting stuck in it because I don't know what I'm doing next year. I'd like to stay at Berkeley, but I need to figure out a way for that to work financially, for which I need to talk to the financial aid more thing to frantically cram into that week before classes start. I'm in this strange mix right now of wanting to get a start on all those logistical things that are going to stress me out later, wanting to do home things like watching Harry Potter with my family, catching up with friends, and spending time with my boyfriend, and knowing that I'm going to miss Gambia a ton and I need to focus on being here now.

On weekends people have been going up to Senegambia to go to the local club. I usually don't go. Clubbing just isn't that appealing to me, or at least not more appealing than sleep. Last weekend, though, people came back and said that after the club they had gone to the beach with some of the men from the lodge. As they were walking done the beach, one of the women laughed and said they should go skinny dipping, completely as a joke, and then another teammate threw off her clothes and ran in, and a third teammate and a man from the lodge ran in after them. The other man from the lodge is a more conservative Muslim and he stayed on the beach with people's stuff. I think he was a little uncomfortable with the whole thing. I was sad I missed it. So when someone suggested going to Senegambia later I decided right away that I would go.

We went to a restaurant and got pizza, the first dairy I've had in over a month. Someone got a pina colada and passed it around. I tried a sip and didn't like it. I'd already decided not to try any more than that, thinking that if I ended up going skinny dipping, I wanted to know it was because I'm naturally crazy. There were a lot of older white women with young black men, including the British grandma from the mangrove tour, who was pretty openly grabbing her 20-year-old date's ass. She'd found dates for her two granddaughters as well, which they didn't seem happy about. One of the guys got out on the dance floor and was motioning for the granddaughter to join him, though she kept shaking her head, so her easy-going brother got out and started learning the traditional dances. That kid can make a good time out of anything. They had a live band and our group went up to dance for a while, too.

We drove down to the beach. The moon was bright and we spent a while lying on the mat and watching shooting stars. The deep indigo sky and the way the moon shown off the water and sand made the whole scene surreal. We buried one of the men’s legs in the sand and gave him a mermaid tail. At some point a teammate and I got up and started taking our shoes off.

"Lucio, are you going swimming?" the man who had waited on the beach last time asked.

"Yes. But I didn't bring my swimsuit."

I waited for his response. It's Ramadan right now, which means people are more prudish than usual (we have to wear long pants to go out in public with them). If he gave me the impression that skinny dipping would be disrespectful or make things uncomfortable, I was ready to sit back down. Instead he smiled down at me with so much fatherly tenderness that for just a split second I thought I might start crying. "Jainaba, I know you are very brave, and you know how to swim. But me, I don't know how to swim, and it is nighttime. I am scared for you in the waves. Don’t go out too deep, okay?"

I smiled and fought the urge to give him a hug. "I'll stay where I can touch, I promise."

We ducked behind a dune, slipped our clothes off, and took off running into the waves.

I don't know if this is true for everyone and I don't know if it's always been the case. There are worlds inside my head. I collect pieces, scenes, and piece them together into mystical worlds, with colors and sensations too pure to be real. Sometimes these worlds seem more real to me than reality. I was one of many children who cried themselves to sleep wishing they could go to Hogwarts, and if you've had any similar experiences I'm hoping you know what I mean. I cannot describe how beautiful and magical this night was, swimming in a warm ocean under an indigo, star-drenched sky. It felt like the barriers had been broken and I'd slipped into the world inside my head.

In many ways we define ourselves by our environment and relationships. In coming here I left all of that behind. I struggled to define myself, to pick out my identity in the reality I'd left behind, the one unchangeable piece that was me. Yes, I had my personality, but even that seemed tenuous. My attitudes about elements of my life were constantly changing as I encountered new experiences. So despite the physical changes that accompanied a different lifestyle (including body odor, since that's dependent on diet—so instead of feeling like I was sitting around in sweaty clothes, I felt like I was sitting around in someone else's sweaty clothes!) my body was the most tangible sense of identity I had.

At home my idea of my body and myself is a blended image of everything I have been. In the water I discovered my body anew, experiencing it only as it is right now, in the moment, glowing softly in the moonlight under the waves. I looked down at my feet, the ripples circling out from them across the surface. I've been this height for years but it still surprised me how far away they were. Can I really be that tall? I ran my hands up my legs and over my hips (whoa, I have hips now), onto my belly, feeling the limp muscle underneath, over my breasts (when did those get there?) and up through my hair. I rolled over, feeling the water against my skin, brushing my hands across the surface. The waves rocked me as I floated, exploring with a mixture of surprise, awe, and wonder this strange form under the water that is me. I am a woman now. Wow.

The car wouldn't start at first, and our driver, who was running around in whitey-tighties, had to hot wire it. We got half way home when he decided to stop in the middle of the highway to put his pants back on. He is hilarious. I was going to do a number of things when we got back (take my malaria pill, set up my mosquito net, brush my teeth, set my alarm...) but the sun was already rising and I fell asleep.

Day 7: Football

Posted by Lucille on July 8, 2011 at 12:30 AM Comments comments (0)

On Friday we stayed in Brikama. We were supposed to visit a bee farm and have a kora (native instrument) lesson, but we'd spent a little more than we intended by that point and were all in need of some rest.

In the afternoon, some of the men had a football game. It's Ramadan right now and this kid that was sitting in front of me kept following the crackers I was eating with his eyes. One thing I didn't know about Gambia before I came is that it's predominantly Muslim. Before, the first thing that came to mind when I thought of Muslims was, "They're not terrorists, for Pete's sake!" Obviously it doesn't make sense to define people by what they're not, so I've enjoyed learning more about Islam. Unfortunately, the parts that I like about it, like an emphasis on love and tolerance, were things I was familiar with from other religions and thus didn't stand out to me as much as the things I thought were weird (for example, the four wives thing. A teammate tried to joke with a woman from the lodge that she thought it should be one wife and four husbands, but she just shook her head and said, "No, you're saying it wrong.") Also, women do not go to mosque, and they're not supposed to pray when they're wearing short clothing or on their periods because they're 'unclean'. Besides resenting any system that makes women view their body and it's natural functions as anything less than beautiful, I thought the idea of setting aside a specific time not to pray was a little odd.

One of the downsides to being in an area dominated by one religion (any religion, not just Islam) is that rituals like fasting pretty much become compulsory. The child that was watching me eat with his mouth open was making me uncomfortable, and I considered putting the crackers away, but stopped. There's nothing wrong with eating in public. I decided that if the kid asked me for some I would give it to him, but he didn't, and eventually regained interest in the game.

One of the men from the lodge scored a goal that the referee didn't count. Everyone agreed it was a goal, including the goalie he'd scored upon (though his coach refused to count it), but the referee wouldn't change his mind. The person who scored started mouthing off at him and got a red card. The other two men from the lodge were pissed. I don't know if fasting made people short tempered or what, but fights erupted all through the stands, and our group leader motioned for us to grab our bags and move before someone got hurt. The game ended early and we all headed back to the lodge. At some point someone asked the man what he'd said to get kicked out, and he confessed sheepishly that he'd insulted the ref's mother.

While we were walking, a teammate and I discovered an advantage to being surrounded by Muslims we hadn't considered before.

"Hey, looking good, baby! Sexy ladies, come sit with us!"

"Guys, it's Ramadan!"

"Oh, yes. Sorry."

Day 6: Tendaba, Abuko

Posted by Lucille on July 7, 2011 at 12:10 AM Comments comments (0)

We woke up early for a 7:30 river tour. This time I was not accused of being afraid of the boat, though I was a little startled when the guide warned me not to lean my arm against the side of the boat because a jumping fish could bite my hand off. Oh, yeah. I'm in Africa. Someone mentioned that they sometimes see river dolphins here, so that kept me occupied until we pulled into the mangroves.
The boat had a loud motor. We didn't see a whole lot, mostly birds, but the German couple in front of us were bird enthusiasts and that made things more interesting. We saw a bunch of pelicans and a couple goliath herons. They looked like pterodactyls to me, and with the giant tropical plants in the background the image wasn't too far off. We also saw these little brown birds that make enormous nests with a little entrance hole on the bottom. The tide was out, revealing the muddy banks, so we saw a lot of crabs and mudskippers. We heard baboons but didn't see them. On our way out, we saw a monitor lizard hanging from a tree and a crocodile.

From Tendaba we took another bumpy ambulance ride to Abuko Nature Reserve.
They let us in for free, which was nice, though our guide wasn't especially helpful. "And this is called a kaba fruit," he said.
"We've lived here almost two months," someone reminded him. "What is that plant?"
He shrugged and pointed to the mango tree right in front of us. "And this is called a mango tree."
It's mango season. They're literally everywhere. We've had mango with every meal since we arrived. I decided to move to the back. 
There were so many insects: ants, millipedes, and spiders of every kind. A lot of birds, too, and we saw three monitor lizards. The end of the trail was an animal orphanage. There were two big enclosures with Western Red Colobus monkeys, and a lot of wild ones in the trees. Most of them were adults, so I asked the guide why they were in the orphanage.
"Oh. We don't have orphans in the orphanage. We put them in cages for visitor enjoyment."
I did not enjoy that very much, and I liked it even less when a boy came over selling peanuts for us to feed to the wild monkeys. There was a prominent sign that said, "Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, and under no circumstances feed the animals. They are wild and need to stay that way."
"They're wild," a teammate told him, pointing at the sign, "We're not going to feed them."
"No, it's okay," our guide said.
She looked at him in surprise. "Your sign says not to feed them," she said sternly.
"Yes, but most visitors want to feed them, to get a nice picture. I say okay, because I don't want them to blame me or maybe they will only give small tip."
We did not feed the monkeys.
We went over to the hyena cage. As we approached I was wondering if they were more closely related to cats or dogs, and when we looked over the stone fence I thought they must be closer to bears. They're huge, much bigger than they look in the Lion King, and they're just weird looking on top of that. Their back legs are shorter than their front legs, so they kind of waddle when they walk, and their necks are thick so they look top heavy like they should tip over. If a hyena attacked you, you wouldn't stand a chance. They had the females and the males in separate enclosures. The females were relaxing in the shade, and the males were running along the dividing fence, clearly just dying to get over there, panting with their long teeth hanging out. There were thick spinal columns and skulls and things scattered through both enclosures. I wanted to know how they separated them.

We walked by an empty cage. "This is where the lion used to be, but it escaped and we had to order the military to kill it."
"It escaped?" someone said, "How did it escape?"
"Oh, you know, the guards are careless."
"Have other things escaped?"
"Oh, yes. Monkeys, hyenas sometimes."
Someone got this on video. His casualness had us all laughing.
On our way out, we saw an enormous spider (honestly the largest spider I've ever seen besides tarantulas, it was the size of my hand). When I pointed it out, most of the group ran up the trail ahead of me. Two people stayed and joined me in exclaiming how beautiful it was. I need to stay in contact with these people.
I chatted with the guide on our way out. "Do you see a lot of snakes here?"
"Oh, yes."
"What kinds?"
"Mostly spitting cobras."
No shit. You're not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy.
"What would you do if one spit in someone's eye?"
"Rinse it, I guess."
"You don't have antivenom?"
"No. You could probably go to Brikama."
I've worked in Brikama, and I'm a donkey if they could help you there. They're good at handling malaria, but I know for a fact they don't have antivenom of any kind. I took extra care watching for snakes on the way out, and everyone made it to the car without incident.

Day 5: Masakonko, Fula Village, Border, Tendaba

Posted by Lucille on July 6, 2011 at 12:05 AM Comments comments (0)

In the morning, our guide took us to the Masakonko regional health office where he's working now. The head talked to us about what they're doing to reduce malaria by providing antimalarial drugs to pregnant women. We then went to the midwifery school, which, it turns out, was put together by the University of California. I got to introduce myself as a UC student hoping to be a midwife, which they thought was pretty cool. The slide that was up when we went in showed a partograph labeled 'inadequate contractions corrected with oxytocin'. This was such a fitting snapshot, it helped me understand the behavior of the midwives at BHC. This is what they learn.

We stopped at a Fula Village. This was more like the living situation I'd expected, and probably a more typical African experience. "It's okay," I reflected, "What we lacked in intensity of our living situation, we made up for at the hospital." These three girls came out dressed in the traditional initiation outfits. We were told they'd just been circumcised last week and were invited to take pictures with them. I spent most of the time playing with a friendly parrot. As we left, I realized that I didn't know any of those girls' names, and I knew the state of their genitals. This bothered me.

We did a quick loop (literally one intersection) into Senegal and stopped at the border for a photo shoot, then loaded back in the ambulance for the longest drive of our trip, over dirt roads with more potholes than you can imagine. Instead of the occasional bump, it was a constant, bone-jarring earthquake, and all of us caught air more than once. I found myself tightening up against it, and kept reminding myself to stay loose, relax. Breathe. Then it occurred to me that I was talking to myself like I was in labor, and I thought that was funny, so I laughed and discovered that laughing helped. Someone in the group started singing. So there we were, having a little group sing along, banging and bumping on our way as we sped down the red dirt road, laughing at the ludicrousy of it all.

As the hours wore on, it gradually stopped being funny. A wasp flew in the window, leading to a few moments of chaos in which someone almost climbed on top of me, and at some point we hit a goat, but aside from that it was the monotony of the joint rattling ride. I was tucked into my own little world when I heard someone gasp, and looked up through the back ambulance window at the most beautiful sunset I'd seen in my life.

At some point I became fascinated by one of the men’s knees (makes sense, as I kept getting thrown into it). He's about my height, and probably a similar fitness level, but his knee was almost twice as thick as mine. I looked at his arms, and you could see in every part of his body that his bones were just bigger and stronger than mine. For a minute I pouted that women were not built as sturdily as men, until I realized that nearly everyone was closer to his size. I guess I'm just small.

I've gotten a lot of attention for being the youngest, the 'Chad' of our group. For example, if I've been dancing all night and step out for one song because I'm exhausted, people will come over to tell me it's alright to be shy, they understand. The driver of the boat that took us to Kunta Kinte Island tried to put his arm around me and told me he knew I was afraid of the boat and it was okay. I paddled for Team USA in the dragonboat nationals, but never mind. I know I'm young and small, but you know what, I'm here. I helped deliver four babies last week. I'm a sister, a martial artist, and an author. I've walked on fire. The ambulance predicament, being stuck in this tiny contraption bumbling along this little road, suddenly seemed absurd. Pull the car over. I'll run.

Which I suppose I could have done if I hadn't fallen asleep. When we pulled in at Tendaba Nature Reserve and I remembered what I'd been thinking before I fell asleep, I thought it was pretty funny. Apparently I get defensive when I'm tired. We were supposed to go on a boat tour, but there was a thunderstorm, so I took a shower, ate, and went to bed early, which felt amazing. When two other teammates came in we stayed up talking for hours. I can't believe I'm not going to see these people after this week.

Day 4: Fort Bullen, Kunta Kinte Island, Salt Flats

Posted by Lucille on July 4, 2011 at 11:55 PM Comments comments (0)

My roommate and I had stayed up late talking, and we got up at 5 because we needed to leave by 6. I didn't make it out until 6:02 and felt bad. We've gotten used to things happening on GMT (Gambia Maybe Time), and despite our reemphasis that travel week needed to happen on American Real Time, our guide didn't show up until 8:30.

We took the RCH ambulance and a ferry to Fort Bullen, which was built by the British to stop ships leaving with slaves from the River Gambia. I could see the historical significance of it being an anti-slavery fort, but the rest of the tour, about the layout, etc., was lost on me. I was more interested in this beautiful tree in the middle of the fort that reminded me of the white tree of Gondor. As a teammate wisely pointed out, ruins are a lot more fun when you can climb on them.

We then drove to Albreda and Juffureh (Kunta Kinte's birth place) and took another boat over to James Island, recently renamed Kunta Kinte Island (Kunta Kinte is the man from Roots). Most of the island was a circle of ten ancient baobabs, a pretty powerful image, and I reflexively thanked them for letting me come to their island. (This blog is going to make me sound like such a hippy. Not that there's anything I can do about it. Oh well, Portland's a pretty welcoming place.) We then went over to what was left of the fort. We saw the place where Kunta Kinte had been chained to the wall and punished for inciting the other captives to resist. We also went over to where they would load the Africans onto ships. They would cut the men's hair and cut off the women's waist beads. Hundreds-of-years-old waist beads coated the sand under our feet. Our guide told us that they started collecting them to put in the museum, but there were too many, so most of them are still out in the sand under the baobabs where they originally fell. We picked them up and wondered about the women who had worn them.

On our way to Soma, a satellite village of Masakonko (Government Hill) where we would spend the night, we stopped at the deserted salt flats to look at how people evaporate and iodize the salt. It was super muddy, and it quickly became clear that wearing shoes out there was not an option. Several people in the group turned back. A teammate and I took off our shoes and danced.

Day 3: Tilly's Tours

Posted by Lucille on July 3, 2011 at 11:40 PM Comments comments (0)

We caught an early bus from Banjul to take a river cruise through a mangrove forest. Ten minutes in, the sounds of the road and the city fell away behind us. First there was this incredible silence-- nothing but your heartbeat, your breath as you drifted through ancient forest-- and then your senses adjusted, and you could hear everything, the dripping of water from the leaves, every ripple as it lapped against the boat, the scurrying of insects over branches and the quiet gulp of fish breaking the surface. The river was thick with fish, all kinds-- if you closed your eyes and stuck your hand in the water, you couldn't help but touch them, silver ones and brown ones and red ones, all sliding around each other. The density and diversity of life was just amazing. It felt like the mangroves went on forever, at once both ancient and new. I thought that I could step out into the mangroves and live my life here. There was everything you would need: clear water, clean air, an abundance of food, and infinite life to keep you company.

I felt like laughing and singing just for fun. It seemed like a perfectly natural thing to do, the birds in the mangroves were certainly making their share of noise. The energy and excitement were contagious. I knew there were predators, and probably other dangerous animals, but I didn't mind. You couldn't be part of this world without sharing in the risk. It felt safe here, certainly safer and healthier than the city we'd left behind, and I was dying to hop off on one of the passing roots and go exploring.

After a few hours we stopped in a deep pool and our guides invited us to go swimming. Yesyesyesyesyes! No, Lucille, this is Africa. I went swimming before. Yes, but that was the ocean. This is fresh water. But it looks so clean and perfect... It's a river. You remember from those Animal Planet shows. There could be anything in here, leeches and parasites and other things...

There was a British family on the boat with us, a seriously tanned woman who lives here with her fifteen-year-old grandson, and her two granddaughters who were visiting for a week. The boy, who spoke fluent Mandinka, exchanged words with one of the guides and dove in. "It's salty!" he said.

Magic words. And never mind hesitantly slipping into the water. I climbed up to the top deck and jumped.

Once we were all dried off and on board, they brought out a bottle of champagne. I decided to try some. I've tried normal wine before, on holidays for toasts and things, and I never liked it. But champagne tasted good. Very French. They brought out a bottle of orange juice for us to mix with it (less French, I think), which made it taste even better, and someone told me that's called a mimosa. I'm learning all kinds of things.

I didn't have very much and I didn't feel any different, but there were other firsts, including coffee (okay, I've had mochas before, but it counts), tea, fried chicken, boiled egg, beans, and coleslaw. The little Gambian woman in the kitchen (she runs the boat, the guides are her sons) made all of this on a gas burner on the counter of the boat. To my surprise, the chicken was my favorite. If I can figure out how to make it right maybe that will be a new fave in the US.

Next the staff brought out fishing poles. I caught a fish! Normally I don't like killing things (although I make an occasional exception for mosquitoes) but here it didn't bother me. I was connected with these fish. I swam with them. And the family that runs the boat was going to cook them in an hour for dinner. I don't know why this made a difference, but it did. We fished for an hour (during which I got a lot better at casting a line) and the whole time I was thinking about my brother's favorite show, River Monsters, about this guy who goes fishing in the Amazon. I wanted to catch a catfish (a very River Monsters-y thing to do), but they seemed to prefer my teammate's line. The fish I caught was a ladyfish.

The drive back into the city, watching kids running around taxis and donkeys trudging through trash and mud, was a little overwhelming. The walk to the lodge was better. Kids ran up to say hi instead of trying to pickpocket us, a welcome and friendly change after the chaos of Banjul. When we got to the lodge we ran inside to hug everyone (we hadn't seen them in three days). That's the one thing the mangrove forest didn't have: people. I never thought that going to Brikama, Gambia could feel like coming home.