Nungee dem si country bi

Trip Start Aug 26, 2007
Trip End Dec 16, 2007

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Flag of Gambia  ,
Monday, October 22, 2007

In a week the 12 of us will file out of happy camp and begin what is sure to be an eventful road trip (or, after a certain point, it would be better called a dusty, bumpy path- trip) up country to see village life in The Gambia. This Saturday we had a little glimpse of what that may be like with a day trip to a small town, Senbira and village, Samiko, about an hour and a half away. The trip was a chance to look at the development strategies and needs of Senbira and Samiko with our Poverty and Development class. And it became clear to us very early that paved roads were one of those needs when our bus got a flat tire about 45 minutes in. Luckily, we had packed a flat, and after a few attempts and improvisations, we were able to get the tire back on. I really do think we're all getting used to the Gambia though, because we almost seemed to expect the delay, and just turned it into an opportunity to check out the scenery, lie in the shade of a tree, and talk to little kids.
At the town our professor, who was engaging in a futile attempt to keep us on schedule, rushed us through the different facilities in the town. Still, even with the limited time we got to hear about some interesting programs. The first was a clinic, a few small buildings around a quiet sandy courtyard. A small British doctor came out to describe the clinic to us, a man who seemed a little too formal for his surroundings. He described how the clinic was set up in the town over 40 years ago by Christian missionaries as a one-room clinic with two midwives at a time when there was no other clinic for 65 kilometers. Luckily there are now 12 to 14 clinics in that same area past the capital, so there isn't nearly so much demand on this specific one. There is still an important niche for it though, beyond the town itself, because the clinic does not discriminate against refugees and Senegalese who come from the nearby border as a government clinic would. The whole medical staff has basic nurse training, 14 have midwife training and there are two ambulance drivers, on top of general maintenance workers. There is only the one doctor, however.
The clinic focuses on malnutrition and HIV-related sickness (Though it is relatively low in The Gambia, the highest prevalence of HIV in the Gambia is here, at 2-7% .). However, the clinic does not even offer anti-retroviral drug treatments. It really did not take a tour of the services and rooms of the clinic to realize that the clinic has adapted to low resources and made realism part of their altruism. The doctor emphasized that it is worthwhile to help prolong patients' lives, even if you can't save them. For malaria cases, the doctor was very insistent that it was on bed nets, not vaccines that people should channel their preventative efforts. And his reports did seem to suggest that these were both practical and efficient; Malaria cases had plummeted, and there had been only one death in two years since the government started distributing mosquito netting to families. In this way, even for it's limitations, the clinic did seem to suggest improvement and that ever-sought-after, ever-ambiguous 'development.' It is a little terrifying to imagine how things may have been 40 years ago, after all. However, that development may need greater direction; the doctor cited that though education was improving among locals, creating more educated health employees, many of those people want to go out to the opportunities and conveniences of the city, rather than working with their own people.
Our next stop was a giant, shiny, paneled pyramid, that had a slightly alien look to it among the palm trees and lush green farmland. This was a water project by a private company that gets and stores distilled, rain, and normal drinking water through a series of different pipes, wells, and tanks. This project too had mastered that evolutionary art of efficiently using limited resources. The pyramid itself was simply layered with foil so that it could heat up and then condense purified drinking water that would then fall down the sides and run to a tank. But while this project could make a nice National Geographic spread on innovative technology delivered to developing countries, it is not necessarily fit to the needs of the local people. Large 20 liter tubs can be sold for as cheap as 3 dalasi, but for a community that considers water a part of life and a part of the earth, it is unacceptable to pay for this resource, especially because it will add up. It is issues like these that make me wonder just how much communication exists between the organizers of development projects and locals.
The final stop, a daycare center set up and run by the American organization Christian Children's Front, made me further question the prevalence of foreign influence in development initiatives. This NGO does encourage local men and women to actually run the school as the 'people on the ground,' but another part of the program allows foreigners to directly fund a Gambian student. The money even goes directly to these children through Designated Fund Certificates. So, at a young age, these children grow accustomed to receiving foreign support, to relying of foreign support for their advancement. And even worse, not all students get funding, and so the students become acutely aware of the seeming senselessness of who succeeds or gets by in the Gambia. The school itself seems like a very positive one, however, though it too is dealing with limited resources, given that it has 285 kids and only 9 teachers. The school, like the clinic, is not a new program, it has been around since 1984. Senbira is clearly not new to these development strategies, or from foreign involvement in them. The town meeting we had with some of the heads of development reinforced this impression. Still being hurried along, we ended up back at the center of town, where we were shuffled into a circle of town elders and onlookers, with plenty of kids and youths peering over shoulders at the line of tubabs. Like all meetings we would attend, a prayer began and ended the proceedings, and with palms turned upwards a soft murmuring of Arabic resounded in waves and then stopped suddenly. I made the necessary motions and looked on at the so soundly structured society surrounding me that I was completely foreign to.
There was a clear hierarchy in the village, headed by the traditional political leader, called the alkalo. There were also many older men, (and a somewhat surprisingly large amount of women) who were revealed as counselors and secretaries of a seemingly complex town Community Development Committee. A forestry committee attempting to communalize and reinvigorate forestry profits was represented, as were youth, agricultural, health, women's, and project committees. The city clearly had at least the bureaucratic veneer of being a model of development. One of the speakers even showed all the charm and cleverness of a politician when talking to us, as he joked about us bringing in new programs. And perhaps it was because it had received much attention from development programs (or maybe the cause and effect was the other way around), but I got the impression that there was a large amount of town pride in this place. It boasted of being one of the largest communities in the area, but also of its great unity. ("Because, without unity, there will be no meaningful development," the politician quipped) The leaders also portrayed the town as special for the elites it had produced and the development strategies it had demonstrated.
But after the string of positive achievements, the tone changed from pride to almost pleading. They described how there was a lack of water and difficulty of transport, and they were very clear that they did not consider paying for water an acceptable solution. The recognized electricity as a large void, but one of the most important was a lack of a secondary school. This issue did strike me as one of the worst ones plaguing rural areas. Though many areas have basic and junior secondary schools, many do not have senior secondary schools. This means that to continue a basic level of education, youths must uproot, leave their homes and try to find housing in more urban areas. Not only is this a huge adjustment for rural children who are used to a strong community structure, it is a great strain on families and Gambian society in general. There are many expenses involved in such efforts, and meanwhile families lose needed help on their land. The trend also adds to the problem of rural-urban migration that is an impediment to development for many countries (draining rural populations, and clogging urban areas). For the people in this town their concerns are on a smaller scale; they tend to worry about the questionable guidance the youths may receive. At the same time, they realize the importance of education for development. This town is in a slightly better position, supposedly they were approved for one in 2008 by the government, but they are skeptical of just when this decision of the central government will touch on their town.
When the primary female counselor spoke, she also had problems to discuss. She very briefly mentioned what seems to be a larger issue of division of labor (that would be discussed much more in the village) by lamenting that while women focus on their gardens and horticulture during the dry season, they must abandon these during the rainy season to help men with rice and cash crops. These women have two priorities, on top of the requirements of their houses and children, and balancing these can be hard when their families rely on their success in all areas. On top of this, a skills center that was developed to provide other skills and opportunities for women to provide for themselves and their families failed in this town. Though the building remains, this issue reminded me that while many may tout the establishment of development programs, it takes much more concentrated attention and resources to maintain a program than to establish it. Hopefully this fact is not forgotten as governments and organizations pledge only a superficial commitment to solving rural poverty.
The issue of women's development got a little more complex when the leaders tried to address a question on the support of girls' education. There was much discussion in a language I could not understand before two different people tried to answer the question in a long, convoluted manner. There did seem to be a loan program for girls to pay their school fees, but there was clearly some dispute about its nature among the townspeople. There very clearly seemed to be some controversy under the surface here.
From the town we barreled our way down dirt roads to a village named Samito not far away. This place did not have the small stores and biddiks of the town, or any of the sprawl. We did not get to see much of the surrounding area, but the center of the village exuded a very bright, friendly, relaxed atmosphere that drew all of us in right away. After a huge lunch of, once again, benechin and cow intestines, we loitered outside playing with a horde of giggling children. None of these kids had the marks of more destitute poverty, and none of them fell into the rude, desperate begging (or I should say demanding) that kids in the city often do. After we moved into the village meeting place, I continued to kind of fall in love with the spirit of this little village. The environment of the country cheers me up immediately after so much time in the city, and the attitude of the village only added to the effect. I would say that, even among discussions of the lack of resources of the community, I could not help but fall into a pastoral reverie here, especially after the meeting subsided and we joined into laughing, enthusiastic dancing and drumming with the women of the village.
As we sat and waited for the alkalo, children gathered and sat on the floor and walls of the meeting place. Then the long process of back and forth translation, introductions and questions began. This time it proceeded with a bit more festivity, with griots banging sporadically on a sebar, a Gambian drum.
Though this village also had a Village Development Committee, it did not have nearly the sense of bureaucracy as the other. Those who were in charge of it seemed to be those who were simply traditionally respected in the village. The development programs too were on a more limited scale. There was a clinic, and while there was only one nurse, the villagers said with fondness that she was more than willing to answer any call, even at 3 am. They also listed improvements in basic and junior schools, sports resources for children, and environmental standards. These again came largely from outside aid, especially the Christian Children's Front. But the problems with the clinic, where villagers who were used to subsistence did not have the expendable income to spend on medication and upkeep, did suggest that there may not be an alternative to this.
Part of me resists the idea of so much foreign intervention in development initiatives for rural towns and villages. There is so much possibility of cultural imperialism, inefficiency and learned dependency. Yet, at the same time, we cannot expect villages to have the structures and resources of urban areas that are needed for development programs. If we are trying to suddenly fit them to develop into the modern economic and social system of urban areas, we have to accept that that will require us to support them with constant resources and information. Otherwise it would be like dumping someone in a different country without attempting to teach him the language or giving him the currency.
This village's list of successes was considerably shorter than the town's, and the problems with development it described were more severe. Their water shortage stemmed from the fact that storage facilities had not been updated for 15 years. So now they often find the water taps that are there completely dry, as their growth has far surpassed water supply. On top of this, there had never been any attempts at communication development. Only one cell phone service provider sometimes worked in the area, but this one often went days without service. At these times, it really would be impossible to get a hold of people except by traveling. The village had the same complaints about the lack of a senior secondary school, for many of the same reasons. But when the issue of gender division of labor came up, the response revealed some distinct cultural differences, given that we were only 15 to 20 minutes away (or maybe the people at this village were a bit more vocal, it is hard for me to tell after such a short trip and with a language barrier.) The women were in charge of horticulture, helping with groundnut production, keeping a home, raising and bearing children, cooking, selling firewood and other small projects, and often covering the school fees of the children. And all of this is labor-intensive with no mechanization available. When our professor expressed surprise at this long list, one particularly vocal village member explained somewhat indignantly that this was a very natural, normal consequence because men were suffering the horrible fate lately of bad groundnut crops. The impression was that men were groundnut farmers and nothing else, and that they were the victims in this scenario. On top of this, because children naturally go to their mothers first for help, it is normal for women to fill their needs. This imbalanced division of labor does not mean that women weren't respected in the society, in the tight social structure women were respected and were very important. But from a practical stance, there were undeniably assumptions acting as barriers to development. And from a human rights stance, there were serious entrenched ideas affecting what I, as a Westerner, would call gender equality.
But it was hard to dwell long on conflict here, as we moved directly to dancing before an enthusiastic village goodbye fully equipped with running, waving children.
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