The Smiling Coast of Africa

*These are my personal views, opinions, and ramblings and do not necessarily reflect those of the United States government or The Peace Corps.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Good Night and Good Luck

Two years. Two years filled with never ending days that flew by in a blur. Its crazy to think that it is over. Its been amazing and frustrating, and usually just amazingly frustrating. As a result I am drained, mentally and physically fatigued from a culmination of two years in a very harsh environment and culture. It is mentally exhausting to live here and emotionally I am so looking forward to going home and not having to analyze every comment or action and constantly be on guard against sexual harassment and abuse. I am tired of thinking the worst of people as a means of self preservation.
It has been challenging, but I definitely would do it again if only to have the experience and understanding of myself and the way this part of the world works that i have now. For all most every moment when I wanted to pull my hair out and scream at someone, I can recall and even more vivid memory of moments spent with my favorite children, joking around with friends, being taught how to cook or farm or the community turning out in full force for a celebration. People ask me to sum up my experience in a word or a phrase, but that is impossible. The journey is filled with unexpected twists and turns, but I have passed them and now I can look back and say I've done it. I will always have these memories and valuable life experiences to fall back on wherever life takes me. I had no idea what was in store for me when I got on that plane two years ago bound for West Africa, nor could I have ever begun to imagine. Now I am in the reverse position, anxiously awaiting the next chapter of my life back home, almost equally as nervous about the unknowns but perhaps a little more confident in my ability to tackle them. This experience has changed my life and taught me innumerable lessons and for that I am deeply thankful to these people and this place and also to myself for finding the courage to let go and jump.

But there is no way I could have done it on my own and for that I want to send out a huge thank you to my friends and family, both in American and here in The Gambia, for the encouraging words, open ears and sound advice. The support has been amazing and I couldn't imagine getting through this journey without it. My service has been so shaped by the amazing friends I have made within the PC community. This journey would have been much harder without them. I want to thank them and I hope we will all continue to keep in touch once we are stateside and flung to our own destinies.
To all of you, your amazing and I'm lucky to have you in my life. God bless and catch you State side!

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

So long Njongon....

The last weeks flashed into the last days. Days faded into hours, stolen moments - hugs, laughter, tears. I tried to suck all I could out of it, conscious that I would never be back here, never be this person again.

I lingered on the mat in late into the nights, staring at the stars until the mosquito's and exhaustion finally drove us indoors. I drank over 6 cups of strong, syrupy green tea in one day as cherished last conversations with friends and favorite old men. I allowed myself to be dressed up as an ebadou (the practice of covering ones head and body) Barbie for the day, memorizing the shouts of delight and the gleam in Haddy Bah's eyes as she remarked how beautiful I looked with my head covered so modestly, just as Allah intends. I watched with amusement as 10 year old Jean patiently but hopelessly tried to teach his small cousin Paul to crawl, using a mobile to coerce him across the mat. I sat in the stifling hot computer lab teaching Mariama, a grade nine student to use the computer, because she actually asked and so few students show that much initiative. I was shocked, filled with pride and my hope restored as I watched her master double clicking in less then 2 minutes her first time ever touching a computer, a task that most of my adult computer students had yet to master after 7 weeks of classes. I listened to my students and colleagues as they gave speeches thanking me for being friendly, for remembering their names and taking an interest in their classes and their lives. I handed out certificates to my very proud computer students - teachers who were very excited to show their newly acquired status symbol to the villagers and their home people. I listened as they sang songs to bid me farewell, prayed for my long life and health and the hope that I would have a very nice husband and many, many children. I clung to the children, despite their dirty faces mud covered clothes, I kissed them, tickled them and pulled their hair for the last times.

I broke down and cried as I saw Pa come over, his eyes red and welling with tears. He came to shake my hand goodbye and do his terribly adorable half hug, but I broke about 4 different cultural norms as I flung my arms around his neck, sobbing and completely unable to be stoic in the face of a crying old man. Wanting so much to express my sincere thanks and love to this man who welcomed me into his home, protected and sheltered me, imparted so much wisdom and brought so much joy and laughter to my life here. He disappeared before he could loose to much more face, as men are never supposed to cry here, just saying "go, go, I am going to the bush." and I collapsed into Ansel and YaBoi, as we cried our farewells Ansel laughed at us all for being so dramatic and urging me into the car assuring me she would see me before I got on the plane. I kissed Baby Paul and climbed into the car listening to Pauline's wails. Wailing is in general a very disturbing experience and is even more disorienting and heart wrenching when it is your friend's cries directed towards you. I stopped to give last hugs and farewells to the smiling faces of Jabou and Corr Kunda and climbed into the car drove away. As Njongon descended into a whirl of red dust behind me, I stopped and took a deep intake of air.

Just breathe.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

To Walk Majestically....

My headmaster approached us with the sheepish but entitled look he gets on his face when he wants something done. He handed us the thick expensive paper from the Regional Education Office, with the official government seal and all. We, he said, had been identified to serve as chaperons and coaches for the first annual, insh'allah, Miss 22nd July Scholarship Pageant. My counterpart for the girls club and I looked at each other, looked at the paper and looked back at my headmaster in silence, all while trying to keep our mouths from gaping open in shock. You want us, us, to chaperone and train girls for a beauty pageant?!
Don't you know we are feminists? Don't you know that beauty pageants are evil and that they exploit a girl's looks and sexuality to feed into some sort of twisted fantasy invented by men? Don't you know you know that girls should be valued for their brains and their abilities rather then the circumference of their hips or the symmetry of their face?
We nervously glanced at each other. "We don't think we are really the best people for this, we don't really agree with beauty pageants, shouldn't the girls be focusing on their exams, shouldn't we support them in that way?" I spoke up, speaking for both of us since it is more acceptable for me, the outsider, to question the administration. "No, you will do fine. This is a government mandate. Choose two girls and train them. Make sure they win!" he said as he quickly walked away, grateful that he had delegated the responsibility and it was no longer his to worry about.

So that is how I found myself in the very absurd situation of serving as a pageant coach for two adolescent African girls in a country that is still struggling to discern the difference between authentic gender empowerment and mere tokenism to satisfy international donors. Since Haddy (my counterpart and very good friend) and I didn't seem to have much choice in the matter, we decided we should try the best we could with the girls and try and keep their intelligence and commitment to making a difference in the community at the forefront and just keep the beauty aspect in the background. With the help of other teachers in the school we chose two girls from grade 7 and 8 to represent the school at the regional competition. Haddy trained them on how to walk gracefully (or majestically as Gambians like to say), speak loudly and clearly with chins up instead of eyes instead of eyes cast down in the customary pose of girls here and helped them write a platform speech on a topic of importance to their community as well as drilling them on facts of Gambian history and government, post coup since that is the only history that really matters anyway. I was away for most of the training but was delighted to come back and see Haddy taking charge and really being devoted to seeing the girls succeed. I helped coach them as well, but I was much more an assistant to Haddy than anything. Which is how it should be, these girls need Haddy, a successful and empowered Gambian woman, to be their mentor and role model far more than they need me.

After about two weeks of training we were off to the regional capital to compete against other junior secondary school age girls. The whole day was basically a calamity of the typical mismanagement, lack of leadership and cluelessness that too often characterize government offices in this country. In short, the competition was supposed to start at 9 am but didn't start till 4pm, their was no MC so they coerced Haddy into doing it for them, and half the girls that showed up weren't told what to bring or how to prepare. Luckily, my bestest bud Rachel was a judge so we kept each other company and tried to laugh amidst the chaos and chalk it up to one more crazy experience. At one point the two of us were sitting in front of a gigantic plate of rice trying to eat lunch while about 50 high school boys ran all around us trying to take chairs and tables outside, all while shouting at the top of their lungs. Benachin (common Gambian rice dish) in the midst of chaos.
The regional competition went well when it finally started, our two girls did excellent and were easily the most well prepared and demonstrated the best speaking skills. The other 30 or so girls in their category did well too but it was very apparent that they were nervous and often couldn't even complete, or sometimes start their speeches. It is incredibly difficult for an adolescent to get up in front of hundreds of peers and speak on a subject, even more so when your entire life you have had it drilled in to you that you should be seen and not heard, you should never look someone in the eyes and you are more valuable for work and child bearing then for what you have to say. In addition to their speeches and answering questions about the government, the girls had to display two or three "looks", this being a beauty pageant after all. One of the "looks" was a traditional outfit to celebrate their tribe or ethnicity. This aspect was actually kind of cool and some of the girls had beautiful traditional fabrics and jewelery they borrowed from anuties or grandmothers. For the other "looks" the girls could wear whatever they wanted which sometime lead to nice respectful kompletes and normal fancy African dresses but also sometimes lead to painted on gold lame hooker clothes. This last "look" is sadly an all to common occurrence, especially among young girls, as they desperately try to look Western and dress grown up with little or no knowledge of actual fashion trends. This annoying proclivity to skintight pants and hoochy skirts quickly caused the potentially empowering scholarship competition to descend into sexual exploitation and a wife finding event for creepy male teachers and village men. As much as I rolled my eyes at the whole idea of a beauty pageant in general and especially a beauty pageant in a less then open, Muslim country, it was a good learning oppurtunity and I gave me another oppurtunity to witness the unnerving clash of cultures present in much of world as the youth start to challenge the accepted norms and traditions of their societies. This was no more apparent that day then when I glanced over to see about twenty devout men observing the evening call to prayer to the tune of Britney's eternally classy tune "Toxic".

Throughout the entire prep period for the regional and national competitions I was consistenly proud and more in love then ever with my girls club counterpart Haddy. She totally stepped it up and took a real interest in helping the girls succeed and be the best they could be. Whether she was kicking ass as MC, pageant coach or keeping the brains aspect at the forefront for the girls. It was great to see the girls depending on her and her rising to meet their needs and being an excellent role model all around. It was a great moment in our work and friendship together to be sitting next to each other and both of us erupting into cheers and brimming with pride when Ely and Mamie got first and second at the regional competition and then when Ely made it into the top 10 at the national competition.
At the national level competition it was a whole different ball game then at our rinky dink regional. They put us up in a really nice hotel that most Gambians never get to experience because it caters exclusively to tourists and is ridiculously expensive. There were girls from all over the country and there was a notable division between the girls from the provinces and those from the capital city and surrounding areas. The girls from the city are just so much more exposed here, they take for granted their televisions, qualified teachers, schools with actual books and equipment, parents with salaries, education officials who are actually held accountable for the support the give their schools and having an ease with the English language simply because they actually hear it spoken outside the walls of the school. And as one can easily guess, with these relative privileges comes a bit of snobbery and backbiting directed at "uncivilized" girls from bush. I guess it wouldn't truly be a beauty pageant without a little cat fighting and low blows but still discouraging to see a girl with all the privileges her nation can afford her looking down on a girl who is actually living a much more realistic Gambian life because she happens to live a mere 50 k up river.

To somewhat even the playing field all the girls were trained for two weeks by this great Liberian boss lady teaching the girls how to walk gracefully like a lady. All the girls were provided fancy shoes and fancy dresses, tons of meat and soda to eat and excursions to see cultural or historical sites around that capital area when they weren't training. All in all the girls really enjoyed and were very excited about the free clothes and fancy hairdos. The actual competition portion of the two weeks was intense, dreadfully long and lasted into the wee hours of the morning. All the girls from our region did great and you could really see how much they had grown and how much confidence they had gained through all the training in the past couple weeks compared to their performances at the regional competition. But one of my students and member of my Girls Club qualified for the finals so it was all worth it in the end!
The final mega competition was insane. I don't even want to know how much money went into it. I couldn't afford a $40 ticket to get in to watch Ely. So ever resourceful I pulled a super ghetto move and watched from the balcony of my counterparts hotel room. The whole week Ely had been making us nervous cause she didn't really seem that into it and we were worried she wasn't prepared and would embarrass herself on national TV. She is a bit of a book worm anyway and not all that into beauty queen stuff and fancy clothes anyway so I just figured she was tired and wanted to go home to her family. But boy, that kid had it all figured out, she was just being modest and coy. Her speech on HIV/AIDS was perfect, her English perfect. She sang beautifully and answered her questions on the government and history of The Gambia correctly too. When the winners were finally announced at 6am Haddy called me to tell me to wake me from my half sleep to go out on the balcony. I heard them announce third and second and I felt my heart drop. But then they said her name and I was jumping up and down on the balcony like a crazy person hugging the chicken pocked student I was taking care of, so proud, so happy for Ely.
Turns out she had it all together the whole time, she just doesn't like making a big thing of herself. I thought surely Ely couldn't go from ninth place in the preliminaries to first in the finals despite the great job she had done. But she did. She got first in the entire nation for the middle school students. Her prize is absolutely free education thru university, a monthly stipend and a science lab for her school. Her parents never have to worry about whether they can afford the really good senior secondary school she will no doubtedly get in thanks to her brainy dedication to her studies. She even gets to meet the prez! Our little school in the provinces will be on national radio and TV, the teachers will gain prestige and maybe now more people will be willing to come teach in the provinces. Maybe this helps proove the girls in the bush aren't as backward and dumb as everyone wanted to believe. The little Manjago (very small Christian minority from Guinea Bissau) from the bush took it all! And as for Haddy and me, these two feminists couldn't be prouder of our beauty queen.
*pics of the event on Flickr link

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Best Job You'll Ever Love

People join Peace Corps for a whole host of reasons, too many to innumerate here. Some come for adventure, some to save the world, to teach, to cure, to civilize, to feel good about themselves, to find themselves, to loose themselves. Me, I came to learn. Learn about myself and the world around me but mostly to learn about how this huge idea called "development" works on the ground, at the village level where it really matters. I came for some of the other reasons too - this journey is far too complex for just one motivating factor. But at the heart of it, I can here to observe, to learn, to take it all in and hopefully leave with more answers then I came with.

I think the individual reasons we all have for thrusting ourselves into the African bush for two years - for leaving all we've known for days of utter confusion and doubt - colors each of our experiences. Some of us came to experience the culture and to live it, not just watch it. We find ourselves in the daily cooking rotation along with the rest of the compound wives, baby strapped to our back and eyes burning as we strain to see the sauce through the smoke and heat of the flames. Some of us come to help, to teach, to alleviate pain or ignorance. We put our all into our work - often taking on more work then is necessarily healthy. Sometimes, if we are lucky, we suffer through the work alongside a counterpart - both convinced we are working for the good of the country and our people. Sometimes, and sadly it seems to often, we work through endless days doing more than our fair share of the work in a fruitless attempt to set an example to our counterparts as they sit in the shade of a mango tree sipping sweet greet tea through the day as the recount the numerous ways in which "Africa is not easy." We work hard because while we weren't watching our culture slipped in a fairly large dose of work ethic between the hedonism and neuroticism. We work hard and we fume that others do not do the same to help their own country. And we wonder if this place has any hope at all.

Sometimes as a result we completely withdraw and try to make a little slice of America in this tiny strip of sand on the West African coast. We escape to the city and eat crepes, dance at dirty clubs that host clientele with questionable morals and watch movies. Eventually guilt catches up with us and we head back to village again - eager to start work and convincing ourselves that this time it will be different. We'll develop people, not things, we will not once wish was had electricity and we will learn to finally enjoy the bitter sourness of the oranges that are never orange.

For me, I'm a little of each of these scenarios. I often find myself in a strange middle ground with no clear rules or expected behavior. I fetch water and carry it on my head, gossip with village women, casually flick a centipede off my sleeping mat and can drink attaya as I stare away the day with the best of them. But all of these traits that I couldn't imagine myself possessing a year ago will never make me Gambian. The people of the village laugh at their toubab and tell me I'm a real Gambian now because I can speak the language and perform the assigned tasks for my gender, but no matter how many traits and skills I assume no matter how many years I live among them - I will never be one of them. But I am no longer just another toubab tourist here either. I can chat with people and tell jokes using Gambian humor.... "You Cessays, you eat too much! (insert hearty laughter). I know when someone is being rude to me because he would never grab his sister's arm and shout, I teach their children, I cook their food, I understand that a leather amulet on their babies waist is to protect her from evil spirits who might want to enter her in the night causing stomach pains, I eat millet and ground tree leaves and actually like it. I am no longer as American as I was when I came.

I know to much now to go home and forget. Forget that Ida is in grade four for the third time because while she can speak English she can't read, forget that Ammadou has just started nursery school at age eight because his father didn't have the money to send him, forget the Jabou will never know a life other then backbreaking labor with a husband that no longer loves her and has brought another wife into her home as proof. I can't go back and look at all my smiling picture of my friends from village and convince myself..."but they are so happy." My friends know what is out there to get in the world and they want more too, sometimes they just don't know the best way to get it or their cultural obligations stand in the way. I can't just walk away and say they are hopeless and doomed to poverty as a result. Maybe I'm not one of them, but for a couple of months they let me live with them and pretend I was. They made me want to fight all the harder to make this thing called "development" work - not for their GDPs and their leaders - but for them. So Sillah can be paid a proper salary to allow him to continue teaching, a job that he loves. So Mariama can concentrate on school and know at the end of it she will be able to find a job and a husband and not be punished because she is too educated to marry. So Ansel can finally afford the cement to build her renter's compound, something that she has been saving for for five years but always remains just out of reach, and will guarantee financial stability for her family and business.

I came to learn and I certainly have. The process has been fraught with frustrations, confusion, laughter, painful realizations, guilt, hope, more confusion and even more questions but it has been a process I am thankful I have traveled. And as for helping - for saving the world - I've done a little and will hopefully do more in the future. One person can't save the world but we can do our part in small ways to help and maybe someday improve the situation. This process has been defeating at times but I am not ready to give up yet. I'm not ready to totally remove help from these countries, from these people. We, the West/North/Babylon (one of the many slang words Gambians have for the all of the rest of the world that is not Africa), created so many of the problems we blame the "Africans" for - since we created them I feel we have to help clean them up. But to succeed at that instead of just making dependency worse, as we have time and time again, we have to stop treating them like uncivilized "Africans" and start treating them like the equals they are and hold them accountable for their failings as well as their successes.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Girls Only

Every Tuesday afternoon I meet with my Girl's Club at school. The club consists of about 30 Grade 7-9 girls. Over the past two years my counterpart and I, and amazingly empowered Gambian woman who is a teacher at my school, have touched on a wide range of topics with the girls from reproductive health, to preventing pregnancy, to planning for their future and making responsible decisions. The highlight of the club, and the reason that at least half of our members are in it, is the annual excursion program. Gambian kids rarely get the opportunity to leave the 10 k radius around their villages so going on trips is a really big deal for them. Last year Rachel's (my good friend and partner in crime) Girl's Club came to my village to have a sleepover and empowerment program so this year my girls and I traveled the 30 k to Kerewan to return the visit at the Kerwan upper basic school. The girls held luncheon sales and raffled off footballs at the school to raise money for the trip and were very excited to wear their crisp new Club uniforms to travel in style in a gele gele rented exclusively for the trip. For many of my girls this was the first time they had been away from their village without a family member, the first time they had seen a large town, the first time to cross a bridge and for some the first time to leave their district.
While planning for the weekend program Rach and I jokingly entitled it "Our Bodies, Ourselves" and that pretty much some up the activities. We had sessions on the impact of gender on the division of labor, mapping their bodies and talking about taking care of themselves during menstruation, eating right and exercising. We also had sessions on the reproductive system, preventing pregnancy and STIs and breaking myths and stereotypes around sex and repro health. We also through some fun stuff in there like relay races, a DJ and dancing at night and of course lots of food with lots of meat - a necessity at any Gambian program.

Of course the weekend couldn't go down without a little drama and we had our fair share of it Friday night when the DJ was at the school for the girls to relax and have fun. Rach and I were pretty against having a DJ from the get go because anytime one comes to a village or town for a program the rif-raf seem to come out of the woodwork to oggle at teenage girls and just generally cause trouble. But the Kerewan girls really wanted to their program to have that extra umf of classiness so they went door to door around their community asking for donations. Rach and I were so impressed at their initiative that we didn't want to crush them by saying no. So against maybe out better judgement, the DJ arrived and ndaga and pseudo-reggae filled the night sky, spilled out of the school grounds and was like a siren to hundreds of boys and men throughout the town that were just sitting on stoops with nothing to do. They arrived in mass at the school and were decidedly pissed that Rach, the night watchmen and I were not letting boys come into the school grounds for the program. Rachel and I wanted to protect the girls, give them a chance to enjoy themselves and the company of each other without men oggling them, shouting at them suggestively or groping them - which is the general run down of how boys/men treat women in this country. So few people stand up for girls rights to be protected here and feel safe. So few people respect a woman's right NOT to be sexually harassed. We wanted to give that to our girls, at least for one night so we stood at the gates and did not let the boys enter explaining that the program was only for girls and that any girl of the town was welcome to come but that boys were not. Well, that did not go over so well. Men, and even 7 year old boys, are not accustomed to women telling them no or that they cannot do something. As a result, throughout the night profanities assailed us, we were spit at, stoned with rocks and just generally harassed. We held out ground till about 12 am then we got tired and left our posts to go hang out with our girls. Boys came in, but they were already jumping over the schools walls before this, but the majority had given up so it was a manageable number and we were able to keep them away from the girls with only one incidence of unwanted ass grabbing. Through it all, our girls were coming to check on us and seemed genuinely surprised that we cared about protecting them so much and were angry that we were being treated so poorly. Sexual harassment is something that most Gambian girls don't even question, male preference and dominance is so ingrained that few people question their right to say no to them.

Despite all the Friday night drama, the weekend was a huge success. I felt so much more prepared and able to really connect with the girls and transfer some useful and relevant information in a way that would be heard, as compared to our program last year. My relationship with my girls is so much stronger and I just feel more comfortable in general teaching and interacting here. The girls are still talking about the weekend and bragging to all their friends at school about what they saw and heard and ate. I feel a great sense of fulfillment listening to them excitedly explain something they learned and seeing their faces light up when they talk about the fun memories with their friends. And haven't lived till you've been stoned protecting a girls right to be free and have fun without the danger of harassment or assault. Rach put it the best....for the rest of our lives we are going to hear horrible stories about injustices perpetrated against women around the world, but we will always have these moments to look back on where we did our part, we stood up for their right to be safe and protected and we taught them to fight for rights and no longer be ashamed.
*See my flickr page for pics!

Monday, March 24, 2008

"Slap me if I do this in America, please."

So recently myself and some friends who are also about to leave here have begun to notice annoying behaviors and personality traits about ourselves that we have picked up here that are just not going to fly in America. Here, these behaviors don't make me rude or inconsiderate, or even seem unsophsiticated. They are actually considered polite or appropriate and then for the others at least everyone does them so at least they aren't considered abnormal.

But in America, that is just not going to be the case. So I am asking, pleading in fact, for your help in the coming months as I readjust to life in the good ol' US of A. If I break any aspect of my plan....give me a good natured slap or at least remind me what country I am in.

My 10 point plan for not being a mang civilized (Mandink-lish for "You are not civilized")
  1. Remeber that in America a limp handshake = creepy/rude/weak
  2. Stop using the present progressive tense at all times. (Ex: Are you having?)
  3. Stop hissing at people to catch their attention or to flag down a taxi
  4. Stop sucking my teeth to show disapproval or disagreement
  5. Avoid beating/saying rude things to children
  6. Spitting. Don't do it.
  7. Think very hard before asking for inappropriate gifts or favors from friends, or complete strangers for that matter.
  8. Find an alternative activity for the time I currently spend staring at walls and/or livestock
  9. Try not to respond "it's true" or "fine, fine" to every statement made by another person
  10. Greeting extensivly aka asking "how are you?" more than 3 times in a 2 minute span
  11. *Say please and thank you

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Dear Mr. Excellent President of America

Mr. Excellent President of America, *

It is my honorable pleasure to write you one letter. I am asking after your health and that of your family. I thank God. Excuse me, for my writing is not good. Mr. President, I greet you very well. I am greeting your family, your good wife and your parents.

My name is Alexi-Wali Saine. I am of the race of Serrer. I am Senegalese. I am a farmer and I have 70 years. About 34 years I am here in The Gambia. I am in a bad place. It is true that I am poor, dear president. I want to build a house in Dakar but I am not able to yet in my life. I have nothing here but I am greeting God that I have my life and my health. I want to return to Senegal but I cannot. My dear president, with your grand experience, I am wanting your help.

For me, thank you in advance dear president. You are my friend, long time you are president until now. I am always hearing you on the radio. I know that America is a great country and I know that you are a great man. I keep you in my heart all these years, you are my friend till death. Thank you.

Yours, Alexi Wali Saine

*Translated from the French, to the Wolof, to the English. So in the end, maybe its just the gist of what he actually wrote.

The above is a genuine letter from my host father to President Bush. He is a huge fan. I'm talking huge. Whenever they mention the US on the radio, inevitably he conversation turns to questions about American politics and the great things, in PaSaine's view, that our great President has done for the world. It is hard to get Pa to pinpoint exactly what these great things are but they seem to fall into the realm of he is christian, he is fight against the Arabs (which are not a much loved people here) and he came to Africa once. Pa's deep love and deference for my President inspired him to write him a fan letter of sorts and also to ask him for help. Cause, hey, it couldn't hurt. Pa was amazed that I knew the address of the White House and that people can actually send letters to their elected officials and expect them to actually be read, at least by someone.

Most Gambians tend to go with Clinton as the favorite American political figure, but Pa sticks by Bush. The majority of Gambians that I have talked to can back up their stance and are amazingly informed about world and US politics, much more so then the average American. I have found this trait in many countries that I have visited. People care deeply who gets elected and how they govern. They cannot vote in our elections, they have no say in what happens but the decisions that Americans make when they go to the voting boothes (or sadly don't go) effects millions of people around the world. And that is why Gambians, Indians, Koreans and Brazilians can summarize American foreign policy with accuracy and clarity that would shame the majority of even the most educated Americans. They pour over my Newsweeks and love asking questions of a "real live American". And they absolutely cannot fathom why I don't know some of the answers to their questions. They cannot fathom why an American would not vote.

So vote, be informed and think about how that vote affects not only you but millions of people around the world. Is that vote going to make us friends or enemies? Is is going to widen the gap between the haves and have nots? Or bring the world closer together by giving everyone a fair chance?

Think about it and take advantage of the freedoms we to easily take for granted - fair elections.