Saturday, November 22, 2008

Let's call the whole thing off

This post is for a blogger writing exercise started by a friend of mine. All are welcome to join. Check out the rules here.

What happens when you ignore that little voice in your head that says "STOP, this is a bad idea, if you forge ahead with this, it will only end in disaster." The predicted disaster comes to pass, whether it be sooner or later, and you realize for the 22,001st time that the little voice is always right and that perhaps you should listen to it next time it tells you to call the whole thing off.

It was only a few months into my Peace Corps experience in The Gambia that I began to hear that little voice. I had been living in a family compound of 33 people, which included 5 brothers, their wives, children, and grandmother. Most of the family members were great and we got to know each other quickly. The exception was the oldest brother, Baccari Bah. As the oldest, he was considered the head of the family. I contributed some money each month toward food, and this money was given to him. However, a few months into my time with the Bahs, I started hearing rumors from both within and outside of the family that the money was not going to food at all, but that Baccari was using it for his own entertainment, part of which included gambling over the border in Senegal.

Our meals we're eaten in the traditional way -- large communal food bowls. Since the family I lived with was so large there were normally 2 bowls for the women and children and 1 for the men. As the months went by I noticed the portions of food becoming smaller and smaller. I finally went to some of the younger brothers and asked them straight out if the rumors about where the food money was going were true. They confirmed that they were and said that they were concerned about the food situation but were afraid to confront Baccari about it. After discussing it further they promised to talk to him about it. But after they did, the situation didn't change. Thus I decided to start buying food myself, though it was a pain to lug back every week, since the weekly market was held in another village.

This solved the food problem for awhile, but in the meantime several other problems arose. Perhaps I should have taken the green mamba that appeared on my bed one day as a sign to get out of that compound once and for all. But I continued to tell myself that things would get better, that I needed to give this family more of a chance. (Yeah, I'm pretty stubborn). My Peace Corps buds had long been telling me to get out of there and request a new family, but I would respond that I thought things could improve. Once after a trip to the city to pick up my stipend, I returned to find that a large chunk of the baobab tree in my backyard had broken off and destroyed my stick fence. The brothers said they would have it repaired soon. In the small space that made up my backyard was a concrete slab with a latrine dug under it and which also served as the place where I would take my bucket baths. For the time being I propped what was left of my fence up as best I could, but it was still leaning over so that I had to squat somewhat beneath it for my baths. And with the fence still deeply angled, little boys (and sometimes men, too) of the village would come by on donkeys almost every evening to catch glimpses of my bathing.

After close to a year with this family, the final straw came for me. Baccari had 2 wives and in the final months before my departure he had been treating his second wife, Fatma, worse and worse. One day I returned from working on my reforestation demonstration site to find him chasing her -- a woman of small build who stood over a foot shorter than him -- around the village with a whip that he had fashioned from a tree branch. Men from the village finally restrained him, but he had already hit her several times. His qualms with her were always petty things, such as not cooking the food the way he liked it. Though his brothers did talk to him about striking her, this scene was repeated. And then one night we were eating dinner and I noticed that Fatma and her 2 small children were absent. When I inquired from the other women as to her whereabouts, I found out that Baccari had told her that she and her children were banned from eating with the family and had to go beg for food from the other compounds. I couldn't believe what I was hearing, though by now I should've known that Baccari had no shame.

Following this, I wrote up a report on the situation in the compound, requesting a transfer to another family from my sector director. He agreed that the situation was intolerable and inquired as to why I hadn't requested a change earlier. During my second year I moved to another village and lived with a great family who was related to the first family. It was a wholly different experience and I was able to focus more on work without any of the crazy family drama.

I ignored the voice that first year. The situation wore on me, chipping away at my soul, tearing at my spirit -- and I allowed it. When the voice said, "Get out now," I thought, "I'm not a quitter. Things can improve. I want to give them a chance..." But deep down I knew the voice was right.


cim said...

I am soon to relocate to Istanbul and have been looking at blogs of current expats when I came across yours. It has been delightful to read. I will be in Istanbul in March, it will be my base but I will be leading tour itineraries for the imaginative traveller through Central and Eastern Europe. It would be lovely to get in touch if you are still in Istanbul. My name is Christina, I am an Australian who has travelled extensively, I am an artist but look forward to this interlude undertaking a contract to lead tours first in Europe and then in Egypt. Hope you don't mind me contacting you through your blog. I think that this message sends my google account? Hope so........and hope to hear from you. Christina

Devi said...

Hi Christina,
Thanks for reading. Your msg. isn't linked to your google account so I have to reply here. You can contact me directly at I will still be around in March.