Photos from 27 months in West Africa, a Peace Corps story
As one of his first presidential acts, Kennedy asked Congress to create the Peace Corps. His brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, was the first director. Through this program, Americans volunteer to help underdeveloped nations in areas such as education, farming, health care, and construction. The organization grew to 5,000 members by March 1963 and 10,000 the following year. Since 1961, over 200,000 Americans have joined the Peace Corps, serving in 139 countries.
In words and pictures, returned Peace Corps volunteer Alexander Kent shares a brief overview of his 27 months of service in The Gambia, West Africa. Kent is 26 years old, a native of Denver, Colorado and an alumni of the University of Colorado Boulder. He will begin an MBA program in social business and the environment at Duke University this fall.
A Personal Journey - Early in my Peace Corps service a friend who I admired went home. I was shocked. I had seen this volunteer learn the local language faster than anyone. Within weeks he was holding hand washing clinics in his village to promote hygiene and was writing grants for water pumps to bring more clean water to the village. Why did my friend and a few others like him go home? Frustration and burnout- the culture had not embraced any of his hand washing techniques and pushing a village to make changes without earning the trust of the village instead alienated him from the people he was trying to help. By contrast the most successful volunteers integrated into the culture and earned the trust of the village for an entire 6 months before doing any work. Becoming a part of Gambian culture and personal growth seemed to be the only way to develop enough understanding to actually be of help to these culturally disparate people. In the above photo I’m dancing in front of the women of my village, during a symbolic rebirthing ceremony organized by Peace Corps for my arrival. In Gambia, a family doesn’t name the baby until it is presented to the village at a large celebration. I was given the name Momodou Ngum. The only ceremonial dress (Kaftan) my family had to lend me was pink. Afterward, I often repeated the phrase “Dress me up in pink and call me Momodou” remembering this moment.
My Work: Aiding Dependence or Empowering Hope - Despite millions of dollars of United States aid funding (USAID and USDA), my first job was a failure. In working in and with many development organizations, it became clear they were not always able to help. Poor management, under experienced local staff, and a lack of institutional memory meant most of the aid given to my organization did little more than create the need for more aid. There is no accountability- a poorly organized one hour training session that we paid the farmers to attend would be reported as “Sustainably trained and monitored 500 farmers from 40 villages.” It was clear that making an impact was less of a goal for my organization than receiving an additional year of funding through impressive reports. Disillusioned by NGOs and large scale aid funding organizations, I changed jobs after my first year.
At a small beekeeping charity I found the antidote to large overfunded aid monsters. A simple shift in focus from giving out aid money to empowering people to start their own businesses without money showed me that success in development is possible. With as little as a few thousand dollars a month, my second organization, BEECause Gambia, was impacting more farmers than my previous organization was and was doing it with a tenth the funding. The key was focus. BEECause had altruistic westerners at its head who had no money- only beekeeping knowledge. In traveling around the country giving free trainings, we put the burden on the villagers to be in business for themselves, achieve their own life goals, and increase their own standard of living. Here I was highly successful. I trained countless Gambians in beekeeping, was awarded a $35,000 grant and was published in an international beekeeping magazine for our organization’s innovation and success at training rural beekeeping.
A Gambian View of Islam - West Africa is Islamic. Calls to prayer would awaken me every morning around 5:30 a.m. A man would often have up to 4 wives and for a month out of each year Gambians fast for Ramadan. Despite this, I learned that just as Christianity has many denominations, cultural roots, and faces, West African Islam holds to a uniquely African foundation and heritage. Colorful fabrics, women dancing at ceremonies, a belief in voodoo, and a complete acceptance of other religions demonstrated that the people were still uniquely African. Islam did not change these peoples’ character; at the heart of most Gambians I found peace and acceptance of different people, races, languages and creeds. In Gambia, where 6-8 languages can be heard on almost any street, my difference of appearance, speech, and belief seemed to blend in naturally with the cultural diversity that surrounded me. At every house that I visited over two years, I felt welcomed and safe. Often Gambians would apologize to me about violence that they heard was done in the name of Islam elsewhere in the world; to them their religion truly was one of peace. In Gambia I found a peaceful and welcoming counter perspective to the one commonly portrayed in the west about Islam.
Returning to America - In Gambia, my fellow volunteers and I tackled a once in a lifetime challenge of growth and self-discovery. Learning a new language, living without electricity, fetching water from a well, dancing in a traditional African ceremony and bonding with people of a different culture were just a few benefits conferred on those volunteers who stayed and allowed the experience to transform them. Personally, I found incredible peace in a life outside lights, social media, phones and the internet. In America I always felt over stimulated; in Gambia I found a simple and natural rhythm to life. My mind calmed itself over countless afternoons sitting in silence with Gambians under a tree. Sleep would come to me naturally with the setting sun and, as silence would surround me in the evening, I began to understand myself and my emotions better as I had quiet time to journal and meditate on major life events. It is in this way that Peace Corps became a grand meditation retreat, one that calmed me, gave me perspective, and allowed me to reflect on my life from a distant continent. After returning to Denver this past April, I’m beginning to fully process my Peace Corps experience as a unique combination of personal, professional, and cultural growth that expanded me as a person and led me down the path of ethical business as the means to positive world change. To this end, I believe my Peace Corps experience has been the single most influential and inspirational experience of my life.
- Alexander Kent, Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Gambia 2011-2013.
With no farm machinery in rural Gambian villages, this bull is being returned to its pen after a long day of pulling the plow. #
Peace Corps assigned me a family to live with so that I could integrate and be part of the village. The girl in the middle is my host sister Rohie and on the right is a friend of hers. At left is my host brother Malik who died suddenly one year after I arrived, from what I was told was yellow fever. To me this was a shocking experience of how real child mortality is in the third world. #
Remy, a fellow Peace Corps member, and his counterpart Alaghie plant cashew trees in a field. We consistently exhausted ourselves planting 30-40 a day. Shockingly, Alaghie keeps up with us; he has had no food or water in the 90 degree heat. In the holy month of Ramadan he fasts sun up till sun down for almost 30 days. #
At our demonstration apiary (bee farm) we inspect hives monthly to check for honey, wax, pests, and diseases in the hives. Here we decide to examine each comb in hopes of finding the queen. #
Our new bee suits sewn by a local tailor come out orange as it was the only fabric we can find in the market thick enough to keep out bee stingers. My counterpart Balla lights a piece of cardboard used in our smoker. Smoke is our primary method of calming bees. #
A coffee vendor sells me "Cafe Touba" a strange mix of Nescafe crystals, sugar, and spices (cinnamon and what else I'm not sure). This brew can be found throughout Senegal and in Gambia where Senegalese is frequently spoken. #
Attaya, the primary drug and pastime of Gambia. This super dark green tea is brewed in a small kettle over charcoal and foamed by repeatedly pouring it between glasses. Fortified with sugar and mint leaves this brew is the favorite way for Gambians to pass an afternoon. #
Some local dogs relax on the stairs during a hot day. #
In the city (Banjul), my friend Mataar (right) had a local gym welded for him from random metal rods. Paul (left) works on not losing muscle due to protein deficiency, a common problem in Gambia. #
Just outside the city, was the horrid Manjai dump. Mountains of trash, batteries, pills, needles and the smell of burning plastic and rotting things characterize this place. Sadder still, the poorest people of Gambia come here to sort through the waste with hopes of recovering scraps of metal, old shoes, or anything considered even remotely valuable. #
Broken, smoking, crowded and dangerous- this is one of only three ferries that cross the Gambia River into the capital of Banjul. Waiting three hours to cross was a normal waiting time and having your ferry break and drift out into the ocean for hours was common as well. #
My host sister and her friend stand in front of their open well. Peace Corps gives us a water filter and bleach, but sadly many drink and get sick from open wells such as this one. #
90 days after Ramadan ends, every family that can possibly afford a ram buys one and slaughters it in celebration; Gambian's called this celebration Tobaski. I helped hold down the ram my first year, but seriously considered renewing my vegetarianism afterward. #
A Gambian woman prepares a large pot of stew for a wedding ceremony. At great expense and honor, a cow was slaughtered for this event. Shortly after this picture was taken, a whole cow snout disappeared into the stew. #
The first rain in 9 months is a magical moment. With a dry season of 9 months and a wet season of 3, the first rain signals the start of farming season and a renewing of life in the Gambia. My friends Remy and John take this opportunity to cool off from 100 degree daily heat. #
My friend Remy and his counterpart Alaghie, a poor rural farmer. Alaghie owns one shirt: a Colorado Rockies jersey. I tried to explain to Alaghie that he was wearing the jersey of my hometown baseball team, but after trying to explain hitting a ball with a stick he replied, "Oh yes I think in other places they call it tennis." #
Two cashew farmers at the local market. The elder organizes the farmers in a community group called a "Kafo" where they attend trainings and plan ways to improve their farming on their own and through the NGO I worked with International Relief and Development. Our catch phrase in improving understanding of how to sell cashew was "Cashew is Business." #
At a beekeeping training, a Gambian stands in front of a hive. As confused bees try to reenter the hive, they instead land on the back of his suit.#
After beekeeping we train women how to process honey by cutting up the honey comb and placing it on a sheet of cloth over a bucket. The chopped honey comb will slowly drip honey through the cloth, purifying it of any wax or bee parts. #
Konteh finds Marisa's Ukulele and poses for a picture. #
Soccer is Gambia's favorite sport; this is a picture from a HIV/AIDS awareness tournament put on by a group of fellow volunteers. This was a very successful project as every game had a halftime presentation relating to AIDS awareness. Using soccer's popularity as a tool for education was a brilliant idea. #
Sunset on the Gambia river. #
Sometimes we didn't get back from beekeeping before dark. Here we harvest a local grass hive. With as little as a few thousand dollars a month, BEE Cause Gambia gives free trainings and empowers villagers to be in business for themselves, achieve their own life goals, and increase their own standard of living.