***I wrote this blog on Wednesday (11/30), but due to the Gambian Presidential Election yesterday, internet access and international calling were blocked until the results were released this afternoon! Peace Corps remains apolitical in each of its serving countries, but here: (CNN & NYTimes) is some more information about the election.
I normally sleep through the 5 am call to prayer. I woke up to my 6:05 “Get out of bed and go running you idiot” alarm, but then decided against that and went back to bed. Around 6:45, I could hear more than the usual rumble of animals and people starting their morning routines. There were shrieks, loud wailing and maybe some crying? I couldn’t tell. With the election coming tomorrow, I just assumed it was another rally. But it was too close to me and this was way too early, plus there wasn’t supposed to be any campaigning today. I stumbled into my backyard and could hear my host sister crying on the other side of the fence, and then I was really awake. I called one of my language classmates to ask if she could hear similar things around her. I had woken her up (“We don’t have class until 8 today!”) and nothing was out of the ordinary around her compound. Then someone tried to unlatch my door, but it was locked from the inside. A few loud knocks on my tin door made me jump. “Nam?” (“Yes?”) to no response. I threw on some clothes and opened the door to what seemed like the entire village outside my compound. I could see men sitting and praying, women walking around in a hurry, and then my host brother Mohammad. He was looking at me like nothing was out of place, like it was just another morning waking up to all these people. “Ali!” He said. “Mohammad?” I replied. As if the 2 year old could tell me what was going on. Everyone was dressed in traditional African clothing, like they do at programs and events. I went back inside, still confused. I paced around my room for a while and then went back outside, maybe half an hour later. Everyone was gone. My host sister ran by and noticed my confused expression. She just looked at me and said, “My mother is dead.”
When I first came to my training village in October, she was ill. They said she had hyptertension, but she was having problems getting up, walking, and even talking by herself. She had gone to the hospital a few weeks ago and hadn’t been back since, so I don’t think this was out of the blue. What was surprising to me was the community’s reaction. Before I had even gotten out of bed, all of our neighbors were praying and comforting in any way they knew how. And then when my family members got in a car to go, the neighbors took care of the children. The funeral and burial will happen today, and all family members are expected to attend. Throughout the day, our compound was never silent. People from all over Soma (my training village) came to pray, pay their respects, and help out around the house.
After my initial bout of confusion, I’ve been feeling guilty. This family welcomed me into their home for 2 months while they were taking care of a sick family member. She might have had hypertension, but that was probably only one of her ailments. She couldn’t walk, talk, or eat by herself – I think she may have had a stroke or something of the like. The issue here, in Soma and in The Gambia in general, is access to quality health care. People, including my Language and Cultural Facilitator, would bring her herbs and prayers, and always be very sorry for her conditions. We even have a Major Health Center in our town, but there are only 6 medical doctors total in the whole country. Lack of diagnostic equipment and subsequent medication are huge problems here.
I can’t help but imagine this situation in America. Starting from the medical differences into the cultural mourning. The colorful mats around my compound have been filled with an immense amount colorfully dressed neighbors, relatives, and friends nonstop over the past few days – some even sleep overnight on the mats. The outpouring of community and family support here is immense, and the medical emphasis placed on the same-day burial is important from a Public Health perspective. While health care is relatively cheap here, access to medical professionals and medication is extremely limited. So much is determined by where you’re born in the world. After our language test tomorrow, we will head back to the Capitol on Monday (12/5) to swear-in as volunteers and head off to our permanent sites!