Year in review…one year older, Gambian, wiser, dirtier, confused, Mandinka, able to help……..


I’ve been in service about a year and a half by now and wanted to put together a collection of photos of what I’ve been fortunate enough to learn and see as a volunteer. There are lot’s of pictures below so i’ll let them do the talking and keep the words to a minimum.

I did want to mention that even at my 1 year mark I felt like I’d come a long way – When I joined Peace Corps, I felt I was in a good spot in life to start service and help people. As compared to my understanding, language skills and ability to connect and help people at my year mark, I was definitely a rookie. It’s nice to be settled in and have that time behind you. I think on some level, even if you don’t notice it, a part of you remains in shock while your in a place so foreign to everything you know. But as time goes on you learn to carry that as a passenger or even forget it’s there.

Ok, picture time.

Invited to a conference where I first learned about beekeeping.1

Attended a training at a place called BeeCause that helps teach about appropriate beekeeping.


I learned how to build hives and go beekeeping with other PCVs from all over West Africa.2a

I was able to borrow the services of this firetruck and it’s ladder to collect honey from 25 feet up in a baobab tree.


This is the baobab tree where we collected the honey from. The hive is in the center of the picture about 2/3 toward top of the pic.4

My counterpart and I started beekeeping at the school6

We soon built more hives that where newer and better designed.6a

Eventually we had 4 hives and both my counterparts had attended workshops at BeeCause through peace corps supported ‘tech exchangeds’ so we were all pretty good at beekeeping.


In training village around November 2013 I first drink attaya and start learning Mandinka. My language classmate Malcolm brews.DSC_5523

To teach natural farming I learn to gather the local materials needed to make soil amendments. Here the women provide me with enough fish heads, bones and guts to make 11 liters fish amino acid (FAA).


I attend my first celebration and group prayer after Ramadan. My host brother Usaeno (center) helps show me how to pray. I pray with my family a couple times a year on special occasions. Overall, I start learning about Islam and wonder a lot about the nature of world religions and their importance to people. Also notice the huge beard in the photo :).


I find local tailors, carpenters, welders, shopkeepers, restaurants etc. in my town of Farafenni. Here my tailor Sosi Njai makes a hooded shirt out of a traditional fabric from Mali.


About 2 months after Ramadan, we celebrate Tobaski.DSC00836

After 5-6 hours the bull is killed, skinned and divided among 6 families. This is another heavy day thinking about meat, animal rights, vegetarian, etc. I don’t get too bummed with it though and eat lots of meat with my family.


The ferry nearest USA in west gambia reopens and PCVs are allowed to travel that route again, making the trip into Banjul much easier. These big ships import tons of rice, mayonnaise and sugar. It makes me wonder about farming, supply & demand.


The beard goes and the kids stay; I come to the realization that ‘if you can’t beat em, join em.’ even though I dont’ always pull it off, and you may very well be able to beat them or have someone do it for you (sorry for any offense, it’s true though, it’s really ‘spare the rod, spoil the child out here.’)


My host father in training village teaches me where peanuts really come from. In Mandinka their called ‘tio.’ My planters eating mind is blown when he walks in with this.


Trade attaya for dubstep. Abdulay is my host brother in training village and helps me learn more about attaya.


Once is farafenni, i learn to brew attaya with the help of my host brother Baba and sister Fatou.DSC07835

Entertainment = futbol games at the video club.DSC07894

My attitude towards animals changes after a year of seeing many sheep, rams, chickens etc. killed. This is a conversation starter for sure but it’s everyday life here.DSC08683

I learn Mandinka by making flashcards and tutoring.DSC09107

Try some cultural things like dying fingers.


I hear uncensored views about the state of things here and the wish of many to leave by any means necessary. I first learn about ‘going the back way’ to Italy or Spain and the tragedy of that corrupt business.


Natural farming is tried and then later taught. On the count of three, everybody say “IMO.”DSC09642

I find an adventure pal and best bud in Modou. He takes me out fishing.


And teaches me how to kill and skin chickensmk1

My host father in training village, Musa, comes to my naming ceremony and gives me the Gambian name “Mohammad Gassama.”


My first host mother, Wonto, and grandmother Tala. They feed me during training and make sure I’m ok for my first 2 months in country.


Wanto brings me breakfast everyday during my language training. It’s usually rice or millet porridge.3

This is my little brother in training village. Mohammad Gassama, small version. I usually got called “big mohammad” to differentiate.


I get a new host father when I move to farafenni and begin my service. This is Molamin Barrow; attaya master and Islamic sage.


A new set of brothers, sisters and cousins await me in my permanent site. This is my neighbor Cherno.


One of my 3 host mothers in my compound. Amin Njie teaches me a lot about farming, works 10x harder then me, stays up later  and gets up earlier and tells me I don’t have a brain: she rocks.


My compound in farafenni is bigger: about 15-20 people most times.These are some little sisters of mine.


My older sister Awa asks for a photo and poses with the phone. I come to appreciate Gambians because they do stuff like this.


I head out to the bush for new years and upon returning my host brother Mustapha wants to try on the “big bag!”


Mustapha is a great kid and i’m trying to help him become a farming prodigy. Here he is removing a mango seed from the husk.


Mustapha comes beekeeping with me.


My little sisters get beads and get ready to stroll around town asking for donations. This is called ‘saliboo’ and happens the day after Ramadan ends. I’ll soon cut the beard btw.


My first garden at the back of my training site.1

When I move to permanent site I get a bigger garden.1a

And soon dig a lot of beds…5

I grow lot’s of things, these beds are for maize.


My first rainy season in Gambia – all green. What a relief to have rain!


Peace corps Environment program assistant “Bah2” teaches us about staple crops and farming practices in Gambia.


I soon try my hand in farming and learn A LOT. It’s one thing when you come here bright eyed saying “I want to farm!” and another thing when your dead tired from the plow, it’s 95 degrees, and you’ve got 1/8 of your field done. Lol, yeah, farming is no joke, especially here.


I liked compost at the start and made a lot.9

Later, I made bigger piles of compost, even adding my pesky shirt sleeves for more carbon. Sidenote: look at the banana in this pic and the one above.


We started first making compost in smaller piles and watering it with left over plastic containers.


After a while we made huge compost piles and had watering cans to work with. Basic supplies made the job much better.


Peace corps sponsored field trips to other farms and gardens so we could learn more.


Eventually we were selected as a site for some garden trainings.


Our tree nursery started pretty empty a year ago.


Then grew to have more than 600 trees and some 40 varieties.15

I learned about chickens when the school bought 300 to sell for meat.


I wanted to bring a little bit of Hawaii to Gambia so tried to find trees that reminded me of the islands and plant them in the garden. This is an avocado; a very difficult tree to grow here given it’s soft roots.


I did manage to find some passion fruit (lilikoi) and these vines have done great; they are now over 15 feet long and setting fruit for the second time.


My bed when I first arrived at site.1

As time went on I turned the house into more of a home with furniture etc.


A stand for a clay pot to keep drinking water cool.3

I bought another bed for guests and a bench. The house now is still pretty minimal but I’m not living out of suitcases anymore.


Christmas is not forgotten and we celebrate with other PCVs.5

I begin doing metal work with the school welding teacher. The projects started small, like this canning rack.1

After a year we did bigger projects. We rented this ‘gele gele’ to transport the generator and metal to another village so we could work there.


Working at the village of another PCV, building a shade house for the school garden.


This is the agriculture group that I came into country with. We’ve all changed very much, not just in our physical appearance. Even Seth, our peace corps volunteer leader (bottom right) has gone back to the U.S. after serving here for more than 3 years.


On the day our permanent sites are announced, PC blindfolds us and marches us into a room where a large map of the Gambia is drawn on the floor.


We are then placed on the map where our sites will be. Site announcement is really fun and the first time you get to see where you will be for the next two years. If you see a friend close by you think “great!” And if you’re way out in the bush you may think “s***!”


We learn about gardening and get manuals in order to teach others about gardening and farming. We all laugh at first because Gambians are such better gardeners and farmers than us :).


On a random chance I get to learn how to survey the land and control for erosion. Peace Corps has a lot of random opportunities like this. It’s kind of like a vocational summer camp if you’re open to it.


We have an “All Vol” conference and say goodbye to our country director Leon (center). We will get a new country director as Leon goes onto lead another PC post.


Open mics are venues for collaborations and parties. PCV’s a few times a year when new volunteers ‘swear in’ and it’s a great time to see old friends who’ve been at site for months. Nick can rap really well so we put together a snappy song about heat, public transport and the side effects of malaria medication.


In the last year i get the local surf scene and beach break mastered. :(, yeah, enough said. Not a lot of ‘aloha’ in these waves.


The longboard breaks and we look for better surf and new boards up in Senegal.


We find a surf camp in Dakar on N’gor Island and head there for a vacation. Senegal is like another world, esp Dakar.3

The waves in Dakar are much better.We surf the famous “N’gor right” from the classic surfing movie Endless Summer.


We are fortunate to get another board and transport it back to the Gambia; the PCV surfing scene lives on!5

Over a year ago I was on a boat with my brother in Michigan. This catfish was caught a couple weeks before I left for Gambia.


Philadelphia was the site of ‘staging’ where we met for 2 days, met the people we’d go to Africa with, and got our last pizza and beer before shipping out :).


On the bus ride to the airport. Ipod, jeans, shoes are all very fresh pre-Gambia. The whole bus was full of excitement: we wanted to go help and save the world! A lot of us still do :).


After 10 months in country I’m lucky enough to fly back and go salmon fishing with the family. It was a really nice break and a return to the states to spend time with the family. The fish in the states is huge! One of my favorite moments was when my family surprised me at the airport with balloons and ‘welcome home’ signs!


My niece is big and so smart; I catch up with the family, eat dinner with the grandparents and share stories about my experience in Gambia.4a

Compare my ‘catch’ in Gambia, with that of the one above. As they say here “America is nice!”


On my way home from salmon fishing I have a stopover in brussels and hit the lanes.4b

I push back the flight back to Gambia and extend my vacation for a week to see Brussels. This man refuses to talk to me.5

I play guitar with this Polish man and really enjoy the city of Gent. It’s great to have one more week vacation before I head back to Gambia.


When you start you get a bottle of bleach and instructions to put 4 drops in each liter of water. And look how clean that nalgene was!


After a year the nalgene is much dirtier and the bleach is gone. Your stomach may get “Gambianized” after a while, such that your issues decrease and you can eat and drink a wider range of things without surprises.2

Your service is basically sponsored by Santex if you want to stay heathy and avoid weird infections or skin problems. There is also ‘detol’ but I prefer santex. Overall, taking care of your body becomes a huge part of your service; you get worked over here in many ways and if you don’t stay healthy you can’t really help anyone and you’ll be miserable. Thinking about it, the pcvs are so brave and go through so many difficult things with getting sick.We’re a tough bunch not to quit and stick it out.


The only lychee product I can find is this juice in Banjul. It’s a far cry from the trees on big island but still worth a picture and good memory of a different, more natural, time with lychee.


Brand new bike and helmet. You get your wheels when your new in peace corps.


The bike is really important for getting around as we can’t drive or ride motorcycles. It can take you far away from everything and everyone else so you can find peace and a little alone time.4

SR71 after a year…all black all the time, despite the heat has become a habit and hobby for me.5

I learn the many ways we share culture. Many times the best parts of service happen on a whim.6

As with peanut, I learn where rice comes from and the immense work that comes with growing and harvesting it.


The first farm season leaves me with a lot of experience and a lot more findo. Again, i think farming is something that’s ‘revealed’ to you during the experience, not taught to you before.


I pound my findo and end up with the finished grain to share with others. One of the best things was to share this special food with others after all the work that went into it.  9

And, coincidentally, just this morning (August 3rd, 2015) I cleared some land and sowed findo again for this years rainy season. So, that’s a good note to end on – full circle from sowing, to harvest, to resowing. Let’s see what germinates during my last 5 months here.

Thank you for reading, -stephen

4 thoughts on “Year in review…one year older, Gambian, wiser, dirtier, confused, Mandinka, able to help……..

    • Besoe,

      Me too – it would be great if we could get around to help more people in the future. I think natural farming has a lot to offer people from all over the world. Till I get over to Burma, I’ll encourage you to try some of these techniques yourself. All the best 🙂

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