Panchita Paulete

Peace Corps - The Gambia.

Panchita is both a Peace Corps Volunteer and a graduate student in the Loret Miller Ruppe Peace Corps Masters International Program at Michigan Tech. Find out more about this program at .

25 September 2003 (Just arrived.)

i'm here and well. flight was long and tiring. there are about 6 people still waiting for the computer and we have 30 minutes before dinner. i'll write more later.

from the other side of the ocean,

28 September 2003

after 30 hours of travelling, we finally arrived in banjul at about 11.30 pm (thanks to a little delay on the tarmack in brussels). for our first week of training, we have been staying in serekunda, just outside of banjul. we started language training the first morning we got here and have gotten about half of the shots we need (they are nice enough to give one day in between to let our arms heal). we have been staying in a compound run by the local catholic church and have had classes there too. we have been split into three language groups: fula, wolof and mandinka. I am learning mandinka and it is amazing to see how much we have actually been able to learn in only three days of language training.

this morning we went into the serekunda market to have our first 'market experience'. it was very interesting to see how differently some of the gambias reacted to us wandering through the market. including the comment (spoken in mandinka) "why are seven tobobs (white people) walking through the market? they are going to get lost." but the experience was a positive one for all and we were able to get green tea and kola nuts as gifts for our training host families.

we had this afternoon free so many of us took off for the beach. about a 3 minute bush taxi ride from where we were staying, we decided that we needed to soak in the coast as much as possible before we head 'upcountry' tomorrow. we are moving into our training villages where three of us will stay in each village with a host family and a language and cultural trainer that will be on site. we are all very excited to finally be getting into the villages to be able to practice our languages more and to start our training projects.

Loading the boat to head off to the DEATH MARCH, a PC-Gambia tradition.

After the DEATH MARCH.

4 December 2003 - Excerpts from an email home.

Africa is AMAZING! I am loving it more and more each day. training has just ended and we were sworn in as volunteers on Monday. it's been a long and crazy 10 weeks since I have spoken to most of you so I've put together some highlights of the training experience for me. you might call it the top ten of the last ten…

10- mail! the only reason this is number 10 is because I haven't gotten enough from you people! send more!!! ;)

9- swearing in… cause that means training is over! it was a lot of fun but we are all ready to get out on our own and start the work we came here to do. the really really nice hotel, beach and pizza aren't hurting this week either.

8- lumos. most people here would call me weird for listing this. lumos are a weekly market set up in a village and are just mass pandemonium of people walking around, shopping, socializing… almost like a Sunday in a small southern town. I love it though!

7- all the books I am finally getting to read. I am on my 7th book and have taken about 10 more out to site to start me off on my 3 month challenge. it's nice to really have time to read the classics like A Farewell to Arms and Pride and Prejudice. feel free to send suggestions (or copies) of any good ones you are reading!

6- new languages! they sound funny, we sound even funnier speaking them but everyone here loves it when we do. and now that I have a better grasp on what I'm saying and what's being said it's a lot of fun to practice.

5- playing in the dirt. sometimes getting sweaty and dirty is the most gratifying feeling you can have.

4- bucket baths… to wash away all the dirt I love playing in after a long
hard day.

3- the stars… the night sky is truly amazing here.

2- my site! I have been posted to a semi-large village in the north east corner of the central river division called Sami Suruwa Kunda (look for either Sami Pacunki or Sami Medina on a map). I am the fourth agfo volunteer for this village and have been placed there primarily to work with the women. all my predecessors were male and it is a fairly traditional village so they were not able to do extensive extension work with the females in the area. I met many amazing women on my site visit and am so excited to get out to the village and start!

1- the people! I have met some of the most amazing people here already in my short time. my entire training class was sworn in, all 22, which was a first in a long time for pc the Gambia. as a whole, the group gets along extremely well… we all laugh a lot. but the truly amazing people that I have met have been the Gambians were are here to help. they are all amazing workers and so welcoming. my two years here will fly by.

Training group swears in as PCVs.

March 2004.

My birthday weekend, I went to Bansang to be near a phone so that my family could call. When I walked into the regional house, Jessamy, the PCV posted 3 km from Bansang, was there and said, "Oh my gosh, are you okay?" To which I responded, "Yeeesss… why?" J - I heard there was a huge bush fire in your village." P "Really? I didn't." Slightly confused, Jessamy informed me that it had been broadcast on the radio and to top it off Jeremy (former APCD) had called the regional house to check up on me because he had heard it. In addition, my predecessor had called from the states because he had somehow heard of it and wanted to hear from me directly that his village was okay. Confused how he heard it in the states before I heard it in the village, I went back to my village and looked and could not find any area that looked like it had been burned. Supposedly this fire had consumed 18 huts. Still confused, I asked Lamin (CHN) what the story was. There had been a fire in the village, three weeks earlier while I had been gone for Christmas and New Years. I didn't notice it because the area burned was no longer (if ever) charred by the time I returned, the frenzy of the event had died down and there was nothing to really notice because the effected huts merely looked like they were having their roofs redone and fences reconstructed… it's that season. But the radio announced at as if it had happened the day before when it had actually happed three weeks prior. African time I guess.

I spent the better part of my energies the first month or so destroying my backyard to try to get some garden beds made. The problem with my backyard is that half of it is my pit latrine/ cemented bathing area and the other half used to be a pit latrine/cemented bathing area. Therefore, the half that was a latrine is now a mixed pile of rubble, rocks, cement, etc. and not much soil. After digging up a 2x2x½ meter hole in my yard and trying to get all the rocks out, I gave up on the viability of the soil's nutrient-carrying capacity and gave up on the idea of a dry season garden. It has gotten too late into the season to plant most vegetables that I would want to eat anyway. So I have transplanted two lucenas from poly pot sand am planning on planting a few yellow cassia in poly pots to out plant when the rains come. The lucenas are nitrogen-fixers and I am hoping that planting them will allow for gardening to be done by volunteers to follow me.

Kelsi (Education PCV in the Lower River Division) related a story that I felt was very encouraging and discouraging to possible future work here. The topic came up when I mentioned that I was tired of the women in my village saying that they were not using the women's communal garden in the village because they were waiting for the men to fix the fence. Of course to which I say, why don't you fix it yourself? But that is men's work. And other volunteers at the table commented on how hopeless it can be sometimes to try to convince them to deviate from tradition, even if it is to accomplish something for the betterment of all. I agreed, but am still frustrated. Then Kelsi shared a story of one of her first projects in village. The village next to her had been wanting a women's garden for years but the alikalo (village leader) refused to give them land for it. He was finally convinced to allow the women to use a bit of land for one year and, if a profit was made, it would become theirs permanently. Everyone was so excited that they got to work immediately and even managed to get together barbed-wire for the fencing and have a well dug; this is how dedicated and confident they were in this garden. Within the first year, the alikalo suddenly died. The village, saddened and scared by the suddenness of it, called in an imam (religious dude) to heal the village. When the man arrived, he told the villagers that since the alikalo had given this land to the women that as long as they continued to try to grow on it that evil spirits would dwell in their village. So, they filled in the well, let the fence go to waste and stopped gardening. From a Western point of view, this was extremely frustrating to see how something so ridiculous could cause this village to give up the dream that had finally come true. And it also seemed ridiculous that the imam in question (who had come from Basse, a good 300 km away) would choose to single out this element in the village.

The village of Basse.

3 September 2004

April began on a better work note. The beekeeping IST was very informative and, more importantly for me, very fun. I really enjoyed the harvesting and processing of the honey and wax. We learned how to make candles, wax sheets and lotion. We learned the benefits and construction of multiple types of hives including using local baskets, hollow logs and even Kenyan top-bar (KTB) hives. All the PCVs and their counterparts were able to participate in harvesting and get the practical experience. The man I had wanted to take from Bansang as my counterpart was unable to attend. I have spoken to him about preparations to make through the rainy season and will work with him towards the end of it to make sure all supplies are in place to attract a colony.

Panchita in front of her house.

The rainy season has started slightly early this year. They are currently falling fairly hard, but still at sporadic intervals. Schools in the URD and CRD have closed a month early to allow the students to help on the farm. I have taken advantage of the early rains to get some trees into my family's compound and into my backyard. My backyard has become unfit for proper gardening as a result of the sinkhole that formed with the first rains in the area where the old latrine was. Oh well.

The toughest job you'll ever love… not quite yet. So far my job still seems to be undefined. The second three months in my village have helped me to further understand my community and even some of their needs, but I have as yet discovered how to effectively motivate the villagers to work on them with me. As I mentioned above, I am hoping to be able to begin working with a few people in beekeeping as well as planting trees into my community. I have learned about myself that I need my primary project to be outside of the community that I am living in for my own personal sanity. I will still live and work in the community and therefore exchange knowledge and culture with them, but I truly feel that my focus is going to be different than what I had originally thought… although I'm still figuring it out.

10 October 2004 - Parts of an email

'Sorry whay', as they would say here, for the extremely long lag in updates from me. For a while it didn't feel like I had much to update you all on. Food was still the same, family life was the same, and while my daily life I'm sure would be fascinating to you all, it has become so routine to me that I can't distinguish between the mundane and the amusing any more. But, I'm long overdue so I owe you all something. Hopefully I'll be able to keep it all interesting!

I've officially past my one-year mark in country and have seen the next wave of agroforestry volunteers arrive. It's nice to see their uneasiness to help you realize how adjusted you've become. And while it's been the most unusual year of my life, the time has really flown by and it's hard for me to think that in a little more than one year from now I will have to leave this country.

Work here has finally picked up. I have found the project that I will be working on for the rest of my time here and also be working on for my research. It is a tree nursery building competition among all the schools in the Upper and Central River Divisions here. This is the second year the project is running. Last year it was started in the Upper River Division by a couple of PCVs and this year my friend Mary and I are expanding it to include the Central River Division. The Gambia All Schools Tree Nursery Competition (GASTNC) was thought of by a guy working in for the German forestry department here and operates in conjunction with the Department of Forestry Headquarters and Regional Education Offices in these divisions. The project is designed to have all schools compete against all other schools in their division to see who can construct and maintain the best tree nursery. Schools are given only a manual to begin and complete the project. The manual instructs schools on how to construct low-budget nurseries and provides contact information for PCVs, foresters in the area.

The project had an extremely successful launch last year with 35% school participation (and this was with a late start!) in the URD. Schools were resourceful and did not let the lack of provided supplies deter them. The top school had over 700 trees with 17 species represented. The one undeniable fact from last year's competition is that the top schools with the healthiest tree nurseries had help in some form from PCVs or foresters. We are working hard for this next school year that every school that desires to participate will have full support.

I've also taken over co-editing the bimonthly newsletter for my sector. My friend Matt and I have been tag-teaming putting the newsletter together. Some months are more difficult to get published because we are both in remote sites but, so far, we've only missed one publication. We talk about projects people are doing, new research in new fields, local alerts (like locusts), environmental education club ideas, etc. It's a nice way to get ideas spread and to help us all feel like we're still in touch with each other even though we may not see one another for months at a time.


If you've been hearing anything on the news lately about this place, I'm sure it's been about the locusts. They haven't hit here yet. But the country has been setting up committees to educate locals and to administer emergency relief in case they do. The biggest problem though is not the fact that they are/may not come, but rather that it's hard to get people to take the precautions far enough in advance. Locusts can eat in 24 hours what would feed a family for a month, not to mention what the livestock depend on. So people need to be storing up. But people are being 'educated' on the pesticides the Gambia has bought to get rid of the locusts and aren't getting worried. But the problem with the pesticides is that they stay on the leaves and veggies and anything else that gets sprayed for 30 days. So people need to be collecting and drying at least a 30-day supply of their food now. That's slowly getting through to communities, but I know it won't reach everyone before it's time. I guess it's a good thing that Ramadan is starting next week and that they all will be fasting during daylight hours.

May brought my first 'strangers' to the Gambia. Mandie and Sarah (from MTU) came to visit for 3 weeks. It was so good to have them come to see the Gambia through their 'fresh' eyes. We spent four days in my village where I made them wash their own clothes by hand and where we cooked chili and gave it to my family. We also spent some time in Basse and at my friend Jessica's site, visiting with the women's group there and having tye and dyes made. I wore them out with all the traveling but having them come was one amazing. The fresh look and the comfort of old friends is something that helps so much when people are having their ups and downs with daily life here and everywhere. Thanks girls!

Mandy and Panchita with part of Panchita's family.

Mandy and Panchita do laundry at the pump.

As I have told many of you, because of the way the country is set up, Peace Corps does a monthly mail run to deliver mail to all upcountry PCVs. Well, in July, my friend Scott and I got to be the mail run with one of our favorite staff drivers, John (a.k.a. the Crocodile). It was a lot of fun to see the entire country and see everyone's sites. We were also the first mail run after the swearing in of the newest health volunteers so it was really fun to see how they were adjusting to their sites and to their families. Mail run is long and tiring and many people don't like it at all, but Scott and I had a great time. We traversed flooded roads, maneuvered through cow filled streets and got stuck going into volunteers sites twice. But mail run can be a very exciting thing for the people in village waiting for the mail truck and often are waiting for the volunteers with tasty treats or fun surprises. All-in-all, it's a good time for all.

Stuck on the mail run.

The trip to Bansang, near Panchita's village (you'll need QuickTime, double click on the photo below).

January 2005

The locusts came… and left within a week. They came across the northern border in the CRD between Njau and Panchang at the end of November. I had been going back up country with Philip, one of the South Africans, when we passed under the swarm. It was one of the most surreal experiences I've ever had, but nothing like the Biblical fire and brimstone ideas that had been portrayed. Primarily because they didn't last very long. They came in, crossed the river, turned and went back out through the northern border. I'm convinced that they were a scouting troop sent out by all the other locusts and when they saw how deforested and brown the Gambia was they turned and left and told the others not to bother because we haven't seen any since.

So, the people in this country are, for the most part, amazingly nice. Sometimes too nice and can get on your nerves for trying to be too helpful. But twice this week I have had the strangest experience. Tourist season is at peak time now so there are a lot of 'toubobs' here right now. Apparently, this makes some Gambians more irritable. I was standing in the Westfield garage with two other PCVs waiting for a car to Lamin to go to Scott's house the other night and the car park bumsters were in full force that night: "Where are you going? Oh, you know cars to there is a problem. Why do you not take town trip?" (Which is 150 Dalasis instead of 5 Dalasis per person). Usually you can get these people off your case by speaking to them in the local languages so that they realize that a) you're not a tourist and b) you know what you're doing. But this particular night I was being bumstered by a guy and so I turned to him and said in Mandinka that we did not want a town trip and that we could wait for a car no problem. This guy turned to me angrily and said "No, you cannot speak to me in Mandinka. You are not a Mandinka. You must use your language." So I turned to him and said that in that case he could not speak to me in English because he was not an English person and that he must use his language. He did not follow the logic too well (as many car park bumsters seem to have problems with) and started to get angry but a car came and so we left. This scene was then repeated two days later in the car park in Banjul. It's just really strange because this is not typical behavior of Gambians. In fact, every Gambian we've told this story to have found it bizarre.

My sitemate, Sarah, is a health volunteer. On Wednesdays there is a weekly market in her village so I usually go to get a few things, spend some time with her and to get a good lunch. The other week I went there to find that Sarah just leaving her compound. There was an HIV/AIDS workshop being conducted in the village over the course of three days by the Gambia Family Planning Association and she was going to help. I decided I would go to the market and buy some vegetables before they were gone and that I would meet up with her. I returned to her house though to find her in her back yard pulling a cucumber off the vine. She then came in and got two condoms from her PC med kit and said she was taking them back to the workshop so that they could be used for demonstration. I thought this was too good to pass up so I grabbed her digital camera and went with her. There were about 20 people there, males and females, ranging from 12 years to 60 years old. The whole workshop was being conducted in Wolof, so I could not understand the words, but it was definitely an experience nonetheless. It's funny to see that no matter where you are in the world or how old you are, people always get a giggle out of condom demonstrations on helpless produce.

Late March 2005.

WAIST. Ah, WAIST. My first actual vacation since arriving in this country. It was great. Softball, cheap beer, good restaurants, welcoming home stay families and getting to meet PCVs from all over West Africa. I have to say that I think my favorite times were at the games. I've missed live sports. And it was nice to be in a real city, although I had forgotten about traffic. But a few friends and I stayed an extra day to go see Gore Island. It was beautiful. An island where no cars are allowed, just a half hour ferry ride from Dakar. We stayed a night and walked around the old slave house and hospital. There were lots of local artists on the island selling their paintings, which I unfortunately had not brought enough money for. So I've decided that I will just have to take another trip to the island before I leave Africa.

21 July 2005.

April started off with the implementation of the workshop for the teachers in the CRD that Mary and I had been planning last quarter. We held four, one-day workshops covering the technical aspects needed to build and keep a tree nursery that are discussed in the manual. The workshops were a great success and really seemed to motivate all the teachers that attended.

We had wanted to do a technical workshop of this nature months prior, as the schools should have already started tree nurseries by April. Logistics of overall planning though had made it impossible for us to even think about what it would take to get everything together to organize these workshops for both divisions. The workshop in CRD would probably have never happened had the RED officers not approached us, wanting to do this workshop for the schools. They felt from some of the observations they had made when they had had to go to schools that teachers felt slightly overwhelmed and were not taking the competition seriously. They said they would organize all the logistics of the workshops if we would just come to share the technical knowledge. And they did. It was one of those rare moments when you feel that not only is your project going to work, but also that the Gambia might too - someday.

The workshops were held at four schools: Jarumeh Koto Basic Cycle, Kaur Lower Basic, Bansang Lower Basic and Jarreng Lower Basic. The schools were selected by the regional office for both ability (size, materials, resources, etc.) and ease of transport and/or centrally located for the other schools in the cluster area. All schools provided breakfast, lunch and any materials we needed for our demonstrations. And none of this was at a cost to anyone. It was truly amazing. The office in CRD actually uses projects that are established in the education system and makes the schools make them work. The extra food that the schools had to cook for the workshops is simply logged and then taken into account by the office so that the schools can be provided more by the office if need be. Teachers who attended were not reimbursed for travel or given a per diem (which is not even considered not to do here in the Gambia), but were told to go back to their schools and tell the headmasters that their travel money is to be reimbursed from the SAFMU money (School Agriculture and Farming something… every school is required to have a garden/farm and sell the crops for extra income to help support the school).

Mary and I covered all the technical aspects of making a tree nursery including digging the beds, mixing soil, sewing polypots from rice bags and ideas for other cheap alternatives, building shade structures, maintenance schedules, seed treatments, etc., using the knowledge we had gained in our PST, from our Agroforestry Manual and from just trying ourselves. We worked to make the workshop as hands-on as possible for the teachers, asking them whenever possible to lead the explanation of the task at hand. More often than not, the teachers were so eager to participate that we had to control how many people were up front. All the skills we showed and discussed were in the manual, a point we repeated enough times that at one of the workshops the teachers were answering each others' questions by looking them up before we could even tell them to do so.

The workshops, while an exhausting whirlwind of four days, was the only positive thing Mary and I had encountered in months about this project. The teachers left excited and energized. They asked us questions about out planting and how to incorporate it into the classroom curriculum. They asked us long-term questions of five and six years down the road, when many of these teachers will most likely have been transferred out of their current schools and to another.

The workshops also provided us with the opportunity to distribute the mid-competition survey to the schools. We realized from this workshop that most schools had not yet started, and that this survey would show more of the lack of progress that opposite. Teachers took the surveys back to the school and were instructed to submit them to the regional office within the week. Of course, not all did, but we were able to get about half of the reports back from the schools in the CRD, which was honestly more than we had expected.

I also went to speak to Hassan Ceesay, the owner of IPPAS printing company, about payment of the bill for the manuals. We discussed how the quality had not been what I ordered (they were obviously Xeroxed and some where collated wrong) and that them being two months past what had been originally promised had caused transport and deadlines to be missed as well has had caused me problems with my supervisor concerning out-of-site days. We discussed that the main problems had stemmed from the man who had been put onto my account, who has since been fired, having cost Hassan almost D9,000 (about US $300) on a project for ActionAid. We negotiated to a price of D60 per manual instead of the contracted D80, and when you've done 300 manuals, that's a lot of Dalasi. I brought the money in cash to him the next month when I returned from my vacation.

After finishing my work in the capital, I took off for Atlanta for a friend's wedding. It was so nice to be back in the town I grew up in and a better-timed vacation could not have happened. After the cake was cut and bouquet tossed, I headed down to Honduras to visit with Olaf Zerbock (fellow MTU MI-er). Thanks to a little smoke from the ever popular method of slash and burn 'technology' I got an added bonus of getting to travel by bus from San Pedro Sula to Tegucigalpa when the pilots decided there wasn't enough visibility to manage the tricky landing in Teguz. In addition to seeing an old friend, it was nice to see how Peace Corps works in another country. Although, I told Olaf he couldn't ever say he was in Peace Corps, but in Posh Corps. I told him this as I sat in his bay window overlooking the cobblestone street while sipping on a papaya smoothie I had made in his blender with ice from his freezer. No offence to all the Honduran PCVs, but they wouldn't last a day out here in Africa.

I returned from my vacation to be hit from about 20 directions at once of a fellow PCVs wedding, a South African friend's funeral, and my site mate leaving… not to mention work. About two weeks after touching down, Mary and I were off to Basse to begin the judging trek for the URD and CRD.


Businesses here in the Gambia are interesting. Take this internet café that I'm typing at in Basse. Their hours are from 10.30 - 2 and 6.30 - 11. Now, generally when a place has operating hours, you can count on the idea that they will open when they say they will and close when they say they will. Not here. I have been here now trying to type this report on an Arabic keyboard with the 'y' and 'z' keys switched for two days and have gotten kicked out both days at 2 and returned at 6.30 only to be told that they are waiting for customers to come so they can open. Now, I understand running the generator is expensive and that they don't make much profit off of only one person being in the lab, but to wait for over an hour after they are supposed to have opened was about all I could take today. After sitting here for a half hour waiting for them to start the generator, I went to the office and asked how long it was going to be before they started. "We are waiting for customers." Well, I asked them if they had hours or not. They said yes. I repeated them from the sign on the door and they said yes. So I said that they needed to open if they were supposed to be open. To which they repeated that they were waiting for customers. Well, I asked them if their policy was to run when they had customers then why was it that I had been kicked out of the café earlier in the day at 2pm sharp. They had customers. They said it was because they close at 2pm every day. Funny how closing hours are always tightly adhered to, but opening ones are subject to interpretation.

Panchita on vacation in Honduras.

14 December 2005 - Photos after COSing.

Panchita in Egypt - part of the trip home.

More on the Gambia.

The U. of Pennsylvania - lots of good links.

Stanford U. - more good links.

The Gambia Factbook.

Panchita's FW5710 project: Pitcher Irrigation.

Back to the Michigan Tech Loret Miller Ruppe Peace Corps Master's International Program in Forestry Home Page.

This page maintained by Blair Orr.

Page created: 4 September 2003.

Most recent update: 26 February 2006.