Not everything that we do, here, in The Gambia or in Peace Corps in general is a big project production. In fact, I think that it is safe to say that most of what we do here on the daily is very small-scale. Sometimes, it is easy to get down, actually. It is easy to look at a “project”, and scowl at its size, effect, and how far it is from the “big grant water project” another volunteer had done previously. The project mindset is a dangerous trap. This is part of the reason that I really appreciate the Peace Corps approach to development. It has always been culture first, projects second. With integration comes trust, family, ups, downs, and a unique experience in being able to actually live in village life.
It is rewarding and sometimes a tough process to become part of the community, not just another NGO swooping in and out when the project is over. Mind you, those NGOs have done some amazing work, I am not aiming to put that down one bit. I am simply trying to portray the difference between living life here versus solely work.
After multiple trainings, we, as volunteers, are set free to fly with a project framework for each sector, Health, Agro/Forestry and Education. It is up to us, individually, to do baseline assessments, discover our community’s needs, and implement the projects of our choice. Sometimes, work feels like it flows in with abundant possibilities, people are very on board and activities seem to be flowing from my fingertips. Other times…not so much.
Example A. Ramadan. Try effectively doing work while your community of 9000 people (and quite possibly yourself) are all collectively starving for an entire month in 120 degree weather.
These are the times that I am humbled and brought back to a place where I realize that I can make an effect, even on a small-scale. So, what do I do when I am not working on my “primary projects”?
Well, for one, I spend a whole lot of time with my family. We create a lot of art actually. For those of you who know me, you know that I have always had a passion for art. Drawing, painting, singing, dancing, yoga and the like have always filled my life with a joy that not many other hobbies could. In some ways, I always regretted a little bit that I did not pursue art more seriously as a career. Just like so many things in life, however, art has still ended up being a large part of my professional life in Health Promotion.
Almost daily, I am able to paint, draw, color and create visual aids for a primarly illiterate community. Along with this, I have learned to sew (not well may I add), make soap, create health dramas, tie-dye (or “tie and die” as it is called here), bead and I am constantly introducing little art projects to my siblings. A few days ago, actually, my little sisters were able to try their hand at water-color painting thanks to a care package that a wonderful friend of mine sent brimming full of art supplies.
It is so easy to forget how the smallest actions can mean so much. Art is such a powerful tool. These little girls, despite how young and lighthearted they appear, are hard workers. Everyday, they run the compound like little women, cooking, fetching water, cleaning, looking after the younger siblings, and so on. Little Amie spends most of her day doing the shopping for dinner while carrying baby Jula on her back. Amie is 10. Spending some quiet (or sometimes not so quiet when we listen to some Beyoncé) art time in my hut is a time to relax, practice identifying colors and foster self-expression. When we first started free hand drawing, they had a very hard time coming up with what to draw.
Self-esteem and autonomy blossoms within art. Learning words to a song, seeing your art work hanging up on the wall, starting and completing a task, seeing a finished product allows for a sense of productivity and accomplishment. Art is a universal language. We all can appreciate color. Boys and girls in my compound, alike, light up at a pack of colored pencils. Both the children who go to school and those who don’t can participate equally.
Art brings about a sense of control. One topic of work that I am hoping to begin this summer and more into my second year of service is girls empowerment. Giving young girls more of a voice. Coming from a place where I nearly always had a voice, a right to an opinion, an ability to make my own decisions and not be reprimanded for those decisions, it is sometimes very puzzling or shocking when I see how little of a voice some of these strong young women have. Education is something that these girls are still fighting for. Art can administer independent thoughts and actions. No one can enforce what can be drawn, what colors are permitted, what should cultivate inspiration. A time to temporarily escape our own social bubbles. A time to be both independent and connected to others.
So whether it be for breastfeeding mothers…
Cross sectoral work…(below is an ag/fo and health malaria mural collaboration at a local forestry station)
or Gambians sharing art forms with me…
Life is better with color, song, dance and art. It can’t always be all work, no play. In fact…the ratio of play to work here may be a little out of balance. We like to say that this “job” is 24/7. Our work here has little to no boundaries. Just know, I am not here solely with the purpose to “save the planet” as so many of my American friends like to say. The Gambians in my life are also saving me. One project, health talk, wedding, naming ceremony, henna art, family bonding day at a time.