|By Admin1 (admin) on Sunday, April 27, 2003 - 8:37 pm: Edit Post|
Tom Vehe's assignment was a tree reforestation project. Vehe stayed in a mud hut, used candles for light and retrieved water from a well.
Tom Vehe's assignment was a tree reforestation project. Vehe stayed in a mud hut, used candles for light and retrieved water from a well.
PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEER: Off to Africa to offer help
Pahrumpian assists in Third World nation
By MARK WAITE
VIEW STAFF WRITER
Tom Vehe of Pahrump had just graduated from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in 1999 with a degree in environmental science and wasn't sure what he would do after that. But he yearned for a challenge.
"I just saw a Peace Corps sign somewhere and heard they were sending people all over the place. I didn't have a plan for after college," Vehe said. "I went to a meeting and pretty soon I had signed up. I said I'd like to go to South America, they wrote me back and said if you want to leave in two months we have a position for you in Africa."
"I knew that I wanted to move out of Nevada and then I saw that. I tend to do things in extremes," he said.
Extreme is the appropriate word. Vehe quickly went from the entertainment capital of the world to a quiet African village without many of the basic conveniences like electricity and running water. In July 1999, Vehe was off to The Gambia, a small sliver of a country that snakes along the Gambia River in the westernmost part of Africa.
"They just sent us plane tickets to Philadelphia. I went there with a group of about 40 people. They let us fill out a bunch of paperwork, put us on a plane and sent us there (Africa) to begin training," Vehe said.
"We really had no idea what our jobs were going to be before we got to the country," he said. "I just said that I wanted to do something in the environmental field and I gave them a date I would want to leave."
Peace Corps volunteers sign a contract for two years. When he returned to the U.S., Vehe said he received $6,000 resettlement pay and will be given a priority when applying for government jobs.
"While we were in country we got an allowance that was equal to about $150 per month and that was more than enough to do what you wanted," Vehe said. "It is the poorest country in West Africa, The Gambia."
Vehe flew on Sabena Airlines via Brussels, Belgium, to the Gambian capital of Banjul. Then after a few days he quickly found himself experiencing village life in a place called Jiffarong for 10 weeks of training in the local languages. While someone could get by with English in the capital. Residents of The Gambia speak three languages. In his village the language was Mandinka. In Jiffarong, Vehe stayed with the Kinteh family. If that name sounds familiar, it's the same surname of the family Alex Roots wrote about in his famous book, "Roots."
"We were only in the city for a couple of days. Then they loaded us up in buses and dropped us off in little villages," Vehe said. "I learned what culture shock is I guess. I don't think that's the right word for it because you go into a calm, you're looking at everything, but you don't understand it yet."
The period of cultural adjustment lasted about six months, Vehe said, a period in which he said people don't often make wise decisions. The road to his village was very run down, full of potholes, there were numerous checkpoints and everything seemed really dirty, he said. With a lot of unemployment, there were a lot of people just standing around.
Vehe said he didn't know how many miles it was to Jiffarong, only how long it took to get there, about two hours from the capital. In Jiffarong, Vehe underwent a naming ceremony, like that for babies. He said they were considered newborns in their culture. Vehe was given the name, Al-Haji Kinteh, the name Al-Haji refers to someone who has been to the Moslem holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
"For some reason the people of that village really felt I should be a Moslem. They work hard to convert you, but when you are a Christian they don't have any problem with that," Vehe said.
From there it was farther east to the village where he would be working, Vehe wasn't even sure of the spelling of Bakadagi, a rough, eight-hour ride from the capital. His assignment was a tree reforestation project. Vehe stayed in a mud hut, used candles for light and retrieved water from a well. His closest neighbors were the Samba Sillah family, a man with two wives and four children, although Vehe said Samba Sillah was just starting his family.
"Their problem is that their population is growing too rapidly in The Gambia, since they have polygamy and they have a lot of kids. Their main source of fuel is wood and as they have more people they cut down more trees," Vehe said.
The trees have a difficult time growing back in the heat, he said, there's a very humid, rainy season from June to September, then it's very dry for the next seven months. There's also a terrible problem with goats, which seem to be everywhere, Vehe said. As a result of the deforestation, the Sahara Desert has been expanding southward.
The main crop in the country is peanuts, Vehe said, during harvest time farmers keep the goats tied up, the rest of the time they run free.
"I probably had 300 trees in my nursery. Mostly I wanted it to be an example to bring the farmers and the women who were gardening to show them how to grow a tree from a seed and bring it to a garden that you could plant," Vehe said.
While tree planting may seem fundamental to Americans, it was a foreign concept to Gambians, he said. The Gambians were taught how to plant trees, grow them, harvest fruit, gardening skills and beekeeping. Often time he recruited schoolchildren to plant trees.
"I tried to let them be the one to do the work. They had a thing, if you planted the tree, the tree was yours," Vehe said. "If you plant one and goats eat it, they say it's your tree."
"That was their culture. They're still surviving, so I shouldn't criticize them. That obviously makes our job difficult when you go to people that haven't changed in thousands of years," he said.
The assignment meant adjusting to people with a whole different philosophy on life, Vehe said.
"When something terrible happens, even if all your crops die or were eaten by goats, Allah decided that's the way it should be," Vehe said. "They're just very peaceful people. Something isn't so horrible they can't deal with it. It's all part of God's plan. No use getting stressed out about anything."
"If you ask them if they want anything, they'll say yes. If you want to give them anything for free, they'll say yes. They'll take it. That doesn't mean they'll maintain it. I saw a lot of failed projects," he said. "You learn to relax in the village because people don't go to work all day and if you call a meeting, they may and may not come. Time doesn't matter because there's always tomorrow."
"They're going to the bush every day to cut trees. That's what they have to do to eat. They cook their rice on three stones that they push the sticks into and keep their fire going every day," he said. "You have to really learn to think small scale. When you first get there, you think there's going to be a beautiful forest around their trees. Only a couple people learned what you taught them."
"The head of the village, the Ali Kalo, would give each family land. He'd give them a plot of land, if they asked for it, depending on the size of their family. Then they could do what they wanted with that land," Vehe said. "The men totally made the decisions and the women probably did most of the work."
The local food consisted mainly of rice and sometimes a peanut sauce pounded up and mixed with fish, or perhaps a leaf sauce. Sometimes they ate couscous, pounded millet.
For recreation they often played soccer, and as devout Moslems, the residents also prayed five times daily, Vehe said. There was lots of dancing and drumming, he said. The wildlife in the area included baboons, monkeys, hyenas, bush pigs and tropical birds.
"I would say what I missed the most was being an anonymous citizen. Every time that I would step out my door, everybody was watching me. That got a little less, the longer I was there," Vehe said.
Vehe said he contracted malaria once and had dysentery. The mail arrived every month bringing letters from home. Every three months, his Peace Corps supervisor showed up to see how he was doing.
"It was just me living with about 2,000 people in my village and I was the only white guy around. But once a week I would travel around, meet some people, get out of the village," he said.
Vehe was allowed two days leave per month, which he accumulated and took trips around the region during his two-year assignment, including a trip to the neighboring country of Guinea with other Peace Corps volunteers. He also visited the Ivory Coast, Morocco and Spain.
A softball tournament, consisting of mostly Peace Corps volunteers, was held in Dakar, capital of the neighboring country of Senegal, which Vehe described as "definitely an American event," with hot dogs and hamburgers. Over New Year's Eve, Vehe said he joined Peace Corps volunteers who rented a double-decker boat for $20 apiece, which gave them two days and nights on the Gambia river, including food and drink, he saw hippos and lots of birds.
The coastline of The Gambia has beaches popular with Scandinavian tourists.
"For our big events, our big Peace Corps events, we'd go down there for meetings, for the swearing in as a volunteer and the closing of service as a volunteer. They'd put us up in a nice beach hotel for a few days, and going from living in a hut to a beach hotel is quite a great feeling, to have electricity all of a sudden and hot water," Vehe said.
Vehe said he had the option of leaving The Gambia last June, three months before the end of his 27-month assignment, but chose to stay another three months to see how the trees were doing after the end of the rainy season.
Vehe said he wanted to visit the pyramids of Egypt, but just before he was to leave Gambia, the Sept. 11 World Trade Center attack occurred and instead he went to Oktoberfest in Munich. It was a real change readjusting to the world he knew before the Peace Corps.
"It was a big shock I guess," Vehe said. "I would say it's more shocking to come back than to go there; such a variety of everything, variety of foods and everyone having their own personal cars driving up and down the roads. I couldn't believe how fast everything was, nobody had time to sit around and talk."
Dennis McMahon, a Peace Corps spokesman in San Francisco, said much of the focus of the Peace Corps is still on rural health and agriculture. The Peace Corps is now expanding into many of the former Soviet bloc countries. Volunteers are now working in 70 countries, McMahon said.
While the average age of a Peace Corps volunteer is 28, McMahon said it's also a good opportunity for retirees, he said 7 percent of the volunteers are over age 50. There's no age limit.
"You can't actually pick the country, although you can state preferences. The recruiters work with you on that. We don't have the same assignment needs in all the countries we serve," McMahon said. "We try to match people with countries."
"We try to accommodate personal preferences. if you feel really drawn or compelled to a particular part of the world, recruiters will try to work with you to get you that because if you're happy and you're in the part of the world you want to be in, you'll be a far more productive worker," he said.
There is a big demand for volunteers who can teach English, the sciences, or people who have business degrees to act as advisers in say, a cooperative, McMahon said.
Many volunteers live quite well in their countries for $200 per month, he said. The Peace Corps also offers free medical and dental care, along with 48 vacation days, which volunteers often take during their service to travel in the region.
"I would definitely recommend it for someone who wants a challenge and wants something different. If you want to change your view, it makes you look at America, the first world, a little different," Vehe said. "They would almost consider you to be some higher class person to be white. That meant you were educated. There wasn't any racism."
Vehe is now working as a wastewater plant operator for his father's company in Pahrump, but he hopes to eventually get a job as a forester. He acknowledged it's difficult to tell his story back home.
"People are always interested, but once I start to explain, they can't understand why I would do such a thing, take that job, living without the comforts of home. It's not easy to explain why I would do that for that amount of time," Vehe said.
|By SCTarutis on Wednesday, April 30, 2003 - 8:02 am: Edit Post|
I would like to talk with Mr. Vehe about his reforestation project in The Gambia. Gambia Health Education Liaison Project (GambiaHELP) is currently drafting a proposal for a tree planting program connected to the educational system (a single school pilot program). My number 206- 542-3056. Your insights would be invaluable.
Shelby C. Tarutis, MPH
|By dad on Monday, July 07, 2003 - 10:28 pm: Edit Post|
Hope you find this site. Looks like your experience could be of further value to folks who want to offer the same kind of help. I'm very proud of your service.
|By Wuyeh Drammeh (67-22-100-48.atlsfl.adelphia.net - 184.108.40.206) on Wednesday, June 23, 2004 - 12:28 pm: Edit Post|
I was a school teacher in a village Tom Vehe was posted as a Peace Corps working in Environmental sector. We were befriended and i learnt a great deal from him about the U.S.At my that tender days of a growing writer, Tom boost my moral and my creative ability by constantly giving me books to read.He did an amazing job in the village helping them in a wide range of agricultural discipline. Tom Vehe in the Gambia was not like an all American boy, he brought himself to the level of the villagers.He had a great impact on the community of Bakadaji, Gambia and i know they miss him greatly.Well done Tom Vehe. Wuyeh Drammeh.
|By Lt Lamin Njie (sl-aafes1-79-0.sprintlink.net - 220.127.116.11) on Saturday, December 04, 2004 - 8:45 pm: Edit Post|
I was a soldier when TOM WAS posted to my village Jifffarong..indeed is indeed one out of thousands American that one could find.Hey this guy is down to earth and ofcourse maintained a low frofile.I often go on a weekend to that village but regret to let tom know how he is been appreciated by the locals.Yea he is an awesome guy that has domonstrated to the people that he could leave and manage under any condition.Considering the unimaginable difference between small towns in the US and that of Jifarong,one cant belief that this Tom could make,and ofcourse he made.
He is missed when he left,as his ampact is being realised.
This guy works with the cross section of the society ie women horticulture,primary school student and even village elder with regards to gardening and forestry management.
Infact i could remember one time when i came over for weekend,my Mum told me about this boy saying he doesnt like people cutting trees,so one of my friend responded that he must be an environmentalist.,Yea i agree with them.
However people now are saying that this guy should have stayed for a year or two then he would have withness the realisation presently.
Mamadunding Kinteh the 'Alkalo' of the village approached me in June of this year telling me that''Lang i heard that you were nominated for a course to America next month, i have a letter for Tom''so i asked ''what type of letter?''and he said ''congratulatory letter but i dont know his address''this has caused a general laughter from my boys..so i told him America is not like Jiffarong,however as muslim keep praying for him for success in life because he is a young boy bidding fo success.
However Mr Vehe please be assured that your short stay in my village is not futile and i wish you make a second trip to Africa to see Jifarong once more..Mark you we dont still has power or structures,but your mission is accomplished..
Sorry i know you dont know me personally,but that may not be important..presently am on a ten month traiining at the T.B.S Quantico virginia with the US Marine Corps and i shall be done in April of 2005 when i will be going back to The Gambia..
So once again ABARAKA BAAKE;; ENEM BARRA BAAKE;;