April 27, 2003 - Seattle Times: RPCV Shelby Tarutis, who founded GambiaHELP (Health Education Liason Project)

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Gambia: Peace Corps The Gambia : The Peace Corps in the Gambia: April 27, 2003 - Seattle Times: RPCV Shelby Tarutis, who founded GambiaHELP (Health Education Liason Project)

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RPCV Shelby Tarutis, who founded GambiaHELP (Health Education Liason Project)

RPCV Shelby Tarutis, who founded GambiaHELP (Health Education Liason Project)

Garfield to Gambia: Becoming connected

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They say Africa is not a linear place. Paths never take a straight line when they can meander the way life does, and that is the way several Seattle groups came together to provide computers to two high schools in Gambia: Their wandering paths crossed.

The main groups Garfield High School, Rotary District 5030 (Greater Seattle) and GambiaHELP supported the project, in which eight Garfield students spent the past two weeks setting up computer labs and training students at Nasir Ahmadiyya Senior Secondary School in Basse, and Armitage Senior Secondary School in Janjangbureh.

Dave Gertler, a senior and the group's technology leader, said they got 85-95 percent of the job done despite the fact that the airline lost 16 pieces of luggage and he had to wear the same underwear for a week and a half. Um, maybe you don't want to know that much about the trip.

If you know anything at all about Gambia, it's probably that one of its villages, Juffure, was the place to which "Roots" author Alex Haley traced his ancestor Kunta Kinte.

If Kunta Kinte were a teenager today, he'd be playing Snoop Dogg CDs real loud. While the Seattle students found a lot of stuff that surprised them because it was different, they also found surprising similarities between their home and this distant place.

Sophomore Kathleen Compton was amazed at how red the dirt was and surprised that trash wasn't carted away in trucks, but was swept into piles by women who burned it each morning.

Jennifer LaCoste, another sophomore, was surprised at the popularity of Bob Marley, Tupac and Destiny's Child. Someone started humming "Survivor" and she thought, "Wow, I know that. They were doing our hair (braids), and we were all singing."

Then they did some culture exchanging. "I sang a song in Chinese, Laura (Kanter) sang in Hebrew. We taught them to sing Happy Birthday in Spanish."

Like many countries in Africa, Gambia is young, only having become an independent nation in 1965. There are about 1.4 million Gambians living in a country that is basically a 200-mile-long sliver of land on either side of the Gambia River, a finger poked by the British into the midsection of the French colony that became Senegal.

It is a mostly agricultural country with a high unemployment rate and no meaningful natural resources to draw upon. Peanuts and peanut products make up 75 percent of the country's exports.

But the Garfield students saw more than a tiny, poor country. Everywhere, people wanted to feed them and befriend them.

Kanter said, "I learned it was a lot more rich culturally than I thought."

Gertler said, "Even though you can't go to the supermarket, you have what you need to live. They live much more simply.

The students marveled at the closeness of Gambian families. Compton tried to tell a new friend about her home. "She said, 'But where do your uncles live? Where do your cousins live?' Well, in California, Ohio ... " The separation didn't make sense to her Gambian friend.

The students not only gave, they came back with some benefits, new friends, a better understanding of the world and broadened cultural horizons.

Katy Barnhart said, "Everyone in this group has a lot more self-confidence now. We went to Africa, and we did what we said we would do."

They had good role models in three adults: Shelby Tarutis, who founded GambiaHELP (Health Education Liason Project); Bob Wilson, governor of Rotary's District 5030, which raised money for the project; and Kjell Rye, the Garfield technology teacher who started these computer trips with donations to a Mexican orphanage in 1998.

Tarutis felt some of the students' excitement herself as a Peace Corps volunteer in Gambia in 1980 and 1981.

She bonded with a local family, and when she came back to Seattle to get her masters in public health from the University of Washington, she kept thinking about the people she'd left.

Tarutis decided to combine her profession and her love of Gambia. She looked for needs not being served by other aid organizations and created an organization to meet those needs.

What these three adults have in common is that, like Gambians, they have a definition of family that reaches far and wide.

Jerry Large: 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.

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Story Source: Seattle Times

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - The Gambia; Service



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