This is the story of my time in the Peace Corps in the Gambia.

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By Admin1 (admin) on Tuesday, July 03, 2001 - 9:11 pm: Edit Post

This is the story of my time in the Peace Corps in the Gambia.

This is the story of my time in the Peace Corps in the Gambia.


This is the story of my time in the Peace Corps. It begins on July 3, 1994 and ends in late Novemeber 1995. I have made this table of contents because you probably don't have time to sit and read it all in one swoop. And I would like to thank all of you that kept e-mailing me. Begging me to finish the Peace Corps story. This is for YOU!

My Story

The Peace Corps

The Toughest Job You'll Ever Apply For

The Gambia

Getting There Is Half The Fun


The Next Night

My Job


Down Country


Other Peace Corps Links

The Peace Corps Official Web Page

PC Crossroads - a list of PC related sites

PC Employment

The Peace Corps

I don't remember when I first wanted to join the Peace Corps. I don't even remember when I first heard about or how I knew it existed.

My first memory involving Peace Corps was 10th grade Geometry 2. I was explaining to the teacher that I would never NEED geometry in my future. He, in a misguided attempt to prove me wrong, asked me what I planned to DO in the future. (I guess, he was going to point out how geometry would could in handy in any career I could name.) And I said I was joining the Peace Corps.

Well, the whole class laughed at me, and cracked jokes about disappearing into the jungle, marrying King Matoeto and having 15 kids with rickets. (I distinctly remember the rickets part).

And that was that. Until my freshman year of college.

I started dating a graduate student during my freshman year. He had been born in Taiwan and had traveled throughout Asia (military family). All his friends were returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCV). I thought they were such FREAKS.

The girls wore bizarre clothing from far off lands and wore no make-up. The guys were almost as bizarre with there interest in strange foods and politics.

My boyfriend listened to PUBLIC RADIO and used Tom's of Maine toothpaste. I was always in my white mini-skirt with pink sweater. I used to change the station to the local pop station, everytime my boyfriend left the room. And I mocked those strange girls. "She will never get a boyfriend looking like that!"

So you can see where this story is going. 4 years later I was hauling my own bags through the grasslands. I was in TEVAS, no make-up and I couldn't remember the last time I had shaved anything.

I wrote that old boyfriend to tell him of the strange twist of events. He, of course didn't give a rats ... and never responded. BUT ANYWAY....

How did I actually GET IN the Peace Corps, you may wonder.

How and why I applied

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The Toughest Job You'll Ever Apply For...

I didn't just jump into Africa. In fact, I spent a summer quarter earning college credit, teaching in Swaziland, S. Africa. I was scheduled to stay 6 weeks, but after 4 weeks I was SO homesick.

On the 4th of July we went to the Embassy. There, I met several Peace Corps volunteers. I asked them how they could stand it. Weren't they homesick? But they told me they weren't. That when you join the Peace Corps you know it is for 2 years, so you are in a different mind set. I found this hard to believe, but never forgot it.

My next trip overseas was to Belize, in Central America. It was beautiful, yes. I loved it but hated it. I loved the trip itself and the country, but I couldn't stand cockroaches the size of mice crawling all over my pillow. And I remember sitting on the back porch of this hovel they call an hotel. It was facing the river/sewage system. A huge rat swam over to our porch, crawled out of the sewage, shook itself off like a dog, and walked right by my feet! AHHHHHHH!!!!!! I was terrified.

I also ran into a woman who was in the Peace Corps. She was walking a 1/2 mile to the river to get a bucket of water for washing. It was at that moment I realized I could never join the Peace Corps. No Way! How could they do it?

Well, time heals all wounds, and after a couple of years I began to think about the Peace Corps again. It was my last quarter of college. I was student teaching and didn't know WHAT I was going to do with my future. I didn't want to teach Elementary School, that was for sure. But what to do?

I called the Peace Corps and had my preliminary interview. They give you a small one, just to send you the info.

I passed interview #1 and was sent the application.

When I received the application I was overwhelmed by the size of it. Pages and pages. References, transcripts, volunteer work. They wanted it all. I gave up and threw the info in a drawer. I graduated and if you've read about my past jobs I went from camp counselor to phone sex operator to cocktail waitress. And that's where I was, 1 year later, when I took the application out of the drawer.

It wouldn't be that bad. Would it? Couldn't be worse then the waitressing gig I had at that time. I wanted a change and some adventure. So I filled the thing out. I had some problems though. I didn't have any professor recommendations, so I fudged it. I wrote my own, had some people sign them, and gave old phone numbers. I also fudged on the volunteer hours.

Apparently, Peace Corps doesn't check these things out to throughly because I was given a second interview.

Before the interview my friend Kenny told me HIS friend had been the PC and had quit. Quit? I didn't even think that was possible. So, in my interview I asked about that. Could people really quit? I just assumed we where there until it was finished and that was that.

The interviewer freaks out and says I can't ask about quitting, and know she has to mark it down in my record that I asked about quitting. I was a bit taken aback and angry. What is this the Gestapo? I can't ask any questions? But I finally got her to relax, and I assured her I wasn't thinking about quitting.

then the medical examination. Which I welcomed, because the US Government paid for a complete check-up and I had no insurance at the time. I spent the entire day at the VA hospital. I saw the doctor, the gyno, the dentist and had blood work done. I was found fit for service although I was worried that my weight might prevent me from getting in. I wrote an extra note explaining how the extra weight was all muscle (lies, all lies!) and sent a picture of me during my thinner days.

Finally, I was in!

Next they asked my country or region of choice. I chose 1: Middle East 2: Eastern Europe 3: South America.

So they tell me, they have a last minute opening in W. Africa, The Gambia. I could go now or I could wait an indefinite amount of time until something I wanted came up. I agreed to go. And a month later, on July 3, 1994 I was in Boston, MA for an initial 3 day pre-orientation.

When I got there....

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The Gambia

So. In Boston we have some initiation and we have to sign one more paper stating we haven't had any mishaps with the law and that the women haven't had any un-protected sex. I lie here again. Not the sex part! but the law part. I actually had received driving 2 tickets and hadn't paid them. I figured the statute of limitations on the tickets was 2 years, and I would be out of the country so... no worries. Again the Peace Corps didn't find out.

The flight(s) were grueling. Boston to New York to Portugal to Gambia. I was a group leader, overseeing the safe transport of 50 volunteers and their luggage.

I had already checked out the guy situation and decided that Jason was hot. SO I befriended his friend Eric. It would later turn out I had a lot more in common with Eric than I did with Jason. (Don't get me wrong, I DID get it on with Jason, I just enjoyed Eric's company more. And in case Eric reads this I must admit I DID end up falling for him and I re-lived the moments with him and replayed the mistakes I made with him. Something could have happened. But it never did.)

Getting off the plane was quite an experience. Tons of cab drivers and random people approaching us, trying to carry our bags or give us rides. Our Assistant Director kept repeating that we had no money, that we had our own bus. But even after we all managed to get our bags back, there were some disgruntled men. They wanted some sort of payment for picking our bags up and moving them 2 feet. It was a mad house. The confusion, the noise, the yelling in foreign tongues! I didn't know what was going on (especially after more than 24 hours of travel!)

I would find out later that this is the scenario in many a foreign airport.

We were taken to a hotel that I thought was all right. The beds were thin but sleepable, there was a shower and a toilet. And MAYBE a ceiling fan. The hotel also had a pool and was on the beach (of the Atlantic Ocean). Little did I know I was staying in the lap of luxery.

The next day we loaded up our bags and headed put to Tendaba Camp. It is a good 2 hours by bus or the worst pot-hole filled road you could ever imagine.

When we finally arrived we were put into round, cement huts that were divided in half. There were 2 people to each half. I satyed with Amy while my new best friend Jean Karjewski, stayed with Jennifer Ewing on the other side. We were at the very end of the path, looking down over all of our mates. We were also the farthest from the bathroom.

Our beds were concrete, built up from the floor, with a thin mattress thrown over them. Luckily the were also surrounded by misquito nets (which we seriously needed) and each side was given one fan. The bathrooms were in a building at the foot of the path. Thre were 14 rooms, each with a toilet and a shower. It was more disgusting than the last hotel. Again, I didn't know how good we had it!

Tendaba was on the river. (ALL points in the Gambia are no more than 6 kilometers from the river and some are even on the ocean. It is a water culture. Lot's of fish.

During the tourist season the camp was filled, but we were there on the off season. We had little dance parties every friday night, and a large wild boar roast on Saturdays. Our classroom was under a pavillion facing the mudflats of the river. When the weather was too hot to concentrate you just looked over the instructors shoulder and stared at the beautiful view. The sand crabs would becon you with their large with claws (well, claw. They each had one which they waved in a "Come here, come here..." manner. It is some kind of mating ritual, I think.)

The hardest day of training was called "A Day In The Life Of A Gambian Woman". We had to get up before sunrise and go to a local home. We were each dropped off at a home, far from each other. We were all alone, except for the Gambians. We couldn't communicate, but we were supposed to do whatever the woman did. This meant cooking breakfast, cleaning the house, taking care of the children, preparing lunch and packing up, carrying it out to the rice fields, planting rice for hours, taking a break to eat...

and actually I don't KNOW what else, because by that point I quit, and I was allowed to go back to camp.

But I learned enought to know that it sucked being a Gambian woman. Where were the men you might ask. Well, Gambian men pretty much sit around drinking "attiya". (tea) If they need more workers they either marry another bride or have another baby.

On other days I studied Mandinka, teaching methods, cross cultural awareness and a little agro-forestry. The 10 weeks passed quickly and we had a party at the embassy to celebrate our "graduation".

My job was to train Gambian teachers in modern teaching methods and to open a resource center in the school.

Illiasa, my new home

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Getting There is half the fun

I ride in a Peace Corps jeep to my new home in Illiasa. Bob Marley is on the tape player singing "Is this love?" and although I don't realize it at the time, in the future I will always think of this moment when I hear this song.

My site is on the North Bank of this tiny country. Gambia is shaped like a pencil, long and narrow. And it is split across by a river. No matter where you are in the country you are never farther than 15 kilometers from the river or Senegal.

The capital - Banjul is on the South Bank. The S. Bank is more developed than the N. (of course!)

My site is in the least developed spot on the least developed bank.

There are 2 ways to get there. The first is to take a bus, straight from the capital, across the N. Bank. This is a 3 hour trip on a horrible road. The road was paved once, but has so terribly disenigrated, it is a mess of pot holes. It is a ride that rattles your bones and is guarenteed to give you motion sickness.

After your 3 hour jolt you land in a town where you must grab a taxi to the ferry.

(Let me define GRAB A TAXI - You see, a taxi won't go unless it is filled with paying customers. You need to run towards a taxi and elbow your way on. If you don't get on the first one that is filling quickly, then you will be stuck sitting in one that won't go until the next bus load of people come by and run to fill up the taxis. This happens at ferry landings too. And when ferry's only come by every 2hours, you don't want to be stuck sitting in a taxi waiting that long for more passegers!)

So, you get to the ferry and you wait until the ferry is ready to go, cross, and grab another taxi to Farafenni (15 minute ride). Where you once again try to grab a taxi to Illiasa.

After another 30 minute ride you are home.

The trip takes about 6-7 hours.

Now, I prefer the other way:

At the capital take a taxi to the mouth of the river. Wait for the ferry that leaves every 2 hours or so.

Take the 2 hour journy. Once across grab a taxi. Ride an hour or so to the NEXT FERRY. Wait for it to fill with people (hour or two). Take the 15 minute ride across. Grab another taxi! and sit in the back while the car rockets down the dirt road. (No paved roads up in Baddiboo, my distrcit).

You will be covered with dust, you need a hankechief over your mouth to breathe. But you will finally make it.

Provided you car doesn't break down. (Oh yes, it has happened to me.)

No matter which way you travel it will take hours and you will surprised to know you have travelled only 60 miles or less.


When you are dropped off you are standing in a dirst road, and the dirst is blood red (due to it's high iron content). It will undoubtedly be hot. You see a cement platform, about 2 feet high, maybe 10' x 10'. Old people sit and pass the day on it.

You walk down the path to Illiasa. You see Baobab trees and silk cotton. Trees you have never seen before. And the are so tall and grand. Their trunks are probably 15 feet in circumference.

To your left, across the field are women punping water from the villages only pump. The water you drink will come from here.

As you walk further there are square mud huts to your right. They are convered in thatch. Goats are tethered about.

Now on the left is the Mosque for most (all?) Gambians are Muslim. And next to the aging Mosque you will be surprised to see a glass phone booth. From here you can call home to America. Amazing, isn't it?

Sounds beautiful, I am sure. But what do you hear? Besides the birds and the pump, what do you hear? Do you hear it? It is someone yelling the word "toubab". And toubab means "white man" or "foreigner". And you had better get used to hearing it, because it will be yelled and spoken to you EVERY TIME YOU LEAVE YOUR HOME FOR THE NEXT 2 YEARS!

Sounds like no big deal, right? So what if they call you "toubab", right? that is what I thought too. When the vetran volunteers told stories of going insane from hearing "toubab" I though "What's the big deal?"

Well, it IS actually a big deal. Little children run up to you SCREAMING ON THE TOP OF THEIR LUNGS "TOUBAB TOUBAB!!"

Old people greet you with "eh, toubab." Even though you have told them your name a hundrend times.

The women at the pump all stop to yell "toubab!"

When people pass by your home, and you are hiding inside they will still yeel into your windows "Toubab!"

You will always know when one of your Peace Corps friends is coming to visit you, fo you will hear the word "toubab" rolling through your village until it finally hits it's pitch at your front door.

I guess this is what TV actorws feel like some times. Like the people on "Friends". I mean Matthew Perry's REAL name is not "CHANDLER" but I am sure he is called it all the time on the streets. Just like "Toubab" is not my name, but I know it means me.

Welcome to 2 years of the "toughest job I will ever love". I will love it. Right?

click here

to find out if I really did enjoy it.

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Illiasa - My Home

So, my new home. What does it look like? It is in a family compound. 3 rectangle buildings in a U shape. I have my own "apartment" in the building on the left. It has 3 rooms. A long front room with 2 doors leading to back rooms. One to my bedroom the other to the kitchen.

It is a cement building with corrugate sheets for a roof. The windows, I want them enlarged. There are 2 in the front and 2 in the back. No side windows. To the right side is my "mother's" apartment and the the left is the grain storage room.

The floors and walls are concrete but to save money, dirt has been added. This makes the concrete rather weak and eaisly collapsable in heavy rains.

There are 2 doors in the back. One in my bedroom and the other in the kitchen. The doors are coorugate and they lock with a slide bolt. Both doors open to the tomato garden in the back. That will soon go.

The field is destroyed and a "commo" is built, or should I say "dug". It is my toilet. I large hole dug, lined in cement, topped with a cement cover. The cover has a keyhole shaped opening carved out of it. It is the lid of my toilet. There is a metal handle to lift it when needed.

So, this is the state of my home when I arrive. It needs lots of work. The commo is dug, but no cover yet. And there is no fence and my toilet is in clear view of the road. I need a bed, a stove.. lots of stuff.

Luckliy there is another volunteer at my site. He has already been in service for one year. His name is Bill Rutherford. He is short, burly, out spoken, opinionated, conservative... only a matter of time before we get it on to be sure.

So, plan is I will stay in his place since he will be going home for vacation - 2 weeks. OK. No Problem. Right? Well it doesn't take me long to realize "I have never slept alone IN MY LIFE". I mean. I have slept alone. In bed. But not totally alone in a building. There has always been someone home in my family. In the dorms I had a roommate and a boyfriend. If neither of them were around, there was still people in the next room, in the halls. I was not "alone".

My first night alone I was TERRIFIED. I laid awake listening to every creak and groan of the hut. Bill had 2 cats Baa (meaning Big) and Ringo (meaning Small). They kept me company. I satyed awake most of the night. Nothing bad happened.

The second night I was more relaxed. I fell asleep a little more quickly. And then there was this noise. I horrible scary noise. It was a bat flying around the room. NO problem, right? I am sleeping under a mosquito net. No problem. Can't get me, right?

Well, apparently it was going to try. It landed on the bed and was actively trying to get under the net. OH MY GOD! I was freaking out. It was freaking out. I called for the cats to help me. They came to me but didn't know what I was up to. Until finally the bat caught on of there attention and the chase and kill were on! Those cats saved me. YEAH!

So, as you can imagine it was even harder to fall asleep the next night. But I did learn a few things. And one is to alwasy sleep with a flashlight under the pillow. You see, the main light source we use is a candle and matches. These were sitting on a night stand by the bed. But once there is a creature trying to get under your mosquito net, you are not about to stick your hand out to grab a candle.

So, the next night I am sleeping and I wake up because I hear a high, horrible screeching howl. It will live in my memory as the worst and scariest sound I have ever heard. It flys/runs through the room, around and around the bed in a fury. This high pitched howl. And finally into the other room and out the doo...? I have no idea. But I am pretty terrified. The cats are gone. I wait what feels like an eternity and I run out the front door and to Bill's sponsor compound. (Bill lives in a little house, built by some western missionaries many years ago. It is self contained with 2 rooms. It is not part of a family compound.)

So, here is me, running there at about 4 am, freaking out, speaking no Mandinkan. I am attempting to explain using bizarre noises and gestures. I KNOW they thought I was a FREAK.

I got no where fast. And I finally walked to my school headmaster's home. I only met him once or twice, but... he spoke English. He offered me a spare bed. Then I laid there freaking out that HE would attack me. See, Gambians like most nations, have ideas about a womans place in the world, etc.... And we were specifically told NOT to be alone with a Gambian man, as it would send out "the wrong signals". S

Needless to say, I did not sleep. Finally the sun came up and I went back to my home.

There was shit all over the walls. No, literally.. all over the bedroom walls, there was shit. Whatever it was had run around with exploding direahea. It was everywhere.

I found one cat looking a bit beaten and it had a puncture wound to the side. The other one, in it's terror, had managed to get out of the enclosed back yard and get itself stuck up a tree. We were all a bit shaken.

The next night...

Click here to find out what happened....

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Story Source: Personal Web Page

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



By Anonymous ( - on Tuesday, January 16, 2007 - 5:27 pm: Edit Post

I found this to be a really funny story. But I cant find the last posting or where U mention if it was all worth it.

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