Student ponders life in The Gambia vs. life in Fairbanks
By Samantha Straus SNRAS Master’s International student and Peace Corps Volunteer
Off the grid and off the main paved road, in a ‘dry’ mud hut, (not cabin) you’ll find UAF MIP student now known as Roxe (Rowhee) Ceesay living in a small West African Wolof village of some 250-300 residents. From Alaska to Africa you could say. And while the climate here is somehow stiflingly different and the mosquitoes a bit more potent, potentially carrying that fatal cerebral coma causing malaria, I find my life here to be not all that different from the one I left back in Alaska.
Instead of warming myself, I spend my time with a hand fan trying to keep cool to avoid heat rash and the many other skin infections catered specifically during the rainy season. And while I’m not starting the fire or even making one for heat, I discourage the use of plastic kindling which does burn hotter and faster, while also hurting lungs, soil, and atmosphere, by shredding the cardboard from care packages, and splurged-on mac and cheese boxes etc. (which are sold here for about $1!) for my host family’s cooking needs.
Instead of a slop bucket I have a Mauritanian made plastic wash bowl and kettle embossed with the Islamic crescent moon and star. The bowl holds considerably less than a slop bucket (maybe 12 L), but serves the purpose of both kitchen and bathroom sink. It comes with a draining lid to discourage the practice of dipping hands in dirty grey soapy water. The common hand washing practice, if practiced at all, is to shake dirty hands into a bowl of clean water. We then proceed to eat, with our right hands, (not the left! The left is reserved for wiping, if you know what I mean) out of one large serving bowl, not individual bowls or plates. When I moved into my permanent site, I gifted another Mauritanian wash bowl to my host family with whom I live, to encourage better hand washing practices, like simply washing with running water from the spout of the plastic kettle.
Unlike Fairbanks however, when it’s time to dump the slop water, it doesn’t leave pink brownish stains in mounds of snow, stubbornly waiting until spring breakup to disappear back into the thawing soil. When we dump our laundry or hand washing water here, the plants or ducks reval in it, soap and all, to get a nice drink or wet their feathers in the relenting heat of the day.
Like Fairbanks too we have a window of about four months or so to grow our crops, depending on the rains! In theory it is possible to grow year round here. However in some areas, especially up country and farther from the river, the water table can be as much as thirty or more meters in depth. Some of these areas further require either strong woman power (water duties in West Africa are predominantly the responsibility of women, rarely will you ever if ever see a man fetching water for his family) to pull twenty plus liters (~5 US gallons) up the length of the well. Some villages have wells so deep that horses are employed to walk back and forth from the open well to lift water from the dry depths of the nearly desertified soil.
The Japanese and Taiwanese governments have assisted several villages throughout this country with solar powered boreholes or taps. Fortunately I get to benefit from one of these projects where my water hauling is almost as easy as it was in Fairbanks if not easier as you never have to worry about freezing, and the tap is within walking distance, maybe less than 50 meters, to my hut. Of course here I’m the one hauling the water and not my car, but like I said, it’s not too far and I’m sure it’s a good strength building exercise!
Because we have solar powered taps, the pump is only unlocked for use in the morning and evening. Both of these times correspond with compound sweeping time where women will sweep the dirt around the compound to make nice manicured looking… dirt. This may sound ridiculous and was perceived as such by me initially. But now having lived here for a while (almost seven months in village and nine in region!) I have come to appreciate this practice as it clears any and all manure and food scraps left over from harvesting which can help to reduce the number of house flies which is typically high in village. There is no Waste Management infrastructure to speak of. Instead of a transfer station there are communal dumping spots which experience their fair share of scavengers, besides just from goats! Also like in Fairbanks, and perhaps even more so, people will use an item and re-use that item again and again until it is completely exhausted. Scrap pieces of fabric become rope or sections of a blanket (aka quilt), oil containers become water containers which become bike baskets, which become watering ‘cans’ which become vegetable nurseries, which become fuel for the cook fire, etc. and so forth. Trash that does not get used or re-used, or after it’s use has been exhausted, gets burnt permeating the proximal area with toxic aromas of burning plastic and metal.
Artists and scientists often share a common goal: making the invisible visible. Yet artistically talented students, especially girls, often shy away from scientific careers.
A new four-year program led by the University of Alaska Fairbanks blends the art, biology and physics of color into a series of summer academies, science cafes and activity kits designed to inspire art-interested students to enter careers in science.
NOTE: In British English, band names (regardless of whether they’re singular or plural nouns) are followed by plural verbs (e.g., are, play, sing, etc.). For instance, “Radiohead are my favorite band” would be correct.