Family Lines

stories for you

Tag: The Gambia

Firsts and forgets

Dr. Conley and I in Halifax.I love seeing people’s “first day of school” photos (especially those of my niece and nephew). While I was home in Nova Scotia last week, Acadia University students were moving into residence, some for the first time.

It has been more than 20 years since I was a student at Acadia, set on changing the world. I was going to be a foreign correspondent who would fly herself (in her own plane) to troubled regions and report the news. I would spread the word about terrible atrocities and make the world understand that it needed to help right away. I would force people to wake up and start caring. Yep, that was my plan.

I was reminded of these naïve aspirations a couple of weeks ago while visiting a professor / mentor in Halifax. Dr. Marshall Conley is a globetrotting human rights expert whom I first met when I was in his introductory political science class at Acadia. He also spearheaded a youth international internship program that paired volunteers under 30 with human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as well as governments. In 1998, I was one of Dr. Conley’s interns.

After finishing my degree at Acadia and then the journalism program at Ryerson University in Toronto, I was sent to the African Centre for Democracy and Human Right Studies in The Gambia as a publications officer. During my recent trip back to Nova Scotia, Dr. Conley (I still can’t call him by his first name even though we’ve been friends for years) invited my husband and I to his lovely home for lunch. When we arrived, I saw he had set out a photograph of the 16 interns he had sent around the world the year I went to The Gambia.

I blinked at the picture of young adults lined up in two rows. I had always thought that I would never forget the people in my intern cohort but here I was, blanking. While I remembered their faces, I couldn’t remember many of their names. It worried me. If I let these fine details escape from my brain, how many other things am I forgetting?

Dr. Conley came over and once he said who each person was, a light bulb went on inside my head.

“Oh, yes,” my brain said. “I remember now.”

I do remember. I remember tidbits about each person too. I remember where they all went, one to Estonia, one to Paris, two to Bangladesh, two to The Gambia (one was me), etc. I remember the excitement we all had when we were about to take off to exotic and strange locations. I remember the nervousness of heading into the unknown. I also remember trying to find a mosquito net in Halifax long before Mountain Equipment Co-op was a thing. I remember booking my flight that took me from Nova Scotia, to Iceland, to London and then to Africa. (Björk was on my plane from Reykjavik to London. She wore a white butcher’s apron as a dress and flip-flops with socks. The whole ensemble looked uncomfortable.)

Miriama from theAfrican Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies.

Miriama from theAfrican Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies.

I remember thinking that this internship would lay the foundation for my career as a foreign correspondent. In Gambia, I would get experience in human rights, NGOs, politics and policy and be introduced to new ideas and ways of life. With all these tools and insight, I would jump to an exciting and fulfilling journalism career.

I did learn a lot about human rights and statecraft and met all sorts of people from all walks of life in The Gambia. I also learned how to barter (my roommate was better, though), how to find my way through sandy streets and that unripe mangos make a tasty mango crisp. All these lessons and moments added up to a truly life-changing experience. I was on my way to making my goal a reality.

Then the real world got in the way.

When I returned home from my many months aboard, I needed a job. I got one in Calgary working as a news writer for a television station. I didn’t like working in TV and three years later, I left to be a pilot. Flying my own plane was the second piece to my world reporting aspirations. However, 9/11 happened and people were afraid to fly and the demand for pilots dropped. I did get my private licence but didn’t go on any further. I got a job at Mount Allison University and somewhere throughout the years, my dreams of being the flying foreign correspondent drifted away like clouds I flew through in my Cessna.

I'm flying a Cessna over Acadia University.

I’m flying a Cessna over Acadia University.

Last week while looking at the picture of the interns, I realized I hadn’t thought about my first life goal in a long, long time. It wasn’t that I had forgotten about it, I just needed a reminder about that “first.” But that’s why it was a first, because life isn’t linear and lots of other goals came after it. I’d still like to say thanks to Dr. Conley for giving me a step up on my way to changing the world. Because we all have in some way. While attending a pan-African human rights conference in Gambia, someone said, “’If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito in the room.” (That quote has also been attributed to the Dalai Lama but I heard it attributed to an African proverb.) It’s true. We’re all making a difference.

All it takes is one person

market place.

A market in Gambia. The yellow car with green stripes is a taxi.

Ghosts are real. I know because one haunts me. He doesn’t just appear at night – he comes anytime, anywhere. This ghost is not a fanciful wisp residing in my brain, this ghost is real. I’ve seen him. In the flesh.

I went to West Africa, along with a woman from New Brunswick, to work as an intern at a non-governmental organization (NGO) in The Gambia. This was several years ago when I was around 24 years old. Before this experience I thought I was going to change the world. I was going to make a difference. However, throughout my time as a publications officer recording human rights violations on the continent, I realized the planet was set on staying the same. Humans like the status quo.

Gambia is sub-Sahara and sand is everywhere. Peanuts, what they call ground nuts, thrive there as well as palm oil from the abundant leafy trees. Temperatures and humidity are high and sweat rolled down me from all directions. Gambia is poor, very poor, but there are a few rich, extremely rich, people. It’s evident in the large sprawling compounds built next to families living amongst their chickens.

Most people are friendly. Some, mostly men, too much so. They thought my roommate and I were in the country for a different reason. (There’s a booming market for sex tourism catering to Europeans women.) After a month living in Fajara, we went from polite Canadians to rudely snapping, “Go away!” in Wolof. I got good at tuning out the voices of passersby or those sitting by the side of the road calling to us. I became such an expert at ignoring people in the street that a friend had to tap me on the shoulder to get my attention. He had said hello to me three times. My ears had blocked his greetings and I was ashamed.

Travelling opens your eyes but it can also close your mind. No one talks about that. They only talk about the good, the positive, which is great but not realistic. Why can’t we have authentic discussions about the good and the bad? In Gambia I got used to some people asking me for things, wanting things, begging, stretching out their hands and asking, “Give me money.” I walked by. Not hearing.

In the middle of my several month term we were invited to a conference in Dakar, Senegal. Travel! Cool. (Or I should say, scorching.) We were driven from Gambia to Senegal in an SUV piloted by the NGO’s competent driver. He stopped in a busy and dusty Senegalese town a few hours into the trip. I can’t remember why: maybe for a bathroom break or for gas. He parked near a market where hundreds of people and booths packed the sandy street. It was hot, too hot. The sun was bright, too bright. It was noisy at the bazaar, too noisy.

I could see a man sitting to the side of our vehicle. One of his legs was half gone. One arm was half gone, the stump hanging from his shoulder. I didn’t know what was wrong with him. I didn’t get out of the SUV to ask. I didn’t get out of the vehicle to see him. Why would I?

The man saw me.

He saw me and maybe saw a bit of hope. He saw me and thought maybe I will help him. He saw me and thought maybe I’ll give him a chance.

The man couldn’t walk. He didn’t have a wheelchair or even a cane. He wiggled over to my window by moving his hips side to side in the dirt. It must not have been comfortable. It must not have been easy. It was a struggle. He made it the two metres to my side of the SUV and lifted up his hand to me. Said something I couldn’t hear. I refused to hear. It was nothing I haven’t heard before.

I did nothing.

baobab tree.

A baobab tree in Kololi, Gambia.

Our driver got in the vehicle and drove off. Leaving the man amidst the busy market. Where everyone got on with their business.

Since that day I’ve asked myself why, why, why? Why didn’t I spare an extra dalasi (dollar)? Why didn’t I give him something to eat? Why didn’t I at least hear him? How did I become that person, that person who turns away?

I don’t know. I’ve rationalized it: if I gave something to everyone then they’d expect it from others who come after me; I would have gone broke if I had to shell out money to everyone looking for a handout, or something along those lines. I still don’t have an answer.

I do know that this man changed my world. One man. His ghost comes to remind me that change starts with me. That listening to people and hearing them is what matters. That ignorance is not bliss. That no matter where in the world you are – you can make a difference.

A crisp spring

Calgary city view.

A spring afternoon in Calgary, March 21, 2014.

It’s supposed to be spring right now but it’s not. Definitely not. Winter is hugging us tight and is not going to let us go. Usually during chilly February evenings I like to warm up with a bowl full of apple crisp. Right out of the oven. It’s a great way to sweeten dark winter nights and with the snow still flying in March, I think it’s apple crisp time. Despite my terrible cooking and baking skills, it’s one thing I can make.

My mother made supper for the family on week nights when I was growing up in Nova Scotia. The five of us would sit at the table around 6:30 p.m. or 7, after my dad got home from work, to eat our meal. Sometimes we had baked sole, sometimes haddock, sometimes Shepard’s pie and sometimes chicken. We always got dessert.

My favourite treat wasn’t chocolate cake or ice cream or pudding – it was apple crisp. Even when it was piping hot I’d be shoveling into my mouth. Even though it scorched my tongue. Through the burning I’d taste sweet Annapolis Valley fruit, baked into a soft compote. The crisp was also a little bit crunchy – from the topping of oatmeal and butter and brown sugar. Mmmm. Delicious. There’s nothing better when the snow is falling outside and the wind is trying to get in the front door.

Supper table.

My family’s supper, lunch and breakfast table.

The recipe came from my mother’s 4H cookbook from where she grew up – Burris, Ontario. Now it’s been a family recipe for almost 40 years now. My mum taught me to make apple crisp when I was younger. No easy feat as I just don’t like being in the kitchen.

Peeling the apples was fine and my dog, Jasper, would wait for the trimmings. He would gobble them up and want more. I loved the crisp’s topping so much that I told myself when I lived on my own I would make a whole bowl of it and eat it all myself. (I’ve lived on my own for a while but haven’t indulged in a pound or two of topping in one sitting.)

I have prepared the dessert so often that I don’t even need to look at the instructions anymore. It’s often the dish I take to potlucks or serve at dinner parties and it’s surprising no one is sick of it yet. Unless they don’t have the heart to tell me.

It doesn’t matter where I’ve made the apple crisp – from The Gambia, West Africa to Sackville, New Brunswick to Fort Smith, Northwest Territories to Revelstoke, British Columbia, every time the aroma hits me I’m reminded of home, winter nights and my family.

Apple crisp (from memory)

  •  Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degree C).
  • Peel and slice about 6 medium sized apples
  • Place the sliced apples in a 9×13 inch pan.
  • Spread 1 tablespoon of white sugar over the sliced apples

Topping

  • Combine 3 cups of oats, 1 cup brown sugar, 1 tablespoon of flour, pinch of salt, ¾ cup of melt butter and mix.
  • Crumble evenly over the apple mixture.

Bake at 350 degrees F (175 degrees C) for about ½ hour to 45 minutes

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