Life in West Africa: A balmy 95 in winter

Alicia Knadler
Indian Valley Editor

Imagine the climate shock for 2003 Greenville High School graduate Devin Wilcox, who left a balmy 95-degree West African winter for Christmas at home in snow-covered Plumas County.

The logging trucks there are different as well; they have four legs, two wheels, are sometimes stubborn, and they emit a bray instead of a rumble. The logs are actually fence posts villagers gather to enclose their gardens.

Wilcox has been living for the past year as a Peace Corps volunteer in Bambali, the most remote village on The Gambia, a country with seven languages that is about 25 miles long by about 200 miles wide.

There are no personal vehicles in his village, which is 31 miles from the nearest market.

He was given a bicycle to ride, or he can climb aboard the bush taxi, which is an experience in itself.
The taxis are commercial Volkswagen vans from the 1960s and 1970s, which can hold about 30 people inside. "The vans are so overloaded, piled with people, chickens, goats and building materials," Wilcox said. "The engines are the only things that really work on them — they keep overhauling them."

Wilcox once saw a couple of men climb

out when one broke down, and they patched up the drive shaft with "next to nothing."

His main purpose for being there in West Africa is to help educate the people about malaria, general nutrition and HIV.

His first project upon arrival was to teach them how to boil Neem tree leaves and make a cream to repel mosquitoes.

The HIV education is harder, he said, because men like to have sex, women like to have children, and contraception is taboo.

"But 11 children in 12 years is not too healthy," Wilcox said.

So he tries to teach them about condoms and being faithful.

The instances of HIV are on the rise, even in the Muslim villages like his, where the arrival of the more virulent HIV1 has begun.

In other areas of Africa, up to 40 percent of the population is infected with that type.

"I think soccer is the best way to bring young people together and keep them interested," Wilcox said.

During well-attended games, messages about HIV awareness will be broadcast and shared among the population, and medical staff will be available.

He is working with three other volunteers to organize a big soccer tournament.

"Know your status is the theme," Wilcox said of an area where HIV has become a social stigma. "If people test positive they can get kicked out of the village and be shunned." For nutrition, he is helping the villagers clear land for a garden.

Fencing was done before he came home, and he will start on the well when he gets back.

Meanwhile, people are building raised lookouts, where young boys with slings will watch for thieves from the animal kingdom.

Children begin contributing to the work of village life when they are about 6 or 7, and will do things like this or fetching water from the village well.

They all work really hard, Wilcox said.

Women work all day every day, and men work especially hard during the wet season and sometimes not at all during the dry season.

It is subsistence living in the fishing village of Bambali, where the only other mainstay of the economy is a peanut farm.

In the Muslim community, they practice both male and female circumcision and polygamy.

Women give birth silently at home under the supervision of a midwife, or traditional birth attendant, and with no medications.

Modern conveniences are few. Roads are dirt, and there is no running water or electricity.

Some compounds will have generators, car batteries and an old TV for watching old Chuck Norris and Claude Van Damme movies.

"They think Americans are most violent," Wilcox said.

Some will have short wave radios to listen to the BBC World News, and some of the older men have cell phones they can use to talk with family members. Cell service isn't that great, but it's doable, Wilcox said.

He lives with a host family in the village, and teaching isn't the only thing he does.

He also learns a lot from the villagers, especially their concept of family and community, village-level charity.

They will harvest 10 bags of rice, for example, and secretly leave one bag on the doorstep of someone they know who is in need.

"They take care of each other anonymously so that no one has to feel bad," Wilcox said. "Pride is also an important part of their culture."

The people make do with what they have, and there is very little waste.

"They are pretty ingenious in the way they get things to work," he said. "They don't have anything, but they can figure out how to make things work — like that driveshaft."

Wilcox should have just arrived back in Bambali by now for another year of service.

He hopes to extend his Peace Corps service to three years, though he would like to work another country for his third year.

He has already seen a few, such as Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Slovenia and Slovakia. Those were the stops on his non-traditional grand tour after completing his bachelor's degree at Chico State in 2008.

He wanted to travel off the beaten path.

"I think people are more interesting and hospitable in poorer countries," he said.

Those who wish to send him a note or some goodies may do so via the U.S. Mail at the following address: Devin Wilcox PCV, P.O. Box 582, Banjul the Gambia, West Africa.

Sometimes the post can take a month or two to get there, but the cookies from home have all been good.


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