Local girl goes native in The Gambia

2005 Amador graduate serves as Peace Corps ambassador in Africa

Imagine living in a small village in Africa, staying in a mud hut, sleeping on a grass mat, using an outdoor pit latrine and, occasionally, chasing baboons from the local garden.

Now imagine doing it by choice. Clearly, it's not for everyone, but it's a dream job for 2005 Amador Valley High School graduate Joanna LaFrancesca.

LaFrancesca is working as a Peace Corps volunteer in The Gambia, a tiny country on the west coast of Africa, just south of Senegal. In Banni, the remote village that's Joanna's home until 2012, there's no television, no cell phones, no Internet and no electricity.

Joanna -- who's called Binta Jallow in her village -- is totally off the grid, but her mother, Rosemarie LaFrancesca, said Joanna has wanted since high school to work in the Peace Corps.

"She went to Mexico in ninth grade with a church group to build a house," Rosemarie said. "I think she got the bug there. She wanted to give back."

Joanna spent a month teaching English to locals in the cloud forests of Ecuador before joining the Peace Corps.

After she was accepted into the Peace Corps program, the 23-year-old, who graduated from Chico State in 2009, spent three months learning the local language, Puular, before getting shipped out on her assignment. In a blog that Joanna updates when she makes the rare long trek to a town that has Internet access, she described passing village after village in the Peace Corps bus, asking as they entered each one, "Is this Banni?"

She's the first Peace Corps volunteer in the village, which meant she got a huge welcome -- by village standards, anyway -- when she arrived.

"(A)s I got out of the car there was a large group of women and children playing the drums (empty oil containers), singing and dancing," she wrote in her blog. "They quickly formed a circle around me and each proceeded to enter the circle and would individually dance to me as a welcome.

"They would put their arms around me shake my hand and invite me to dance with them, which I did enthusiastically. This lasted for a while and I felt so welcomed and overwhelmed by their hospitality and excitement I felt like I could burst out in tears."

Joanna has been adopted by a local family, with Alieu Jallow her adoptive father. She has two adoptive mothers: Hawa Jallow in Banni, and another woman, Mariama, an older woman who sells fruit in the larger village, Wassu, and gives her free bananas on the village's weekly trip to its market. Joanna eats with her hands from a communal food bowl. She's learning to carry heavy loads on her head.

Her American mom, Rosemarie, said one of Joanna's main projects is a community garden.

"They're building a fence to protect it from the baboons and other creatures. They hope to grow enough to take it to market," Rosemarie said. "They plan to grow vegetables -- they want to grow more green, leafy-type vegetables."

Joanna has started a library at the village school, where they set aside a room for her, and does tutoring as well.

Although Joanna played lacrosse at school, she decided it would be too hard to bring the sticks, so instead she started a girls' soccer team, which has gotten worldwide attention thanks to the recent World Cup in South Africa.

"Girls don't have many opportunities there," Rosemarie said. "She started teaching soccer to the girls at the school. They only have one ball, and she was teaching them the rules and things. It's a nice outlet for them other than just working."

Mondays are market days, so the villagers dress in their finest clothes and make the journey to Wassu.

"As the crow flies, it is not that far away but due to limited transportation and poor road quality it can take hours to get there, but it's a social experience and fun. The women put on their best outfits, jewelry and even paint their eyebrows for the occasion. We start out on a donkey cart packed with vegetables to sell and people, and sometimes goats and chickens, accompany us," Joanna wrote.

The villagers cross the river that divides much of the country in tin motorboats Joanna compares to vending machines, with the larger animals swimming, but the goats and chickens inside the boat. It takes several trips back and forth to get everyone across.

"The marketplace is huge and bustling with everything from fresh meat, fruit, vegetables, fabrics and Nescafe/condensed milk coffee stands (so good, by the way). Everything is outdoors sheltered by rice bags strung up ahead. There are endless winding alley ways, each district of the market with different goods. One of my favorite areas is the fabric section, lines and lines of outdoor shops with gorgeous fabrics hanging on display," she continued. "Occasionally I get called a 'Tubab' (or white person) by someone and my mother, who is hilarious, started responding to them as if they were greeting her, which clearly they were not. It's kind of interesting being the only Tubab in the village and much of the area. Sometimes I actually forget that I am white."

Recently, Joanna's host mother got sick and had to be brought to the nearest hospital, which meant another long journey, another river crossing, and a reminder that The Gambia is still a third-world country.

"When we entered into the hospital I thought I could vomit from the smell," Joanna wrote. "A few lights hung from fans whose only purpose now was to host dust, cobwebs and insects. The 12 beds were lined up on opposing walls with no dividers. It reminded me of a makeshift hospital room during World War II or in a refugee camp. At the far end an old naked man lay on his bed swatting mosquitoes away with a rag. A young teenage boy who resembled a skeleton flailed around in panic, moaning from pain and sweating profusely. Under his emaciated body was a bare mattress tattered from use and with many questionable stains."

After sleeping on the cement floor outside the hospital overnight and patiently waiting for attention from the doctors and nurses, Joanna's African mother learned she was pregnant.

Returning home, Joanna was reminded of an AIDS poster that hung at the nearest Peace Corps office. It read "We can do better."

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Like this comment
Posted by Lolley
a resident of another community
on Aug 27, 2010 at 12:37 pm

A nice story about a good girl. But why do you say that she is "going native"? It seems as if she is just trying to integrate. If a Gambian is coming here, eating with fork and knife and learning english- would we say that he is going native? I really do not understand the attitude Pleasontonweekly is taking towards the community where this girl is stayin.

Like this comment
Posted by Jim Willis
a resident of Livermore
on Aug 27, 2010 at 3:31 pm

How inspirational to see a young girl using her talents in such a loving way! Her parents must be very proud of her.

Like this comment
Posted by Olivia Althouse
a resident of another community
on Aug 28, 2010 at 1:41 pm

I knew Joanna when she was just a sweet little girl. Knowing her mom(who I am proud to call one of my best friends)it doesn't surprise me that this young girl has turned out to be so amazing. What a wonderful example to us all. I cannot wait to send this to all my children and grandchildren. You can not read this without crying and smiling at the same time. Just beautiful!

Like this comment
Posted by Jane
a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood
on Aug 30, 2010 at 1:17 pm

I thought this was an amazing story. I feel horrible for the teenage boy who was in such pain in the hospital. Joanna's Gambian mother has such sad eyes, I wanted to know more about her life. I wonder what illnesses Joanna is at risk of contracting...
It was one of the more interesting stories I've read in the Weekly.

Like this comment
Posted by Lisa
a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood
on Aug 30, 2010 at 1:19 pm

Where can we read Joanna's blog?

Like this comment
Posted by Rosemarie
a resident of Birdland
on Aug 30, 2010 at 5:37 pm

You may read Joanna's blog at: Web Link

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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