Everything Changes

Firstly, my apologies to readers. I normally post an update once a week or so, and have just found I made an error last weekend, and although I drafted my blog as usual, I failed to publish what I had written, so now have two posts to submit together. If you haven’t yet read “Transferred” I suggest you read it before this, or my comments in the paragraph below won’t make much sense!

Yesterday as you may remember I should have been attending the official handover of a new butchery centre at Kotu which was a project supported by the Department of Agriculture. Unfortunately I was informed on Wednesday (2 days prior to the proposed event) that it had been postponed because the Mayor of Kanifing (one of our key speakers) would not be attending, but was instead holding a three-day party to celebrate his recent re-election to the post of Mayor. From what I have read in Gambian newspapers it seems this victory was not entirely unexpected as he belongs to the APRC (the President’s political party) who seem to command most support in the Kombos, but three days of celebration…….?!

Anyway, as a result of my unexpected freedom I decided to venture out of Bakau, and to find a van heading south down the coast to Gunjur and Kartong, about an hour south of here where I’m told you can walk for miles along sandy palm fringed beaches washed by the Atlantic surf with little sign of human intrusion. It sounds like something from a television advertisement for Bounty and I will report later whether or not I come across a beautiful young lady stretched out in a hammock eating a chocolate bar!

I was hoping to stay at Sandele Bay (www.sandele.com) an eco-friendly holiday lodge set up by a couple of ex-pats in conjunction with the local community. They employ local staff, built the place with local labour (although the machinery for block production was brought here from India, and the staff sent there for training in its use and building techniques) and have an agreement with the local community that the facilities will revert to them in 25 years. The reviews I have read are glowing, although the tariff is a little outside the normal impecunious VSO volunteer’s budget, and I decided to treat myself to a couple of days of luxury – to hell with expense, I was going to celebrate my birthday – that is to say I was until Friday night………

I think I’ve mentioned “Set Seetal” on a previous post. Loosely translated it means “Clean up” and is usually held on the last Saturday in the month, although like much here in the Gambia, it is subject to change at short notice. On this day the entire population are supposed to stay at home between 9am and 1pm to clean up their environment, and although the day is a moveable feast, it was announced on Friday that Set Seetal would be the following day. Since all road traffic in the country is prohibited during the specified times unless you have a special permit, I found I would be unable to get a ride south until the afternoon and decided to postpone my beach weekend until another time when I can leave early Saturday morning and hope to be in Kartong by lunchtime. I had already postponed this planned trip from the previous weekend as I had been asked along with several others to meet two newly arrived volunteers on the Saturday to show them around the area and give them some basic information to help them settle in, so perhaps next weekend will be third time lucky.

In the afternoon, signs of Set Seetal activity can be observed in our neighbourhood where small piles of rubbish which the residents have cleaned out of the roadside gutters are left drying on the edge of the tarmac. I assume that one of the tractor and trailer crews who operate a kind of refuse collection service will then remove it, as within a few days it will have disappeared. I’m not sure where it goes after that although I’m told there is a large waste site somewhere, or perhaps it just ends up on one of the small fires which are regularly lit in the evening to burn rubbish. The idea of a general countrywide clean up is something I had never come across before although I have now found out that some other countries practise it too, and if everybody took part it could make a huge change to the environment, but it seems to me that while some of the residents actively take part, many don’t.

As I was still in town on Saturday night my housemate and I went to meet three of our colleagues for a drink at a local bar about 8pm. As we walked up the road there seemed to be even more activity on the night-time streets than usual, with singing, drumming, and lots of APRC tee shirts or ladies in green dresses in evidence. (Green is the colour of the APRC). I don’t know what they were celebrating – perhaps it was all part of the Mayor’s three day party – but we heard a rumour that President Jammeh himself was expected to put in an appearance, and indeed as we sat in “Doo Be Doo’s” roadside bar enjoying a drink and a bite we heard sirens in the distance. The sirens approached at high speed along Atlantic Road – a police vehicle first with flashing lights and sirens followed closely by two large four wheel drive vehicles of the type driven by CIA agents on American movies, and all three flew past and disappeared in a cloud of dust in the direction of the market and Cape Point. Rather naively I asked, “Was that him?” to be told “No, the President will be somewhere behind in a larger convoy with a lot of soldiers”. We stayed and had another drink, but by then the crowd had drifted away in the direction taken by the speeding vehicles. There was talk that these vehicles were just preparing the way, that the President would come by a different route and stop near the Craft Market where there is a football pitch area, but we decided it was time for bed and headed for home.

So that’s the story of how I didn’t get to Sandele, and how I didn’t see President Jammeh!


Since I last wrote about work I have been moved from the Department of Agriculture Headquarters at Bakau and am now working out of town near the airport. I was called to the office of the Deputy Director General about ten days ago and informed that I was being posted to the Department of Agriculture regional offices at Yundum to be based there under the direction of Mr Ousman Jammeh, Head of the West Coast Region where I’m told there is “plenty of work”! My new duties began almost immediately as the rest of the day was spent with my new boss attending a meeting of stakeholders in the West African Agricultural Productivity Programme (WAAPP) whose main purpose was to present an interim progress report to representatives of the World Bank and the Spanish Government (major funding providers) on how their funding had been spent so far, and what the planned activities of the programme in the Gambia were for 2013.

I was introduced to quite a number of new faces, mostly from the Department of Agriculture and NARI (the National Agricultural Research Institute) and will no doubt be meeting some of them again during the course of the coming weeks, and I  then spent an interesting afternoon learning a little about WAAPP and the relationships between the various organisations involved, principally the World Bank, DOA, NARI, and the National Environment Agency.

The following Monday was my first day at the new office and I spent most of my time attending meetings with the Director and some of the senior Agricultural Officers. The first meeting was with representatives of a local village group to discuss support by the Department for a new horticultural project. It appears that the project has been instigated by a “new” village group, but that now that it looks as if they will receive DOA backing, two other established village groups want to become involved. The discussion seemed to centre around the provision of land for the project, and how to maintain the support of all and ensure the various groups work together without one group being dominant, although the Department would prefer to work through an existing group which already has a formal constitution and management structure, bank accounts etc, rather than a newly set up group with no measurable business record. A meeting is now due to be held with the village elders for further discussions on how to proceed.

The second meeting with about 25 local farmers, mostly women, was conducted in two languages – Wolof and Mandinka, and when anyone spoke it was immediately repeated in the other language for the benefit of those who might not understand it first time. My knowledge of Wolof is very limited and my Mandinka virtually non existent but I think I managed to get the gist of the meeting although much of the detail escaped me. It did help that I knew the agenda in advance! The meeting was in preparation for the official handover next Saturday of a new butchery at Kotu which has been supported by the DOA, and was a final planning meeting to discuss the guest list, and make sure all parties knew their responsibilities on the day – who was in charge of getting tents and chairs, who was to do the catering and for how many, how many tee shirts should be ordered etc. I will have to make sure I have a smart shirt and trousers to wear as it’s an important event and will be attended by Mr Solomon Owens (the Minister of Agriculture), the Mayor, the Paramount Chief, the Imam, local councillors, and various other honoured guests, so there will be prayers, quite a number of speeches by the dignitaries, (with musical interludes), and of course the obligatory Gambian hospitality! It promises to be a “good do” as we say at home, but I expect I’ll have to walk back to my lodgings afterwards – a brisk hour and a quarter along the beach – to burn off some calories!

Family Matters

Family relationships are very important in the Gambia and by European standards these relationships can be quite complicated leading to a wide range of words in Wolof for different family members. When the relationships are explained, the logic behind much of the naming seems clear but in these extended families it is a little difficult at times to remember who is who, so I hope I’ve understood the basics enough for a brief explanation.

Traditionally a Gambian man (assuming he is a Muslim) may take up to four wives at a time if he can support them, and it is not unusual for Gambian women to have five or more children, so he may quite easily father an extended family of 20 or 30 children by different wives, all of whom live together in the same compound, and thus the relationship between members of the family becomes quite complex. It is common for a man to have a wife (or perhaps more than one) who is considerably younger than he is, and so it is quite possible he will die first. Traditionally it would be quite usual for one of his brothers to then take the young widow for a wife, and continue to support the family. Perhaps this is why the terms “uncle” and “aunt” do not have quite the same meaning in Gambia as in the UK. Here the term “uncle” refers to your mother’s brother(s), and the term “aunt” to your father’s sister(s). Any brothers that your father might have are also regarded as being your father too, and the Wolof term for them (“baay bu ndaw”) means literally “little father”, –  so if your biological father dies leaving a young widow and family one of the other little fathers may take his place. Similarly your mother’s sisters are called literally your “little mother”. A similar system of naming continues with those that we at home would call your “cousins,” who are called such only if they are children of your mother’s brother, or your father’s sister, as any children belonging to your father’s brothers or your mother’s sisters are regarded as being your brothers and sisters too. Are you still with me? Perhaps you will understand then that your only nephews and nieces are your sister’s children if you are a man, and your brother’s children if you are a woman. All others are regarded as your own children too!

The term “goro” for your parents in law can also refer to the older brother of the husband, or the older sister of the wife, while the term “peecargo” for brothers or sisters in law is restricted to someone who is married to your sister or brother, not someone who is married to your wife/husband’s sister or brother.

Then of course there are also different terms for first wife, last wife, and other co-wives – but perhaps I’ll leave them for another day.

[ As an aside, if a large number of men do in fact still take multiple wives, and as the overall ratio of males to females is roughly equal in the Gambia, – and this ratio is similar across each age group, I wonder what happens to all those spare men?]


Family ceremonies are also important and last week there was some kind of wedding celebration in the compound next door but one to where I am living. It sounded a great party and kept the street entertained for hours. There was a lot of loud music with the obligatory drumming and singing during the afternoon, and when I joined one of the little girls next door and stuck my head over the wall to have a peek it looked like a hen party with only a few men in evidence. There were two very smart cars parked on the street outside our gateway, decorated with balloons and what looked to be blobs of shaving foam in the shape of hearts, and about seven o’clock the girls moved out into the street as if preparing to leave. I think the bride is the girl in the red dress, but there’s no sign of a groom, so I still don’t know if this was the hen party, or just a bit of a warm up to get the sisters in the mood before going to the ceremony.