This week has been a week of frustrations, mostly caused by the lack of systems and resources which we take so much for granted in the UK.
It is now the rainy season here and although the rains on the coastal strip have so far only been intermittent – usually falling at night when I can listen to the torrential downpour on the tin roof sheets and watch the flashes of lightning from the safety of my mosquito net, it is getting hotter and more humid. The daytime temperatures are around 90 degrees which combined with nearly 80% humidity feels hotter and doesn’t encourage much movement outside, and although this drops at night, with no breeze in our small compound it still feels uncomfortably sticky for sleep until the early hours. It also seems to affect the infrastructure as the cuts in power and water supplies seem to have become rather more frequent and I’m told that is quite usual at this time of year, though whether this is because of greater demand, or simply because the generating machinery overheats more quickly is unclear. It does explain however why many Gambians spend a lot of the daytime resting and wake up at night when it’s a little cooler.
Unfortunately as our office hours are from 8am to 6pm, I can’t adopt this practice, so it was particularly annoying to arrive at work on Monday morning and find we had no electricity – doubly so as the previous day we had none at home either so my laptop battery was nearly exhausted. Until about 9.30am I assumed that it was the normal power cuts (sorry, I mean “load sharing”) which everybody endures, but was then told that we had no power because we hadn’t paid the bill! The system here is “Cashpower” whereby you buy advance credit for your meter from the power company office and receive a ticket with a code which you tap into a keypad on the meter. It seems that nobody in the office where our meter is placed had been checking it and as a result it had run out. Of course this meant (being both Gambia, AND a government department) that we would be unlikely to have any electricity for a week or so as forms would have to be filled in with the accounts section at Head Office to requisition the cash to pay for the credit etc etc…… and no-one seemed particularly bothered about it. I managed to find a little work that could be done without power, but of course nowadays all my work files are kept on computer, and as a result I couldn’t do a great deal!
Fortunately for me, Tuesday was our quarterly volunteers meeting at VSO offices for us all to report back on what we had been doing since we arrived here, how that fitted with our placement objectives, and what challenges we faced/how we planned to tackle them. The thought of an air conditioned conference room with a standby generator and chance to connect to the Internet without using my mobile data card sounded very appealing and perhaps by the time I got back to the Ministry we would have renewed our credit with the electricity company.
I was also due to attend VSO on Wednesday morning as we were being taken to Banjul for registration by GAMBIS (The Gambian Biometric Identification Service). However as our group had been booked in advance we rather hoped to get through this process reasonably quickly, and perhaps I might be able to get back to the office before the day was over……..
We arrived in Banjul about 10.30am and rather than join the queues waiting their turn on the long wooden benches outside the immigration building we took up position across the road while our paperwork was taken inside and the powers that be were told we had arrived.
The first hour was quite interesting as we chatted amongst ourselves and watched the panorama of African street life with street vendors selling sunglasses, belts, car mats, food and drink, DVD’s and goodness knows what else, and the stream of traffic going to/from the docks. On our side of the street the pavement was occupied by a number of enterprises set up to provide photocopies of documents, visa and passport photos, and what looked to be some kind of a legal service issuing paperwork with a large red seal attached. A travelling cleaner spent 15 minutes washing the dust from a car parked at the roadside – I don’t know where he got the water for his bucket – meanwhile the tide of people on the benches ebbed and flowed, the queue seemed no shorter than when we had arrived and there was no sign of our expected “Fast track” entry………….
By about 2.00pm the queue on the benches was thinning out and I had just gone to order a tapilapa sandwich from a pavement vendor when there were signs of action. Our turn had come! The excitement was short lived however as we were first of all taken into the processing office by one officer, and then turned back out again by another who seemed to have decided there were too many of us, or perhaps it was prayer time.
At least the benches outside now had room for most of us to sit down and after a short hiatus we were again called inside to a counter with four booths, two of which were dealing with our applications. At the first one, after checking our identity and welcoming us to the Gambia we had both thumbs scanned for the records and then were passed to the second booth for our photograph to be taken. Standing back against the wall it felt like being in a prison drama – goodness knows what my picture will look like! Our identity cards should arrive in about two weeks, but meanwhile we were each given a receipt to prove that we had been registered and told to carry it with us in case we were stopped for identity checks.
By the time we arrived back in Kombo it was after 4pm so instead of going back out to the office for an hour I made use of the uninterrupted power supply at VSO to run a virus/malware scan on a laptop belonging to one of my colleagues. Unfortunately I was unable to finish the scan as it took rather longer than I expected – by 7pm it still hadn’t completed (although it had found over 200 infected files) and the office was closing, so home I trudged dusty and hot, and looking forward to a cold refreshing shower – only to arrive in Bakau to find no water or power!
The following morning we still had no electricity at the office when I arrived but after a while the Director called on a flying visit, power was restored for a while, and I was able to work until mid afternoon at which point our fuel ran out again. I was quite pleased it was the weekend!
However, in case you’re thinking that it has been only frustrations this week, I had better mention Thursday evening. Another volunteer, Helen, who has been working as a doctor in Banjul for a year finished her placement last week and flew back to the UK on Friday, so had organised a farewell supper at a local restaurant which was attended by about 20 of us. I hadn’t been to Labas before but it was a real treat – rather more upmarket than our usual haunts, and an excellent buffet. Would you believe we were given two courses with real meat – chicken, fish, and beef, and such unaccustomed delicacies as broccoli and MASHED POTATO?! The starving volunteers fell on this feast like a horde of locusts, and as we walked home about midnight my two companions had to admit that it was after all possible to have a good vegetarian meal in the Gambia!