A bicycle ride

I haven’t ridden a bicycle for several years, because at home in the UK I automatically jump into the car for longer trips, or for shorter distances I prefer to walk (unless I’m in a hurry, or feeling lazy). This weekend however my neighbours have been away and I borrowed a bicycle from them to allow me to cover a greater area than I have done previously on foot. Gambia is very flat with only about 100m difference between the highest and lowest points, and in the urban area there is only an occasional slope, so I thought it would be easy. I had however forgotten how uncomfortable a bike saddle can be, and my first day on the road reminded me why I had got rid of my own bike. Besides that it was a warm day and I was soon sweating in the heat.

The purpose of my exertions was to widen my search for a car. I have been here nearly six months now and not got very far out of the coastal strip, so decided a month or so ago to find a 4WD vehicle which I could use at weekends to explore “up country” where, apart from the main highway to the Kombos, the roads are often unpaved dirt tracks with large ruts and potholes, and at this time of year a lot of water. However although there are a lot of cars for sale in the Gambia, the search is not as easy as at home because although there are a few roadside sites where a few cars – presumably the property of a motor trader – are standing under a tree, the majority are widely scattered throughout the area, just parked by the road with a telephone number in the window and nothing more. As a result, if you find something which looks suitable, you first have to ring an unknown telephone number to find out what it is (diesel? petrol? age?) and most importantly whether it is within your budget, although you are always told it is “the starting price” which is I think sometimes inflated when the vendor thinks they are speaking to a “toubab”. Certainly second hand cars are quite a lot more expensive than similar ones would be at home, but of course they are all imported, mainly from the Netherlands, Germany, UK and Scandinavia, so there is a shipping cost built into the price as well as import duty, before the vendor takes any profit.

I had previously looked at several cars, but found nothing I thought would be good enough for my purpose (in other words get me around Gambia for a few months in some tough terrain without letting me down) except one Land Rover Discovery which was rather more than I wanted to pay – and sold within a week while I was waiting for the price to drop! Yesterday I saw one possible, although still in rather worse condition than I would like, and at an inflated price, and when I arrived home about 2pm I was exhausted by the heat and the effort and had to spend the next two hours rehydrating and recovering from my tour!

Today therefore I set off about 7.30 to avoid the heat, although it had rained heavily during the night and was rather cooler, and I took a different direction from the day before. For well over an hour I rode round the Serekunda area and saw nothing remotely of interest, then turned down a side road to head for the Brikama highway which I guessed would be running to my right. As I cycled onward the tarmac grew thinner and eventually petered out altogether leaving me to continue along dirt roads with flooded ruts and potholes and eventually I realized I was lost and so decided to pick up the next bit of tarmac I saw and follow wherever it led. (It must come out somewhere I recognise!) Gradually the ruts disappeared, the surface grew harder, the tarmac wider, and eventually I re-emerged more or less at the same point I had left twenty minutes earlier. So much for my short cut!

This time I decided to follow the longer route which I recognised from previous trips to the area, and so duly arrived at the Brikama highway, by which time it was starting to rain. As the downpour increased I took shelter under a nearby tree where I remained for 45 minutes or so as the heavens opened and the waters rose steadily on the dual carriageway in front of me. When I first took shelter the scene was quite normal – just another cloudburst

Gambia_0604But within 25 minutes the nearside of the carriageway which sloped towards me was a river flowing quite swiftly along, and well over a foot deep where it spilled over near my refuge.

Gambia_0608A few vehicles were still ploughing through – mainly four wheel drives and commercials, or the ubiquitous Mercedes taxis, but most decided instead to cut through the central reservation before the flooded section and continue on the opposite carriageway which was rather drier. Eventually the rain eased, and rolling up my trousers I waded into the flow and carried on cycling upriver with the rest of the traffic. The cyclists kept to the higher ground where the water was shallower and until we got out of the flood the motor traffic was slowed to our speed for fear of waterlogging. Ten minutes later the rain increased again and I had to head for a petrol station forecourt where several of us chatted under the canopy while the heavens opened once more accompanied by thunder and lightning and howling wind. Traffic was by now more or less at a standstill although here the flooding was a lot less severe, but at last the rain cleared and I continued on my way towards Tabokoto where I had seen a Landrover for sale as I passed on my journey to work in the mornings. A brief inspection showed that it had originated from Holland and looked quite sound, but the chassis number told me that it was a year newer than anything else I had looked at and with the updated TD5 engine, so I expect when I track down the owner that he will ask me rather more than I want to pay.

The question of how much I pay is also affected by the exchange rate. When I was first in the Gambia, £1 sterling was worth over 50 dalasis, and in fact I’ve seen it up to about 56 as the dalasis decreased in value. Recently however President Jammeh has closed all the foreign exchange bureaux and set an artificial exchange rate in an attempt to bolster the currency, with the result that all exchange has to be done through the banks, and this has in effect devalued my budget for a car by over 10%.

On the way home I had to shelter at the petrol station once more, and approaching the centre found that the flood water from one of the side roads was coming onto the highway in such quantities that it had filled the outbound side and was spilling over the central reservation onto the inbound carriageway.

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The rain today had certainly kept me cooler than yesterday and I was quite wet, but by the time I arrived home I was thoroughly soaked thanks to just one inconsiderate van driver who passed by so close that he threw a huge wave over my head and utterly drenched me. All the other drivers who passed me and the other cyclists en route had overtaken wide and slow but I think this chap probably thought it was funny to soak me. He didn’t think it so amusing however when I caught up with him at the van terminus a few hundred yards further on and taught him a few new words. Still soaking, but having relieved my feelings I continued home and straight into the shower. It was a real pleasure to don clean dry clothes and have a nice cup of tea! I wasn’t much further forward in my search, but at least I had had some exercise, and I certainly saw a lot more from my bike than on foot or in a vehicle.

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Site Three

Over the last few weeks I have heard “Site Three” mentioned a lot in office conversations and at first didn’t know where or what it was, but had the opportunity to find out first hand this week. From the office talk it sounded as if Site Three was important because the name cropped up quite frequently and Department of Agriculture staff were obviously spending some time planning work there, and two of the new John Deere tractors which have recently arrived from India were also sent there to work. Last Friday it was announced that all regional staff were to go to Site Three the following Tuesday and Wednesday “to work for the President”, although as we had torrential rain all day on Monday it was deemed too wet and we didn’t start until Wednesday.

On Wednesday when I arrived at the office there were already several of our VLADP’s (Village Level Agricultural Development Promoters) in the yard having travelled in from their postings further afield, and by about ten o’clock (judging by the silence outside) it seemed they had all gone and I thought I had been left alone to man the office with just the three secretaries for company. About eleven however a pickup returned to collect me and two of the senior agricultural officers who were also still on site and we jumped into the back along with several others and set off down the dual carriageway towards Banjul.

Site Three is an area of land just near the airport and not far from our offices, which belongs (I think) to the state but although I believe it is a kind of state farm, it rather sounds as though not much farming has been done there in the immediate past, and in the absence of fences, the local inhabitants have been encroaching on the land. Apparently this has come to the notice of President Jammeh who declared he wanted to see it green, and as nobody questions the President there was an immediate flurry of activity as our departmental staff set about cultivations and planting of about 50 acres with maize and groundnuts. These crops had now emerged and on the first day our job was thinning out the maize plants which had been sown with a fairly basic mechanical planter and as a result were at varying spacings, and often had multiple plants growing on the same stand. I was told that the optimum spacing was about 20cm apart in the rows and instructed to thin out any intermediate plants, remove the weak ones, and leave no more than two strong plants to a stand. The day was hot and I was glad of my hat although many of my fellow workers were bare headed and we proceeded slowly up and down the field bent double, heads down, bottoms up, rather like ducks! I was also glad of the water bottle I had taken with me although nobody else seemed to have bothered and the work carried on steadily like this until about two o’clock when we could hear the loudspeakers from a mosque in the nearby village calling the faithful to prayer. This was obviously time for a break when most just sat down on the ground although several of the more devout completed their ritual washing, and turning towards what I assume was the direction of Mecca began their prayers and prostrations in the field.

Thinning maize plants

Thinning maize plants

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New equipment

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Two lovely ladies ready to go home. It amazed me how they arrived each morning dressed smartly as if for a day out, spent the day in their work clothes, and then after a hard day in the field went home again looking fresh and ready for a night out. I never found out when or where they changed!

I had eaten my sandwich on the move but nobody else seemed to have eaten or drunk anything until a pickup arrived about three o’clock carrying huge steaming bowls of rice which was divided up into communal bowls and topped with the usual fish and vegetables….ah, benacin! The staff were beginning to slow down, apart from the tractor driver and his colleagues who were harrowing between rows. The new harrows had not been bought to suit the row widths but by removing several of the tines it was possible to make them nearly fit although at times they also knocked out the maize plants too, but apparently it was a quicker and cheaper method than hand hoeing (the field was about 20 acres). Five o’clock came, then six, and my back was aching, but it wasn’t until nearly seven that we were told we had done enough and could go home. The following day was a public holiday (Feast of the Assumption) but we were still working and were told to assemble at the office by nine.

A cold shower refreshed and renewed me when I got home but by morning I was very sore – my thigh muscles were stiff from the constant bending, although we had been told Thursday would be an easier day than Wednesday so I hoped this would be true. The task was spreading fertiliser on the groundnut field……by hand. A pickup arrived with some bags of compound fertiliser (Chinese 15:15:15:4:40 if you really want to know. I think the 4:40 referred to Sulphur and Boron) and this was tipped out into whatever receptacles were to hand. I recognised a number of plastic mop buckets from the offices, and there were also plastic carrier bags and, as the sacks were emptied, they too were rolled down and used. In most cases two people each picked up opposite sides of the bag or bucket and walked slowly up the field sprinkling the fertiliser as they went. There seemed to be little method in the procedure and as the fertiliser was all stockpiled at one end of the field, when the spreaders ran out near the opposite end, the carriers had to walk full length of the field to refill. I suggested several times that perhaps it would be a good idea to take some bags to the far end so that when empty the spreaders could refill at whichever was nearest, but although several agreed it was a good idea, nothing was done – it seemed to be one of those jobs that has always been done this way, so will not change! Also when the bag was refilled, the spreaders did not necessarily start again at the same place they had left off, so it was a marvel to think how regular the distribution might be.

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The Professor organising operations

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Spreading fertiliser Gambia style – all by hand over 20 acres

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A well earned rest

After a while the Director managed to marshal his troops by setting them off equal distances apart and they looked a bit more methodical, so work proceeded apace until the fertiliser was exhausted and a pickup had to be sent for a few more bags to finish the field. The Director then said we would go back to see what was happening in the maize field where we had been working the previous day (the tractors were still cultivating between rows) and we thought this was the end of our work, but when we arrived he announced that we had some more thinning to do as he wasn’t satisfied with the work in some places, so we set off once more bent double up the field with my thighs protesting at every step. I thought my fellow workers would be used to this sort of labour, but they too were tiring and after a while there was much muttering in the ranks (but only when the Director was out of earshot!) about how it was too hot, people were tired, it was a public holiday and we should be relaxing with our families etc, and when we got to the far end of a long field we all collapsed under the shade of a few bushes for a good grumble. Then after a few minutes it seemed as if decision had been made as we set briskly off back down the field and I thought the shop stewards were about to tell management that the workforce were walking out. In the event however any mutiny had subsided by the time we got back to the far end, or was nipped in the bud by the arrival of cold water and more tubs of steaming rice, so we sat down to feed once more.

This was not the end however, and after a brief rest we were sent down to the other end of the field to go over another section again and also to uncover any plants that had been buried by harrowing. It didn’t take long, and finally, about 5pm we all jumped back into the vehicles for a short ride back to the office; the VLADP’s began to head back out to their postings up country and I did a little desk work until it was time to leave for home.

I’m writing this three days later, and my thigh muscles are still quite stiff!

Koriteh

Wednesday night marked the end of Ramadan, the month long period of fasting during daylight hours and abstaining from worldly pleasures, so yesterday was the feast of Koriteh (or Eid al Fitr as it is known elsewhere), and for the Muslims this means party time. The Islamic calendar is lunar, divided into 12 months of 29 or 30 days (354 days in all) so the timing of Ramadan varies, moving forward by about eleven days each year, and although the dates are predicted in advance, the actual timing depends on sightings of the moon so until Wednesday evening we weren’t sure whether Koriteh would be Thursday or Friday although my colleagues assured me that I needn’t come to work on Thursday as they were sure it would be Koriteh. As we were about to leave work the heavens opened and for over an hour we were confined to the office as the thunder rolled, lightning flashed and the rain sheeted down. Eventually the deluge stopped but heavy cloud still covered the sky and there was no possibility of a moon sighting where we were.

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We drove home along flooded roads with several abandoned cars, and as we passed Abuko the site of the main slaughterhouse, the small roadside butchery stalls looked to be doing a roaring trade with long queues waiting to buy meat for the expected feasting. It reminded me of Christmas in the UK when the shoppers at the supermarkets give the impression they are stocking up for a six month siege, not just one day when the shops are closed.

At about 8pm (at which time I was told we would know if it was Koriteh the following day) I scoured the internet for news and found that the authorities in Abu Dhabi had declared a sighting by their official moon sighting committee, so Koriteh was confirmed for Thursday, and I breathed a sigh of relief – for me Ramadan had meant I was unable to buy fresh bread in the mornings but instead had to rely for a month on dry rolls from the previous evening for my lunch time sandwiches. What hardships we have to undergo as volunteers!

During the weeks before the feast there is much preparation to be done – it is a point of honour to provide a good show for your friends and neighbours, and the Gambian tailors are very busy making new outfits for all the ladies to wear. I had heard it was a time when everyone dressed in their best new clothes, so as I had been invited to join a colleague’s family for the day I too made an effort and bought a smart shirt for the occasion. (It amazes me what the countless small tailoring workshops can produce with limited facilities, and at what seems to me a bargain price, although I understand some of the more elaborate creations can be several thousand dalasi (D1000 is about £20), partly depending on the amount of embroidery involved. One lady told me the “stitching” on her dress had cost over D1500 – it looked cheap at the price to me.

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Ready for the party!

On Thursday I received a call at about 11am asking where I was – apparently I had been expected to join the family for breakfast following the 10am prayers, so I made my apologies and hastily made my way out of town to their home at Banjulinding. The taxis were packed – everyone going to join family and friends for the festivities, but by about 12.30 I had arrived and was being greeted as an honoured guest by the entire family. Half an hour later I was made aware that although I had not been present for breakfast, I was still expected to eat it, and was faced with a huge plate of tasty beef and pasta with bread rolls, and a bowl of chakri. There looked to be enough for at least two people and I had to confess myself beaten by the quantity. Following breakfast we sat and chatted in the house and played games with the children who kept wandering in until about 3pm at which time the ladies retired (to pray, or to do the washing up I wondered?) and I was shepherded outside to join a group of the men resting under a mango tree.  Meanwhile there was a steady procession of visitors to the compound – apparently it is a time at which you visit your friends and neighbours and ask their forgiveness for any wrongs you have done them, especially those you committed during Ramadan when you were hungry, tired and short tempered. The visits are many but short, consisting of the usual ritual greetings and handshakes all round (by the time I went home my right hand ached!), and there was a constant procession of children dressed in their best clothes who go round the entire neighbourhood to greet people and ask for “salibo” – small gifts. I was unprepared for this so had no change with me, but my hosts had a ready supply of dalasis, and after the handshake and polite greetings each child was given a coin. During the course of the afternoon there must have been around 200 or more children calling for gifts – there was a steady stream which was still continuing as I left about 8pm, and it must be an expensive day for the family head! The children usually came in small groups of up to a dozen or so of all ages and each one, even the smallest tot came forward to shake hands before being directed across to the house to receive their gift.

Before I came outside I had been told my lunch was ready, but managed after many protestations that I had only just eaten breakfast, to convince my hosts that I really couldn’t eat anything else just yet, and persuade them to leave it for later. It constantly surprises me how much Gambians can eat as the meals are large, and in this climate I find I eat a lot less than I would at home.

I had been told that one of the family had a laptop that needed attention and expected that it would be brought to me at some point to see if I could resurrect it, but instead I was asked to assist with another task – proof reading/editing a dissertation on the production of tomatoes in the Gambia so spent the next hour or more in the shade of the mango tree going through it with the author and suggesting alterations to the wording or spelling corrections. I’ve noticed before that many Gambians when speaking/writing English use the singular when we would use the plural, and use tenses differently to a native Englishman, presumably based on the construction of their own local languages. At first I thought it was just a few of them, but it seems there is a distinct language of “Gamblish”!

By 7.30pm I thought it was time to head back to the city, and also thought I had got away without eating lunch, but was then presented with a large plateful of benacin to take home, together with three sweet grapefruit from my host’s tree. I had already eaten quite enough to last me until bedtime but was firmly told to eat it the following day. The ladies in fact were keen for me to stay for dinner which was apparently due to begin fairly shortly, and my host seemed put out that I was not returning the following day to continue the feasting, but I felt discretion was the better part of valour and caught a van for the journey back to town. As we drove through the suburbs the streets were crowded with locals on parade in their very best costumes, although it seemed many of the roadside stalls were open for business too, and when I reached Westfield the road outside Jokor nightclub was absolutely packed with people, so I assume it was full inside too and the traffic was all being slowly guided through the crowds of youngsters by a policeman on point duty. At the next junction where I change to another van for the ride back to Bakau there were fewer taxis and vans than usual, but again the area was busy with Gambians enjoying themselves, promenading, meeting with friends, and generally celebrating the end of a month of abstinence. As I arrived home music was once more booming out from the compounds around us, and it seems life has returned to normal.

I found the house in darkness – my housemate had retired early, and after a glass of squash I too collapsed into bed. All this partying is quite exhausting!