This morning the temperature here in the Gambia is around 85° with about 90% humidity so it feels rather hotter, and the temperature will no doubt increase during the middle of the day. With the exception of a few days it has been like this for a while – we are still in the rainy season, so this is perfectly normal, although the rainfall is not as frequent as expected and started about a month later than normal. By November however the average humidity should be dropping and it will be considerably more comfortable, but meanwhile we must just endure it. Unless you are lucky enough to have air conditioning at work you spend the day bathed in a thin sticky film of perspiration and it is a relief for me to arrive home and jump into a cold shower – assuming the water is on. If not, a cold drink from the fridge helps (assuming the electricity is on too!), but although the refreshing liquid feels wonderful as it passes through the mouth, it seems to have no long term cooling effect and I’m soon reaching for another. If the water is on, the shower has a cooling effect for a little while longer but within ten or fifteen minutes of emerging the body feels just as hot as before, even clad in just a towel. The humidity doesn’t get much lower in the evenings either, so I’m grateful for the slightest breeze during the night time so I can leave my clammy bed sheet to stand naked by the window for a few minutes and try to cool down. (Those of a nervous disposition should look away now!) The compound wall prevents much air movement and even with both my bedroom windows open the fly screens and mosquito netting hinder further ventilation but a little relief is better than just lying sweating it out.
I’m also grateful to live with a fairly regular supply of running water as I could equally well have been posted to a more remote placement where water had to be carried in buckets or jerry cans (hopefully from not too far away) and where a bath/shower was only possible using a cup and bucket. We take such luxuries for granted in the developed world, whereas here such privations are just a part of everyday life for much of the population, and even here in Bakau many of our neighbours spend much of their time carrying water from a standpipe. It is quite common to see a youngster struggling up the street back to the family compound lugging a full jerry can or balancing a bucket of water on his/her head.
When the electricity supply is cut off (“load sharing”) which happens quite frequently at the moment we sit and wonder what to do next as the laptop battery fades, and I often end up going to bed a lot earlier than at home, to read a book by the light of my head torch, or on my tablet. I was rather dismissive of e-readers until I bought one myself and although it does not perhaps give the same satisfaction as the printed page, it is certainly very convenient, and many books can be downloaded from the internet free of charge which is a bonus. So living without electricity on a daily basis becomes acceptable provided there are periods when the power is restored and the phone, laptop, battery lantern etc can all be recharged. This period is often in the early hours of the morning so I have learned to plug everything in when I go to bed and hopefully I will wake to find I’m recharged. My Gambian neighbours are amazed to hear that power cuts are virtually unknown at home, and usually only occur as a result of mechanical damage to the network or adverse weather conditions. I can imagine the complaints if electricity was only available in my home town between 2am and 7am for a week or more. No doubt heads would roll, but here it is quite normal and you soon get used to it. The water supply however is a different matter and I think I would find it very difficult to manage with such limited availability as affects some of my colleagues elsewhere.
In this situation the heat and humidity make normal life even more of an effort than normal yet still the women spend large amounts of the day collecting water, sweeping the compound, washing clothes, going to the market, preparing and cooking food, and looking after the compound children, then in the evening sitting for long periods by the roadside with a little stall of groundnuts, or perhaps a small stove grilling fish from the nearby market for sale to passers by. All around there are street sellers trying to persuade you to buy water or fruit juice, cashews, bananas, telephone cards, videos, bags, belts, watches, sunglasses. So many of them are selling exactly the same goods as their neighbour, so it must be a bit of a lottery as to which one achieves the next sale. It is difficult for me to shrug off the feeling of guilt as I refuse yet another 5 dalasi bag of nuts from someone who is only trying to make a living, but there are so many, and I constantly have to repeat to myself the mantra “you can’t help them all”.
The same is true of the regular requests for help with school fees. By European standards the fees are quite low – for example a one-year Higher Diploma course in Business Studies at one of the local colleges may cost the equivalent of about £400 but it is quite outside the reach of the average student unless they find sponsorship. Similarly the fees for primary or secondary school education seem insignificant but so many are unable to continue education simply because they can’t afford it. Nevertheless I see huge numbers going to school in the morning, and again in the afternoon as they operate a two shift system although the same teachers have to teach the afternoon classes finishing about 6pm as have taught the morning classes beginning at 8am. The shifts apparently change so that classes alternate to gain the benefit of a fresh teacher in the morning who may be rather more jaded in the afternoon.
It is easy in this climate to succumb to a general sense of indolence and I am conscious of it myself – I have written to friends and family rather less recently than before and my blogs over the last month have not been as regular as heretofore. Some of you have reminded me of this, so please forgive my current inertia. The cooler weather will soon be upon us and normal service will be resumed as soon as possible!