Goodbye Mr Chen!

I have just come from what was scheduled to be a brief ten minute meeting, but actually lasted about an hour and a half as the staff here at Yundum bid a fond and emotional farewell to Mr Chen from the Taiwanese Technical Mission. There have been close links between The Gambia and The Republic of China Taiwan for many years and Mr Chen has been in the Gambia since 2011 working to help the farmers improve rice production and expand the area of rice which is cultivated. He is a hard working and likeable young man, very open and frank and although I have not had a great deal of contact with him personally, I know from my colleagues that he has achieved a great deal over the past two years.

Unfortunately, although the Taiwanese have contributed a great deal in the past to the development of the Gambia there has been a sudden and unexplained rift in the relationship as President Jammeh recently declared unilaterally and without any explanation that he was breaking off diplomatic ties with Taiwan, and as a result a couple of days later the Taiwanese announced the closure of their embassy here and the withdrawal of their technical mission. That was only just over a week ago but Mr Chen leaves tomorrow and called this afternoon to say goodbye. An impromptu ceremony was hurriedly organised in the conference room and we sat round the table and ate biscuits (all that could be provided at short notice) while each person in the room made a short speech thanking Mr Chen for his contribution to the development of the Gambia and wishing him well in his future. Apparently he is flying straight to South America to continue with a similar development mission in Nicaragua.

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Goodbye Mr Chen (I knew I should have combed my hair!)

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Mr Chen and Ousman Jammeh, West Coast Region Director of Agriculture

No one here, or at the Taiwanese Technical Mission knows the reasons for the severing of ties but it seems the decision was made by the President himself and his decision is final and not to be questioned. Now the Gambian rice growers must try unaided and without financial support from the Taiwanese to put into practice the improved techniques Mr Chen and his team have been promoting. In the absence of other outside aid to fill the gap, this seems to me a backward step.

In addition to the support inside the Gambia, the Taiwanese government have also sponsored a number of students each year (I think there are about 250 Gambians studying at university in Taiwan at present as guests of the Taiwanese), and the first announcements from Taiwan indicated that they would all have to return home in January, but from Mr Chen’s remarks this afternoon I think the Taiwanese government have decided to allow them all to complete their studies, even if they have only just begun a four year course. As several of the speakers this afternoon noted, diplomatic links are constantly changing so perhaps we can hope that before the last of these Gambian students fly home, more cordial links will have been restored and the Gambians and Taiwanese can once again enjoy a fruitful and mutually profitable relationship.

Meanwhile “Goodbye Mr Chen, safe journey, and the very best wishes for your future from the staff of the Department of Agriculture!”

Trouble in Paradise

This week I was unlucky enough (or simply careless enough) to have my wallet stolen.

My son and his girlfriend have been here for ten days holiday and last Thursday morning I had arranged to meet them at their hotel for lunch. I got into the back of a taxi for Senegambia (the big enclave of European style tourist hotels) and was immediately followed in there by two other men so as one of them was quite large, we were a little cramped for space, but that is not unusual. During the ten minute journey the man on my right was fidgeting and several times raised his left elbow almost into my face as if he was trying to get something out of his shirt breast pocket (a familiar gesture as I usually keep a few dalasis in my own shirt pocket for taxi fares). I was wearing a pair of “cargo” trousers with patch pockets on the legs and my wallet was buttoned in the right hand leg pocket. When I got out of the taxi at Senegambia and had walked about twenty yards I found that the pocket had been slit as if with a razorblade, and the wallet with about D1200 (£20) had gone, but of course when I looked round the taxi – and the men – had also disappeared. I had not taken any particular note of the man sitting next to me and as there are so many yellow Mercedes taxis here I had no chance of identifying the vehicle. To make matters worse than the loss of cash, my four identity cards were in the wallet along with two ATM cards, one from my UK bank, and one from my local bank. As a result I have had to make several visits to the police station in the hope that the thief would take the money but throw away my documents, but so far they have not been handed in. A brief telephone call to the UK cancelled my HSBC debit card, and a rather longer visit to Standard Chartered here in Gambia eventually did the same for my Gambian ATM card,  but only after I had begged a piece of blank paper from the desktop printer and written a letter to the Branch Manager. And of course I then had to fill in an application for a replacement card which was passed around for a while until I was told I was finished and my card would be ready for collection in about two weeks. Meanwhile I have to make sure I am near a bank in opening hours to cash a cheque when necessary which is a nuisance as I usually leave home before the banks open and return after they close so I was in the habit of drawing from the cash machines on my way home.

I reported the matter to the local police who were very friendly and helpful. Just as everywhere else, this involved paperwork, much talking, tut tutting and looking at my slashed pocket, and then two CID men took me across the road to the taxi stand where they questioned/harangued the taxi controller and all the drivers present who of course were also duly sympathetic and told me how sad they felt. In practice of course, although I now have a crime reference number and an open file at Kairaba Police Station I suspect there is nothing they can do unless my documents are handed in or the thieves are caught in the act. I hear that a German tourist suffered a similar loss nearby on the same day, and with hindsight I guess the fidgeting and arm movements of my neighbour were to distract my attention and also prevent me from seeing what was happening on my right as he slit my pocket.

As a result of this loss I now have to replace my VSO ID, Alien Residency Permit, Green Immigration Card, and Gambian Biometric Identity Card, the last of which involves another visit to GAMBIS offices to have my thumbprints and photograph taken. (When the original was issued this involved a wait of about five hours!) Fortunately the Immigration Service have told me they will at least replace my Green Card free of charge when I produce the police report, and also told me to wait until January before applying for Biometric ID as my existing card expires in December anyway and the cost of replacement is D1300 annually (January to December). This relatively new identity card system requiring annual renewal seems to me to place an unnecessary financial burden on the ordinary Gambian citizen, although of course it provides the Government with some much needed revenue! I think however that although it is a legal requirement, many Gambians simply don’t apply, as they can’t afford to do so. It also seems to me unnecessary to take prints and photos every year as presumably the originals are stored on computer somewhere and could be reproduced at the click of a mouse, but perhaps the system is not yet sufficiently developed for that. I hope to be able to collect the police report this evening on my way home so that I can get my identity back as I have just bought a car and need to register it and get some number plates, but that story will wait until next time………….

Maize Harvest

Those of you who have been reading my blog regularly may remember me talking in August about Site Three, the farming area near my office where the departmental staff provided the labour for thinning out the maize and spreading fertiliser on the groundnut plants earlier in the season.  I have not been down there since that day although I have heard reports about how the maize is doing, and two weeks ago it was decided that we should harvest the crop. As before, this involved a summons to all our extension staff who act as farmer advisors at village level, and also their line managers and the rest of the staff at Yundum Agricultural Station for two days work party on Friday and Saturday. I arrived at the field about 9am to find work had already begun, my name was added to the attendance list, and I was given a sack to fill.

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Ready to start?

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Off we go

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I was thrilled to see this chameleon blending into the maize stalks

Maize is grown in the UK for a fodder crop as silage, but in my home area at least the climate is not warm enough for the cobs to ripen so I had never seen a ripe crop and didn’t know whether we picked the cobs by hand or needed a knife to remove them from the plant, and took a pocket knife just in case. In the event it was simply a matter of plucking the ripe cobs from the plant and dropping them in the bag before carrying it to be tipped into a small farm trailer that would take the harvest to the drying floor.

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Time for a break

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……..and a cold drink

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….or just a sit down!

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Then back to work

That morning there were about 45 of us working away in a large group, often in pairs, or sometimes more, in which case one would carry the bag while the others picked. At regular intervals there were cries of “Botto, Botto, Botto”, as someone called for an empty sack, and the talk never ceased. Gambians are very chatty although as most of it was in Mandinka I only understood parts, but it seemed the usual mixture of ribbing your co-workers and catching up with the news, so the work proceeded apace until about 2pm when the men adjourned for prayers while I sat under a tree with a cold drink and enjoyed the company of some delightful ladies! We had been supplied with cold drinks earlier in the field – from time to time a bucket of water with huge blocks of ice appeared, and some of the ladies had been busy mixing powdered fruit flavoured drinks which they brought round in tubs with plastic beakers to dip in.

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Traditional dress and western style mix happily together

It appeared we were expecting a visit by the GRTV (Gambian Radio and Television) to film our harvest – all good publicity for the Department, but in the event they were busy covering the arrival of the Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan who was visiting the Gambia, so by mid afternoon when “lunch” arrived there was still no opportunity for my TV debut. We had been working hard and everyone was getting tired so it was with relief we saw the arrival of the chuck wagon – a pickup loaded with huge quantities of steamed rice and the associated vegetables and fish (ladyfish today which seems to have more flesh and less bones than some of the other local varieties). As usual it was eating from communal bowls – a large plastic plate about 12″ across is piled with rice and the vegetables and fish are placed on top. You sit round it with your friends on the floor eating with your fingers (a skill I have yet to master, usually ending with food all over my face as I struggle to knead the mixture into a ball with my right hand and then place it from the palm into my mouth without leaving any on the surrounding area!) The idea is that you each eat from the segment of the bowl in front of you but as I am still treated as a guest, the Gambian ladies have a habit of pushing the tastiest morsels onto my side and I am expected to eat the lot. One young lady was very insistent on passing me small pieces of fish despite my protestations until eventually I had to cry “Bari na!” (Enough/too much).

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A rest after lunch

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Removing the outer leaves from the cobs

A short break followed before we began again, slowly working our way across the field. It was obvious that we could not finish the 7.5hectares in one day but we wanted to do what we could and were still waiting for the film crew which arrived about 5pm. This brought a fresh burst of activity and some of the ladies began singing as they worked for the benefit of the cameras. Filmed interviews with the Director and the Farm Manager signalled the end of work for the day and we then went across to the groundnut field where staff were filmed getting out of the vehicles – apparently to be shown as arriving to begin the groundnut harvest. More filming of interviews followed and finally we loaded up again and went down to the store yard for pictures of the cobs being tipped and some laid out to dry on the concrete.

The drying floor

The drying floor

The following day was much the same as the first one although without the film crew, and with less staff available as a number of them were attending a farmer training. However, despite the smaller team (about 30 today) we finally reached the end, completing the field about 5pm, just as our Director returned from the farmer training to give us encouragement and see how we were getting on. Good timing!