Counting Down

One of my colleagues greeted me this morning by asking me whether I was counting down, or counting up, and at first I didn’t understand what he meant. It eventually dawned on me that he was referring to my imminent departure. I finish work at the Department of Agriculture (officially at any rate) tomorrow evening and then have a week to tidy up any loose ends before flying back to the UK. In practice I will be calling at the office next week as my work is far from finished, and I will then have to give some remote IT support by email when I get back home.

I will also be spending some time on the beach topping up my tan. It would never do to go home looking too pale and pasty! There will be a round of farewells to make and I have to go to Banjul for my police clearance to show that I haven’t misbehaved while I’ve been here. I understand this is a lengthy process as it involves someone at police headquarters checking my name and fingerprints against crime reports for the period I’ve been here before issuing me with a certificate. I may never need it, but if I volunteer again without one I may have problems with future employers/partners.

I also have to find a buyer for my car. The owner of the local corner shop was pestering me for it at Christmas and wanted to start paying me instalments there and then although he knew I didn’t leave until the end of February. I refused saying I wanted no money until I was willing to part with the car, and asked him three weeks ago whether he was still interested or whether I should be looking elsewhere. He assured me he still wanted it and as he was obviously running down stock levels in the shop I assumed he was getting some cash in hand to pay for it. It seems however he was getting together some money for trade as he promptly thereafter went off to Guinea Bissau buying cashew nuts and is still away! A number of other people expressed interest at various times but I have yet to find a buyer with the equivalent of £1,000 to spend. It is relatively cheap at that, but it is a lot of money for many Gambians to find. Several of my co-workers are also trying to find me a buyer in order to earn a commission, so hopefully I’ll get it sold before I leave the Gambia.

I’ll be glad to sleep in my own bed again next month, on a comfortable spring mattress instead of the dreadful foam ones we have here. VSO policy is to buy new mattresses for their volunteers on arrival but the budget only covers cheap foam which doesn’t last long as they develop a deep trough more or less immediately despite regular turning, and a number of us, myself included have had to have replacements after a few months!

On the other hand I’ll be sorry to leave the Gambia in many ways. The climate suits me, and I’ve met some lovely people, although I find their laid back attitude very frustrating at times, particularly in relation to work which seems to be viewed as an extension of their social life. Many Gambians seem happy to sit and do very little, or think all they have to do is put out their hand and wait for someone to put something in it, and I do worry about the dependency culture which is being created. The extended family system out here which gives support to so many relatives can place a heavy burden on a relatively small number of wage earners, although of course many of the diaspora also send money back home to their family on a regular basis.

A lot of children seem to have been born with the phrase “Hello, minty” on their lips, and as they grow, the amount they ask for also grows, and as a “toubab” I’m seen as a natural target and not expected to refuse, although I normally do! One member of our field staff who I see only infrequently has asked me on several occasions what I am going to give him when I leave, suggesting firstly my laptop, or at the very least a USB flash drive. He seemed surprised and almost affronted when I told him that he had no reason to expect anything from me, that he would be receiving nothing, and that as a grown man in his fifties on a full time wage (however small) from the DoA I did not think he should be making such requests.

Similarly, at police/military checkpoints I am sometimes asked “Have you anything for the officer?” although I find that if I say “Only a big smile and a cheery wave!” they wave me through with a “Thank you, have a good day”. But the fact remains that it is quite normal to be asked for a gift of some description. Undoubtedly there are people here who have no other source of income other than begging, but equally there are others who seem to view it as just another way of earning your living. A colleague of mine stopped giving money to a lady who sits by the roadside near the office for about ten hours every day then goes home to Serrekunda on the van when he saw she had an expensive mobile phone!

I will also be glad when I get home to enjoy a greater choice of foodstuffs again. I’ve never really taken to Gambian cuisine and have lived on a semi-European diet but now look forward to having “proper food” again. It’s simply a matter of custom I know – a Gambian friend of mine would eat benacin three times a day every day quite happily.

So, Kirkbymoorside here I come. My tenant moved out recently so I can go straight back into my own home. It will be strange for a while no doubt as I settle back in to rural Yorkshire life and acclimatise to the astronomical cost of food, fuel, electricity, phone/internet etc. It will also be strange to drive on the left; not having to contend with cattle roaming round the streets; or listen to the loud music throbbing round the neighbourhood every night until after 2am, and the call to prayer about 5am; the frequent power cuts, poor internet, and occasional lack of water;

Yes, I think I’m ready for a spell at home for a while………..

Time flies

The last three weeks have been very busy as the end of my placement approaches and I try not only to see parts of the Gambia I have not yet visited, but also to finish the project I am involved with at the Department of Agriculture. Meanwhile, the electricity supply in Bakau seems to have been off more than on in the evenings, and as the battery on my laptop has given up the ghost and will no longer hold charge for more than five minutes, it seems an age since I last wrote.

Two weeks ago I went up country with a couple of colleagues for a couple of days hoping to see a hippopotamus. We drove east along the south bank of the river to Janjanbureh where we crossed on the ferry and then drove back west a few kilometres to the small town of Kuntaur where we stayed overnight at the Department of Agriculture camp. One of my companions was stationed there for a time and as a result our entry to the town was punctuated by much stopping and starting as everyone seemed to know her and want to greet her on arrival! Our triumphal progress continued right through the town to the police checkpoint (where again we were greeted with much handshaking and cries of “Longtime”) and after what seemed like an unbelieveably long journey through such a small town we arrived at “Agriculture”, on the river bank right on the furthest outskirts of Kuntaur. Here more old friends and colleagues were there to be greeted/introduced and to show us round the compound before we were presented with the inevitable generous Gambian meal and then adjourned to a local riverside bar with Deborah, another VSO volunteer who is stationed locally before retiring for the night.

Kuntaur "Agriculture"

Kuntaur “Agriculture”

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Local transport

Old French colonial building

Old French colonial building

 The town was an oasis of peace compared to Bakau – not a sound broke our rest (apart from a large mouse who woke me as he sat chewing something next to my bed, and was quite unperturbed when I switched on my torch to see what the noise was – it sounded a much larger animal) – no drumming, no loud music, and no mosques competing at 5am with the call to prayer.

The following morning I was up before my fellows and enjoyed an early morning walk by the river watching the birds in the rice stubbles along the water’s edge and a solitary canoe paddling slowly down river as the sun rose. When I arrived back at the compound breakfast was being prepared for us, followed by a tour of yet more friends in the neighbouring village of Wassu.

Egrets on the rice stubbles

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Even this far upstream the Gambia is a mighty river

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Silk cottonwood tree

Wassu

Exploring Wassu

The local tailors wanted me to take their picture too

The local tailors wanted me to take their picture too

About midday we met up again with Deborah and adjourned to the riverside where we played counting games in English and Wollof with a group of local boys while we waited for our boatman. He had told us the best time to go hippo spotting was early afternoon so in due course about 1pm we set off upriver towards Baboon Island National Park. We cruised slowly along close to the bank while he pointed out various birds on the bank or overhead, baboons in the palm trees, raffia palms, and told us a little more about the Park.

The boating party

The boating party

After about twenty minutes we put ashore to pick up the Park Ranger who was to accompany us inside the reserve and then back out into midstream as we approached the first of three large islands where we hoped to see chimpanzees. The population was established there in the 1970’s when a project began to release and rehabilitate animals which had been rescued elsewhere (chimpanzees were once common in The Gambia but were hunted out of existence by about 1900) and the numbers have gradually risen over the last forty years until there are now about 100 spread over the three islands. Visitors are not allowed to land (another reason for the presence of the Park Ranger) but the boats are allowed to go fairly close to the shore and we were fortunate enough to see several animals, including a large male which the Ranger told us was the second in rank on that island, and a mother nursing a tiny baby who peeped out from under her arm.

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Alpha male

Mother and baby

Mother and baby

The boat continued round the other side of the island where there had been reports of a large crocodile on a mudbank but nothing was to be seen there so we turned back and had a number of brief sightings of hippopotamus ears, eyes, and once a whole head. The guide told us that we were seeing two different animals, although we never saw both at once, and most of the time the creatures stayed out of sight underwater. I was not fast enough with my camera to catch a proper shot, so had to edit a photo of one of our group for the benefit of one of my VSO colleagues who at the last minute was unable to come on the trip and wanted to see pictorial evidence of our sightings, including one of the party as well as the hippo. So here you are Joe!

Helen and friend

Helen and friend

We left Kuntaur about 4pm and I promptly took the wrong road so we spent nearly an hour driving through empty featureless bush where from time to time the road looked in danger of becoming impassable and I wondered if at some point we would have to admit defeat and turn round or reverse for miles and if so whether we would be able to get the car back over the large bumps we had crossed coming in the opposite direction. We saw very few people on our travels until at last we arrived in a small village where we were mobbed by crowds of children flocking round the car as if we were royalty. I guess they weren’t used to seeing motor vehicles in their village very often, particularly appearing out of the bush in a cloud of dust with some crazy toubabs. Helen was delighted that I was living up to her stereotypical image of a macho Yorkshire male, but I must point out that I did eventually get us safely back to the tarmac road, even if it was about 15 kilometres from where I had originally intended!

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The rest of the journey was fairly uneventful – simply a matter of keeping on the road in the dark when vehicles with badly aligned headlights (most of them) approached us from the opposite direction, until we reached one of the various checkpoints. Here we were surrounded by police and immigration officials who made a big point of inspecting our documents and looking round the car while talking amongst themselves in Mandinka about how they thought they were going to take some money from a rich European. Fortunately however we had picked up another passenger heading in our direction at a previous checkpoint in Soma and it turned out he was also a police officer who produced his identity card and had a few words so our documents were returned and we were waved on our way! The next twenty minutes he hardly stopped for breath, indignantly complaining that his fellow officials should not treat foreign visitors like that or they would stop coming and bringing money into the economy. I fully agree though I also sympathise with the low paid public sector workers here in the Gambia who see it as a way of supplementing their meagre wages.

We parted company at Brikama and after dropping the others I arrived home about eleven o’clock.