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………..