Normality

It’s nearly three weeks since I arrived back in the UK, and yesterday morning as I was talking to my neighbour over the garden fence she asked me “Are you getting back to normality now?” I replied that I supposed so, but I’m not really sure what is normality any more.
I’ve spent a lot of time working in the garden since I returned home – the weeds had multiplied in my absence and although it is not a large garden it seems to have been invaded by creeping buttercup, nettles, and ivy, all of which need digging out carefully to get all the roots otherwise they will regenerate, so it’s a slow job. Dig the tines in deep and take a small forkful before turning it over and carefully shaking out the weeds trying not to leave any roots. Fortunately the soil is moist and breaks up quite easily at present, so I’m making progress and can now see where I’ve been, even though I’m only about half way.
A Gambian friend who knew I was busy gardening asked this week whether I had finished my land preparation yet and then wanted to know whether I have strawberries, avocado, pineapples, mushrooms, apples and oranges! She has never been outside the Gambia, and obviously assumed that it was a vegetable/fruit plot I was digging and apart from not knowing about differences in cropping due to a different climate, it will not occur to her that here in England we have the luxury of growing ornamental plants rather than just food crops, so her idea of what is normal will also be very different from my neighbour’s. I hope I can soon send her a video showing my back garden, as I’m expecting the telephone company shortly to install a landline and then will no longer have to rely on a patchy mobile broadband signal to connect to the internet. (I live in an area of rural North Yorkshire where mobile broadband coverage is rather worse than in the Gambia!) I wonder what my friend will think of the clumps of daffodils, lenten rose, irises, lungwort and so on that are currently flowering in my back garden.

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And I still haven’t answered the question about what is normality.
I’ve dropped back into what was a normal life before I went to Africa – I walked up our cobbled old market place on Wednesday morning to buy fruit and vegetables from one of the stalls, then called for a pork pie from the butcher before picking up a copy of our local newspaper and heading home to read it over a cup of tea; I’ve driven to the nearby supermarket to stock up on groceries, looking over the hedges meanwhile “farming” along the way; I spend the evenings reading or watching television with a glass of red wine and bar of chocolate; I’ve mowed the lawn and run the power washer over the Landrover; and for the last two days I’ve shivered over the fire as a raw wind drives the rain down outside, but is this normality? It doesn’t really feel like it yet.
It feels as though normality is 20° warmer, 3,000 miles away in the noisy overcrowded back streets of the Kombos; normality is going to bed early because the electricity is off again and my eyesight isn’t really up to reading by candlelight; normality is shaking hands with somebody every few minutes; normality is walking past a large pelican in the alley leading to the petrol station and being greeted by name by (it seems) all the kids in the street; normality is going to the bitik at 7.30am to see if the baker’s bicycle has delivered fresh tapilapa yet.
I guess it will take a while to readjust!

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The Return

March 7th. A year to the day since I landed in The Gambia and it’s time to say goodbye.

I had planned to have a few days on the beach this week, but instead I spent two days in the office (although I officially finished last week), one day going for my police clearance, and the remaining two in a round of tying up loose ends and saying my goodbyes to friends and neighbours. My colleagues at the Department of Agriculture organised a leaving party on Sunday evening where I was pleased to see not only the Director and staff from the offices at Yundum, but also a number of field workers who had travelled in from their village postings to say farewell, staff from Cape Point HQ in Bakau, Munya and Johnson the two remaining volunteers working in agriculture, and Abdoulie my programme manager from VSO. The ladies provided us with a good feed and of course EVERYBODY had to make a speech. I had not been looking forward to this, but in the event it was a most enjoyable evening and I was presented with a magnificent African shirt as a leaving gift.

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Colleagues arriving from up country

Receiving my new shirt from Mendy

Receiving my new shirt from Mendy

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Fatou, Alimou, Mariama, Isatou, Nyima, and Fatou

Final handshake from the Director

Final handshake from the Director

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Alimou, Isatou, Nyima and Demba

I have also sold my car. I had agreed at Christmas to sell it to Malud who owns the bitiko next to our compound, and when I called to see him in early February to see whether he still wanted it, he assured me he still did, but a week later he disappeared to Guinea for the cashew harvest so I had to look elsewhere. I did the same as the locals and stuck a notice in the window and drove round for ten days with nobody showing any interest. Then on the Sunday evening, out of the blue, my ex colleague Alimou who lives just up the road from our compound announced he wanted to buy it. As he doesn’t know much about cars (and doesn’t even drive) I suggested he bring someone else round to inspect it on his behalf, and in due course two days later his uncle came with him for a test drive. Meanwhile, all of a sudden four more buyers appeared from nowhere, all very keen, and I had to keep them at arms length while Alimou arranged his finances. One of them in particular rang me regularly, wanting to take me to the bank there and then to draw the cash, despite the fact that I had told him several times that I had already agreed a sale and would not sell to anyone else unless the buyer failed to come up with the money. I think that although the car was attractively priced, they were all waiting in the hope that at the last minute I would drop further in order to get a sale before I left!

On Thursday afternoon there was just sufficient time to drive a few miles down the coast to Tanji Reserve for my last night at a new camp which I had only just heard about. The accommodation was good although the water supply wasn’t functioning properly as it depends on a solar powered pump for the borehole, and as the weather was overcast the pump wasn’t working and water had to be brought in buckets. We had a walk round the lagoons, a good supper and then fairly soon turned in as it was very windy and quite cold! The following morning I drove back to Kombo, delivered the car to my friend and did a bit of last minute gift shopping before strapping up my bags ready for the journey to the airport.

The flight home left Banjul at 8.45pm with a brief stop for refuelling at Dakar and a few hours at Brussels before the final leg to Heathrow. I had booked my train ticket in advance to take advantage of the reduced fares but was restricted to a particular departure time so spent a further three hours on Kings Cross station before finally boarding the train for York, and then Malton.

My son collected me from the station for the short drive home and had thoughtfully provided supplies for my supper – a delicious pork pie from Richard Waind our local butcher, and a couple of bottles of Black Sheep beer which we drank together as I ate the pie. My house has been let in my absence and I arrived home expecting to spend my first night in a sleeping bag while I unpacked, but found that not only had it been spring cleaned for my homecoming, and the fridge stocked with shepherd’s pie, steak and sausages, but home-made cakes were waiting in the cupboard and my bed had been made up with fresh sheets and a new duvet. It was heaven. Thanks Ma!

As a footnote, I must explain the delay in publication is due to lack of internet access rather than jet lag. The mobile broadband network is very patchy in this area, and I have no landline at home so it’s almost like being back in the Gambia! It appears however that the Penny Bank café now has wi-fi for patrons so I can have lunch or a coffee while I check my emails and update the blog. Kirkbymoorside has become very metropolitan in my absence!

Bureaucracy

Before leaving The Gambia it was necessary for me to obtain a certificate of good character to cover the period I had been in residence and to show that I had not got into trouble during my stay. To do this I had to go to the police records office at Banjul with 2 passport photos, my Passport (and photocopy), and my Residence Permit (and photocopy) and pay a fee of D500 (about £8). I was told this would probably entail a lengthy wait as having inspected my documents and taken fingerprints, details would have to be checked against the criminal records register for the last year.

I anticipated there might be problems because I was unable to produce a Residence Permit. It was stolen with my wallet last November, and at the time the Immigration Service told me not to bother renewing it immediately as I would have to apply for a new one in January anyway, so I duly applied for and received a new Immigration Certificate and a replacement Aliens Identity Card, but left my Residence Permit until January. Then, only two days before I was due (along with the other volunteers) to be issued with the 2014 card, VSO informed us that GAMBIS, the office who issue the biometric cards were having technical problems and that no cards would now be issued until about April…..

I had arranged to go to Banjul with Helen, a fellow volunteer who arrived here at the same time as I did and was leaving at the same time, but en route I called to collect a photocopy of the 2013 GAMBIS card which was in my file at VSO office. Except it wasn’t. In theory the Country Office photocopy all our documents – ID cards, tax registration, bank details etc and keep them safe, but not for the first time I found that theory and practice were two different things, and no record of my card could be found.

Of course the first question asked when Helen and I arrived at the Police Records Office was “Have you got all your documents?”

I explained my circumstances and that I could produce various other forms of Gambian and UK identity but was politely told that without a GAMBIS card I could not be issued with police clearance as my Residence Permit number had to be recorded on the certificate. No negotiation, no suggestion that perhaps I could pay a fee to resolve this problem or use my Alien Card details instead, simply a point blank refusal. I had rather expected this might be the case, so although extremely annoyed at wasting my day, I was prepared for this possibility and thought it was not too important as I’m unlikely to be asked to produce it by any potential employer – except that I may need it along with my UK Criminal Records Bureau records check if I wish to volunteer in the future, so I fumed internally but went outside to wait as Helen’s application was processed.

Five minutes later she joined me – her application had also been refused as her Residence Permit expired in December (as they all do) and of course she too had been unable to renew it for 2014 due to the problems at GAMBIS. Now this was more critical for Helen as she is half my age, and will definitely need to be able to produce a clean and unbroken record when applying for jobs, so first of all she rang the VSO office who said they would see if anything could be done. As we waited for a reply she rang a co-worker from her placement who had offered on several occasions to sort out problems saying that he had good connections, and who had been quite disappointed that she had never taken up his offer. He advised us to go to Police Headquarters and ask to see Ousman Gibba, Commissioner of Operations for the Gambia Police Force and ask for his assistance. Having successfully passed through security where they took away our mobile phones and issued us with Visitor badges we found our way to the Commissioner’s Office and knocked on the door. It was opened by a security guard who came outside shutting the door behind him to ask our business and then went back in shutting the door again. A minute or two later he reappeared and ushered us inside to sit on a large leather sofa while we waited for the Commissioner to finish speaking to a previous visitor.

Ousman Gibba was a large man sitting behind a large desk in a very important looking uniform and obviously quite comfortable with his position of authority. A man used to command, and to getting things done. We introduced ourselves with some trepidation and mentioned the name of the man who had sent us, to which we received a fairly neutral “Ah yes, I know him” response, which was a trifle disconcerting. We then explained the nature of our problem and he immediately lifted a telephone and made a brief call summoning someone from Records to his office. A conversation followed mostly in Mandinka during which it seemed the Commissioner was asking what our Residency Permits had to do with a criminal records check, and giving instructions to his subordinate, then dismissing us with the comment “I think someone is trying to make things unnecessarily difficult!”

We collected our mobile phones from security and were escorted back to the records office we had left 15 minutes beforehand where all of a sudden anything seemed possible. Our application forms were rapidly completed and we were then sent round the corner with them to the Gambia Revenue Authority offices to pay our D500 and obtain a receipt. On our return with proof of payment our fingerprints were taken, and carefully inspected through a magnifying glass while the inspector jotted down a series of numbers against them on the record sheet, and shortly afterwards Helen’s certificate appeared. Mine followed a couple of minutes later, and by three o’clock we were leaving Banjul. Thank you Commissioner.

Obviously it’s not WHAT you know……