Set Seetal

It’s my last weekend in the Gambia and it’s also “Set Seetal” – Operation Clean The Nation. This is usually the first Saturday of the month although like many events here it can be announced, postponed, or cancelled at very short notice. On this day there is a kind of curfew from 9am until 1pm and everybody is supposed to clean up the area around their home. The idea sounds good in principle, but it has a few flaws in practice. For a start, not everybody takes part, and while some make an effort, others just take the morning’s enforced stay at home as an excuse for a lie-in.

 In Mamakoto Road where I live, there are open drains alongside the road and the cleanup operation involves some of the residents shovelling the rubbish out of the channel where it runs alongside their compound and piling it by the side of the road. That would make a marvellous improvement to the local environment but for three things:-

  •  Not everybody takes part, so as a result you might find a stretch of twenty or thirty metres cleaned out, and the next section blocked with the usual detritus of leaves, branches, car tyres (in numbers), plastic bottles and bags, cloth and shoes, and mud/silt washed in from the sides.
  • There appears to be no formal arrangement to remove the piles of debris that have been dug out, so while it is left draining for a couple of days by the side of the tarmac some of it is driven back into the gutter from which it has recently been removed by the wheels of passing vehicles.
  • Nobody here seems to think it would be easier NOT to chuck their rubbish on the ground in the first place, so I see local residents who have just spent a few hours hauling crap out of the gutter, immediately on completion taking a drink or a snack and dropping the plastic bottle bag on the ground where they are standing. Similarly when travelling in a vehicle, the passengers just throw any rubbish out of the window.

Plastic carrier bags are a big problem here. Just about everything is wrapped in a plastic bag. If I go into the local supermarket or bitiko the shopkeeper automatically puts my purchases into a plastic bag, even if I only buy one item. When I say “no plastic”, and put any heavy items in my backpack they look at me in amazement. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad if the bags were a little stronger, but they are the thinnest black plastic imaginable and tear at the slightest provocation so are really only suitable for single use. The supermarkets have slightly better quality bags, but even so have to “double bag” my groceries to prevent the bag splitting. It would be impossible to do without them here as so many items (liquid and otherwise) sold loose are then bagged in plastic, but the amount of black plastic lying on the ground here is appalling, particularly in the urban areas. Even in the countryside however which tends to be a bit cleaner than Kombos, the area around the villages is often blighted by a film of non biodegradable plastic.

I suppose it’s a lot easier when you have the benefit of a regular refuse collection service, but in a country where the craftsmen produce woven or fabric bags for the tourist market I find it surprising that the locals don’t use something similar for shopping. Perhaps it is the cost – a plastic from the shopkeeper is seen as “free”, and you don’t have to carry it home when you have eaten or drunk the contents.

 I have now officially finished work and in theory have a week to sit on the beach before I fly home. In practice however I seem to have all sorts of little tasks to occupy me, from visiting friends to say goodbye (this isn’t a five minute job!), going to the photo lab for prints that I have promised to various Gambian friends, disposing of various items that I’m leaving behind, writing my final placement report and attending an exit interview with the VSO Country Director, going to Banjul for my police clearance certificate, and of course shopping for souvenirs.

 I made a start on the shopping on Friday afternoon with a visit to the local Bakau craft market. It seemed to take all afternoon and I came home exhausted having only got as far as stall number 7! It is good manners to go into each stall and carefully inspect at least some of the goods on offer for the sake of appearances (even if they are the same as, or similar to the ones you have seen/bought/rejected next door), and of course if you do see anything that takes your fancy, you then have to bargain for it. I’m not very good at choosing presents but I managed to find one or two items to bring home, although a Gambian friend who went with me told me I had paid far too much for them – I could probably have done a better deal and bought the two items for about £6 less. I was happy enough though and the lady on the stall obviously thought she had done her job well. (The following day when I was passing the market she greeted me as an old friend and presented me with the gift of a woven bracelet!)

Ousman Sonko - Mr Big - he has two shops!

Ousman Sonko – Mr Big – he has two shops!

The smile indicates a successful sale!

What are small variations in price to a European can make quite a significant difference to a Gambian and my friend was horrified by my profligacy! I view it slightly differently – while on the one hand I object to being asked “toubab price” for everyday items just because of my skin colour (I was asked 900 dalasis this week for a cylinder of gas, for which I later paid 750 dalasis elsewhere), on the other hand I expect that when I put on my tourist hat I must be prepared to give a bit more. The shopping experience will no doubt be continued on Monday when I’ve had time to recuperate and visit a cash dispenser to top up my reserves.

The amount of money I’m spending in my last few days here seems astronomical – hundreds and hundreds of dalasi stream out of my wallet daily – until I remind myself that D100 is only about £1.50p. Having said that, I also have to remind myself that for many of our lower paid staff at the Department of Agriculture (gardeners, drivers, lab assistants, and senior typists) this is the equivalent of a whole day’s wage.

 It’s a sobering thought.