Was It Worth It?

Ten days passed after my meeting at the Department of Agriculture, and despite much talk about what a wonderful job I was doing, no one telephoned until the day before I was due to leave. This illustrates one of the most frustrating aspects of the time I spent here last year. Gambians are a very friendly and talkative nation and will talk at length with much repetitive and effusive praise but timely action is often noticeably lacking. I had hoped that a brief return trip might energise my colleagues and start the ball rolling again, but this has apparently not happened. One of the more active colleagues with whom I spoke last week used a phrase which is very common here saying “Martin, these people are not serious” and I’m afraid it often seems true.

There are many problems which exacerbate poverty in the Gambia, not least the inertia which I think is perhaps due in part to the climate – it is difficult to keep awake sometimes, let alone maintain focus and concentration – and in part to a lack of awareness of the outside world and the possibilities for improving ones lot. In addition a strong sense of culture and religion can hinder development as change can sometimes be perceived as weakening or attacking Gambian national cultural and religious identity. It seems to me that the Gambians most receptive to change are those who have been outside the Gambia and seen a different life, whereas the majority have not, and knowing no different they accept the life they have as normal.

The tribal hierarchy is still strong here so there is a well defined structure of patronage from those above and obedience from those below with the pyramid leading right up to “The Big Man” at the top. Patronage is reflected in job opportunities with the result that appointments (even in government) often depend on connections rather than ability or qualifications, but this patronage comes at a price, and can be withdrawn without notice, so promotion to high office carries real risks. A fall from favour can mean not just the loss of a job, but sometimes summary arrest and trial. A glance at the Gambian press each week shows reports of former officials on trial, and while I am fully aware of the corruption that exists here in government, I cannot believe that all those named are guilty as charged. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the Gambian judiciary are not as free as might be wished and sometimes their decisions seem to be guided by a hand from above. If this is true the judicial system could perhaps be used as a convenient way of removing political opposition or publicly moving the focus of blame for failure or wrongdoing onto others.

A good example of shifting the blame occurred during my recent visit when twelve members of the Department of Agriculture were dismissed by the President (and held for questioning by the police before being released on bail) following what was described as “the discovery of the disappointing performance and abysmal failure of multi-million dollar agricultural projects since 1994”. So it has taken two decades for His Excellency to find out about this but a rather shorter period to find scapegoats. At least one of these staff members had to my knowledge only been appointed within the last two months, but is still being blamed for failures over the previous twenty years, and meanwhile those at higher levels remain unaccountably in power.

Gambian Television reports that President Jammeh indicated in his closing remarks at the eighth ministerial retreat at Kanilai last week, that over one hundred million dollars has been invested in the agricultural sector but that no significant progress has been made. What is clear from his admission is that the policy on agriculture has failed to effect changes in the lives of the people but no indication is given as to how he is going to put things right other than by blaming a group of managers, dismissals and arrests.

The President added that hundreds of tractors have been introduced but this did not produce the desired results and he blamed corruption for this failure. I don’t know whether “hundreds” have been imported but I did witness the arrival of a batch of about 70 brand new John Deere tractors last July and the start of constructing a new regional machinery centre at Somita. A year later the new depot still lies empty, the carefully planned Department of Agriculture Mechanization Strategy for West Coast Region has not been implemented and I understand the tractors have been distributed elsewhere for what can only be viewed as political expediency. Meanwhile many of the farmers who have been exhorted to “grow what you eat and eat what you grow” continue to struggle with the perennial problems of shortage of seed and fertiliser, laborious hand cultivation methods, inadequate transport and storage solutions, poor post harvest and marketing techniques; and as they strive to follow the President’s “Back to the Land” directive the clock is ticking. His Excellency’s Vision 2016 agenda is for food security and an end to the rice imports upon which the country currently depends. A very laudable objective, but I question how realistic is this target, particularly in view of his recent decision to break off relations with the Taiwanese who have provided so much support in the quest to improve rice production in the Gambia.

The difficulty in getting things done here is compounded by the “workshop culture”, as attending a workshop means extra pay, so staff (and farmers) look upon workshops as a means of supplementing their meagre income and sometimes are away from the office for days at a time. The more proactive amongst the staff (which tends to be the ones who have been educated outside the Gambia and seen new possibilities in a different world) soon move on to better things. This is normal, but it seems to me that the system benefits a small number of the more able at the upper end of the pyramid and does not help strengthen the base on which it is built. An example of this is the sponsorship that is sometimes available for Gambians to undertake a postgraduate degree. Those eligible will already have gained one or possibly two undergraduate degrees and I do not believe that studying for a Masters will in any way help anyone other than the student him/herself who will be supported financially for a year or more while they study abroad and on their return can claim some extra qualification in the jobs market. I do not see how this extra qualification for a select few can help them do their job better or move the country forward and think the money would be better spent giving a larger number of people further down the tree more training in the fundamentals. From my own experience it seems that this basic grounding is also lacking in IT skills as although many of my colleagues were provided with computers, quite a number had never been taught the basics of IT so might have been equally at home with a typewriter particularly in view of the regular power cuts.

As for those power cuts, well they seem to be getting worse as Ramadan approaches. During my brief visit the electricity was off for longer periods than before, and I heard the locals joking that Gambia had spent millions of dalasi for rights to show the FIFA World Cup matches but then had no electricity! This also affects the water supply as without power for the pumping stations the water pressure becomes variable and at times non existent. I heard talk too of fuel shortages and although I never saw any evidence of poor supply, this could explain the limited electricity supply as all power is supplied by diesel generators.

The bread too seems to have changed. You may remember how I delighted in my daily tapilapa – a kind of crusty baguette type bread which formed a major part of my diet last year. I was really looking forward to it on my return but found it tasted very different to before and moreover soon dried out. I am told by some that the source of flour has changed, and by others that it is now made with maize flour. Whatever the reason I was very disappointed and only ate tapilapa about five times in two weeks!

Meanwhile on the streets the dalasi is currently trading at 68 to the £ sterling, as against 63 in March, or 50 the previous March and while this makes Gambia an increasingly attractive holiday destination, life is becoming harder for ordinary Gambians as the price of imported goods continues to rise. Despite all the rhetoric I see little evidence of real progress.


No change

When I left the Gambia three months ago I said I would not return there to work as I was feeling very frustrated by the apparent inertia on the part of many of the people I worked with, and I had a distinct feeling of lack of achievement, but on the other hand my work was unfinished and I had made many friends so I have now come back for a brief holiday during which I also hope to find signs that something is happening. Before I left I had been working at the Department of Agriculture on a pocket crop guide for the extension staff and although it was nearly ready to print, I was waiting for validation by experts from various agricultural disciplines.
I arrived here a few days ago as a tourist and booked into a hotel at Bijilo where I had a quiet first day relaxing by the pool then went off to meet one of my ex colleagues at the Department. There have been a number of staff movements since I left but apart from that nothing much seems to have changed. My colleague said he would be there by 9am so I arrived shortly afterwards to find the place deserted apart from the watchman and another man harvesting cashew apples from a big tree by the gate, and another colleague planting cashew nuts in plastic grow bags round the back. After a while my friend arrived and we spent the next two hours or so chatting while I resolved some problems with his computer. It seems that in my absence the handbook I was working on has come to a dead stop, and to make it worse the funding that we expected to receive for printing costs when it reaches that stage (about £1000 sterling) is unlikely to be forthcoming, even if the draft can be checked and ratified. I had also spoken to one of the field workers whom I was helping with a proposal/budget for training farmers in his area and it seems that this too has been at a standstill since my departure. In this case, if I understood him correctly it is because he has been unable to access the documents I left for him, although I had duplicated them on two departmental computers and shown two members of staff where they were! I have said that I am available to assist while I am here if there is anything I can help with, and that I will wait for a call, but I am not holding my breath!
When I arrived back at the hotel, the first person I saw was my friend Landing Sonko, the Director of Plant Protection followed shortly afterwards by several others including the Deputy Director General, and my old boss Ousman Jammeh, Director of Agriculture for West Coast Region! It seems that a two day workshop was being held for a number of senior staff from Agriculture to acquaint them with details of the Medium Term Economic Framework, a new method of budgeting, and that Baobab Resort where I had chosen to stay is a regular venue for such events.
I was joined for the weekend by a number of friends from VSO so spent most of the time sitting by the pool or on the nearby beach drinking juice and was even tempted to venture to the fleshpots of Senegambia for two nights. It is rainy season here now so there are few tourists about and many of the bars and restaurants are closed but we had a good meal the first evening and on the second congregated in a bar to watch England lose to Italy in the first round of the World Cup.
All good things come to an end however so I have now left the air conditioned comfort, bar and swimming pool behind me and moved back to my old home of Bakau. It was gratifying to find my old neighbours seemed pleased to see me and I slept much better than expected last night probably because there was no electricity so the neighbourhood was a bit quieter than usual! The power supply varies here, even more so in the rainy season, but from what I’m told the cuts have been more prolonged of late and certainly in the last twenty four hours we have only had power for three of them, from about 4am to 7am. I’m hoping we will get “light” tonight as my phone is nearly flat, but fortunately my laptop has a new battery (the old one collapsed in the heat before I left Gambia) so I can at least write this without worrying about being cut off.
My old house mate Munya has been away in South Africa for three weeks but I am expecting him to return before the weekend, although not yet sure exactly when. The compound is quiet at present and only partly inhabited, as three volunteers from my intake have now left, and when I arrived it had an air of neglect, but this morning Hassanna, one of our neighbours who is employed by the landlord to keep an eye on the compound, arrived at first light and set to sweeping and cleaning windows so by lunch time the place looked rather more like home.
A walk up to the market and a drink enjoying the breeze on the terrace overlooking the fish landing was a welcome break from the oppressive heat of Mamakoto, and an opportunity to buy a few vegetables. Sulayman, my previous fruit and vegetable supplier has apparently moved across the road to the shrimp stalls, but I would rather go there early in the day before it gets too hot so will have to wait another day to greet him.