Weekend Off

This weekend I finished work earlier than usual on Saturday and set off for the bright lights of Senegambia to meet a friend for a meal. It was just after prayer time and when I reached the highway it was very quiet. Usually there are plenty of yellow taxis on the road but yesterday it was about fifteen minutes before I was picked up. Ramadan began this week so for devout Muslims it is a time of abstinence and fasting between sunrise and sunset. As a result everything slows down as most of the population have no energy to do anything during daylight hours, and many are waiting for dusk to fall so they can break their fast.

Senegambia – “The Strip” as it is known was a lot quieter too although as it is out of season that was only to be expected. At this time of year the package tour operators can fly twice a day from Europe to the Mediterranean resorts instead of just once to West Africa so the hotels here empty as the temperatures rise further north. In season the restaurants, bars and clubs are full, and many of them pumping out music at high volume so conversation is difficult, but yesterday many of them were closed and when we arrived all was peaceful although a single club singer began some fairly relaxing covers as our meal progressed. I had been intending to sample a Chinese meal but the place was closed so second choice was a nearby Indian restaurant where we had an excellent meal with a bonus being 10% discount as I had some vouchers from a local travel company.

Today I have been to one of the local beaches as is my habit on a Sunday. It was hot and windy and the sea was a little rough for swimming so I walked along the beach to a small bar I have visited before looking forward to a nice cold Coca Cola (other soft drinks are available!) before the dusty walk back to the highway.

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Alas, it was not to be. Instead of the palm leaf shelters and small bar with shower and toilets, all I found was a heap of rubble. It seems that a week ago the soldiers came and put a cordon around the place before demolishing the building with a bulldozer. The boys who work here tell me they have been here seven years but they were unable to prevent the destruction even though all was legal and their licence paid.

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They did not expect this action as they were in discussions with one of the Government departments only two days beforehand but the orders apparently came from the office of the President. The same fate has befallen the other two bars on this stretch of beach and I have seen it happen elsewhere. Two years ago, down the coast at Sanyang I saw the ruins of two other small bars which had been demolished on the orders of “The Government” who were claiming to own the land on which they stood. The entrepreneurs running them were put out of business overnight and now passers by have less choice for refreshment stops. For me these small locally run beach bars are part of the charm of The Gambia and their wanton destruction seems senseless. I have a sneaking suspicion however that someone powerful has spotted the value of the coastal strip and is dispossessing the locals and grabbing the land for themself. Perhaps if I return in a few years I will find they have been replaced by soulless concrete high rise hotels owned by one of the political elite but I sincerely hope not.

It seems that beach front real estate is not the only thing being seized. I read in the Gambian Daily Observer newspaper this week that West African Aquaculture Company has been “nationalised in the public interest” because it has been “unjustifiably underperforming”. The company apparently owned fish ponds and a fish hatchery, but I would have thought that any underperformance was something to concern the owners, not the Government! The statement said the owners would be compensated  in accordance with section 42 of The Gambia Investment and Export Promotion Agency Act 2010. If so I suppose they are the lucky ones as the owners of the demolished bar expect to receive nothing.

Meanwhile back at the farm I hear the regular thump of mangoes hitting the ground, the solar driers are constantly in use, the jam pan is on the fire daily, and the ladies have begun making juice. In the garden we are busy harvesting tomatoes and cucumbers and preparing for the rainy season. The boys have re-roofed the old bantaba with palm leaves and made waterproof covers for the beehives. I have been occupied with small repair jobs, more pruning, and renovating four beds near the entrance. Progress so far is limited to removing a lot of overgrown salvias while leaving the younger ones for reuse elsewhere, and thoroughly digging two empty beds ready for replanting. Again this entails repetitive watering and digging until I can get a full fork depth. The plan is to use two of these beds for food crops, and two for ornamentals so we also have to see what seed or seedlings we can gather from existing plants to save costs, although I think we will have to purchase some new seeds to supplement what we have. One bed previously contained ginger and I have found a few roots to replant and we have sunflowers, basil, salvias, African marigolds and some daisy like flowers from the children’s garden, together with a couple of unknown variegated foliage plants, so it will be a bit of a mixed bag.

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Most of the staff are fasting so there are usually only a handful of us at mealtimes, although the number has been increased by the arrival of another volunteer this weekend, and a visit from our CEO with a camera man who is staying a week to make a training/promotional video. Yesterday I took a small step towards film stardom when I was photographed briefly along with Maris our American volunteer as possible customers for some of our young entrepreneurs. The rest of the cast are mostly young Gambian drama students, so when the film is released you’ll have no difficulty recognising me – I’m the token toubab included in the interests of diversity!

If you are reading this Mr Spielberg and can see my potential you can find my contact details below………

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Another busy week

This week has been very busy at MyFarm, but today (Saturday) all of a sudden we seem to have quietened down. Only one of the gardeners is at work today so we only complete the essential tasks. The rainy season has begun – it was raining up-country earlier this week, but it could be two or three weeks before the rains reach us down on the coastal strip, and the heat is increasing so it is important to keep up with the watering. By noon today the cabbages that I watered at breakfast time were wilting badly but after the second watering and as the day cools down they will soon recover. In some ways it is easier watering when there are fewer people working as there is less waiting for the tanks to fill than when we are all calling on the taps and we still seem to manage just as well!

The mangoes continue to ripen and we have been drying them each day, but just in small quantities at present. We have a new volunteer from the United States with us for the next three weeks and she has been slicing, drying and packaging most days since her arrival. Maris came to the Gambia about a month ago with a group of students from Pennsylvania and they came for a visit to MyFarm during their study tour bringing with them two suitcases full of much appreciated garden tools. The rest of the group flew home last weekend, but Maris had arranged to continue here another four weeks and spent much of her first week at MyFarm with the food processing section, so has also been making tomato jam. (I hadn’t heard of it before but it tastes good although it seems to me to taste of strawberries rather than tomatoes!) The new solar drier is working well and we have replaced with clear PVC the cover on the older one (it was covered in black polythene as last time it was renewed the PVC was not available, and as a result the mango slices were drying more slowly and turning black instead of retaining their lovely golden colour. The end product tasted fine but black chips are not very attractive!) Next week we will be stepping up production as more mangoes become ripe, but it is still a fairly slow process as each batch of sliced mangoes takes about a day and a half to dry. The slicing itself is also quite slow as the slices have to be cut around the stone – the large slices are dried but the smaller “offcuts” which are too small for drying will be made into jam.

We have also completed another two training sessions and now that the trainees have gone home, peace and quiet returns in the evenings. On Wednesday we were told that the group who were booked to arrive that evening had a programme somewhere else so would not be coming, but another group were found at short notice to come on Thursday morning and take their place. This sort of thing is quite common in the Gambia and I found it very frustrating when I was here before. A training session can be arranged weeks beforehand and a lot of time and effort put into organising a venue, staff, transport, food, accommodation etc, and then at the last minute it can be cancelled because it seems something else has come up which is more attractive or someone more important has decided to hold a programme! And the more important person who has organised something else which requires their attendance seems to totally disregard the fact that he – it is usually a man – has caused such disruption. It seems to me that it is part of the constant process of establishing your position in the hierarchy which is so important here. This is quite normal in both business and government from the small petty official up through the pecking order right up to the Big Man at the top.

A development worker I was talking to this week was telling me she recently wanted to go to a workshop organised by one of the Gambian government agencies, and as she was relatively new here she asked permission to go as an observer. The director told her she could not attend as an observer, but only as a participant, so she reluctantly agreed that she would participate whereupon she was told she could not attend as only those who had been invited could do so. Subsequently she was told that she could in fact attend, but only on the last day, and for the last session, and she then had some difficulty finding out when this would be! At around 2am on the morning of her proposed visit she received a message (from the director) telling her she would be expected to address the attendees, so before leaving home at 6.30am to go to the venue, she drafted a statement for the event, only to find out upon arrival that she was not to address the group she expected, but a different audience entirely. A hasty revision of her notes was carried out in the corridor and she then delivered her speech and invited questions. During the Q&A session, the (same) director tried to intervene and answer some of the questions put to her, on her behalf before she had chance to answer herself! No doubt he was only bolstering his own importance and trying to “put her in her place”, but this attitude which is so prevalent in Gambia prevents so much being achieved, when a little cooperation instead would go a long way.

During the course of this week we have also hosted four school visits during which the children are shown round the farm and environmental issues such as deforestation, solar power and biogas are discussed, as well as seeing the schoolrooms, the crops, the fish pond, and (most importantly!) the rabbits. These visits can involve large groups such as the one which arrived with 120 primary and nursery school children just after we closed at 5pm one day.

The children were fascinated by the fishpond

The children were fascinated by the fish pond

All about compost

All about compost

I’m told that this particular school is always badly organised and despite repeated requests often arrives here late in the day. I felt so sorry for those little kids – it appeared that they had already made two visits elsewhere that day and they must have been exhausted. Their teachers, particularly the man in charge, spent a lot of time waving a stick and shouting at them – behaviour which seems quite common in some schools. “Come here!”, “Be quiet!”,”Pay attention!”, “Move back!”, “Ask questions all of you!” etc. The smallest children in particular just seemed confused and wanted to rest and have a drink of water, but that wasn’t allowed. Just more stick waving and shouting; meanwhile Alhagie who was leading the tour had to try to command their attention, tell them about MyFarm and inspire future interest. I felt sorry for him too! Apart from the fact that they enjoyed their picnic tea in the pleasant surroundings of MyFarm, (perhaps that is why they came here last) I can’t see that the kids would derive any benefit whatsoever from their visit.

Alhagie explaining solar energy

Alhagie explaining solar energy………

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……and biogas “from pig pooh pooh”

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By contrast, another group which arrived after closing time having informed us shortly beforehand that they were on their way, rather than requesting a visit, was a small group of maybe twenty secondary school pupils who would no doubt gain rather more from the trip and came across to the table where I was sitting before they left with the express purpose it seemed of each shaking my hand, thanking me for the visit and saying they would come again. Perhaps I looked important!

Alternative Energy

When I was last in the Gambia I used a small solar powered cell on occasions when our area had power cuts. It was about the size of a small paperback and provided just enough power to charge my tablet or mobile phone a couple of times. Here at MyFarm however we rely on the sun for most of our energy needs and on cloudy overcast days some activities are curtailed as a result. All the electricity on site is provided from solar panels which charge a battery bank and provide all our lighting, power to run a number of computers and a printer, a fridge, and most importantly the water pump. The water used here comes from our own borehole and is pumped to a network of standpipes and storage tanks strategically placed round the gardens. This provides the water necessary for regular (usually twice daily) watering of the food crops and some of the ornamental borders, a fishpond, and of course all washing up, laundry, and personal bathing. The last item usually includes a most welcome cold shower each evening although sometimes when the tanks are fairly empty, I have to supplement it with a bucket which I keep filled ready for use on days when the water pressure is low. Last night however I was pleasantly surprised by a decent flow in my bathroom rather than the expected trickle. Either the sun had been shining for longer than the previous day and pumped more into the holding tanks, or we had used less water in the garden.

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These four panels power the water pump but had to be removed for a new building, so we are on a temporary setup with only two at present

The panels which power the pump were moved to make way for the new food processing building just after I arrived here and at present only half of them are connected so it will be interesting to see what a difference to the water supply it makes when all of them are functioning again.

I mentioned using the solar oven last week to bake cakes and sterilise jars for filling with jams or beauty products and we also use parabolic reflectors to heat water. We have several in the kitchen area which are used daily but as with the solar ovens they have to be correctly aligned to the sun and regularly repositioned to be effective.

2 parabolic solar cookers

2 parabolic solar cookers

The other main use of solar power here is to dry products such as moringa, lemon grass, and fruit. We recently took delivery of a new solar drier from the local joiner, and I have spent some time this week treating it to preserve the wood, and fitting a solar powered fan and the iron hoops over which is stretched a transparent PVC cover. The frame is mahogany which glows a rich dark colour as I rub on a coat of shea butter and my hands now feel soft and smooth – shea butter is a fat derived from the nut of an African tree and is widely used in the cosmetics industry, as well as some chocolate. Yesterday morning we began a trial run drying a few sliced mangoes, but it seems the solar cell (recycled from an old lamp) is not providing enough power as the fan is slow to start in the morning and not turning fast enough to keep an adequate air flow through the drier, so we’ll have to see if we can find another solar panel.

New solar drier – trial run

The finished product

The finished product

These mango chips have dried too slowly and are starting to turn black

These mango chips have dried too slowly and are starting to turn black

We also produce biogas from animal manure and other organic waste which is mixed with water to form a slurry and fed down a pipe into an underground digestion chamber. The gas produced (mainly methane) pushes up a 300 litre plastic barrel “gasometer” and the digestate then passes on into another tank from which it is extracted and either diluted to use as fertiliser, or fed back into the start of the system and put through again. It is a very small scale operation for demonstration purposes, but can produce enough gas to boil the water for our breakfast tea.

The biogas plant

The biogas plant

What goes in at one end

What goes in at one end

What comes out the other end

What comes out the other end

A group of students from Bwiam learning about biogas. The

A group of students from Bwiam learning about biogas. The “gasometer” is the blue barrel with blocks on top to push it down.

This week the gas ring would not light so I have been trying to find out why. The delivery pipe from the tank was partly blocked, but after cleaning it out the pressure still seems low although the gasometer is raised and the stove will still not stay alight. I will have to investigate further.

The training courses continue – we have had two more groups here this week making soap and body butter, and it seems they enjoyed themselves as there was much singing, clapping, and dancing from both groups when they were due to leave. Their trips to market to sell soap went well and both groups made enough money to take a set of soap moulds back to their villages so they can start production at home.

Meanwhile the joiners have arrived to fit doors and windows to the new building (and also some fly screens in my windows), and a gang arrived on Thursday with a lorry load of grass from “up country” to re-thatch the schoolroom. They worked hard all day but hadn’t brought quite enough material with them to complete it so had to go home although they have promised to return on Sunday and finish the job off.

Trying to cut costs - the roofers didn't bring quite enough thatch and will now have to buy some more locally at their own expense.!

Trying to cut costs – the roofers didn’t bring quite enough thatch and will now have to buy some more locally at their own expense. Meanwhile we hope it doesn’t rain as the apex is open to the sky!

At this time of year, as the rainy season approaches the roof needs to be closed as soon as possible. We were expecting the roofing gang ten days ago but apparently they had a “programme” (party!) of some kind to attend up country and have only just re-appeared.