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.
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.
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.
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………