Well I’ve been here in The Gambia three days now but it seems like an eternity since I arrived. There were four of us flying from Heathrow on a packed plane to Casablanca, then onward to Banjul via Conakry in Guinea, a trip which took about ten and a half hours. At Conakry the plane emptied most of its human cargo and almost immediately filled up again with the same number for the final 80 minutes or so to Banjul. Obviously a popular route, with European faces in the minority so we received our first taste of African society on the trip. We landed about 3.30am but clearing immigration took about an hour – three of our number plus another volunteer from the Phillipines who had joined the plane at Casablanca came through without incident, but the fourth member of our team (who shall be nameless to protect the innocent) was pulled out for questioning – probably because of the sheer amount of luggage he had brought. Poor Rao – it seems that all his family had contributed items to his luggage and he arrived heavily laden!
We were met at the airport as promised by Alieu from VSO and driven the short distance from the airport to our beds at the Safari Garden hotel. Tired but not sleepy, I spent the first hour reading part of the welcome pack provided by the office to prepare us for life in The Gambia, before finally falling asleep about 5am. As a result I was surprised to be awake about 9am the following morning and ready to meet the others for breakfast in the courtyard. It was a day to ourselves as we were the first group to arrive and the others were not due to land until 11pm so we had a relaxing morning, then about midday we set off as a group for a walk along the nearby beach.
FIVE HOURS LATER we arrived back at the hotel. It seemed as if the entire population of The Gambia wanted to be our friends, shake hands, welcome us to the country, and find out our names and where we came from. We cooled our feet in the waves, drank freshly pressed juice and ate fruit from some of the many stalls along the sand, apparently in the process becoming part of the family for Mama and Fatou Binto, who taught us a few words in Wolof, then left their stall to show us back to the coast road and along the way told us about many of the plants that were being grown in the market gardens we passed through. I must also mention Maria and Maya at the craft market who are ready to provide all our tailoring requirements in nice brightly coloured printed fabric – I believe I became engaged to one of them (possibly both!) but must certainly remember not to patronise any other seamstress when the time comes for me to buy a new shirt!
The following day, in company with the new arrivals we were taken to the VSO office to meet Haddy and the rest of the staff, receive details of the forthcoming In Country Training, and fill in the various forms for bank accounts, Residency Permits, Tax Identification Numbers (- although we don’t pay tax here on our allowances, we need this detail in order to open a bank account). We were also each given a bundle of banknotes equating to about £130 sterling which is our first month’s living allowance, and two SIM cards, so I can now talk to the world on my new Africell mobile telephone number. There are currently about 51 dalasi to the £ sterling, and a meal costing 200 dalasi would be considered quite expensive – in fact today we have eaten well at a roadside stand for 30 dalasi each – thanks Omar, we’ll definitely be back. By 2.30pm we were free for the rest of the day until evening when we were due to meet with Abdoulie our VSO Programme Manager for dinner at the Safari Garden. It’s a hard life!