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often depend on connections rather than ability or qualifications, but this patronage comes at a price, and can be withdrawn without notice, so promotion to high office carries real risks.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.

 

Time flies

The last three weeks have been very busy as the end of my placement approaches and I try not only to see parts of the Gambia I have not yet visited, but also to finish the project I am involved with at the Department of Agriculture. Meanwhile, the electricity supply in Bakau seems to have been off more than on in the evenings, and as the battery on my laptop has given up the ghost and will no longer hold charge for more than five minutes, it seems an age since I last wrote.

Two weeks ago I went up country with a couple of colleagues for a couple of days hoping to see a hippopotamus. We drove east along the south bank of the river to Janjanbureh where we crossed on the ferry and then drove back west a few kilometres to the small town of Kuntaur where we stayed overnight at the Department of Agriculture camp. One of my companions was stationed there for a time and as a result our entry to the town was punctuated by much stopping and starting as everyone seemed to know her and want to greet her on arrival! Our triumphal progress continued right through the town to the police checkpoint (where again we were greeted with much handshaking and cries of “Longtime”) and after what seemed like an unbelieveably long journey through such a small town we arrived at “Agriculture”, on the river bank right on the furthest outskirts of Kuntaur. Here more old friends and colleagues were there to be greeted/introduced and to show us round the compound before we were presented with the inevitable generous Gambian meal and then adjourned to a local riverside bar with Deborah, another VSO volunteer who is stationed locally before retiring for the night.

Kuntaur "Agriculture"

Kuntaur “Agriculture”

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Local transport

Old French colonial building

Old French colonial building

 The town was an oasis of peace compared to Bakau – not a sound broke our rest (apart from a large mouse who woke me as he sat chewing something next to my bed, and was quite unperturbed when I switched on my torch to see what the noise was – it sounded a much larger animal) – no drumming, no loud music, and no mosques competing at 5am with the call to prayer.

The following morning I was up before my fellows and enjoyed an early morning walk by the river watching the birds in the rice stubbles along the water’s edge and a solitary canoe paddling slowly down river as the sun rose. When I arrived back at the compound breakfast was being prepared for us, followed by a tour of yet more friends in the neighbouring village of Wassu.

Egrets on the rice stubbles

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Even this far upstream the Gambia is a mighty river

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Silk cottonwood tree

Wassu

Exploring Wassu

The local tailors wanted me to take their picture too

The local tailors wanted me to take their picture too

About midday we met up again with Deborah and adjourned to the riverside where we played counting games in English and Wollof with a group of local boys while we waited for our boatman. He had told us the best time to go hippo spotting was early afternoon so in due course about 1pm we set off upriver towards Baboon Island National Park. We cruised slowly along close to the bank while he pointed out various birds on the bank or overhead, baboons in the palm trees, raffia palms, and told us a little more about the Park.

The boating party

The boating party

After about twenty minutes we put ashore to pick up the Park Ranger who was to accompany us inside the reserve and then back out into midstream as we approached the first of three large islands where we hoped to see chimpanzees. The population was established there in the 1970’s when a project began to release and rehabilitate animals which had been rescued elsewhere (chimpanzees were once common in The Gambia but were hunted out of existence by about 1900) and the numbers have gradually risen over the last forty years until there are now about 100 spread over the three islands. Visitors are not allowed to land (another reason for the presence of the Park Ranger) but the boats are allowed to go fairly close to the shore and we were fortunate enough to see several animals, including a large male which the Ranger told us was the second in rank on that island, and a mother nursing a tiny baby who peeped out from under her arm.

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Alpha male

Mother and baby

Mother and baby

The boat continued round the other side of the island where there had been reports of a large crocodile on a mudbank but nothing was to be seen there so we turned back and had a number of brief sightings of hippopotamus ears, eyes, and once a whole head. The guide told us that we were seeing two different animals, although we never saw both at once, and most of the time the creatures stayed out of sight underwater. I was not fast enough with my camera to catch a proper shot, so had to edit a photo of one of our group for the benefit of one of my VSO colleagues who at the last minute was unable to come on the trip and wanted to see pictorial evidence of our sightings, including one of the party as well as the hippo. So here you are Joe!

Helen and friend

Helen and friend

We left Kuntaur about 4pm and I promptly took the wrong road so we spent nearly an hour driving through empty featureless bush where from time to time the road looked in danger of becoming impassable and I wondered if at some point we would have to admit defeat and turn round or reverse for miles and if so whether we would be able to get the car back over the large bumps we had crossed coming in the opposite direction. We saw very few people on our travels until at last we arrived in a small village where we were mobbed by crowds of children flocking round the car as if we were royalty. I guess they weren’t used to seeing motor vehicles in their village very often, particularly appearing out of the bush in a cloud of dust with some crazy toubabs. Helen was delighted that I was living up to her stereotypical image of a macho Yorkshire male, but I must point out that I did eventually get us safely back to the tarmac road, even if it was about 15 kilometres from where I had originally intended!

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The rest of the journey was fairly uneventful – simply a matter of keeping on the road in the dark when vehicles with badly aligned headlights (most of them) approached us from the opposite direction, until we reached one of the various checkpoints. Here we were surrounded by police and immigration officials who made a big point of inspecting our documents and looking round the car while talking amongst themselves in Mandinka about how they thought they were going to take some money from a rich European. Fortunately however we had picked up another passenger heading in our direction at a previous checkpoint in Soma and it turned out he was also a police officer who produced his identity card and had a few words so our documents were returned and we were waved on our way! The next twenty minutes he hardly stopped for breath, indignantly complaining that his fellow officials should not treat foreign visitors like that or they would stop coming and bringing money into the economy. I fully agree though I also sympathise with the low paid public sector workers here in the Gambia who see it as a way of supplementing their meagre wages.

We parted company at Brikama and after dropping the others I arrived home about eleven o’clock.

Goodbye Mr Chen!

I have just come from what was scheduled to be a brief ten minute meeting, but actually lasted about an hour and a half as the staff here at Yundum bid a fond and emotional farewell to Mr Chen from the Taiwanese Technical Mission. There have been close links between The Gambia and The Republic of China Taiwan for many years and Mr Chen has been in the Gambia since 2011 working to help the farmers improve rice production and expand the area of rice which is cultivated. He is a hard working and likeable young man, very open and frank and although I have not had a great deal of contact with him personally, I know from my colleagues that he has achieved a great deal over the past two years.

Unfortunately, although the Taiwanese have contributed a great deal in the past to the development of the Gambia there has been a sudden and unexplained rift in the relationship as President Jammeh recently declared unilaterally and without any explanation that he was breaking off diplomatic ties with Taiwan, and as a result a couple of days later the Taiwanese announced the closure of their embassy here and the withdrawal of their technical mission. That was only just over a week ago but Mr Chen leaves tomorrow and called this afternoon to say goodbye. An impromptu ceremony was hurriedly organised in the conference room and we sat round the table and ate biscuits (all that could be provided at short notice) while each person in the room made a short speech thanking Mr Chen for his contribution to the development of the Gambia and wishing him well in his future. Apparently he is flying straight to South America to continue with a similar development mission in Nicaragua.

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Goodbye Mr Chen (I knew I should have combed my hair!)

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Mr Chen and Ousman Jammeh, West Coast Region Director of Agriculture

No one here, or at the Taiwanese Technical Mission knows the reasons for the severing of ties but it seems the decision was made by the President himself and his decision is final and not to be questioned. Now the Gambian rice growers must try unaided and without financial support from the Taiwanese to put into practice the improved techniques Mr Chen and his team have been promoting. In the absence of other outside aid to fill the gap, this seems to me a backward step.

In addition to the support inside the Gambia, the Taiwanese government have also sponsored a number of students each year (I think there are about 250 Gambians studying at university in Taiwan at present as guests of the Taiwanese), and the first announcements from Taiwan indicated that they would all have to return home in January, but from Mr Chen’s remarks this afternoon I think the Taiwanese government have decided to allow them all to complete their studies, even if they have only just begun a four year course. As several of the speakers this afternoon noted, diplomatic links are constantly changing so perhaps we can hope that before the last of these Gambian students fly home, more cordial links will have been restored and the Gambians and Taiwanese can once again enjoy a fruitful and mutually profitable relationship.

Meanwhile “Goodbye Mr Chen, safe journey, and the very best wishes for your future from the staff of the Department of Agriculture!”