Back To School

Well it feels as if the holidays have ended and I’m back at school again! The past week has been occupied with form filling, briefings about the country and cultural context, VSO policies, health and safety, and language lessons. We even went to the British High Commission for an introductory briefing by the Deputy High Commissioner! I’m now the proud holder of a photo ID from the Department of Immigration showing my residential status in the Gambia, which reminds me whenever I produce my card of that song by Sting – “I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien” although I believe that was about Quentin Crisp – “An Englishman in New York”. I expect to receive my VSO identity card shortly, and then soon after that, my tax office number, as although being an impecunious volunteer I have no tax to pay, without that vital number I’m unable to open a bank account. So that means more form filling, and another photograph for identification. Which one should I use from the many pictures I was advised to bring with me? My “happy” face or the one that looks like a “Wanted” poster? and how should I choose which one of about 14 banks I should entrust with my few dalasi while I am here? After some thought I decided to use a large international bank rather than its smaller Gambian cousin as although I’m told the bank charges (yes, there is no free banking here, unlike the UK!) are slightly higher, it has a larger network from which I can access cash when necessary.

Public transport is taking a bit of getting used to. The main means of getting around the Kombos is by taxi and there are two types, distinguishable only by colour. They come in various shapes and sizes but are typically a battered diesel Mercedes saloon, either green for the tourists (i.e. higher price), or yellow for the locals. The yellow ones will either charge you for a “town trip” at a (higher) price negotiated before you get in, and take you wherever you want, or drive fixed routes and are known as “Seven Sevens” as the fare is 7 dalasi (14p) from wherever on that route you get in, to wherever you get out. There are large numbers of these taxis (– sometimes it seems every car in the Kombos is a taxi) driving slowly around the area blowing their horns, shouting and waving at those on the street, particularly “toubabs” (white people) such as myself in an effort to gain a fare, but before getting in (if you are wise) you will shout at the driver “Seven Seven” and your destination, otherwise if the taxi is empty, you may be charged for a town trip instead of the 7 dalasi per head fixed fare! The other option is to take a “gelli” which is a kind of minibus operating on the same principal, but with an attendant taking the fare as well as the driver. It’s all very noisy and looks chaotic at times, but it seems to work, as around half the population of the Gambia live in this urban area, and at rush hour it seems as if they all cram into the taxis and vans to get to work. I’m sure that in time I’ll get used to the system and to the boom box which blasts out West African music from behind my head in most of these vehicles!

Meanwhile, being from Yorkshire, I’ve quickly adapted to the volunteer mentality – “If I can walk, even if it takes 45 minutes,  it will save 14p” so only take a Seven Seven for the longer distances and travel much of the time on foot.