I’ll be back!

It is nearly two months since I last wrote here – my blog was initially intended to be simply an account of my year as a volunteer in the Gambia, but being a volunteer apparently doesn’t end when you leave your placement, and it seems for some people it never ends. I was at a meeting of VSO supporters recently where I met several people who had volunteered more than once and one man who described himself as a “serial volunteer” having completed four volunteer placements.

I am now wondering whether I too will become a repeat offender as ever since I came “home” I have been considering going back. I am extremely attached to the small rural area of North Yorkshire where I have spent the bulk of my life, but somehow it doesn’t quite feel the same any more. A friend of mine said to me last week “Ah but your heart is here in Ryedale” and until a year ago I would unquestionably have agreed with her. Although much of my working life has been spent away from here I have lived within a ten mile radius of my current home for nearly forty years and although I was born in a different area of North Yorkshire, my roots have gone deep into the Ryedale soil and for many years I have considered it my home. On my return after a year away however the ties seem rather weaker than before, and I expect I will soon be leaving again. My comfortable existence has been disturbed by my experiences outside the bubble and it will never be quite the same again.

I have applied for a place on a VSO Returned Volunteer weekend in London in July and if my application is successful I hope to compare notes with other returned volunteers and by doing so clarify my own thoughts and decide “What next?”. Although I have been checking the advertisements for VSO volunteer opportunities on a regular basis I have not yet seen any placements which seem to match my experience/skills, but neither have I yet said that I will soon be available to go abroad again.

I intend to stay in the UK for the next few months anyway – I will be working over harvest time on a local estate but that work will not start until probably mid July and will continue for two or three months depending on the weather. After that who knows what the future will bring?

Meanwhile however my gardening is reasonably tidy and weed free and the Gambia is calling so I will be returning there for a couple of weeks next month.

Despite the lure of my comfortable mattress here, hot shower, constant electricity, and good English beer, I am going back to the heat and chaos of Bakau and my diet of tapilapa and Marmite! Before I left I was working on a pocket manual of agricultural crops for use by Department of Agriculture Staff and when I left this project seemed to come to a stop. It was then at the stage where it needed checking and correcting by the technical experts as I had found it difficult to obtain the necessary information locally and consequently my work relied heavily on research outside the Gambia. I am hoping that my reappearance for a few days will galvanise the critics into action so that I can then re-edit my draft and move a little closer to publication.

I am also looking forward to meeting up again with friends and colleagues, seeing my former neighbours and sponsored students, and spending some time on the beautiful beaches near Kartong……..


It’s nearly three weeks since I arrived back in the UK, and yesterday morning as I was talking to my neighbour over the garden fence she asked me “Are you getting back to normality now?” I replied that I supposed so, but I’m not really sure what is normality any more.
I’ve spent a lot of time working in the garden since I returned home – the weeds had multiplied in my absence and although it is not a large garden it seems to have been invaded by creeping buttercup, nettles, and ivy, all of which need digging out carefully to get all the roots otherwise they will regenerate, so it’s a slow job. Dig the tines in deep and take a small forkful before turning it over and carefully shaking out the weeds trying not to leave any roots. Fortunately the soil is moist and breaks up quite easily at present, so I’m making progress and can now see where I’ve been, even though I’m only about half way.
A Gambian friend who knew I was busy gardening asked this week whether I had finished my land preparation yet and then wanted to know whether I have strawberries, avocado, pineapples, mushrooms, apples and oranges! She has never been outside the Gambia, and obviously assumed that it was a vegetable/fruit plot I was digging and apart from not knowing about differences in cropping due to a different climate, it will not occur to her that here in England we have the luxury of growing ornamental plants rather than just food crops, so her idea of what is normal will also be very different from my neighbour’s. I hope I can soon send her a video showing my back garden, as I’m expecting the telephone company shortly to install a landline and then will no longer have to rely on a patchy mobile broadband signal to connect to the internet. (I live in an area of rural North Yorkshire where mobile broadband coverage is rather worse than in the Gambia!) I wonder what my friend will think of the clumps of daffodils, lenten rose, irises, lungwort and so on that are currently flowering in my back garden.





And I still haven’t answered the question about what is normality.
I’ve dropped back into what was a normal life before I went to Africa – I walked up our cobbled old market place on Wednesday morning to buy fruit and vegetables from one of the stalls, then called for a pork pie from the butcher before picking up a copy of our local newspaper and heading home to read it over a cup of tea; I’ve driven to the nearby supermarket to stock up on groceries, looking over the hedges meanwhile “farming” along the way; I spend the evenings reading or watching television with a glass of red wine and bar of chocolate; I’ve mowed the lawn and run the power washer over the Landrover; and for the last two days I’ve shivered over the fire as a raw wind drives the rain down outside, but is this normality? It doesn’t really feel like it yet.
It feels as though normality is 20° warmer, 3,000 miles away in the noisy overcrowded back streets of the Kombos; normality is going to bed early because the electricity is off again and my eyesight isn’t really up to reading by candlelight; normality is shaking hands with somebody every few minutes; normality is walking past a large pelican in the alley leading to the petrol station and being greeted by name by (it seems) all the kids in the street; normality is going to the bitik at 7.30am to see if the baker’s bicycle has delivered fresh tapilapa yet.
I guess it will take a while to readjust!

Set Seetal

It’s my last weekend in the Gambia and it’s also “Set Seetal” – Operation Clean The Nation. This is usually the first Saturday of the month although like many events here it can be announced, postponed, or cancelled at very short notice. On this day there is a kind of curfew from 9am until 1pm and everybody is supposed to clean up the area around their home. The idea sounds good in principle, but it has a few flaws in practice. For a start, not everybody takes part, and while some make an effort, others just take the morning’s enforced stay at home as an excuse for a lie-in.

 In Mamakoto Road where I live, there are open drains alongside the road and the cleanup operation involves some of the residents shovelling the rubbish out of the channel where it runs alongside their compound and piling it by the side of the road. That would make a marvellous improvement to the local environment but for three things:-

  •  Not everybody takes part, so as a result you might find a stretch of twenty or thirty metres cleaned out, and the next section blocked with the usual detritus of leaves, branches, car tyres (in numbers), plastic bottles and bags, cloth and shoes, and mud/silt washed in from the sides.
  • There appears to be no formal arrangement to remove the piles of debris that have been dug out, so while it is left draining for a couple of days by the side of the tarmac some of it is driven back into the gutter from which it has recently been removed by the wheels of passing vehicles.
  • Nobody here seems to think it would be easier NOT to chuck their rubbish on the ground in the first place, so I see local residents who have just spent a few hours hauling crap out of the gutter, immediately on completion taking a drink or a snack and dropping the plastic bottle bag on the ground where they are standing. Similarly when travelling in a vehicle, the passengers just throw any rubbish out of the window.

Plastic carrier bags are a big problem here. Just about everything is wrapped in a plastic bag. If I go into the local supermarket or bitiko the shopkeeper automatically puts my purchases into a plastic bag, even if I only buy one item. When I say “no plastic”, and put any heavy items in my backpack they look at me in amazement. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad if the bags were a little stronger, but they are the thinnest black plastic imaginable and tear at the slightest provocation so are really only suitable for single use. The supermarkets have slightly better quality bags, but even so have to “double bag” my groceries to prevent the bag splitting. It would be impossible to do without them here as so many items (liquid and otherwise) sold loose are then bagged in plastic, but the amount of black plastic lying on the ground here is appalling, particularly in the urban areas. Even in the countryside however which tends to be a bit cleaner than Kombos, the area around the villages is often blighted by a film of non biodegradable plastic.

I suppose it’s a lot easier when you have the benefit of a regular refuse collection service, but in a country where the craftsmen produce woven or fabric bags for the tourist market I find it surprising that the locals don’t use something similar for shopping. Perhaps it is the cost – a plastic from the shopkeeper is seen as “free”, and you don’t have to carry it home when you have eaten or drunk the contents.

 I have now officially finished work and in theory have a week to sit on the beach before I fly home. In practice however I seem to have all sorts of little tasks to occupy me, from visiting friends to say goodbye (this isn’t a five minute job!), going to the photo lab for prints that I have promised to various Gambian friends, disposing of various items that I’m leaving behind, writing my final placement report and attending an exit interview with the VSO Country Director, going to Banjul for my police clearance certificate, and of course shopping for souvenirs.

 I made a start on the shopping on Friday afternoon with a visit to the local Bakau craft market. It seemed to take all afternoon and I came home exhausted having only got as far as stall number 7! It is good manners to go into each stall and carefully inspect at least some of the goods on offer for the sake of appearances (even if they are the same as, or similar to the ones you have seen/bought/rejected next door), and of course if you do see anything that takes your fancy, you then have to bargain for it. I’m not very good at choosing presents but I managed to find one or two items to bring home, although a Gambian friend who went with me told me I had paid far too much for them – I could probably have done a better deal and bought the two items for about £6 less. I was happy enough though and the lady on the stall obviously thought she had done her job well. (The following day when I was passing the market she greeted me as an old friend and presented me with the gift of a woven bracelet!)

Ousman Sonko - Mr Big - he has two shops!

Ousman Sonko – Mr Big – he has two shops!

The smile indicates a successful sale!

What are small variations in price to a European can make quite a significant difference to a Gambian and my friend was horrified by my profligacy! I view it slightly differently – while on the one hand I object to being asked “toubab price” for everyday items just because of my skin colour (I was asked 900 dalasis this week for a cylinder of gas, for which I later paid 750 dalasis elsewhere), on the other hand I expect that when I put on my tourist hat I must be prepared to give a bit more. The shopping experience will no doubt be continued on Monday when I’ve had time to recuperate and visit a cash dispenser to top up my reserves.

The amount of money I’m spending in my last few days here seems astronomical – hundreds and hundreds of dalasi stream out of my wallet daily – until I remind myself that D100 is only about £1.50p. Having said that, I also have to remind myself that for many of our lower paid staff at the Department of Agriculture (gardeners, drivers, lab assistants, and senior typists) this is the equivalent of a whole day’s wage.

 It’s a sobering thought.