Out With The Old

So it seems long time ruler Yayha Jammeh has finally left The Gambia and the new President, Adama Barrow can return. He has been staying in Senegal for his own safety and was sworn in at the Gambian Embassy in Dakar on Thursday as at that stage Jammeh still refused to cede power.

Following the expiry of Jammeh’s mandate at midnight on Wednesday, and in accordance with the ECOWAS ultimatum, Senegalese troops apparently crossed the border into The Gambia on Thursday prepared to remove him by force if necessary, but their advance was halted before they reached Banjul as further attempts were made by President Abdul Aziz of Mauritania and President Alpha Conde of Guinea to negotiate a peaceful solution to the impasse. A deadline of midday on Friday, later extended to 4pm was given for Jammeh to leave State House, but this second deadline expired as talks continued into the evening. Just before 7pm there were reports (apparently from a source close to President Barrow) that Jammeh had agreed to step down and leave the country, but for a while this was unconfirmed until, as President Aziz left to return to Mauritania, he told a reporter at the airport that an agreement had been reached and that Jammeh would leave “as soon as conditions are met”. No further details of the agreement have been released, but it is expected that amongst other conditions he would be seeking to retain his wealth and be given amnesty protecting him from prosecution for crimes carried out under his rule.

Much later that evening a speech by Jammeh was broadcast on state television announcing that he was relinquishing power, and presenting himself as a patriot who was considering only the lives of the Gambian people.

“As a Muslim and a patriot, I believe it is not necessary that a single drop of blood be shed…… I promise…. that all the issues we currently face will be resolved peacefully. I am indeed thankful to Allah…., that up till now not even a single casualty has been registered. I believe in the importance of dialogue and in the capacity of Africans to resolve among themselves all the challenges on the way towards democracy, economic and social development. It is as a result of this that I have decided today, in good conscience, to relinquish the mantle of leadership of this great nation with infinite gratitude to all Gambians….and friends of the Gambia who have supported me for 22 years in the building of a modern Gambia…….My decision today was not dictated by anything else but by the supreme interests of you the Gambian people and our dear country. I implore (you) all to put the supreme interests of our nation the Gambia above all partisan interests and endeavour working together as one nation to continue to preserve the highly cherished achievements of the country, its sovereignty, peace, stability and integrity, as well as the economic achievements realised during these years.”

The following day a Mauritanian aircraft landed at Banjul ready to take President Conde and ex President Jammeh out of the Gambia. Some Gambians I spoke to still couldn’t believe it would really happen, apparently believing that even at this late hour their mercurial ex President might change his mind again. However his former Chief of Defence Staff had by now pledged allegiance to President Barrow (again!), along with the Inspector General of Police and it must have been clear to Jammeh that without the support of the security forces, and faced with external pressure from ECOWAS, he had no alternative, so finally around 9pm on Saturday, after another day of “will he/won’t he?” the former President boarded the aircraft and flew out of The Gambia for the last time, believed to be heading for exile in Equatorial Guinea (which coincidentally is also ruled by an authoritarian President with a record of human rights abuses, and crucially is not a member of the International Criminal Court).

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For President Barrow and his new administration, the next few months will be a testing time. One of the main challenges facing him will be managing the expectations of the Gambian people, some of whom will look for immediate change and think that their lives will quickly improve. Many civil servants are on low wages and as a result spend much of their time attending workshops in order to gain their daily “sitting allowance” rather than doing productive work. I have heard some discussing the possibility of long overdue pay rises but they don’t seem to realise that there is very little in the government coffers and that they may even be completely empty after Jammeh’s departure. During his rule it was difficult to define what was his own and what belonged to the State – when grants were made to communities or organisations, or when infrastructure was improved, this was invariably presented as a gift from the President – and perhaps as a result of this blurring of the line between personal and government property it seems that his own wealth now considerably exceeds that of the country he used to rule. I have heard several tales of him seizing property or land on the valuable coastal strip and claiming it as his own, on more than one occasion sending in troops to take possession and it may now be difficult to prove or disprove what he has acquired legally. Ten days before he agreed to leave the country I heard rumours of him withdrawing millions of dalasi from the Central Bank, and even in the hours immediately before his departure he was reported to have sent staff to conduct an inventory of “his” vehicles and farm livestock. So Gambians may be in for a shock when they find there is no money in the kitty, even if the new government is able to repossess some of the wealth he claims.

Meanwhile a new Cabinet must be appointed and an administration formed based on experience, competence and merit, rather than nepotism, or tribalism. The military, for so long tools of an authoritarian President, need to be restructured and retrained as servants of the State, and so for the time being in view of their possible divided loyalties it will be necessary for ECOWAS troops to remain in the Gambia to ensure peace and security. It will be an uncomfortable time for some, particularly those who were part of Jammeh’s regime, but this is not a time to settle scores as all will need to work together in a spirit of reconciliation to rebuild The Gambia. The rule of law must be re-established, those held without trial should be released, and the judicial system must be strengthened and made clearly independent of the executive machinery.

Last month when presenting the 2017 budget, the Finance Minister revealed that revenue from foreign governments and multinational organisations (which has been reducing for some years) had fallen by half in 2016 – probably because donors were concerned about the quality of Gambia’s fiscal management, and also because two major donors (Taiwan and the Commonwealth) had recently been alienated by President Jammeh. According to World Bank and IMF figures, The Gambia is the third most indebted country in sub Saharan Africa with about 50% of government revenue going to pay interest on existing loans – public debt for 2015 was estimated as 107.6% of GDP.  A priority for the new government is to begin dialogue with the international community seeking increased financial support from outside donors to plug any immediate shortfall in revenue so that further loans can be minimised and revenue invested instead in developing the economy. Growth in agricultural production and tourism which are probably the two most important sectors of the economy needs to be encouraged, and ways must be found to increase employment, particularly among the youth, although this can only happen with better education to give them marketable skills. Many Gambians receive remittances from friends and relatives in the Diaspora to fund household expenses and perhaps with the current euphoria this will now increase, but nevertheless it is also essential to maximise government revenue by improving the system of tax collection and fighting waste and corruption in the administration.

At the same time of course President Barrow must also placate and gain the support of those who previously supported his predecessor,……and maintain the unity of the former opposition parties now in government.

I wish him the very best of luck.

Down On The Farm

My fourth visit to the Gambia is being spent at MyFarm, a small educational project based near the village of Nema Kunku, not far from my previous VSO placement with the Department of Agriculture. This is very different however from my VSO placement in a number of ways. For a start I am living here on the job rather than in Bakau, and what a difference that makes. Last year I was woken every morning by the sound of four different mosques all competing in the morning call to prayer around 5.30am, and I often went to bed in the knowledge that the drumming and loud music (power cuts permitting) would continue unabated until the early hours as the residents of Mamakoto Road made the most of the cool night air. At that time I was living in a compound in a crowded and noisy area to the back of the market, but here I am in a small community in the centre of a mango orchard surrounded by plants and birds, about a kilometre from the highway. The approach down a dusty bumpy track is pretty unprepossessing, but once through the gates you enter an oasis of peace and tranquillity – that is apart from the sound of reggae music accompanying one of the gardeners as he goes about his daily work. Now I like the music of Bob Marley in general, but after hearing the same track for the seventeenth time that day played at full volume on a mobile phone it can get a bit annoying!

The staff begin work about 8am and finish about 5pm, but of course, being Gambia, these times are variable, and from time to time someone doesn’t turn up because they have a family problem, or a programme to attend.

The schoolroom - with volunteer accommodation above

The schoolroom – with volunteer accommodation above

Just like home

The upstairs room

Until this weekend I was living above the schoolroom in a large space used for volunteer accommodation which I shared with an English lady who has been staying here for some time and leaves next week. She rode here on her bicycle from the UK and will be flying from here to Kenya and then continuing her trip from there by bicycle to South Africa. Rather her than me! [Click here to read Annie’s blog]

This week however I have moved out as the accommodation is needed for a group of trainees who arrived on Monday and will stay until Friday. The training here is described as “An Educational Journey From Seed To Business” and this group of youngsters will be taught to make jam, soap and lip balm, basic marketing and business skills and some environmental issues, the whole idea being to stimulate entrepreneurism and assist young Gambians in acquiring skills with which they can make their own living. Since their arrival I have been living in a round house which was being renovated but is not quite finished. The builders have returned this morning after ten days absence so I have just had to move my bed and pack my bags again so that they can finish painting the walls, and complete the job properly – hopefully I will soon have electricity and water! The electricity here all comes from solar panels which generate enough power to pump water from the borehole (we use a lot of water), light the buildings, and run computers, mobile phones, and even a recently acquired fridge. As part of the refurbishment the builders have constructed a small cubicle at the rear of my house so that I will even have my own shower and wc, putting an end to my short walk across the garden to the shower/toilet block, though this is hardly an imposition in this climate.

My day here usually begins soon after 7am having been woken by the dawn chorus and the sound of the locals chatting as they pass our site on the way to work on the adjoining farm, a large partly mechanised commercial operation. At that time of day I am probably the only person in the garden using a tap so there is enough water pressure to use a hosepipe for an hour or so and I make use of it to water the area of garden in the centre where we have paths flanked by lemongrass and other ornamental plants. The Gambian staff seem to value these less than the food crops so I have made the ornamentals one of my areas of interest and spend a lot of time watering, digging to let air and water in, and clearing the invasive Bahama grass which gets everywhere. About 9am we stop for breakfast – a mug of warm sweet minty tea and half a tapilapa bread filled with mango jam, or occasionally egg, and we then continue until lunchtime around 2.30pm. By breakfast time the sun is getting hot so it is best to get any strenuous jobs done early as soon it will be too hot for heavy work, or at least the pace of work will slow down with frequent stops for water. By now there will probably be at least three gardeners busy with watering cans as most crops have to be watered at least twice daily. The soil is quite fine and when watered can soon set like concrete so it is also important to turn the surface regularly with a fork to avoid compaction, and of course there are also the usual tasks of weeding, sowing and transplanting, and the endless sweeping and raking to keep the farm tidy.

While the gardeners are busy, so too are the training staff. We have a small computer room equipped with about ten laptops and most days we see local youngsters arriving to receive training in Scratch.

Simon with students

Simon with students


Learning Scratch

This is an educational programme developed by MiT to teach youngsters the basics of coding whereby they create animated cartoons and make the characters (“sprites”) move, talk, and play sounds etc. (The Scratch website can be viewed here and you can download the Scratch 2 editor free if you want to try it yourself.) Meanwhile, across the garden in the schoolroom there is likely to be a group of children from the local community who have come to play with Lego or other games, do logic puzzles on the iPads, or read books from the library.

Today is Wednesday which is usually the day for making soap so this morning Isatou is teaching our group of trainees how to measure, mix and mould the ingredients while after lunch they will be set to work packaging and labelling a batch that was made earlier.

Soap making

Soap making

Several “flavours” are produced including Dettol, mint, and moringa, along with various lip balms and body lotions – all easily made on a small scale at home for a low cost, allowing a budding entrepreneur to start small and gradually build up a business. The courses are usually free, but before being accepted on a course, potential trainees are asked to buy a small quantity of soaps and then go out and sell them to give them a chance to demonstrate their commitment and see if they are prepared to sell their own produce. They will also have an opportunity to test their sales skills tomorrow when they are taken to Banjul market to try selling some of the soap and lotions produced here.

Lunch is generally a huge plate of rice with fish or chicken and a sauce of some kind, although on Fridays we have pasta for a change. I’m not the greatest fan of Gambian cuisine but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the food here which is generally good, although I enjoyed going out to Senegambia one evening last week where I had pizza for a treat!


The bantaba – centre of much activity

After eating we carry on with our tasks until 5pm or sometimes later; then, by the time I’ve had a welcome shower and change of clothes it soon becomes dark. I catch up on laundry and mail and relax until about 8pm when the Gambians are ready for their evening meal – another large plate of rice, but I simply can’t manage any more food by then so I normally retire fairly early. I brought a “Connect 4” game with me for the children but it also proved very popular with the builders when they were concreting the foundations of a new building – they slept on site while they were working here and played it every night. When I was sleeping above the school I could heard them playing late each night in the bantaba next door, but it is a different gang who are here this week to start the blockwork and I think they have not yet discovered Connect 4. In any case, I am now at the other end of the garden where I can hear no sound from the bantaba.

Back again

I’ve just returned from the Gambia. Yet again.

This time I’ve just been for a week – not long enough really, but I had enough time to meet up with those of my volunteer friends who are still there, and enjoy a couple of days on the unspoilt beaches south of the capital, down towards the border with Senegal.

My visit was made at short notice following a chance conversation with someone from my home area who has been working with another educational charity at Madina Salaam in the Gambia and who was home for a few weeks over Christmas, prior to returning in January. We were comparing notes and he asked what I was doing, to which I responded that I was now looking to volunteer again, but added that “of course it won’t be Gambia as VSO are in the process of closing down operations there after nearly fifty years”. My friend replied that perhaps I might be interested in a small Norwegian charity who run an educational project not far from where I was working last year, as he knew they were looking for some assistance, so ten days later, following conversations with their CEO, I flew out on a tourist jet to visit the project, see what they were doing, and let them see me.

The project is based at Nema Kunku, on the outskirts of the Kombos and the aim is “to inspire and educate children and young adults about the processes that allow a seed to be planted, and how this seed can be turned into a money making business using alternative technologies and sustainable methods”. The site is run on solar power and equipped with solar ovens and bio gas generators and the youngsters are taught about deforestation, and the need for sustainability.

Onion seedlings at MyFarm

Onion seedlings at MyFarm

Vegetable beds at MyFarm

Vegetable beds at MyFarm

Labelling lip balm and body lotion at MyFarm

Labelling lip balm and body lotion at MyFarm

At present a small staff heading by Kelly, a very energetic lady from the Netherlands who has lived in the Gambia for sixteen years, run a small farm growing a variety of horticultural crops with some livestock (pigs, ducks, rabbits) and also bees. MyFarm is open every day for drop in visitors and runs regular training courses on site, but has also recently acquired an old fire engine which has been repainted green and is now to tour the country advertising the project with a team of mobile trainers who are presently being recruited to run training sessions in the villages. In addition there is a small library equipped with a number of tablet computers on which the younger children can learn through play, and a new classroom with laptop computers on which older children can be taught the basics of IT. One of the most frequent practical classes is a soap making course where trainees are shown how to make soap, lip balm and body lotion from raw ingredients and then taken out with their products to the market in Banjul to acquire selling skills.

I had a very interesting two days there but decided on my return that this was perhaps not the right project for me at this time although I have said I may be available to go back next Spring if I can help by undertaking a short term project of two or three months. If however any readers would like to know more about these opportunities, click here for further details and contacts at MyFarm.

Having dried my aching joints out in the 30° heat of Gambia, I flew back into Manchester on Wednesday evening to find the temperature was just above zero, with heavy rain and strong winds on the motorway as I drove back to Yorkshire.

Perhaps I should have stayed in Nema Kunku after all!