Bureaucracy

Before leaving The Gambia it was necessary for me to obtain a certificate of good character to cover the period I had been in residence and to show that I had not got into trouble during my stay. To do this I had to go to the police records office at Banjul with 2 passport photos, my Passport (and photocopy), and my Residence Permit (and photocopy) and pay a fee of D500 (about £8). I was told this would probably entail a lengthy wait as having inspected my documents and taken fingerprints, details would have to be checked against the criminal records register for the last year.

I anticipated there might be problems because I was unable to produce a Residence Permit. It was stolen with my wallet last November, and at the time the Immigration Service told me not to bother renewing it immediately as I would have to apply for a new one in January anyway, so I duly applied for and received a new Immigration Certificate and a replacement Aliens Identity Card, but left my Residence Permit until January. Then, only two days before I was due (along with the other volunteers) to be issued with the 2014 card, VSO informed us that GAMBIS, the office who issue the biometric cards were having technical problems and that no cards would now be issued until about April…..

I had arranged to go to Banjul with Helen, a fellow volunteer who arrived here at the same time as I did and was leaving at the same time, but en route I called to collect a photocopy of the 2013 GAMBIS card which was in my file at VSO office. Except it wasn’t. In theory the Country Office photocopy all our documents – ID cards, tax registration, bank details etc and keep them safe, but not for the first time I found that theory and practice were two different things, and no record of my card could be found.

Of course the first question asked when Helen and I arrived at the Police Records Office was “Have you got all your documents?”

I explained my circumstances and that I could produce various other forms of Gambian and UK identity but was politely told that without a GAMBIS card I could not be issued with police clearance as my Residence Permit number had to be recorded on the certificate. No negotiation, no suggestion that perhaps I could pay a fee to resolve this problem or use my Alien Card details instead, simply a point blank refusal. I had rather expected this might be the case, so although extremely annoyed at wasting my day, I was prepared for this possibility and thought it was not too important as I’m unlikely to be asked to produce it by any potential employer – except that I may need it along with my UK Criminal Records Bureau records check if I wish to volunteer in the future, so I fumed internally but went outside to wait as Helen’s application was processed.

Five minutes later she joined me – her application had also been refused as her Residence Permit expired in December (as they all do) and of course she too had been unable to renew it for 2014 due to the problems at GAMBIS. Now this was more critical for Helen as she is half my age, and will definitely need to be able to produce a clean and unbroken record when applying for jobs, so first of all she rang the VSO office who said they would see if anything could be done. As we waited for a reply she rang a co-worker from her placement who had offered on several occasions to sort out problems saying that he had good connections, and who had been quite disappointed that she had never taken up his offer. He advised us to go to Police Headquarters and ask to see Ousman Gibba, Commissioner of Operations for the Gambia Police Force and ask for his assistance. Having successfully passed through security where they took away our mobile phones and issued us with Visitor badges we found our way to the Commissioner’s Office and knocked on the door. It was opened by a security guard who came outside shutting the door behind him to ask our business and then went back in shutting the door again. A minute or two later he reappeared and ushered us inside to sit on a large leather sofa while we waited for the Commissioner to finish speaking to a previous visitor.

Ousman Gibba was a large man sitting behind a large desk in a very important looking uniform and obviously quite comfortable with his position of authority. A man used to command, and to getting things done. We introduced ourselves with some trepidation and mentioned the name of the man who had sent us, to which we received a fairly neutral “Ah yes, I know him” response, which was a trifle disconcerting. We then explained the nature of our problem and he immediately lifted a telephone and made a brief call summoning someone from Records to his office. A conversation followed mostly in Mandinka during which it seemed the Commissioner was asking what our Residency Permits had to do with a criminal records check, and giving instructions to his subordinate, then dismissing us with the comment “I think someone is trying to make things unnecessarily difficult!”

We collected our mobile phones from security and were escorted back to the records office we had left 15 minutes beforehand where all of a sudden anything seemed possible. Our application forms were rapidly completed and we were then sent round the corner with them to the Gambia Revenue Authority offices to pay our D500 and obtain a receipt. On our return with proof of payment our fingerprints were taken, and carefully inspected through a magnifying glass while the inspector jotted down a series of numbers against them on the record sheet, and shortly afterwards Helen’s certificate appeared. Mine followed a couple of minutes later, and by three o’clock we were leaving Banjul. Thank you Commissioner.

Obviously it’s not WHAT you know……

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.

Another New Year

I was asked recently what I had done to celebrate the New Year and the answer is “not a lot really!”. I spent a couple of days at the very end of December staying at Boboi, a small lodge down the coast near Kartong, so most of the time I sat under the palm trees relaxing and enjoying the peace and quiet. I’ve been there before to get away from the noise of the Kombo and it’s amazing what a difference there is in a short distance down the coast. The journey from Bakau is done comfortably in an hour and it feels like a world away. Gone are the crowded streets and noise of my home neighbourhood in Mamakoto, gone is the “Costa-like” atmosphere of the Senegambia area where the big European style tourist hotels are situated, and in their place are three or four Gambian round houses set among palm trees just off the beach, together with a couple of tree houses and a small bar. I’ve only stayed in the round houses (which cost about £24 a night including breakfast of bread and fruit) as I prefer somewhere with shower and toilet attached, but for those on a tighter budget half that price will rent a tree house although if you’re caught short in the night you have to climb down the steps in the dark and walk across the yard!

If you’re looking for a lively time forget it (although there was a party one night about ten minutes walk down the beach, but in typical Gambian fashion it didn’t start until about 10pm and then continued until the early hours), but for a relaxing break I would highly recommend it. On New Year’s Eve I drove a few miles further south down to the very end of the Gambia – past the military checkpoints and immigration officers to the River Allahein which forms the border with Senegal and sat on the bank watching a local with a canoe ferrying passengers backwards and forwards to Casamance. Two young German travellers were wanting to cross to Senegal but had some difficulty with the boatman who insisted on charging them considerably more than the locals. They looked to me like penniless students, but to him they were obviously rich Europeans! The area on the other side of the river is disputed territory where the separatists are fighting for independence and an area where our Government advises UK citizens only to travel on certain routes and then only in daylight hours to avoid the possibility of hijackings and robbery. It all looked peaceful enough from my side, just a chap on a motorbike waiting to pick someone up from the ferry.

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River Allahein – at the border

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That afternoon it was windy and overcast so I went to visit the nearby Reptile Farm which has a good collection of snakes, crocodiles, turtles and the like. It is the only such place in the Gambia and is set up as a research and education centre. Our guide obviously knew the science but was also very entertaining, and as you can see from the picture I too was able to demonstrate my extensive knowledge of rock pythons.

The reptile expert

The reptile expert

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At present they are conducting a survey of crocodiles to ascertain the balance between the crocodile population and the fish stocks (crocodiles are a protected species but it is thought their numbers are getting too high in the Gambia) so it is possible to book an afternoon learning about crocodiles and how to handle little ones and then take part in a night safari in a boat on the river counting the beasts. Sounds like fun!

We had talked about going to Senegambia that evening to see the New Year in – apparently the hotels have a big firework display, but it is also apparently very crowded and when, as I drove home past Senegambia that afternoon I saw three fire engines parked up ready for the festivities I thought it better to stay away. (I hear there was only one small restaurant fire!). In the event we had a bar meal near home – including pancake for dessert as it was a special occasion – and then went home to bed, only to be woken about midnight by what sounded like World War Three. I felt I should go outside to watch the fireworks …..so promptly rolled over and went back to sleep.

On New Years Day a number of us went to Banjul to see the “hunting” celebrations. There are various hunting societies (which in days gone by actually went into the bush to hunt wild animals and then exhibited what they had caught/killed) who process round their own neighbourhood with a dancer dressed as an animal followed by the rest of the members some of who have weapons, and then at New Year gather in the capital for a kind of competition. Most of the afternoon was spent just watching the crowds milling about backwards and forwards with the occasional “animal” going past and by 7pm I was ready for home. The costumes were quite remarkable, although mostly fairly similar apart from the head, but apart from that I failed to see what the locals were finding so exciting about the event, and the crush was indescribable as we struggled to get out and find our way back to the car

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Don’t ask! I have no idea of the significance of the golf club!

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I thought they were North American?

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Another exotic animal.....and another golf club!

Another exotic animal…..and another golf club!

Last Sunday however was just the opposite. One of my neighbours had organised a boat trip so about twenty of us assembled at 9am on the riverbank with picnics and fishing tackle and spent the next seven hours pottering about the creeks enjoying the sun or moored in the middle of the river sitting idly fishing and barbecuing our lunch.

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Joe, ever the professional, nonchalantly demonstrates an overhead cast

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Helen looks on in awe. “Which way do I turn the handle?”

While Paul shows them both how to do it....

While Paul shows them both how to do it….

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As I’ve said before, “It’s a hard life being a volunteer in the Gambia!”