Hail and Farewell

This week is a week of greetings and partings. I arrived back in the Gambia two weeks ago and spent my first few days staying at a tourist hotel, walking on the beach and lazing by the pool with friends from my previous visits.

In many ways nothing has changed since I was last here except that the dalasi is weaker than ever – good news for me as I get more to the pound when I exchange currency, but not good news for the ordinary Gambians. There are new banknotes with a new design including the addition of pictures of President Jammeh in case anyone forgets who is in charge! I think I preferred the pictures on the old ones, although at least the new notes are plastic which is a vast improvement. The smaller denomination notes in particular change hands so often the old ones soon became very dirty, crumpled and torn, but the new ones should be rather more durable.

I notice too that the coast is suffering from erosion at an alarming rate. At Senegambia where two of the largest hotels are situated there is a large gap behind the concrete slabs which formed a protective wall at the front of the raised hotel beaches, and if the erosion continues at the present rate and nothing is done, the hotel gardens will soon begin to disappear.


Coastal erosion is becoming a problem

Similarly down the coast at Sanyang where I spent the weekend with friends the coastline has moved quite markedly since I last visited just over a year ago. At that time it was quite a shallow slope down to the sea but now there is a step where the land finishes, and that step appears to be moving inland.

The greetings this week have been to old friends and also to my new colleagues at Nema Kunku where I will be staying as a volunteer at MyFarm until mid July; the partings are with good friends who are finally leaving the Gambia tomorrow. Munya with whom I shared a house for twelve months when I was here as a VSO volunteer with the Department of Agriculture is going home to Zimbabwe, and his fiancée Maya is returning to her home in Denmark where they will meet up again in about three months when Munya arrives to begin his Masters degree at the University of Copenhagen. It will certainly be quite different there from their life together in the Gambia and I wish them both a safe journey and best wishes for the future. Hopefully it will not be too long before we meet again in Europe.


“Munya gazed longingly at Maya’s beer!”

Since I am now beginning to settle in at Nema Kunku I intend to write rather more regularly again in the next few weeks than I have done recently so will recommence my blog properly in a few days with a brief description of my current placement.

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.

A bicycle ride

I haven’t ridden a bicycle for several years, because at home in the UK I automatically jump into the car for longer trips, or for shorter distances I prefer to walk (unless I’m in a hurry, or feeling lazy). This weekend however my neighbours have been away and I borrowed a bicycle from them to allow me to cover a greater area than I have done previously on foot. Gambia is very flat with only about 100m difference between the highest and lowest points, and in the urban area there is only an occasional slope, so I thought it would be easy. I had however forgotten how uncomfortable a bike saddle can be, and my first day on the road reminded me why I had got rid of my own bike. Besides that it was a warm day and I was soon sweating in the heat.

The purpose of my exertions was to widen my search for a car. I have been here nearly six months now and not got very far out of the coastal strip, so decided a month or so ago to find a 4WD vehicle which I could use at weekends to explore “up country” where, apart from the main highway to the Kombos, the roads are often unpaved dirt tracks with large ruts and potholes, and at this time of year a lot of water. However although there are a lot of cars for sale in the Gambia, the search is not as easy as at home because although there are a few roadside sites where a few cars – presumably the property of a motor trader – are standing under a tree, the majority are widely scattered throughout the area, just parked by the road with a telephone number in the window and nothing more. As a result, if you find something which looks suitable, you first have to ring an unknown telephone number to find out what it is (diesel? petrol? age?) and most importantly whether it is within your budget, although you are always told it is “the starting price” which is I think sometimes inflated when the vendor thinks they are speaking to a “toubab”. Certainly second hand cars are quite a lot more expensive than similar ones would be at home, but of course they are all imported, mainly from the Netherlands, Germany, UK and Scandinavia, so there is a shipping cost built into the price as well as import duty, before the vendor takes any profit.

I had previously looked at several cars, but found nothing I thought would be good enough for my purpose (in other words get me around Gambia for a few months in some tough terrain without letting me down) except one Land Rover Discovery which was rather more than I wanted to pay – and sold within a week while I was waiting for the price to drop! Yesterday I saw one possible, although still in rather worse condition than I would like, and at an inflated price, and when I arrived home about 2pm I was exhausted by the heat and the effort and had to spend the next two hours rehydrating and recovering from my tour!

Today therefore I set off about 7.30 to avoid the heat, although it had rained heavily during the night and was rather cooler, and I took a different direction from the day before. For well over an hour I rode round the Serekunda area and saw nothing remotely of interest, then turned down a side road to head for the Brikama highway which I guessed would be running to my right. As I cycled onward the tarmac grew thinner and eventually petered out altogether leaving me to continue along dirt roads with flooded ruts and potholes and eventually I realized I was lost and so decided to pick up the next bit of tarmac I saw and follow wherever it led. (It must come out somewhere I recognise!) Gradually the ruts disappeared, the surface grew harder, the tarmac wider, and eventually I re-emerged more or less at the same point I had left twenty minutes earlier. So much for my short cut!

This time I decided to follow the longer route which I recognised from previous trips to the area, and so duly arrived at the Brikama highway, by which time it was starting to rain. As the downpour increased I took shelter under a nearby tree where I remained for 45 minutes or so as the heavens opened and the waters rose steadily on the dual carriageway in front of me. When I first took shelter the scene was quite normal – just another cloudburst

Gambia_0604But within 25 minutes the nearside of the carriageway which sloped towards me was a river flowing quite swiftly along, and well over a foot deep where it spilled over near my refuge.

Gambia_0608A few vehicles were still ploughing through – mainly four wheel drives and commercials, or the ubiquitous Mercedes taxis, but most decided instead to cut through the central reservation before the flooded section and continue on the opposite carriageway which was rather drier. Eventually the rain eased, and rolling up my trousers I waded into the flow and carried on cycling upriver with the rest of the traffic. The cyclists kept to the higher ground where the water was shallower and until we got out of the flood the motor traffic was slowed to our speed for fear of waterlogging. Ten minutes later the rain increased again and I had to head for a petrol station forecourt where several of us chatted under the canopy while the heavens opened once more accompanied by thunder and lightning and howling wind. Traffic was by now more or less at a standstill although here the flooding was a lot less severe, but at last the rain cleared and I continued on my way towards Tabokoto where I had seen a Landrover for sale as I passed on my journey to work in the mornings. A brief inspection showed that it had originated from Holland and looked quite sound, but the chassis number told me that it was a year newer than anything else I had looked at and with the updated TD5 engine, so I expect when I track down the owner that he will ask me rather more than I want to pay.

The question of how much I pay is also affected by the exchange rate. When I was first in the Gambia, £1 sterling was worth over 50 dalasis, and in fact I’ve seen it up to about 56 as the dalasis decreased in value. Recently however President Jammeh has closed all the foreign exchange bureaux and set an artificial exchange rate in an attempt to bolster the currency, with the result that all exchange has to be done through the banks, and this has in effect devalued my budget for a car by over 10%.

On the way home I had to shelter at the petrol station once more, and approaching the centre found that the flood water from one of the side roads was coming onto the highway in such quantities that it had filled the outbound side and was spilling over the central reservation onto the inbound carriageway.



The rain today had certainly kept me cooler than yesterday and I was quite wet, but by the time I arrived home I was thoroughly soaked thanks to just one inconsiderate van driver who passed by so close that he threw a huge wave over my head and utterly drenched me. All the other drivers who passed me and the other cyclists en route had overtaken wide and slow but I think this chap probably thought it was funny to soak me. He didn’t think it so amusing however when I caught up with him at the van terminus a few hundred yards further on and taught him a few new words. Still soaking, but having relieved my feelings I continued home and straight into the shower. It was a real pleasure to don clean dry clothes and have a nice cup of tea! I wasn’t much further forward in my search, but at least I had had some exercise, and I certainly saw a lot more from my bike than on foot or in a vehicle.