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.

Long Time!

“Long time” is a greeting I used to hear frequently in the Gambia, and was employed even if it was only 48 hours since I had seen the person who was greeting me. In this case however it really is a long time since I wrote anything here.

When I started this blog it was intended principally to reassure friends and family at home that I was still alive and well and to tell them a little about my new life in a country which was totally different to their own, and as a result it seemed pointless to write about sitting in an office working on a manual of crop husbandry notes to help educate Gambian farmers. Instead I tried to write about alien customs and culture, and how my new friends and neighbours lived their everyday lives as I thought this might be more interesting to someone who had never been outside the UK and whose only idea of Africa had probably been formed by television programmes. When I returned to the UK six months ago, I thought as I settled back into life in rural North Yorkshire that I no longer had anything interesting to write about, but perhaps a few words about the return and resettlement process would be appropriate.

In July I spent two days in London at the Head Office of VSO for a “Returned Volunteers” weekend. As the name implies it was attended by some of the volunteers (about 45 in all, including one who had been with me in the Gambia and two who had been on pre-departure training courses with me) who had recently returned from placements abroad, together with a team of staff from VSO including the Director of VSO UK, and three members of the Volunteer Liaison Group – former volunteers who currently (and voluntarily) draw together the views of current and returned volunteers and represent them to VSO.

For the first session, after the usual introductions we were each invited to share “Just One Thing” from our experience overseas, and in many cases the volunteer had something concrete to show the rest of us – a bangle or piece of cloth for example, or a picture of an important moment. One enterprising volunteer who had travelled round her placement by motorcycle had used a camera on the handlebars to document in a series of still photographs the route to work, and had then edited them into a film of the journey. As for myself I could not decide for some time what single thing could represent something of such significance to my stay in The Gambia until it struck me. So blindingly obvious! Tapilapa! (Those of you who know me will have heard me before praising the taste of tapilapa ad infinitum. For those who don’t I should explain that it is a local bread, rather like a baguette, and that it formed a major part of my diet in Gambia. I adored it and probably ate far too much of it but it sustained me well on a daily basis and must have been the cause of my trim waistline while I was there as it is only since I returned to the UK that my girth has increased!)

We then received a presentation by Angela Salt (UK Director) on current developments within VSO followed by group sessions to discuss the volunteer journey, and to give feedback on our experiences both positive and negative, and to come up with comments, suggestions, and questions to put to Angela and her staff in the last formal session of the day. This provoked some lively discussion and is used to update on areas where the volunteers feel praise is due, or improvements needed. After each RV weekend, any new points are added to the existing Volunteer Feedback document, (and if country specific, also shared with the Country Office), and some time later the details of any action taken as a result are also added before circulation to the participants. In addition to this general forum discussion there was also opportunity to have one to one discussions with a member of the staff team if any volunteers wished for a personal debrief.

By now it was 6pm and we departed with our bags en masse to book into overnight accommodation at the local Travelodge before returning to the offices for dinner and a pub style quiz followed by some of the more hardy adjourning to the pub next door, a large empty space with few customers, much improved by a group of thirsty volunteers.

The second day began with a series of small discussion groups sharing reflections on the experience of returning home, and it was reassuring to find that I was not alone in feeling rather unsettled at first as we talked about the various challenges faced when coming back to the UK. These ranged from the practical tasks of finding somewhere to live, (I was fortunate in that my tenant had moved out before I returned so I was able to move straight back into my own home) to looking for a job. Others included dealing with the feelings of loss sometimes experienced at the end of pltacement, and the process of adapting to everyday life in a totally different environment. It was interesting to hear volunteers talk of expecting uncomprehending friends and relatives to show more interest in their experiences abroad than was the case and of finding a bewildering range of goods in the shops on their return home. It seems that resettling often takes some time and we were given useful practical advice and some tips distilled from the many volunteers who had returned over the years before us. Finding purpose and structure when coming back is often a problem, and for the first few months I found that was my own experience. I found it hard to feel a sense of purpose but as time passed I began to look forward to the harvest season and have spent much of the last ten weeks sitting on a tractor or engaged in other agricultural activities which occupied me daily and gave me much satisfaction. Now however, next year’s crop has been sown, and apart from some gardening and domestic tasks I am again at a loose end. I am still in touch with friends from the Gambia and had more or less decided to return there if I could and continue with the work I was doing despite the frustrations which I had encountered. There have been various staff changes in the Department of Agriculture since I left including the promotion of my former boss Ousman Jammeh to the top job as Director General which could be a step forward if his political masters allow him a free hand and give him the tools to do the job. He is a very able and hard working man, but I hear that the DoA is still starved of resources and that political in-fighting and jealousy persists.

Meanwhile VSO have announced that they are soon to close down their operations in the Gambia, so that avenue is no longer open to me. Reasons for their decision have not been made public, but could be because they have been there over forty years and may feel that much has been achieved already and that as a result their impact is rather less now than it was previously. In common with other Non Governmental Organisations in the development community they are having to fight ever harder for funding in a very competitive market at a time when the pot is shrinking, and it may be easier to show the reach and impact of their operations in “newer” countries. Donors may therefore be more amenable to supporting programmes in Myanmar for example where VSO have recently established a presence and where results can perhaps be more easily be demonstrated to those providing the funding. Certainly there are quite a number of vacant posts advertised for Myanmar at present, but as many of them are for those with medical or educational expertise they fall outside my skills. If however you are a nurse/midwife/literacy and numeracy advisor/teacher trainer or similar thinking of volunteering there are opportunities for you now at As for me, when harvest and seed time was over I registered once again to volunteer next year in a more general role, probably assisting with small business development or similar. I am now waiting to see if my application is accepted and if so, what suitable placements are available to me, and where.

Who knows? Perhaps next year we will meet overseas!

Was It Worth It?

Ten days passed after my meeting at the Department of Agriculture, and despite much talk about what a wonderful job I was doing, no one telephoned until the day before I was due to leave. This illustrates one of the most frustrating aspects of the time I spent here last year. Gambians are a very friendly and talkative nation and will talk at length with much repetitive and effusive praise but timely action is often noticeably lacking. I had hoped that a brief return trip might energise my colleagues and start the ball rolling again, but this has apparently not happened. One of the more active colleagues with whom I spoke last week used a phrase which is very common here saying “Martin, these people are not serious” and I’m afraid it often seems true.

There are many problems which exacerbate poverty in the Gambia, not least the inertia which I think is perhaps due in part to the climate – it is difficult to keep awake sometimes, let alone maintain focus and concentration – and in part to a lack of awareness of the outside world and the possibilities for improving ones lot. In addition a strong sense of culture and religion can hinder development as change can sometimes be perceived as weakening or attacking Gambian national cultural and religious identity. It seems to me that the Gambians most receptive to change are those who have been outside the Gambia and seen a different life, whereas the majority have not, and knowing no different they accept the life they have as normal.

The tribal hierarchy is still strong here so there is a well defined structure of patronage from those above and obedience from those below with the pyramid leading right up to “The Big Man” at the top. Patronage is reflected in job opportunities with the result that appointments (even in government) often depend on connections rather than ability or qualifications, but this patronage comes at a price, and can be withdrawn without notice, so promotion to high office carries real risks. A fall from favour can mean not just the loss of a job, but sometimes summary arrest and trial. A glance at the Gambian press each week shows reports of former officials on trial, and while I am fully aware of the corruption that exists here in government, I cannot believe that all those named are guilty as charged. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the Gambian judiciary are not as free as might be wished and sometimes their decisions seem to be guided by a hand from above. If this is true the judicial system could perhaps be used as a convenient way of removing political opposition or publicly moving the focus of blame for failure or wrongdoing onto others.

A good example of shifting the blame occurred during my recent visit when twelve members of the Department of Agriculture were dismissed by the President (and held for questioning by the police before being released on bail) following what was described as “the discovery of the disappointing performance and abysmal failure of multi-million dollar agricultural projects since 1994”. So it has taken two decades for His Excellency to find out about this but a rather shorter period to find scapegoats. At least one of these staff members had to my knowledge only been appointed within the last two months, but is still being blamed for failures over the previous twenty years, and meanwhile those at higher levels remain unaccountably in power.

Gambian Television reports that President Jammeh indicated in his closing remarks at the eighth ministerial retreat at Kanilai last week, that over one hundred million dollars has been invested in the agricultural sector but that no significant progress has been made. What is clear from his admission is that the policy on agriculture has failed to effect changes in the lives of the people but no indication is given as to how he is going to put things right other than by blaming a group of managers, dismissals and arrests.

The President added that hundreds of tractors have been introduced but this did not produce the desired results and he blamed corruption for this failure. I don’t know whether “hundreds” have been imported but I did witness the arrival of a batch of about 70 brand new John Deere tractors last July and the start of constructing a new regional machinery centre at Somita. A year later the new depot still lies empty, the carefully planned Department of Agriculture Mechanization Strategy for West Coast Region has not been implemented and I understand the tractors have been distributed elsewhere for what can only be viewed as political expediency. Meanwhile many of the farmers who have been exhorted to “grow what you eat and eat what you grow” continue to struggle with the perennial problems of shortage of seed and fertiliser, laborious hand cultivation methods, inadequate transport and storage solutions, poor post harvest and marketing techniques; and as they strive to follow the President’s “Back to the Land” directive the clock is ticking. His Excellency’s Vision 2016 agenda is for food security and an end to the rice imports upon which the country currently depends. A very laudable objective, but I question how realistic is this target, particularly in view of his recent decision to break off relations with the Taiwanese who have provided so much support in the quest to improve rice production in the Gambia.

The difficulty in getting things done here is compounded by the “workshop culture”, as attending a workshop means extra pay, so staff (and farmers) look upon workshops as a means of supplementing their meagre income and sometimes are away from the office for days at a time. The more proactive amongst the staff (which tends to be the ones who have been educated outside the Gambia and seen new possibilities in a different world) soon move on to better things. This is normal, but it seems to me that the system benefits a small number of the more able at the upper end of the pyramid and does not help strengthen the base on which it is built. An example of this is the sponsorship that is sometimes available for Gambians to undertake a postgraduate degree. Those eligible will already have gained one or possibly two undergraduate degrees and I do not believe that studying for a Masters will in any way help anyone other than the student him/herself who will be supported financially for a year or more while they study abroad and on their return can claim some extra qualification in the jobs market. I do not see how this extra qualification for a select few can help them do their job better or move the country forward and think the money would be better spent giving a larger number of people further down the tree more training in the fundamentals. From my own experience it seems that this basic grounding is also lacking in IT skills as although many of my colleagues were provided with computers, quite a number had never been taught the basics of IT so might have been equally at home with a typewriter particularly in view of the regular power cuts.

As for those power cuts, well they seem to be getting worse as Ramadan approaches. During my brief visit the electricity was off for longer periods than before, and I heard the locals joking that Gambia had spent millions of dalasi for rights to show the FIFA World Cup matches but then had no electricity! This also affects the water supply as without power for the pumping stations the water pressure becomes variable and at times non existent. I heard talk too of fuel shortages and although I never saw any evidence of poor supply, this could explain the limited electricity supply as all power is supplied by diesel generators.

The bread too seems to have changed. You may remember how I delighted in my daily tapilapa – a kind of crusty baguette type bread which formed a major part of my diet last year. I was really looking forward to it on my return but found it tasted very different to before and moreover soon dried out. I am told by some that the source of flour has changed, and by others that it is now made with maize flour. Whatever the reason I was very disappointed and only ate tapilapa about five times in two weeks!

Meanwhile on the streets the dalasi is currently trading at 68 to the £ sterling, as against 63 in March, or 50 the previous March and while this makes Gambia an increasingly attractive holiday destination, life is becoming harder for ordinary Gambians as the price of imported goods continues to rise. Despite all the rhetoric I see little evidence of real progress.