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often depend on connections rather than ability or qualifications, but this patronage comes at a price, and can be withdrawn without notice, so promotion to high office carries real risks.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.

 

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Home Sweet Home

I’ve been in the Gambia nearly a month now, and haven’t yet said anything about where I’m now living. The initial stay in Safari Garden Hotel (which I thoroughly recommend if you’re intending a visit!) allowed us to acclimatise gently, but after five days of pampering, those of us who are based locally were moved to our permanent homes. In my case this means Bakau, which forms part of the sprawling conurbation known as the Kombos just south of the capital Banjul. It’s a tourist area here, which means we have a small supermarket stocking a range of goods (Cornflakes, Typhoo Tea, Robinson’s Fruit Squash, Cheddar cheese) which you don’t normally find in the “bitiko” (corner shop), and you’re more likely to pick up a pineapple or something more exotic in our local market than in the big market at Serrekunda although of course the fruit here like everything else, is also rather more expensive. Bakau is a coastal development and I’m only about ten minutes walk from the beach where, in an afternoon it’s a hive of activity as the fishing boats arrive back with their day’s catch and gangs of young men wade out to meet them, waist high in the waves and carrying one or more plastic fish crates to fill with the shining harvest. The crates look heavy and some of the boys carry two at a time on their head and jog back to the beach and onto the quayside as if they were empty. Here the fish is tipped out into different boxes according to type, and packed in ice before being taken away or stored in one of the multitude of rusty chest freezers which litter the fish quay – the freezers are no longer working but act as insulated storage to keep their contents fresh until the following day. This is the best place to buy fish, straight off the boat, but there is also a good vantage point on the terrace of the guest house above where you can sit with a cooling drink and watch the milling throng.

Across the road from the sea lies Bakau market – a crowded jumble of small stalls where you can buy not only fruit and vegetables but also meat and fish (if you’re not bothered by the crowds of flies !), clothes, plastic bowls and bottles, mobile phones, spices and herbs, and of course crafts for the tourist – paintings and wooden carvings, drums, beads, bracelets and batik prints. Threading your way through the market – the alleyways are hardly wide enough for two people to pass without touching – you emerge at the back into a small sandy lane lined by yet more traders which in turn leads onto a maze of dusty streets where you will find my new home, just near the crocodile pool (but more of that another day).

 

 

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I’m living in a small rendered bungalow within a compound but it’s probably not the sort of compound you imagine when you think of a British ex-pat. Everybody lives in a compound but there are no carefully manicured lawns here – in our case we are surrounded by a neat 6′ concrete block wall and steel doors although some of our less well off neighbours have corrugated iron sheets as fencing. I saw one of the guide books describe our area as a “shanty town” which I think is unfair, but certainly my own lodgings are a cut above the housing of many of the local residents – and considerably less crowded. I share two thirds of the bungalow with Munya, a young volunteer from Zimbabwe who is also working at the Department of Agriculture, and the remaining third (a self contained unit) was empty until this weekend when a new couple moved in. Alongside us is another similar bungalow occupied by a couple of young Dutch volunteers, with the smaller part of their bungalow as yet unoccupied. We have piped water (cold only), a shower, western-style flush toilet, and a small kitchen with fridge and 2 burner gas hob. By local standards this is quite luxurious and so far the only downside I’ve found is the irregularity of the electricity supply – often it seems to be off just when we need it, but I’ve quickly learned to keep a torch handy after dark (even/especially in the shower!), and to plug my laptop and phone in to charge whenever possible as you’re never sure when you’ll lose power. Similarly the water supply fails from time to time so we keep a couple of jerry cans for storage, and a bucket and dipper in the shower just in case it stops when you have soaped up! Outside is a small patio with seating area and an outside tap visited occasionally by some of the neighbours (presumably when theirs is off or there is a queue at the communal standpipe.)

From the yard door leads a smart passageway with a string of lights in the walls to another wrought iron gate opening onto Mamakoto Road and the outside world. (Normally the streets are very busy, but it looks a lot quieter in the photos simply because it was Friday and most of the population were at the mosque.)

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Technology 2

Since I last posted, I have been told that I am to be based in The Kombos so will have reasonable access to facilities like electricity and water, and may even have the luxury of a western style wc. As a result I’m told I will be able to use a laptop, and have been advised to take it with me. However I arrived home late last night after a cold snowy auction in Barnsley, Yorkshire (of which more later) to find a card through the letterbox telling me a well known parcel delivery firm had left a package with my neighbours. This morning Rob called over the fence to give me something which I wasn’t expecting for 3 or 4 days – my new Google Nexus 7 tablet! I had ordered it on Thursday afternoon with a quoted delivery of 3 – 5 business days, but despite the dreadful conditions (we’ve been hit by heavy snow here in Yorkshire) it was delivered less than 48 hours later. Top marks to Google Play store and TNT!

I am now waiting for it to finish charging while I catch up on household chores and then will have to get to grips with the Android operating system, but at first glance  – I had a quick play as soon as the box came off – it seems quite intuitive and easy to use, with a good clear screen and reasonable sized keyboard.  I now intend to download a couple of apps – Skype and an office programme first – and see if I can expand the storage with a flash drive. I’ve been reviewing what are the essentials to take with me and think if I can edit Word and Excel on this device and watch films stored on a USB drive I’ll probably manage without anything larger and leave the laptop at home.

If you’ve visited this blog before, you will notice I’ve changed the layout so that recent posts are the first thing you see – I’ve been advised that if you always see the same “Welcome” page when you arrive, you’ll find it boring, and that comment sounds good sense to me so I’ve updated the site to reflect that advice. As always I’m grateful for your comments and any advice on ways I could improve, so I’ll leave you with this thought for the day.

“Wise men don’t need advice. Fools won’t take it.” (Benjanim Franklin)

Hopefully I’m somewhere in the middle!