I’ll be back!

It is nearly two months since I last wrote here – my blog was initially intended to be simply an account of my year as a volunteer in the Gambia, but being a volunteer apparently doesn’t end when you leave your placement, and it seems for some people it never ends. I was at a meeting of VSO supporters recently where I met several people who had volunteered more than once and one man who described himself as a “serial volunteer” having completed four volunteer placements.

I am now wondering whether I too will become a repeat offender as ever since I came “home” I have been considering going back. I am extremely attached to the small rural area of North Yorkshire where I have spent the bulk of my life, but somehow it doesn’t quite feel the same any more. A friend of mine said to me last week “Ah but your heart is here in Ryedale” and until a year ago I would unquestionably have agreed with her. Although much of my working life has been spent away from here I have lived within a ten mile radius of my current home for nearly forty years and although I was born in a different area of North Yorkshire, my roots have gone deep into the Ryedale soil and for many years I have considered it my home. On my return after a year away however the ties seem rather weaker than before, and I expect I will soon be leaving again. My comfortable existence has been disturbed by my experiences outside the bubble and it will never be quite the same again.

I have applied for a place on a VSO Returned Volunteer weekend in London in July and if my application is successful I hope to compare notes with other returned volunteers and by doing so clarify my own thoughts and decide “What next?”. Although I have been checking the advertisements for VSO volunteer opportunities on a regular basis I have not yet seen any placements which seem to match my experience/skills, but neither have I yet said that I will soon be available to go abroad again.

I intend to stay in the UK for the next few months anyway – I will be working over harvest time on a local estate but that work will not start until probably mid July and will continue for two or three months depending on the weather. After that who knows what the future will bring?

Meanwhile however my gardening is reasonably tidy and weed free and the Gambia is calling so I will be returning there for a couple of weeks next month.

Despite the lure of my comfortable mattress here, hot shower, constant electricity, and good English beer, I am going back to the heat and chaos of Bakau and my diet of tapilapa and Marmite! Before I left I was working on a pocket manual of agricultural crops for use by Department of Agriculture Staff and when I left this project seemed to come to a stop. It was then at the stage where it needed checking and correcting by the technical experts as I had found it difficult to obtain the necessary information locally and consequently my work relied heavily on research outside the Gambia. I am hoping that my reappearance for a few days will galvanise the critics into action so that I can then re-edit my draft and move a little closer to publication.

I am also looking forward to meeting up again with friends and colleagues, seeing my former neighbours and sponsored students, and spending some time on the beautiful beaches near Kartong……..

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!”

On The Road

Tuesday: Today I went to Banjul with a friend to register my new car, but in order to do so I first had to obtain my Tax Identification Number (TIN) from the Gambia Revenue Authority (GRA). This number was obtained for me by VSO when they opened a bank account for me shortly after I arrived in the Gambia so I assumed a quick visit to the country office would give me the necessary information. Unfortunately this was not the case! It seems that their data filing leaves a little to be desired as after a desultory flip through a few random folders which were lying about in an office piled high with papers I was told that the number could not be found (perhaps I had been given it already?) and was instead given some telephone numbers so that I could ring the Revenue offices and ask them to look it up for me. That was last Thursday, but when I telephoned I was told this information could not be supplied over the phone – I would have to go to their offices (and pay a small fee). By then it was nearly office closing time so I left it until today and took a half day off work planning to get everything done at once.

On arrival at the GRA headquarters in Banjul we were accosted as we walked in the main gate by several enterprising young men who asked if I wanted a TIN number and were acting as agents to fill in the forms and obtain it for me. However when it transpired that I already had a number and just needed it to be looked up rather than a new one obtained, they lost interest. Ten yards further on, and before entering the building we were asked the same question by a Customs official who was just coming out, and on finding what I wanted he asked my telephone number and mother’s maiden name, found us a seat outside under a shade, and reappeared a couple of minutes later with a neatly printed certificate. Thanks Yusupha.

I had taken a friend with me to help translate and she then asked him directions to the licensing office. Rather than direct us however, Yusupha chose instead to take us personally, so within the space of about 30 minutes we had been walked round the block to another office where we obtained and completed a form with brief details of the vehicle, and then to a police licensing office to obtain number plates. So far so good, as in each office our guide marched us straight to the relevant official and explained our errand. Here however we came across the first obstacle as it appeared that we needed to go to a customs clearance agent to obtain another document before we could be issued with a registration. I had his name and telephone number on my receipt for import duty, and so in a couple of phone calls Yusupha traced him, we met him back at the GRA office and were driven across town to the agents office to get the necessary papers. It was probably about 3.30 by then and for about 15 minutes there was a lot of talking in Mandinka and shuffling of paper while not much seemed to be done. My friend told me afterwards that Yusupha was trying to get some action while the other man seemed to be telling him “don’t interfere, but let me do my job” without actually doing anything except very slowly writing down my TIN number and my telephone number. At one stage he switched his computer on as if to print something, but did nothing further until 3.50 at which point he announced that there was no chance of completing the process the same day as Customs would close at 4.30, and suggested I should have been there at 8am and must return tomorrow. Although I told him this was impossible due to work commitments and asked if there was any way he could speed up the process of getting the papers from the relevant Customs office, it seemed he had no intention of trying.

Fortunately by that stage my friend had gathered from the discussions that I did not need to be present in person to complete the registration, – the customs agent perhaps expected that he would be asked to act on my behalf, or that I would return myself, and that in either case he would have the chance to benefit from Yusupha’s absence, but instead I asked Yusupha if he was willing and able to be my agent as he had thus far been so very helpful. This he agreed to do and then telephone my colleague to say the documents and number plates are ready for collection, so I hope that at some point tomorrow I will hear the news I’m waiting for!

Wednesday: By 3pm I received my brand new number plates and various documents including customs declarations and a roadworthiness certificate, so BJL7112J will soon be on the road. Before that can happen however I have to obtain motor insurance and a licence/tax disc. Unfortunately it seems that the licence runs from January to December so I will have to pay a year’s fee to cover the next 27 days, and then the same again in January. However as I’m told it is only the equivalent of about £16 sterling per annum, it sounds a bargain and I have arranged to go to Banjul again on Friday morning and collect the final instalment of paperwork from Yusupha.

Friday: An early start and by 8am we were in the scrum as the passengers waiting to get onto the van for Banjul try to fight their way on before the passengers alighting have been able to get off. The van is already full but nobody waits for an empty seat – it’s survival of the fittest as there are only four or five getting off and about a dozen of us wanting to be on. I hang back as there looks to be only room for one more but my companion pulls me on and makes room by pushing a schoolchild onto her knee and off we go. First stop is GRA to find Yusupha then it’s round to the Licensing Office where he disappears with a fistful of dalasi and after a short time emerges triumphantly brandishing my licence disc. One final call to get insurance – a snip at D600 and I’m finally legal and can take to the road. The whole process has taken three days and cost rather more than the face value of the documents obtained. I am more than happy to show my appreciation when someone does me a service, but here some people seem unable to do their job without a little sweetener. This is something we discussed on one of the VSO training courses before I left the UK, and I remember some of my fellow students saying they would not give a gift under any circumstances. I think however that while I disapprove of the practice in theory, it is more realistic to accept that in a poverty stricken country such as this, people have to supplement their meagre wages as best they can and if you are not prepared to give a little help, you will probably receive a poor service and have to wait.

The same afternoon when I set off for a trip down the coast the car died on me before I left Kombo. The battery was completely dead and as a result everything stopped. What a contrast to officialdom when I walked up the road to a little welding workshop to ask for help. Somebody rang somebody else, who soon arrived, took the battery off his own vehicle and put it on mine so that we could drive a couple of miles to buy a new battery. Perhaps he would get a little commission from the shop when he next went in but good luck to him – I was delighted to thank him and I don’t think he expected anything from me.

The new battery apparently solved the problem and the vehicle ran perfectly all the way down the coast. On Sunday however the new battery was flat too and although the car started with a push it died again within a very short distance, and no human habitation in sight. Yet again the locals came to my aid – a passer by went off to the next village and reappeared with a couple more in a car. By now I had guessed there was a short circuit in the lighting system and had disconnected various circuits to try and prevent any further leakage. My new friends exchanged their charged battery for mine which allowed me to get back home, and then called later to swap back when they too returned to their home in the Kombos. They had told me they would be back by about 5pm but of course that was Gambian time and it was after 9pm when they appeared by which time I had begun to suspect I had lost my new battery. However it appears I must apologise for my unfounded suspicions as my new friends made sure my car would start before they left me and told me if ever I needed help in their area I should not hesitate to ring.

My faith in human nature is restored!