Time flies

The last three weeks have been very busy as the end of my placement approaches and I try not only to see parts of the Gambia I have not yet visited, but also to finish the project I am involved with at the Department of Agriculture. Meanwhile, the electricity supply in Bakau seems to have been off more than on in the evenings, and as the battery on my laptop has given up the ghost and will no longer hold charge for more than five minutes, it seems an age since I last wrote.

Two weeks ago I went up country with a couple of colleagues for a couple of days hoping to see a hippopotamus. We drove east along the south bank of the river to Janjanbureh where we crossed on the ferry and then drove back west a few kilometres to the small town of Kuntaur where we stayed overnight at the Department of Agriculture camp. One of my companions was stationed there for a time and as a result our entry to the town was punctuated by much stopping and starting as everyone seemed to know her and want to greet her on arrival! Our triumphal progress continued right through the town to the police checkpoint (where again we were greeted with much handshaking and cries of “Longtime”) and after what seemed like an unbelieveably long journey through such a small town we arrived at “Agriculture”, on the river bank right on the furthest outskirts of Kuntaur. Here more old friends and colleagues were there to be greeted/introduced and to show us round the compound before we were presented with the inevitable generous Gambian meal and then adjourned to a local riverside bar with Deborah, another VSO volunteer who is stationed locally before retiring for the night.

Kuntaur "Agriculture"

Kuntaur “Agriculture”

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Local transport

Old French colonial building

Old French colonial building

 The town was an oasis of peace compared to Bakau – not a sound broke our rest (apart from a large mouse who woke me as he sat chewing something next to my bed, and was quite unperturbed when I switched on my torch to see what the noise was – it sounded a much larger animal) – no drumming, no loud music, and no mosques competing at 5am with the call to prayer.

The following morning I was up before my fellows and enjoyed an early morning walk by the river watching the birds in the rice stubbles along the water’s edge and a solitary canoe paddling slowly down river as the sun rose. When I arrived back at the compound breakfast was being prepared for us, followed by a tour of yet more friends in the neighbouring village of Wassu.

Egrets on the rice stubbles

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Even this far upstream the Gambia is a mighty river

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Silk cottonwood tree

Wassu

Exploring Wassu

The local tailors wanted me to take their picture too

The local tailors wanted me to take their picture too

About midday we met up again with Deborah and adjourned to the riverside where we played counting games in English and Wollof with a group of local boys while we waited for our boatman. He had told us the best time to go hippo spotting was early afternoon so in due course about 1pm we set off upriver towards Baboon Island National Park. We cruised slowly along close to the bank while he pointed out various birds on the bank or overhead, baboons in the palm trees, raffia palms, and told us a little more about the Park.

The boating party

The boating party

After about twenty minutes we put ashore to pick up the Park Ranger who was to accompany us inside the reserve and then back out into midstream as we approached the first of three large islands where we hoped to see chimpanzees. The population was established there in the 1970’s when a project began to release and rehabilitate animals which had been rescued elsewhere (chimpanzees were once common in The Gambia but were hunted out of existence by about 1900) and the numbers have gradually risen over the last forty years until there are now about 100 spread over the three islands. Visitors are not allowed to land (another reason for the presence of the Park Ranger) but the boats are allowed to go fairly close to the shore and we were fortunate enough to see several animals, including a large male which the Ranger told us was the second in rank on that island, and a mother nursing a tiny baby who peeped out from under her arm.

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Alpha male

Mother and baby

Mother and baby

The boat continued round the other side of the island where there had been reports of a large crocodile on a mudbank but nothing was to be seen there so we turned back and had a number of brief sightings of hippopotamus ears, eyes, and once a whole head. The guide told us that we were seeing two different animals, although we never saw both at once, and most of the time the creatures stayed out of sight underwater. I was not fast enough with my camera to catch a proper shot, so had to edit a photo of one of our group for the benefit of one of my VSO colleagues who at the last minute was unable to come on the trip and wanted to see pictorial evidence of our sightings, including one of the party as well as the hippo. So here you are Joe!

Helen and friend

Helen and friend

We left Kuntaur about 4pm and I promptly took the wrong road so we spent nearly an hour driving through empty featureless bush where from time to time the road looked in danger of becoming impassable and I wondered if at some point we would have to admit defeat and turn round or reverse for miles and if so whether we would be able to get the car back over the large bumps we had crossed coming in the opposite direction. We saw very few people on our travels until at last we arrived in a small village where we were mobbed by crowds of children flocking round the car as if we were royalty. I guess they weren’t used to seeing motor vehicles in their village very often, particularly appearing out of the bush in a cloud of dust with some crazy toubabs. Helen was delighted that I was living up to her stereotypical image of a macho Yorkshire male, but I must point out that I did eventually get us safely back to the tarmac road, even if it was about 15 kilometres from where I had originally intended!

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The rest of the journey was fairly uneventful – simply a matter of keeping on the road in the dark when vehicles with badly aligned headlights (most of them) approached us from the opposite direction, until we reached one of the various checkpoints. Here we were surrounded by police and immigration officials who made a big point of inspecting our documents and looking round the car while talking amongst themselves in Mandinka about how they thought they were going to take some money from a rich European. Fortunately however we had picked up another passenger heading in our direction at a previous checkpoint in Soma and it turned out he was also a police officer who produced his identity card and had a few words so our documents were returned and we were waved on our way! The next twenty minutes he hardly stopped for breath, indignantly complaining that his fellow officials should not treat foreign visitors like that or they would stop coming and bringing money into the economy. I fully agree though I also sympathise with the low paid public sector workers here in the Gambia who see it as a way of supplementing their meagre wages.

We parted company at Brikama and after dropping the others I arrived home about eleven o’clock.

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Maize Harvest

Those of you who have been reading my blog regularly may remember me talking in August about Site Three, the farming area near my office where the departmental staff provided the labour for thinning out the maize and spreading fertiliser on the groundnut plants earlier in the season.  I have not been down there since that day although I have heard reports about how the maize is doing, and two weeks ago it was decided that we should harvest the crop. As before, this involved a summons to all our extension staff who act as farmer advisors at village level, and also their line managers and the rest of the staff at Yundum Agricultural Station for two days work party on Friday and Saturday. I arrived at the field about 9am to find work had already begun, my name was added to the attendance list, and I was given a sack to fill.

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Ready to start?

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Off we go

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I was thrilled to see this chameleon blending into the maize stalks

Maize is grown in the UK for a fodder crop as silage, but in my home area at least the climate is not warm enough for the cobs to ripen so I had never seen a ripe crop and didn’t know whether we picked the cobs by hand or needed a knife to remove them from the plant, and took a pocket knife just in case. In the event it was simply a matter of plucking the ripe cobs from the plant and dropping them in the bag before carrying it to be tipped into a small farm trailer that would take the harvest to the drying floor.

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Time for a break

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……..and a cold drink

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….or just a sit down!

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Then back to work

That morning there were about 45 of us working away in a large group, often in pairs, or sometimes more, in which case one would carry the bag while the others picked. At regular intervals there were cries of “Botto, Botto, Botto”, as someone called for an empty sack, and the talk never ceased. Gambians are very chatty although as most of it was in Mandinka I only understood parts, but it seemed the usual mixture of ribbing your co-workers and catching up with the news, so the work proceeded apace until about 2pm when the men adjourned for prayers while I sat under a tree with a cold drink and enjoyed the company of some delightful ladies! We had been supplied with cold drinks earlier in the field – from time to time a bucket of water with huge blocks of ice appeared, and some of the ladies had been busy mixing powdered fruit flavoured drinks which they brought round in tubs with plastic beakers to dip in.

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Traditional dress and western style mix happily together

It appeared we were expecting a visit by the GRTV (Gambian Radio and Television) to film our harvest – all good publicity for the Department, but in the event they were busy covering the arrival of the Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan who was visiting the Gambia, so by mid afternoon when “lunch” arrived there was still no opportunity for my TV debut. We had been working hard and everyone was getting tired so it was with relief we saw the arrival of the chuck wagon – a pickup loaded with huge quantities of steamed rice and the associated vegetables and fish (ladyfish today which seems to have more flesh and less bones than some of the other local varieties). As usual it was eating from communal bowls – a large plastic plate about 12″ across is piled with rice and the vegetables and fish are placed on top. You sit round it with your friends on the floor eating with your fingers (a skill I have yet to master, usually ending with food all over my face as I struggle to knead the mixture into a ball with my right hand and then place it from the palm into my mouth without leaving any on the surrounding area!) The idea is that you each eat from the segment of the bowl in front of you but as I am still treated as a guest, the Gambian ladies have a habit of pushing the tastiest morsels onto my side and I am expected to eat the lot. One young lady was very insistent on passing me small pieces of fish despite my protestations until eventually I had to cry “Bari na!” (Enough/too much).

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A rest after lunch

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Removing the outer leaves from the cobs

A short break followed before we began again, slowly working our way across the field. It was obvious that we could not finish the 7.5hectares in one day but we wanted to do what we could and were still waiting for the film crew which arrived about 5pm. This brought a fresh burst of activity and some of the ladies began singing as they worked for the benefit of the cameras. Filmed interviews with the Director and the Farm Manager signalled the end of work for the day and we then went across to the groundnut field where staff were filmed getting out of the vehicles – apparently to be shown as arriving to begin the groundnut harvest. More filming of interviews followed and finally we loaded up again and went down to the store yard for pictures of the cobs being tipped and some laid out to dry on the concrete.

The drying floor

The drying floor

The following day was much the same as the first one although without the film crew, and with less staff available as a number of them were attending a farmer training. However, despite the smaller team (about 30 today) we finally reached the end, completing the field about 5pm, just as our Director returned from the farmer training to give us encouragement and see how we were getting on. Good timing!

Katchikally

Some time ago, shortly after I first moved to Bakau, I was writing about my new home and the neighbourhood round about, and I mentioned that I was living near the crocodile pool. This led to a comment by a young lady who thought I was teasing because I only mentioned it very briefly. So on the assumption that you have managed to contain your excitement for the last six weeks or so…….this blog is for you Aisling!

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That’s about £1

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Gambia – “The smiling coast”

Crocodiles are a regular feature of Gambian folk tales – there is a Mandinka tale about the “crocodile in the moon” – and their image appears on the one dalasi coin, the banknotes, and much else in everyday life. Traditionally they are viewed as having supernatural powers and are thought to act as intermediaries between the spirit world and the living. They are also associated with fertility and there are three sacred crocodile pools in the Gambia where childless women may visit for a ritual bathing in the water with the intention of increasing their fertility, or where other pilgrims may go to pray for good luck in business, sport, politics, or other endeavours.

The largest of these pools is Katchikally which is a couple of minutes walk from my home. It is said that the Bojang family – the guardians of the pool – were the first people to settle in the area and were visited on their arrival by a spirit called Katchikally who lived in the woods and came to find out if the newcomers were good and kind people. Apparently she approved as she gave them a freshwater pool here with instructions to bring two crocodiles there. These first two crocodiles were obviously happy in their new home as the family now look after nearly a hundred crocodiles who can be seen hauled out on the banks or lying in the water with just their snout protruding amongst the thick bed of water lettuce which covers the pool.

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Count the crocodiles…..

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The inhabitants are Nile crocodiles which prefer freshwater to salt, are fairly widespread in the Gambia and are one of the largest of all crocodilians. They are a long lived species with an average age of 70 to 100 years and can grow to about 20′ long  and about 800 or 900kg although the ones I saw on my visit were mostly about 6′ long or smaller – it appears their size is restricted here by the size of the pool.

The body of the adult Nile crocodile is a grey-olive colour, with a yellowish belly, while the juvenile is more greenish or dark olive-brown, with black cross-banding on the tail and body, which becomes fainter in adults. They are supremely adapted aquatic predators, with a streamlined body, a long, powerful tail, webbed hind feet, and long, powerful jaws, ideally suited for grabbing and holding onto prey. The eyes, ears and nostrils are located on top of the head, allowing the crocodile to lie low in the water, almost totally submerged and hidden from prey. A special valve at the back of the throat allows the mouth to be opened to catch and hold prey underwater without water entering the throat. In addition to a good sense of smell and excellent night vision, the Nile crocodile also possess sensory pits in the scales along the side of the jaw, used to detect movement and vibrations in the water. They are said to be extremely aggressive although the ones at Katchikally all seemed very quiet with the exception of one female whom I was told to steer clear of as she was guarding her eggs.

In general, the male Nile crocodile grows larger than the female and the largest crocodile here is a male known as “Charlie” (I’m told he was named after a British film maker who made a documentary about the pool some years ago and was the first person to touch him) who is popular with visitors as he tolerates them touching him while having their photograph taken. Indeed when I encountered my first crocodile basking in the sun my guide immediately asked if I wanted to stroke him. He was about my size, and looked quiet enough with a friendly welcoming grin on his face, but as you can see from the picture I kept a little distance off…..just in case! The custodian claims to know each animal individually and said this one was about 18 years old.

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He loooks friendly but I think that’s close enough!

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A female guarding her nest

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Crocodile eggs

Males attract females by bellowing, slapping their snouts in the water and blowing water out of their noses (must try that some time!). Size matters and the larger males tend to be more successful. About two months after mating the female lays about 50 or 60 eggs in an underground nest and then guards them for the three month incubation period, only leaving the nest if she needs to cool off. The sex of the hatchlings is determined by the temperature of the nest during the second month (males can only be born if it falls in a narrow range between 89.1°F and 94.1°F ). Before hatching they make a high pitched chirruping sound which alerts the mother to open the nest and she may also help crack the shells by picking them up in her mouth. The hatchlings are about a foot long and are guarded by their mother for up to two years although many don’t survive but are eaten by other crocodiles.

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A ceremonial “mask” made of tree bark

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The entry fees for visitors to the pool help pay for the feed – a diet of fish (together with bullfrogs which also breed in the pool), and also cover entry to a small museum documenting local history and customs and which includes a display of ceremonial masks and costume, musical instruments, household and farming implements, and old photographs of the area. Surrounding the pool is a small area of mature woodland which provides a pleasant shady walk and looks out onto the Bakau womens’ garden before leading to the pool itself complete with half height concrete block cubicle to preserve the modesty of those who wish to bathe in the pool water, and of course a small craft/gift stall where amongst other things you can buy a crocodile tooth necklace.

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