Escape from the city (Part 1)

As I had hoped it was a case of third time lucky this weekend and finally after two postponements I managed my first trip away. I caught a van from Bakau to Serrekunda, and then set off on foot in what I hoped was the direction of Dippa Kunda as I had been told that the route I was going on began at “Dippa garasi” – the taxi/van terminus in Dippa. After a brisk walk and several stops to ask the way I found myself outside Dippa Kunda police station where I met OJ (at least I think that is what he said) an extremely helpful young policeman who not only escorted me to the right van park, but also took charge of buying a ticket for me and with much handshaking saw me installed on the correct vehicle – a rather dilapidated looking Mercedes van with a large roof rack. By now it was 8.30 and within about 15 minutes our transport was full, the roof rack stacked high with sundry luggage including about eight 5-gallon jerrycans skilfully roped together on the roadside by a lady with two small children, and with a crunch of gears and much horn blowing we swayed off over the bumpy ground and made our way onto the road. The first section of the route we weaved our way through heavy traffic but very soon, as we were passing through Sukuta, the traffic thinned, the houses grew further apart, and we began to climb up through Brufut Heights, a pleasant area on the outskirts of the urban sprawl where there was much new construction in progress, along with billboards urging us to buy a plot there. We crossed Brusubi turntable (which at home we would call a roundabout, and which is a notable landmark here simply because it’s the only one in the country) and continued through the suburbs towards Ghana Town and the countryside beyond. The road was a good tarmac strip – I could not only see it over the driver’s shoulder, but also through the holes in the floor beneath my feet – and we made good progress as we sped southwards down the coast through the Tanji River Reserve. This area of tidal lagoons, mangrove swamps, coastal scrub and dry savannah has been protected since 1993 because of the variety of bird life and is a popular haunt for “twitchers” as over 300 different species of bird have been recorded here including 34 birds of prey. Tanji was not my destination today however, and we continued south to Sanyang where we deposited the pile of jerrycans, two children and mother and made a short detour to collect more passengers, then back onto the tarmac for the short distance to Gunjur. Here we disembarked at a petrol station where there appeared to be a couple of fruit stalls, a bunch of small boys playing football, two empty taxis, and nothing else, so I began to walk.

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About a mile down the road I found a sign pointing into the bush indicating a women’s garden project with solar borehole sponsored by a Dutch group and I set off to investigate. A sandy track led past a couple of compounds where the children greeted me with the usual shouts of “toubab” and disappeared into the scrub. After five minutes walking and no sign of the gardens I gained a friend, a young man on a bicycle who attached himself to me to act as my guide, and after asking directions in Mandinka (him, not me) from a couple of ladies with the usual large loads on their heads we ended up back near my starting point, in a large garden with a number of ladies drawing water by bucket from concrete lined wells, and the only man in sight watering bananas from a hosepipe connected to an elevated storage tank filled from the well by a solar panel powered pump.Gambia_0189

After a short inspection and thanking those present, we retraced our steps, crossed the road and entered Gunjur which turned out to be quite a large settlement, but set back in the bush away from the roadside which is why I had not spotted it before. Here we enjoyed a bottle of pop in the marketplace before yet again I retraced my steps and began to walk south towards Kartong.

As I stepped out along the roadside I came up with two young men from Guinea Conakry who were working in the Gambia and for the next half hour we chatted as we walked until we came to the village of Madina Salaam where I left them and turned off to follow a track down towards the beach.

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At the end of the track I came to Hotel Nemasu, hoping to find a cold drink, but seeing no-one by the bar I continued onto the beach which appeared deserted apart from two dogs enjoying the shade of a thatched umbrella, and I joined them on a sun lounger while I surveyed the scene and opened my bottle of squash. I was soon joined by Lamin from Nemasu who had come to tidy up round the sunloungers and was as surprised by my presence as I was by his. The dogs too were delighted to have some attention after a quiet morning and we sat together for a while until I decided to move on.

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As I walked south again in the edge of the waves I was joined by the only other person in sight, a young man by the name of Bubacarr Chune who walked with me for what seemed like miles telling me his life story without seeing another soul until he could steer me skilfully into “About Time”, a small bar in the sand dunes newly set up very recently by one of his friends. The owner and another friend – a couple of Bob Marley lookalikes – were drinking attaya (what a surprise!), so after the usual complimentary glass I felt I should splash out on four bottles of pop and was treated to a drumming session by my new found friend. I had walked a long distance and was glad of a rest in the shade but Bubacarr was keen to take me to “the lagoons” so after a brief respite we set off south again, fortunately only a short distance through the dunes until we came to some old sand pits which he seemed surprised to find were dry. I persuaded my young companion that I had gone far enough for the day and after another half hour walking back northwards along an almost deserted road we parted company – he to walk back to his grandmother’s house in Gunjur, and I to turn west into a sandy lane marked by the sign showing three concentric rings for Sandele Bay eco-retreat…………..

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To be continued………….

Transferred!

Since I last wrote about work I have been moved from the Department of Agriculture Headquarters at Bakau and am now working out of town near the airport. I was called to the office of the Deputy Director General about ten days ago and informed that I was being posted to the Department of Agriculture regional offices at Yundum to be based there under the direction of Mr Ousman Jammeh, Head of the West Coast Region where I’m told there is “plenty of work”! My new duties began almost immediately as the rest of the day was spent with my new boss attending a meeting of stakeholders in the West African Agricultural Productivity Programme (WAAPP) whose main purpose was to present an interim progress report to representatives of the World Bank and the Spanish Government (major funding providers) on how their funding had been spent so far, and what the planned activities of the programme in the Gambia were for 2013.

I was introduced to quite a number of new faces, mostly from the Department of Agriculture and NARI (the National Agricultural Research Institute) and will no doubt be meeting some of them again during the course of the coming weeks, and I  then spent an interesting afternoon learning a little about WAAPP and the relationships between the various organisations involved, principally the World Bank, DOA, NARI, and the National Environment Agency.

The following Monday was my first day at the new office and I spent most of my time attending meetings with the Director and some of the senior Agricultural Officers. The first meeting was with representatives of a local village group to discuss support by the Department for a new horticultural project. It appears that the project has been instigated by a “new” village group, but that now that it looks as if they will receive DOA backing, two other established village groups want to become involved. The discussion seemed to centre around the provision of land for the project, and how to maintain the support of all and ensure the various groups work together without one group being dominant, although the Department would prefer to work through an existing group which already has a formal constitution and management structure, bank accounts etc, rather than a newly set up group with no measurable business record. A meeting is now due to be held with the village elders for further discussions on how to proceed.

The second meeting with about 25 local farmers, mostly women, was conducted in two languages – Wolof and Mandinka, and when anyone spoke it was immediately repeated in the other language for the benefit of those who might not understand it first time. My knowledge of Wolof is very limited and my Mandinka virtually non existent but I think I managed to get the gist of the meeting although much of the detail escaped me. It did help that I knew the agenda in advance! The meeting was in preparation for the official handover next Saturday of a new butchery at Kotu which has been supported by the DOA, and was a final planning meeting to discuss the guest list, and make sure all parties knew their responsibilities on the day – who was in charge of getting tents and chairs, who was to do the catering and for how many, how many tee shirts should be ordered etc. I will have to make sure I have a smart shirt and trousers to wear as it’s an important event and will be attended by Mr Solomon Owens (the Minister of Agriculture), the Mayor, the Paramount Chief, the Imam, local councillors, and various other honoured guests, so there will be prayers, quite a number of speeches by the dignitaries, (with musical interludes), and of course the obligatory Gambian hospitality! It promises to be a “good do” as we say at home, but I expect I’ll have to walk back to my lodgings afterwards – a brisk hour and a quarter along the beach – to burn off some calories!

Language Practice…..and a Feast

The main part of our schooling during the last week has been language lessons. Three of our group who will be working further out from the Kombos are learning Mandinka which is more useful “up country”, and the rest of us, myself included, are learning Wolof which is the predominant language in the urban area. Modu, our tutor (I’ll spell it as it is pronounced, rather than try to write in Wolof) is teaching us about the local culture and customs and trying to give us a grounding in basic phrases for greetings, getting around, shopping, and everyday life.

The Gambians are a very sociable people to whom greetings are very important so it is only good manners when meeting to exchange several phrases of greeting, and to ask how they are, and how the family is, even if we have not met them before. So we begin each conversation with the ritual phrases “nanga def” (How are you?) to which the reply is “mang fi” (I’m fine) even if you are not fine, followed by “ana waa kur ga” (How’s the family?), to which the reply is “ñun fa” (They’re fine), and probably other queries about “How’s your day going?”, “How is work/business?” and various other good wishes including the catch all “salaam aleekum” (response “maleekum salaam”) or “jamarek”, wishing each other peace and goodwill, before we begin to think about the business of the conversation for example “Please may I have two bread rolls?”.

This morning, for a practical lesson we were taken to Serekunda where there is a huge market selling fish, meat, fruit and vegetables, clothes, household goods, fabrics etc, and there let loose to practice our Wolof skills on the stallholders by enquiring about prices, what some of the items were (there are plenty of foodstuffs I have never seen, or can’t name) and to buy the ingredients for our lunch. I was delighted to be asked by one lady “deega nga olof?” (Do you speak Wolof?) in response to my stumbling enquiry about the price of tomatoes, but had to reply truthfully “tutti, tutti” (A very little). Still at least she understood and I bought 5 tomatoes for 10p!

Following our shopping experience we went back to Kanifing to the compound of Awr (Eve) another of our language trainers to help make a “benacin” (One pot) using the meat and vegetables we had bought earlier. The ladies of the compound were very patient with our efforts, instructing some of us how they wanted the vegetables prepared (large pieces mostly it seems) while others of our group helped with the preparation of “juusi buy” (baobab juice) which involves soaking pieces of the baobab fruit in water, then sieving it and adding large quantities of sugar, condensed milk, vanilla essence, banana, (or other fruit) and results in a delicious sweet creamy fluid like liquid silk. You will think the taste can’t be improved until you discover wonjo juice which looks like blackcurrant and is produced by boiling a dried red (sorrell?) flower in a pan of water with a little mint. I missed the rest of the process as I was peeling onions, so there may be other ingredients too, but when this is filtered and added to the baobab juice the resulting mixture is like nectar of the Gods

Soaking baobab for the juice

Soaking baobab for the juice

Juusi buy nearly ready

Juusi buy nearly ready

Cookhouse duty for the boys

Cookhouse duty for the boys

Ready for the pot

Ready for the pot

Meanwhile the meat was fried in oil, and added to what can only be described as a cast aluminium cauldron over a wood fire together with a large quantity of stock with tomato paste and various spices, herbs and flavourings and bucket loads of vegetables, and left to bubble away while we chatted and drank glasses of “attaya” a sweet frothy tea, and the remains of the bowl of “juusi buy”. Maybe 90 minutes later after some of the vegetables had been removed to prevent overcooking, a huge bowl of rice was put to steam over the cauldron, and then later still mixed in with the stew and covered to soak up the juice. The result when dinner was served, fed about 30 people very well, tasted delicious, and if our budget was anything like correct had cost less than £1 per head.

Traditionally Gambians eat together from a large communal bowl using their right hand to pick out pieces of meat or vegetables and to knead small balls of rice and dip it in the juices, but as “toubabs” and honoured guests we were provided with plastic garden chairs and spoons which made eating a little easier. So “jerejef” and “jamarek” to Awr and her extended family for a great meal and good company and for introducing me to some unknown vegetables.

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Lots of stirring…..

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…..and pounding

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…..till the boys return from school….

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……and we can sit down with Awr to enjoy the feast