Rain!!

There will be no watering today! The rains have finally come to this little corner of the Gambia. During the last week we had two false starts with a few small raindrops, but not even enough to settle the dust, but I was woken around 2am by the sound of steady rainfall on the mango trees around my house. After a while the wind increased and we had short spells of heavier rain with lightning, but it has now settled back to a steady persistent downpour which has cooled everything down. The change is a welcome relief after the last couple of weeks as the heat had become quite oppressive and the vegetation looks clean and green as the plants soak up the welcome moisture. Meanwhile I am told that in some communities up country cattle are dying from drought as they have to walk miles to the nearest water source.

So far not all our staff have arrived for work. The rain makes access more difficult as the dusty red roads leading to the highway quickly turn to a sticky mud. Fortunately the farm vehicle, an old Toyota jeep, has just been serviced ready for the rainy season, and the drive shaft to the front axle (which for some reason had previously been removed) has now been refitted so we should have 4WD to get in and out. If not it will be a case for rolling up your trouser legs and pushing!

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Colours of decay

The regular task of picking fallen mangos continues. Each morning the first job for everyone is to gather the fruit which have dropped during the night. Usually there are about three wheelbarrow loads – too many to be used and in any case some are overripe, damaged by the impact as they hit the grounds, or half eaten by the fruit bats which flap about between the trees at dusk and chatter noisily over the fruits hanging in the mango trees above my house as I lie in bed. These fruit are just dumped to rot either on a large heap in the orchard, or in a plastic water tank from which the juice is collected for recycling through the biogas plant, and then back onto the garden.

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Earlier in the season the surplus were fed to the pigs, but now even they are sick of mangos! The female is pregnant and due to farrow shortly so perhaps I will see a litter of piglets before I leave next week. The male meanwhile, having been castrated after he had done his duty is being fattened up ready for sale. What a life!

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Bath time for the boar pig

Fruit and moringa processing continues although we need the sun to operate the solar driers and at present there is no sign of that today. The sky is a dull grey sheet of unbroken cloud and it is still raining steadily but it will hopefully clear out before midday and if the sun comes out the garden will soon dry.

The current crops in the garden are nearly finished – most of the tomatoes and pumpkins have been pulled up and about half the cabbages have now been sold although the smaller ones still remain. The garden eggs (aubergines) cropped badly and were heavily infested by mealy bugs so have been cut back but should regenerate during the rainy season. There are still a few lettuces and some “cucha” (local greens). A new crop of pumpkins has been sown but germination was poor, and the garden egg seedlings sown in pots about the same time have been attacked by insects and look sickly. The next main crops will be ground nuts, beans and wonjo (sorrel) and the advent of rain has made the soil soft so it can be easily turned ready for sowing. Babucarr has been sent to market to buy seeds and three of the boys are now busy with spades digging the empty beds. Once these crops have been established the main tasks for rainy season will be regular weeding to keep the crops clean and the daily African ritual of raking and sweeping to keep the farm tidy.

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Sowing groundnuts

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Two methods of planting – on the right dropping into holes made by the previous man with a stick. On the left digging and covering with a hand hoe.

Advanced method! Horse drawn seeder following a 2-cow plough

Advanced method! Horse drawn seeder following a 2-cow plough

……… the rains ceased mid morning but without any sign of the sun so mango drying was postponed until another day. I spent most of the day sorting onions into three heaps – those that are rotten and unusable, those that can be re-bagged and will keep a while longer, and those are beginning to go bad but can still be used in the farm kitchen provided we do so without delay. These onions were lifted before I arrived and left to dry on mesh screens, and I had assumed that in Gambia they would dry easily and keep well but it appears this isn’t so.

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Back home onions would be left in the ground without watering for a while to dry before being lifted, but here it seems they are vulnerable to attack by termites once watering ceases. After lifting and drying for several weeks they were bagged for storage in expectation of a market price increase but already quite a lot are showing signs of rotting, some from the centre, some from the outside. Sorting is a slow job as each onion bulb has to be inspected and then many of them then have the outer layers carefully removed until clean dry tissue is reached. It is also a smelly job and hands and fingernails need scrubbing well afterwards to get rid of the black slime and smell of rotten onions!

We had an interesting visitor last week when Kelly opened the back door of the duck house and found herself facing a spitting cobra in the nest box. He had presumably come looking for a meal of duck eggs and was not very pleased to be interrupted.

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It was the first time I had seen a snake on the farm although I had been told a cobra had been seen near the pig pens one evening, and at first we didn’t know what to do. Should we chase it out of the duck house, or keep it closed in where we knew its location? Fortunately there is a reptile farm in the Gambia, run by a Frenchman and we were able to track him down by phone, finding he was in fact at Sukuta, only a couple of miles away though without transport or snake catching equipment. A vehicle was sent to collect him and he duly caught and bagged the snake using a lasso made from electrical cable and some plastic water pipe. When Kelly offered to return him to a nearby junction on the route for catching a van back to his farm at Kartong he declined saying he was at Sukuta for three days and was apparently quite happy to keep his captive with him for the duration!

The rains have brought a flush of insects and another small visitor seen in the garden this morning was this praying mantis.MyFarm_397

We have also seen the sudden appearance of several monitor lizards, again presumably brought out by the prospect of food.

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This little chap was resting on top of a fence and seemed quite undisturbed by my presence. Two larger ones (about 60cm) foraging in the next field were very wary and kept well away from the camera. I managed to take one picture before my battery went flat, and of course when I returned five minutes later with a new battery the lizards were nowhere to be seen.

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Another busy week

This week has been very busy at MyFarm, but today (Saturday) all of a sudden we seem to have quietened down. Only one of the gardeners is at work today so we only complete the essential tasks. The rainy season has begun – it was raining up-country earlier this week, but it could be two or three weeks before the rains reach us down on the coastal strip, and the heat is increasing so it is important to keep up with the watering. By noon today the cabbages that I watered at breakfast time were wilting badly but after the second watering and as the day cools down they will soon recover. In some ways it is easier watering when there are fewer people working as there is less waiting for the tanks to fill than when we are all calling on the taps and we still seem to manage just as well!

The mangoes continue to ripen and we have been drying them each day, but just in small quantities at present. We have a new volunteer from the United States with us for the next three weeks and she has been slicing, drying and packaging most days since her arrival. Maris came to the Gambia about a month ago with a group of students from Pennsylvania and they came for a visit to MyFarm during their study tour bringing with them two suitcases full of much appreciated garden tools. The rest of the group flew home last weekend, but Maris had arranged to continue here another four weeks and spent much of her first week at MyFarm with the food processing section, so has also been making tomato jam. (I hadn’t heard of it before but it tastes good although it seems to me to taste of strawberries rather than tomatoes!) The new solar drier is working well and we have replaced with clear PVC the cover on the older one (it was covered in black polythene as last time it was renewed the PVC was not available, and as a result the mango slices were drying more slowly and turning black instead of retaining their lovely golden colour. The end product tasted fine but black chips are not very attractive!) Next week we will be stepping up production as more mangoes become ripe, but it is still a fairly slow process as each batch of sliced mangoes takes about a day and a half to dry. The slicing itself is also quite slow as the slices have to be cut around the stone – the large slices are dried but the smaller “offcuts” which are too small for drying will be made into jam.

We have also completed another two training sessions and now that the trainees have gone home, peace and quiet returns in the evenings. On Wednesday we were told that the group who were booked to arrive that evening had a programme somewhere else so would not be coming, but another group were found at short notice to come on Thursday morning and take their place. This sort of thing is quite common in the Gambia and I found it very frustrating when I was here before. A training session can be arranged weeks beforehand and a lot of time and effort put into organising a venue, staff, transport, food, accommodation etc, and then at the last minute it can be cancelled because it seems something else has come up which is more attractive or someone more important has decided to hold a programme! And the more important person who has organised something else which requires their attendance seems to totally disregard the fact that he – it is usually a man – has caused such disruption. It seems to me that it is part of the constant process of establishing your position in the hierarchy which is so important here. This is quite normal in both business and government from the small petty official up through the pecking order right up to the Big Man at the top.

A development worker I was talking to this week was telling me she recently wanted to go to a workshop organised by one of the Gambian government agencies, and as she was relatively new here she asked permission to go as an observer. The director told her she could not attend as an observer, but only as a participant, so she reluctantly agreed that she would participate whereupon she was told she could not attend as only those who had been invited could do so. Subsequently she was told that she could in fact attend, but only on the last day, and for the last session, and she then had some difficulty finding out when this would be! At around 2am on the morning of her proposed visit she received a message (from the director) telling her she would be expected to address the attendees, so before leaving home at 6.30am to go to the venue, she drafted a statement for the event, only to find out upon arrival that she was not to address the group she expected, but a different audience entirely. A hasty revision of her notes was carried out in the corridor and she then delivered her speech and invited questions. During the Q&A session, the (same) director tried to intervene and answer some of the questions put to her, on her behalf before she had chance to answer herself! No doubt he was only bolstering his own importance and trying to “put her in her place”, but this attitude which is so prevalent in Gambia prevents so much being achieved, when a little cooperation instead would go a long way.

During the course of this week we have also hosted four school visits during which the children are shown round the farm and environmental issues such as deforestation, solar power and biogas are discussed, as well as seeing the schoolrooms, the crops, the fish pond, and (most importantly!) the rabbits. These visits can involve large groups such as the one which arrived with 120 primary and nursery school children just after we closed at 5pm one day.

The children were fascinated by the fishpond

The children were fascinated by the fish pond

All about compost

All about compost

I’m told that this particular school is always badly organised and despite repeated requests often arrives here late in the day. I felt so sorry for those little kids – it appeared that they had already made two visits elsewhere that day and they must have been exhausted. Their teachers, particularly the man in charge, spent a lot of time waving a stick and shouting at them – behaviour which seems quite common in some schools. “Come here!”, “Be quiet!”,”Pay attention!”, “Move back!”, “Ask questions all of you!” etc. The smallest children in particular just seemed confused and wanted to rest and have a drink of water, but that wasn’t allowed. Just more stick waving and shouting; meanwhile Alhagie who was leading the tour had to try to command their attention, tell them about MyFarm and inspire future interest. I felt sorry for him too! Apart from the fact that they enjoyed their picnic tea in the pleasant surroundings of MyFarm, (perhaps that is why they came here last) I can’t see that the kids would derive any benefit whatsoever from their visit.

Alhagie explaining solar energy

Alhagie explaining solar energy………

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……and biogas “from pig pooh pooh”

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By contrast, another group which arrived after closing time having informed us shortly beforehand that they were on their way, rather than requesting a visit, was a small group of maybe twenty secondary school pupils who would no doubt gain rather more from the trip and came across to the table where I was sitting before they left with the express purpose it seemed of each shaking my hand, thanking me for the visit and saying they would come again. Perhaps I looked important!

Alternative Energy

When I was last in the Gambia I used a small solar powered cell on occasions when our area had power cuts. It was about the size of a small paperback and provided just enough power to charge my tablet or mobile phone a couple of times. Here at MyFarm however we rely on the sun for most of our energy needs and on cloudy overcast days some activities are curtailed as a result. All the electricity on site is provided from solar panels which charge a battery bank and provide all our lighting, power to run a number of computers and a printer, a fridge, and most importantly the water pump. The water used here comes from our own borehole and is pumped to a network of standpipes and storage tanks strategically placed round the gardens. This provides the water necessary for regular (usually twice daily) watering of the food crops and some of the ornamental borders, a fishpond, and of course all washing up, laundry, and personal bathing. The last item usually includes a most welcome cold shower each evening although sometimes when the tanks are fairly empty, I have to supplement it with a bucket which I keep filled ready for use on days when the water pressure is low. Last night however I was pleasantly surprised by a decent flow in my bathroom rather than the expected trickle. Either the sun had been shining for longer than the previous day and pumped more into the holding tanks, or we had used less water in the garden.

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These four panels power the water pump but had to be removed for a new building, so we are on a temporary setup with only two at present

The panels which power the pump were moved to make way for the new food processing building just after I arrived here and at present only half of them are connected so it will be interesting to see what a difference to the water supply it makes when all of them are functioning again.

I mentioned using the solar oven last week to bake cakes and sterilise jars for filling with jams or beauty products and we also use parabolic reflectors to heat water. We have several in the kitchen area which are used daily but as with the solar ovens they have to be correctly aligned to the sun and regularly repositioned to be effective.

2 parabolic solar cookers

2 parabolic solar cookers

The other main use of solar power here is to dry products such as moringa, lemon grass, and fruit. We recently took delivery of a new solar drier from the local joiner, and I have spent some time this week treating it to preserve the wood, and fitting a solar powered fan and the iron hoops over which is stretched a transparent PVC cover. The frame is mahogany which glows a rich dark colour as I rub on a coat of shea butter and my hands now feel soft and smooth – shea butter is a fat derived from the nut of an African tree and is widely used in the cosmetics industry, as well as some chocolate. Yesterday morning we began a trial run drying a few sliced mangoes, but it seems the solar cell (recycled from an old lamp) is not providing enough power as the fan is slow to start in the morning and not turning fast enough to keep an adequate air flow through the drier, so we’ll have to see if we can find another solar panel.

New solar drier – trial run

The finished product

The finished product

These mango chips have dried too slowly and are starting to turn black

These mango chips have dried too slowly and are starting to turn black

We also produce biogas from animal manure and other organic waste which is mixed with water to form a slurry and fed down a pipe into an underground digestion chamber. The gas produced (mainly methane) pushes up a 300 litre plastic barrel “gasometer” and the digestate then passes on into another tank from which it is extracted and either diluted to use as fertiliser, or fed back into the start of the system and put through again. It is a very small scale operation for demonstration purposes, but can produce enough gas to boil the water for our breakfast tea.

The biogas plant

The biogas plant

What goes in at one end

What goes in at one end

What comes out the other end

What comes out the other end

A group of students from Bwiam learning about biogas. The

A group of students from Bwiam learning about biogas. The “gasometer” is the blue barrel with blocks on top to push it down.

This week the gas ring would not light so I have been trying to find out why. The delivery pipe from the tank was partly blocked, but after cleaning it out the pressure still seems low although the gasometer is raised and the stove will still not stay alight. I will have to investigate further.

The training courses continue – we have had two more groups here this week making soap and body butter, and it seems they enjoyed themselves as there was much singing, clapping, and dancing from both groups when they were due to leave. Their trips to market to sell soap went well and both groups made enough money to take a set of soap moulds back to their villages so they can start production at home.

Meanwhile the joiners have arrived to fit doors and windows to the new building (and also some fly screens in my windows), and a gang arrived on Thursday with a lorry load of grass from “up country” to re-thatch the schoolroom. They worked hard all day but hadn’t brought quite enough material with them to complete it so had to go home although they have promised to return on Sunday and finish the job off.

Trying to cut costs - the roofers didn't bring quite enough thatch and will now have to buy some more locally at their own expense.!

Trying to cut costs – the roofers didn’t bring quite enough thatch and will now have to buy some more locally at their own expense. Meanwhile we hope it doesn’t rain as the apex is open to the sky!

At this time of year, as the rainy season approaches the roof needs to be closed as soon as possible. We were expecting the roofing gang ten days ago but apparently they had a “programme” (party!) of some kind to attend up country and have only just re-appeared.