Business As Normal

Christmas is over, the New Year has passed and life returns to normal both here in rural North Yorkshire, and also in the Gambia. For me this means more time spent in the workshop on the Land Rover restoration project, and now at last it seems we are about halfway. For a while it seemed that my days were taken up by degreasing and cleaning the various parts that had been removed from the vehicle ready for shotblasting to remove all traces of rust. Meanwhile Dunstan was busy replacing sections of the bulkhead that were badly corroded – a time consuming task, but there are no half measures here. The phrase “near enough” doesn’t appear in his vocabulary, so if the repair is not up to his exacting standards, work continues until it is. As a result, the old bulkhead has now come back from the paintshop looking like new with no visible seams to show where he has replaced metal, a tribute both to Dunstan’s metalworking skills and to the care taken by Rob the painter. If all the panels are to this standard I will be highly satisfied. He has also replaced some panels on the rear tub, and that is now ready to go into the paintshop.

Bulkhead with heater box refitted

Bulkhead with heater box refitted

I thought that my days of leaving work with fingernails black from the degreaser were over, but having spent yesterday morning spraying etch primer onto the newly shotblasted axle casings and a myriad of other smaller parts I found my left thumb completely black from holding small pieces so I could turn them as I sprayed. A rub with white spirit made no difference, but fortunately a few minutes scrubbing at home with a Brillo pad made my nails look reasonably presentable again, and I was no longer one of the Black Hand Gang! We have suffered a few delays due to holiday closures, waiting for parts, and some unforeseen problems. The rear axle tube when cleaned up was quite worn on one side and although it may have lasted for years, we decided to replace it rather than risk it cracking, so have found a good secondhand replacement from a military vehicle supplier. Similarly we found that the splines on the gearbox output shaft were very worn which has necessitated a gearbox rebuild.

Worn axle tube

Worn axle tube

Replacement axle tubes newly primed

Replacement axle tubes newly primed

More newly primed parts

More newly primed parts

Worn gearbox output shaft

Worn gearbox output shaft

Unfortunately the shaft in question is the very last part to come out when dismantling the gearbox, but at least it means that every part will be inspected, checked, and if necessary replaced while the gearbox is in bits. Currently we are delayed by the brand new front doors as it seems that some of the brackets which secure the window winder mechanism in the door frame are in the wrong place. I am now trying to source the necessary brackets so that we can weld them into the right place on the frame, but of course this means that the doors cannot go to paint yet, and unless we are lucky finding the necessary brackets quickly it will hold things up.

In the Gambia meanwhile there has been an attempted coup. It seems that during the night of 30th December while the President was enjoying a trip to Dubai, a group of armed men attacked his official residence, the State House in Banjul, hoping to take power, but were fairly easily beaten off. The plot seems to have emanated from a small group of Gambian dissidents, (some formerly in the Gambian army) based in the USA and financed by a Texan Gambian businessman who rather naively thought that if they mounted an attack, that other Gambian soldiers would rally to their cause and topple the current regime. In the event, several of them including their alleged leader Lt Col Lamin Sanneh were killed and the remainder fled. Two of the ringleaders are now back in the USA being held by the FBI and charged with trying to overthrow President Jammeh. This is a rather curious, not to say embarrassing situation as the USA is a strong critic of President Jammeh who is known for his repression of the opposition and his outspoken anti western views, and the Americans now find themselves in the strange position that they may well be helping him to tighten his grip on power

The President meanwhile has reshuffled his cabinet and declared that he is “going to get rid of these elements one by one until the last person”. He has denied that this was a coup attempt, just an attack by terrorists. Perhaps there is a difference between this attack and his own seizure of power back in 1994, but I find it hard to perceive, and hope he will not use it as an excuse for a clampdown and a further purge of anyone who opposes his rule.

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.



So, finally I have bought a car!

Several months ago I started looking for a vehicle so that I could get out of Kombo and explore the country easily, and I was also beginning to make plans for leaving the Gambia next March with the intention, if possible, of driving back to the UK via Senegal, Mauritania, Western Sahara, Morocco, Spain and France. If this trip was to take place I decided I would need a reasonably good four wheel drive so I started looking around for something suitable, preferably a Land Rover Discovery as I have some experience with Land Rovers. There are a lot of second-hand cars for sale in Kombo, just parked by the side of the road, each with a paper in the window saying “For Sale” and a telephone number, but no other information, so it is necessary to ring up to enquire the price which is invariably quoted as a “starting price”, but also invariably seems to be higher when the vendor is speaking to a European. (As a result, with a couple of them I asked a Gambian friend to ring on my behalf and the initial asking price seemed rather lower than if I had made the call myself). Most of the vehicles here have been imported second hand from Europe, but they soon deteriorate in the Gambia (largely through lack of maintenance and rough treatment) so although I looked at a number of them, I only saw one which I thought was in reasonable condition – it was a Discovery which had arrived from Netherlands only recently but was priced a little above my budget, and while I waited hoping the price would come down, it was sold to someone else. (The prices here seem to be around 40-50% more than I would expect to pay for a similar vehicle in the UK, but of course reflect the shipping costs, import duty, and vendor’s profit margin). Nearly all are left hand drive, and the UK sourced Land Rovers have mostly been converted from right hand drive, which if not done well can cause problems, so much so that the local independent Land Rover specialist (an ex-pat from the UK who has been running a garage business out here for many years) told me not to even consider a conversion.

At the same time as looking for a car I was also planning a possible route home and trying to find out what paperwork was needed for my trip in terms of visas for the various countries en route, vehicle documents, and motor insurance. I contacted my insurance broker at home (and quite a number of others who said they specialised in motor insurance overseas) but have so far been unable to find anyone to provide the necessary cover. UK brokers seem unable to provide insurance outside Europe, and the Gambian companies seem only able to provide cover as far north as Senegal, which leaves a large gap in the middle (I think in practice that no-one will provide insurance for Mauritania!). In addition it seems that I would be unable to import a Gambian registered vehicle into the UK so I was left with the possibility of driving to Tangiers and abandoning my car on the dock side, or spending a few days there in the hope of finding someone who would buy it from me for a reasonable price. So what to do?

It had occurred to me that if I shipped a vehicle from the UK, I could retain the UK registration, take it back to the UK with me and then keep it when I got home. This would cost me a little more but I knew I would end up with a better vehicle and have no problems on my return home. Having spoken to a number of shipping companies to find out the cost of shipping (and various port charges and handling costs!) I then went to see the Customs. Here I was informed that I would need to obtain permission from both the Commissioner General of Customs and the Chief of Police for a temporary importation, and they assured me that this would not take long to obtain. I would however have to write to them with full details of the vehicle, supported by a letter from the Department of Agriculture saying that my stay here was only temporary and that I would be leaving the country in March, which left me in a quandary. To give the vehicle information required in this letter I would have to buy a vehicle in the UK before I even knew whether I could get permission to ship it out here, so I eventually decided against this course of action as I thought this was a little risky (or possibly costly!).

It seems that I’m going the wrong way, as driving from Europe to Africa would be a lot easier. Each year there are several organised “rallies” where travellers drive from the UK (Plymouth – Banjul), or Europe (Amsterdam – Dakar) in an organised group for an adventure holiday, terminating here in the Gambia where the vehicles are usually sold for charity.  So when last week I saw an advertisement in the newspaper that such a rally had just arrived and the cars would be auctioned on the Sunday at Independence Stadium which is ten minutes walk from my home, I decided to go and have a look. The auction was scheduled to start at 10am, but by 9.30am only three or four of the forty or so vehicles had arrived on site and the Director of the President Jammeh Foundation for Peace was getting quite annoyed with the Dutch organisers because she wanted the auction to start on time. (This is quite un-Gambian behaviour, as you will note from my previous blogs that Gambians have no sense of time and everything starts late here). In due course the cars arrived and the sale started about 10.45 by which time a small crowd had gathered together with representatives from Skye Bank (payment had to be in cash on the day), and the Customs (to collect import duty). There was a wide selection to choose from – vans and cars of various sizes and in various states of repair, together with a number of 4WD vehicles, some of them rather smart. I would have liked one of the latter, but although I thought some of them were good value for money, they were beyond my budget so I eventually settled for a Dutch 1992 Volvo 245 estate with 3 spare wheels and an assortment of spares which by the time I had paid import duty, cost me the equivalent of about £1050.


Still in Europe – Amsterdam I guess judging by the bicycles!



Mamakoto, Bakau. Journey’s end – Or is it?


The Teddy Bear survived the trip

I’m now looking forward to some trips out – so far I’ve only driven it from the stadium up to the nearby compound of the Department of Agriculture for safe keeping while I apply for number plates and arrange insurance. So far this has involved a number of telephone calls and I now have to go to Banjul where I will no doubt have to visit various official offices and pay various charges before I can legally get on the road. Of course they are only open in my normal working hours so I will have to take time off next week to arrange this – I’ll let you know how I get on!