Home Sweet Home

I’ve been in the Gambia nearly a month now, and haven’t yet said anything about where I’m now living. The initial stay in Safari Garden Hotel (which I thoroughly recommend if you’re intending a visit!) allowed us to acclimatise gently, but after five days of pampering, those of us who are based locally were moved to our permanent homes. In my case this means Bakau, which forms part of the sprawling conurbation known as the Kombos just south of the capital Banjul. It’s a tourist area here, which means we have a small supermarket stocking a range of goods (Cornflakes, Typhoo Tea, Robinson’s Fruit Squash, Cheddar cheese) which you don’t normally find in the “bitiko” (corner shop), and you’re more likely to pick up a pineapple or something more exotic in our local market than in the big market at Serrekunda although of course the fruit here like everything else, is also rather more expensive. Bakau is a coastal development and I’m only about ten minutes walk from the beach where, in an afternoon it’s a hive of activity as the fishing boats arrive back with their day’s catch and gangs of young men wade out to meet them, waist high in the waves and carrying one or more plastic fish crates to fill with the shining harvest. The crates look heavy and some of the boys carry two at a time on their head and jog back to the beach and onto the quayside as if they were empty. Here the fish is tipped out into different boxes according to type, and packed in ice before being taken away or stored in one of the multitude of rusty chest freezers which litter the fish quay – the freezers are no longer working but act as insulated storage to keep their contents fresh until the following day. This is the best place to buy fish, straight off the boat, but there is also a good vantage point on the terrace of the guest house above where you can sit with a cooling drink and watch the milling throng.

Across the road from the sea lies Bakau market – a crowded jumble of small stalls where you can buy not only fruit and vegetables but also meat and fish (if you’re not bothered by the crowds of flies !), clothes, plastic bowls and bottles, mobile phones, spices and herbs, and of course crafts for the tourist – paintings and wooden carvings, drums, beads, bracelets and batik prints. Threading your way through the market – the alleyways are hardly wide enough for two people to pass without touching – you emerge at the back into a small sandy lane lined by yet more traders which in turn leads onto a maze of dusty streets where you will find my new home, just near the crocodile pool (but more of that another day).

 

 

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I’m living in a small rendered bungalow within a compound but it’s probably not the sort of compound you imagine when you think of a British ex-pat. Everybody lives in a compound but there are no carefully manicured lawns here – in our case we are surrounded by a neat 6′ concrete block wall and steel doors although some of our less well off neighbours have corrugated iron sheets as fencing. I saw one of the guide books describe our area as a “shanty town” which I think is unfair, but certainly my own lodgings are a cut above the housing of many of the local residents – and considerably less crowded. I share two thirds of the bungalow with Munya, a young volunteer from Zimbabwe who is also working at the Department of Agriculture, and the remaining third (a self contained unit) was empty until this weekend when a new couple moved in. Alongside us is another similar bungalow occupied by a couple of young Dutch volunteers, with the smaller part of their bungalow as yet unoccupied. We have piped water (cold only), a shower, western-style flush toilet, and a small kitchen with fridge and 2 burner gas hob. By local standards this is quite luxurious and so far the only downside I’ve found is the irregularity of the electricity supply – often it seems to be off just when we need it, but I’ve quickly learned to keep a torch handy after dark (even/especially in the shower!), and to plug my laptop and phone in to charge whenever possible as you’re never sure when you’ll lose power. Similarly the water supply fails from time to time so we keep a couple of jerry cans for storage, and a bucket and dipper in the shower just in case it stops when you have soaped up! Outside is a small patio with seating area and an outside tap visited occasionally by some of the neighbours (presumably when theirs is off or there is a queue at the communal standpipe.)

From the yard door leads a smart passageway with a string of lights in the walls to another wrought iron gate opening onto Mamakoto Road and the outside world. (Normally the streets are very busy, but it looks a lot quieter in the photos simply because it was Friday and most of the population were at the mosque.)

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First thoughts

Well I’ve been here in The Gambia three days now but it seems like an eternity since I arrived. There were four of us flying from Heathrow on a packed plane to Casablanca, then onward to Banjul via Conakry in Guinea, a trip which took about ten and a half hours. At Conakry the plane emptied most of its human cargo and almost immediately filled up again with the same number for the final 80 minutes or so to Banjul. Obviously a popular route, with European faces in the minority so we received our first taste of African society on the trip. We landed about 3.30am but clearing immigration took about an hour – three of our number plus another volunteer from the Phillipines who had joined the plane at Casablanca came through without incident, but the fourth member of our team (who shall be nameless to protect the innocent) was pulled out for questioning – probably because of the sheer amount of luggage he had brought. Poor Rao – it seems that all his family had contributed items to his luggage and he arrived heavily laden!

We were met at the airport as promised by Alieu from VSO and driven the short distance from the airport to our beds at the Safari Garden hotel. Tired but not sleepy, I spent the first hour reading part of the welcome pack provided by the office to prepare us for life in The Gambia, before finally falling asleep about 5am. As a result I was surprised to be awake about 9am the following morning and ready to meet the others for breakfast in the courtyard. It was a day to ourselves as we were the first group to arrive and the others were not due to land until 11pm so we had a relaxing morning, then about midday we set off as a group for a walk along the nearby beach.

FIVE HOURS LATER we arrived back at the hotel. It seemed as if the entire population of The  Gambia wanted to be our friends, shake hands, welcome us to the country, and find out our names and where we came from. We cooled our feet in the waves, drank freshly pressed juice and ate fruit from some of the many stalls along the sand, apparently in the process becoming part of the family for Mama and Fatou Binto, who taught us a few words in Wolof, then left their stall to show us back to the coast road and along the way told us about many of the plants that were being grown in the market gardens we passed  through. I must also mention Maria and Maya at the craft market who are ready to provide all our tailoring requirements in nice brightly coloured printed fabric – I believe I became engaged to one of them (possibly both!) but must certainly remember not to patronise any other seamstress when the time comes for me to buy a new shirt!

The following day, in company with the new arrivals we were taken to the VSO office to meet Haddy and the rest of the staff, receive details of the forthcoming In Country Training, and fill in the various forms for bank accounts,  Residency Permits, Tax Identification Numbers (- although we don’t pay tax here on our allowances, we need this detail in order to open a bank account). We were also each given a bundle of banknotes equating to about £130 sterling which is our first month’s living allowance, and two SIM cards, so I can now talk to the world on my new Africell mobile telephone number. There are currently about 51 dalasi to the £ sterling, and a meal costing 200 dalasi would be considered quite expensive – in fact today we have eaten well at a roadside stand for 30 dalasi each – thanks Omar, we’ll definitely be back. By 2.30pm we were free for the rest of the day until evening when we were due to meet with Abdoulie our VSO Programme Manager for dinner at the Safari Garden. It’s a hard life!