Escape from the city (Part 2)

As I walked down the lane I was met by a group of smiling Gambian ladies, apparently some of the staff going off duty, and soon emerged into a clearing where I had my first sight of the emblematic domed lodges. By now however I was being greeted by another smiling lady and was soon esconced in a comfortable chair on the terrace with a refreshing glass of wonjo juice. Two wonjos later, and following an excellent lunch, I met Maurice – one half of the team behind the vision of Sandele, and was soon being shown to palatial quarters in lodge no 2, quietly situated along with three similar lodges in the bush a few yards away.

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These lodges designed and created by Maurice and Geri using compressed earth blocks are each characterised by a large domed brick roof thus minimising the use of timber (deforestation is a major problem in the Gambia as the population cut down vast areas of trees for building and firewood leading to serious land degradation and erosion). This building technique was new to the Gambia and they had to import the block-making machine and send two local craftsmen to India to learn the skills necessary for construction – skills which since then have been put to use elsewhere, most notably in the construction of the Ebujan Theatre in Kanifing which is presently the largest brick domed structure in (West) Africa. Sandele is built on principles of sustainability, and this principle extends not only to the construction of the lodges which are equipped with solar water heating, composting toilets and water recycling, but also to solar panels and wind turbines to produce power, the employment of over 75% staff from the local community, sourcing of all food locally, support for local craftsmen, and establishment of a community development fund which receives a contribution for every bed/night booked. In addition when they began the creation of their dream, Maurice and Geri entered into an agreement whereby after 25 years the 26 hectares of land on which Sandele stands, together with everything on it, becomes the property of the community of Kartong.

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I spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing and inspecting my surroundings before enjoying the luxury of a HOT shower for the first time since I arrived in The Gambia, followed by dinner in good company on the terrace, and then retired to a huge half tester bed with crisp linen sheets and only the ocean for company, lulled to sleep by the sound of the waves instead of the usual loud music and drumming into the early hours to which I have become accustomed in Bakau.

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I was woken by bird song at first light and spent an hour wandering alone along the beach watching fishing boats in the distance and trying to pick out the birds in the thick vegetation of the forest. About nine o’clock, after taking breakfast in solitary splendour – it was a Sunday after all and my fellows were apparently taking advantage of a lie-in, I set off down the road to Kartong. The only traffic was on foot like myself, or on bicycles which approached slowly in the heat or crept up noiselessly behind. I met a few small children eager to greet me with the standard “Hello, how are you? What is your name?” and shake hands, and by ten I was turning off the tarmac down a wide red strip heading through the Bird Sanctuary towards the beach.  From time to time I had to step off the road to avoid the dust from a stream of tipper lorries carrying more red earth to where a bulldozer and a motor grader were making a new road section. It seems that a new mosque is being built here right on the coast and quite a way from any major habitation which seems an odd choice of site, particularly as there is an existing mosque which is currently being extended and refurbished on a sand dune next to the sea only a couple of miles away. When I had seen it the previous day I thought it was a luxury hotel being built, but it seems that the site is considered sacred since a visit by Khalifat’ul Tijanniyya Sheik Umar Taal a famous Islamic scholar, pilgrim and militant leader in the late 19th century. He visited Mecca between 1828 and 1831 then returned to West Africa and established his authority over a large area from Senegal to Nigeria attracting thousands of disciples from all over the region.

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Down on the strand I was alone apart from a solitary figure collecting sea shells and a small herd of cattle lying peacefully on the sand in the distance. I was nearly at the border with Senegal so turned north again for another walk along the deserted shoreline back to Sandele. All went well apart from having to avoid a few small purple jellyfish washed up at the water’s edge, but I thought I was in trouble when I saw the vultures gathering in front of me. As I plodded slowly towards them I could see what appeared to be a large white shape on the sand that from a distance could have been a plastic jerrycan but when I got closer I found it was the upturned shell of a dead turtle.

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The vultures didn’t seem too bothered by my presence and merely hopped away from my immediate vicinity and we sat and watched each other in silence. They made no attempt to feed, although something had pecked away part of the head and two legs, but just sat in a ragged group as if waiting for me to leave. One or two others circled overhead then also landed on the sand and scuttled towards the turtle then just stood patiently watching and waiting. I left them to it and continued my trek, along the way meeting up with Bubacarr and his friends sitting watching the ocean. They were apparently intending me to join them for more attayah but it was already midday and I was looking forward to lunch so I made my excuses saying that Maurice and Geri were expecting me and continued the last section back to Sandele!

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Another excellent lunch ensued followed by a tour with Geri who explained to me the principles on which Sandele was built, how the project had taken shape, and what plans there were for the future development of the area. I saw the machine from which the building blocks for the entire site are made, and visited some areas I had missed in my self guided inspection the previous afternoon, including the conference/student accommodation complete with a cool shady cloister, and the “temporary” restaurant dining area which will be dismantled block by block when the planned replacement is built. Finally and with some regret I bid farewell and accepted the offer of a lift back to Gunjur where I was lucky enough to catch a van to Brikama almost immediately and from there another back to my starting point in Bakau.

It had been a relaxing two days although my legs ached from all the walking, and it certainly won’t be the last time I visit Sandele. Perhaps the next time I’ll have more time and be able to stay a little longer.

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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………….

Everything Changes

Firstly, my apologies to readers. I normally post an update once a week or so, and have just found I made an error last weekend, and although I drafted my blog as usual, I failed to publish what I had written, so now have two posts to submit together. If you haven’t yet read “Transferred” I suggest you read it before this, or my comments in the paragraph below won’t make much sense!

Yesterday as you may remember I should have been attending the official handover of a new butchery centre at Kotu which was a project supported by the Department of Agriculture. Unfortunately I was informed on Wednesday (2 days prior to the proposed event) that it had been postponed because the Mayor of Kanifing (one of our key speakers) would not be attending, but was instead holding a three-day party to celebrate his recent re-election to the post of Mayor. From what I have read in Gambian newspapers it seems this victory was not entirely unexpected as he belongs to the APRC (the President’s political party) who seem to command most support in the Kombos, but three days of celebration…….?!

Anyway, as a result of my unexpected freedom I decided to venture out of Bakau, and to find a van heading south down the coast to Gunjur and Kartong, about an hour south of here where I’m told you can walk for miles along sandy palm fringed beaches washed by the Atlantic surf with little sign of human intrusion. It sounds like something from a television advertisement for Bounty and I will report later whether or not I come across a beautiful young lady stretched out in a hammock eating a chocolate bar!

I was hoping to stay at Sandele Bay (www.sandele.com) an eco-friendly holiday lodge set up by a couple of ex-pats in conjunction with the local community. They employ local staff, built the place with local labour (although the machinery for block production was brought here from India, and the staff sent there for training in its use and building techniques) and have an agreement with the local community that the facilities will revert to them in 25 years. The reviews I have read are glowing, although the tariff is a little outside the normal impecunious VSO volunteer’s budget, and I decided to treat myself to a couple of days of luxury – to hell with expense, I was going to celebrate my birthday – that is to say I was until Friday night………

I think I’ve mentioned “Set Seetal” on a previous post. Loosely translated it means “Clean up” and is usually held on the last Saturday in the month, although like much here in the Gambia, it is subject to change at short notice. On this day the entire population are supposed to stay at home between 9am and 1pm to clean up their environment, and although the day is a moveable feast, it was announced on Friday that Set Seetal would be the following day. Since all road traffic in the country is prohibited during the specified times unless you have a special permit, I found I would be unable to get a ride south until the afternoon and decided to postpone my beach weekend until another time when I can leave early Saturday morning and hope to be in Kartong by lunchtime. I had already postponed this planned trip from the previous weekend as I had been asked along with several others to meet two newly arrived volunteers on the Saturday to show them around the area and give them some basic information to help them settle in, so perhaps next weekend will be third time lucky.

In the afternoon, signs of Set Seetal activity can be observed in our neighbourhood where small piles of rubbish which the residents have cleaned out of the roadside gutters are left drying on the edge of the tarmac. I assume that one of the tractor and trailer crews who operate a kind of refuse collection service will then remove it, as within a few days it will have disappeared. I’m not sure where it goes after that although I’m told there is a large waste site somewhere, or perhaps it just ends up on one of the small fires which are regularly lit in the evening to burn rubbish. The idea of a general countrywide clean up is something I had never come across before although I have now found out that some other countries practise it too, and if everybody took part it could make a huge change to the environment, but it seems to me that while some of the residents actively take part, many don’t.

As I was still in town on Saturday night my housemate and I went to meet three of our colleagues for a drink at a local bar about 8pm. As we walked up the road there seemed to be even more activity on the night-time streets than usual, with singing, drumming, and lots of APRC tee shirts or ladies in green dresses in evidence. (Green is the colour of the APRC). I don’t know what they were celebrating – perhaps it was all part of the Mayor’s three day party – but we heard a rumour that President Jammeh himself was expected to put in an appearance, and indeed as we sat in “Doo Be Doo’s” roadside bar enjoying a drink and a bite we heard sirens in the distance. The sirens approached at high speed along Atlantic Road – a police vehicle first with flashing lights and sirens followed closely by two large four wheel drive vehicles of the type driven by CIA agents on American movies, and all three flew past and disappeared in a cloud of dust in the direction of the market and Cape Point. Rather naively I asked, “Was that him?” to be told “No, the President will be somewhere behind in a larger convoy with a lot of soldiers”. We stayed and had another drink, but by then the crowd had drifted away in the direction taken by the speeding vehicles. There was talk that these vehicles were just preparing the way, that the President would come by a different route and stop near the Craft Market where there is a football pitch area, but we decided it was time for bed and headed for home.

So that’s the story of how I didn’t get to Sandele, and how I didn’t see President Jammeh!