Hail and Farewell

This week is a week of greetings and partings. I arrived back in the Gambia two weeks ago and spent my first few days staying at a tourist hotel, walking on the beach and lazing by the pool with friends from my previous visits.

In many ways nothing has changed since I was last here except that the dalasi is weaker than ever – good news for me as I get more to the pound when I exchange currency, but not good news for the ordinary Gambians. There are new banknotes with a new design including the addition of pictures of President Jammeh in case anyone forgets who is in charge! I think I preferred the pictures on the old ones, although at least the new notes are plastic which is a vast improvement. The smaller denomination notes in particular change hands so often the old ones soon became very dirty, crumpled and torn, but the new ones should be rather more durable.

I notice too that the coast is suffering from erosion at an alarming rate. At Senegambia where two of the largest hotels are situated there is a large gap behind the concrete slabs which formed a protective wall at the front of the raised hotel beaches, and if the erosion continues at the present rate and nothing is done, the hotel gardens will soon begin to disappear.

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Coastal erosion is becoming a problem

Similarly down the coast at Sanyang where I spent the weekend with friends the coastline has moved quite markedly since I last visited just over a year ago. At that time it was quite a shallow slope down to the sea but now there is a step where the land finishes, and that step appears to be moving inland.

The greetings this week have been to old friends and also to my new colleagues at Nema Kunku where I will be staying as a volunteer at MyFarm until mid July; the partings are with good friends who are finally leaving the Gambia tomorrow. Munya with whom I shared a house for twelve months when I was here as a VSO volunteer with the Department of Agriculture is going home to Zimbabwe, and his fiancée Maya is returning to her home in Denmark where they will meet up again in about three months when Munya arrives to begin his Masters degree at the University of Copenhagen. It will certainly be quite different there from their life together in the Gambia and I wish them both a safe journey and best wishes for the future. Hopefully it will not be too long before we meet again in Europe.

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“Munya gazed longingly at Maya’s beer!”

Since I am now beginning to settle in at Nema Kunku I intend to write rather more regularly again in the next few weeks than I have done recently so will recommence my blog properly in a few days with a brief description of my current placement.

No change

When I left the Gambia three months ago I said I would not return there to work as I was feeling very frustrated by the apparent inertia on the part of many of the people I worked with, and I had a distinct feeling of lack of achievement, but on the other hand my work was unfinished and I had made many friends so I have now come back for a brief holiday during which I also hope to find signs that something is happening. Before I left I had been working at the Department of Agriculture on a pocket crop guide for the extension staff and although it was nearly ready to print, I was waiting for validation by experts from various agricultural disciplines.
I arrived here a few days ago as a tourist and booked into a hotel at Bijilo where I had a quiet first day relaxing by the pool then went off to meet one of my ex colleagues at the Department. There have been a number of staff movements since I left but apart from that nothing much seems to have changed. My colleague said he would be there by 9am so I arrived shortly afterwards to find the place deserted apart from the watchman and another man harvesting cashew apples from a big tree by the gate, and another colleague planting cashew nuts in plastic grow bags round the back. After a while my friend arrived and we spent the next two hours or so chatting while I resolved some problems with his computer. It seems that in my absence the handbook I was working on has come to a dead stop, and to make it worse the funding that we expected to receive for printing costs when it reaches that stage (about £1000 sterling) is unlikely to be forthcoming, even if the draft can be checked and ratified. I had also spoken to one of the field workers whom I was helping with a proposal/budget for training farmers in his area and it seems that this too has been at a standstill since my departure. In this case, if I understood him correctly it is because he has been unable to access the documents I left for him, although I had duplicated them on two departmental computers and shown two members of staff where they were! I have said that I am available to assist while I am here if there is anything I can help with, and that I will wait for a call, but I am not holding my breath!
When I arrived back at the hotel, the first person I saw was my friend Landing Sonko, the Director of Plant Protection followed shortly afterwards by several others including the Deputy Director General, and my old boss Ousman Jammeh, Director of Agriculture for West Coast Region! It seems that a two day workshop was being held for a number of senior staff from Agriculture to acquaint them with details of the Medium Term Economic Framework, a new method of budgeting, and that Baobab Resort where I had chosen to stay is a regular venue for such events.
I was joined for the weekend by a number of friends from VSO so spent most of the time sitting by the pool or on the nearby beach drinking juice and was even tempted to venture to the fleshpots of Senegambia for two nights. It is rainy season here now so there are few tourists about and many of the bars and restaurants are closed but we had a good meal the first evening and on the second congregated in a bar to watch England lose to Italy in the first round of the World Cup.
All good things come to an end however so I have now left the air conditioned comfort, bar and swimming pool behind me and moved back to my old home of Bakau. It was gratifying to find my old neighbours seemed pleased to see me and I slept much better than expected last night probably because there was no electricity so the neighbourhood was a bit quieter than usual! The power supply varies here, even more so in the rainy season, but from what I’m told the cuts have been more prolonged of late and certainly in the last twenty four hours we have only had power for three of them, from about 4am to 7am. I’m hoping we will get “light” tonight as my phone is nearly flat, but fortunately my laptop has a new battery (the old one collapsed in the heat before I left Gambia) so I can at least write this without worrying about being cut off.
My old house mate Munya has been away in South Africa for three weeks but I am expecting him to return before the weekend, although not yet sure exactly when. The compound is quiet at present and only partly inhabited, as three volunteers from my intake have now left, and when I arrived it had an air of neglect, but this morning Hassanna, one of our neighbours who is employed by the landlord to keep an eye on the compound, arrived at first light and set to sweeping and cleaning windows so by lunch time the place looked rather more like home.
A walk up to the market and a drink enjoying the breeze on the terrace overlooking the fish landing was a welcome break from the oppressive heat of Mamakoto, and an opportunity to buy a few vegetables. Sulayman, my previous fruit and vegetable supplier has apparently moved across the road to the shrimp stalls, but I would rather go there early in the day before it gets too hot so will have to wait another day to greet him.

Trouble in Paradise

This week I was unlucky enough (or simply careless enough) to have my wallet stolen.

My son and his girlfriend have been here for ten days holiday and last Thursday morning I had arranged to meet them at their hotel for lunch. I got into the back of a taxi for Senegambia (the big enclave of European style tourist hotels) and was immediately followed in there by two other men so as one of them was quite large, we were a little cramped for space, but that is not unusual. During the ten minute journey the man on my right was fidgeting and several times raised his left elbow almost into my face as if he was trying to get something out of his shirt breast pocket (a familiar gesture as I usually keep a few dalasis in my own shirt pocket for taxi fares). I was wearing a pair of “cargo” trousers with patch pockets on the legs and my wallet was buttoned in the right hand leg pocket. When I got out of the taxi at Senegambia and had walked about twenty yards I found that the pocket had been slit as if with a razorblade, and the wallet with about D1200 (£20) had gone, but of course when I looked round the taxi – and the men – had also disappeared. I had not taken any particular note of the man sitting next to me and as there are so many yellow Mercedes taxis here I had no chance of identifying the vehicle. To make matters worse than the loss of cash, my four identity cards were in the wallet along with two ATM cards, one from my UK bank, and one from my local bank. As a result I have had to make several visits to the police station in the hope that the thief would take the money but throw away my documents, but so far they have not been handed in. A brief telephone call to the UK cancelled my HSBC debit card, and a rather longer visit to Standard Chartered here in Gambia eventually did the same for my Gambian ATM card,  but only after I had begged a piece of blank paper from the desktop printer and written a letter to the Branch Manager. And of course I then had to fill in an application for a replacement card which was passed around for a while until I was told I was finished and my card would be ready for collection in about two weeks. Meanwhile I have to make sure I am near a bank in opening hours to cash a cheque when necessary which is a nuisance as I usually leave home before the banks open and return after they close so I was in the habit of drawing from the cash machines on my way home.

I reported the matter to the local police who were very friendly and helpful. Just as everywhere else, this involved paperwork, much talking, tut tutting and looking at my slashed pocket, and then two CID men took me across the road to the taxi stand where they questioned/harangued the taxi controller and all the drivers present who of course were also duly sympathetic and told me how sad they felt. In practice of course, although I now have a crime reference number and an open file at Kairaba Police Station I suspect there is nothing they can do unless my documents are handed in or the thieves are caught in the act. I hear that a German tourist suffered a similar loss nearby on the same day, and with hindsight I guess the fidgeting and arm movements of my neighbour were to distract my attention and also prevent me from seeing what was happening on my right as he slit my pocket.

As a result of this loss I now have to replace my VSO ID, Alien Residency Permit, Green Immigration Card, and Gambian Biometric Identity Card, the last of which involves another visit to GAMBIS offices to have my thumbprints and photograph taken. (When the original was issued this involved a wait of about five hours!) Fortunately the Immigration Service have told me they will at least replace my Green Card free of charge when I produce the police report, and also told me to wait until January before applying for Biometric ID as my existing card expires in December anyway and the cost of replacement is D1300 annually (January to December). This relatively new identity card system requiring annual renewal seems to me to place an unnecessary financial burden on the ordinary Gambian citizen, although of course it provides the Government with some much needed revenue! I think however that although it is a legal requirement, many Gambians simply don’t apply, as they can’t afford to do so. It also seems to me unnecessary to take prints and photos every year as presumably the originals are stored on computer somewhere and could be reproduced at the click of a mouse, but perhaps the system is not yet sufficiently developed for that. I hope to be able to collect the police report this evening on my way home so that I can get my identity back as I have just bought a car and need to register it and get some number plates, but that story will wait until next time………….