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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Back again

I’ve just returned from the Gambia. Yet again.

This time I’ve just been for a week – not long enough really, but I had enough time to meet up with those of my volunteer friends who are still there, and enjoy a couple of days on the unspoilt beaches south of the capital, down towards the border with Senegal.

My visit was made at short notice following a chance conversation with someone from my home area who has been working with another educational charity at Madina Salaam in the Gambia and who was home for a few weeks over Christmas, prior to returning in January. We were comparing notes and he asked what I was doing, to which I responded that I was now looking to volunteer again, but added that “of course it won’t be Gambia as VSO are in the process of closing down operations there after nearly fifty years”. My friend replied that perhaps I might be interested in a small Norwegian charity who run an educational project not far from where I was working last year, as he knew they were looking for some assistance, so ten days later, following conversations with their CEO, I flew out on a tourist jet to visit the project, see what they were doing, and let them see me.

The project is based at Nema Kunku, on the outskirts of the Kombos and the aim is “to inspire and educate children and young adults about the processes that allow a seed to be planted, and how this seed can be turned into a money making business using alternative technologies and sustainable methods”. The site is run on solar power and equipped with solar ovens and bio gas generators and the youngsters are taught about deforestation, and the need for sustainability.

Onion seedlings at MyFarm

Onion seedlings at MyFarm

Vegetable beds at MyFarm

Vegetable beds at MyFarm

Labelling lip balm and body lotion at MyFarm

Labelling lip balm and body lotion at MyFarm

At present a small staff heading by Kelly, a very energetic lady from the Netherlands who has lived in the Gambia for sixteen years, run a small farm growing a variety of horticultural crops with some livestock (pigs, ducks, rabbits) and also bees. MyFarm is open every day for drop in visitors and runs regular training courses on site, but has also recently acquired an old fire engine which has been repainted green and is now to tour the country advertising the project with a team of mobile trainers who are presently being recruited to run training sessions in the villages. In addition there is a small library equipped with a number of tablet computers on which the younger children can learn through play, and a new classroom with laptop computers on which older children can be taught the basics of IT. One of the most frequent practical classes is a soap making course where trainees are shown how to make soap, lip balm and body lotion from raw ingredients and then taken out with their products to the market in Banjul to acquire selling skills.

I had a very interesting two days there but decided on my return that this was perhaps not the right project for me at this time although I have said I may be available to go back next Spring if I can help by undertaking a short term project of two or three months. If however any readers would like to know more about these opportunities, click here for further details and contacts at MyFarm.

Having dried my aching joints out in the 30° heat of Gambia, I flew back into Manchester on Wednesday evening to find the temperature was just above zero, with heavy rain and strong winds on the motorway as I drove back to Yorkshire.

Perhaps I should have stayed in Nema Kunku after all!

Long Time!

“Long time” is a greeting I used to hear frequently in the Gambia, and was employed even if it was only 48 hours since I had seen the person who was greeting me. In this case however it really is a long time since I wrote anything here.

When I started this blog it was intended principally to reassure friends and family at home that I was still alive and well and to tell them a little about my new life in a country which was totally different to their own, and as a result it seemed pointless to write about sitting in an office working on a manual of crop husbandry notes to help educate Gambian farmers. Instead I tried to write about alien customs and culture, and how my new friends and neighbours lived their everyday lives as I thought this might be more interesting to someone who had never been outside the UK and whose only idea of Africa had probably been formed by television programmes. When I returned to the UK six months ago, I thought as I settled back into life in rural North Yorkshire that I no longer had anything interesting to write about, but perhaps a few words about the return and resettlement process would be appropriate.

In July I spent two days in London at the Head Office of VSO for a “Returned Volunteers” weekend. As the name implies it was attended by some of the volunteers (about 45 in all, including one who had been with me in the Gambia and two who had been on pre-departure training courses with me) who had recently returned from placements abroad, together with a team of staff from VSO including the Director of VSO UK, and three members of the Volunteer Liaison Group – former volunteers who currently (and voluntarily) draw together the views of current and returned volunteers and represent them to VSO.

For the first session, after the usual introductions we were each invited to share “Just One Thing” from our experience overseas, and in many cases the volunteer had something concrete to show the rest of us – a bangle or piece of cloth for example, or a picture of an important moment. One enterprising volunteer who had travelled round her placement by motorcycle had used a camera on the handlebars to document in a series of still photographs the route to work, and had then edited them into a film of the journey. As for myself I could not decide for some time what single thing could represent something of such significance to my stay in The Gambia until it struck me. So blindingly obvious! Tapilapa! (Those of you who know me will have heard me before praising the taste of tapilapa ad infinitum. For those who don’t I should explain that it is a local bread, rather like a baguette, and that it formed a major part of my diet in Gambia. I adored it and probably ate far too much of it but it sustained me well on a daily basis and must have been the cause of my trim waistline while I was there as it is only since I returned to the UK that my girth has increased!)

We then received a presentation by Angela Salt (UK Director) on current developments within VSO followed by group sessions to discuss the volunteer journey, and to give feedback on our experiences both positive and negative, and to come up with comments, suggestions, and questions to put to Angela and her staff in the last formal session of the day. This provoked some lively discussion and is used to update on areas where the volunteers feel praise is due, or improvements needed. After each RV weekend, any new points are added to the existing Volunteer Feedback document, (and if country specific, also shared with the Country Office), and some time later the details of any action taken as a result are also added before circulation to the participants. In addition to this general forum discussion there was also opportunity to have one to one discussions with a member of the staff team if any volunteers wished for a personal debrief.

By now it was 6pm and we departed with our bags en masse to book into overnight accommodation at the local Travelodge before returning to the offices for dinner and a pub style quiz followed by some of the more hardy adjourning to the pub next door, a large empty space with few customers, much improved by a group of thirsty volunteers.

The second day began with a series of small discussion groups sharing reflections on the experience of returning home, and it was reassuring to find that I was not alone in feeling rather unsettled at first as we talked about the various challenges faced when coming back to the UK. These ranged from the practical tasks of finding somewhere to live, (I was fortunate in that my tenant had moved out before I returned so I was able to move straight back into my own home) to looking for a job. Others included dealing with the feelings of loss sometimes experienced at the end of pltacement, and the process of adapting to everyday life in a totally different environment. It was interesting to hear volunteers talk of expecting uncomprehending friends and relatives to show more interest in their experiences abroad than was the case and of finding a bewildering range of goods in the shops on their return home. It seems that resettling often takes some time and we were given useful practical advice and some tips distilled from the many volunteers who had returned over the years before us. Finding purpose and structure when coming back is often a problem, and for the first few months I found that was my own experience. I found it hard to feel a sense of purpose but as time passed I began to look forward to the harvest season and have spent much of the last ten weeks sitting on a tractor or engaged in other agricultural activities which occupied me daily and gave me much satisfaction. Now however, next year’s crop has been sown, and apart from some gardening and domestic tasks I am again at a loose end. I am still in touch with friends from the Gambia and had more or less decided to return there if I could and continue with the work I was doing despite the frustrations which I had encountered. There have been various staff changes in the Department of Agriculture since I left including the promotion of my former boss Ousman Jammeh to the top job as Director General which could be a step forward if his political masters allow him a free hand and give him the tools to do the job. He is a very able and hard working man, but I hear that the DoA is still starved of resources and that political in-fighting and jealousy persists.

Meanwhile VSO have announced that they are soon to close down their operations in the Gambia, so that avenue is no longer open to me. Reasons for their decision have not been made public, but could be because they have been there over forty years and may feel that much has been achieved already and that as a result their impact is rather less now than it was previously. In common with other Non Governmental Organisations in the development community they are having to fight ever harder for funding in a very competitive market at a time when the pot is shrinking, and it may be easier to show the reach and impact of their operations in “newer” countries. Donors may therefore be more amenable to supporting programmes in Myanmar for example where VSO have recently established a presence and where results can perhaps be more easily be demonstrated to those providing the funding. Certainly there are quite a number of vacant posts advertised for Myanmar at present, but as many of them are for those with medical or educational expertise they fall outside my skills. If however you are a nurse/midwife/literacy and numeracy advisor/teacher trainer or similar thinking of volunteering there are opportunities for you now at http://www.vso.org.uk/volunteer. As for me, when harvest and seed time was over I registered once again to volunteer next year in a more general role, probably assisting with small business development or similar. I am now waiting to see if my application is accepted and if so, what suitable placements are available to me, and where.

Who knows? Perhaps next year we will meet overseas!