“TOT” is shorthand for “Training of Trainers” and that is one of my roles as an agricultural extensionist, so this week I’ve been away “up country” as they say for anywhere outside the urban coastal strip, although in fact I was only probably about 50 miles from Banjul.

It was my first crossing on the ferry from Banjul to Barra and I had heard stories of people waiting for hours to get on the boat, but we were waved on board early on Sunday morning almost as soon as we arrived on the dockside despite the queue of vehicles in front of us, although it seemed as if some port staff wanted us on the boat, and others didn’t! I don’t know whether the VSO sign on our pickup truck helped us, or whether someone pulled some strings or knew somebody, but only about half an hour after driving on to the dockside we were under way – about 3 hours earlier than expected. The ferry fleet is ageing and in need of repair although on Sunday there were two boats running backwards and forwards which is not always the case, and the process of docking on the north bank – another source of regular delays, looked to be tricky and our ferry took some time to line up with the vehicle ramp. As we pulled off the dockside into Barra we were surrounded by the usual crowd of street vendors selling food and other goods and while we waited I succumbed to the charms of a young Gambian lady about 9 years old with a ready sales patter who sold me a large bag of cashews from the tray on her head. She then smilingly told me that one bag wasn’t enough for the six of us in the vehicle! She was right of course so I bought another, after which she proudly told me she could speak four languages, and when we had finished our chat she presented me with one of the smaller bags as a gift! Obviously my 100 dalasis (£2) made me a good customer.

We were well ahead of schedule so called en route at a village where the in-laws of Abdoulie our programme manager lived. Here we enjoyed good food and hospitality and spent two very enjoyable hours playing with a large group of children (after I had managed to convince them that I wasn’t going to eat them!). We played Blind Man’s Buff and taught them “What time is it Mr Wolf?” although it took some time for them to learn that Mr Wolf hadn’t to see anyone moving when he looked round, and we sang “Frère Jacques” with them, and they sang local songs (including “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”) and found a hedgehog to show us.


How many children can we get on this mat?


Games in progress

Our journey took us a short distance further to Kerewan, and then after buying stocks of bottled water from the village store, a further six miles down a dirt road to the National Agricultural Training Centre (NATC) at Njawara which was to be our home for the next five days. The NATC was set up as a Centre of Excellence in 1990 but now looks as though it has seen better days – I believe the funding from international donors ran out. On the first evening we were shown round the village by three of the horticulture students and it looks as though the village too has seen a more prosperous past. It looked half deserted and we were unable to visit the cultural centre as the custodian was absent so instead walked down to the riverside and back.


Fatoumata, Munya, Jainaba and Godfrey

On Monday morning we began our training session in a large open sided classroom with an introduction to the course and a welcome by the Governor. Our 20 or so trainees were from a number of organisations including the Department of Agriculture, National Association of Women Farmers (NAWFA), Department for Community Development (DCD),  Wuli and Sandu Development Association (WASDA) and Agency for Village Support (AVISU), and we were delighted when the students who had shown us around the previous evening also joined us with several more of their colleagues and took an active part in as much of the week’s activities as their existing college duties allowed.

The training was based around a new Business Development and Management Training manual developed by VSO which is aimed at helping improve agricultural productivity and growers associations and is part of the Growth and Competitiveness Project funded by the World Bank, and we started from the basics of identifying what the participants understood by the words “business”, what constitutes an entrepreneur and what attributes are necessary to be successful. We then moved on to define what makes a good business idea and began to show how to develop a business plan. The course was participatory so much of the work was done in groups of about eight people who all worked extremely hard. One evening – the night before each group was due to present their business plan to the rest of the participants I advised one group who were still working hard by torchlight that perhaps it was time they called it a day. It was 11.40pm and the other two groups had only just packed up their papers.


Group work


More group work


Nearly midnight, but still working on a business plan

Along the way we also discussed marketing, business finance, records and basic book keeping, and family and business relationships and had many lively discussions and presentation sessions. Food was typical Gambian fare – breakfast at 8.15am consisting of tapilapa (bread roll) with a savoury filling and a glass of coffee, and a rice-based main meal about 2.30pm, then a slightly smaller meal about 8.30pm.


Three hard working ladies in the kitchen

(I still haven’t become accustomed to Gambian meal times – for me the evening meal time is later than I would like, but as the Gambians normally stay up a lot later than I do they have more time to digest their food before bed.) The vegetables were all grown on site and in the mornings the students could be seen busy weeding and watering before breakfast. One morning when I was in the garden before breakfast talking to one of them we heard a kind of bellowing in the bush and he asked me excitedly if I had heard it. I had no idea what it was until he told me it was a hyena, and that they were not often seen, but were a pest to the livestock farmers as they sometimes preyed on their cattle.


Munya questioning Kodou about her presentation


Casting an eye over group work in progress



Babou, Fatoumata, and Jim developing a business plan

The final full day of the course dealt with group theory, leadership skills, organisation of meetings, and conflict management and resolution, and on Friday we were able to wrap up loose ends in the morning and leave soon after midday as many of the participants had a long journey ahead of them. As the ferry crossing at Barra was expected to be very busy we turned east and drove further inland along the north bank until we came to the next river crossing about 30 miles away at Farafenni. As we were in a small vehicle we were able to queue jump the long line of (78) trucks waiting for the boat and drive straight to the river side. Two boats were in the dock but a large heavily laden articulated wagon was stuck on one of them – the trailer leaned over to one side and it looked as though a wheel had come off, but eventually after much whistling and shouting they managed to drag it off and loading began. Meanwhile we waited and were besieged by a gang of small girls desperate to sell us water, quite undeterred by the fact that we obviously had our drinks with us. A man came by with a paintbrush and an open pot of silver paint wanting to paint the pickup wheels, and the riverside teemed with a collection of stalls providing for the needs of waiting travellers. At last we were able to cross – the river is narrower here and the crossing only took a few minutes – and set off once more. The road  forms part of the Trans Gambian Highway linking Senegal from Dakar in the north to Casamance in the south and led us to Soma where we turned west again back towards the Kombos. So far the roads we travelled had all been good tarmac surfaces, but for a while here we drove along a bumpy, dusty red laterite strip alongside heavy earthmovers working at grading and compacting the surface of the last remaining unmetalled section prior to laying the top coat. Work seemed to be proceeding well and very soon this last section should also be surfaced, completing the east-west road from Basse to the coast.

Our driver now had home in his sights and we sped quickly west, stopping only for the police checkpoints and to buy mangos, arriving in Kombo about 7.30pm. I was glad of a reliable shower and a few other little luxuries (orange squash and breakfast cereal!) but had thoroughly enjoyed my first stay up country and hope to go again soon.


Natalie on nursery duty with young Babucarr while his mother Fatoumata was delivering a presentation


Fatoumata who took a very active part in the course while at the same time nursing a small child. I take off my hat to her.


I’ve recently been on two short courses to help prepare me for volunteering, and I’ve learned a lot in a short space of time. One of the subjects we talked about two weeks ago was what qualities were desirable in a volunteer. These included amongst other things flexibility and adaptability, and I hope I can show both. One example of the need for flexibility occurred last Friday afternoon. I was in Birmingham on a VSO training course, secure in the knowledge that my placement had 36 hours previously been given the stamp of approval by the Gambian Ministry of Agriculture and that in just over three weeks time, on February 6th, I would be boarding a flight at Heathrow bound first for Brussels, and then on to the Gambia.

Only now, I’m not. Last Friday, Joe, another volunteer who is also going to the Gambia to work in a hospital in Banjul, received a phone call informing him that his Gambia departure had been put back a month. Shortly afterwards I received the same information, as did Helen, who is also heading out there as a fund raiser. No reason has been given, but we now expect that along with two other volunteers whom I’ve not yet met, we’ll be leaving on 6th March instead. From my own point of view it’s only a mild annoyance as I’ve not yet signed up a tenant for my house, but for others it might have been a problem. Two weeks ago I met a volunteer who had already let her flat and is now living out of a suitcase, and sofa surfing with friends as her departure has been delayed until April. I can’t imagine what that must be like but I may find I need to be more flexible yet.