Time flies

The last three weeks have been very busy as the end of my placement approaches and I try not only to see parts of the Gambia I have not yet visited, but also to finish the project I am involved with at the Department of Agriculture. Meanwhile, the electricity supply in Bakau seems to have been off more than on in the evenings, and as the battery on my laptop has given up the ghost and will no longer hold charge for more than five minutes, it seems an age since I last wrote.

Two weeks ago I went up country with a couple of colleagues for a couple of days hoping to see a hippopotamus. We drove east along the south bank of the river to Janjanbureh where we crossed on the ferry and then drove back west a few kilometres to the small town of Kuntaur where we stayed overnight at the Department of Agriculture camp. One of my companions was stationed there for a time and as a result our entry to the town was punctuated by much stopping and starting as everyone seemed to know her and want to greet her on arrival! Our triumphal progress continued right through the town to the police checkpoint (where again we were greeted with much handshaking and cries of “Longtime”) and after what seemed like an unbelieveably long journey through such a small town we arrived at “Agriculture”, on the river bank right on the furthest outskirts of Kuntaur. Here more old friends and colleagues were there to be greeted/introduced and to show us round the compound before we were presented with the inevitable generous Gambian meal and then adjourned to a local riverside bar with Deborah, another VSO volunteer who is stationed locally before retiring for the night.

Kuntaur "Agriculture"

Kuntaur “Agriculture”

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Local transport

Old French colonial building

Old French colonial building

 The town was an oasis of peace compared to Bakau – not a sound broke our rest (apart from a large mouse who woke me as he sat chewing something next to my bed, and was quite unperturbed when I switched on my torch to see what the noise was – it sounded a much larger animal) – no drumming, no loud music, and no mosques competing at 5am with the call to prayer.

The following morning I was up before my fellows and enjoyed an early morning walk by the river watching the birds in the rice stubbles along the water’s edge and a solitary canoe paddling slowly down river as the sun rose. When I arrived back at the compound breakfast was being prepared for us, followed by a tour of yet more friends in the neighbouring village of Wassu.

Egrets on the rice stubbles

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Even this far upstream the Gambia is a mighty river

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Silk cottonwood tree

Wassu

Exploring Wassu

The local tailors wanted me to take their picture too

The local tailors wanted me to take their picture too

About midday we met up again with Deborah and adjourned to the riverside where we played counting games in English and Wollof with a group of local boys while we waited for our boatman. He had told us the best time to go hippo spotting was early afternoon so in due course about 1pm we set off upriver towards Baboon Island National Park. We cruised slowly along close to the bank while he pointed out various birds on the bank or overhead, baboons in the palm trees, raffia palms, and told us a little more about the Park.

The boating party

The boating party

After about twenty minutes we put ashore to pick up the Park Ranger who was to accompany us inside the reserve and then back out into midstream as we approached the first of three large islands where we hoped to see chimpanzees. The population was established there in the 1970’s when a project began to release and rehabilitate animals which had been rescued elsewhere (chimpanzees were once common in The Gambia but were hunted out of existence by about 1900) and the numbers have gradually risen over the last forty years until there are now about 100 spread over the three islands. Visitors are not allowed to land (another reason for the presence of the Park Ranger) but the boats are allowed to go fairly close to the shore and we were fortunate enough to see several animals, including a large male which the Ranger told us was the second in rank on that island, and a mother nursing a tiny baby who peeped out from under her arm.

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Alpha male

Mother and baby

Mother and baby

The boat continued round the other side of the island where there had been reports of a large crocodile on a mudbank but nothing was to be seen there so we turned back and had a number of brief sightings of hippopotamus ears, eyes, and once a whole head. The guide told us that we were seeing two different animals, although we never saw both at once, and most of the time the creatures stayed out of sight underwater. I was not fast enough with my camera to catch a proper shot, so had to edit a photo of one of our group for the benefit of one of my VSO colleagues who at the last minute was unable to come on the trip and wanted to see pictorial evidence of our sightings, including one of the party as well as the hippo. So here you are Joe!

Helen and friend

Helen and friend

We left Kuntaur about 4pm and I promptly took the wrong road so we spent nearly an hour driving through empty featureless bush where from time to time the road looked in danger of becoming impassable and I wondered if at some point we would have to admit defeat and turn round or reverse for miles and if so whether we would be able to get the car back over the large bumps we had crossed coming in the opposite direction. We saw very few people on our travels until at last we arrived in a small village where we were mobbed by crowds of children flocking round the car as if we were royalty. I guess they weren’t used to seeing motor vehicles in their village very often, particularly appearing out of the bush in a cloud of dust with some crazy toubabs. Helen was delighted that I was living up to her stereotypical image of a macho Yorkshire male, but I must point out that I did eventually get us safely back to the tarmac road, even if it was about 15 kilometres from where I had originally intended!

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The rest of the journey was fairly uneventful – simply a matter of keeping on the road in the dark when vehicles with badly aligned headlights (most of them) approached us from the opposite direction, until we reached one of the various checkpoints. Here we were surrounded by police and immigration officials who made a big point of inspecting our documents and looking round the car while talking amongst themselves in Mandinka about how they thought they were going to take some money from a rich European. Fortunately however we had picked up another passenger heading in our direction at a previous checkpoint in Soma and it turned out he was also a police officer who produced his identity card and had a few words so our documents were returned and we were waved on our way! The next twenty minutes he hardly stopped for breath, indignantly complaining that his fellow officials should not treat foreign visitors like that or they would stop coming and bringing money into the economy. I fully agree though I also sympathise with the low paid public sector workers here in the Gambia who see it as a way of supplementing their meagre wages.

We parted company at Brikama and after dropping the others I arrived home about eleven o’clock.

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On Trek

This weekend I took a trip up country or as it is generally known “I went on trek”. I have for some time been looking for a vehicle in which to explore the Gambia, but have not yet bought one, and as a result I have not yet been very far out of the Kombos because of the difficulty of transport. So this weekend I hired an Isuzu 4WD and went up to Basse, with Joe and Munya, a couple of other VSO volunteers. Basse is towards the eastern end of the Gambia, about 280 miles from Banjul, and it is possible to get there by public transport – in fact one of my VSO colleagues who works at Basse travels down to the bright lights here for a break on a regular basis, but I don’t envy her the experience. The trip is made in a converted van with bench seats (I can’t really describe them as minibuses) which leaves early in the morning and arrives about seven hours later. The passengers are usually packed quite tightly, there is no air conditioning to ameliorate the heat, and the suspension on many of the vehicles is pretty poor due to the treatment they receive on Gambian roads. The road along the south bank from Banjul is tarmac for most of the way, with the exception of a short stretch of perhaps ten or fifteen miles approaching the town of Soma, and hopefully this will soon also be improved. When I was last there some time before the rains there was much activity with motor graders scraping the dusty red laterite to a level finish followed by pavers and rollers laying a smooth topcoat of asphalt. Work had to be suspended for the wet season, but it will no doubt resume when conditions allow and there will then be a good road all the way to Basse. Our own trip in a comfortable vehicle (but still no A/C) took about five hours which is pretty good going, particularly as there are a number of checkpoints to be negotiated, some police, some immigration, some military. I’m not sure what they are looking for, possibly drugs, possibly Senegalese separatists, but in many cases it seemed just a formality to stop at the barrier where a very polite official saluted, asked where we were going and where we had come from, looked round the vehicle and occupants, and then waved us on with good wishes for a safe journey. In other places we were asked for our identity papers, insurance certificate, and driving licence, and the first time this happened the officer wasn’t sure whether Joe’s international driving licence was valid (it is), and had to ring HQ to check before letting us pass. On the following day we passed the same checkpoint twice and then the inspection was rather more cursory as it was the same team on duty, but on Sunday on our way back to the coast there had obviously been a shift change and we were again pulled over and details checked. Again, one of the officers was dubious about Joe’s licence, but after discussion with one of his colleagues he accepted Joe’s word about the validity being checking with higher authority the previous day.

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Possibly the biggest hill in the Gambia!

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Munya and Joe relaxing on arrival. The concrete slab is for sleeping outside when it’s too hot to stay inside.

When we reached Basse Santa Su it seemed like the end of the road – the tarmac strip ends at the outskirts of the only road into town and from then on we had to fight our way along a narrow muddy track crowded with people, animals, and vehicles of all sizes. The congestion was exacerbated by the fact that they were digging trenches about 5’ deep along the side and making concrete storm gutters, and as the spoil that had been excavated was piled alongside, in most places there was no room for vehicles to pass. Then of course there was the hazard of our fellow road users to negotiate as most drivers here seem to stop wherever the mood takes them, preferably on a corner, or at the narrowest spot, just to have a chat or go and do some shopping. We had been intending to find accommodation through the guide books but in the event our VSO colleague Jane offered to put us up in her compound so we spent the weekend student style on mattresses on the floor.

On Saturday, having initially had to push our vehicle after getting stuck in the mud in the back streets of Basse, we drove back west to Janjanbureh to visit the “slave warehouse” where we were shown round a dilapidated riverside store and told how slaves were imprisoned in the cellar before being put on a boat to be sent overseas. One of our guide books said that in fact the warehouse was built after slavery had been abolished and certainly there were a number of cast iron Victorian pillars which seemed to support that idea, and as our guide showed us a collection of rusty old handcuffs and bits of chain, together with a rather more modern scaffolding clamp (made in the UK) which he assured us was some form of manacle, I took what he said with a pinch of salt. Whatever the truth, he spun a good yarn, and collected some money from us so at least we helped support the local economy! He then took us to see the Governor’s house – a fine colonial building which has recently been refurbished with offices and accommodation for the regional Governor above. The Governor has however been obliged to move out as apparently the President took a liking to the place on a recent visit and has appropriated it for himself!

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The main street in Basse. It is very quiet as it’s Sunday morning.

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Janjanbureh car ferry

The car ferry across the river at Janjanbureh will accommodate four cars and apparently waits until there is a load before proceeding so we sat and ate roast maize from the street sellers while some more locals tried to part us from some more cash. After a while however they seemed to accept “I cannot give to everyone” although two young boys did insist on giving me their email address and taking mine. This has happened to me before in the Gambia although nobody has ever emailed me so I wonder if this is the equivalent of adding “friends” to your Facebook account.

A short drive on the north bank brought us to the stone circles at Wassu built about 2,500 years ago. As in our own culture, the Gambian ancestors erected pillars of stone – in this case laterite quarried only a few yards away – in circles, although in this case the pillars were erected in the African iron age, rather than the British stone age as at Stonehenge in my own country. The scale is rather different too – at Wassu the circles were probably only four or five metres in diameter and the stones themselves are rather smaller, the largest protruding only about 2.6m from the ground. The guide was very informative and there was a small on site museum showing details from an archaeological dig in the 1970’s where I also learned that similar circles can be found in France, Senegal, Mali, and Tanzania. I find it fascinating that various different civilizations, at totally different times, and in widely separated countries have all decided to build similar circles. The details are different but the basic principle appears to be the same and they are usually associated with burials or some kind of religious ceremony, often having stones aligned with the sun, moon and stars.

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Iron age stone circles at Wassu

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Rural housing “up country”

Our drive home from Basse the following day was uneventful, with the same checkpoints as before, some waving us through after a cursory glance, others being more rigorous in their inspections. I suppose a car on Banjul number plates containing three European volunteers, none of whom are fluent in local languages, is not the most suspicious vehicle on the road. Between Kanilai (birthplace of President Jammeh) and Brikama, the road was lined at intervals with soldiers so we assumed His Excellency would soon be returning to the State House from his weekend residence and I kept a wary eye in the mirror for blue lights – the Presidential motorcade travels at speed, heavily armed for any eventuality, and other vehicles are advised to get off the road if they see it coming!

In the event we arrived home about 4pm without incident (apart from nearly running out of fuel before Brikama), and I promptly fell asleep for three hours. Obviously too much excitement!

Three ‘R’s

A friend wrote to me yesterday, concerned that I hadn’t written anything last week and wondering whether I had caught malaria, got married, or been eaten by a crocodile. Well, Steve, none of the above applies and  hopefully if I write a little more this week the good people of Leeds will overlook my lapse, although once again I’m struggling for photos for illustration!

Last weekend however I had to go into work on Friday, so the usual three day break was compressed into two and on the Sunday afternoon, having completed my chores, and faced with the difficult choice between staying at home sweating over a hot laptop or meeting two other volunteers at Baker’s Dozen cafe in Fajara for one of their delicious chocolate milk shakes, I’m afraid to say I neglected my readership, succumbed to temptation and sat for a couple of hours enjoying the breeze on a first floor balcony, and not one, but TWO milk shakes (we really know how to enjoy ourselves on a budget) while we compared notes on our recent activities and made plans for the following weekend. (Bird watching at Kotu if you’re interested, but although it was intended for this afternoon, we have postponed the trip until Monday as it appears that July 22nd is another public holiday (celebrating the day of the coup when President Jammeh took power) so we get an extra day off work.

The first ‘R’ of the title is for the ‘Rainy season’ which normally starts about 15th June, and in fact did so up country where some of my colleagues work, and where I understand it has not really stopped since. In the Kombos however, a month later, we haven’t really seen a great deal of rain. We’ve had two or three heavy downpours with thunder and lightning, and one evening I had to shelter under a tree for half an hour caught between the VSO office and my home, but the storm soon passed over, the tarmac dried quickly in the heat, blue sky reappeared, and apart from the large pools of standing water by the roadside, you wouldn’t have known it had been raining. A field next to where I was sheltering has recently been cleared and sown, but I don’t think the rain will have done a great deal to stimulate germination, although just as at home, a drop of rain soon leads to an explosion of weeds! A friend of mine planted some cassava cuttings last weekend and is praying for rain as he fears they will not survive much longer, but yesterday while I was visiting other friends at Brikama (about 20 miles away) we sat in the shade under a mango tree, listening to the thunder and watching dark clouds in the distance drop rain over Kombos, and last night we had heavy rain in Bakau again so perhaps the rainy season is now really starting and I shall have to carry a jacket with me in future. The storm last night began about 4am when I was woken by the wind whistling through my bedroom and had to get out of bed to shut all the windows. Being woken was quite a surprise as I normally sleep so soundly it would take the Angel Gabriel to rouse me, but last night it sounded as if the roof was about to come off, the trees in the next door compound were waving wildly, just as we see on the television news at home when a storm hits some tropical paradise, and then the rain began, just a few big juicy drops at first, then a torrential downpour bouncing off the tiles on the patio and rushing away down the yard in a torrent. As my bed was still dry, and hopeful that the steps up into our house would prevent us being flooded, I drank some juice and ate a couple of Cream Crackers (just in case we had to be evacuated), and returned to my slumbers.

The second ‘R’ is ‘Ramadan’ which began about ten days ago and continues until the first week in August. This is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, and during this period Muslims (with a few exceptions such as children and the sick) have to fast during daylight hours. The act of fasting is said to redirect the heart away from worldly activities, its purpose being to cleanse the soul by freeing it from harmful impurities, and to teach self discipline. Food and drink are served early in the morning (before about 5.30am here), and then again about 7.45pm, but in between those times my colleagues at work have no food or drink, not even water. I don’t know how they manage without water (although of course they are acclimatised to it from an early age), and I consume my lunchtime tapilapa while they are at prayers and take solitary guilty gulps of my orange squash whenever I’m alone in the office. Some of my colleagues have suggested I try fasting with them – “just try one day”, but at risk of being considered undisciplined and licentious and not achieving Paradise I think I’ll limit my fasting to those periods between meals, and continue to drink large quantities of liquid to keep me hydrated.

As no food is eaten until sunset, the small shops near my home where I buy my daily tapilapa stay closed in the mornings so I have to buy bread for my sandwiches the evening before, and by 2pm the following day it is rather dry. The one consolation is that new deliveries arrive about 7.30pm so I can have oven fresh bread soon after I get home from work, but I still look forward to August when I can once again buy fresh bread each morning.

During Ramadan it seems that Muslim ladies are allowed to leave work early (varying times seem to apply from about 2pm onwards depending on where you work) in order to go home, do the shopping, and prepare a meal for their family. Suddenly too the streets are now full of young boys selling dates. (According to scripture the Prophet Mohammed broke fast with three dates, so by tradition many families do the same before having evening prayers and then returning for “iftar” the evening meal.)

Meanwhile work/business continues as usual although I can’t help but think that less gets done because dehydration and hunger leads to fatigue, but my colleagues assure me not although I see some of them wilting by midday. Perhaps it’s just the heat and humidity, as I feel the same myself some afternoons.

The third ‘R’ is one you might expect – ‘Reading’. My cousin asked me yesterday what I did in my spare time and I seem to remember saying “Not a lot at present except doing the shopping, going out for a meal or a drink with other volunteers, and trying to keep cool”, but I should also have mentioned “reading”. When I was younger I read voraciously, but over the years the habit slipped and since I came to the Gambia I seem to have taken it up again. I often go to bed fairly early (around 9.30/10pm) and sit and read until I feel sleepy. I can read in the dark on my tablet if we have no power, and it costs nothing as so many books are available to download free of charge from the internet. I’ve renewed my love of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, laughed with Jerome K Jerome (Thoughts of An Idle Fellow), adventured with Jack London in the Yukon and in a future tyrannical oligarchy in the USA,  battled Dracula at Whitby with Bram Stoker and strange alien machines in London with HG Wells, and just given up trying to appreciate the writings of H P Lovecraft. I’ve also dipped into the library at VSO office which is well stocked with books left by former volunteers and through them have been on the road in 1940’s America with Jack Kerouac, and more recently travelled round Europe on a motorcycle with Mike Carter.  At present I’m thoroughly enjoying Jane Austen – I brought several films with me including Pride and Prejudice but haven’t yet watched it so hope that when I do so Keira Knightley and Matthew McFadden can live up to the book (or to the earlier BBC series with Jennifer Erhle and Colin Firth which remains one of my all time favourites).

Also on the theme of reading, my co volunteers and I receive regular visits from our neighbours’ children and I’m trying to help some of them with their reading skills, but struggling a little at times. It seems that they are taught the alphabet at school (“Ay, Bee, See, Dee etc”) just as we were, but it also seems to me that in some ways, this is a hindrance. How does the child learn to string the sounds together so that “cat”  is pronounced as we do, rather than “SeeAyTee”? I seem to remember being taught to add the sound of letters together in small batches to make syllables so that “Atlantic” (we were looking at a map of the Gambia) is split into “At” + “lan” + “tic”, and that works for me, but seems a hard concept for the children to grasp. They seem to recognise word shapes instead, so that if we come across “Brikama” for example on the map, it can be read/guessed as “Senegal” presumably because it’s another long word that we have just seen, rather than seeing it can’t possibly be Senegal because it doesn’t even begin with the “S” sound!

Perhaps it’s just as well I didn’t choose to become a teacher.