My fourth visit to the Gambia is being spent at MyFarm, a small educational project based near the village of Nema Kunku, not far from my previous VSO placement with the Department of Agriculture. This is very different however from my VSO placement in a number of ways. For a start I am living here on the job rather than in Bakau, and what a difference that makes. Last year I was woken every morning by the sound of four different mosques all competing in the morning call to prayer around 5.30am, and I often went to bed in the knowledge that the drumming and loud music (power cuts permitting) would continue unabated until the early hours as the residents of Mamakoto Road made the most of the cool night air. At that time I was living in a compound in a crowded and noisy area to the back of the market, but here I am in a small community in the centre of a mango orchard surrounded by plants and birds, about a kilometre from the highway. The approach down a dusty bumpy track is pretty unprepossessing, but once through the gates you enter an oasis of peace and tranquillity – that is apart from the sound of reggae music accompanying one of the gardeners as he goes about his daily work. Now I like the music of Bob Marley in general, but after hearing the same track for the seventeenth time that day played at full volume on a mobile phone it can get a bit annoying!
The staff begin work about 8am and finish about 5pm, but of course, being Gambia, these times are variable, and from time to time someone doesn’t turn up because they have a family problem, or a programme to attend.
Until this weekend I was living above the schoolroom in a large space used for volunteer accommodation which I shared with an English lady who has been staying here for some time and leaves next week. She rode here on her bicycle from the UK and will be flying from here to Kenya and then continuing her trip from there by bicycle to South Africa. Rather her than me! [Click here to read Annie’s blog]
This week however I have moved out as the accommodation is needed for a group of trainees who arrived on Monday and will stay until Friday. The training here is described as “An Educational Journey From Seed To Business” and this group of youngsters will be taught to make jam, soap and lip balm, basic marketing and business skills and some environmental issues, the whole idea being to stimulate entrepreneurism and assist young Gambians in acquiring skills with which they can make their own living. Since their arrival I have been living in a round house which was being renovated but is not quite finished. The builders have returned this morning after ten days absence so I have just had to move my bed and pack my bags again so that they can finish painting the walls, and complete the job properly – hopefully I will soon have electricity and water! The electricity here all comes from solar panels which generate enough power to pump water from the borehole (we use a lot of water), light the buildings, and run computers, mobile phones, and even a recently acquired fridge. As part of the refurbishment the builders have constructed a small cubicle at the rear of my house so that I will even have my own shower and wc, putting an end to my short walk across the garden to the shower/toilet block, though this is hardly an imposition in this climate.
My day here usually begins soon after 7am having been woken by the dawn chorus and the sound of the locals chatting as they pass our site on the way to work on the adjoining farm, a large partly mechanised commercial operation. At that time of day I am probably the only person in the garden using a tap so there is enough water pressure to use a hosepipe for an hour or so and I make use of it to water the area of garden in the centre where we have paths flanked by lemongrass and other ornamental plants. The Gambian staff seem to value these less than the food crops so I have made the ornamentals one of my areas of interest and spend a lot of time watering, digging to let air and water in, and clearing the invasive Bahama grass which gets everywhere. About 9am we stop for breakfast – a mug of warm sweet minty tea and half a tapilapa bread filled with mango jam, or occasionally egg, and we then continue until lunchtime around 2.30pm. By breakfast time the sun is getting hot so it is best to get any strenuous jobs done early as soon it will be too hot for heavy work, or at least the pace of work will slow down with frequent stops for water. By now there will probably be at least three gardeners busy with watering cans as most crops have to be watered at least twice daily. The soil is quite fine and when watered can soon set like concrete so it is also important to turn the surface regularly with a fork to avoid compaction, and of course there are also the usual tasks of weeding, sowing and transplanting, and the endless sweeping and raking to keep the farm tidy.
While the gardeners are busy, so too are the training staff. We have a small computer room equipped with about ten laptops and most days we see local youngsters arriving to receive training in Scratch.
This is an educational programme developed by MiT to teach youngsters the basics of coding whereby they create animated cartoons and make the characters (“sprites”) move, talk, and play sounds etc. (The Scratch website can be viewed here and you can download the Scratch 2 editor free if you want to try it yourself.) Meanwhile, across the garden in the schoolroom there is likely to be a group of children from the local community who have come to play with Lego or other games, do logic puzzles on the iPads, or read books from the library.
Today is Wednesday which is usually the day for making soap so this morning Isatou is teaching our group of trainees how to measure, mix and mould the ingredients while after lunch they will be set to work packaging and labelling a batch that was made earlier.
Several “flavours” are produced including Dettol, mint, and moringa, along with various lip balms and body lotions – all easily made on a small scale at home for a low cost, allowing a budding entrepreneur to start small and gradually build up a business. The courses are usually free, but before being accepted on a course, potential trainees are asked to buy a small quantity of soaps and then go out and sell them to give them a chance to demonstrate their commitment and see if they are prepared to sell their own produce. They will also have an opportunity to test their sales skills tomorrow when they are taken to Banjul market to try selling some of the soap and lotions produced here.
Lunch is generally a huge plate of rice with fish or chicken and a sauce of some kind, although on Fridays we have pasta for a change. I’m not the greatest fan of Gambian cuisine but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the food here which is generally good, although I enjoyed going out to Senegambia one evening last week where I had pizza for a treat!
After eating we carry on with our tasks until 5pm or sometimes later; then, by the time I’ve had a welcome shower and change of clothes it soon becomes dark. I catch up on laundry and mail and relax until about 8pm when the Gambians are ready for their evening meal – another large plate of rice, but I simply can’t manage any more food by then so I normally retire fairly early. I brought a “Connect 4” game with me for the children but it also proved very popular with the builders when they were concreting the foundations of a new building – they slept on site while they were working here and played it every night. When I was sleeping above the school I could heard them playing late each night in the bantaba next door, but it is a different gang who are here this week to start the blockwork and I think they have not yet discovered Connect 4. In any case, I am now at the other end of the garden where I can hear no sound from the bantaba.