Down On The Farm

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.

The schoolroom - with volunteer accommodation above

The schoolroom – with volunteer accommodation above

Just like home

The upstairs room

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.

Simon with students

Simon with students

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Learning 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.

Soap making

Soap making

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!

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The bantaba – centre of much activity

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.

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.

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!