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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Bumsters

I’ve been in the Gambia for over three months now and don’t think I have yet mentioned the bumsters which are a feature of everyday life here.

A “bumster” is the local name for the (mostly young) Gambian males who act as unofficial guides, touts, fixers, companions or whatever and who are found all over the Kombos, but particularly in the tourist areas. They are looking to make a living by providing you with services like arranging taxis, foreign exchange, fishing trips, or in some cases by befriending you and then giving you a hard luck story about a sick child and not being able to afford the medicine, or telling you that they have just got married, or have a new baby, and asking you for cash. When you bear in mind that the average wage here is around £200 per annum, the truth is that there is more money to be made out of tourists than by any other means, and a bumster doesn’t have to work very hard on them to earn a comparatively good living. A white face marks you out as a possible source of income, so even though I’ve been here long enough now to be recognized by many of the locals, I’m still occasionally a target.

As I’ve said in previous posts, greetings are very important in the Gambia, so typically as a bumster approaches he will come out with some stock greeting, and shake your hand (usually holding on to prevent your escape), often following this up with another standard line ”You remember me, it’s me – Omar – I’m the security guard at the hotel!” (or something similar). This tactic relies on the toubab not wishing to give offence by failing to recognise the bumster, and usually works, even if the two have never met before! I hadn’t been here long (although long enough that I should have known better) before I was caught like this on my way home from work one evening. It was while I still worked only ten minutes walk from home that I was first approached by Omar, a tall gangly young man with a wide grin who treated me to the usual chat up line, and I fell for it and “recognised” him thinking he must have worked at Safari Garden Hotel where we stayed for our first few days in country.

Unfortunately for Omar however, as he walked along beside me telling me he had just got married (obviously expecting me to congratulate him and fork out for a wedding gift), he carried his tale too far, talking about supposed mutual friends of ours and at that point I realised I had never met him before in my life. Since then I have come across Omar many times and he insists on greeting me with “You’re a Gambian now” and trying to attach himself to me, and he is the only bumster to whom I have so far been sufficiently rude to just ignore and walk away, or on one occasion tell him he was out of his usual territory and should go back to Atlantic Road! Normally I exchange greetings with bumsters, we pass the time of day, shake hands and I move on, but somehow poor Omar manages to annoy me everytime we meet and I actively avoid contact.

At this time of year, as most of the tourists have gone home there are slimmer pickings to be had and consequently less bumsters active, but while the tourists are here it is impossible to walk along the beach without being hassled by someone trying to sell you fruit, juice, belts, bags, nuts, crafts or excursions. In tourist season on the beach you also pass numbers of very fit young Gambian men, working out, doing press-ups, playing football, or just sitting staring at the ocean and hoping to catch the eye of an unattached white female whom they can chaperone for a week or two…..or who may possibly be their ticket to a better life. It seems that the Gambia has become a popular destination for lonely middle aged Europeans who are looking for love and/or sex, and as a result it is quite common to see what at home would be quite incongruous couples, usually a middle aged white woman with a young Gambian man, but occasionally a middle aged white man with a young Gambian woman. It is so easy to be cynical and say that for the Gambian partner it is simply a meal ticket for a while, or possibly even at some point a route to Europe, but not all these relationships are purely commercial ones and there are undoubtedly genuine success stories too among the tales of disappointed love.

To the European tourist just off the plane, bumsters can be annoying, or possibly even intimidating, and as a result the main tourist area of Senegambia is approached through a security check point manned by tourist police to prevent bumsters hassling the tourists, and on the beach the hotels have security guards and the occasional policeman ready to chase away anyone who becomes too much of a nuisance. Outside this enclave though you’re on your own, but you soon learn how to deal with them  – a few words of Wolof help so that you can say “I have no money”, “Another day perhaps”, or something similar, but if not a smile and greeting in English, polite “No thank you” and keep walking will deter all but the most persistent huckster.

Of course there are variations on the bumster theme and I was amused one Sunday as I walked through Fajara by a security guard sitting outside one of the office buildings, asking me point blank “Why don’t you employ me?” The young men hanging around near my house greet me with “Hey! My neighbour!” as I pass and occasionally ask me for money to buy attaya, and the children ask boldly in the street “You buy me a football?” or simply “Minty?” and view me as a provider of sweets or pens simply because of my white face.

It’s difficult to know how to treat the children because as they have so little it’s very tempting to give small gifts, but I can’t help feeling that this only perpetuates a dependence culture which makes the situation here worse in the long run. These mini bumsters are growing up from birth to view Europeans as cash cows to be milked, rather than being encouraged to try to make some income by other means.

And the youth form the bulk of the population………

Transferred!

Since I last wrote about work I have been moved from the Department of Agriculture Headquarters at Bakau and am now working out of town near the airport. I was called to the office of the Deputy Director General about ten days ago and informed that I was being posted to the Department of Agriculture regional offices at Yundum to be based there under the direction of Mr Ousman Jammeh, Head of the West Coast Region where I’m told there is “plenty of work”! My new duties began almost immediately as the rest of the day was spent with my new boss attending a meeting of stakeholders in the West African Agricultural Productivity Programme (WAAPP) whose main purpose was to present an interim progress report to representatives of the World Bank and the Spanish Government (major funding providers) on how their funding had been spent so far, and what the planned activities of the programme in the Gambia were for 2013.

I was introduced to quite a number of new faces, mostly from the Department of Agriculture and NARI (the National Agricultural Research Institute) and will no doubt be meeting some of them again during the course of the coming weeks, and I  then spent an interesting afternoon learning a little about WAAPP and the relationships between the various organisations involved, principally the World Bank, DOA, NARI, and the National Environment Agency.

The following Monday was my first day at the new office and I spent most of my time attending meetings with the Director and some of the senior Agricultural Officers. The first meeting was with representatives of a local village group to discuss support by the Department for a new horticultural project. It appears that the project has been instigated by a “new” village group, but that now that it looks as if they will receive DOA backing, two other established village groups want to become involved. The discussion seemed to centre around the provision of land for the project, and how to maintain the support of all and ensure the various groups work together without one group being dominant, although the Department would prefer to work through an existing group which already has a formal constitution and management structure, bank accounts etc, rather than a newly set up group with no measurable business record. A meeting is now due to be held with the village elders for further discussions on how to proceed.

The second meeting with about 25 local farmers, mostly women, was conducted in two languages – Wolof and Mandinka, and when anyone spoke it was immediately repeated in the other language for the benefit of those who might not understand it first time. My knowledge of Wolof is very limited and my Mandinka virtually non existent but I think I managed to get the gist of the meeting although much of the detail escaped me. It did help that I knew the agenda in advance! The meeting was in preparation for the official handover next Saturday of a new butchery at Kotu which has been supported by the DOA, and was a final planning meeting to discuss the guest list, and make sure all parties knew their responsibilities on the day – who was in charge of getting tents and chairs, who was to do the catering and for how many, how many tee shirts should be ordered etc. I will have to make sure I have a smart shirt and trousers to wear as it’s an important event and will be attended by Mr Solomon Owens (the Minister of Agriculture), the Mayor, the Paramount Chief, the Imam, local councillors, and various other honoured guests, so there will be prayers, quite a number of speeches by the dignitaries, (with musical interludes), and of course the obligatory Gambian hospitality! It promises to be a “good do” as we say at home, but I expect I’ll have to walk back to my lodgings afterwards – a brisk hour and a quarter along the beach – to burn off some calories!