Tuesday, 25 September 2012

The rainy season is well and truly upon us now. It snuck up slowly in July, the occasional pitter patter in the night, and the humidity creeping up. Then it truly broke - crashing downpours, lightning jagging down onto the choppy sea, and lighting up the plants and trees as they thrashed around in the darkness (lights off, all power cut). And the thunder - just incredible, when it erupts overhead, it makes you cower down, and the earth vibrates beneath your feet.

Storm is coming...
During these displays I am generally to be found with my nose pressed up against the windows, trying to catch the lightning forks, and watching the rain swirling in the howling wind. It's exhilarating, and quite frankly, slightly scary. When it all ceases, as suddenly as it starts, there are fragrant smells and the air is fresh. The next morning there are clouds of dragonflies and insects that seem to have swollen to unnatural proportions, including some chunky-looking cockroaches in my bathroom, and colonies of ants that have taken up residence in the apartment. The cockroaches are pretty gross, but at least they scuttle off and hide in dark places where I'm unlikely to see them. The ants on the other hand seem to have a military operation going on and treat the place quite like their own. Woe betide the stray crumb of cheddar or biscuit on the countertop...Sugar now lives in the fridge, as does anything else of even mild interest. 

...the cows head for shelter..
The trees and plants are so green and lush now, and they seem to grow at an unnatural speed. It's good news for the farmers and the country, who have - along with the entire Sahel region - been on the verge of starvation following a drought caused by last year's poor rains. Of course, this year there has been so much rain that it brings a fresh set of problems: people's houses are collapsing or are simply washed away, and some villages have been completely cut off from everything. The roads are flooded in places even here at the coast, and the sandy banks bordering the roads have been washed away by fast-flowing water, leaving little two-foot drop-offs from the tarmac - a nasty scenario for the unwary driver, and as it happens, my car's suspension. When I visited Banjul at the weekend, entire streets were flooded out with deep water. In true Gambian fashion, people didn't seem to mind; they waded through in flip flops, the women with large packages balanced easily on their heads, and one guy knee-deep in water, standing still, chatting on his mobile. I still can't work out why he didn't find higher ground... 

Fresh and calm after the rains
Who else thinks this looks like Mordor?!
Specimen A, lurking in my cupboard
It's about 27 degrees most days, but the humidity cranks up the heat - and it's not just bugs that seem to thrive on it: I've been discovering a nasty green fur on various leather items, and even on  clothes!

Work has been pretty busy since I got back from a fortnight in the UK. The President's decision to execute 9 death row prisoners a few weeks ago, after a 27 year moratorium, sparked international outcry. I'm working hard on that, and although it's a disturbing topic, it's been very interesting.

I've been doing some communications work too - attending an event to hand over a 5000 tonne contribution of rice to the World Food Programme's Emergency Response Operation in The Gambia, donated by Brazil, and supported by the EU. It will be distributed to about 140 000 people across the country, many of whom are under 5 years old. The rice, along with vegetable oil and micronutrient-fortified cereal, should provide food for three months, until the harvest from this year is in.

Funky lorry used to transport the rice

Warehouse storing the rice and oil, to be distributed across the country
I'm going to break with tradition and not report on the bumsters to finish off this post - I haven't had any encounters of late, which is no bad thing. I'm sure they'll all be flocking back to the coast in October though, when the tourist season starts picking up again. Instead, I want to leave you with this photo, which JT took on a trip up-country in June. I think it's possibly my favourite photo ever: a goat in a bag. On a car. Genius!

Just chillin...

Saturday, 5 May 2012

It's my favourite time of day, just before 8am, when the morning sun is bathing everything in a pinky-golden glow. The air is cool and there are just a few birds chirping. It is particularly quiet today as it's 'Set Setal', or Operation Clean the Nation day, which happens every couple of months or so - from 9am to 1pm businesses are shut and transportation is not permitted. Everyone is meant to clean up their compounds and the streets. It works quite well; later on there will be little fires smouldering in the ditches to burn the rubbish (recycling hasn't quite caught on here yet).

We're feeling pretty settled now - we've decorated the apartment a bit, have met a great group of people, and have discovered that they even sell Leffe in some of the shops here, so life is complete, at least as far as JT is concerned.

Our apartment

Beautiful sunset: it's quite unusual to see the sun so low in the sky as it's usually swallowed up in the haze above the sea
 I finally got round to taking the car to a German mechanic that had been recommended to me (technically, I should have done this before buying it). He proceeded to tell me that I had succeeded in buying a rare US model, for which no parts would be available locally - I would have to import from the US, it would cost me over $1000 (bearing in mind the car cost me over4500, which I was reliably informed in a heated Germanic tone was "too much! it's too much!"). The alarm, which had a nasty habit of going off at regular intervals - nice for the neighbours in the early hours - was an 'Arab alarm system' (not a technical term, I've checked), and would not, sadly, be possible to fix. Finally, he told me that there was no way to remove the wheels or check the brakes, as we did not have the special spanner to undo the security wheel bolts (this had surely been 'thrown away' by the careless Lebanese mechanic from whom I had bought it). He proceeded to charge me 30 for his damning prognosis.

We were a bit miffed and went to see the Lebanese guy in question, who promptly raised his eyebrows, went into his garage, and emerged with a normal spanner in hand, before proceeding to fix it to the bolt, give it a good tug, and demonstrate the ease with which a well-oiled 'security' bolt will come away. With a pat on the bonnet, he declared that this was an "African car" and handed us the spanner with a glance which expressed his pity for our naive European ways.  Finally, we met an English mechanic who dabbles in cars as a hobby (tractors being his main thing), who took one look at the alarm system and unwrapped the duct tape which was mysteriously holding two wires together...and that was the undoing of the indestructible Arab alarm.

The trusty car...and the fancy EC plates
Work is interesting, I've been working flat out on the Delegation website and that was finally launched last week (it was meant to have been completed in 2009 apparently, so it was long overdue!). I didn't think I would enjoy the communications work as much as the political work, but it's actually nice to have a mix, particularly when progress on political issues is slow (the Justice Minister did not seem to think that abolishing the death penalty was on the cards any time soon, although in true Gambian style, he let us down politely, talking at length about 'processes to be followed...stakeholders, Cabinet discussions, referendums, etc etc', which was a clever ploy in itself as we all got twitchy wondering when the explanation would end (it eventually did, after 15 minutes, by which time we had gone to another plane of consciousness).

JT's new and implacable friend 
JT will start at Concern Universal on Monday, working on Disaster Risk Reduction, which will be a change from commercial law, but he's looking forwards to it. We've been for a couple of trips further afield to visit some beautiful beaches along the coast where you can find huge deserted stretches of white sand. The tourist numbers are really dwindling now, so bumsters are thinner on the ground. Still, you can usually count on being accompanied by a couple of stray dogs as you stroll down the beach...

Following his every move
If you get to the beach at the right time (around 4pm), you can watch the fishing boats coming in. It's quite incredible, the entire village spills onto the beach, the women all dressed in bright dresses and the wiry men jumping off boats and running up the beach with crates of fresh fish on their heads. The women proceed to scale and gut the fish and then they're packed onto ice and taken off in anything that will serve as a receptacle - baskets, buckets, old petrol cans...The huge barracuda fish are the big prize, but there are lots of butter fish and ladyfish (quite meaty, chicken-like).

Sanyang fishing village

Grub's up for the birds...
Talking of fish, someone asked me about the food here. As you would expect, there's a lot of fresh fish and prawns, but the national dishes are chicken yassa - chicken in a delicious onion and lemon sauce with lots of spices (although it's not spicy), typically served with rice. The other dish is beef or chicken 'domoda', a kind of peanut stew (groundnuts are the Gambian national crop) - tasty but quite heavy. Otherwise, lots of fresh fruit and vegetables - mangos are just coming into season and the grapefruit here are delicious, as sweet and juicy as an orange! Children sell sprigs of fresh mint and other herbs piled onto huge wicker platters which they carry on their heads.

Well, we're off to buy some fruit from the market - that's a sight in itself so I'll get some photos for the next update!

Friday, 16 March 2012

Baboons, Chimps, Hippos...and an update on bumsters (of course)

Mum's been visiting for a couple of weeks which has been fantastic - getting to know some local restaurants and bars, including my 'local' beach bar just next door - great for watching the sun sink down into the evening haze above the sea.

Last weekend we decided to head upcountry to a place called Baboon Island, just near Kuntaur - a village about 210km (130 miles) inland. We were told that the easiest option would be to take the ferry crossing from Banjul on the South bank to Barra on the North bank, and to take a taxi from there, rather than brave the road to the South of the river.

The distance between Banjul and Barra is 3 miles (5km). Now you would be forgiven for thinking that such a journey would be fairly straightforward, but you would be very much mistaken. We arrived at the port at 6.30am in optimistic anticipation of the 7am ferry - and waited for 2.5 hours as the sun rose over the crowds waiting to cross. A spacious and modern ferry sitting just outside the port was periodically obscured by the black smoke billowing from a decrepit-looking boat, whose engine was being repeatedly revved into life by its crew. Apparently the new one was inaugurated last year but since then the port has fallen into disrepair (literally, has fallen into the sea) and can no longer be used...so it's back to the old ferries.

The gleaming new ferry, bobbing in the harbour
Our ferry and a landing dock in need of some repair...
As the ferry finally came to dock, the jostling crowds positioned themselves: daring travellers pushed closer to the front, thereby increasing their chance of securing a a seat but running the simultaneous risk of being squashed by the cars, lorries and hoards of people spilling out of the ferry. Tempers flared, heated words were exchanged - a man with an enormous bag of ice cream cones was almost crushed, along with his precious cargo, by a rather large woman's bottom. Another scuffle broke out, a cow wandered through, oblivious. And the persistent smell of fish wafted by on the breeze...

As the final passengers disembarked chaos reined - it was every man for himself in the race to top deck - it may only be 3 miles but you could swim it more quickly than the ferry.... We chugged along for 2 hours before finally arriving.

Arrival in Barra...spot the unusual passenger
The journey inland was interesting, villages here are much less developed than the coastal area and the meaning of the 'dry' season becomes much clearer - the land was completely baked dry in the 40 degree heat and everything was coated by a fine orangey-red dust. In a few months time the view will completely change as the rains arrive.

Three hours later we arrived at our destination - the River Gambia National Park, or Baboon Island, home to a Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Camp, a project responsible for reintroducing indigenous chimps to the country after their extinction in the early 1900s. There are now over 50 chimpanzees living on the islands in different family groups.

The boat trip around the islands was fantastic - we saw lots of chimps, baboons, monkeys, some pink-backed pelicans, a sleepy crocodile and some enormous hippos (apparently the animal responsible for most deaths in Africa), which we promptly asked our guide to give a wide berth as they stared at us with beady eyes.

Chimp munching on a juicy orange

Enormous hippos with baby!
Safari tent overlooking the river
My guide told me that as a result of the project, the local communities are more aware of the importance of protecting the chimps and their habitat, and in turn they reap the benefits of eco-tourism in the area. Baboons are still seen as common pests though - he explained that they munch on leaves in the morning before heading into the villages for lunch - their favourite dish being farmers' groundnuts. The farmers use horses to drive them away, which baboons are apparently terrified of. He said it was not unusual to see 10 baboons crammed into a tiny trembling bush, heads bowed, trying to hide from the horses...

I feel that no post would be complete without some reference to our bumster friends...Sadly I couldn't capture the tearful goodbyes of 50-something European women and 20-something Gambian men at the airport today as I saw Mum off, nor the subsequent brisk trot across the terminal by said men to the arrivals lounge to await the incoming flights filled with eager new arrivals. I have to admit to frequently training my binoculars on the happy couples strolling along the beach in front of my apartment...hopefully JT will be able to wean me off the unhealthy habit when he arrives on Tuesday!

A typical example
I'll leave you on that note...

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

four and a half weeks in...

It's hard to believe how quickly my first month has flown by here...I haven't been in touch with people as much as I would have liked and I thought that a blog would be a perfect way to let you all know about life in The Gambia!

So - the basics - the apartment is great, the view is awesome, the weather is warm and dry with a nice sea breeze (it is the dry 'cool' season at the moment but I have been reassured that it should start 'heating up' shortly - after all, it's only 27 degrees most days but the Gambians are wearing woolly hats and shivering - I kid you not!). Apparently the rains start in May - about an hour or so a day and still very pleasant - but August and September are horribly humid, before it cools down again. So book your travel plans accordingly!

The sun setting over the Atlantic

My first impressions have been overwhelmingly positive - life here is ridiculously easy. Or at least it is, once you know a few people - I spent the first week eating out of tins from a local store, but within a couple of weeks people had loaded up my mobile phone with contacts: 'DVD Charlie', 'Bike Abdoulie', 'Taxi Fadoy'...even 'Plant Paaboy', and that really is how it works here. You phone someone for just about anything you might need - and anything is possible, for a fraction of the price in Europe. Now I just need to find a car...

There is a large Lebanese community here doing a lot of business - I was told that they were the people to get in touch with to change money from euros to dalasis - within an hour of transferring the cash online a huge bundle of notes, taped up in black plastic, was delivered to the office - it all felt a bit gangster-ish (which I thoroughly enjoyed). While we're on the subject of money, the notes here are disgusting. You don't want to think about the kind of germs they're harbouring - some of them are almost transparent with use. The smaller denominations are the worst as they're used by taxis and fishermen...

The first line of the Lonely Planet for The Gambia mentions the so-called 'bumsters' - young Gambian men that try to pick up with white European women. It's entirely the fault of the thousands of Western middle-aged women that come here each year looking for them. Like Thailand in reverse. You see odd-looking couples everywhere - very hunky muscular young guys with paunchy (and frankly, that's being kind) Germans, Brits, Swedish women who are at least 30 years older than them. It's kind of sick. Unfortunately the result is that any white woman is seen as game and the hassle is constant. It's never aggressive, just a bit tiring - and the same conversation each time! It goes something like this:

Hi beautiful, how are you?!
It's me Lamin, from the hotel, don't you recognise me?! [offended tone but he clearly doesn't recognise me]
No, I'm not staying in a hotel, I live here.
Oh, you live here, where are you staying? [not to be deterred]
Near the beach.
Where are you from, do you like The Gambia?
UK. and Yep. [walking past him]
Maybe I can come to your place some time. [statement, not a question] ...Maybe you can take me to the UK!!! [hopeful, fading]

It is almost amusing, but not when it's every few minutes!

The coastal area where I'm living (Fajara) is beautiful - the Atlantic ocean rolls onto a wide golden beach - huge stretches are deserted and there are some very nice beach bars and restaurants dotted along the front. Food is great here - a good selection of African and Western dishes - and reliably prepared, one of the advantages of the tourist trade. The tap water is even safe to drink! The streets are clean and there are beautiful hibiscus flower bushes everywhere. Chickens and goats roam the streets, along with a few stray dogs - they all seem to co-exist. Pretty chilled, like everyone else.

Work is interesting too. Today I went to visit an (EU-funded) community-run vegetable garden which is helping over 200 women to grow sustainable produce and sell it on the market. The climate here is fantastic for growing anything and they were shoving enormous cabbages and bushy spring onions into my hands as I walked around. One of the ladies who looked incredibly wizened (although I soon realised she was tougher than she looked, once I'd seen her bulging muscles hauling up a bucket from the well) started singing this kind of chant and the others started clapping, and then they were all on their feet dancing! Apparently the song was to thank us for being there and for the community. These people have some kind of genetic code which means they can move! I was slightly worried that I would be dragged up to join in but was temporarily distracted from my worries by a persistent insect which seemed to like the taste of my legs. I wondered briefly if it was bad etiquette to be slapping my legs and flapping around, but maybe they thought that was Western dancing.

On the subject of mosquitoes, my largest preoccupation in coming here - I haven't seen a single one! I did get bitten twice 2 nights ago, but I hadn't sprayed up so that was daft. It really doesn't seem to be a problem by the coast as they don't like the sea breeze...apparently there are a few more of the little blighters during the rainy season.

Well, I could write so much more but I think this is probably too long already - I'll post again soon!