Progress…

Day 1 – 19th Feb

Well, that was a long lie – not up until about 9am – partly caused by the “ceilidh”, which went on right through the night until first prayers. All that time there was singing, percussion and, I suspect, dancing. It broke through my sleep many times.

This morning I was served breakfast when I got down: cold fried Spam (or similar – presumably pork-free), lettuce, ketchup etc. I have arranged with Mousa that one main meal a day is more than adequate, so from now on it’s an evening meal with bread / sandwiches for the other two. Mousa’s suggested rate is high, so I think I’ll discuss with Ousainou when he arrives.

It was good to meet some more old friends – Abass is doing well and, although it’s very early days, I feel a different atmosphere about the place. There is more endeavour, more enterprise and more of a sense of ownership. Everyone I’ve met is positive about the changes – Ousainou Sarr is generally thought of as a good administrator and there are fortnightly Management meetings. From time to time, as we were looking at progress, there was talk about the transparency and openness of decision-making and the feeling that they are a community working to a commonly-agreed goal.

There is a new Minister for Youth: the previous Permanent Secretary, whom I met a couple of times last year  now holds the post. Abass describes him as hard-working and pragmatic. Both of these are terms of praise from Abass. Others have suggested the jury is still out, but they seem to be willing to give the new man the benefit of the doubt and to let him prove himself.

Abass’s onion-plot has expanded to a second and third area, which makes sense financially as well as meaning other areas of the grounds are tended. It is good to see little “paddy-fields” of onions in neat rows, regularly watered and all growing well.

There seem to be increased external contracts at the moment. Long may that last.

The woodworking department are making 1200 trays for the Independent Electoral Commission. These have handles at each end and a wire mesh base: basically a riddle. When there is an election (Parliamentary elections to be held in March, I think), each candidate has a sealed box with their name, photo and party logo at the polling station and voters let a marble roll into the appropriate box. The boxes have sand put into them to deaden the sound of the marbles and make the ballot more secret. After the voting has taken place, the boxes are emptied, sand and all, into one of these trays, which lets the sand fall through but retains the marbles for counting. The use of photos and logos on the ballot boxes is to help the non-readers. A remarkably simple and efficient system: the corruption – if there be any – must be elsewhere.

I was shown a corner sofa (2 small units with a corner piece) which was made to order and is about to be collected. The guy who made it showed it proudly to me, whipping off the dust sheet with a flourish so I could look at it in all its glory. He had also covered the suite in a plush material with tassels and piping. I felt it wouldn’t be out of place in a tart’s boudoir, but I suppose that’s a matter of taste.

The classrooms we worked on last year – and which other groups also contributed to – are in a good state of repair. True, there are still a few signs of leaks from the roof, but Abass assures me these are being seen to. The wooden ceilings have been provided with hatches to make access for wiring etc. easier. Apparently the improved conditions have motivated pupils who feel they are in “real” classrooms and their work is improving. I was also told – unprompted – that the staff are also reliably arriving on time for their classes! I’ll need to keep my own standards high!

There are still about 5 classroom floors needing work, but more rooms in the block along from the computer lab are being used as classrooms and no doubt they’ll need attention in time to come. The lighting system installed by Emma’s dad (?) is apparently working though I’ve not seen it in operation.

The Hall is in quite a good state: all the windows glazed and curtained, the floor clean and students kept out unless for some specific purpose. There is some air conditioning in place. The Hall, the RPI and its catering facilities were all used when the President was (re)inaugurated a wee while back, with a number of lesser dignitaries staying at the RPI.

I discussed the use of surnames with Mousa, who kept referring to “Sarr” (“Mr Ousainou Sarr” to you and me). It is not impolite in The Gambia to address someone by their surname only (without a Mr etc.). Indeed, I’m told that old men and women will address the His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhagi Doctor Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh GMRG, President of the Gambian Republic and Commander in Chief of the Gambia Armed Forces simply as “Jammeh”. I think I’ll adopt that policy too.

It’s not that the Gambians are indifferent to status – far from it – and they are generally very polite. I was curtseyed to today by one of Mousa’s daughters when she was introduced to me.

The general security at Bakau has been improved: all windows I saw now have bars or sturdy grilles. One or two points of access to “the campus” from outside have been bricked up and I spotted some new locks. These don’t seem to extend to the RPI rooms, though: however the bedroom doors have locks of a sort, so there is a basic level of security.

The “gazebo” outside at the front has suffered the ravages of termites and I wouldn’t advise anyone to try doing curl-ups, general gymnastics etc. on the beams this year as the whole thing has a bit of a tilt now.

The termites have also had a go at the tables out front which, what with the effects of the sun peeling their paintwork, are beginning to look rather sorry for themselves. I suggested to Mousa that putting a rectangular concrete base under each table might make it easier to maintain them. He agreed, but sensibly said it would have to go through the management committee. Assuming approval, that might be a project for the IRA group to be involved in at Bakau.

This is the first visit in which I’ve seen anyone picking up litter and tidying without being prompted and without knowing I was watching.

I am going to be working with Saikou in the Secretarial department and was shown the IT classroom with its 9 or 10 computers (set up yet again by Penny’s group?) where I’ll be based. Apparently there are about a dozen in the class, so that’s not a bad student / computer ratio, assuming they all work – the computers that is – which is probably unjustified.

Everyone I’ve spoken to has asked about Sarah, whom they seem to recall with fondness. I’m always amazed at how much these guys remember – the fact Sarah is at University in Dundee etc. There also seems to be curiosity about meeting Sonia – who has had to put up with my incessant chatter about the country, the people and the PIA in particular. I am frequently asked questions about previous IRA folk – Alan, Mike, Malcolm, Tosh, Jen and Pat have all been asked for.

In summary, it’s early days yet and it may be that folk are on their best behaviour, but I feel there is a change for the better in the air. Either that or they’ve enrolled in courses at RADA.

Tomorrow is my first day teaching here!

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