Our weekend expedition was to Kartong (somtimes Kartung), which is South of the Banjul / Serrekunda nexus.
Rohey said she would arrive at 7:30 on Friday and, as she is normally reliable, I was downstairs and ready by 7:00, awaiting my pre-arranged breakfast. Amadou arrived at 7:35, mildly apologetic about his lateness and then wandered off to buy some of the local baguette-style bread – which I have now learned to call “tapalapa”. Rohey poled up about 8:00, we had a leisurely breakfast and then headed in a mini-bus to Westfield.
Westfield – with possibly the only section of dual carriageway in the country – is incredibly busy at 8:45 on a Friday morning, where we met the kids whom we were accompanying on the expedition. It was also busy at 9:00, 9:15 and 9:30 as we stood waiting for the “co-ordinator”, a teacher from their school. I was feeling pretty miffed until I discovered the kids had been told to turn up at 7:00 and were thus hanging around for 2 1/2 hours before their teacher appeared. He even had the nerve to give a couple of kids a dressing-down for wandering off to a shop.
Once a bus had been found and the price negotiated we headed off to Brikama, where Sadibou and his group were cooling their heels waiting for us, and the 4 hour walk started. Hot, dusty sandy tracks with minimum shade, flat as a pancake, occasionally passed by lads on bikes, looking at a dead snake, now and then passing, or being passed by, a donkey cart, eventually arriving in Gunjur.I should say at this point that no-one knew exactly how many of us there were: I counted 28 as we left in a 22-seater for Brikama but Sadibou’s group was roughly the same size, so we were in the range of 60 – Sadibou, Rohey, a couple of co-ordinators and me, plus 55 or more pupils.
Once all of us had walked to Gunjur Rohey’s lot, along with her co-ordinator and I, got a bus to Kartong whilst the rest walked as they had to complete a qualifying, rather than practice, expedition.
Kartong school is very similar to any other Gambian school I’ve seen: concrete-block classrooms round a rectangle of sand.The classroom windows are unglazed, but have sturdy grilles over them and heavy metal doors. These are to deter thieves but as there is little inside, it may not be money well spent. As a “toubab” (white person), I was pointed in the direction of the “sitting” toilet: it was only a slight disappointment to discover that this was not a sophisticated flushing device, simply an old toilet bowl with the s-bend broken off and positioned over the traditional long-drop toilet. However, it was a movement in the right direction, as you might say.
Sadibou had kindly lent me a tent, which he insisted be pitched close to the classroom. I have to admit to saying some bad words at about 3 in the morning to a group which included Rohey’s co-ordinator when they were still sitting chewing the noisy fat right outside the tent I nick-named “Doug Kunda”. (Kunda is the local word for a compound where the extended family live.)
Saturday morning was taken up with a lecture about the Award Scheme: I sat in for a while, chipped in something inspirational about global families and stuff then escaped, supposedly to help a girl with an epileptic fit. The fit was genuine, but my intervention was merely an excuse – the co-ordinator’s approach – possibly medically-approved – was to light a fag and blow smoke in her face. Maybe he was just trying to calm his nerves, but she did stop thrashing about so it appeared to work.
I don’t think there’d be any DofE entrants if they got 4 hours of lectures in the middle of an expedition.
While I sat outside and the lecture went on, I watched the Scouts who had also arranged to borrow part of the school for a camp. I was genuinely horrified at them. Admittedly I only had a short and unhappy Scouting career back in the mid-60s, but I watched – undecided as to whether to intervene – whilst a very small boy (8 or 9) stood to attention and some bullying early-twenties Scout leader shouted things like “Do you f—ing understand?” into his face from an aggressive three inches away. This was not the only such incident – a girl-scout was reduced to tears by another leader hitting her with a stick and shouting at her – Rohey declined to translate when I asked what was being said, but replied they were “very bad” insults. Virtually the whole of the Scouts’ stay in Kartong involved marching, general square bashing, PE and jogging. Admittedly their band was quite impressive: the flutes were 15 mm copper piping, as used by UK plumbers, appropriately drilled, the trumpeter was inordinately proud of his status and his silver instrument and there were a variety of military marching drums, along with the odd recorder for good measure. The Gambian Scouts seem to me to be unnecessarily militaristic – I have seen evidence of this before in other parts of the country,
Saturday afternoon, the coordinator decided to take his group – including the epileptic – back early, so I joined Sadibou’s group on a walk to the sacred crocodile pool outside the town. There were no crocodiles. A bit of a disappointment after Katchikally in Bakau where there are dozens and you get to pat a particularly docile one. We then walked on to “the longest grave in The Gambia”. I wasn’t expecting a lot and I was right. The local marabout (faith-healer – in this case female) had gone away for a day or two, so a knowledgable member of the group explained that this 15 ft long, tree-shaded heap of sand decorated with some sea shells and retained by a few loosely-placed patio-wall blocks – but otherwise indistinguishable from a common-or-garden dune – was the longest grave in The Gambia. Apparently Mohammed sent messengers out into the world to spread Islam and one ended up there, died and was buried by angels. There was quite a bit more about this marabout, her dreams etc., but my attention wandered.
More interesting to me was the cluster of straw huts that had sprung up round where the marabout lives. She apparently cures mental illness etc. and several of the President’s men come to stay to seek her advice / blessing. These huts, standing in some dunes and built of grass and thatch, lead down to the sea so we spent a time taking photos of each other and promising to put them on Facebook. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been told I’m a real Gambian now.
Sunday, Sadibou’s group – lucky people! – were walking back, so Rohey and I took the easy option of a series of crowded mini-buses and back-firing taxis home to Bakau. Prior to going to the beach, we went for a pizza. Lest anyone reading should think I was profligate (yes, you know who you are!), I should mention that at Kartong we had Fish Bennachin (rice and fish complete with head and dislocated eyes) three times : the other two meals involved half a tapalapa and a mug of very sweet milkless tea. The third Fish Bennachin, on Saturday night, was always destined to be a bit tedious but was rendered inedible by the huge quantity of salt someone had added. It wasn’t just my Scottish palate that was overwhelmed – two girls headed off on Sunday morning to feed the local pigs with huge platters of the stuff.
I have always been surprised to see pigs being farmed in Muslim Gambia, but the philosophy appears to be “we won’t eat it, but there’s no harm making the odd Dalasi by selling it to those pig-eating Christians.” If you fancy salted bacon, there may be a good Gambian batch on the market soon.
The beach was good after the dusty travails of Kartong: falling asleep on my lounger under a straw parasol in the sun, big waves, a Julbrew, local musicians… I woke up to a teenage girl smiling at me and saying “Hello, Doug”. It turned out to be a pupil from the computer lab at Bakau whom I had helped last Wednesday.
Back to the PIA and a shower followed by a snack tea – omelette and salad sandwich – and compulsory watching of a penalty-shootout between a red team and blue team both from The Slough of Albion as Scottish hill-walkers call England. I don’t want to spoil the excitement but the red team won: however if you’re in any way interested you probably already knew.
That’s about it.