There and Back Again

The day started at 6:00am with a cold shower and drew – for all practical purposes – to an end 12 hours later with another one. In the intervening period, we went to Kerewan and back.
Kerewan is a largeish village on the North (i.e. “other” side of the River Gambia). It is reached by a good road – an improvement I have seen over the years – and takes about 45 minutes to an hour after the ferry crossing. British Health and Safety officials would be advised to avoid the ferry on mental health grounds. It is jam packed with vehicles from motorbikes to transcontinental lorries, all loaded beyond all known tolerances. Once this has been effected, the gates are opened and a seething mass of humanity streams on board – mothers with babies on their backs and three or four containers on their heads, men with flocks of goats, horses, a few cattle, peddlers of all descriptions selling water, biscuits, officiously cleaning your shoes uninvited and then wanting money for it. There are also pousse-pousse (wheelbarrow) men who bring on sacks of rice and old car parts etc.
The main purposes of the trip were to “touch base” with the village elders in the form of the Village Development Committee, to renew acquaintance with some of the staff at Kerewan Basic School, where the forthcoming IRA group will be staying, to pay an information gathering visit to the building site where the group will work and, of course, to deal with the snake.
Unlike a similar one day trip a year ago things were relatively uneventful, praise be to Allah. I didn’t get stuck 100 yards off shore the only person on board the ferry and in charge of 240 1.5litre bottles of water. We didn’t even get stopped by the police for overloading a car.
After the outward-bound ferry crossing Rohey and Alesana wanted breakfast. I was glad I had already eaten as I watched them get bread and then have it filled with indescribable bits of “meat” from a stall. There were lots of locals swarming round the stall and some of the provender was clearly intestinal in origin: I have always steered clear of “andouilles” (entrails) in France, so there was no way any of the Gambian equivalent was going in my mouth.
The meeting with the village elders went well. They had been left in the dark during some previous visits and the current PIA management are keen to avoid this again: after all, their village as a whole will benefit from any completed PIA skills centre so it’s only politic to keep them on side. On a purely practical level, they have also agreed to provide support possibly in the form of work parties etc. and generally to facilitate groups’ endeavours.
The school staff were, as always, welcoming and said they were glad to provide accommodation for the groups.
The information gathering was straightforward: it looks as though the Inverness group will build on the concrete foundations already laid for a second building, by laying about three courses of blocks ready for a “big push” when the June group from Aberdeenshire comes out. There will also be a need to make more blocks for them, after we have used up the 300 or so currently ready for use.
We examined the wiring in place in the first, virtually-completed, workshops and decided what was needed to make it useable.
The “snake poison” was indeed something akin to Jeyes’ fluid, a substance apparently inimical to snakes. It was splattered around the site, but particularly in the vicinity of the shipping container which holds – rather, held – materials, tools etc. This was sent out by a Dumfries and Galloway contingent two or three years ago. It is sad to see the effect the termites have had on the contents: a broom completely eaten bar the nylon bristles, for example. The desks which were inside last year and had had their wooden tops eaten away are now in the locked workshop, but their promised refurbishment has not yet happened: I’m told the money provided by a previous group was nowhere near enough to buy enough chipboard, so what was bought is still uninstalled though mercifully free of termite damage in the workshop.
There were some nervous glances as we opened the container and found a large snake skin lying inside. No sign of its previous occupant, though. There is, however, a busy nest of bees under the container.
Despite having been to Kerewan several times before and having stayed there for up to a week, the increased heat always catches me unawares when I first arrive. After a day or so, you acclimatise a bit and learn to pace yourself, resting in the hottest part of the day.
The journey back to Bakau was equally uneventful, though we shared the ferry with the Amsterdam to Dakar car rally. These guys get cars and 4by4s in Europe, find sponsorship and drive down to Dakar in neighbouring Senegal. When they get there they auction off the cars and the money goes to an appropriate charity. More power to their elbow. I must admit it sounds rather an appealing jaunt. And all the Dutch speak English…
It took the ferry captain about eight attempts to dock successfully on the Banjul side when we returned: the passengers stood quietly tut-tutting in the vernacular and eventually gave him a round of applause.
As I mentioned previously, yesterday’s meeting went well, but the fact that some people will almost inevitably lose their jobs in the forthcoming restructuring was beginning to sink in: a situation that was exacerbated by an unhelpful phonecall from an ex-member of staff who is now angling to be a politician. Abass and I tried to calm a couple of folk by saying all you could do was try your best, not let the tension get to you and keep an eye on the bigger picture. The staff have been remarkably united in a difficult situation and I can only hope that this sort of thing does not lead to infighting as that will do no-one any good, let alone serve the PIA well.
Gripe of the Day
The litter here is beginning to get to me. The Gambia is, to my mind, a beautiful country with many strengths, not least the amiability of the people, but everywhere there is litter. Plastic bags are virtually compulsory when you shop – possibly in attempt to combat shop-lifting – the locals buy drinking water in little plastic pillows and people just drop their rubbish where they stand. Plastic bags flutter from tree branches or blow about in the breeze. There are some posters and hoardings trying to discourage littering, but they have no effect. I suppose that nascent consumerism is to blame, but I can’t help feeling a few million pounds a year spent on initiating a rubbish collection system might be money well spent, possibly backed by capital punishment for serial offenders.
One Saturday every month is “clean-up day” and everyone is supposed to stay at home and clean their local area. Traffic is banned for a few hours to facilitate this. I initially thought this was a good idea: now I wonder if it merely gives people the feeling that littering doesn’t matter as it will supposedly be tidied up then – though it’s not.
Just 100 yards from the PIA in Bakau is a dumping area with a couple of skips of slowly smouldering plastic and other rubbish. Locals rummage through it looking for drinks cans, which can then be melted down to make a whole range of kitchen utensils sold in the markets: at least there’s recycling there.
I am fighting a one man campaign to discourage littering and have started scolding offenders amongst my acquaintances here. Doomed to failure, I know, but perhaps it’ll have some small effect, especially if people educating and training the young get the message and pass it on. The concept of biodegrability is unknown here. Dropping the skin of a locally-grown banana is one thing: chucking away plastic bags is quite another.
Note to daughter number 1, if she’s reading this: I think there’s scope for a good psychology study on this, particularly if it comes up with an effective litter-reduction strategy!
Yours truly
Disgusted of Bakau.


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