Home Thoughts From Godot

When I got back to my room yesterday, after a day of teaching and compulsive blogging, I found it had been cleaned. This was not a surprise as I’d made the necessary arrangements in the morning, but I noticed my bed linen (i.e. the mattress cover) had been changed to a moderately attractive flowery-blue sheet which looked vaguely familiar. It took a few minutes before I recognised it as a duvet cover I had brought from home two or three years ago: not just a reminder of Inverness, but also a cheering thought that the materials various groups had brought out were still in daily use. A small difference had been made.
Paul Theroux suggests in his book that “Africa is where people come to wait”. I would adapt that slightly: “Africa is where people come to learn to wait” as the natives of the few bits I’ve visited have turned it into an art-form. In Europe we still need a reason for waiting: a bus, the rain to stop, a holiday or something similar is still needed, like a child’s bicycle stabilisers, to support waiting. It seems to me that in Africa, they have managed to do away with that artificial prop and people will wait with no particular goal in view, maybe for days. You see them, men and women, depending on the culture, sitting under a tree, lolling on a bench at the roadside or on a chair with their feet resting on an up-turned bucket, simply waiting. Perhaps there is a purpose to the waiting, but it never happens while I’m watching.
The Gambia seems to have taken a pragmatic approach to water and power supplies: quite simply, it seems to be “tourists first”. My limited experience is that hotels on the beach are the last to suffer from blackouts and water shortages. Economically, this makes good sense: western tourists are not going to come in their droves for a fortnight of blackouts and hissing, gurgling taps, but I’m surprised there’s not more local complaint about the difference in standards. Forgive me if I’ve mentioned this in a previous blog (I tend to write this stuff on my laptop and only upload it when I have Internet access), but a little anecdote may make my point clearer. About seven years ago I was in a group of Highland teachers who came out with support from the Local Authority to help Gambian teachers get to grips with computers. We were working in the computer lab here at Bakau – kitted out by a previous group of pupils from Highland – but we were staying at a hotel on the beach. Every day we travelled the short distance from the tourist strip to Bakau, ten minutes by taxi at most, and moved from one world into another. At the hotel I watched a smartly uniformed chap taking samples from the swimming pool – only a matter of feet from the beach – to check the water was clean enough for tourists to swim in, yet by the time we were in Bakau ragged children were collecting water in buckets from standpipes and pools which were visibly contaminated.
Things have improved over the last few years, but the discrepancy is still clear and wide.
The Gambian Television Service (GTS) is indescribable, but I’m not going to let a little problem like that stop me from trying. There are more adverts and public information programmes than there is real content: most of the time GTS seems to be showing trailers for what is coming on later, but the actual programmes rarely appear when I’m watching. One heavily-trailed program is “Shuga” (sugar) the “award-winning” soap with the tagline “How far would you go for love?” The announcer says huskily, “Love and Money”. If they had included sex in that list, I’d have suspected it was written by Joan Collins. Someone in the GTS production department has clearly been given an animation package and much of the time is taken up with computer generated images of Koras (21 stringed traditional instrument) which zoom in and out, line up and dance or sit still in serried ranks while crude GTS logos flash in and out, showing  off the software’s 3D capabilities.
The service has improved though from the time about six years ago when “Aunty” Pat Crippin, S6 pupil Stewart Atkins and I (all from the IRA) sat on a sofa faced by their one and only camera and took part in a most stilted “interview” for a youth-oriented discussion programme. It was terrible: Pat looked fine in the local garb she had chosen to wear, but Stewart’s white toubab legs glared from below his shorts in the studio light and I uttered inanities when it was my turn. With only the one camera, we were not allowed to chip in to the “discussion” when we had something to say, but had to wait for the cameraman to manoeuvre his equipment to point at us. It was in effect a series of speeches on the need for youth development in The Gambia and it was simply dire. Now there is a grand new building and they clearly have more than one camera, but the fare isn’t very different. The President, always given the full set of initials and honorifics, features in every news bulletin and often in between programmes for good measure.

My favourite programme these days is the oft-repeated short informational film about the country, presumably originally produced for a trade fair: it features the President, various other local worthies and interviews with a woman who runs a small fish-processing business, who says it helps pay the school fees. The best bit is when a white businessman says how good the Banjul port is – in some African countries, he says, freight sits around in the docks for weeks, but here it’s only days. Naturally, all the clips are chosen to show The Gambia as a hub of international commerce, a significant trading centre with green credentials, a country that is “going places”.
I also like the advert for “Munchee Biscuits”, but I won’t spoil it for you, in case it reaches ITV.
But it’s easy to poke fun: there definitely is development, there is progress – albeit slower than I’d like – and none of these things would happen if the people (and the NGOs) didn’t believe in the country.
Waiting for breakfast this morning (I still need a reason for waiting, though I’m getting better), I watched a couple of medium sized pigeons bickering over a couple of inches of power line they both wanted to sit one. There was a series of squabbles, fluttering and pecking until they both settled on a different couple of inches and they started all over again. This continued for a while until a big bruiser pigeon sent them both off, tail feathers between their legs, and it sat there crowing and smirking and the original two tied to look as if they didn’t care. Not very different from humans, methinks.

I ended up with the Maths teacher in his class of 58 again today. I had  suggested Sudokus as a possible variation from lowest common multiples etc. I think he thought that meant I was going to take the class. To avoid that trap, I didn’t turn up until over half-way through the 2 hour slot. It’s easy to criticise (and fun) but he really isn’t the man to be given a class of almost 60. I suspect he’s also the chap a previous visiting English Maths teacher said didn’t know his tables. I rushed the choice of Sudoku and chose something too hard: I think I simply pressed the wrong icon on screen in the computer lab when downloading one. The result was something far too hard for the class, even when I scattered extra numbers into the grid. I have already downloaded a “kiddie” one for next week.

I had my own problems in IT. I need hardly say that power went off and much work was lost due to their unjustified faith in the reliability of the system. Eventually I said it was time to go and they could leave for break. Nobody moved. At last one girl pointed out it was just 10:30 and I’d only done two hours, so still had another to go! Scottish children would just have buggared off sharpish and blamed me.

After asking their permission and offering an opt-out clause, I took a photo of each of the girls in the Year 1 class. We’ll do some work with these and try producing CVs perhaps, if they (and I) can cope.

I had been intending to go inland all the way to Basse this coming weekend, but now think I won’t. The journey would be about 8 hours each way, probably in a packed minibus (bush taxis as they’re called), there might have been significant cost as Rohey was going to accompany me – hence two rooms, as well as two fares etc.  The final straw was that the people in Basse are complaining about the heat: these are people who find the 40C of Kerewan a bit on the chilly side. I think I’ll just go to the beach and sink a couple of JulBrews – they will be one compensation for missing the trip as I doubt there’s much beer in that hintest of hinterland.


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