Flaming T shirts and Boiling water


The Sierra Leonean students who are staying in the RPI just now are about 6 in number, all doing a Master’s in Public Health. This course is run by Leeds Metropolitan University and the students come on block release, partly funded by their employers though they have to find half the cost themselves. Apparently Leeds started the course in Zambia and it proved successful so they run it here as well. It is obviously a lot cheaper for the students to come here than go all the way to the UK. I think a number of universities have similar “outreach” systems. It seems a good idea to me. All the folk I spoke to felt it was a good course, found it hard to keep up with their work-a-day job as well as studying, but seemed committed to completing it, with the hope of promotion.

Yesterday one of the students was wearing a “Church of the Flaming Bible” T-shirt, which had “2011 – Year of Divine Opportunity and Great Expectations” on the back. I resisted asking whether he’d read anything else by Dickens.

I narrowly avoided a nasty accident yesterday afternoon. Mousa had brought out a tray with cups so we could have a coffee and we laid the stuff out on the slatted tables in the “gazebo”. Unfortunately, the new kettle seems to have “a coorse stroup” (pours badly) and I managed to spill quite a lot of almost boiling water on my legs. Luckily it was only almost boiling and my knees moved unbidden out of the full force of the water. I think it would have been worse if I’d been wearing long trousers. A close shave, nevertheless. I must also point out to him that you don’t need to fill the kettle completely every time you want a cup of hot water!

The Internet connection was unusably slow on Sunday, so two blogs rolled into one.


I had heard one or two of the kids talk about the 11:30-12:00 break as “breakfast”, but assumed it was a local idiom. However, the young people at the PIA school do not eat breakfast until break. Many have some distance to come and leave the house by 7:00 for 8:30 classes, without eating: hats off to them for being so generally biddable and attentive with no food in their stomachs. Many Scottish kids come to school buzzing on E numbers, but there should be a happy medium.

This late breakfast explains why lunch tends to be served at about three (after the kids have gone) and dinner is a late meal – though if I’m hoping for it to be above room temperature I try to get it earlier.

Mousa is still in his “must be impressive” mode, but it hasn’t really shown itself in any practical sense. Just after the almost boiling water incident, he spotted me working on a spreadsheet for my Year 2 class. I had based it round a hotel and he was immediately interested. He suggested that I gave him two hours’ tuition on spreadsheets every night! I stipulated one hour, sometimes. Anyway, nemesis nabbed me this afternoon and I spent the best part of an hour – I insisted on being plied with coffee – on finding out what he actually wanted. Once we had sifted the possible from the purely impractical, I went into a corner on my own and knocked up a spreadsheet that I’m rather proud of. It is almost idiot-proof, calculates income and produces bills for residents. I even built in a macro for printing bills and as much data verification/validation (despite over 20 years’ IT teaching, I always get those confused) as I could to reduce GIGO as we nerds call it (Garbage In, Garbage Out). I’ve not shown it to Mousa yet, but he damn well ought to be thrilled.

Mr Federa, the government official seconded to the Interim Board, was around today. He’s a nice guy, but out of his element if there’s not a desk near at hand to hide behind. I discussed one or two things with him, including a forthcoming audience with the Minister for Youth and Sport, the exact timing of which is still to be fixed. I’d like to think a black limo will roll up for me and guys with earphones and dark glasses will bundle me into it, but I expect it’ll just be a bush taxi to Banjul. I suppose these people are more accessible in a country of only 1.5million.

There is still a lot of chatter about management issues here and someone was commenting – justly, I think – about how this is “a small site, but a big world”. They were making the point that whoever ends up as the new Chief Executive needs to have a working knowledge of the system.

Bakau, where I am based, houses three distinct parts: the school, the Award Scheme and the (supposedly) profit-making enterprise sections. Without launching into an ill-informed lecture on the education system, I think I can summarise that lower basic education is free, but upper basic has to be paid for. I think, but may be wrong, that entry to upper basic is according to ability, rather than age. The PIA school, where I am teaching, is mostly attended by “kids” in their late teens and early twenties.

The Award scheme (PIA for short) is a sister of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme in the UK and has close relations throughout the Commonwealth (today is actually Commonwealth Day – not many people know that!). The young people involved in the PIA tend to study useful skills such as Automechanics, Electricals etc., rather than the more leisure-based skills of the UK system. There are also Expeditions, Service and so on as in the UK. The Award Scheme is not limited to the campus, but extends over the whole of The Gambia: Sadibou, one of the PIA volunteer leaders reckons there are at least 3000 current participants. From Bakau, the virtually unpaid volunteers traverse the country and drum up recruits in schools: I saw them in action with a teacher at Gunjur – not as dogmatic as the Mormons, but equally determined. Dr Jagne, the Head of the Interim Management Board, is one of the early Gold Award holders but so was the now sacked previous Chief Executive.

The third arm of the Bakau set-up is the profit-making element. Except it hasn’t been. Profit-making, that is. The reasons for this are various: bad management is certainly one (the laws of libel stop me going further, even with a plea of “veritas”), but so is poor staff training, under- and irregular-payment of staff, reliance on volunteers who can’t get even a subsistence wage, harbouring of drones, poor funding, a lack of arse-kicking etc.

There is a feeling of hope in the air: the old management has been cast out, the new regime is coming in and currently trusted, despite some hiccups. The staff have a heady success under their belts (to mix a metaphor or two) and may be tempted to flex their muscles further. There will undoubtedly be difficult times ahead: some of the decisions that may be made will be unpopular, but with good will and understanding the PIA (school, award and enterprise) has another life left.

The following is only relevant for the over fifties.

I was lying in bed last night and that blasted TV in the communal area (i.e. the landing) was on. Against the background of adverts for Q-Cell and Munchee Biscuits, I was pondering all sorts of things in that dozy pre-sleep mood: alienation, loneliness (don’t get the violins out) and cultural misunderstandings, to name but a few, when suddenly I heard the strains of Acker Bilk’s “Stranger on the Shore”. It seemed to sum it all up.

A bientot



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