A Rough Guide to Gambia and SAAS

One of the reasons for writing this blog is that I may be able to pass on some useful information and local colour for folk coming out here, particularly students in the Inverness group, here in just under three weeks’ time. I don’t suppose many – if any – will read it, but you never know. For the rest of you, I might manage to give you a flavour of daily life here at the PIA in Bakau and the wider Gambia.

Breakfast is at 8:00am, mainly because that’s when I asked to have it. Lunch is at 2:00pm, the end of classes for the day, though there will be no classes while the school group is here and Graduation Day is right at the start of the trip. The evening meal is normally at 6:00pm. I’ve mentioned breakfast fare in detail a few days ago – bread and butter, jam & coffee. Lunch for me is a sandwich – similar to the French sort, rather than the British version: this is because I insisted on a snack. The Gambians seem to want a “proper” lunch about 2:30 to 3, though many do without. The evening meal is generally “European” – chicken and chips, fish and chips – but sometimes traditional. Domoda, a spicy meat dish served with rice is a staple, but Yassa and Bennachin are also very common. Visiting groups tend to get traditional food every second day or so. Gambian cookery uses a lot of onions and “sour tomatoes” – a different variety of green tomato than we see in the UK. Domoda, amongst other dishes, makes use of locally grown groundnuts (peanuts). Beware the little pieces of red chilli that are often served as an accompaniment unless you want to flush your pores and resurface your tongue. Being a predominantly Islamic country there is little alcohol except near the tourist areas, but most seem understanding and tolerant of people who have the occasional beer. However even the Christian community makes little use of alcohol: I suppose it’s down to availability and financial constraints.

Over the last week, the weather has been good. Here we get the effect of the sea which is only a mile or so away. This tends to mean moderate temperatures – say 30° to 35° – with hazy sunshine early morning, breezy cooler evenings and full sun from mid morning to mid afternoon / early evening. The days are near enough 12 hours in length: it’s still half-light here at 7:00am but fully light less than an hour later. The sun sets about 12 hours later, with twilight lasting a shorter time than in the UK. Further up-country the day generally starts bright and stays that way, with the temperature generally around 40°. The evenings there may also be breezy and the temperature drop more noticeable, although if groups are sleeping with fifteen or so on the floor of a concrete block classroom that’s been in the sun all day, they’re not going to feel cold! The breeze there frequently feels dusty as it carries in sand from the Sahara.

Talking of sleeping… I came here armed with only a silk sleeping bag liner and at times on my first night I felt slightly. The PIA beds have mattresses, pillows, an under sheet and over sheet. I find that the over sheet on top of the sleeping bag liner is enough. In the classroom at Kerewan, I think the sleeping bag liner alone will be enough, but a towel or item of clothing will always serve as an extra layer if need be.

The Gambia can be noisy. In town there is quite a lot of traffic, much of it with ineffective silencers and unexplained creaks. There are frequent calls to prayer and as there are both a spanking-new mosque and a recently-built church within a short distance, one can only be glad that the church tends to limit its singing to Sundays! In the country, the mosque has no real competition from Christians, but instead there is a cacophony of braying, cock-a-doodle-doing and barking. You get used to these sounds and find you can sleep quite happily, hardly registering the multi decibel braying of a donkey enthusiastically greeting the new day in the next field. In conversation, I think Gambians are louder than us Brits – there is plenty of joking and calling, especially in local languages. What can sound like a fight starting is usually just a friendly discussion. I have previously mentioned the musical (?) din of the dj.

The other source of sound is bird song – no, noise. I can’t remember about Kerewan, but here there are lots of birds – egrets, crows, pigeons, vultures and hornbills amongst others. All of these seem to be Stockhausen fans, so there is always a lot of squawking, screeching and cackling along with the background cooing of pigeons.

It’s official – I kept an eye on my watch – my toilet cistern takes upwards of an hour to refill, not counting another hour or two of drip-feed dribbling. True, I have never been without mains water so far on this trip but maybe I don’t have the patience! Showering is a challenge under the dribble of water that comes from the shower-head and although I’m just being a wimp I would prefer the water a little warmer. I don’t like to think about the power of the shower or the duration of a cistern refill when every room is occupied in three weeks! Drinking water is never in short supply: the PIA are very aware of the need for the Scots in particular to drink plenty of water and there are always bottles available. If you’re coming out here, bring a good black marker pen with you to name your water bottle: you do not want to share water! In fact, I suspect the tap water at Bakau is perfectly OK – I brush my teeth with it and occasionally drink a mouthful or two with no ill effects – but even the most mild-mannered of Gambian bacteria, however beneficial to Gambians, can be a little much for our Western stomachs.

It’s time for a rant. I’ve just been talking to Sonia and she says Sarah is short of money due to SAAS’s incompetence – those are my words, not hers. I won’t bore you here with the whole story, but SAAS couldn’t organise a fiesta in a bodega (I’m bearing in mind I may have young readers). I have sent them documents as requested, I have tried to contact them, I have banged my head against a brick wall… and, surprisingly, that induced less pain than SAAS. There’s never an MSP around when you need one. Luckily Mrs M is in Scotland and will be drafting a letter to our MSP even as I write this. If anyone from SAAS happens to read this, here is some advice: a) one student (and relevant persons) should always have the same SAAS contact person, at least during a specific correspondence, b) correspondence from SAAS should always acknowledge the date of the last letter received to avoid the confusion of letters crossing in the post, c) SAAS should make contact easier: the website carries no phone number, the “Contact Us” page simply answers standard questions, facilitating no dialogue and there is no email address given, d) remember that you are dealing with real people and their lives: not all of us fit a standard mould, not all of us can easily and quickly provide the information requested, not all of us are experts in the intricacies of award calculation, but nearly all of us are honest and simply looking for a service that we and our student offspring can rely on to get things right more often than not and we haven’t got it, e) er… that’s about it.

I feel better after that and I’d feel better still if anyone who has any clout at SAAS could pass this on. Mention my name!

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