Well we’re back OK. A few obstinate cases of Banjul belly and Alasana’s loss of a toenail in an impromptu football match apart, we’re all well. What follows is a relatively brief summary of each day.
Our departure from here was smooth: up at 4:00am, bus at 5:00 am and first on to and off the Banjul – Barra ferry (FIFO). The heat mounted steadily as we left the tarmac soon after Barra and went to Albreda for the small boats to James Island (now called Kunta Kinte Island after Alex Hailey’s “Roots” hero). The journey from there to Kerewan continued on rutted and eroded sand tracks as we got tossed from side to side in hotter and hotter conditions. The roof was stacked high with cases, foam mattresses, food etc. The inside equally cramped with 250 bottles of water, dozens of eggs, onions etc. I ended up sitting over the front wheel, so my knees were just below my chin. On arrival at Kerewan, we were met in the school grounds by a delegation of ladies from the Village Development Committee who appeared to be delighted to see us and presented us with a big bowl of aubergines and cabbages. Most of the group established themselves in a couple of dusty classrooms (unglazed windows covered with solid iron grilles), whilst Tosh and I hung our hammocks from trees in the ground: Tosh was slightly miffed that one of the trees he normally uses had been felled, but he’s resourceful and chose another tree. Our first visit to the nearby worksite was disheartening. We have, along with other groups, been working on the first block of workshops for some years and during that period walls have fallen down and been rebuilt. Now that the roof was on, we were dismayed that someone had decided it wasn’t high enough and the roof was to come down so another couple of courses of blocks could be added. The contractors doing this work (two locals) had been very messy and dozens of sheets of corrugated iron, along with wooden rafters, covered the floor. Pat was virtually in tears of frustration and both Tosh and I were depressed to see so much work being undone. However, the contractors have been given a two month deadline to get the building ready, so we could do nothing other than co-operate. Water for washing in the school where we stay is periodic, as is the electricity, so conditions are challenging.
Breakfast was late – about 9 – and then we started clearing out the corrugated iron and rafters as the workmen took down the iron trusses. We also emptied the large storeroom / transport container and chucked out all the tins of dried paint, termite-eaten tool handles, dust-encased computer printers etc that had been donated from various parts of Scotland over the years. This gained us access to the 5000 litre plastic water tank which we eventually got on top of the water tower, though it became clear the tower would never support the load when it is filled. When it reached about 11:00 o’clock we had a compulsory break under a mango tree to rest, before doing a bit more work until it was overwhelmingly too hot to work. The afternoon was spent under the school’s mango tree. The evening involved Gambian dances and songs, with the booming speakers of a nearby political rally adding an unnecessary counterpoint. The rally continued far into the night and made sleep sometimes difficult to achieve.
Discussion amongst Tosh, Adrian and me came up with various plans for strengthening the water tower. Until the tank is filled, water on the worksite depends on an electric pump buried in a borehole. Some electrical work was needed to get this going (no water means no cement blocks) and Tosh discovered that the extension lead from the building that was going to be used for the pump had been wired by the local “electrician” so that it ended in a plug, rather than a socket. He discovered this when he touched the plug and got an electric shock that brought out a torrent of bad language: we were glad to hear this as it showed he was still alive. Eventually, wiring sorted, water available, cement delivered by donkey cart, sand arrived by tractor, moulds hired, footpump bought and wheelbarrow tyres inflated, we got down to making blocks, the main task of the Kerewan section of the trip. That night, Adrian was good enough to lend me his sleeping bag which he wasn’t using, and I got a reasonable night’s sleep as I had been a bit cold the first two nights. Adrian’s toothache was beginning to respond to the antibiotics he had bought in Bakau, so we were all feeling a bit more positive.
Today was local government election day and the school was being used as a polling station. I was briefly arrested for taking a couple of photographs of the crowds, but this was cleared up when I offered to delete the pictures from my camera. On the work site, more blocks were made and a gang of lads finished the trench they had been digging in a gap in the perimeter wall and then poured in a foundation. We made the foundation for a central pillar to the water tower and managed to lay the first course of blocks so someone could later finish the pillar to our specification. As the power supply for the water pump was so unreliable, we hired a generator which Adrian managed to break when he pulled the starting cord which came away in his hand. The next problem was to find a ten mill socket spanner so the generator could be repaired and the moulds also had to be taken to the welding man in the village so they could be rendered usable again. Abass came out under his own steam and joined us, which was really good: apart from being a really nice person, he also has a range of technical skills that proved very useful. A number of the PIA board members also came out and we discussed various projects and plans with them: they seem genuinely committed to progress, willing to listen to alternative suggestions and keen to get things right. In the afternoon, some of the Village Development Committee ladies had been invited to a small ceremony where we handed over stationery and other gifts. I say “we” but must admit I’d flaked out in my hammock and only woke up when the last round clapping took place. More block making in the afternoon led to me getting a shower under the water pump hose, which was absolutely heavenly. A teacher who had been at the school a year or two ago and had now moved on was around for the election and took a couple of the boys and Pat on a bird-watching expedition. The evening was spent tidying, packing etc. for an early start the next day.
If you’ve read this far, you’ll have some idea of the obstacles to progress out here and we felt we had not done as much as some years. However, we tidied lots of corrugated iron and rafters, made about 450 concrete blocks, dug some foundations and filled them and gave things to the village, so all in all it was worthwhile.
Another horrendously early start, up at 4:00, departure at 5:00 on the laden bus, back to Barra – on tarmac this time. I’m told most of the group slept, but I’ve no idea as I was out for the count myself. Our purchase of a priority pass on the ferry (i.e. bribery and corruption) again worked and we were the last vehicle on the first ferry back to Banjul. I was awake on this part of the journey, but immediately fell asleep again for the remaining half hour bus trip from Banjul to Bakau. When we got back we discovered that there had been progress in our absence: the trenches dug in the first few days had been planted with bushes and the steps up to the first floor rooms had been painted. As we’ve not spent as much at Kerewan as we might have Tosh has commissioned new solid doors, surrounds and locks for all nine upstairs rooms and, if funds allow, a new workbench for Abass’s carpentry students. We are promised the doors will be in place in time for the Meldrum Academy group in June, and we believe this will happen unlike the last time I left money for the same purpose under the old management. With the doors completed, I will contact publishers of “The Rough Guide” and “Lonely Planet” series etc. to try and get the Rhun Palm Inn included, which has been impossible until now due to the poor security. At the time of writing this, the plan is to go to the beach this afternoon and do some painting tomorrow.
Photos later, perhaps