Life in The Gambia

A lot of today’s blog will be made up of random bits and bobs that occurred to me over the last few days.

Back at Bakau, everyone is revelling in the lower temperatures: what seemed hot when we first arrived now seems pleasantly warm.

One of our drivers over the last few days – Manuel – is actually Sierra Leonean. He told us how in December ’96 he escaped the civil war there. The rebels were chopping off people’s arms with a laughing “Do you want short sleeves or long?” He walked for 17 days and nights to escape the country and now has a bus hire company as well as running a children’s charity. He is the sort of person on whom the hopes of Africa depend.

My first aid kit has been used quite a lot in the last few days. Apart from my own near miss on the ferry and a couple of skinned knees from over-enthusiastic tackling at football, the injuries – none of them serious – have been sustained by Gambians. One chap had a lucky escape when his head was hit by a pick axe and when Roland Brush was displaying a small cut on his finger Tosh managed to drop the end of a 5-foot wrecking bar on Roland’s toe. That certainly took his mind off the cut finger! One of our counterparts, Banjuga, who is an incredible tower of strength has got an infected finger. He bought Amoxycillin from an itinerant peddler on the ferry yesterday but it’s not having any effect so Tosh took him to Stop Step, a pharmacy in Serrekunda that we’ve used before. He now has a different banty-iotic, to quote a small girl who is now a big girl, and we hope he’s on the road to recovery as losing him would be the equivalent to halving the workforce. We’ve not suffered any bouts of Banjul belly so far, but there’s a week to go so let’s keep our fingers crossed.

As I write this there is no Internet connection but when there is I’ll try to post a few photos, so keep looking. It’s always good to get comments and feedback from my millions of readers worldwide, so please feel free.

Combined with the pharmacy visit, Tosh has also been to change some more money and there’s been a lazy start to the morning as many of the team are, not to put too fine a point on it, knackered.

For the first time ever, I’ve been seeing bus stops on the roadsides. Normally, public  transport here both in town and country is by minibus (called bush taxis) that run a set route as and when the driver feels like it. Drivers always have an “apprentice” whose job is to open and close the doors, collect fares and drum up trade by shouting “Westfield” or some other destination out of the window. Potential passengers flag the bus down wherever and whenever they want. So bus stops have been unnecessary until now. The change is caused by a “new” fleet of big second hand express buses – similar to American school buses, but livid green in colour – that are plying a long distance trade across the country. I don’t think they’ll take trade away from the smaller vehicles, though, which are very much a way of life here.

Ex-teacher as I am, I’m always trying to point out things of interest. Interesting to me, of course, not necessarily to my victims. We have seen a variety of vegetation, most of which I know nothing about, but I’ve pointed out cashew trees – they eat the fruit here as well as the nuts. The fruit look like a tomato / apple cross, are reddish yellow when ripe, and fleshy inside with a cooling but mouth-puckering aftertaste. Then there’s Kapok trees, which produce fluffy dandelion-clock-like puffs which used to be used to stuff teddy bears, the huge “upside down” baobabs that are completely bare at this time, mango trees everywhere, occasional banana and orange trees, papayas, jack fruit, palms of various descriptions, something that looks like laburnum with bright yellow flowers, Flamboyant trees with their huge pods used as shakers in music and so on. We also see the almost totally non-nutritious, but filling, cassava plants whose roots are a staple of many meals. At this time in the dry season, the rice fields are parched dry, but their outlines are often clear. I’ve never been here in the rainy season, but the transformation from dry parched earth to luscious green must be startling.

There’s not a lot of big wildlife here and certainly no lions etc. However there are monkeys, not much in evidence outside of the tourist-oriented locations, hippos well up river where the water is not salty, crocodiles of course and a vast array of birds, for which the country is famous. I particularly like seeing the vultures circling high in the sky, but there are all sorts of others, from little bright red chaps to Persil-white egrets and brown pigeons. Many of the “British” summer birds overwinter here and will head north soon. I don’t think I’d bother if I were a swallow.

This afternoon we went to the Bakau craft market and the group had fun bartering. Behind the market is a small nursery school, a small currugated iron shack with probably 40 kids and, apart from a blackboard and a few posters no equipment at all was in evidence. The wee kids sang us a couple of songs, showed off their arithmetic and spelling skills and generally made us welcome. Despite having virtualy nothing, they were clearly getting a good, formal, education and the teacher seemed kindly. We made donations, no doubt the purpose of our invitation, and plan to return with some of the goodies we have brought out in our bags.

On the way back I popped into the Internet cafe where I am finishing off this post.



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