Gunjur Diary February 2014 - by Anna Quarendon, MBG Chair

1As I left the office to go away for ten days, the usual questions of "Where are you going?" and "How long are you away for?" were followed up with the equally familiar "And what do you actually DO when you're there?" And so on this, my fourth visit to The Gambia, I thought I would tell those of you who are interested, how my time there was spent. Though each visit shares similarities, each one is different; what you are doing, why you are doing it, who you are doing it with.

This time, for the second year running, I attached myself to the annual teacher's study visit, organised by Caroline Harmer. This gives me a chance to find out more about the work of WGEC, understand more about their links with Gambian schools and, of course, to spend time with a group of lively, dedicated people.

All had previously met at an induction day which I had been unable to attend and so it was at Gatwick that I met the others for the first time and began our shared experience.

Friday 14 February

On the plane I sat next to a man who had been going out to The Gambia for the last ten years, and around us there were guide groups, students on school trips, holiday makers, bird watchers and sun seekers. And us. As I filled in the section of the Immigration form that asks the "purpose of visit" I thought about that. And I suppose, put simply, for me it's about reconnecting with friends made, learning more about their lives and helping to make possible the continued links which give others the opportunity to make new friends and discoveries. No time for a great deal of reflection though as my next door neighbour had clearly decided his six hour flight would fly by best by talking at me.

And then we were at Banjul with the welcome warmth of a Gambian afternoon greeting us along with representatives from the new GCL. Less welcome was the discovery that two of our group had had their charity bags searched (you can get a 10k additional weight allowance on the outbound journey if you are travelling with a charity) and one of the footballs intended for their school, removed. Hmm. Suleyman (one of the PROs) and Ousman (Chair of the GCL) were there to guide us through the airport which, though very small, can be bewildering for those unfamiliar with the persistent offers of help with cases, as you make your way through the press of people toward the car park. Here our transport was waiting and our cases piled onto the roof while the rest of us piled into the van for the forty minute drive along the highway south to Gunjur; those of us who had been before chatting about what changes to expect and catching up with local news from Anita (part way through her three month stay), those who hadn't, quietly taking in the skinny cows, the mattresses piled by the roadside, the dust and the bustle of Brikhama as we stopped for water.

BusIn the village we turned first into Sandang's compound (Director of Tarud) where girls and boys hung about, the older ones gathered under the central tree, keeping their distance and their cool, the younger ones clamouring around the van and the visitors. This was where Lara would stay and while she was shown to her room we changed money, brought to the house in a canvas holdall from the Western Union and handed out in the makeshift bank of a small front room. Then to Fatou Gibba's (the head teacher at Tarud Pre-School) – Odette's home for the next ten days – and then to mine where children ran alongside the van as it turned into the compound and shouted their greetings.

MbandingMbanding was there in splendid orange, smiling hers and holding the now much grown Richard Junior, a nearly two year old named after my husband. Lamin, Adama, Awa, Wabba, Yapenda, Fasaikou – some there – others not until later. An easy welcome. There is no formality, no sense of sitting down after a journey as we would to "hear the news". Where we would be offering cups of tea they offer smiles, warmth and a sense simply of being welcome. And then they get on with what they were doing.

My room is little changed – the bed moved a few inches. But the reason for the shift enormous, as I later discovered it was to accommodate the wiring and electric sockets which meant that in the sitting area and "bathroom" (internal space, without natural light with a hole in the ground and a bucket of water from the well) there was light. I didn't need electric light to see the first cockroaches that were also there to meet me and felt glad that this wasn't my first visit. A swift kick corralled them down the drop toilet.

4Unpacked and then, having forgotten to bring my sheet sleeping bag (amongst several things) I got another sheet from Mbanding and asked if someone might go and buy a plastic washing up bowl for me, remembering how last time it meant washing feet before bed was a welcome possibility. My delight in having light must be as nothing compared to the excitement it must have brought here. SO much easier. But the disadvantage of having electricity was made manifest with the noise of neighbouring radios and television competing around the compound which made sleep less soon to come.


5And was the back drop to waking...... along with the sweep of the bundled sticks on the verandah, the cock crow, the call to prayer and the occasional pounding of rice from those not using the milling machines. A leisurely start to the day which began with making tea from a flask of boiled water brought to me along with a stick of fresh bread wrapped in newspaper, from the corner shop. 

While waiting to meet the rest of the group at Momadou's – another corner shop in the market place – I went and bought a plastic mug for the bathroom, which transformed the slightly surly shopkeeper into a beautiful and smiling young woman pleased to do business. Small bananas from another stall and another "new best friend" who let me take a photograph once it was established that her son was being sponsored – as she put it – by us at the Upper Basic School. We then wandered up the sandy street to make our courtesy calls, small children hanging on our hands as we made our slow way first to the chief who welcomed us. Bouba from the GCL chose his moment to announce that a new link centre would be set up opposite the clinic and sought the chief's public approval – which was given. From there to the Imam's where we learned that he is certainly in his nineties (though others there claimed he was 100) and had held the position since he was 80, and on to the Nyamsimba (the head of the women) who, as ever, whilst acknowledging current assistance from MBG emphasised the need for more and, inevitably, more money. At each visit we presented the sympbolic bag of kola nuts, though had to leave the Alikali's for him in his compound as he was out. Next time we're going to give the Nyamsimba a bag of soap which she told us she would prefer.

 Spurred into the giving of gifts I stopped off at the market afterwards to buy ladyfish, swung home in a black plastic bag and handed over to Aja who was preparing vegetables and immediately added it to the cast iron pot, wide eyed that such an expensive fish , "offered in hotels", should be theirs for lunch.

perparing-fishWhile she was busying herself with preparing the family meal in the outdoor kitchen behind the house, attayah was being prepared by Lamin on the verandah in front. This intense tea, infusion of mint leaves and sugar ritually poured several times from a small blue enamel teapot at a considerable height into tiny glasses, was today being made to welcome Steve Atteo to the compound. A previous guest, he was back in the village with a group of students from Hartlepool all staying at Halahin, a nearby lodge on the road to Kartong. The soundtrack to this peaceful sharing of tea was the bellowing of Richard Junior who was being bathed vigorously in a plastic washing up bowl in the back yard and apparently not enjoying it at all. 

 After we'd all spent time with our host families having lunch we met again at Momadous and, with Abdoulie Barrow from GCL (a teacher) went down to the fishing beach.

washing-childOn the way we stopped off to see, and genuinely admire, Suleyman's plot of land where he has built a small, two-roomed house around which he's growing newly planted oranges and bananas and ornamental bushes, everything newly raked and regularly watered. A very different boy from the one selling name bracelets to visitors the first year I was here. In a round hunt in the garden, not yet complete, we sat on bamboo benches drinking the wonjo juice he had thoughtfully decanted into individual water bottles for each of us. At the beach the boats, and women from Senegal gutting fish and preparing sea snails which I held in my hand like some dense meaty heart which left it slimy. A woman's pink t- shirt offered (and declined) as a cloth to dry them with.

A Senegalese man called Pap invited us to clamber up into the huge boat he was building, recognising me from last year's Jaliba concert where he'd been the photographer, and offering to take me out fishing next time. Then on the beach, we walked a little, talked a little, mostly of politics and how unlikely it is that in two years time President Jammeh will be voted out.

Just time, in the quick turnaround of homecoming to give the gifts to those of the family at home. Aja, Wabba, Yapenda, Adama, Fasaikou, Lamin and Suleyman gathered around as Mbandning distributed the assortment of clothes I had taken out and various small gifts given. Then off to Halahin for a beer before Berending and the "cultural evening". In the darkness of the chilly night we joined the students from Hartlepool, encircling a space where, to the beat of several drums the "Kumpo" and "Samamayo" made their appearance. Representing the spirit world, the first was a dark figure with the face of a bear, supported by two hand-held white sticks, blind in the dark, the other like some very tall elongated hay stack, though actually made of palm leaves with a painted wooden arrow headed stick emerging from the top. This last caused much shrieking among the Hartlepool girls who squealed and cowered as the figure whirled and lunged at them in a frenzy of palm fronds as the drumming intensified.


With the morning came the awareness that imodium was called for and it was feeling mildly unwell that the wind blew me up the street to the Tarud office, sand whipping into face, eyes and hair and feeling really quite cold. There, Anita, Gordon, Neil and myself joined the Tarud trustees for the board meeting which was primarily to discuss the future of the Tarud preschool. Neil, who has funded the school for the last ten years, started things off – laying his cards clearly on the table with the confirmation that funding for the school can no longer come from him or from MBG and that the time had come for Gunjur to take over. The day that had been discussed for many months – years – had arrived. This news was met with much repeated thanks for everything so far done and a resigned acceptance that "all good things come to an end". But, in order for this not to mean the end also of the preschool we asked about the ideas they had to keep it going. Very few really, although they must have known this day was not far off. Neil was forceful in a reasonable way and clearly stated the position which I followed up with the assurance that withdrawal of funding would be phased and that we'd like a written agreement drawn up to this effect. Much deliberation, deliberate obfuscation and general wordiness followed, along with an acceptance that this time we meant it.

fishinfWhile the others headed off to the Gunjur Project (a lodge run by westerners near the beach) for a baguette, I went to lie down for an hour as I was feeling pretty ropey. Afterwards up and ridiculously prompt for the meeting called at the pre school for an optimistic 2.30pm where, of course, the only people assembled were those representing MBG, Happy Gunjur (Dutch charity) and interested onlookers. The people who had actually called the Bantaba (a gathering to discuss community affairs) ambled in around 3pm and the meeting began nearer to 4 0 clock once a few parents had sauntered in – the women dressed for a party, the men in jeans and football shirts. Once again it was Neil who stood and addressed the small crowd and drove home again and again the message that their children would not receive an education if they couldn't collectively conjure up some way of helping to make it continue. Suggestions were slowly made and an hour or two later a small rise in parental contributions was agreed, along with a plan to create a fundraising committee. Small beginnings, but a start nonetheless.

women-talkingJust time to go home and change, resist the temptation to go to bed, and go instead to Sandang's compound where already about two hundred people were gathered to celebrate the wedding of one of his daughters. Coloured plastic chairs arranged around the outside of a large awning seated women in fantastical costumes; sequins and flounces, chiffon and satin, heads bobbing under confections of yellow and red and peacock blue. And it was the women who were dancing – jewelled handbags on arms adorned with shining bracelets – to drums played by women accompanying their singing. Somewhere in the background young men gathered, older men seated on the margins while amongst the crowd small children danced too and ran around. Tiny girls in special dresses, boys in holiday tunics. One boy, Sidifou Darboe, came to chat – year 8 and hoping to be a doctor one day. A lovely and engaging boy. Meanwhile, in small plastic bowls of yellow, green and blue, Tess, Lara, Odette and I were served a mess of beans which others scooped with their hands from larger platters passed around and all washed down with baobab juice from small plastic cups. My insides rebelled at the thought of anything at all, but the beans were delicious and the bowl emptied.

The arrival of the bride was a few hours in coming. As tradition demanded she and her new husband, married earlier in the afternoon, had gone to his compound to pay their respects to his family – their arrival back at her family home preceded by the arrival of their quite enormous marriage bed – delivered in pieces, mattress first, through the crowd and into their bedroom where it would be ceremoniously assembled by friends for the wedding night, dismantled the day following and returned to their future home. I went back to my own home accompanied by someone who expressed great delight in seeing me again and who I don't remember ever seeing before though he greeted me by name.


"The General" took us by bus to visit the oyster ladies at Kartong – women funded by an American organisation to cultivate oysters there in the river which are then sold at market and to restaurants. We were shown how they are roasted in raised brick ovens and the discarded shells used for cement production.

shellsIt was quiet because the season runs from March to October but, at the season's height, around 50 women find employment there, provided with protective clothing and safety training. Lives have been lost by women falling overboard from the wooden canoes and drowning. The current is strong and many are unable to swim.

The bus then took us a little further up the coast where we started our walk back along the beach to Gunjur. The sky was blue, the sun was high, the wind was strong and waves crashed onto the beach where we walked barefoot amongst the shells and the pale cows which graze there.

seaviewA stop at Sandele, an eco lodge set up five years ago where the co-owner, Maurice, explained its purpose while we drank welcome glasses of chilled juice, ginger, pineapple and orange, beneath an apricot awning. Afterwards one of his Gambian staff showed us around the round huts made with local brick, where simple luxury is offered for £80 per person per night and for ten pounds less, a dormitory bedroom in an adjacent block with lovely views through the fronds of stately palms to the sea. From there we strolled again joined, as we approached the fishing village, by an ebullient boy with gap toothed smile and never ending conversation who quite soon drove us mildly crazy. Polite requests from Caroline for him to talk a little less were quickly replaced by injunction for him simply to shut up. But, high on life or something else, this was produceevidently just not possible and we were not unhappy to leave Bobby behind as we left the beach and continued up the sandy track to the Gunjur Project for restorative platefuls of garlic shrimp and cold drinks. And the immense luxury of a shower and hairwash – the coldness of the water and the filthiness of the floor notwithstanding. While some stayed there a little longer I went back, returning to the compound with a bag of "fruit cocktail" drinks and bananas, shared by the gathering I found there. Some twenty five assorted friends and family watching some quite horrible Nigerian films. Kaddy (Mbanding's mother and about my age) tired after her day's work in the vegetable garden watched too while, behind her on the bed, I massaged her shoulders using the universal language of touch to overcome her lack of English and my total absence of Mandinka.

watching-tvIn the remaining hour of daylight I went with Suleyman to visit James and Anna Jatta, members of Gunjur's Christian community who host my neighbour Jane when she visits and for whom I had an envelope to deliver. Once home, it was then my turn to receive visitors. First Lamin – a friend of Lilli Loveday's husband, Kebba Jatta, come to collect the packages for him I had brought out from Lilli. With us sat Lamin from the compound (oldest son) clearly concerned about my being visited alone by an unannounced male visitor. This visit was followed by another, this time from Abdoulie Barrow from the GCL, come to confirm arrangements to meet with them. This became a lengthy, late night discussion on the impact of TV on the community during which he expressed his concerns that watching unsuitable television should be prevented, viewing rationed and school work maintained. He said that already, as a teacher, he had noticed that children were turning up late for school having stayed up to watch films and was hoping to instigate some sort of "sensitisation" programme through the local radio station to alert people to the dangers of too much viewing. He echoed a conversation I'd earlier had with Suleyman who expressed his own worries about the unsuitability of the television programmes which were being watched by very small children and told me that in his compound, viewing is supposed to be rationed to weekends . Clearly this doesn't happen and the most horrible and violent films are eagerly watched by all ages – the small ones simply mesmerised by the moving pictures, the older ones finding funny the beatings and cruelty portrayed which I found almost impossible to watch. When they are not watching, the television sits in the corner, covered by a white lace cloth to protect it from the all pervasive dust.


woman-working-gardenWe walked down to Fayounka Garden, passing women and girls already coming back after their early morning work bearing, on their heads, produce in coloured plastic bowls. Many more were still hard at work tending to the plants being grown in the 200 or so plots parcelled out to members of the eight different Kabillos (community groups) that make up the village. Bent from the waist they harvested their tomatoes, aubergine and onions destined for the local markets, and drew water from the several wells having abandoned the pump which stood rusting and silent.

Anita, who oversees the activity of the women there, told of the garden's history and the most recent replacing of some of the fencing to prevent the invasion of animals which wander in and trample the crops. This was done with the help of last year's summer group of students from Marlborough.

compoundThen back into the village past Jalisut where we were shown by Fasaikou around the bee keeping project. With evident knowledge and understanding of beekeeping he told us all about the workers and, as he put it, the "drone-es" and showed us the grass baskets that were originally used for hives but have now largely been replaced by those made from wooden slats and sometimes concrete.

Ankle deep in dead leaves and fallen oranges we stood in slants of sunlight under the trees while he explained the workings of the apiary and then headed home, with a few bars of the honey soap he makes along with wax candles and body cream.
The rest of the group was then heading off to Brikhama and the craft market but, with meetings lined up for the afternoon, I stayed behind to lunch on fish and peanut sauce eventually at 3pm, only then to learn that, forever Gambia, the meetings had all moved without consultation, which impressed me not at all.
Anita saved the day by suggesting I joined Neil's trip also to Brikhama and, meeting them at Tarud, I did. In town I bought a few bits – a small length of material for 50 d (less than a pound) so that I could pay Waba to make a little dress for my great niece. She is learning to sew – though still has a way to go I think before many would pay for her work. Meanwhile teachers were buying lengths of cloth that more practised tailors would turn into outfits for the children in their classes.

I bought a big bag of oranges and took them back home with me to the compound where the habit is to peel them, cut them in half and then suck out the juice. And because I found Mbanding's husband, Abdoulie, there from Kartong to see me, I abandoned my plan to join the trip to listen to drumming at the Gunjur Project and instead stayed to chat and eat the supper that I hadn't been expecting but which appeared.

The frustrations of life in The Gambia were evident today. The lack of time keeping can drive me crazy along with the total disregard for any implications that all this chopping and changing might have on the plans of others. These things I know but sometimes the reminders are powerful and annoying. So I was glad to climb into the oasis of my bed and the world inside my mosquito net, wrapped in my towel and coat to keep out the unexpected chill.


Suleyman came to chat this morning. He sat with me and explained how the family dynamics have changed in the last year. Rows between his father's first and second families over cooking have led to separate eating arrangements, with Demba now only providing financial support to his second and very much younger wife, Nema, with whom he has a new baby, Calipha.

woman-washingThis leaves his first wife, Kaddy the only breadwinner in a family which has a dozen people to support, none of whom are working. So financially things are a lot tougher now. The eldest brother, Lamin, through mental health problems can no longer sustain the job he once had and would love to be a carpenter. Indeed, judging by the furniture made by him for the house, he does have some skill, but no money to develop it. Next, Mbanding, is now married and living in Kartong so that any money she makes from her own vegetable garden or some of the projects her entrepreneurial spirit comes up with, must be divided between the two households. Her husband has no work. So the responsibility falls to 24 year old Suleyman, as the second son, to make his contribution. He has had work helping with the initial laying of pipes to bring water to the village but that has come to an end, as has his job operating the milling machines as they had failed to pay him for four months. His 23 year old sister, Aja, qualified as a secretary, stays at home to cook while 21 year old Wabba is learning to sew two days a week. The next brother and sister, 19 and 20 are living away from home while they study at college. They will be back home in June and have no immediate prospect of work. The five younger ones are still at school, one of them, fifteen year old Fasaikou is profoundly deaf. And then there is Richard Junior, Mbanding's child of less than two years old who for reasons which I find unfathomable remains in Gunjur while her parents live somewhere else. This is a typical household. All this was pieced together from questions asked by me and answers frankly given.

woman-carrying-waterJust before midday I put on the cleanest dress I still had and went to the market place to wait for the taxi which did come, but only after a phone call to Abdoulie (who had arranged it ) to chase it up. The driver, with large and widely spaced teeth revealed in the broad smile that accompanied his late arrival, suggested that I shouldn't worry about a thing as he then unhurriedly drove me up to Senegambia, honking at passers-by and waving at cousins, friends, brothers, along the way. Past the outskirts of Gunjur and beyond until, only just a little late, we drew up outside Coco Ocean, a hotel on the main drag where further along coaches spilled out their passengers, not long from the airport. Taxis weren't allowed to go further than the entrance where the gate was guarded by two security men able to tell me that "the High Commissioner had arrived". And indeed, David Morley was there to meet me in a reception area furnished with armchairs in bright pink and blue, through which we walked down toward the sea fronted cafe, past white domed buildings and Moorish pools in striped marble. A small table overlooking the beach was where we enjoyed a plate of spiced shrimps with wine, cold, white and very welcome. As was the result of the conversation, during which David agreed to become a trustee of MBG. It was also a tremendous pleasure to use the bathroom; to revel in the luxury of a flushing loo and taps which produced running water. Less of a pleasure to glance in the mirror and see just how dishevelled and dusty I looked after five days in the compound without a looking glass.

And then, back to the reality of a Gambia where a taxi asked to come back for 3pm, doesn't. At least, not immediately. While we waited we continued our conversation in the back of the air conditioned official car, with me behind the driver - where security dictates the High Commissioner does not sit. A little later, the ever smiling driver appeared to take me home. On the way we picked up his mother, wife and smallest child who materialised at the roadside and were delivered to a funeral gathering we later passed. He had every reason to smile, for the fare – agreed in advance – was steep at 1,500 d. Which is a month's rice for an average family, school fees for half a year or half way to installing an electricity meter.

communal-eatingBack at the compound I found the girls, assisted by friends, crouched around their shallow cooking bowls, chopping and pounding in preparation for the meal offered by Mbanding for all our group. This, I felt, was in part for Sarah – who had previously stayed there – and also to show that, although she is no longer part of the linking committee, no longer part of a group which gave her income and status, she could still contribute, could still be part of something she misses. While they prepared I listened to their chopping and chat from the other side of the head height wall where, to their amusement, I was "showering" (cups of cold water splashed from a plastic bucket) and washing my hair which, in spite of the overcast day, quickly dried.

Refreshed, though not much cleaner, I then went round with Suleyman to visit one of the lecturers at the college where he hopes maybe to start a plumbing course with the help of Sarah and myself who would like to give him the opportunity to learn a skill and contribute to his family's reduced income. Advice and information was given and a figure of 6,500 d for the first, certificate year (£120) and 8,300 d for the second, diploma year. A form to apply for this will be available in June at the cost of 200 d (!) and interviews conducted in August. It seems that Suleyman would get in! Whether this is because he has, as required, completed the necessary Year 12, whether because he is known to the man in charge of the plumbing department, or because payment would be guaranteed by a sponsor, I can only guess at! Suleyman is very happy. The more so because the best part of his day was earlier when previous guest, Steve and Christina, turned up bearing gifts. Their daughter works for Manchester United and had conjured up a pair of brand new football boots. What with the accompanying football magazines which he was later found sharing with enrapt friends, his day had been a good one. Less so for his younger, fifteen year old brother, who is in a local football squad and whose envy over the boots was not disguised – though being deaf and mute he was unable to say so in words.

Later on, plates of battered ladyfish, small flat bean cakes, salad and hand chopped coleslaw were served with mayonnaise and ketchup on the low table, covered with a lace cloth, ceremoniously brought out onto the verandah. Chairs were found and nine of us in the group gathered round to eat. The tenth wasn't with us as she was recovering elsewhere from the shock of sharing her room with rats. Unfortunately this all coincided with the rearranged GCL meeting so I snatched some food and then a torch and hurried up to the Tarud office. Of course, I needn't have worried or hurried at all as they couldn't find the key to the office. No one could find the night watchman who had failed to turn up. So we sat on an old drainpipe in the dark and waited while people made calls and speculated until an hour later a key was found – but not one to the meeting room. Suggestions were made that the "tea room" would do and so, finally, we sat down around the table and made our introductions. The purpose of the meeting was to establish an MOU for GCL and MBG which, over the course of the next few hours, we did with quiet input from Anita. Two hours later we wrapped it up, some to head back to Banjul (an hour away), me back to the compound where the party was over and the place in darkness.


kitchenToday the teachers were all going into their link schools to spend time with the children and so I set the day aside, as I had promised Mbanding, to spend it with her in Kartong where she now lives for most of the time with her husband Abdoulie. He appeared with his newly taxed car to take me back there, clearly proud to be seen behind the wheel of a car which, I suspect, has been off the road for a while as he hasn't had the means of taxing it. Difficult when taxi driving is how he intermittently earns some money. He expressed the wish that more people would employ his services but I rather wondered just how much effort he'd actually made to drum up business. When I made suggestions as to who he might approach he seemed genuinely surprised. I didn't fail to point out when, at the compound which he shares with the families of his two brothers, mother and sisters, it was his wife who did all the work. She worked hard to cook our lunch while he sat with a cousin, cutting his toe nails and drinking attayah while I asked him why he wasn't helping her. He replied that it wasn't their way – to which I responded that really he could help to change that and rather pointedly told him that Richard (my husband, who he has met) does all the food shopping and cooking at home (which is true).

boy-carrying-waterI find it hard to understand this approach . And I also find it rather unfathomable that the parents of a very small boy should be living away from him. These things we spoke of, Mbanding and I, as we walked after our meal to see and admire her recently created vegetable where she is growing literally thousands of onions. Along with dozens of women and children doing the same.

This is a woman who was working in a bank when I first met her and is now growing veg. She would like to work in community development and would be very good at it, but has somehow fallen from grace and is reduced to supporting her two families in the only way she currently can. Thinking about these things is confusing. In Kartong, unlike her home now in Gunjur, she doesn't have electricity and describes herself as "poor" to be still using candles and oil lamps.


kids-playingThe teachers had completed their scheduled programme of workshops, conferences and linking days and today we met for our weekend away. At Momadous shop Jerry had prepared egg rolls which we would later eat in the van on our trip up country. We set off at 8am , stopping briefly in Brikhama to change money and stock up on water for our journey which would be several hours spent like sardines in a hot tin can. "The General" (Fasaikou) was our driver and with us also came Abdoulie from the GCL and tall Suleyman, one of the volunteer PRO's who had an infection in his little finger which became the subject of much consternation as he nursed it over the miles. We drove along the south bank of the River Gambia, the landscape changing as we headed further east. Square and rectangular houses with corrugated roofs gave way to round huts where palm thatching replaced roofs of tin. And, as we headed toward hotter parts, the land became more dessicated, the bush the colour of straw with occasional monkeys appearing at the roadside. The tarmaced road, the Transgambia – made the driving easy but didn't encourage speed in our cautious driver who had never driven such a distance before and was hugely pleased with himself for the six hours we spent behind the wheel, entertained with CDs given to him by Neil (Griffiths). His clear favourite was Abba – which will now forever be associated with travelling to Janjanburrhe – played on a loop throughout with an occasional deviation to his second favourite CD of rock ballads. Mama Mia the soundtrack to a journey interrupted at Kanuma where we stopped to pick up Karen and Alan who had spent the previous night at the school there. Off the main highway and down a rough track we bumped to a stop in front of the main school building where children in brown and white checked uniforms were lined up to practise for the Independence Day parade the day following. Out in the bush, in the middle of nowhere, they marched round the parade ground following the leading boy whose arms and legs swung with a rigid concentration not entirely replicated by the straggle of boys and girls in his wake.

Then we were off again, past small donkeys pulling heavy loads of firewood on rickety carts, trees where in their shade women waited to sell bananas, and girls bore tiny twists of salted peanuts for five dalasi from tin plates on their heads.

Goats and sandy coloured dogs strayed across the road , unconcerned by the infrequent traffic which , nonetheless, was stopped with unnecessary regularity by police checks. Young men posturing in camouflage, guns and sunglasses to lend the appearance of importance to a job which was dull, repetitive and unproductive. Abdoulie, who had lived and worked up country for seven years seemed to know most of them, slipping one a few dalasi "for attayah" which he insisted was exactly that. And women officers too, stern and unsmiling as they asked where we had come from and where we were going....

...which was, eventually, to Georgetown where began the opening gambit of "Is this your first time in the Gambia?" as we waited for the ferry to take us across to the north bank where NGai, the manager of Serending Kolong Lodge was waiting for us. A few minutes later, at the end of a rutted track, we were there, road weary and ready for the cold sprite that wasn't on offer.

sensednding-kolong-lodgeFanta and coke was, and appeared from the depths of a dusty freezer behind the bar which had been switched on to coincide with our arrival. Anxious about the short supplies of soft drinks and a total absence of the wine some of us knew we would later want, provisions were sent for from Georgetown. Two bottles of white wine and twenty four small beers arrived and, after a relaxed hour or two in the sunshine with our books by the river, we opened them and shared the two wine glasses that were all they had!
And then to our accommodation which was a little less prepared for visitors, being either without light bulbs, loo paper or the soap that you might expect. But the rooms, a mixture of round huts and regular rooms, though basic, were luxurious compared to some of our compounds, all with a welcome, if feeble, shower.

Later, while we were eating our meal of rice and spaghetti and couscous with peanut sauce and tomoto we were introduced to a man called Maxi, offering massages which we were all a bit overcooked to contemplate. So then to bed where garish velour blankets in red and yellow kept us warmer than we had been and, beneath mine I lay listening to the sounds of the bush at night – the monkeys scampering on the corrugated roof, the refrain of cicadas and the maddeningly monotonous call of a bird which sounded like a lorry reversing for a couple of hours.


stone-circleWe were the only guests at the lodge and it felt very relaxed as we started the day over a breakfast of thin wedges of omelette, small round battered doughnuts eaten with honey and the chunks of white bread without no meal is quite complete. After much indecision the night before about how the day would be spent we got back into the van to visit the ancient stones. The first, a small and underwhelming roadside display where perhaps ten reddish rocks stood in a circle under the trees, on which we were encouraged to place smaller stones while wishing. I did. And then on to the far more impressive Wassu where stones in a variety of shapes, from short and squat to tall and columnar, had been placed in circles somewhere between 200 BC and 600 AD, according to the small museum there which mapped others both in The Gambia and elsewhere in Africa, and where a Avebury and Stonehenge were both pictured and referred to.

As, on a previous visit I had been throwing up behind a tree and oblivious I was glad to revisit and see again the band of small boys ardently drumming and leaping by the entrance for our small change.
On then to see the work of a Women's Co-operative at Jamila, originally sponsored to promote the tie and dye and other crafts of women from twelve surrounding villages. Some of them were there to welcome us beneath the shady trees where the Imam, Alikali and several village elders presided over the noisy greeting.

wol0f-womenThe mostly Wolof women bashed their washing up bowls and upturned buckets and chanted their welcome before the inevitable speeches were briefly made and responded to. That the women were Wolof was pointed out to us by Abdoulie (GCL) who explained that their hennaed feet were more intricately patterned and darker than the decoration of the Mandinkas and that their earrings were different. We hoped that some of the earrings and other jewellery that we were taken to see would also be different but, displayed on a large square table in a dusty workshop, was a poor selection of beaded bracelets and necklaces that were not. Most of us managed to part with a few dalasi, spending small amounts on beaded lizards which had a certain simple charm. We all felt that they needed more than a start up fund and that someone needed to follow up with help with marketing and pricing as they were charging too much for too little, though most likely through ignorance of the market than active profiteering.

Back at the lodge at lunchtime I sought out Maxi the masseur, who lived across the river and was there in the yard, pinning his artwork on a washing line. His themes were the things he knows – the river birds, the hippos, the huts and dancers, painted on canvas with coloured washes and dilute coffee and displaying the artistic skill of a talented ten year old. He was a gentle soul and, while we sat and waited for lunch, he massaged my feet with a much greater talent and some rather peculiar smelling bamboo oil. Paying particular attention to my ever swollen, once broken foot, he told me how the skill came from his grandfather and was mostly practised on his father. He charged so little (100 d) for a lazy half hour or more and then offered a follow up later in the day on my "bad foot" for free.

A simple lunch of bread and sweet, juicy tomatos before most of us went off on a boat trip to see hippos. Natalie who was feeling unwell and was looking forward to going home, stayed behind while the rest of us clambered across the rickety pontoon to the wooden boat, its floor a dark rusty red, the rest painted a bright blue. A ladder led to the upper deck where some of us spread out the flowered foam mattresses piled there and sprawled in the late afternoon sun hoping for a sight of hippos doing the same. The young captain was happy that he did indeed take the boat to a spot where the shining backs of the huge creatures could be seen just above the surface, even at a distance their size impressive.

And later the continued entertainment of our evening meal. The same as the last, though this time including a plate of soup. An actual plate. The first in line collected their plastic bowls into which the tomoto and vegetable was ladled, the rest of us made do with plates onto which the same was optimistically slopped to be scooped up with tea spoons. This was very definitely a holiday highlight.

Meals are fast and functional and this was one was accompanied by a kora player, apparently telling us how much he loved us all, during and after which performance we were regularly exhorted to clap. More clapping afterwards when a semi circle of chairs was placed around a fire outside where we sat to watch local women dancing to the beat of the drums. Some of the group sloped off into the darkness for an early night, hoping for sleep and to avoid the dancing that was sure to follow. And did. A handful of us accepted the expected invitation to join the dance all glad, I think, that the night covered both lack of enthusiasm and expertise.


30Waiting for the ferry to take us back across the river to Georgetown women washed their clothes at the waterside and we spoke to small boys practising their excellent English, to women wanting money for powdered baby milk and to a man leading his overladen donkey, mildly incredulous on being told that pictures of his donkey cart would be of interest to primary school children in another country.

With the arrival of the ferry began the clamour of foot passengers surging onto the boat, jostling for space amongst the vans and motorbikes, bamboo beds and the bewildered donkey which needed coaxing to get off again once we'd got to Georgetown.

There is more sense of hassle here. This maybe to do with it simply being less familiar, opportunism increasing with the greater number of visitors or just that it followed a particularly relaxed twenty four hours. Our stop there was just long enough for those who hadn't been before to see the main sites dedicated to church and canons and slavery, and for me to visit Maxi's garden, a tranquil place where he does his painting and gardening and hopes one day to build a few huts for visitors. I stopped at a stall and bought a length of fabric for Mbanding; enormous swirls of fuschia pink, orange and peacock blue and different from the designs seen more locally to Gunjur. While making this transaction Nick called and mentioned a meeting of the Task Force being held in the afternoon which I wouldn't be back in time for. It amused me that Nick, in the UK, knew more about the rearranged meeting than I did, no one having thought to mention it was happening.

Back in the bus we travelled back past fields where plumes of smoke signalled distant bush fires, policemen cast cursory glances over the van and a dead donkey lay by the side of the road. And all aboard agreeing that, after five hours of Abba, a good present for "The General" would be a few CDs to expand his collection. Off the bus at the market we went our separate ways before later meeting for our farewell party. Slightly glazed by the journey I found myself agreeing to look in at the compound of a man in a pink knitted hat who claimed he'd just been married the day before and would be honoured if I would greet his wife. What he really wanted was a contribution toward a bag of rice which I could see coming a mile off and was too slow witted to avoid the inevitable moment. And then I was on my way "home" where I was greeted as though I'd been away for a very long time and given the peanut brittle I'd asked Mbanding to make for those of the group who might like it to take home.

I am aware this year that her family has come down in the world since my last visit and that small opportunities to make a few dalasi are more than usually welcome. The peanut brittle was freshly made and warm as Suleyman, Mbanding and I shared some and bagged up the rest; some was set aside for Kaddy (her mother) and the girls who had spent the day at the vegetable garden and came back as the light failed, tired from their efforts.
But the ever generous Kaddy took time to look out one of her outfits for me to wear to "the party" – particularly kind because I think it was previously unworn and had probably been set aside for special occasions. A dress with pleated sleeves in a glorious fabric of apricot, black and aquamarine, over a skirt of the same material and topped with a turban. Another sign that the family has less to spend was that, this year for the first time, I wasn't given the customary costume which usually they have made for me. The only things that have been made this week have been work I've given Wabba, who's training to be a seamstress. Material bought in Brikhama has already been made into a dress which will take my great niece at least two years to grow into, and another length of fabric has tonight been turned into a skirt – first too large and long and now, too tight.

31That fortune is not favouring the family was further evident when it was Suleyman and not Mbanding who came with me to the farewell party. I think this has to do with loss of face. Mind you this was not a "special occasion" and she really didn't miss much. For the first time the party wasn't held at the compound of one of the host families but at the Nyamsimbas and it was a dull affair. Few Gambians were there this time and with them we sat in the cool darkness on a largely unlit compound on a circle of plastic chairs waiting for something to happen. And all that did was an exchange of speeches which were batted back and forth in the darkness, at least allowing us to hide the despairing sighs as the Nyansimba launched into her practised request for more, more, more. Her words were translated by Demba Touray who made us more despairing still as he exhorted Caroline and I to pay special attention to them. I was just drifting off and doing exactly the opposite when he turned and simply said "Anna". The heartsink moment (for which I should really have been prepared but wasn't) when words were unexpectedly expected of me. Swallowing quite a strong urge to stand up and say what a pity it was that, after all these years, the Nyansimba is still seeing only the material assistance she feels MBG can make possible, I instead came up a more reasonable and predictable response, allowing myself only to suggest that she might also like to consider the situation of the young men in her community. Behind me in the darkness, young men clapped. The disadvantage of introducing this idea was that she felt the need to respond – and so we went on – all actually wondering whether food was going to appear at all. But it did. Plates of rather good chicken and the customary coleslaw, cold chips and salad prepared out of sight by women who silently appeared to offer it around. I was glad at least that the occasion allowed Suleyman to enjoy a good meal even if it meant sitting through several too many speeches.


washing-lineOur last morning was variously spent by each of us. Some to the "bee place", some to the conservation area where earlier in the week crocodiles had been seen, others to shop in the market place or to spend time with their families. For me, a morning with Mbanding who had stayed in Gunjur to say goodbye and Kaddy likewise who had foregone a day in the vegetable garden. So, along with Aja, we too went to the market and bought the promised bag of rice from "Pauline" (my mother), brought home on the back of a borrowed bicycle. It was lugged into the back yard where, while waiting for the van to arrive for the airport, we sat while Kaddy and Yapenda did the laundry in a series of huge plastic bowls and Muna descaled fish as they dangled from each of her fingers; the fish remains added to a pile drying on newspaper in the sun, later to be used for fertiliser. And Suleyman told me about his morning spent at a court in Brikhama where along with his father and others from the Janneh compound, a long running land dispute was being tried. Strangers from Bissau had come and settled on land belonging to the Janneh family and had planted cashew trees to stake their claim. The Janneh's had retaliated by coming "with cutlasses" to chop down the trees and so the feud had escalated. Today the offending settlers had been given twenty seven days to leave the land with all their belongings. There was much relief and a need to show me the paperwork.

anna's-familyThe blast of a horn, the van is outside the compound and it's time to say goodbye. Gentle Lamin tells me that when I go all happiness will go with me, his younger brother (who is deaf and doesn't speak) hands me a letter hoping that next time I come it might be possible to bring a football. With tears from me and swimming eyes from Muna and Yapenda , we all hug, until next time.