Phoebe's Blog - March 2015

Feels incredibly strange to say that this is my last blog from The Gambia, and this time next week I'll be back in Marlborough!

Our last week of teaching went well. I gave the class revision based activities to do on the blackboard, boys against girls. Seriously underestimated how competitive they are! The noise created was unbelievable and I received a complaint from another teacher for being disruptive... Which the class found very funny. The highlight of my final lesson was a small group of girls performing a song about me leaving and how they would miss me! It was so sweet! It was quite sad saying goodbye to some of them, there are some lovely kids at the school who I've become really fond of (although there are still some who I won't miss one bit!).

We missed one day of school last week to do a trip to James Island, an old slave holding fort. We got a ferry up the river, which splits the country in two, to villages Juffre and Albreda. These were villages from which slaves were captured and also traded. We saw the 'Freedom Pole' which was the point a slave had to swim to, from James Island, to be set free. Considering there are crocodiles in the river, most of them couldn't swim and it's an incredibly long way, it comes as no surprise that no one ever made it to the pole! We received a tour of the villages and visited a museum, and met the ancestors of the slave 'Kuntakinteh' which the famous 'Roots' book and film is based on. The one thing we really didn't like was going round in a huge group of tourists from the ferry! Children in the village were performing 'welcome songs' and you could buy pencils to give them, or a certificate saying you'd met the village leader. That part felt very staged and we found it uncomfortable, having been here for so long and really knowing the local people. However, once we got back on the ferry we enjoyed being tourists again as we had a delicious buffet lunch and then clambered into a small wooden boat to get to James Island. All that remains of the fort is ruins but it was still an incredible thing to witness. We entered a slave dungeon, claustrophobic and dark, and found it hard to comprehend the amount of suffering that had gone on there. Nevertheless, the day ended on a cheery note when we saw loads of bottle-nose dolphins swimming and jumping alongside the boat!

Last weekend Soph and I tried out the church in Gunjur. We arrived on time, so naturally none of the congregation were there yet. We could only see about 7 people sat in pews at the front so went to sit near them, assuming the Christian community here was very small. When they started passing song sheets to each other and ignoring us we were a bit offended so I asked for one for us. I didn't understand why they looked confused until I saw all the words were in Mandinka! We became more confused when lots of people began to arrive, all sitting in different pews from us, and our pews were asked to rise. It was then that we realised we had joined the choir and had to stand up with them (unable to sing the words) for every song throughout the service!

The service was conducted in a mixture of English and Mandinka. The music was beautiful. There were no hymns for the whole congregation but the choir with the drums and tambourine created a lovely and uplifting atmosphere in the church. Loads of people came, drifting in and out throughout the hour, and huge numbers of children. I'm very glad I had the chance to experience an African church service!

The weekend just gone the three of us went to a very smart 'Eco lodge' for one night that sits right by the beach. It felt like a hotel! The food was amazing and we had proper sprung mattresses and comfy pillows. I fell asleep and woke up to the sounds of the sea and the birds. It was a wonderfully relaxing weekend, but did make coming back into the village quite hard.

During this final week we are finishing off the sign we've been designing and painting for the primary school, and adding finishing touches to the bee keeper's shop. On Saturday there's a huge naming ceremony on my compound which hundreds of people are going to, so will be a nice way to say goodbye to lots of people in the village.

In conclusion, these past three months have been the most challenging yet incredible I've ever had. I think the thing I found most challenging was the teaching. After the initial excitement of it was out of the way and the discipline problems arose, it became quite tough. However, I still really enjoyed doing it and had a lot of fun a lot of the time!

The second biggest challenge I've faced is maintaining patience with people! The majority of the people here are great but the constant hassle Soph and I receive from men is a bit much now and really annoys me. This combined with all the little children yelling 'tubab' at you every day can test your tolerance levels. Have resorted to totally ignoring the shouts of 'Hey nice girls' and 'A minute of your time please!'

Living in a compound has obviously been very different from home but doesn't feel tough anymore. You adjust very quickly to the basic lifestyle (except the cold water bucket washing, which is still painful) and I love the togetherness of the extended family all living in one place. It's a busy and happy environment and I look forward to coming back to it at the end of each day. The hardest thing about compound life was my mattress, literally!

As cliche as it sounds, living in a place like this really changes your priorities. I now realise it is possible to go to bed without a warm bath every day and that I don't need access to internet and three mugs of tea a day! (That isn't to say I won't be returning to that routine once I'm home, I've shown myself I can survive without it and think that's enough!).

I'll truly miss the friends I've made in the village, and most of all the family I've been living with. They've been so caring and welcoming and really made me feel comfortable around them. It's been amazing having the chance to properly live like a Gambian! They're such a happy and kind group of people and it will be sad to say goodbye, but I'm sure that I'll come back!

Phoebe Studdert-Kennedy, MBG voluntary work placement Lower Basic School, Gunjur