Sunday, 5 December 2010

travelling tales

I am now in my final month in The Gambia and one of the things I will certianly not miss is the journey between the Kombo and Soma. Before I left the UK, one of my many concerns was what the transport would be like. I'm not the best passenger and have had many a hair-raising journey abroad biting back the tears - but I was pleasantly surprised by The Gambia. The state of the taxis and the constant tooting of horns can be somewhat misleading, in fact I'd been here at least 7 months before I got into a car that didn't have a cracked windscreen. Often doorhandles are replaced by bits of string and it is quite common to have the one communal handle for the windows which can be obtained from the driver on request. However, on the whole the taxis here drive quite slowly, pavements are fair game but they will give you very audible warnings. The biggest danger is the unpredictability of cars suddenly pulling on and off the road in front of each other, but *touch wood* I haven't yet seen any collide.
Travelling up-country is a different matter altogether. I absolutely hate it and couldn't have been more relieved when I completed my last gelli journey on Friday. Vans begin their life somewhere else and serve someone well, spacious interior for transporting things, wheels that stay attached, inflated and turn, all the usual things you look for in a reliable vehicle. After a long and useful life, they are passed on to someone else who just needs a run-around for transporting crap, they can be maintained at home by someone who knows a thing or two about mechanics, or likes to think they do, and will pass their MOT if a twenty is left discreetly under the sun visor. A few years later when a good woman gets tired of the broken down heap of junk sitting in her drive way and even the scrap-metal yard doesn't think it's worth pulling apart, it somehow makes it's way accross the water to a gelli park somewhere near me.
When you read documents about health & safety abroad, they often include a section on transport. The advice is usually along the lines of 'don't travel at night' and 'if you don't think the vehicle looks road-worthy, don't use it'. Well it's very easy to say that, but if that is the only vehicle that is going where you are and your other transport options are non-existant, you're options are slightly limited. Needless to say, about fifty percent of the time I have travelled up (or down) country by gelli, we have broken down. The breakdowns vary in nature. Sometimes things fall off; windows, fan-belts, steering wheels... Sometimes there are very perculiar noises and we just grind to a halt, but there's always something.
Even on the best of journeys, it's an experience. Gambians are very touchy-feely people and have none of the 'personal space' issues we suffer with. You can be squashed up against someone who will have their arm around you to give themselves more room, whilst being jabbed in the back of the neck by the elbows of the person behind who is sleeping against the back of your chair. Babies are often passed around to sit on whichever lap is available. The person next to you may turn around to talk to someone behind, apparently unconcerned that they're pinning you to the window. It's fairly common for someone to lean accross you to spit out of the window.
I'm always my most relaxed and tolerant on these journeys.
The last time I travelled back to Soma with Marcus, we had a spectacularly bad journey involving 4 separate gellies to get home. The running theme of the day appearing to be wheels falling off. After it was decided there was no hope left for one vehicle, we managed to flag down a passing empty gelli. The consensus seemed to be that the driver of the first vehicle should pay our fare, he didn't seem too keen. He is in the middle of the crowd of people pictured below, not getting away with it lightly!

I stole this photo from Marcus' blog - perfectly summarising many things; Gambians love a drama, nothing is done quietly and everyone gets involved. People are often restrained, sometimes punches are thrown, but minutes later everyone is laughing and joking. This isn't the first time I've walked away form a situation in despair.

On Friday I made my last trip from Soma to Kombo. We did have an hour long break-down, but it was all made that much easier knowing I never have to do that journey again. Train fares have gone up again at home, there's been chaos caused by unusually early snow-fall. I can't wait.

Any views expressed are my own and are not representative of VSO.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Ashley our visitor

Ash creating a map of the region and its schools in the office!

Me taking a few gin-assisted low vantage point shots

A dog ran in front of my motorbike, I slammed the brakes on, skidded in the sand and fell off. It hurt. These are the bruises one week later!
Cool dude.

Any views expressed are my own and are not representative of VSO.

how do you quantify success?

With my final days of work approaching I have started writing handover notes and packing up my house. It is hard to imagine the dark mornings and afternoons I'll be returning to. The temperature has cooled slightly here and I now sleep under a sheet. This whole experience has been interesting. Last week was a holiday for the Muslim Tobaski celebrations - rams are slaughtered and everyone enjoys a feast. So after a less than pleasant previous week at work, I escaped to the Kombo. On the day itself I managed to hide in Courtney's house and avoid all evidence of slaughtering, then joined the others for gin later on. Tobaski is a great example of what is good here. Richer families may give a ram to poorer families and everyone is included - even a houseful of alcohol drinking toubabs who have realtively more money than all the surrounding compounds, were brought foodbowl by two neighbouring families. With christmas approaching we will all begin moaning about commercialisation, but do we honestly look past the endless marketing and glitzy wrapping?

Although I don't feel like I have achieved much, I have learned a lot from this experience. VSO's pre-placement training is excellent and gives you a good grounding in the economic situation in developing countries, considers issues of power and control and looks initally at how corruption affects us at home before moving on to how it may affect you during your placement. You leave your home country with a very particular mindset, aware of the bigger picture and ready to work. I had certain expectations but found the situation on the ground very different and that is what you have to work with. Indeed The Gambia is more developed than I anticipated, in places. It is hard to generalise.
Teachers in the UK complain how excessive amount of paperwork leave no time to prepare lessons properly and it is true. Endless hours are spent assessing pupils so we can set targets we then spend the rest of the year harrasing them with. A child who needs a D-grade to get into college receives less attention than a child needing a C, it is equally important to their lives but makes no difference to our magic A*-C numbers. This shouldn't be what educaiton is about. The Gambia is steaming ahead of many places in terms of policy. Monitoring visits check that policies are in place, displayed and even created in a participatory manner. Weekly teacher and pupil attendance data is collected and submitted. Reports are generated left, right and centre. Even NGO's have to be able to justify their work; how many teachers have been trained, what percentage of lessons are child centred, what increase in the number of girls in education has there been? When there is so much focus on the quantifiable, we are in danger of creating a distorted picture and the qualitative judgements become overlooked. 100% of child centered lessons would be an amazing achievement and at least one of the education objectives would have been met and surpassed, but if we have a different understanding of what child centered means and children still fail their exams, where is the value?

Disregard for a moment trade sanctions, mineral depositis, the effetcs of global warming and what percentage of ministry positions are held by women. Above all it is people that make change happen, but they have to want to change.

Any views expressed are my own and are not representative of VSO.

Monday, 8 November 2010

rather this than a tumbu fly...

The week before last I was somewhat unwell, but unable to put my finger on quite what was wrong. Incessant tiredness, no appetite, bit of a headache, strange stomach ache. I moaned my way through it and felt fine again towards the middle of the week. Friday arrived and we headed down to the Kombo for a flying visit – Ashley, our temporary resident teenager on his gap-year, needed to renew his visa at the immigration department, so we all went along for the hell of it, or maybe more for the good food and alcohol. Regardless, we checked into Mama’s Friday night, drank more than is healthy in the space of one meal then headed into Senegambia, to show Ashley the social highlights. As it turns out there were actual highlights to be had, a free bar in the Jewel of India to celebrate Divali.
Saturday morning we stumbled down for breakfast then went back to bed. As the day progressed I began to feel worse – the incredible humidity and lack of water supply in the Kombo didn’t help, unbearably hot but unable to even shower to cool down. In the evening we headed to Max’s for dinner and our usual musical endeavours. My thigh bones and knees had begun to hurt. I took some painkillers and avoided the beer. That night I could not sleep, racked with aches and pains and unable to cool down. I felt distinctly viral. Lucy was equally restless and the pair of us tossed and turned until morning.
Feeling no better the next morning and a little worried that this was a second bout of illness in the space of a few days, I called in at Afrimed for a malaria test to put my mind at rest before heading back up-country. It is a well-known fact that a volunteer is unable to leave Afrimed without being tested for everything under the sun and prescribed drugs for things you probably don’t have. I felt short-changed when my vitals were checked and my blood tested for malaria but nothing more. Having dosed myself up on paracetamol my temperature was normal and the malaria test was negative.

Monday; I took more painkillers and tried not to think about how I was feeling as we made our way back to Soma. By early evening we were home, I had a very cold shower and went straight to bed. Not really managing to sleep or even lie still with the pain in my back, I got up and took my temperature; a balmy 38.1 – more paracetamol called for. I didn’t pay much attention to the slight nose bleed in the midst of things. Sleep eluded me; I finished a book and the paracetamol took precisely one hour to make any difference to my temperature. I couldn’t make it out of bed on Tuesday. By the time Wednesday came around my temperature was back to normal but I still ached and had developed a rash across my chest, stomach and back. I sent a text to the Doctor who told me to take an anti-malarial treatment dose. In all my studies of the malarial parasite I’d never heard of a rash being a symptom, but I did contemplate it for a while. I popped into work, sent some emails and discussed my symptoms with my mother over Skype. When I got home Lucy had returned, she too had developed a rash. We compared notes then went for a sleep. A few hours later we were covered head-to-toe, with Lucy beginning to suffer with the aches that had begun to recede for me. I trawled through the traveller’s health book and updated my mother on our symptoms.
The all round consensus was dengue fever:

  • Initial unspecified illness – check
  • Muscle and joint pain – check
  • Day 3-5 red rash may appear on trunk – check
  • Rash soon spreads to limbs and face – check
  • Possible minor nose-bleeds during early stages of fever (not symptomatic of hemorrhagic form) – check
Thursday morning; rash no better and my face was all puffy with my eyes feeling like I‘d spent the night sobbing, worsening throughout the day until they just plain hurt. Additional symptom later discovered on WHO website;

  •  Pain behind eyes – check

I updated the Doc via text, he told us to see a local doctor, so off we trotted to the local clinic – a sprawling plot of land with numerous random looking buildings, without no signs anywhere. We told a random person we wanted to see a doctor; he pointed us in the direction of what turned out to be the maternity ward. I asked if there was a reception we should go to and was met with a puzzled look. Someone gestured into a doorway “Cuban Doctors” so in we went to discover 3 doctors with a limited amount of English. We tried to explain our symptoms and the time-line of their development. The rashes spoke for themselves. I sat in a chair whilst one of them listened to my chest and took my blood-pressure. I can only imagine they were both fine. No-one took my temperature or looked at my throat or anything really. We were asked if we’d eaten anything different – we hadn’t. We were asked if we took any medication - we explained about the doxycycline we take daily, our anti-malarials. They looked horrified and told us to stop taking it straight away; you don’t need it – just use a bed net and spray and protect your house. They went down in my estimation and I viewed my scrawled prescription with scepticism. Diagnosis - skin reaction. Off we went home, not bothering to call into the pharmacy. Two different and contradictory pieces of medical advice in as many days and I didn’t trust either of them. Oh well as long as I’m in safe hands. I updated the Afrimed Doc via text and gave him my opinion; he asked me what I wanted to do. I didn’t think there was much you could do to treat a virus, so we agreed to just wait and see.

By evening, the pain behind the eyes aside, I was feeling much better. Lucy wasn’t.

Monday now and I feel as right as rain. Apparently we have to watch out for a post-recovery relapse, it is important we rest. We may also suffer months of tiredness.
Not sure anyone will be able to tell the difference.

Any views expressed are my own and are not representative of VSO.

Monday, 25 October 2010

a little hiccup

As the sun came up on Saturday morning we dragged ourselves out of bed to head off to Kwinella for a cluster based Phonics workshop. Although Edrissa had returned my bike the night before from its most recent breakdown, we decided it would be safer all round if I were to go on the back of Lucy's bike. I took the essentials out of my trusty rucksack and packed them and the course materials into the box on Lucy's bike. It's very handy having a metal box for transporting things. I don't have one, or a number plate, but no-one seems to mind very much. The drawback of a big metal box however is the way it bangs into your spine as a passenger when going over bumps. I can normally put up with this for the quick journey to the office and back, but for an hours trek on a seriously bumpy road, my trusty kidney belt got it's premier outing. This is something that was recommended in our kit list and from my searches on ebay, seems to be worn by trail riders. It is a bit like a corset that goes around your waist, with thick rubber support for the small of your back. It has a Velcro fastening around your stomach and is incredibly hot to wear. I'm not certain what it is supposed to do normally, but it's great protection against metal boxes.
Off we went in the relative cool of the morning, a fantastic opportunity for me to watch the birds as a passenger, which are stunning here, very colourful and have increased tenfold since the rains. We regularly see birds of prey circling overhead, their enormous wingspan catching your attention. About 20 minutes into the ride we pulled over to stretch our legs, or so I thought. Not having much room to move with 2 and a box on a bike and holding your feet still on tiny pegs over enormously jarring bumps, really takes its toll on the joints. It turned out that we'd stopped because something had stung Lucy through her trousers on the upper thigh. She rolled her trouser leg up to inspect the damage, drawing the attention of a few passers-by in a Muslim country where thighs are much more erotic than breasts! There are definite benefits to being a passenger - a built in human shield being one of them. Obviously having swapped bags due to limited space, I didn't have my handy bite cream, so Lucy just had to suffer. Off we went again. The rest of the journey passed without incident, except for the part where children threw stones at us as we passed. I swore loudly. Sometimes it is necessary. We arrived on time at Kwinella, prepared ourselves for the workshop then sat and waited for everyone else to turn up - which they did eventually.
The day went well. Many workshops we have experienced here have had teachers sitting all day listening, with content pitched too high and deviation from the schedule allowed for intense arguing about the smallest details. We steered away from this, knowing what we wanted to achieve and having a good idea of what level to pitch it at from our work so far with teachers. We demonstrated a phonics lesson, then split teachers into small groups. Each member of the group received a sound they had to teach to their group. They were given the steps they had to follow and shown how to use the handbooks that are already in schools to find the story for their sound and the action. We moved around watching these lessons and offering advice where needed. Interestingly, although we had provided the steps that had to be followed on a small piece of card for each group, teachers spent their time writing out a lesson plan, then not really following it, reflecting what we have observed in schools on the rare occasions we have seen a lesson plan. Progress was made, but maybe not as much as we'd have hoped. We continued with some work on blending and games for learning vocabulary which were thoroughly enjoyed. We learned very quickly when we arrived that Gambians love to play games. This is a problem in class, when you show teachers games they can play or observe them being played, teachers find it very hard not to jump in and answer all the questions themselves - we often remind them to let the children play!
There is a procedure here for applying for funding to run training, but experience has shown that the process is lengthy and funding may not be received before the end of a placement. As a result, rightly or wrongly, many volunteers fund training themselves from their meagre allowance. If you are running a regional workshop teachers are paid a travel allowance, an accommodation allowance and are given their meals. For cluster based workshop like we were running, teachers are expected to fund their own travel - although in reality they will often having to travel many kilometres through the bush where no transport is available. We paid for the food for 45 people. This is very different to at home where many teachers will choose training according to the location and it's reputation for food, but will pay handsomely for the privilege. Training completed on what turned out to be an incredibly hot day, over 100 degrees I believe, we drained the last of our water and got back on the bike for the return journey. About 10 mins down the highway the bike lost power and slowed to a standstill. Fantastic. There was no re-starting it, so we gave in, stripped off the unnecessarily hot clothing and phoned the mechanic. He didn't sound too thrilled to be phoned late on a Saturday afternoon and told us to clean the spark plug then try again. Great because we both knew how to do that. Feeling slightly panicked at our lack of water and shade, (of course I didn't have my suncream, that was in the bag I didn't bring) we compared our phone situation. I had battery but little credit, Lucy had credit but little battery. We called the lovely Cluster Monitor, Seedy Jammeh, who we'd just spent the day with and asked where we should look for the spark plug. By the time we had figured out the correct combination of spanners, cleaned the spark plug and returned it to it's rightful home we were exhausted. Luckily we had broken down on a particularly rough patch of road, meaning the gellies were forced to fly past us dangerously close. I tried to move the bike further off the road, slipped in the loose rubble and dropped the bike on my arm. That was nice. When the bike failed to start after cleaning the spark plug, we started to worry more. We called the mechanic back, he hung up on us. People don't say goodbye on the phone here, so this often takes you by surprise. Did this mean he was pissed off at us calling on a Saturday and he wasn't going to come, or that he was going to come? He didn't say. I phoned Terry, explained my credit situation and asked him to call the mechanic and plead our cause. Lucy set off with the empty bottles to try and collect some well water from a school she though might be just over the brow of the hill. I sat in the sun and waited, imagining our long slow death in gruesome detail. Lucy called, the mechanic had phoned and was on his way.

Lucy returned triumphantly with one full bottle of well-water and one half-full flask. A strange decision I felt considering our stranded situation. Not long after we saw Seedy arrive on his bike with a headteacher he was taking home on the back. Such relief to see a friendly face! He jumped onto the bike and started it first time. We were understandably embarrassed. He roared off down the road only to slowly judder to a halt in a replay of our original breakdown. Dignity restored. Seedy cleaned the spark plug again, clearly not trusting us to have done it properly the first time, the bike started again with the same result. He unclipped the fuel pipe suspecting water in the fuel and called us over to watch muddy water pour out of the fuel pipe. At least it wasn't us being rubbish. Lucy set off to replenish our again depleted water supplies and returned with the
mechanic, who looked distinctly unimpressed. He dispatched Seedy on his bike to collect a container for the fuel. He showed us the carburetter filled with water. We waited whilst the fuel was drained, the water poured away and everything cleaned and put back together. There has been an ongoing conversation with the mechanic about us leaving our bikes in the rain. Yes Dad I know. I have told him if he finds us something to use as a ramp I am happy to put the bike under cover, but I can't lift it up the step. My counter-arguments include; my bike was breaking before the rains started, Lucy's bike has been in the rain just as much as mine and is fine (or was), everyone else leaves their bike in the rain and are fine. I personally have my suspicions about the fuel itself, but stranded in the middle of nowhere, we weren't in a position to argue.

We made our way home. Just to add to our anxiety, every time we slowed down to 2nd gear the bike cut out and took a whole lot of effort to restart. It didn't feel very fixed to me. We made it home eventually, tired and a little emotional, with my view of motorbikes reinforced. I skipped dinner and went straight to bed, waiting for the well-water to take it's revenge.

Any views expressed are my own and are not representative of VSO.

Friday, 15 October 2010

drawing the line

There are plenty of aspects of living here I find hard, but one that is particularly frustrating is working in a different culture. Excellent training by VSO prepares you for this, but - like teaching a difficult class day after day, it begins to wear you down. As a woman I am treated with less respect than my male colleagues, by some people. I am younger than most of the people I work with, therefore less experienced, regardless of why I was given this job. I have always found it difficult to see inefficient systems in use and not change them, or to happily comply with a new initiative I know will create problems later on. Managment don't seem to like this, maybe it highlights their own short-comings, but that's their problem. There is absolutely no way I could do that here; it's not my job, it's not my place and there is the added necessity of encouraging people that goes with capacity building. I often have to bite back comments that I wouldn't think twice about at home. Knowing that you could improve things, but not being able to, is incredibly frustrating. Some volunteers fit right into this lifestyle and are able to work with long-term goals. I don't have the patience and I'm not sure why I ever thought I would have.
There have been significant staffing changes recently and there is a buzz about the place that wasn't there before. Deadlines seem to be suddenly looming and things which may have been overlooked before have become important. My advice is rarely sought, in the event that the two male volunteers are unavailable, my skills may be utilised, but mostly Lucy and I continue to work on our own projects, hoping that some difference is being made.
There is a paranoia that goes with working in a different culture. I am not merely travelling, if I upset people - however inadvertantly, relationships can be damaged. Things are very different, behaviours that would be considered rude at home are common place here. For instance men who are considered to have a lesser status, regardless of age, may be reffered to as 'boy', often being called across the street to run an errand. Similarly, I am sure that I must have offended people without knowing or intending to and I would guess that those instances probably involved greetings or food. However it has come to the point where I struggling to tolerate certain behaviours, in fact I am sure that many of my friends and colleagues here would also consider them to be inappropriate. It is time to reassert myself. I may be from a different culture, one with a horrendous and deserved reputation, I may be a woman and may be quite young, but there is a limit!

Any views expressed are my own and are not representative of VSO.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

feeling a bit shy

We discovered the stats tab for our blogs today and spent a good hour finding out who has been reading and from where. I'm now thoroughly paranoid. I don't know anyone in most of these places.... introduce yourselves immediately.

We giggled at the search term "do people have swimming pools in their compounds in soma" which led to one hit on Lucy's blog - you clearly all think we're lying when we whinge.

So world wide audience, consider yourselves the reason that Gambian teachers had less than their fair share of training today.

Any views expressed are my own and are not representative of VSO.

Sunday, 3 October 2010


With the start of a new academic year comes the process of stabilisation. Teachers and Headteachers alike may find they have been posted to a new school in a different area of region and often don't want to move. The regional managers have to trek around the region checking there are enough teachers in each school and dealing with any issues. We hear reports that the mud has been somewhat hindering this process, with a great deal of waiting for tow-trucks involved in this years stabilisation.

Yesterday we visited a local Early Childhood Development centre, or nursery school to you and me. Unfortunately for us it was a private centre which excludes it from our remit. It was however the best educational setting I have seen yet in the region. 3 small classrooms were filled with the things you would expect to see in such a setting – colourful objects hanging from the ceiling, pictures and home-made storybooks pinned to the walls, books and jigsaws piled on tables that were clearly used by the children. The place was crammed with children from around 3-6 years, the new starters not yet in uniform being led around by older siblings, behaving as children of that age should – looking at and touching things, talking to you and each other and generally interacting in a way that seems to be stamped out of children as they get to primary school. It was a revelation and full credit to the incredibly young, and as of yet unqualified, teacher running the place. A world away from an ECD that Lucy visited recently where the room was laid out in the style of a university lecture theatre with full-sized benches and chairs for toddlers!

Any views expressed are my own and are not representative of VSO.

Monday, 20 September 2010

no rest for the wicked

International Literacy Day was on the 8th of September, so on Saturday the 18th our Region hosted a function to celebrate it. We were informed the day before that we should arrive at the host school at 9am, so with our 1 days notice for working over the weekend we had to reschedule our plans to meet other volunteers in Farafenni. We rocked up at 9am as instructed and took our choice of empty seats in the shade under the tents that had been constructed. About once an hour a truck would arrive from various offices in the area carrying sofas and chairs for the not-yet assembled guests. The formation of the rapidly multiplying chairs was rearranged regularly until everyone was satisfied. We passed some time by making the entire alphabet out of twigs, much to the amusement of the gathered children. At least it fitted with the literacy theme. Around 1pm the event started, which was nice. Promoting Women's Literacy in a society where the majority of women from middle age and older, cannot read and write. A policy shift in the last few years means education is now free for girls and there is plenty going on to encourage them to stay on in education. There were some interesting dramas performed by a local school group and a Women's group, although being in local language the jokes were lost on me. Plenty of speeches focused on the links between mother's literacy and child mortality and described initiatives at a community level that were addressing adult literacy issues. A thoroughly thought provoking day. It took a while for the blood to return to my legs.

Any views expressed are my own and are not representative of VSO.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

the wonderings of a restless mind

Pete thinks that the evolution of the middle ear was over-complicated and unnecessary and a third leg would have addressed the balance issue. It puts me in mind of the Top Gear episode where Robin Reliants overturn going round corners. For me, it's self-awareness that bothers me. Continuation of the species is the game, so how have we got to a point where an individual can consider one's contribution to society and feel worthless or inferior? Mental health and physical health are closely linked, therefore if you do not make a significant contribution to the continuation of your species are you less likely to survive and reproduce? Or is it more to do with a positive state of mind being an advantage regardless of whether your perception of your contribution is in line with your actual contribution? How does a species evolve to be so complicated that we're past surviving and procreating? I have a tendency to over-analyse situations – it often makes me miserable. I spend so long trying to determine a person's motivation for their actions, or lack of action, that I often forget to just enjoy myself. Friendships are similar. It appears that my role in many of my social interactions is that of an amateur therapist - through no desire of my own I may add. I merely attribute this to my ability to listen and my genuine concern for the people I consider to be friends. It becomes more interesting when you analyse each social interaction. For a relationship where both individuals feel satisfied, it could be said that on average each person should receive the same amount of attention. I could tell you the career ambitions of a certain friend's ex-boss, whom I have never met, yet I doubt that same friend would be able to tell you what country I currently live in. As I become older I become more dissatisfied with life. As a child I pictured myself in an unknown job, but being bloody good at it. As an adult, I still don't know what I want to do and feel greatly frustrated when I don't reach the levels of perfection that I strive for. In reality, I'm extremely capable, organised and efficient – it's my own unattainable standards that ensure I never feel satisfied with my contribution. Does that state of mind have a positive or negative impact on continuation of the species? Answers on a postcard please.

Any views expressed are my own and are not representative of VSO.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

things I'm not doing today

  1. going back to work after a not-quite long enough summer holiday and hearing how we improved again and must get 100% next year
  2. cycling from London to Paris - good luck Dave
  3. washing-up in Max's zoo-like kitchen
Instead I'm sat in my favourite cafe eating spaghetti and killing time. Term dosen't start for another week or so and I'm delaying my return up-country until Lucy has finished her stint at Brikama college. Last week I succumbed to boredom and booked into a nice hotel so I could at least do nothing in luxury. Good friends, hot water, clean towels, a swimming pool, jaccuzzi and a plentiful supply of alcohol have temporarily restored my good humour. Word reached me today that there will be a change of staff in the office when we return, so with the addition of two new volunteers things may be quite different. I am certainly looking forward to getting back to my own house, however modest a house it may be!
But best of all - when I go to the office tomorrow I'm hoping my new camera will have arrived. Soft focus here I come!

Any views expressed are my own and are not representative of VSO.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

they didn't think I'd come back...

Coming back to the Gambia after a month back in the UK definitely allows you to see things through new eyes. The things people back home are most interested in are the things you get used to very quickly here so they stop standing out.

I returned last night and am staying at Lucy's temporary house in Brikama. Within an hour of being back and fed we lost power and instantly I'm straight back into the difficulties of life in The Gambia. It's pitch black with absolutely no ambient light. Everything is still packed, so somewhere at the bottom of my bag is a torch and new batteries, but I can't find them in the dark. Lucy manages to find a candle with about 1cm of life left in it, but it's enough to unpack the torch. I then proceed to get ready for bed in an unfamiliar house. Being in the spare room there is no mosquito net, so I liberally coat myself in DEET and get into bed. I'd forgotten how hot it can be. With no covers, I find myself assuming a somewhat familiar spread-eagled sleeping position. Under torch-light a few tiny droppings can be seen on the bed, I sweep them away then stop looking. I try to sleep but the insect paranoia kicks in. Not only could there be mosquitoes feasting on me, the bed is by the wall, so who knows what could drop off the wall onto me in the dark. There are plenty of cobwebs in the corner for me to worry about, and the insect noise from outside cannot be ignored. I've also been warned there's a mouse living somewhere in this house, and there's no net to protect me. Eventually the power comes back on. Lucy texts me from the next bedroom asking if I want the fan as she's not using it. I jump at the offer. Not only does the fan cool you enough to be able to use a top sheet, this in turn protects my feet from mosquitoes and the noise of the fan drowns out the insect noise. It's a winner on many levels.

The next morning after Lucy leaves for work I take the first of 4 more months worth of cold showers, pause for a moment to appreciate my dry towel still smelling of clean England laundry smells, then attempt to amuse myself for the day. It is pouring with rain. As none of the streets are paved, going out to do anything in the rain becomes a mission. Is is like going for a walk across muddy fields in flip flops and no waterproofs – a tad damp and slippery. So I don't bother. Not that there's anywhere to go if I could be bothered. I assess the washing up situation, prepared for it to be a little haphazard as it is Lucy's house I'm staying in. I can't go outside and fill a bowl with water, it's raining too hard and the yard is somewhat flooded., so I can't empty the full bucket of old washing up water either. I wash a cup in the bathroom sink and make tea instead. There's a stockpile of nearly but not quite empty gone-off milk cartons in the fridge. Luckily, one of them smells quite fresh. Sudoku and my new DS amuses me until lunch time, when I feast on instant noodles. Being the stay-at-home with no job house-mate, I feel like I should have dinner prepared for Lucy when she gets home. Having searched the cupboards I've found 2 onions, some squishy tomatoes and pasta. Good job I fattened myself up in the UK.

I will be attending a Leaver's workshop on Friday. Now that's something I like the sound of.Any views expressed are my own and are not representative of VSO.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

and relax

Having a brief holiday in the UK and thoroughly enjoying myself. Missing the other volunteers massively and feel quite guilty everytime I have a shower/eat good food/go shopping/watch the telly.... all those normal life things that you forget to appreciate! There's a wedding coming up on Saturday, Emma and Jamie - congrats guys (officially tie the knot today in Brighton!), so cosmetic preparations have begun in earnest. Fake tan a plenty - everyone at home is still browner than me, exfoliation, dress shopping - a million miles away from The Gambia!

So having an amazing time, but will be returning! x

Any views expressed are my own and are not representative of VSO.

Friday, 16 July 2010

doing my bit for tourism

We had a little weekend away in Boboi - stunning beach entirely to ourselves, give or take a cow or two.

We actually went with the intention of being able to watch the World Cup final together. Emma phoned ahead to check they had a generator and a telly, essential ingredients for this trip, we were given the go ahead to book. Lucy, Phil and I headed down there on Friday, sunned ourselves, then sank a bottle of red or two, Emma and Carol joined us on Saturday and we gave the white a try, then Paul and Courtney arrived for more fun and games on Sunday. We pre-oredered our dinner to arrive nice and early pre-match and put in an advanve request for the wine to be put in the freezer. The big screen is manhandled from someone's house into the small bar and we settle down to watch. Paul got a sweepstake up and running and I managed to get the 2 Dutch players I fancied the most. I mostly ignored Lucy complaining that she had the goalie who was never going to be the first to score. We invested time and energy into that match. As the rain got heavier the pack of dogs that live there snook into the bar and slept on our feet. By full-time with still no goals, we'd drank all the white wine and had to go back onto red. We lost the signal due to the rain, but it came back on just as extra-time began. 5 mins before the end of extra-time we lost the signal for good. Only thanks to the phone call from Courtney's mum dis we know the final score. Brilliant.

I seem to have failed to write about the time we had a lock-in in Soma......
At the end of a particularly stressful research week for Courtney, after she and Paul suffered a somewhat harrowing cabbage-throwing incident in the market, we headed to the 'bar' for a medicinal Julbrew. The plan was to have one there, then take some back to their hotel garden. Well the rain started. Quite a downpour in fact. Elaine, our local landlady, had to lock the doors the wind had got up that much. There are holes in the walls to help keep the place cool in the sun, but they also let the water in when it rains. We moved the tables into the middle of the room and ordered another round or three.
Fantastic opportunity to watch the kids playing football in the puddles, sans wellies.

Any views expressed are my own and are not representative of VSO.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

school's out for summer

well technically school is out for summer in another 2 weeks, but as not much will go on due to exams and the annual conference is looming, I've left Soma and returned to the Kombos.
We've been quite busy for the last week helping out with the Valuing Teacher's Research which is being funded by the NUT. Courtney, a VSO colleague, is running this research which looks into the contributions of unqualified teachers to education in The Gambia. We've spent the last week helping out interviewing teachers. It's been really good to get into some pretty rural school and speak to people. One young teacher I spoke to left school with no qualifications at all and is working in a very rural Madrassa school where there are only 2 classrooms and 2 teachers for over two hundred pupils. He was asked by the village elders to take the job as there was no-one else to do it and he will continue teaching until they find someone, although this could be years. He was incredibly motivated in such a situation and being in a Madrassa school doesn't get the same opportunities for training as some of the schools we work with, but spoke very highly of the training he'd had so far. Makes you think.

Last weekend Lucy and I went on a mission to collect a bamboo bed from Faraffeni. Emma and Carol brought the bed from Kerewan and we were to collect it and bring it back to Soma. I braced myself for a hellish day and was pleasantly surprised when the whole experience was actually quite enjoyable! There are definite benefits to living in a country where people are very used to strapping things on the roof of a car. One very helpful taxi driver somehow made a single bed fit into the boot of his car...

It's a dirty business using public transport up-country.

Any views expressed are my own and are not representative of VSO.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

dedication's what you need

We have officially started training teachers how to teach phonics. Quite regularly the 'Record Breakers' theme tune enters my head 'dedication's what you need....' Teachers are quite capable of teaching phonics, but turning up to work, preparing a lesson and then delivering it rather than sitting with your head on the table, are the challenges we face with some teachers in more rural schools. It has been an absolute delight to teach some model lessons. The children are perfectly behaved and you can't keep the grins from their faces as you do something in class that is interactive and fun. To see them learn so quickly is really rewarding, they don't normally expect to understand anything that is done in class they just learn to repeat and say yes in the right places.
The first rains came about a week ago. This is an event I have been dreading for many reasons, mainly the influx of bugs that each downpour initiates. The electrical storms here are quite incredible. We certainly don't have the stunning views of certain mountain locations to admire them from, but the lightening was flashing every few seconds for hours. Now I know I'm a science teacher, but we all know I'm rubbish at science. Can anyone explain why some of the lightening has accompanying thunder but some doesn't?! The rain is torrential and accompanied by strong winds, so I had to get out of bed at one point to close my outside metal door. It took all of 5 seconds to kick the concrete block away that holds it open, but I was drenched! The noise on the metal roof was incredible and it took a long time to get back to sleep. It was lovely however to have to pull a sheet over me as the temperature dropped. I looked tentatively outside the next morning to survey the damage. I expected the back yard to be lovely and clean but it was covered in soil. I'm not sure if that fell with the rain? Out the front was a mud bath. When we started the bikes to go to work Lucy's back wheel was already sinking in the mud. The road outside was a disaster. Huge lakes had appeared overnight surrounded by lovely deep and soft mud. That was one interesting journey to work, with Lucy nearly coming off at one point as her back wheel slipped in the mud. By the end of the day most of it had dried up, but if that's how bad the road is after one downpour, what will it be like after months of it!
Shortly after this we had to wing our way back to Kombo for another meeting, this time we got a lift from a colleague, a much less stressful journey than the last one. The day after we arrived we discovered the meeting had been cancelled. Superb. No-one really believes us when we say we can't get our emails. No post for me in the office. I did weigh myself however, and was thrilled to find I'd eventually lost 4 pounds! One evening of our visit ended in an impromptu karaoke session with Marielle and Max. Possibly the most fun I've had for a good few years. Needless to say, Lucy and I both had to be put to bed with a bucket placed strategically placed. Photos will be restricted to facebook I'm afraid!

On our return to Soma I was laid up for a few days with a stomach bug, hopefully a few more pounds lost, finger crossed... Finding it quite hard to keep going now and counting down the days until my visit home. The power has been somewhat unreliable since the rains have started, with a run of 10 days with no electricity. It makes the already short and boring evenings even shorter and more boring. The real difficulty is getting to sleep with the fan not working, the humidity recently can be unbearable as it builds up to another storm. The warm drinking water isn't particularly pleasant either! A fan and fridge make a lot of difference. I complain that some of the teachers here aren't dedicated enough, I'm certainly not. It has been quite amazing to see grass shooting up everywhere though after just 2 rains – the place is beginning to look quite different.

I made this!

Still sober...

not any more.

Prelude to a storm

Any views expressed are my own and are not representative of VSO.

Monday, 24 May 2010

keeping myself occupied

There is plenty of time to fill here. On the days we haven't been going into schools, we leave the office about 3 and the rest of the day is our own. If I achieve nothing else here in The Gambia, I will certainly have learned how to be a housewife. My afternoons ususally comprise of laundry and sweeping, then some sewing. Stop laughing. I then have a shower about 6ish and start dinner when the electricity comes back on at 7. My usual bedtime hasn't changed much here and I'm normally in bed with a book and my headtorch by 9.30.
I made a 'lovely' shower attachment a few weeks back that kept me occupied for a few hours one morning, it's still going strong you'll be pleased to hear.
So far on the sewing front, I've hemmed a lovely big piece of fabric which I use as a wall-hanging in my bedroom, though it will make a much nicer tablecloth when I go home.... I have made curtains for the front window and door to stop endless streams of people staring in as they walk past. I took ever such a lot of care over making the stitching straight on the front of the curtains, then managed to hang them back to front with the less than straight stitching at the back on full view! Taking them down and rehanging them is not an option, they are knotted into place with string and it took forever to get the string tight enough in the first place. There are 2 projects lined up next - a cushion and a skirt. I have been given a mini-sewing machine which I was intending to use but I can't get it to work, so I'm thinking the skirt might be rather a large job by hand.... So anyway, that's how exciting my life is!

Incidently, my flat completes today (Fri 21st) whilst I write, and as I upload (Mon 24th) I've just received an email with a pic of Mum and Dad celebrating with champagne and strawberries. Alright for some, me and Lucy had to make do with 70Dalasi gin and juice. 

Any views expressed are my own and are not representative of VSO.

leaves on the track

Just as we actually get into schools and speak to some children, it is time to return again to the Kombo for yet more meetings. Oh the hardship. A relatively easy journey sees us in La Parisienne in time for lunch and cake. A brief visit to the bathroom for a wash removes the majority of the visible orange dust before too many people notice, however there's not much I can do about my clothes at this point. A few days of absolute luxury commence with a stop at the office for an entire afternoon arguing, sorry meeting, about Small Project Funds.

Lucy and I while away free days at the beach and sat in Blue Bar drinking away our Dalasis. I throroughly satisfy my craving for wine of both colours andwe indulge in plently of eidble treats. Eventually the rest of our batch of volunteers arrive for the education sector workshop and we enjoy several evenings catching up. Friday afternoon sees a group visit to Afrimed (I went to the bar) where thorough testing is carried out regardless of symptoms and everyone is sent away with a selection of medication. Lucy has been miserable as sin for days and is diagnosed with a virus and a urinary infection and in one fell swoop my normally hard enough job of reminding her to take one malaria tablet a day has been increased to four lots of antibiotics and a malaria tablet a day. At least we'll have something new to talk about! After dinner on our final night we plan to meet Liz, Pete and Phil in Banjul in time for the first ferry. When it comes to setting the alarm though panic sets in and we decide we'll stay another day after all. We wake up at a reasonable time the next morning and realise the journey home has to be faced sooner or later so we might as well get on with it. An awful lot of faffing around with taxis eventually takes us to Brikama, which is miles away but seems to be the transport hub for travel along the South Road. As we arrive just before lunch and not just before dawn, there are no vans going to Soma, so we sit in a filthy corner or the enormous 'car park' and wait. Roughly an hour later a van pulls in and the inevitable argument about how much we'll be charged for our bags begins. Now we know with some authority that the going rate for a bag is about 25 or 30 Dalasi. Today the starting price is 250. The ticket price is only 100. Eventually he drops to 100 for the lot and doesn't listen to us disagreeing. We get in and wait. These mini-vans only leave once they are full, which can take some time. Lucy spends this time telling the guy next to her that even though it's nice to meet him, she doesn't give her number out. We could have this conversation in our sleep now, but it doesn't get any less annoying. Eventually the man in charge of bags returns and demands our money. I give him 25 Dalasi. He has a little hissy fit and tells us to pay 100 or get off. Well we're defeated and pay, but I sulk for hours.

Eventually we leave, with the help of some handy men who push us out of the car park so we can jump start the van. The journey should take roughly 4 hours. About 10 minutes down the road, we slow to a stop and the driver pulls the plastic casing from around the gear stick to provide some urgent maintenance. We set off again. There is not much in the way of leg room (or any other room) in these vans and I find the most comfortable way of dealing with this and the horrific jolting is to sit up relatively straight and hold my book in front of me in a way that allow my arms to provide extra structural support in addition to my bra. The man behind me taps on my shoulder repeatedly trying to initiate conversation. It's impossible with the noise, and follows the standard lines of give me your email address, I want to be your friend. At one point the man in the row in front of me pokes his finger into the rusty hole in the roof above our heads that has been dropping rusted bits of metal onto us for the last hour. This makes it much worse. The noise of the bags banging on the roof has become so loud that the 'apperante' (boy who takes fares and rips you off with bag money) keeps hanging out of the window and looking at the roof. I start to wish I had my helmet on. Not to worry however, a hole in the roof is the least of our problems. When the guys in the back start shouting, the driver slows down and we all see that the side window fell out a few hundred metres ago. We turn around and go and retrieve it. The broken glass and perished rubber surround is laid on the floor under their feet. Luckily for the small baby who was sat right next to it, it fell outwards. Another half hour goes by then we gently slow to a stop. A woman in front turns and explains, 'finished' she says. We all get out, Lucy and I insure what is happening. It becomes clear quite quickly that we have broken down and no-one expects to go anywhere in a hurry. It is 3 o'clock. We're in the middle of nowhere at the side of the road, there's a compound with some houses here, but no village centre or shops. We have a mouthful of water between us, no food and barely any phone battery left. Brilliant. We sit down and wait like everyone else, not sure if we wait for it to be fixed or wait for something else to come past. After about an hour, someone explains that we ran out of fuel. The driver is an idiot, he thought 10 litres would get us from Brikama to Soma. He has been sent to neighbouring villages to find some. After some time he returns, there was no fuel. He heads off in the other direction and again returns with no fuel. The other passengers share mangoes with us, helped with the thirst but left me sticky and with mango in my teeth. Regardless the man who claims he owns the van (why he's boasting about this I've no idea) asks me to take his picture, then asks for my number and asks about my husband. I tell him my husband doesn't like me giving out my number. He makes some comment about my husband not being here and that he is very 'hungry' and hasn't seen his wife for a long time. Brilliant. We're stuck in god knows where with three perverts, no water and no food. It only get better. The driver returns from the other direction and still has no fuel. Where he goes next I've no idea, but after phoning Liz I'm near to tears. At least we're not by ourselves Lucy and I reassure each other.

Eventually the driver returns with fuel, but it has taken four hours and it is now 7 o'clock. There is no chance we'll be home before dark. Because the van is so new and modern, clearly the front and back light have been smashed out, but after some fiddling with wires, we get the front light on as it's getting dark. In we pile and the engine doesn't start. Of course not. So the men all pile out and start pushing. Eventually we're on the road again and I send texts to all the people I've worried updating them of the situation. An hour later we reach a police check point, as we slow down the engine cuts out. Brilliant. The casing is pulled out again and more work done on the gears. The police won't let us go until the back lights work. This takes some time but eventually after jump starting again we are back on our way. Every half hour we break down again and this procedure is repeated. I wonder if we'll ever get home. Around half nine, at some speed the driver hits some severe bumps in the road. We career across the road several times nearly turning over. I swear very loudly and wait to crash. When it doesn't happen the driver still only slows down when the rest of the passengers hurl abuse at him. As the adrenaline leaves me, I feel incredibly sick and have to try very hard not to cry.

Another 20 minutes and we reach Soma. I have never been so happy to get out of a van ever.

We trudge home with our bags in the dark wondering if the benefits of visiting the Kombo outweigh the travelling. Undecided. Give me a slow train anyday.
I'd been dreaming of this moment for weeks.

Less than impressed by the side of the road.
"this is my car" - why you would boast about that I've no idea.

Any views expressed are my own and are not representative of VSO.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

whilst the election is underway...

in the real world, you're all busy voting - I hope. Well we've actually started work at last. After much deliberation, we decided the way forward was to start with some phonics assessments and to create a plan from there. We have now sampled all the grade 2 and 3 classes of all of 2 of the 80 something schools in our region. So a slow start. Interesting findings though, but not really unexpected. Pupils are not really being taught phonics, but by some small miracle, by grade 3 a small handful seem to have learned some English 3 letter words by memory - result. But not going to help them pass their Grade 3 NAT exams.
Lucy and I have had some successful small trips on our bikes now, no more than 5k at a time yet, but we're working up to it. Mr Bah actually looked shocked when I suggested the other day that I couldn't remember the way to the 15ish schools we have visited - most of them were about 45 mins away in the car, and they all inolve going along the highway for some distance, then turning off at an unmarked point and continuing along unmarked sand tracks in varying directions for about 20 mins.... he clearly has never walked round Brighton with me trying to find anywhere!

Now for those of you wondering how I'm coping with the wildlife I had a small moment yesterday. I was sitting in my bedroom sewing my new curtains (life is that exciting) when I noticed a dark shadow under my back door. On closer-ish (about 2 metres away) insoection I could see a tail curling under my door and some kind of wavering frilly thing. Well I hopped about a bit trying to decide on the best thing to do. I was wearing only a sarong and I knew Lucy was probably asleep next door, so I was on my own. First things first I got dressed. Those of you who know me well, it will come as no surprise that I didn't feel up to tackling wildlife with no underwear on. I opened the bedroom door so I had an escape route. I fetched a broom and banged it on the floor from a safe distance to see if that achieved anything. It didn't. Now I could have opened the door to find out what it was, but although it was a sizable shadow, it was underneath the crack of the door so could have run inwards rather than outwards if I scared it. I tried looking under the door from a safe distance, but I'm blind so couldn't see much. I contemplated holding the broom at arms length and opening the door with a brushing manouever at the same time, but didn't really feel up to it. Mostly I just stood and looked at it. I didn't want to leave incase it came in and I didn't know! Eventually it moved all by itself and I could see quite clearly from the new angle that it was just my resident lizard. Not the venemous snake I had been imagining. The frilly bit had just been its foot that it happened to have been moving when I looked. Well thank-god for that!

I'm currently writing from a lovely air-conditioned cafe back in the Kombo. Unfortunately (!) it turned out there is a meeting tomorrow we needed (!) to attend, so we had to come back early. There are workshops from next wednesday to friday aswell as we have to stay here until a week on saturday. Don't know how we'll cope with the interruption to our work schedule. We had to cancel our plans for the Jazz festival in Senegal. Permission for leave was not granted. Ho hum.

Any views expressed are my own and are not representative of VSO.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

a brief interlude

So with a Whole School Development workshop providing a perfect excuse we have left behind the 'gas mark 6' temperatures of Soma and returned to the Kombos. A month and a half up-country means we return and view everything through new eyes. For instance I didn't actually bring my jumper, but I can imagine wearing it here - or is it only cold in comparison?! There are shops here that sell vegetables and alcohol and nice things. Not that I am completely scabby now, but I bought a foot scraper and nail brush in the posh chemists shop. We have eaten out at every opportunity and paid a hefty 60 Dalasi (£1.50 ish) for a glass of white wine. I treated myself to a nice coloured glass plate to put girly things on in my bedoom - thanks Riss for my birthday Dalasi's! Now we sit trying to arrange a hotel for the Saint Louis Jazz Festival in Senegal in May. Think we may have left it a little late, hotels respond to email enquiries in French and I have to drag Lucy in to reply. We're converting one unknown currency to a lesser known currency and I'm crossing my fingers that my flat sale will complete sometime before May so I can actually afford to go. It's ever so stressful this volunteering lark.

Any views expressed are my own and are not representative of VSO.

Friday, 16 April 2010

imagine if you will...

  • Not having the mad rush that is the start of term. Instead a more sedate beginning where you may still be travelling back from your holiday.
  • Needing to write "pupils should not be sent on errands such as buying cigarettes or ganja".
  • Examining pupils in a language they can not speak.
  • Leaving your classroom to greet a visitor for the whole lesson.
  • Having a class comprised of two different year groups in your room and teaching them entirely separate topics. One at a time.
  • A child having work in their book that they have written but are completely unable to read.
  • Trying to improve the teaching in an area where around 50% of the teachers are untrained and unqualified and don't earn enough money a month to buy a bag of rice.

Any views expressed are my own and are not representative of VSO.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

self preservation

Sanity at least partly restored after our weekend away, where we were spoiled rotten, drank plenty of beer and aired our mutual frustrations of the work situation so far.

Thursday evening started early and we had a lovely salad, cheese cake and rum cake courtesy of the Peace Corps, who were still sitting around at 10.30 despite our yawns and lack of conversation! Early start on Friday and we were in a 'Sept Place' on our way to Janjangbureh by 9.00. Arrived by 11.00 and dropped our stuff off in the Forestry Commission Lodge where Liz and Pete had arranged for us to stay. Idyllic spot on the river, plenty of trees and insect noise in contrast to the desert scrub appearance of Soma. Found sleeping a little difficult though with the number of insects around and woke regularly to shine my torch around the room! Had a really lovely weekend and took full advantage of being cooked for, complete with chocolate spread, condensed milk and banana pancakes on Easter Sunday! Had a really touristy visit to Janjangbureh 'monkey' camp, which was cool – am trying to upload the video onto facebook, but may be still here at midnight!
View from the back of the 'sept place', there are 4 more passengers you can't see!


I think we all agreed that we're finding the whole experience quite difficult at the moment. Individually, each aspect is perfectly tolerable, but in combination it can get quite depressing. We could cope with the complete lack of anything to do in the evenings and rubbish food, if we were actually doing anything at work, but we're not – and that's hard.
On reflection - for any eagle eyed re-readers - I have edited this post. Draw your own conclusions to that!

Any views expressed are my own and are not representative of VSO.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

busy doing nothing

Well work this week has been a challenge, but not in the way I had been expecting. Our role here is to work with the region's teacher trainers, to identify training needs and provide in-service training as appropriate. Region 4, where we are based, is divided into 6 clusters and has somewhere in the region of 80 lower basic schools. Some of the furthest out schools are roughly 100km away on dirt tracks so will require an overnight stay when we visit. We have been unable to ride our motorbikes so far, due to lack of licenses, so have been restricted to the Education Office, a ten minute walk from our compound. There is however absolutely nothing to do.
A typical day is as follows: leave home at 8.30, arrive at the office where everyone is sitting around outside chatting. Go through the rigmarole of greeting everyone who is sitting around, then go an sign in. Sitting around continues until 9.00 when the electricity comes on. At this point there is frenzied activity as everyone switches on their computers and air-conditioning. Sitting around chatting is then swiftly resumed. We then wait a while until someone decides to insert the magic dongle that provides us with wireless internet. A day of checking emails and facebook and blog writing then begins in earnest. At some point around mid-morning the daily hell of having to go to the toilet beings. This is delayed until point of bursting is reached. The toilet at the office is so unpleasant it actually makes me heave, so we have the continual dilemma of whether to drink water or not. Clearly in temperatures of 40+ it is unavoidable, so this is one more little event that makes my day more interesting. By about 11.00 we have completely run out of things to do. Lunch doesn't happen here unless there is a workshop running, so at some point we might walk to the local bitiko to buy a Sprite. We then sit around getting increasingly frustrated at the lack of work being done, until the electricity goes off at 3.00 and we leave. Not that those are our official working hours you understand, but there is not a hope in hell I am staying here to 5.00 twiddling my thumbs. So we gather our things and walk home in the heat of the day. Lunch of some sort is then thrown together (bowl of cornflakes, bread and butter, soup, bananas – the possibilities are limitless, oh sorry, that's limited) and then there's a couple of hours of sleep, reading, washing, fetching water, until the electricity comes back on at 7.00 and we think about dinner.

A slight depression has set in this week as a result of this mind-numbingly boring routine, with the only saving grace being the trip to Janjangbureh we have planned for the Easter weekend to see Pete and Liz. We were planning on heading back to the Kombo after this to eat ice-cream and other self-indulgent activities, but this was firmly vetoed by the Director yesterday who told us in no uncertain terms that we were expected to be in the office on Tuesday. Not that he'll be there you understand, or Mr Bah for that matter, and there still isn't anything to do, but it's the bums on seats game around here. This was such a disheartening piece of news that a walk into Soma for an emergency beer was required last night. We might have bought Pringles as well. Ho hum.

So one more sleep before our trip. Prior to that longed for sleep however, we must entertain the Peace Corps some more. Earlier in the week we received an invite to Jacob's birthday dinner. As antisocial as I am, this sounded like it would make a nice change one evening, so we readily accepted. This was then followed with a request for us to host the birthday dinner due to our larger houses. Lucy agreed, being the laid-back person that she is, I started picturing the washing-up and people who won't leave when we needed to pack for our dawn start in the morning. It will definitely be nice to see them, in Lucy's house.

On Tuesday, we actually had an outing to see some schools. We were driven to 6 schools to meet with the Headmasters on an inspection visit. None of the pupils had lessons as the schools finished for the Easter holiday on the next day. The Headmaster's offices varied to some degree, but were mostly concrete sheds. Mr Jawo, who accompanied us, was checking on policies, registers, handover notes, asset registers and other crucially important things. Generally, each office was covered with pieces of sugar paper stuck to the walls, there was the weekly timetable, the termly staff attendance records, and the teacher and pupil codes of conduct. There were certain little gems amongst these codes; boys must tock their shirts in, girls must say no to sex, clothes should not be transparent, do not bring mirrors to school. One headmaster was asked about discipline (the law has recently changed here making corporal punishment illegal, but it still happens so the directorate must check), he explained to us that if a child needing punishing at his school, they may be made to go and water 4 or 5 mango trees. I think we could learn a lot in the UK. I can only imagine the response from certain individuals, whom shall remain nameless, if this was suggested mid-lesson!

And so to April. I received a phone call from VSO earlier explaining that our licenses were now ready and although we don't physically have them (or my NGO number plates) we can now use the bikes. There are police checks all over the place up-country, so I asked Ebrima what I should say if we are stopped (NGO plates usually get waved through, but I don't have them!) he said to phone him. So that's okay then. On return from JJB our biking adventures may commence. Not that my bike has seen any oil for what looks like forever and on our one little experimental outing wouldn't start very reliably..... We shall see. Things can only improve from here. There will be a lot of Julbrew drunk this weekend.

The road to our compound.

We've moved out of Mr Bah's tiny dustball of an office, into this larger and slightly cleaner one.
Clearly there's a phenomenal amount of work going on.

Saturday was a highly eventful day. We did a crossword, follwed by some soduko, played hangman, squares and then cards for a while, and rounded all of that of with a sleep before dinner.

Have I mentioned the dirty feet issue? You may think that's a tan line, but on closer inspection you can see it's just dirt. That's not to say I don't wash my feet a million times a day. The orange is actually ingrained and feet will only get really clean with a scrubbing brush. I wouldn't dream of putting a picture of my heels on the internet, they're another story altogether.

Any views expressed are my own and are not representative of VSO.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Not in Kansas Anymore.

Well life has been pretty varied the last few weeks! We left the Kanifing house unsure as to whether the vast amounts of stuff we had been advised to buy would fit onto the truck, but Alieu did an amazing job and we didn't lose a single item along the way!

We took the south road to Soma; condition poor compared to the North road but doesn't involve hours of queuing to take the ferry. We bumped our way along for several hours, leaving the road for the majority of the journey and driving alongside it, and eventually turned up in Soma. I opened the door of the car and it felt like opening an oven door as the heat just hit me. Sometimes there's a slight breeze which feels like being inside the oven with a hair-drier directed at your face! We all filed out and went in to see Kanti who had arrived a few days before us and immediately fell about laughing in a slightly delirious 'oh-my-god what have let ourselves in for' kind of way. Our compound looks like a huge empty sand paddock with a building at one side that has a row of 8 little houses. I have number 5, Lucy is next door in 6, then Kanti in 7. I have a concrete floor painted red, which is peeling in patches and constantly covered in dust. My walls are a pale blue colour and the roof is corrugated iron. The front door leads into the kitchen/lounge room. A fair size, I have a kitchen cupboard which my gas hob and water filter sits on top of. There's a large fridge, table and chairs and 2 wooden 'armchairs' and a coffee table. The door takes you straight into the bedroom, where I have a new mattress and mosquito net (thank-god) and a chest of drawers. Another door leads out of the bedroom into the pit latrine. This is a large concrete space, about the size of a decent double bedroom, with breeze-block walls. It is completely private thankfully as The Gambia doesn't appear to do multi-story very often. There is a drain in one corner and a pit latrine off to one side (moulded concrete with footstep shapes and a hole in the middle!).

It has been lovely to unpack after living out of a bag for a month, and really nice to have my own space. There is a tap in the compound for us to get water, each of us has four big yellow water containers, which I can barely carry when two-thirds full. The water tends to be on in the mornings and again after about five in the evening. I have a bucket with a lid and a jug that lives outside full of water. This is for washing. By afternoon that water is almost too hot for comfort and you do have to remember to keep it in the shade. I have 2 big buckets that I use for laundry, but this seems to be a never ending task. Sitting still you sweat, so any activity however small you are covered in sweat, even morning and night. To add to this, the sandy streets mean that the bottom of your trousers are constantly orange. Already nearly 2 months in, most of my clothes are ruined. In fear of the tumbu fly (lays eggs in your drying clothes, which hatch with your body heat and the first you know is a big red boil with a black dot in the middle – the air hole for the maggot inside) I have been ironing everything, which is a complete faff with the amount I'm having to wash, and eats up our electricity credit!

After the luxury of living in the Kombo (city area) food here is an issue. We brought some tins and dried goods with us, but are having to rely on them more than expected. Currently in the market, we can buy onions and potatoes. There were some really dodgy looking aubergines and half cabbages around, and a few tiny tomatoes that had seen better days. Bananas and oranges are the entirety of the fruit, the oranges only good enough to cut the top off and suck the juice. However most days Kanti has soaked lentils before breakfast and has been expecting us to eat with her, so my diet is mostly rice, curried lentils and potato, every day. One of these is often interchangeable with bread, just to have some variety in our carbs. I don't feel like I have much independence over my eating at the moment, but on the plus side we aren't having to share food bowls. Our compound is owned by a baker who lives with his family across the road, so most of our neighbours are student nurses as the nursing college is just up the road. Therefore we are missing out on the typical Gambian experience where you are invited to share a bowl of food with the family in the compound. Our experiences of food bowls so far have not been entirely positive. Occasionally the food is really nice, but any beef tends to be impossible to chew. You eat from the section in front of you, and someone will split up any meat and veg from the middle and throw it into your section. Most of the men we have seen eat here, do so very messily – whether this is one of those cultural 'showing appreciation of food things' I don't know, but it isn't easy to eat when you have watched someone slobber all over everything, then use their hands to maul food into pieces and put them in front of you! There are small stalls where you can buy bread and choose between fillings of; magic mayonnaise (an enormous tub that sits in the heat for weeks and doesn't go off), nyebe (a mashed bean mixture with an onion sauce dripping in oil poured over, very tasty but greasy), akra (mashed bean balls deep fried) or sometimes omelette. These sandwiches only seem to be available at breakfast though and we haven't yet sussed out anywhere for other times!

The electricity had been off for days when we first arrived, but seems to be fine now. We have power from 9am to 3pm, then 7pm to 2am.

Meeting people is proving tiring. There is an expectation that you must spend time greeting and talking to everyone. Those of you who know how antisocial I am, will realise how annoying this is. Especially when random men come up to you and say things like, I've always wanted a wife with skin like this. So, that's fun. You have absolutely no sense of privacy either. Everyone wants to know where you live, what your phone number is, why don't you have a wedding ring, where are you going, where have you been..... and so on!

Last week, we had one day in our office, then received a phone call from some volunteers in a different region who desperately needed us to go and help them run a workshop for 150 teachers for 5 days. They had been let down by last minute change of plans. So next morning off we went. Talk about hitting the ground running! Tom and Lynn are ex-Ofsted inspectors who now offer consultancy for failing schools. The pressure was on! Fortunately they are both lovely, we worked incredibly hard but gained invaluable experience into where the majority of Gambian teachers are at. The focus of the workshop was reading. Basically it was teaching the teachers to read properly, whilst disguising it as how to teach your pupils to read! After testing, we found the teachers (including some headteachers) had a reading age of around 7.9.

just too cute.
I agree wholeheartedly. Clearly.

There's lots of rubbish everywhere.

and lots of these too......

We have arrived back in Soma this week raring to go. Off we went into the office on Monday, the Director was away and nobody did a stitch of work. Mostly people were watching music videos on you-tube. The man we are supposed to be working with was away, so we left and promised to come back the next day. So Tuesday morning back we went. The Director was back, noticeable by a much more subdued atmosphere – people were at least pretending to work, occasionally! Mr Bah however was still not back. The Director's instructions for the day were “let's be idle”. Starting to understand why we are here.

So here we are, Wednesday. Mr Bah is back, so we are now in our office. I've have told him I will be cleaning and sorting it and supplying him with instructions on how it is to be maintained. I'm not holding out much hope however. I've got online, and failed to get Lucy online. It is now 2 o'clock and that has taken up our entire morning. We may even get into a school before the week is out – look out region 4! I expect we'll wander home in about an hour and look forward to another helping of rice tonight...

Any views expressed are my own and are not representative of VSO.