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.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Day of Reckoning.

Saturday morning I wake-up ever so slightly excited about the off-road ride ahead. I prepare for a bone rattling ride and strap myself into a sports bra and kidney belt.
The ride started easily enough on tarmac, until Lucy nearly killed a suicidal cyclist who rode out straight in front of her. As the tarmac petered out and the dusty streets of serrekunda began, we were faced with a whole new world of obstacles. The road quality was so poor that there was absolutely no sticing to your own side of the road. There were people, running children, chickens, goats, men with wheelbarrows, 5-5 taxis  and donkey carts to contend with. Lucy was riding ahead of me and was forced to slam on her brakes on numerous occasions. I found that glaring at people and very clearly shaking my head stopped most of them from darting out in front of me, as the horn seemed to do nothing. As we came to the end of Serrekunda, the dust road started merging into a dirt track that was clearly going to be turned into a tarmac road. An enormous agricultural truck was headed our way, the kind that would spray silage in a field at home, it was watering the road. We pulled over to the side of the road as close to the huge wall as we could then proceeded to get totally and utterly soaked. It was comical. I dread to think where the water came from.

The real off-road ride then began. I had definately made a sensilble underwear choice. I quite enjoyed the ride until we hit the patches of deep sand where, inevitably, I just lost my back wheel and got stuck. I hate sand. The next big patch of sand I hit, I sweverd all over the place and hit a sand bank then dropped the bike. Lucy then repeated the process and dropped her bike behind me. Salifou stopped and came back to rescue us, shaking his head in despiar. I shouted a little, we agreed we would slow down somewhat.
I slowly began to build my confidence, the trick being stare at something (Salifou's back wheel) a good way infront, hold on really hard and just accelarate. It is completely mentally exhausting and weaving through a herd of cattle, in sand, on the very edge of drops, is terrifying. Eventually we stopped by choice, rather than accident, and had a rest. We had covered about 10km of dirt road and had another 3 to do before we hit tarmac. The remaining 3km were through some small villages that might have been interesting to look at if I had been able to move my eyes, but I couldn't. I was so relieved when we got back on the road and thoroughly enjoyed the 22km back to the office. We all passed, we're mostly all covered in bruises and we're mostly all wondering how we are ever going to get to work in one piece.

Tuesday we head up-country to our placements. I think I will have access to the interent, but how fast and how reliable is anyone's guess.

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

Friday, 5 March 2010

Blood, Sweat & Tears.

Motorbike training Day 1 (Tuesday):

We turn up at Riders for Health, an international company who VSO use to give our training and ongoing maintenance. They present us with a 5 day schedule complete with time-scales and objectives. The schedule for day1 includes; starting and stopping, hill starts, riding standing up etc.

So they begin by telling us about PLANS (on the schedule for day 2) in great detail. P-petrol, L-lubrication, A-adjustment, N-nuts and bolts, S-stopping. Approximately 5 minutes was spent telling us that we should check how much petrol we have so we don't run out, over and over again. We had been pre-warned that we probably wouldn't get anywhere near the bikes on the first day, but after being presented with such a clear schedule I was getting quite twitchy. Pointing out the inaccuracies in the schedule however didn't seem to achieve much.

So we completed PLANS then he made us repeat it to him individually, whilst he chatted on his phone and didn't even listen! I was quite stressed by now. Liz then mentioned that we had to move upcountry on Monday and that we didn't have five days to finish the training, he looked slightly panicked at this and decided to see whether we could start the bike or not. We all managed that successfully, so he sent us home at lunchtime until the next day.

Motorbike training Day 2:

Very nervous. We turn up at the office, all our bikes are lined up outside. Feel slightly sick. We get on the bikes and ride to a nearby field (essentially a football field sized sand-pit). Our trainer, Salifou gets us to do a series of starts and stops individually. It's 9.30 and there are about 30 kids hanging around watching but more and more are flocking towards us constantly. I wouldn't have been surprised if someone was charging an entrance fee to watch the Toubabs make fools of themselves. After we'd all done our initial starts and stops in the sand, we moved out onto the roads where it was quieter. We then spent an hour driving along the roads in a loop around the sports stadium. Eventually we stopped for a rest under some trees, there was so much adrenaline coursing through my body I nearly cried! We then got back on and repeated that exercise in reverse with right-hand turns rather than left.

About half an hour later we returned to the sand field to learn how to deal with sand. Salifou demonstrated. The technique involved getting into 2nd gear then standing up on the bike and continuing to drive with only one hand and your left hand sticking out. We laughed. We then had to try, but were allowed to use both hands. In reality it's a bit like horse riding, stand-up, relax and grip with your knees, whilst keeping the throttle steady (and avoiding the really deep sand). Apparently having your weight further back makes it more stable in the sand.

Then, at last we could stop for lunch.

After lunch Liz and I were looking suitably unexcited about starting again. My hands were sunburned and everything was tired. So we headed off to the sand-pit again where we did some emergency stops one-by-one. I “started and stopped” to the end of the field then got completely and utterly stuck in deep sand. Every time I tried to set off I stalled. That killed five minutes. Eventually I rescued myself and returned to the tree. Next we tackled the standing up with one arm thing. I could do it really well – went round corners and everything with one arm!! Woo me!

Then it was home time. Everyone started back to the office with me last and Salifou behind me. I found myself trying to start in deep sand and the next thing I knew I was on the floor. Soft landing but at least no-one saw me! Salifou ran over and picked me up, and then the bike because there isn't a chance I could have lifted that up! Slight bruise but all is well. At least my inaugural falling off is done with!

Just got tomorrow to look forward to now. Brilliant. I'm not loving the motorbike training. And by the way you eagle-eyed readers, I didn't wear my gloves in the morning, hence the sunburn, but I did in the afternoon. I was however, the only person still wearing their jacket by lunchtime, due to the sun more than anything else. Fun and games. Sweaty. Nice.
Motorbike training Day 2:
So, today we head back out to the sand-pit to do emergeny stops using only the rear brake first and then both brakes. Mine were perfect and that is the first and last time I will be saying that about riding motorbikes. Salifou then made two rows of concrete slabs and demonstrated weaving in and out of them and then doing figures of eight in and out of them. Looks easy enough, in London I managed this even if it was a bit wobbly. In sand, not a chance. It is not possible to go slow enough to make the turns and stay balanced and not slip in the sand. Well clearly it is, but I could not do it. I improved, but will not be entered into any championships any time soon.
Next we were taken to a quite road for some deep sand training. Salifou demonstrated. He made it to the end of the road and back sliding all over the place with both feet down most of the time. I was so terrified I volunteered to go first, knowing if I had to watch everyone else first I'd never do it. We asked for practical advice and were told, "look where you want to go, open the throttle and have bravery in your heart". So I make it about 2 metres and stall. It's then incredibly hard to get going again without stalling in deep sand - or at least this is my weakness. I managed part way down the road, then just could not pull away again in first and was in such a state I had to give up. Salifou rescued my bike and couldn't start it either, he had to change my spark plug. I walked back to the others then promptly burst into tears. It was horrifically scary. Pete tried and did pretty well (he's been riding for over 30 years) but did say it was the hardest thing he's ever done and every single instinct is telling you to stop. So we stood and watched whilst everyone tried incredibly hard and didn't do brilliantly. I just about pulled myself together (I have used up a lifetimes worth of adrenaline) when Lucy went. She did really well then got to the end of the road and fell off. I instantly burst into tears again. Eventually it was my turn again. It took forever but I made it to the end of the road and back again, then cried again the second I got off the bike. Salifou didn't know what to do with me. He kept telling me there was nothing to be scared of, which clearly stopped me being terrified.  So we went back to the office, Salifou looking traumatised, one injured girl and one hysterical one! He drove us all home in the car.I walked in the door, sat down and started crying all over again! We applied ice to Lucy's injured knee and it took 3 large shots of gin for me to calm down.
Motorbike training Day 3:
Had a dodgy stomach all night. Brilliant way to start the day, but at least Friday is a half day and we knew we were finishing at 12.30. Although we also now know we're not going up country until Tuesday, so more training on Saturday.
We all had to do PLANS on our bikes this morning. That took forever, with me nipping off to the loo where necessary. We then followed Salifou off to where we were going to do hill starts. On the way Liz managed to fall off. 3 down, 2 more to go. The Gambia is an incredibly flat country, so we pulled off road and came accross this incredibly rough uphill section which was way steeper than I could have imagined. I have referred to it as a cliff a few times today and been reprimanded for exaggerating, but that's what it felt like. Salifou demonstrated. A sneaky tear or two escaped. You go up the hill in 2nd just revving hard, than back down in 2nd, back brake only leaning back. You then repeat the process but stop half-way up and do a hill start. Pete went first and did really well. I was standing at the top of the hill warning people on foot, Liz was getting as worked up as me so walked to the bottom to see Pete. Pete then walked back up to be with me. Jim next, he made it up first time, if a little wobbly, then went back for the second run. He got midway up and stopped as requested but couldn't start again. Pete and Salifou were behind his bike pushing and he eventually got going again, but was leaning so far back on his bike (as he re-tells it later) that he could no longer reach the clutch to slow down, grabbed the throttle anc completely lost control. From our persepctive he veered off into a field of crops, the front wheel in the air swaying from side to side then completely totalled it into a crop hedge. Pete just grabbed hold of me as I burst into tears again. Jim was fine, just a little grazed and bruised. Salifou looked distarught, he then said to Jim "you just had the throttle open too much", I completely lost my temper at this point and responded with something along the lines of, "no s***, we know what we're supposed to do but it doesn't mean we can just do it...." and so on and so on. He put his head in his hands and then said the immortal words, "Emma, Suki, they all came here, they all did it..." that just set me off again. 4 down 1 to go. So we abandoned the hill starts as being too dangerous and just did the up and down hill. Lucy, Liz and I all were successfull even if I was completely shaking and burst into tears again as soon as I got off the bike.
Next we headed to the golf course where we got yelled at by the guards. We turned around and went to the beach, this involved a hairy ride down the very edge of some steep steps. That took us a least five minutes. When we got down there, the tide was in (thank-god) and there was no room to ride. Salifou took his helemt off and sat down in despair. We rested for about 15 mins, then headed back to the office on the roads. There were plenty of near death experiences but I'm a little blase about them all now.....
We were left with strict instructions that for the off-road trail tomorrow we have to be brave. We shall see. Just had lunch and two beers. Stomach seems better. Tomorrow is another near death experience.
Any views expressed are my own and are not representative of VSO.

Monday, 1 March 2010

23rd Feb - I arrived at the office and my first birthday card had arrived from my tutor group - thanks to Kerray and Suzanne for organising that!

The best training session so far has to be today's practical cooking session run by Maimuna (office administrator), Naayisatu (my language tutor) and Coutrney (a current volunteer).
On the menu was beef domada – a peanut butter based sauce, okra soup, baobab juice and another juice made from a random leaf. We did discover however that the domada, which we had all been happily eating so far, usually has slices of Giant African Land-Snail in it for flavour.
(see facebook for pics - my connection is too slow to get them on here!)
The snail slices absolutely reeked and I kicked up such a fuss that on this occasion it only went into the soup! The soup also had a dried fish in it for flavour and an unnamed substance that looked like white crystalline rock, which when crumbled in turned a vivid yellow colour and thickened the soup.

The inside of the baobab fruit looks a lot like polystyrene abd to make the juice the flesh is all scraped out and soaked in water for an hour or so, when soft, the fruit is wrung out and the flesh removed. At this point the juice looks like milky water. You then add a bag of sugar, banana essence, vanilla essence, vanilla sugar, evaporated milk and some sachets of powder that are normally dissolved to make juice drinks! With all the additives the resulting drink tastes a bit like lassis – a sweet milky concoction. Whether the boabab fruit itself is actually necessary – only time will tell when I get to experiment myself!
 We ate the beef domada for lunch and tentatively tasted the okra soup which was awful!

Thurs Feb 25th - got up this morning and Pete made me a birthday breakfast of boiled egg and a cheese triangle on crackers – pure luxury now! Everyone made it a really nice day – I got a crossword book from Pete and Liz and a necklace from Rachel and Lucy. When we got back after training the guys had ordered me a birthday cake which was really nice, then we went out for dinner and I had the nicest steak I've had in a very long time! A good day was had by all, but definitely the hottest so far, with the temp in Banjul apparently reaching 44ÂșC.
Sun 28th - We survived out weekend upcountry and have returned in one piece – just! Friday morning we were collected and driven to the ferry terminal, where we met the new volunteers who arrived on Thursday – Jim, Moses, Paul and Dennis. Jim is a primary teacher from London, Moses is from Uganda and will be working in education and Paul and Dennis, also from Uganda will both be working in the disability programme. We crossed as foot passengers as crossing with a vehicle can take hours, we were then collected on the North bank and piled into trucks. The first stop was at a Fort Bullen on the headland which was used to defend against ships coming in to capture more slaves. We then piled back into the truck, an open air affair which allowed fantastic views as we drove but also allowed me to burn to a crisp!
The road wasn't in the best condition, so we bumped our way to Jerry camp where we spent Friday night. By this point we were hot and smelly and my chin errupted in lots of little blisters I was so burnt! The volunteers based in Kerrewan met us here, Paul, Courtney, Emma and Andrew. Dinner was a buffet style affair, those who chose domada and had been laughing at my new found paranoia regarding what might be in it, soon discovered actual lumps of snail which put most of us off our dinner! We were then treated to a singing and dancing session by a group of women who had supposedly all been barren until joining the troupe... this group had been going for many generations which brought the issue of barrenness into question for me! Anyway we had been primed that we would be expected to dance so the drinking started in earnest to prepare ourselves. The dancing wasn't too horrific and so a group of us then went and sat on a rickety wooden pier over the river and continued drinking. Andrew introduced us to the local gin which can be bought at a bargain price of 75 Dalasi for a big bottle (about £1.80), I shall be definitely taking a supply upcountry with me!
Saturday started with my first Gambian hangover to contend with and a journey to the home village of Kunta Kinteh. I squeezed into the covered car to avoid the sun this time, then managed to get out of the trip walking around the village and meeting the ancestors so I didn't have to go in the sun! After lunch we took a boat trip to James island, a very interesting experience! Low tide meant we had to climb down a ladder into the boat I am not at my best on ladders. We were accompanied by a drummer who sang to us the whole trip across to the island and back, very entertaining. We had a brilliant tour guide on James island who explained the history of the place. It had been used to house slaves who had been captured on the mainland and were waiting transportation to America. Very moving place.
We said goodbye to the Kerrewan lot on Sunday morning and returned home to Kanifing. We meet someone from the High Commision on Monday, then motorbike training starts on Tuesday. Watch this space!

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