Tues: Gambian media queen

Yesterday was depressing as I discovered the stark reality of getting things done here in The Gambia: nothing, NO THING would happen without Chris and me on the projects we are supporting. We are launching a restaurant on Friday and a farmers market on Sunday. Walking alongside locals to enable and empower is exhausting: the minute I walk away having answered questions and encouraged initiative, either zip action is taken or everything goes back to what it was beforehand! As one German lady commented in an encounter on a Sunday morning walk along an almost deserted beach: no wonder their President has become increasingly dictatorial over time.

Yesterday I phoned around to get the stall holders for the Sunday ‘Good Market’…..it’s a bit difficult to have a market with nothing on sale.  The list of possible stall holders had few contact names or details, so that was a challenging starting point.  I managed to get farm fresh eggs, shrimps, artisan breads, organic fruit and veg, honey and bee products, jams, peanut butter, medicinal herbs, soaps and natural beauty products. A chef from an upmarket hotel is going to do ‘a taste of the real Gambia’ tapas dishes and local juices, coolers and smoothies. However, the entertainment HAD been organised, so everyone involved is looking forward to having a good time!  Today, I have been to two local radio stations to get publicity sorted…one radio station agreed to do a talk show and interview a selection of the stall holders as some of their personal stories are amazing.  For example, The Gambia imports 95% of its eggs and the 5% produced locally is often dodgy: the layers fed on cheap fish food and bio security ignored. The egg guy I was introduced to by a restauranteur and guy from the US started selling fresh eggs from his bicycle when he was 15. Six years later he has 5000 layers, full bio security and is expanding fast unable to satisfy demand. Meeting young entrepreneurs like this keeps me going… It is such a pleasure to support them in their passion.

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Clean up Saturday

A quiet day on the usually frenetic Bertil Harding Highway connecting the main tourist spots as everyone stays home from 9am-1pm to clean up their neighbourhood. There is no transport. Tourists needing to get to the airport have to apply for a special dispensation to hire a taxi from the local police station. For some, it is an opportunity to lie in… Seemingly most in our area! But it is not a littered locale here, partly due to the total ban on plastic bags. And plastic water bottles are precious containers to those on well water.

We have been working ALL day and have meetings tomorrow. Next weekend we launch the restaurant AND a farmers market! I am flagging this evening and we have decided to watch a film, but the internet is on go so slow that it stops for ages ‘buffering’ – bugger.

This afternoon we attended a graduation ceremony for the college with whom we shall be in liaison, as honoured guests. Which was rather a surprise; we were listed in the printed programme. Embarrassingly we had a house viewing appointment at 5pm and had to slide out of the presentation…this would not have happened but for GMT, the ceremony was an hour late starting and as we left students, in gowns and mortar boards, together with their families in their finery, were still arriving.

Having sneaked out, the property agent ended up as a ‘no show’, advising us 40 minutes after our appointment that she was stuck in a meeting. Haddy     promised to call back and refix the appointment; it is 4 hours later and no call. We are running out of options and time, so probably shall decide to go with the bungalow we found in Brufat village on Friday. To be fair, little Lamin Jallow our Fula ‘trainee volunteer coordinator’ (unpaid) found this wonderful place after taking the initiative to help us find a ‘home’ and making 15 visits around the area asking lots of questions. It is in an African village about 10 minutes shared taxi ride from here. There Is a boutique guest house hotel in the area, but it is unspoilt essentially. The compound is thick with vegetation, we would have a Bantaba (outside meeting place) and share a POOL with the other bungalows in the compound. Yay! The Gambian family living there currently will move out into their family compound to earn some tourist dollars. I loved it, loved the wide dust road off the highway into the village and the local ‘shops’ and workshops.  It felt like Africa, whereas the area we are living in now, though clearly NOT European is so focused on tourism it feels unnatural: manipulated and manipulative.

Over early evening drinks we met with a young American who has been living and working in The Gambia for several years: first with NGOs, then, as he realised how little progress was being made in developing the capacity of the private sector, in mentoring and financing SMEs. Amongst his projects, he has shares in a rapidly growing poultry business (95% of eggs are imported) and in supplying human hair from China, to the heavily demanded Gambian wig market. He has just finished a World Bank/Gambian government project on disaster planning. A fascinating guy, with great contacts he was willing to share.  It was a chance conversation with the owner of the lovely bar we haunt for its delicious ginger cooler that enabled the introduction.

i feel sad and naive in the extreme after his briefing. The no1 African economic migrants are from The Gambia; leaving the country with no hope of employment, making their way inland and overland to Libya and the danger of crossing the Mediterranean in overloaded boats.  The social capital of the country, which keeps the extended unemployed family fed (unlike in Senegal) means that there is little incentive to find a job or create a job. The brain drain of bright young people bleeds the country of its talent.

Friday 13th…evening

We can learn much from The Gambia.  Friday is holy day: most locals wear smart ‘Friday clothes’ and leave work early to go to the mosque.  Tomorrow, and every last Saturday of the month, is ‘clean up’ day when everything stops between 9am-1.30pm for everyone to clear litter from around their local area.  Of course, some people use this as an opportunity to lie in bed, but not the majority. We shall have to apply to the police to get a special dispensation (only available to tourists) to have transport to get us to the airport when we leave on 30th January as this will be the last Saturday of the month.  When a recent business meeting started nearly an hour late (GMT – Gambia Maybe Time) there was silence for a silent prayer before the agenda opened.

On the other hand, we may bring in much needed tourist income, but we also bring in sex tourism and child sex offenders.  It is a common sight to see older white European women with fit young black men on their arm, there are somewhat fewer white men with local girls in evidence. And there are paedophiles.  Over the last 5 or 6 years, since Thailand tightened its border controls/security and campaigned against child sex tourism, we have been told that offenders have being moving to Africa, especially the resorts of the Gambia and around Mombasa.

We can get agitated about circumsion, which is widely practised allegedly, especially FGM and I hope to get involved in this issue if only through starting women’s circles, and I am incensed that our dross come here to rape and pillage these smiling warm children and adolescents.

The minute we treat people as ‘other’ we forget our common humanity.  I guess I have just done that in the way I refer to paedophiles as ‘dross’ – a moral maze for me to navigate.

Friday 13th!

imageWe met Mahmood on Wednesday evening; he is at school still and works at One World Art owned by his father designing and making batik and tie dye. These lovely words are printed in batik.  Mahmood is designing the napkins, aprons and table mats to my brief for the ASSET Bantaba restaurant we are opening a week today.

Our experience in the restaurant trade? Nil. But we are greedy consumers.

My lovely sister Hazel, sent me an email to remind me about Gordon Ramsey’s simple recipe for success in turning around a Paris bistro.  I am working on the model of ‘keep it simple, stupid’….Concept: a taste of the real Gambia. Executed with a daily menu of a soup and two mains only: catch of the day and a meat dish. Drinks all local and mainly soft: Ginger and lemongrass coolers, Chapman, Chepe, Wonjo and local teas (infusions) and something called Touba coffee.  The dying tree outside is going to be painted in the colours of the Gambian flag and have all the ASSET members names affixed as arrows pointing in the direction of their business with distance in km.

The practicalities of metalworking, electrics and buying stuff are proving a nightmare with zip local knowledge and when we do find something we have to ask the price and leave the purchase to a local later on as we can never barter down to the price locals achieve.

Now as if this project were not enough for this week, last night we had a meeting about another project for a Farmers Market to be based at the restaurant space on a Sunday.  We had heard about this project before we came and it sounded great. A meeting with a volunteer team of enthusiastic youngsters from the Ecological Society of Gambia was enlightening and worrying in terms of progress since the July paperwork we received. Last night’s meeting explained it all: the lead partner in the project has done absolutely nothing except have meetings and spend the funding on food drink and transport for these ‘meetings’. I told him what I thought. He is sending the paperwork today for us to review this weekend and see if we can save the project, but the funding expires at the end of November. I half hope he doesn’t get around to sending it so that I can blast him out the water!

Quick breakfast and then off to see two more places to stay and a third tomorrow morning: I am hopeful we will have found out ‘home’ this weekend.

Tuesday 10 November

imageSimple ideas that create an instant atmosphere abound here.  However, it is not proving so simple to find a place to live.  This evening we trailed around dusty compounds and empty houses with a property shark.  Over the last week we have visited the sublime (deputy US Ambassadors residence) and the ridiculous (wires hanging out of walls, unplumbed sink, possible squat) and have failed to find a place we can create a homely atmosphere.

I don’t think I am asking for the impossible: 2 bedrooms, kitchen with fridge and cooker, ‘parlour’, bathroom, ceiling fans, a back up generator for the relentless power cuts and wifi (ideal, but not essential).  Oh, and a clean mattress.  The mattress seems the biggest ask of all.

We have four more options to look at in the next couple of days spread over a wide area, fingers crossed we get something clean and affordable.  I would love to live away from the main tourist strip and now we have sussed the local shared taxi system: directional hand signals and costs (16 per person per sector) we could get to ‘work’ cheaply and relatively easily from a less touristy area.  Increasingly I suspect a lot of the work I will be doing after the first month of meeting people and visiting projects will be desk-based; Chris perhaps less so; where we live will probably be my office too so it is worth holding out for somewhere we/I am happy to spend time.

Chris is sitting here wrapped in a wet cold tea towel trying to alleviate prickly heat. He has some horrible painful angry welts from his polo shirts. Light pure cotton fabrics are essential in this heat and humidity, so we are both wearing Gambian tie dye cotton clothes from the local market.  I am thinking of taking a few clothes from home to one of the local tailors and giving him or her a few metres of some colourful crazily patterned cotton fabrics to make up copying the pattern of my clothes.  I am happy going ‘native’ in dress style whilst here, but I’m not sure I would have much use or opportunity to wear the local garb when home!

Week 1

image The ‘restaurant’ which management hope will save the failing fortunes of the project with which we ‘work alongside’. Opening on Monday,  allegedly. Behind this area is a ‘craft shop’ empty of stock, full of the personal belongings of the resident caretaker. The attached office and members meeting area has no generator, a challenge with long, sometimes, day long power cuts in 35 degrees heat, heat about which the locals complain almost as vociferously as me. The executive board don’t meet, have not run trainings or events for members for years and ‘preside’ over a once flourishing, internationally renowned project that is in sad, possibly terminal decline.

On the other side of the coin, by chance (and by asking lots of questions of locals) we have met several project members, who are passionate, energetic and inspirational and whose infectious enthusiasm is highly motivating to Chris and me.

Already, I have penned a review to our volunteer management team advising them that we are not interested in our volunteering work ending up in a filing cabinet like many before us and outlining our observations.  I wondered whether the reply might say this is a gross misconception, but far from it.  So next week the real work begins establishing what is feasible and sustainable.

Over the weekend we have been house hunting; the sublime – a wonderful house rented by the deputy US Ambassador (sadly unaffordable) to the ridiculous – hovel in a compound with the filthiest mattress ever!  Hopefully we will get this sorted soon; we are paying far too much for our current apartment, which despite top dollar prices seldom has the water pump switched on (a shout over the balcony when we want a shower solves the problem) and the AC blows out HOT air!

There are compensations!  And my first Gambian outfit will be ready for collection on Monday evening.