Omelettes for breakfast: as thin as pancakes, delicious with finely chopped onion, pimento and tomato.
First stop CREN Basse – the original nutrition camp for malnourished babies and children, serving a population of 245,000 of which some 45,000 are 5 and under. As at Soma, the director explained that much malnutrition is little to do with lack of food security but poor education and a desire for western junk food; so much so that much of the family income from agriculture can be ‘blown’ on buying branded goods, stocks of which run out in a few months rather than processing the foods they grow to be stored and eaten throughout the year. The importance and intervention of the community health nurses in re-educating young mothers cannot be overstated. These nurses are employed by the Ministry of Health, their medicines, soaps and food supplements are supplied by UNICEF, the costs for transport to remote communities have to be funded by charities such as the Catalan ‘Nutrition without Borders’, who built the CREN facility and together with NaNa fund the two centres running costs – a truly multi-agency solution to a problem that a couple of generations ago was far less evident.
Whilst at CREN we were introduced to a colourful laughing group of older women: TBAs – Traditional Birthing Attendants, who were on a WHO funded education programme to train them to INCREASE institutional births. Apparently WHO have (to me, counter-intuitive) research that shows TBAs have no positive influence or effect on infant and maternal mortality rates. I could hardly speak through tears of anger: I feel sure this is an insane policy and one day new research will show the exact opposite. In the meantime these wonderful doulas listen with cynicism to their new training.
We stopped in Basse for Daouda to find a weaver of traditional cotton cloth in the market. He did not want us to join him, our presence would skyrocket the price for this now rare, expensive fabric, which looked not unlike a thick old fashioned tea towel! I stopped at a stall surrounded by a rowdy ‘queue’ of women, they were eagerly bartering for small black turd like tubers. One woman offered me a taste; I copied her picking sweet nutty flesh from the black skin, it is a rare delicacy: bush potato.
By lunchtime we were crossing over to Janjanbureh, formerly Georgetown, a British Fort built on an island in the River Gambia. The British ‘purchased’ this strategically positioned 13 X 3km island in 1823 from the Aku, a ‘tribe’ of returning slaves from the Caribbean and Americas. In the centre of the sleepy main street is the first Mission Church in sub-Saharan Africa. The island hosts the second largest prison in The Gambia; uniformed prisoners, looking like film extras in their navy and white prison pajamas and soft caps, ride around on tractors. Armitage, a British boarding school for the sons of tribal Chiefs is a shadow of its former glory and dominated by a Saudi funded 2 storey mosque. A creole house stands, just, home until a couple of years ago to a famous descendent of the Aku. This fine example of Creole architecture should be a museum and house the Kankurang, hunters, fairies and Kompo masquerades the NCAC (National Council of Arts and Culture) showed us in Banjul being prepared for the new concrete block museum down the road. A memorial to Mungo Park lies a few kilometres upstream.
We met the wonderful Janeba, Jane Smith, a retired teacher from Malvern Common, who almost single -handedly funds Just Act – a group of youngsters under the dynamic Omar, more usually called Jato (lion), who are setting up small businesses connected with tourism. JustAct are members of ASSET the organisation we are working for. Jato was one of the first people we met at ASSET bantaba; it was his passion and energy that persuaded us to stay and give of our best; many things we encountered almost had Chris on a plane home.
Together we ‘did’ Janjanbureh, including listening to fanciful stories about various buildings cruel slave history – all of which post-date the abolition of slavery. We were treated to Taki and his ‘talking drums’, dancing in the dusty back streets with some gyrating toddlers. We boarded the car ferry to cross to the north bank and visited some eco lodges. Women were harvesting rice; boys and girls on their way home from working in the community gardens after school gathered around the ‘toubabs’ and giggling asked our ‘nice names’.
We chatted into the night by the light of smiling white teeth – the power was not due to be switched on until 10pm, returning to sleep in the Social Security guest house alight with power at the other end of town, due to its proximity to the Governor’s House!