The art of giving

Often I have said that I receive when I give. For me volunteering is a great way of giving of myself physically, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.  I prefer giving of myself to donating money, although it would be fair to say that volunteering seldom is cost free.

Money pours into The Gambia, but to what effect? I felt anger seeing the staff of major charities and NGOs driving around in gas guzzling 4x4s bearing personalised plates and living in secure, quality accommodation paid from ‘administrative expenses’.  It seemed to me that too many projects are unsustainable, or major overseas donors benefit to the detriment of locals. I could wax lyrical about the iniquities of IMF interventions.

At the other end of the scale, it seems that almost every frequent visitor has at least one project they support, from paying school fees for a local child to bringing in container loads of books, bicycles and clothing. And here the benefits of giving seem most tangible, making a difference to individuals lives.

There are some hare-brained schemes, like the Dutch couple fund-raising to build a swimming pool where local children can be taught to swim in an attempt to avoid the frequent drownings in the rip tides and undertow of the Atlantic rollers. And there are tough schemes, like Samaritana who are attempting to take prostitutes of the beaches and teach them skills to earn less dangerously, but turning a trick or two pays infinitely better. The ex sex workers output needs to be sold in the USA or Europe at market rates.

In reflecting on the art of my giving, I suppose I am attached to an outcome – that giving makes a difference, but maybe this is a salve for my conscience and sensibilities? Perhaps what is important is the act itself, no strings attached.


After shock

Bitter orange notes waft through the house as golden shreds simmer softening for the B&B guests breakfast marmalade; my iPod at full volume shuffles my crazy musical tastes; workmen march muddy boots over cream carpets searching for the fault that keeps us incommunicado – home!

Yesterday morning I caught up with local gossip at the village sub-post office: who had died; who was having an affair and with whom; who was moving out (gnome house) and who had moved in (a famous artist). There is always something or somebody to talk about in our small community of some 200 souls.

Susi started a queue; earwigging the conversation, she told me she had spent weeks living in a compound upcountry in The Gambia. Pam announced that Lorraine, John’s new wife, is leaving for The Gambia shortly – she regularly visits to run school birth control classes. On the way home I bumped into Babs walking Charlie, her Yorkshire terrier; some 15 years ago Babs spent a season cooking at the Kombo Hotel. I felt another rippling shock realising the links between this small Dales village and the village of The Gambia: how small is the world?

This morning, I greeted James, our new vicar, as he staggered across the road carrying old hymn books from St. Mary’s to the vicarage; we chatted, despite his weighty burden (‘good exercise’ he said), about the weird contradictions and discombobulating effect of transplanting between Africa and Europe; how so much is hidden in our free speaking society whilst the opposite applies in the more censored Gambia; how questioning the probity of our values and culture might result in a world of uniform greyness; and of the benefits of aspiration and beauty.

The phone is ringing! We are connected. We are home.image

Dream catching

A couple of days before our flight home I dreamed I was arrested at Banjul airport and thrown into the hotel, the infamous Mile 2 prison. My big mouth had got me into trouble: sounding off about the lunatic pronouncements of His paranoid Excellency Sheikh Professor Doctor blah blah, the ridiculous tourism master plan, FGM, The Gambia as an Islamic State, the collapsed economy, the cerebral palsied hidden in fear of bad juju and so on. I had been troubled by instructions to be careful over blogging and today can feel the constriction in my throat from unspoken feelings and observations.

I am feeling unbalanced and sad; the minute I crossed our home threshold, our 3 months volunteering seemed a dream: a busy, short dream. I have been trying to catch the tail of the dream since.

I have a different perspective to Chris, who seems angry, writing off the experience as an expensive waste of time and energy – I sense his powerful sense of justice has been disturbed. I have known for weeks that I was going to miss The Gambia: the night heat with its addictive red dust earth and lemon balm scent; warm, friendly smiles – white teeth in blue black ebony faces; colour; the constant chatter communicating nothing but ensuring loneliness is unknown; and being so very valued for our contribution even for things about which we knew nothing, like opening a restaurant!

We have worked hard and given much and I know this strange exotic dream will give more in return. We have learned much. I was depressed by some questionable business dealings I uncovered in preparing a strategic review for a not for profit organisation, but an evening with some highly educated white Gambians gave me a fresh perspective. Kamal and Mandy are second and third generation Lebanese immigrants, their forefathers settling at least 150 miles inland as required in this part of Africa. Over a family feast of tabouleh, roast cauliflower and tahini, hummus, Baba ganoush, grilled meats and fruit platters sprinkled with halva we discussed how Africa confronts, with the power of a full frontal assault, the sensitivities of our developed world view and values. Yet lift the veil and the UN (useless nits), IMF, major corporations and our own home grown non-doms play the same game of favour, self-preservation and lying by omission. It is easy to get aerated by recipients sweet shop mentality towards funding, lack of project sustainability, iniquitous distribution of wealth, illiteracy, food security, women’s empowerment and much more. For me, the question is what I am going to do about it?

I feel Kettlewell is too small right now, but maybe this is an over-reaction; I want to change the world, when I know the reality is we change ourselves first and our true impact is in being the change we want to see in the world.


A phone call from a fashion designer asking about taking a stall at Good Market; unusually this person wanted to see the set up and know the financials, so a few hours later we met. Chris was taken aback when Yai-Fatou politely but firmly refused to shake his hand: ‘I don’t shake hands with men’ she stated.

Having dealt with the details of the Market, I asked Yai-Fatou about her background? I knew she had exhibited at Fashion Weekend Gambia a couple of times, though we had missed her show this year and I wondered how she had got into fashion, especially as there are no art, design, tailoring courses nor institutions in The Gambia? Her response was surprising: she has a masters in Civil Engineering from University of Leeds, having first gained her BSc in mechanical engineering and business management in Canada. Yai-Fatou has worked for the UN, Gambian construction association, set up her own engineering consultancy and currently is working on a sea defence issue in the Senegambia area. In her spare time she creates fashion designs and oversees her shop and tailors in Bakoteh.

Yai-Fatou provided a different sense of why young Gambians lack self-esteem and their parents (and they) do not seem to value education. The University of The Gambia is only 10 years old, before it was established bright young people who wanted higher education had to find the ways and means of studying abroad; many never returned. Today’s home-grown graduates seldom find employment in the collapsed economy. Their families have paid over many years for an education that has failed to provide employment and an escape from poverty, so why bother?

Nowadays many youngsters don’t go to school or leave school early to support the family’s means of income generation or bum around on the beach, seeking easy dalasi off foolish rich toubabs – prostitution pays well. The laziest just hang around the compound. And that is the boys. For girls there is always work: preparing food in the compound can take half a day; gardening and farming the family’s food supply: rice, cassava, fruit and vegetables; rearing babies – their own, or others;  washing and cleaning. I despair how to get girls literate with a chance of empowerment?

Despite this, being with Yai-Fatou was inspirational: she is a clever, committed, engaging woman. A soul food meeting that left me feeling hopeful for The Gambia after a day when I felt hopeless, having discovered 3 different auditors had signed off accounts over a 5 year period reporting non-existent investments.

White benachin

We spent a morning with the fabulous Ida Cham; dressing up in Gambian clothes and visiting Tanje fish market to buy the produce for our home cooking experience creating a celebration feast. Toubabs attired in full West African garb carrying neat little baskets created a certain amount of hilarity in the busy crush as we jostled to find the freshest fish at the best price, before pawing at vegetables to select the most succulent and firm. Ida paid about 10% of what I have paid when I think I’ve done really well negotiating!  And she introduced me to ingredients I had seen but had no idea about: dried sea snail and dried bush cherries.

We had agreed to cook a fish benachin recipe. ‘White or red?’ asked Ida. After explaining red simply meant the rice was coloured with tomato paste, we decided on a white benachin. The cooking process started at around 10am for the 1pm meal and involved Ida and her two assistants as well as three toubabs picking over sorrel leaves, pounding vegetables in the large pestle and mortar or calabash as instructed.

Some things took time; time to be taught wuri, a game I’ve seen played all over the place.  Deceptively simple, like backgammon, playing with an experienced opponent leaves one losing miserably fast!

We left stuffed to the pirogue gunwhales: feasting from a huge platter of white benachin served with sorrel sauce, hot chilli sauce and tamarind sauce and (the best bit) a bowl of the crusty scrapings from the cooking pot! Followed by fresh mandarins and oranges and washed down with mborr mborr: a tisane to aid digestion (required!)

Recipe for Ida’s white benachin


  • Vegetable oil
  • Fish head/s
  • Dried sea snail – soaked to remove salt
  • Onions, garlic and fresh tomatoes pounded to a paste
  • Cassava

Cook for up to 90 minutes at a rolling boil.


  • Bitter tomato
  • Aubergine
  • Pumpkin
  • Mooli
  • Sweet potato

Wash and cut into large chunks (about 4 inch cubes), cook in prepared stock. Remove, keep warm until final assembly of dish


  • Catfish
  • Grouper
  • John Dory

Wash and cut into large chunks, cook for 10 minutes after vegetables have been removed from stock. When cooked, remove and keep warm. Remove sufficient stock to finish tamarind sauce


  • Gambian rice
  • Carrot
  • Spring onion

Wash, steam and cook in remaining stock with diced carrot and finely chopped spring onion

Sorrel sauce :

Pick wild sorrel leaves, buds and green flowers from stems and discard stems.

Boil in water for 5 minutes. Drain and pulp in calabash pestle and mortar

Chilli sauce:

  • Sweet red chillies
  • Garlic

De seed red chillies and pound with fresh garlic. Cook in oil and let down with a small amount of water. Boil until a paste consistency

Tamarind sauce:

Fresh tamarind soaked in hot stock

Mborr mborr:

Boil bush tea leaves with lemongrass. Strain and keep warm. Serve as a digestif.


Place rice in a large platter and arrange cooked vegetables and fish on top.

Serve with sauces and a separate bowl of crunchy scrapings from the bottom of the rice stock pot.

Eat from the bowl with the right hand forming the rice around bits of vegetable and fish to make a rissole shape. Alternatively, provide spoons!

My Farm

Two months late we arrive for an afternoon at My Farm, a project funded by the Norwegian Kavli Trust and managed by the energetic effervescent Dutchwoman Kelly Smeets. My Farm is a learning environment from seed to food; growing moringa, fruit, vegetables and herbs; producing teas, jams, juices, oils, soap, honey and beeswax products; cooking, baking and processing on solar ovens, grills, driers and biogas burners. Growing organically, using aquaculture and solar powered water towers; raising pigs, chickens and geese and using their manure with farm and cooking waste to compost, mulch and create biogas.

Alhagie, a popular and respected young teacher, started our tour showing us the micro and keyhole gardens, classroom and IT suite where young children were learning to code using ‘SCRATCH’ an interactive self-learning tool. Isaac, an agriculture student who starts his BSc on 1st February, continued the tour explaining My Farm’s farming methods.

There is a converted fire engine to take their learning tools to schools. Courses run for farmers to learn new techniques to take back to their community and a new project teaches entrepreneurial skills: a hands on process of theory, practical product creation and selling in the marketplace.

Kelly is a graduate in Tropical Agriculture from Utrecht and has been in The Gambia since she first came on a 2 year VSO placement 17 years ago. She ran Gambia is Good – a food security project which died in part from neighbour jealousy over crop harvest and Presidential disfavour, before turning her talents to creating a productive organic garden from an overgrown mango orchard some 4 years ago. She has collected a tribe of adopted children and a gaggle of workers and volunteers, some more reliable and hard-working than others.

At times Kelly sinks into depression with the ceaseless demands on her personal resources to keep the project alive and sustainable, compounded by the cavalier attitude of parents and older students towards the value of education. For very many in The Gambia, education is not seen as a way out of poverty. Bright children will be asked to abandon school for more pressing demands in the compound, little interest is shown in their school work and achievements. It is life-affirming to find a passionate, articulate and dedicated young Gambian here and staying here – the brain drain leaches much talent away; it makes the struggle for outsiders to support the country seem worthwhile,  through so much that can be depressing.


Muslim Sufi brotherhoods or confreries are a major economic and political force in Senegal. And I wonder if they contribute to the very different attitudes to work between people of the same tribes and families in The Gambia? I have asked many people why young Gambians are idle and supported by their family compound when their brothers in Senegal are expected to work and contribute to the economy of their compound? Answers have laid the blame at the English education system; a better hand over by the French administration at independence to a shrug of incomprehension.

The confreries follow the teachings of marabouts who are deeply revered by local people and wield great power. Perhaps the most famous brotherhood is the Mouride brotherhood: followers of Cheikh Amadou Bamba, a 19th century humble marabout based in Touba. He was followed by Cheikh Ibra Fall from whom a different branch emerged – the Baye Fall or Lamp Fall, who believe in the righteousness of hard labour. Today’s disciples are easily recognised wearing their patchwork clothing with heavy leather amulets and sporting long dreadlocks.

The Mourides today are Senegal’s major economic force and control the country’s groundnut production and processing. The Grand Magal, an annual pilgrimage to Touba, attracts thousands from across the region. I could not get a taxi from Banjul one day in November, the vans and taxis had crossed the river to ferry the faithful to Senegal….where perhaps their passengers enjoyed the famous ‘Touba coffee’ too?