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.

Culture and integration

I watched Sheikh Omar Jallow being interviewed by Gambia TV on these issues in his capacity as a representative of the National Centre for Arts and Culture. It was an interesting coda to our long discussion earlier in the day when I had been asking him about how I could see beneath the surface and begin to understand what I observe?

SOJ was fascinating on the history of the various tribes and why Wolof is the lingua Franca rather than Mandinka, the majority tribe. The Wolof came from Goree to Bathurst (Banjul) with the British when they traded strategic strongholds with the French. Being closer to the (new) colonial masters and in administrative positions of relative power, their tongue took precedence.

Ultimately the way each of us chooses to live is borne of our culture: the over culture, under culture, traditions, ‘tribal’ allegiances, family stories, myths and legends with which we grow up and go about our daily lives. We each are the one and only: no one before was like us and no one to come will be like us; so each of us carries the responsibility to BE ourselves and the best we can be. I am a baby boomer – one of the socially upwardly mobile generation; one of the first in the family to be university educated; travelling abroad from my teens; an early retired ‘spend the kids inheritance’ Home Counties yahoo moved north for a new life. Now I am volunteering in a country that I don’t begin to understand and I am finding it hard to ‘walk alongside’; I find myself increasingly critical and depressed. I am ‘finger pointing’, something I furiously discourage at home (pointing one figure has three fingers pointing straight back at self); taboo here.

The blame game seems a national sport. Wrestling is promoted by Destination Gambia as the national sport, though it seems football has taken its place. I asked SOJ how we could get to see a wrestling match? Apparently we have just missed the President’s Challenge, sadly not advertised to toubabs. No advertising is needed to see the blame game. It cripples action, creating layers of approvals to avoid individual responsibility and cover one’s backside, leaving the top jobs susceptible to firing on a whim. Who would want to rise too high?

Self-esteem is low; ‘sorry, sorry’ they say when I hurt myself accidentally, as if it were their fault. Self-confidence too, but with only 183 passes across the country this year in school leavers maths and English that is hardly surprising. It took me a while to twig that the reason taxi drivers had a problem stopping where I asked is because I was navigating by road signs they could not read; the long wait for a food bill is a result of painful addition and re- addition, checking on a mobile phone to make sure and getting the sum wrong still.

Money pours into the country from major international agencies to individuals wanting to do SOMETHING to alleviate poverty; too seldom requiring sustainable planning beyond the funding stream. Unsurprisingly, initiatives fizzle out. I fear a culture is being bred of feeding from the trough, and snouting out the next meal rather than empowering self-feeding. I feel anger at the waste.

Waste: point the finger? Three at me, yes: i am wasteful; extravagant; a heavy consumer. And I find it hard to accept the wasted money donated by well meaning hard working people to a lazy (oops judgemental), laid back local population. I am angry at the wasted spend on large NGO administration, travel, vehicles and accommodation: what example does that set? I am angry at the wasted resources, the brilliant reports sitting in filing cabinets, the hours time money and energy poured into projects that die when the funders or first world enablers leave. I see the social capital of the family compound. I understand the necessity to hold the family close – they are the social security system. I can see that a different pace of life is a VERY GOOD THING. I know I can learn much from these multi-lingual warm peaceful tolerant smiling people. And I think we are so mistaken in the way we ‘support’ them and fund them. Teach a man to fish. Teach science, maths, IT, business skills, creativity, self esteem and self confidence, empower, give a voice to the voiceless but let’s think hard really hard about funding where there is no built in sustainability.

Crazy days

Yesterday my understanding of working in The Gambia was changed entirely. From frustration at GMT (Gambia Maybe Time) and seemingly somnolent business attitudes I experienced an entirely different working style.  Together with Sheikh Omar from NCAC (culture department), Chris and I walked into some of Gambia’s biggest enterprises, unannounced and secured funding and support for a carnival event at New Year!

It looks as if our idea for a Masquerade and Fanal Festival is actually going to happen, in 2 weeks time!

Peanut winnowing!

The north bank appears less forested, more scrubby and less developed, the Sahara gradually encroaching. Overladen donkey carts trotted along steered by children; ramshackle thatched compounds with calabash twined over the roofs often were dominated by new mosques.

I joined some women winnowing ground nuts, standing on an old oil drum and letting the chaff blow away as I shook a bowl full of dried stalks, roots and nuts to the wind. One of the women wanted to swop clothes with me and offered me a skirt full of monkey nuts in exchange. I gave her 20 dalasi and kept my tie dye dress and the peanuts. This is The Gambia’s main cash crop which used to be loaded onto barges plying the river. Now this wide magnificent waterway is seldom used, not even for tourism. The steamship sank some 20 years ago and apart from a few enterprising individuals with battered old boats and the few ferry crossings the river remains a virgin.

We visited Wassu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, that is badly signposted up criss crossing dirt tracks under a communications mast. Elephant grass obscures some of the stone circles, one of which features on the 50 dalasi bank note. The museum and curator, a shabby display and wizened bespectacled old man, told us little of interest. Sadly the ‘stone circle man’, whose wacky fanciful stories are enormously entertaining and who we were hoping to meet, was unavailable.

Daouda took us to his new lodge situated on a previously snake infested hillock overlooking a wide meander of the river in his mother’s home area. He knows what he is doing and we enjoyed a fish lunch cooked and served by his immaculately turned out young team. The spot is perfect for an upmarket retreat and Daouda’s professionalism and care will make it happen.

We crossed back to the south bank at the main crossing point for Senegalese travelling from Dakar south into the Casamance. The Gambia is only a few kilometres wide here. It is a sensitive spot in the current tense political environment; we were warned to put our cameras away.

On the ride back to our bungalow we passed three trucks of mahogany; licences are required to fell hard wood whilst Chinese boats lie off shore waiting; this is Africa commented a fellow traveller. Once again we passed regular road blocks; the car boot was examined a couple of times and our travel purpose questioned by the most assiduous, whilst others waved us through with a yawn from their spot under the trees.

Home after 4 days checking out route, distances and accommodation options for a sponsored cycle event to fund raise for CREN. Chris’s ankle is swollen and my bum is numb, but it was an unforgettable few days.

Janjanbureh jato

Still upcountry

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!