During my year volunteering with VSO 2008-2009 I blogged my personal story and my relationship with the beautiful but tough environment of The Gambia. Throughout the years I have continued to repeat a few statastics (below), and they are really important, but what is life in the country really like?
- UN Human Development Index ranks The Gambia 172 out of 187 countries for human development (UK sits 14th)
- Life Expectancy at birth is 58 years (79.3 in UK)
- UN research shows 60% live below the poverty line
- 70% of whom are rural, 80% are women
The Gambia is sub tropical so you can expect palm trees and sunsets along the Atlantic coast and beautiful golden sandy beaches. This inevitably attracts a tourist industry (40% of GDP), but one that fluctuates with West Africa’s continuous struggle, (Ebola stigma, the west’s financial crisis, etc ). Other than some political instability, it is a country of extremely friendly and peaceful people that I have often felt could be a model of peace and understanding across the world. It truly deserves its nickname “the smiling coast of Africa”, and pays testiment to a continent that despite its financial status, consistnelty scores highest in levels of “happiness”.
A wise elder once told me “it is important to know where you came from in order to know where you are going” and The Gambia is reaped in history from the ancient Mali
empires, to being an old British colony that suffered at the hands of the transatlantic slave trade as the setting for Kunta Kinte story “roots”, through to Arabic traders that bought religion along with the spice trade to an already spiritual and God fearing people. Today it is a majority Muslim country whose people embrace Christians as their own, continue to welcome travellers, foreigners and strangers with open arms, hospitality and the up most respect regardless of their own struggle or circumstance. When you live with a peaceful people that have deeply inspired you and made you a better person through their own strength in faith, it is a struggle when you are constantly bombarded with conflicting messages in the media and certain ignorant stereotyping politicians who ‘have sat down to write(or spread hate speach), before they have stood up to live themselves’.
As I arrived back in the Gambia in May of this year, after 3 years away, I was looking forward to a break from the unavoidable stress and fatigue of the corporate world and intreagued to have another taste of a slower pace of life. At arrivals I lost my luggage only to find mysteriously it had already gone through security all on its own, and I had to check my anger and relax, and was reminded to slow down and embrace the adventure.
The friendliness of the people was all too evident as we were welcomed with beaming smiles and hugs from Isatou’s family. Over the next few days we eased ourselves back into the way of life.
A couple of young boys went and collected a big bag of mangos from behind the compound and we cut them up and shared them out, bonding with friends over the sweet juicy refreshing taste, just like old times. We prepared chicket yassa, and ebeh a spicy fish and cassava soup that we have failed to replicate tha well back in the UK. I played bare footed street football with the kids among the free roaming goats, and we made a trip to beach, enjoying familiar tastes, sights and sounds, as they all came flooding back.
Gambia 1: 10km to Lamin and back
One evening I managed to rope a friend of a friend into running with me. He played football but wasn’t a runner. We headed out through the back of the compounds through dusty bushland and onto the coastal highway. We lopped back and followed the road all the way to a town called Lamin passing a cultural hunting ceremony perading on the road. The 36degree heat added extra difficulty but the races and half marathons had prepared me to dig deep and i felt like I could have gone on. It felt great to complete one in the Gambia.
Only some time after I realised I had picked up a few blisters with a stinger on my right ankle.
A few days in we travelled up country. A new 6 hour direct “super express” bus had replaced the old 12+ hour 3 river crossing journey as a stark sign of development. I could even see operational practice and standard operating procedures, that impressed me more than the air con!
Arriving back in Basse was emotional. It’s difficult to explain the grip a rural African village can hold on you after so many deep bonds and extreme experiences with the places, the people and their lives.
May 21 10km Virtual Funrun
On May 21 I had planned a virtual funrun. Friends and family across 5 countries came together to run and share photos on social media. Problem for me was the fact the president was in town for his annual promotional tour where he throws packets of biscuits from his heavily armed machine gun mounted convoy In order to win the love of the people.
This meant the the village was swamped with the fanfare, and military guard, but I couldn’t let that stop me. So I took on a 10km in 42 degrees, with a shabby blistered ankle, among hundreds of scary military.
I headed out early in the morning and got some friends to help me kick things off at the starting line
I continued on and met up with the young gents from “Westside fc” a football team I had coached to an undefeated 12 game winning streak, and continue to dominate their region. We donned our funrun hats and did a few laps around the large football field, which itself was guarded by military, but didn’t seem to bother.
Westside FC 2009
Westside FC 2016
As the guys started to fatigue, I said my farewells and moved on to complete the second 5km keeping my head down passing all the visitors as I ran from Mansajang into Basse, via my old office at the Education department, and down to the river.
On the final 500m I made the school boy error and checked the time on my phone as I ran past some military Sat unoticed to one side. A guy in black shiny boots and commando trousers jumped out from nowhere and demanded and snatched my phone straight out of my hand. He lead me into a nearby school compound that the military had commandeered. I was forced to sit as a couple of guards pulled up chairs to interrogate me with the black booted man shouting accusations of filming and they wanted to see the video. I tried to explain I hadn’t but couldnt get a word in over all the accusations. I started to get angry so calmed my temper telling myself it’s all part of their coordinated training to rile me to say something. Just part of ‘security’. The sergeant had come in and he sat up close quietly observing me without saying a word. I could feel his power but at the same time his soft good cop eyes and almost a goodcop nod of assurance, while the bad cop in black boots continued to rant while he demanded to see my “snooping” video. In between every few minutes of shouting I managed to get my phone back into my hands for a few moments and try to explain the funrun and my volunteer history with the region, before it was whipped away and I was silenced back into barated accusations.
After some cat and mouse I managed to land my message. “Fine, so let me see the Facebook messages you have mentioned” he shouted and I had my moment of defence and a light at the end of this dark torturous tunnel in the form of friends in funny hats…
I loaded up my phone and accessed Facebook, and just as I did my internet credit run out and I was left in silence. Well this went on until they got bored, or their training activity, or game, or preventative scare mongering was over. I found the phone was back in my hand and I was free to go. I ran back and completed my funrun 10km.
Visiting Kamakama Female Co-operative
It had been over three years as I walked under the blistering heat to a nearby village and visited Kabakama female cooperative, and I took a different route in trying to pass through a few different compounds to say hi, and ended up getting lost. The sun was hot, the bushland dry and the way sandy underfoot, it felt like a Laurence of Arabia desert expedition. I managed to find one of the first vegetable gardens I had supported and was amazed to find it incredibly strong, with an iron gate and concrete fence posts. What a relief, but no real surprise, to see it thriving. The community were always hard-working and committed to make any support work.
However the garden was largely empty so after getting lost a second time a lady appeared and welcomed us with joy and led us past the banana garden (project 3) to the second garden (project 2) where we were imediatley greeted with song and led under a mango tree for a ‘meeting’, and ceremoniously caught up on our lives. I learnt more about the progress and challenges of the Garden. They continued to sing and dance in thanks, sending prayers to all of their supporters (you!).
In 2008 when we starteed to support, 86 women had plots of land for gardening, and we were able to fund a 2 hector expansion to grow that number to 200 to support their wider income, and nutriotional benefit to support their families. We were able to extend from one harvest a year to 3, and increase the crop variation and yield linking other WASDA supported projects such as water technologies, market research, and local natural pesticide solutions.
Their frst harvest produced Approx. 7290 Kgs vegetables (2776 Kgs Onion, 2282Kgs Okra, 2232Kgs Tomatoes) equating to D207,209 (£5,182).
The garden had now grown to over 400 women as more and more witnessed the success and were attracted to the benefits and impact it can have on their livilhoods. Most importantly the ‘seed money’ and support had demnstrateed success to become a national showcase garden, and the governement had even backed further developments…..
… This is where we want to get Mansajang Garden through the MegaMeterRun fundraising!
Visiting Mansajang Female Co-operative
Visiting Mansjang garden I came to realise they were far more advanced than I expected. Despite problem of fencing, seed and water well issues, they are led by an ex-ministry of agrigulture technition, and they had made the empowered decision to crack on and attempt a harvest. And the garden was booming…
During a couple of unannounced visits I walked around the garden admiring the progress whilst chatting to the ladies. Most noticable was how the women were unfazed and how focussed and committed they were to their garden. Several reminded me of how I had helped them over the years (before the garden was fully formed) buy purchasing seeds, small equiptment and fertiliser and it was humbling to know that some of my small efforts had still been greatly apreciated after all of this time. I haded out some of my funrun themed hats, and we held a ceremony meeting for me to better understand their issues, and to sing prayer and give thanks…
The garden still has several problems… the water wells are in need of repair. Currently the women have to sit around for an hour or two and wait for the water level to raise (morning and night) because they are clogged from rainy-season damage and they need to be re-dug. Also they have to women-guard a stretch of the parimeter fence throughout the night to fend off cattle, goats and donkey that could destoy the entire garden in one sitting.
There are other issues, such as improving the efficiency of yield (to maximise their hard work), battling pest control, access to quality seed and natural fertiliser, acces to markets, as well as the baselining of production to be able to report progress, attract support and manage a fair and equal community tax/contribution to the self sustaining of the garden. But the shear tenacity of the women, the hard work and grit to turn the garden around, learn from Kabakama’s successes and make a little something for their familes gives me every confidence that they will get there, and its a privilage to be with them on that journey!
My brother has started to put together a pretty impressive little video (that boys got skills!), and we hope to be able to share this with you shortly.
On behlaf of the Kabakama and Mansajang Women, from the bottom of all of our hearts, thank you for your interest, moticvation and financial support. It is greatly apprecaited, respected and put to great use. The impact is undeniable, and long may it continue!
Paul 🙂 -xx-
p.s. As for my running. The stinger of a blister didnt heal in the heat and all the walking. My foot swole so much I was put on antibiotics. Following this I suffred a suspected collapsed lung and so took rest for 3 weeks, but I have started to get back into it, and that will be my next blog!