Thursday, 22 November 2012

My LCM workshop (in my office that I have all to myself!)
In the last week I have shared my home with 2 furry little flat mates! I woke up one morning to hear scrabbling sounds coming from my window. On shinning the torch through my mosquito net, I saw a rat poking its nose out from behind the curtain! As you can imagine I was not too keen to get out from under my mosquito net, despite being desperate for the loo. As soon as it was light I was out like a shot calling for the boys in my compound to come and help deal. They were rather unconcerned about the whole thing and eventually made their way into my house to help deal with it. The next one made its way into my food cupboard and munched its way through a packet of spaghetti! I returned from visiting a friend in Soma to find rat droppings all over the place. This one has since disappeared. I swear I saw it in the early hours of the morning, but when the sun rose it had vanished!! Just hope it does not come back. Mind you, could have been worse.......spiders or snakes!
Group sorting task - LCM statements/Teacher Directed Statements)

Phonic activity to use with pupils

Science activity (Float/Sinking)
I have also had my LCM workshop, which went well and the feedback was very positive, so am now trying to get funding to be able to deliver it to more teachers in the region. My aim is to work with the cluster trainers, for them to lead the training and I’ll support them. It can be hard trying to get some teachers to make lessons more learner centred, but hopefully this workshop will help give them ideas on how to make lessons more active for their pupils. I feel it is important that the cluster trainers lead the workshop as I have shared my skills with them and they now need to share it with their colleagues. They need to move it forward themselves as no-one else will do it for them. I have found that there are many hardworking teachers in The Gambia who want to improve and change their practice, but struggle to do so as they have no support or quality training to do so. Much of the training they receive is pretty much of the chalk and talk variety. I hope to have got my funding approved and all workshops completed before the end of February when my placement will end. I fear that if they are not, then these workshops will not happen, which would be a rather sad thing!

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Njie Family Salibo
My Compound Family
The 26th October saw the Muslim festival of Eid-al-Adha, otherwise known as Tobaski in West Africa. It celebrates the day Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son, Isaac, to God. As a result of his devotion and willingness to sacrifice his son in God’s name, God stopped Abraham and provided him with a ram to sacrifice instead. It is probably the most important time of year in the Islamic faith. Everyone travels home to their families to celebrate and the pressure for each family to have a ram to slaughter is enormous. Those that cannot afford a ram feel quite ashamed that they cannot afford one for their family. In the morning, they go to the prayer ground in their new or best clothes to pray with the local community. It is much the same as at Koriteh, only it felt more crowded this year. It is mainly the men who go and the women stay behind at home to prepare the lunch. On return from the praying ground, the men change then they slaughter and skin the ram, according to Islamic law. For those of a delicate disposition, skip to the next paragraph! They dig a small hole in the ground and then place the ram over this slit the ram’s throat and let the blood pour into the hole, where is seeps into the ground. Then they skin the carcass and remove the meat. They then keep some for themselves and give some to family and the remainder is given as charity, to those who cannot afford a ram of their own. One of the 5 pillars of Islam is Zakat, the giving of charity, so this is a very important aspect of Tobaski. Lamin walked out of the compound with a very large platter of meat for the neighbours who did not have a ram of their own.

Tobaski Ram (no longer!)
After this, the cooking of breakfast began. On the menu today and for the next few days was....any guesses? Ram, ram and more ram. I even had the delight of eating ram’s head...not once but twice! I wish I could say I was brave enough to try the brain or tongue, but I looked for the meaty parts and ate them. Then after lunch, as with Koriteh, groups of children came round in the sunglasses and new clothes for Salibo. It was a nice day and I am glad that I have celebrated it here in The Gambia as I suspect it is quite different to the UK.

Lamin & Sarah
After Tobaski I travelled to Kombos for Sarah’s wedding. She arrived back, with her parents, to marry Lamin and Lilli and I were bridesmaids. It was a lovely day and was good to catch up with her again. They married in the registry office in Banjul. It was quite an event, about another 5 couples were also marrying. We were all squeezed into one room where everyone was married one after the other. It was quite a surreal event what with the registrar’s being quite a scary woman, not to mention her phone going off in the middle of one of the marriages. Then there was the bride who kept falling out of her dress and exposing herself to one and all, the canned drinks that must be brought so that the marriage can go ahead!! We did wonder what they did with 48 cans of drinks, per wedding that is. We worked out it was about 250 cans for that day! Then it was to the place they had their first date for lunch, which was lovely. After which we spent the afternoon lazing round her hotel pool before heading out for some dancing in the evening.

But now is back to reality and work. I have another LCM workshop on Saturday for the Cluster Monitors and trainers. Even some of the Peace Corps in the area are coming along. So hopefully all will go well!

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Schools have now returned and I have started revisiting them after opening. I say they reopened but they are only now teaching the curriculum and assigning teachers classes. Bear in mind the schools opened on the 17th September! Not long after opening I went on trek to the North Bank, where I had not visited since July. The landscape has changed markedly since I was last there. The river is up a lot further at the ferry.  The corn has grown everywhere so some roads were completely enclosed and barely passable on my bike. I kept wondering if I was actually on the right road at some points. The bush is so green and fertile because of the rains you would think you were in a different country at times. It was really nice and tranquil in those places.
Basse Ferry (before rains)
North Bank
I squeezed my bike through here!

North Bank

I conducted my first workshop at the weekend on LCM, Learner Centred Methodology. It went well and the teachers were generally receptive, but the crunch will be whether their lessons will become more active. The school has invited me back to hold a material productions workshop next month. Teachers in The Gambia do not have the luxury of being able to order any kind of teaching aid from a catalogue that would be common place in a UK classroom. They literally have nothing to use or work with. We try to encourage teachers to make use of resources they find around them; cardboard boxes, sticks, stones, bottle tops. Another problem is that teachers struggle with ideas for teaching aids and also how to use them effectively. Part of my next workshop will be to show them how to make and use teaching aids such as number cards, number squares, dice effectively and the various ways in which the pupils can use them.

Basse Ferry (after rains)
I have also become involved with a newly opened ECD in Basse. Although my knowledge is more based at primary level, I have agreed to help as the teachers are not qualified and ECD teaching is, at times, very difficult. I am using Sarah’s manual, of which I gave them a copy. I went back today to see how they were getting on but they have not been doing the activities on a daily basis as advised. It will be a long road, but the teachers are willing and receptive which is half the battle here. I have also started to tutor a young boy in Grade 3. He has managed to get through 2 years of school without learning all his single sounds. He is a bright boy and his spoken English is not too bad. Unfortunately, this not the unusual here but the usual. There are a variety of reasons for this. Teachers work long hours here, from 8.20am to 6.20pm if they are on double shift (teaching 2 classes a day) so they do not get much time for planning, class sizes can be 40+, a lack of resources, but also as teaching is mostly chalk and talk, pupils do not get much of a chance to do activities or to discuss their learning with a partner or group or even on their own. They generally copy from the blackboard. Even the boys on my compound, in Grades 7-9, copy the vast majority of the work in their jotters from work the teacher has scribed on the blackboard. They are not given the chance to think or discuss their work or learning. It actually makes me want to cry at times. Don’t get me wrong, there are some teachers who do active lessons and give their pupils the chance to think and discuss, but these are in the minority. More work is needed here to support the teachers. Giving schools a budget to work with would be a start. At present schools are funded by the pupils and other donors giving money to the school fund. This is what the HT uses to pay for repairs to the school, painting, resources (if they have any), providing food at school based workshops, basically everything bar salaries.

Well I think I have rabbited on enough for today. Till next time!

Thursday, 13 September 2012

As of today schools are set to go back on the 17th September. Fingers crossed they do, as I really want to get back visiting schools and actually doing what I am supposed to be doing. Since returning from Senegal I have been going to the office and trying to plan workshops for their return. The office staff have been and gone to Kombos and come back and as no schools are in there is not much for them to really do. The postings for the teachers are now out. Every summer, the Directors of each region meet to decide where teachers will be posted. A teacher can find themselves at one school one year and then in another the next. Sometimes these schools can be at other ends of the region. Even Head Teachers can be moved without warning. The only teachers who have any permanency in their postings seem to be the Cluster Trainers for FIOH and GATE. They have been displayed for all to see in the Education compound here in Basse, so there has been a steady stream of teachers coming to find out their fate.

A couple of weekends ago I went to Kombos to see off Sarah, my fellow Basse VSOer, who left to fly home. This time I decided to take the gelli rather than the sept plas. I decided it would be better as could not be bothered with the Barra ferry and all its travails. I was pleasantly surprised. I was there before noon, 5 ½ hours it took. For public transport on the south bank this is amazing – AMAZING! My return journey was not quite as good. Lilli, a volunteer with Tostan who had worked here for a year before being transferred to Kombos, came back with me. We got to the garage at 7am. We were thrown off the first gelli to make room for late coming ‘pre-booked’ passengers. The next one did not leave till 8.30am. By 2pm we were still not even half way. We eventually got to Basse at 7pm! Between breakdowns, passengers fainting and being taken to health centre, checkpoints where we all had to decant and untarmaced roads, it took us almost 12hours.

Basse is only about 400km from Kombos. Tomorrow I am going back down as the new volunteers are arriving, at least one of whom is being posted to Basse to work in agriculture. I am going to get the gelli again – mad I may be but at least I do not have to worry about getting the Barra Ferry!

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Alieu, friend & Lamin in Kortiteh outfits
As I am sure you aware we have just completed the month of Ramadan and being a predominantly Muslim country, The Gambia was fasting. I fasted for a couple of days and just managed it. It was for not the lack of food that I struggled with, that didn’t bother me. It was being unable to drink anything, not even water. Having to fast for 30 days in this heat is ‘not easy’ as many a Gambian would say. When Gambians break fast, it is traditionally with a cup of sugary tea and bread followed by their meal. Even though they are eating less meals during Ramadan, their spending on food goes up as they like to eat nice food when breaking fast. In West Africa the celebration is called Koriteh. In the morning, I went with Alieu and Lamin to the prayer ground along with the rest of Mansajang, for community prayers. Essentially it was a piece of ground weeded and stripped for the community to come together to pray. I found it very spiritual the way everyone came together to pray, a whole community at one. Men, women and children. Afterwards, we went home and helped Mariama cook the feast. The afternoon was dedicated to Salibo. Sailbo is celebrated over two days. Groups of children in brand new clothes go visiting different compounds looking for money from people. It reminded me of Hallowe’en back in the UK, except without the fancy dress or jokes. I am told the same thing happens at Tobaski in October. Next time will make sure I have plenty of Dalasi coins to give out.

Mansajang Prayers
Salibo group...too cool for school!

Last week, two other volunteers and I visited Senegal for a week’s holiday. We spent a few days in Dakar and St Louis. What a contrast to The Gambia and Banjul. They are miles ahead by far and we felt like we were in Europe rather than Africa. Dakar is so much more developed than Banjul. We spent a lovely time eating good food, not to mention the wine! Forgot what red wine tasted like it’s been that long! There is so much to do in Dakar, 3 days was not really long enough. We spent a day on a little island called N’Gor which had a lovely little beach where we spent the day. It is only reached by pirogue so has no cars on it and is very peaceful. The next day we dove headlong into the mayhem of Dakar and its Marche HLM. This is Dakar’s material market, with all sorts of beautiful and colourful fabrics for sale. If you every visit Dakar, this is one place to visit.
St Louis is further north and is a lovely place with lots of nice galleries to wander in and out of. It was the first French settlement in Africa and was at one time capital of French West Africa, before usurped by Dakar. It straddles the main land, and island and peninsula. It is very easy to get round and we mostly stayed on the island as there was lots to do and see. The peninsula is home to the fishing fleet of colourful pirogues, but unfortunately this has led to a very dirty beach full of rubbish, but this does not deter the local children from enjoying the surf. We had a very enjoyable time in St Louis and Dakar. Thankfully, I remembered enough French to get by as very few people speak English here.

( Sorry no photos of Senegal as took me over an hour to upload the 3 Koriteh ones!)

Now what to do with the rest of the holidays, just been told that they have been extended to the 17th September and some rumours have it as the 23rd! And they complain about the loss of contact hours!

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Sarah making lait
I am now on my own in Basse. Sarah left this morning for Kombos and at the end of August will be flying home to the UK. Watching Spaced, Upstairs Downstairs and Lewis won’t be the same without her. I will miss her, especially round the office, even more so through the summer.

Teachers' Transport Gelli Gellis

The Gambian Government put on buses to transport teachers at the end of term back down to the Kombos. from the various regions. All the region 6 teachers left this morning from various points all over the URR and not long afterwards, virtually the entire staff of the Regional Office followed. So now it is just me, Fatu the Records Officer, Oulay the Secretary and Ali the Education Officer left. I am not sure what to do over the next 7 weeks! I do have a visit planned to Senegal with Beth and Helen and then a few days in Kombos when Sarah leaves and the new batch of volunteers arrive.
Teachers' Transport

I am now officially the last VSO Education volunteer left in the URR. Hopefully, there will be some of the new volunteers posted to Basse but at present I have no idea where they are going, what they are doing or who they are. It would be nice to get some volunteers up here, but I am not all that lonely as I have made some friends here and with my compound brothers disturbing me every night to use my gas, get some tea, have some sugar or just for a chat I don’t get much time on my own anyway! How I long for my lovely, little, quiet flat at times where I could get some peace and time to myself. They just don’t seem to do that here. There is always someone around and solitude is not really an option.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Recently I visited Wassu, a little village on the North Bank about 130km west of Basse. The village itself is nothing remarkable, but is renowned in West Africa for its stone circle. Think Stonehenge but on a much smaller scale. There are thousands of these stone circles all over West Africa built to the much the same scale as one another, even though they are hundreds of miles apart. Wassu is by far the most well known.  It is the most peaceful place I have been to for a long while. Nothing around but the birds and insects to disturb you. We were the only visitors to the place. Visitors place small stones on top of the larger ones, reminding me of cairns back home. Anyone who visits The Gambia and makes the break from the Kombos, this is one place you should visit.
Wassu Stone Circle

Wassu Stone Circle

Me at Wassu Stone Circle

Wassu Stone Circle

Well we just had the 3rd Annual Teachers’ Awards here in Region 6 at the weekend. Winners were only picked the Wednesday before and certificates were only being organised on the actual day! As with all things Gambian, events never start on time. It was due to start at 9am, but guess what didn’t start till 11.30am! When it got going, it started well. The speeches were all nice and generally short. The audience enjoyed the Martial Arts display buy the local all girl’s school. Then the Minister of Education got up to talk. Even when food was being handed out to the audience she kept talking, infact she talked for an hour. She talked for that long, Jallow (our PEO) missed out the segment where some schools were to perform plays as it was way overtime. However, they did not let this deter them. St Georges Upper Basic (Primary 7 to 2nd year) burst into the hall at just the right moment. Jallow never knew what hit him. It was a very funny moment. I am so glad they did it as the play all about FGM which is a big issue here and is still widely practised. The kids were great and they wrote it all themselves. Another school who had missed out also did the same, didn't have quite the same impact as the other one, but still quite good as Jallow was really sideswiped each time. Unfortunately, the last school to perform tried it too, but this time he was ready and sadly they never got to perform.

All in all the, thing never finished till gone 3.30pm. Not sure how the VSOs managed last year, but am informed it was just as long.

Sarah & I in our finery at RED 6 3rd Annual Teachers' Awards

Oh and forgot to say I was on GRTS, Gambia’s only tv station. The 10pm news broadcast a bulletin about the shebang and there I was sitting quite happily in the audience. Thankfully wide awake and bushytailed, even if it was the briefest of glimpses!

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

A couple of weekends ago, I rode my bike to Sapu (town 90km east of Basse). I rode all the way on my bike without incident. I never told my mother before hand as it would only have worried her, but she knows now! Thankfully the road out of Basse is finished so tarmac all the way! Believe me it makes a big difference riding on tarmac to laterite. It only took me just under 2 hours. (It’s not a very fast bike!!) One of my group of vols is posted there and it was a birthday party. Sapu is a little village beside the river and is where the Taiwanese have an agricultural project to grow rice. It is beautiful and full of wildlife. On my way u p to the highway, a group of monkeys crossed my path. It was incredible, but unfortunately I never had my camera to capture the moment. Sometimes I have ridden along the highway and passed groups of them sitting in the trees or at the side of the road. There is hardly any traffic on the highway here that they are rarely disturbed. Anyway, back to Sapu... David (birthday boy) is a fabulous cook so we were well catered for and good conversation. Sapu has also been visited by the ‘great’ man himself, President Jammeh. Infact we dined in his house on Saturday night. It was indeed a nice place, but getting slightly tatty and in need of a paint. However, it was nothing in comparison to our dwellings! They were of such beauty and comfort, the Ritz would pale beside it!!! I mean where else would you share your bedroom with a rat, actually make that 2 rats!! I was sitting in our communal area when I saw this little pink nose with whiskers poking out our bedroom. Beth and I quickly decided to vacate that room. Fortunately for Beth, but not for me, she managed to change houses completely, so Helen and I were left to keep the rats company!!

Sapu Rice Fields

The Gambia River, Sapu

Sapu Rice Fields

The rains have finally come. Although they are not coming every day at the moment. We had a heavy down pour last night. It relieves the heat for a bit but then it’s back up in no time at all. I’ve not really been up to all that much work wise recently. I was part of a Learner Centred Methodology workshop last week. The PEO ‘asked’ if I would volunteer to be part of it. Who was I to refuse! I was nothing more than a glorified Carole Vorderman, writing on the flip board. As this was to encourage teachers to be more child centred, it was rather ironic that the workshop was mostly ‘chalk & talk’.

Since then I was down in Kombos for my 3 month placement review, which I will not bore you with, but certainly did not entertain many of us! It’s hard to believe I’ve only been in Basse for just over  3 months, feels a lot longer sometimes! Obviously I had to visit the beach whilst I was there, really my arm was twisted and I was forced to lie by the ocean by some of my fellow volunteers!! It also seems that Sundays are when the Gambians come out to play. The beach was rammed full of folk playing football and volleyball. I’ve never seen a beach so busy, my photo does not capture the real extent of how busy it was.

Sunday at the beach

Friday, 15 June 2012

I did my workshop on Saturday, and amazingly and I do mean that, all the teachers turned up on time. You could have knocked me down with a feather when I realised that. Most other workshops I’ve been to have always started late with some teachers turning up an hour late, some even come half way through. But no, mine all turned up on time! I thought it went ok, but at times they did struggle with some of the tasks. I thought they were quite straightforward, but some really struggled to grasp some of the discussions, especially the one about assessment. As far as I can see they don’t seem to do much of that here, at least not anywhere near as much as back home. They barely seem to use any formative assessment strategies and rely on end of unit/term tests. The DHT was the best participant by far and I was really impressed by him. I am not sure why the school is in such a mess when he is clearly a very capable man. However, it doesn’t help that he is class committed and is also away a lot with other duties. I am due to go back next week to see how they are getting on, hopefully there will be some positive moves forward. All the staff said they found it very useful and they wanted more and at the start of the term. The feedback was good, well mostly. Some complained that the workshop was too long, it was shorter than their FIOH phonic trainings! Some wanted money to attend, which is the norm. Others wanted it during school hours, although what would happen to the children at this time is not clear. Probably leave them unattended which happens here all the time.

The number of times Sarah and I have been to various schools and found the teachers missing or gone to their house or on other errands whilst the children are left to run riot in the classrooms or school compound. It is very frustrating as they don’t seem to understand that they really shouldn’t be doing this and the HTs don’t do anything about it, but then they are guilty of this themselves. On Wednesday I went off on my bike back to Wulli West where I’d not been to for ages. Some of the HTs and teachers have been in and out the Education Office telling me how much they miss me, which is nice! I forgot how bad the roads on the North Bank are. I decided to visit 3 schools and only managed to do 1 observation so a bit of a waste of time and petrol. Some teachers were travelling, others were doing tests. Not a successful trek.

It has been really hot here the last few days, we are praying for rain to try and relieve the pressure. I am sitting here typing my blog and the sweat is dripping off me. I am lucky as my compound usually has power as it is on the Governor’s line, so we get power pretty much every night and I get to use my fan. However, Sarah is often without power. She either gets in the day or evening and then the opposite the following day. Sometimes she has no power at all for 2 days in a row. I am very glad to be on the Governor’s line, but it is really not fair on the residents of Mansa Jang that are not. They really should swap it around to make it fair or alternatively sack NAWEC and get someone else in who can actually provide power to everyone. Despite what it may sound like I am still enjoying Basse and loving everything here. The people are really friendly and welcoming wherever I go.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Well the thing I was dreading happening here has happened! I was out monitoring at a school last week, which shall remain nameless for the moment! I walked into a classroom to find the Koranic teacher about to beat a child. The boy was lying prostrate on a desk being held down by other children while the teacher stood behind him with a big stick in his hand. There was a line of children behind, one of whom was crying with fear. I cannot tell you how sick I felt confronting this scene. I wish I could say I handled it well. But my voice failed me for a moment. The DHT was right in at my back and told the class to sit down, said a few words to the teacher then spoke to the HT who appeared out of his office at that moment. There appeared to be no cross words to the teacher and I have no idea what was said to him as they spoke in Mandinka or Fula. Corporal punishment is outlawed in The Gambia but is still practised. Up until that moment I had not witnessed it. The HT assured me he would speak to the whole staff and children about the matter. However, whilst visiting the school today, I saw the self same teacher with another big stick in his hand. I suppose I can comfort myself with the fact that I saved one poor boy from one beating at least. It is sickening to think that teachers still feel it is appropriate to beat a child and the sad fact is they get away with it. They are not struck off or arrested or even disciplined in the majority of schools for administering corporal punishment.

Last week, Sarah and I attended a programme organised by one of the Cluster Monitors. It was supposed to be a phonic competition between 2 local schools. We arrived at about 3.30pm. The children were already there, waiting. We picked some of them up from 1 school on the back of our pick up and took them to the other school. They were all very excited and chanting their school all the way down the road. We arrived to find nothing ready and ended up sitting around for 2 hours before we got started. The children had no food, when we eventually started it was more like board meeting. The CM went through the panel, who we were etc. There were opening remarks, even the Director of the region attended and talked about how important reading was and how many books you need to read to get to university and for your thesis. Bear in mind the children were Grades 1,2,3 with English as a 2nd language. When we eventually did get started it was more like an exam for them. Sarah and I were both trying hard to stay calm. 4 hours it lasted, I am surprised the kids didn’t start a riot. They were that fed up that they could barely raise a smile when getting their prizes. No cheers for the best school, infact no excitement at all. We both agreed that it cannot be allowed to happen again!

At the moment I am busy preparing my workshop for Saturday. It will be a disaster as I am not convinced that the HT has notified the staff about it. I know that at least one member of the senior staff has been give permission by the Principal Education Officer to take leave to visit her family in Kombos. On top of that I have just been told that some teachers at Sarah’s ECD workshops could not understand me, and not only them but most Gambians I have met or work with apparently. Just brilliant! Didn’t think I was that difficult to understand, am I?  Fingers crossed it will go well and they will understand me and hopefully, hopefully will take on board some of my workshop!!!!!!

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Well the Director of Education in Region 6 is now back, after having been away in Kombos for a month.  The office had been fairly quiet without her. All of a sudden it’s a beehive of activity again! I was away on trek when she returned but was summarily summoned to her office on my return from Wulli West. She was having a meeting about the Regional Teachers Awards. I was informed that I was in the team to verify the North Bank nominations and was to leave on trek with Kinteh, one of the senior education officers and Waddeh, education officer, the following morning! Wonderful, even better when told it involved an overnight stay. Don’t think Kinteh was too pleased either as tried to use me as an excuse saying I wouldn’t get a bed because I was fair skinned!! We drove from Basse to Fatoto, crossed the river then zig-zagged our way across the North Bank visiting 17 schools in 2 days. Thorough job is not the word to use to describe our verifications! We spent the night in some teachers’ residence crawling with bugs and no mosquito net or fan to keep me cool. What made me feel even worse was the fact that we decanted these teachers out of their beds into sharing with colleagues. The roads are also appalling on the other side of the river, although as the rains have only just started they apparently are rather good! It didn’t help that August, our driver, thought he was a rally driver. Thank God for mobiles! So much so he thought he could take a ditch at speed. Ended up stuck for an hour while Kinteh and Waddeh tired to push and shove branches under and I stood and recorded for posterity. In the end Kinteh phoned a nearby school for assistance. Thank God for mobiles! Definitely not two days I want to repeat in a hurry!

Yesterday was supposed to be a public holiday in The Gambia, African Liberation Day! However, not for Sarah or I. We were told to be at the office for 8.30am for a Cluster Monitor meeting. We duly turned up at 8.30 to find 1 cluster monitor waiting. Gradually others began to arrive, then we find out it was agreed to start  at 10am, but as usual no-one thought to inform us VSOs. In the end it didn’t start till 11am – GMT (not Greenwich!). The meeting went on till 5pm, things being discussed and argued over again and again, going round and round in circles. Although I was finally given something to do by the Director. One school was torn to shreds by her in the meeting. Every aspect from school grounds, buildings, classroom, staff, head teacher to record keeping. She wants me to go into the school and do some staff training with them on lesson planning, short and long term. It is good she has given me something but at the same time means I can no longer go and visit my schools in Wulli West and I had just started building good relationships with the schools over there. That will now need to be put on hold for the time being.

On a lighter note, I learned to make Lait the other day. It is amazing, tastes rather like condensed milk but thinner so much easier to drink. It will be so good to have on cold days back home, Sarah and I both agree that a mug of the stuff on a cold day, wrapped in a blanket would be sublime. Some friends came over and showed us how to make it and we drank it all ourselves. After they left my landlady was teasing me about not offering the compound any. She was quite right, it was very rude of us. But Lait does that to you! I did make it up to her and made some last night for the compound, but didn’t seem as easy as I remember it being the first time. The pouring from barada to glass and glass to glass is definitely an art form, one which I have yet to master!
My way

The right way

The Wulli East to Sandu Rally

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Last week I had to go to Kombos for our residence permits and a VSO meeting. What can I say about that, not sure the 11 hour trip there and the 10 hour trip back was worth it. Although catching up with all my intake of volunteers and the best pizza in The Gambia may have made it better!( By the way if you plan to come on holiday to The Gambia, the best pizza can be found at Paradiso’s in Senegambia!) My trip back involved hitting a donkey, several police check points (not unusual), everyone dismounting at one as the front passenger wasn’t wearing his seatbelt and the police wanting to charge the driver and fine him 1000Dalasi! Not to mention the 2 hour ferry crossing at Barra and another one at JJB! I was never as glad to get back to Basse, even with the hot. Mind you I got back to find the power had gone on the Monday evening, this was now Wednesday. Then the water went off. Welcome back! For those of you who are concerned, power (such as it is) has been restored and water is now flowing again!

Last Saturday was cup final day in Basse, Mansa Jang vs Security (army, police and immigration). Mansa Jang is the suburb where I live, so naturally my support lay with them. What a game, the captain of Mansa scored the first goal, the crowd erupted. A few minutes before half time security equalized. Nail biting stuff, Mansa Jang got a free kick and.......... GOOOOOOAAAAAAALLLLLLLL! Mansaju won the cup!! The crowd poured onto the field surrounding the players. Smiles all round at home. After the presentation, the cup was spirited away by a large crowd of supporters and taken through the street of Basse on its way to who knows where! I am informed that the cup did eventually end up at the house of the manager.

I have been getting out on my bike alot, visiting lots of schools and doing more observations. I am becoming an expert at finding these schools now and even finding short cuts through the bush to reach them rather than taking the highways. I really enjoy getting out and about and observing lessons. Everyone is really nice and some teachers are very receptive, whilst others are a bit unsure still. I hope the more they see me, they will take on board my comments. However, I have found 1 teacher whose class I really enjoy going to. He always has active lessons and is such as smiley, friendly chap. He never gets cross with the children and they all really respond to him.

Also, Sarah has returned to Basse this week. She’s the other VSO in Basse but has been down in the Kombos working on ECD workshops with another NGO. It’s nice to have her back and think she’s glad to be back too, even though its hot, hot, hot up here. The rains have also started. Thursday 3am with a bang! I literally thought the roof was about to come off. That was without thunder and lightning!

For those animal lovers among you, the donkey got up and walked away unharmed!!

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Just a short post about Workers’ Day. The day started off with marching bands through the streets of Basse and Mansa Jang, followed by gaggles of children.....and myself! After which everyone headed to the local sports field for, yes you’ve guessed it.....a day of sporting activity! I arrived looking for the Education Department who I was told were around. Unfortunately, I could not find them. Instead, Gamtel/Gamcel, (Gambia’s version of BT) invited me to join them for attaya which was very enjoyable. I passed a pleasant hour or so in their company till my colleagues all arrived. Then it was on to the sports events. There were various Government departments involved; police, immigration, revenue, health, education, army, various banks and others. There was scrabble competition, the tug of war (which Education lost in the first round to the Police), greasy pole, basketball and various running events. I represented Education in the 100m!!

The other female competitors and I lined up. The tension was palpable, the crowd were ready, the marksman was ready, we were ready!! Who would take 1st and do their department proud? The crowd went quiet, waiting for the race to begin. BANG! Off we went, running full speed down the track, jostling for position, all trying to cross that line first...................................Well I say we were jostling, what I really mean is the other 4 girls in the race were. I was so far back I was only half way by the time the race was won! It was quite a sight, the only toubab taking part in any event and failing miserably. It gave the locals a good chuckle. My compound brothers found it hysterical at least! There’s not many people in Basse who haven’t heard about my exploits.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

I have been getting out on my bike visiting schools on a much more regular basis now. I jump on, cross the river and head to which ever school I can find! Well, maybe not quite as random as that. There is one school that is eluding me. I’ve tried a few times to find it on my own without any success. I’ve finally given in and asked Malick, the cluster monitor for Wulli West to take me again! Other than that I’m getting to find my way round pretty well and even riding through the bush without getting lost and not only that but actually ending up where I plan to!!

As for the schools themselves, they are so different to the UK. Not much in the way of wall displays and those that are up are old and tatty. No electricity so no computers and the like. Old, and in some cases, furniture that is falling apart. The desks and chairs remind me of the furniture from 1950s picture books. In fact they probably are! The staff vary dramatically. There are some teachers who are really good, but could be great given the proper resources and training.  The major problem, well one of them – there are many - in Gambian schools is blending. Children find this very difficult and in some cases are unable to do it, even if they know the sounds. The teaching is sometimes good, other times painful to watch. As I mentioned before, in my area we have GATE training teachers in Jolly Phonics. They do not seem to provide the teachers with any ideas of practical activities the children can do to improve blending, unlike the other NGO working on phonics in Region 6, FIOH. The lessons, no matter the curricular area, are very much chalk and talk. It has been very interesting observing lessons. In the UK, I observed my colleagues lessons as a peer, which had a very different feel and focus to it. The first time I observed a lesson and fed back was quite difficult. However, I am now passed that and the teachers are actually really positive about it and say they’ll try and work on their areas for development, so hopefully they will. After feeding back to the teachers, I then have to feed back to the Head Teachers. How different they are to the ones in the UK. For a start, they are all class committed as they have less than 750 pupils in their school. One particular school I visited, the Grade 1’s class teacher was ill and had not turned up for work. The children were sitting in the class, with the koranic teacher, doing nothing. Some of the children were fast asleep. Mind you the temperature was about 40 degrees! However, I came out of observing a Grade 3 lesson to find the Grade 1 class in its state and the HT asleep on the veranda. That was a bit nerve-wracking trying to tell this HT that it was not acceptable to leave his Grade 1 class without work, but I had to do it as there was no point in them being there as they weren’t learning anything. Attendance is a huge problem for him and this would just make their parents even more reluctant to send them. I don’t think he really listened to me though, I mean what does a female tubab know!!!!

Anyway, I am really enjoying myself and making lots of friends. I attended an FIOH workshop and was chatting away to one of the Christian teachers who was shocked that I had not been to church since I’d arrived......I know it is terrible! Anyway, she made a deal with me that if I attended her church, the catholic one, the next day then she’d come with me to mine the following Sunday. I duly took her up on her offer. No idea what was happening in the Catholic service but was very nice all the same! The next week we went to the Anglican Church in Basse, St Cuthbert’s. It is a very small church, infact there were almost as many children as adults. Our numbers totalled 14, including the minister. I was asked almost, or told really, to read the first lesson. Nothing like being thrown in at the deep end! It lasted 2 hours and although some parts were very familiar to my own, others were very different. Almost  evangelical, with testimonies and members being blessed by the pastor for healing. He’s very fiery and was quite scared of him....he kept looking directly at me all the time. He really doesn’t like Basse much, thinks there’s not much love here. I don’t agree and rather like the place. I am much happier I am up here than somewhere else. We’ll see what happens next Sunday!

Today is Workers’ Day, a public holiday in The Gambia. Schools are closed so no work, although all my colleagues will likely be in the office as they always are, evenings, weekends. They’re not really working just hanging there!! Mind you they don’t really have much else to do in Basse. They are all from Kombos and that is where their families are. Kombos is about 6/7 hours travelling time away so not really somewhere you can just pop to for the day, even the weekend is not really a possibility. All over the country sports event are being held to celebrate and I’ll be off to one later myself!

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

As in true Gambian style, well perhaps that’s a bit unfair, our trip to Banjul for our resident permits was cancelled at the last minute as the immigrations department had not received the vouchers from finance for us!! So another trip to the kombos beckons in the not too distant future.

However, Gambia has gone Taiwan crazy in the kombos. Gambian and Taiwanese flags strung up to every lamp post and cross roads. Pictures of President Jammeh and President Ma also attached to aforesaid lamp posts. Billboards welcoming President Ma to The Gambia prominently displayed along the main routes from the airport. You may wonder what this is all about. Well, President Ma made a state visit to The Gambia last week. Taiwan are investing millions, if not billions, into The Gambia and funding all sorts of educational and various other projects. One of which some VSO volunteers are working on, but that’s a whole other fiasco...sorry, story! I just happened to come out of a cafe onto Kairaba Avenue, think Great Western Road and you get the idea how busy it is, at 5pm to find it deserted. The road had been closed to traffic with police and army lining the street and telling people to keep back. Soon enough President Jammeh passed by accompanied by President Ma, standing up through the sun roof waving to those watching in the street. It took several minutes for the convoy to pass by. First we had the secret service, through whose open doors I glimpsed some AK47s lying on the back seat. Then came the press cars, fit to burst with TV cameras and photographers, followed by motorcycle outriders with President Jammeh behind. I got it on video, but it’s blink or miss it stuff. Look out for him dressed in his obligatory white! After the presidential convoy, came gellis full of APRC t-shirted occupants. I think every gelli in the kombos had been hired out just to follow him. The procession of these gellis must have lasted at least 5 minutes if not more.  It was quite a sight...not sure I could see many buses following Cameron on a state visit! Quite enough excitement for one day I think!

Now I am back to the hot of Basse....and boy is it hot up here! I left Banjul on the first ferry at 7am and got straight into a sept-plas at Barra.........7 hours later I arrived in Basse! The exciting news is that the tarmac road has now reached Basse, you’re not allowed to drive on it yet....but it’s come!!! No more bone rattling, head knocking dirt roads to contend with soon!

Monday, 9 April 2012

Well I managed to get back to Basse from the bush with only getting slightly lost. It was good to finally be able to visit schools on my own. The only problem was that as the Easter Holidays were looming there was not many lessons going on and the schools I visited were on end of term tests, but the less said about them the better!!

The holidays came early due to the parliamentary elections and the President declaring the Thursday of the election and the Friday after public holidays....not sure I can imagine Cameron doing that! Anyway, Basse had been going election rally crazy in the lead up. A lot of political rallies were being held, including a very significant one in the education offices. Basse was one of the few constituencies to be contested, the rest only having the ruling APRC candidate as the only candidate. In Basse, the local party’s choice and peoples’ favourite to be candidate for Basse was overruled by the President and the incumbent chosen instead. The  decided to run as an independent and there was a huge meeting at the education office to try and persuade him not to run. However, he decided to ignore this and run anyway. So Basse went election crazy with rallies and marches all over the place. Ultimately, he won so Basse is not in the hands of the ruling party anymore. Around my village, cheers came up from around the neighbouring compound when the results were announced. The elections results show was also very strange. No visual graphics or Swing-o-meter. Just various people sitting around a studio giving the results first in English, then Mandinka, then Wolof, then Fula and then in a further 3 languages!

The following Saturday, the winning candidate had a procession through Basse to say thank you to the people for electing him. It was quite surreal...first there were horses and donkeys, then motorcycles, then trucks and jeeps riding past with people cheering and waving. It was quite a sight, sadly I’d left my camera at home! A Gambian I’d been speaking to was asking how our candidates thanked us for electing them, he was quite surprised when I said we didn’t really celebrate like this. “Oh I suppose you write letters of congratulations to the candidate then!” he replied......I’m sure some people must. I don’t know any but there must be!!

Now it’s the holidays and I am down in kombos, relaxing by the beach and spending an absolute fortune. In the few days I’ve been here I’ve spent about as much as I do in a whole month in Basse!! First I must tell you about my journey down. Ok so Basse is only 2 or 3 hundred miles from the coast. Beth, a fellow volunteer in Janjanbureh, and I decided to travel together for the first time. I was to go to hers on Tuesday. I went to get the gelli at a reasonable time in the morning. Some might say stupidly, I got into an empty gelli to JJB. Others would probably say the same...I waited for 3 hours for the gelli to leave! They have no timetables and only leave when they are full, so the rule of thumb is never get into an empty gelli. I’ve learned my lesson the hard way! So I left my house about 8.30am and got to JJB (60 miles away) at about 2pm! The next day we were going to get the bus to the kombos. However, as we were walking towards the stop it drove past us, full to burst! Instead we got a sept-plas, the only way to travel in this country. They are estate cars with 3 extra seats squeezed into the boot. They ply the North Bank road, up and down from Barra to Basse. Barra is usually where the problems begin. This is the ferry terminal to Banjul. It can apparently be hit or miss. Beth and I were very lucky and arrived in Barra just as one had arrived so our crossing was very easy and problem free. Not sure that will happen again from the horror stories I’ve heard from others!

 Some of my fellow volunteers have been putting me up and it has been very nice coming from up-country into proper houses with running water. Although I am a bit better off that most up-country volunteers in that I do have a flush loo and shower, instead of a pit latrine and bucket shower. Still, very nice! Over the Easter weekend, we had a road trip down to Kartong in the south. Most of the volunteers in the Gambia went too. We stayed at the beautiful Boboi Lodge on the beach. With white, sandy, secluded beaches, it was stunning and very nice and relaxing. After a day on the beach, we had a wonderful buffet and finished off the night with a bonfire on the beach. Then off to sleep listening to the ocean.....Ah this is the life!!  On the way back the next day some of us stopped at Tangi, the local fishing village to buy some ladyfish! The beach was mobbed and the smell overwhelming. Not just of fish, but mixed with sewage. Not as nice a combination as you might think! Still, it was a place I’d wanted to go to for a while and was great to see a local industry in action. That night some of us had another camp fire on a beach and cooked the fish on a charcoal stove while we wrapped ourselves in blankets being buffeted by the wind!

Unfortunately, I have a few days left in Kombos before I go back to Basse, so more money to spend. Wednesday we are getting our residence permits to allow us to stay and work here. Take care, till next time! x

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Apologies for not updating my blog as regularly as I could have, no excuse just good old fashioned laziness really! Since my last post I have been slowly getting to know the way things work over here. I have managed to attend some workshops for teachers. The Jolly Phonics training was organised by GATE (Gambian Association of Teachers of English).  They are currently working in 5 out of the 8 clusters in my region. I finally met some teachers there and talked to them and found out about how they work and find teaching. The workshop was ok, but the vast majority of the day was spent by the teachers making resources for their classroom, with no apparent instructions from the trainers as to how to effectively use them. However, to be fair I only attended 1 day out of 5 so I may have missed that one.

The other 3 clusters in the region are being supported by a Swedish NGO called Future in our Hands (FIOH). They have adapted a phonic scheme especially for The Gambia called SEGRA (Serholt Early Grade Reading Ability). The various pictures and words they use to introduce sounds and rhymes are very familiar to Gambia children and have a relevance to them. I have attended a couple of workshops run by them and they are very good, a much better scheme than the Jolly Phonics one. The trainers are Gambians and also much better and more effective in their training methods. The two regional trainers for my region, Kebba and Cherno, come up every few weeks to run workshops and go out on observations, giving feedback to teachers then heading back down to the Kombos to report and to prepare for the next round of training. They invited me along on one of their trek’s, so I finally managed to see some teaching and to monitor some lessons. It was great to finally see some teaching but at the same time overwhelming to realise the amount of support these teachers actually need in terms of training. It is very chalk and talk, although FIOH are making in-roads to get the teachers to be more active with the children. The teachers can have up to 45 in their classes and have limited resources with which to work. The workshop I attended at the weekend was specifically for making resources for the teachers to use when introducing sounds with their class. The teachers had to bring their own cartons with them to facilitate in production of them, it was a sea of cardboard by the end! The teachers are also paid to attend training, to pay for transport and lunch. It was about D250 which is only about £5 but that would last a few days here.

As Sarah is predominantly working with the South Bank, I am going to be working with the North Bank so when I finally got my motorbike I went on my first trek with one of the cluster monitors for the Wuli West are in Region 6, Malick. I had to cross the River Gambia for the first time. No nice comfy ferry for me to cross on......instead I had to ride my bike down to the river bank, then get off and hop onto what can only be described as a metal tub while the men hauled my bike onto the back where it perched precariously over the side while another man rowed us across. I am glad to say my bike made it without getting wet! I finally met Malick who took me on a whirlwind visit round 9 out the 11 schools in his cluster, through the bush and past many tiny little villages that I have no hope of ever finding my way back to my own! I took my GPS watch with me in the vain hope I could use it to find my way back to some of them. Sadly all it recorded was a red loop as there are no towns or streets in this part of the world to use as landmarks! Anyway, it was really nice to visit so many schools, even though I barely spent any kind of time in any of them. I have at least introduced myself to a few headteachers and I hope to go back this week to some of the easier ones to find and see some teaching in them. The one thing common throughout the schools is the poor wall displays and ineffective use of the teaching aids they have, so this may be something that I can help with. There was one school where the HT wants a library to be set up in his school. He advised that he did have one but that all their books went to another school which was to be set up as a library centre for the cluster. Well, the library in this supposed ‘centre’, was thick with dust, books in no order and some not even age appropriate for the children in the school. Very depressing. There was one school in the cluster that has a fabulous library, although there is Peace Corps based there who set it all up and ensures it is well maintained. The HT was bemoaning the fact that she was leaving in June as her time will be up and they won’t get another one to replace her. He was worried about what would happen to it when she leaves and that there will be no-one to take care of it. I tried to tell him that each teacher could be responsible for it, but not sure he really took it on board.

Last week I also visited a local school to conduct some monitoring in an ECD class. Oh my goodness, what an immense job nursery teachers have here! Both classes I saw had over 50 children in them, with only 1 teacher, no other adult in the class. I was monitoring a listening walk for Sarah. She has written a manual for the ECD classes and had worked with the school to try and implement it. The children were to go on a walk round the school grounds and listen for different sounds. The children were all over the place, in one class the boys were running around and play fighting, whilst the teacher struggled to control them and get them to listen. There was no structure to these classes. I am still trying to get my head round what they actually do with them. I don’t think that they even know themselves and actually try and teach them the sounds that are taught in Grade 1.

Anyway, think I have bored you enough. This week I hope to find my way back to some of the schools in Wuli West, so this may be my last post if I don’t find my way home from the bush!