Sunday, 26 February 2012

You’ll all be pleased to hear that I made it through my motorbike training this week. I had not been on a bike since completing my CBT back in August so was quite apprehensive about whether I would remember it all or not. I need not have worried as it was just like riding a bike!!! The first day we turned up at 9am, when we were due to start, and in true Gambian style we didn’t get started till about 11am and even then we didn’t get to ride a bike. Instead our instructor, Saliuman, talked us through basic maintenance, erstwhile known as PLANS!! He then proceeded to tell us that a lot of the bikes were missing the equipment to do this up country, so chances are we can’t even carry out PLANS anyway. The next day the ‘3 amigos’ (Niema, Fatu and I) finally got to get on the bikes. We were taken to a sandy field and practised riding round and round and round and round get the picture! Meanwhile, about 20 Gambians were football training next to us, which was slightly off putting as the ball had a nasty habit of bouncing into our ‘race track’! On one such occasion it happened to be myself who was in the way. Naturally, these boys decided to chase after it and in a blind panic and to stop crashing into them, I decided to fall off rather than stop. In reality, I had forgotten how to stop the blasted thing! However, I dusted myself off and prepared to get back on and carry on riding around. Our instructor had different ideas though and a punch-up almost ensued between him and what I assume was the football coach. Thankfully, things calmed down and both groups carried on with our respective activities.
The next day we finally got out on the tarmac (again an hour or so after we arrived) and I managed to get out of 2nd gear, which was great.  Everything was going well and we were all enjoying it. Then Fatu fell off her bike and hurt her hand. Sal went off to get ice and on his return he was a completely different man. Usually, he is a very happy, friendly Gambian, who likes to chat and very outgoing. Suddenly, he would barely talk to us or want to carry on with the training. I swear he was crying. As Fatu had hurt herself, he had taken on her pain and it was like he had hurt his hand too. It was very strange and a little bit unnerving to be honest, but that’s the way Gambian’s are. They take your pain on themselves and literally feel what you feel rather than just sympathising as we would do.
So now the ‘3 amigos’ were down to ‘2’, with Fatu resting her hand on doctor’s orders for a few days. We had more riding on the road, riding on the right as well! It was good fun, but the roads we took were quiet. For our last day of training, we drove through Serre-kunda market. So busy with cars, taxis, gelli-gellis, not pleasant and far too busy. Eventually, we got out of the town and into the bush. Riding on sand is quite strange. Your back wheel feels like it is slipping out from behind you at times, especially when it is deep. The temptation is to stop, but do this and you’ll fall off. The secret is to keep going and keep applying the throttle, eventually you make it out. I much preferred this to the market and it is what the roads will be like around Basse, so this day was much more beneficial for us. Also the roads are a lot quieter in the rural areas, with a lot less vehicles, but more donkeys and carts! So Niema and I passed, in spite of my wheelie (which thankfully Sal did not witness nor hear about!) I would like to say it was a well planned, carefully controlled stunt, but I’d be lying. I just gave to much rev on the throttle and the bike got away from me! But I did stay on and no accidents happened in the making of my wheelie.
Saturday was a public holiday as declared by the President, Set Settal or Clean the Nation. Usually the last Saturday of every month, between 9am and 1pm everyone must stay in their compound to clean it and their local environment. Nothing is open and there are no taxis or gelli-gellis running. Needless to say we used it as an excuse to have a well deserved lie in!
We are finally off up country on Wednesday, me to Basse and Fatu and Niema to their towns. I can’t wait!

Saturday, 18 February 2012

At the start of the week we had our employers workshop where we all met either our employers or colleagues, depending on was sent. I got the Director of Education for Region 6 herself! She was very positive and told me all about education in the region and the various projects that are being introduced and are ongoing. I am really excited about it all and eager to get up to Basse to start my placement. We drew up a 3 week plan for when I arrive up country, which is something to aim for at least. Although whether it will actually happen is another matter as this is The Gambia!

Our cultural and language training has now finished and I am pleased to say I passed my language assessment with 99%, so am now fluent in Mandinka!! (Perhaps not). Next week begins our motorbike training – Oh goody! Slightly apprehensive about it (Mum stop reading now!) They can drive quite erratically over here. The main requirement for a taxi appears to be a cracked windscreen, helpfully held together with multi-coloured sticky tape!! They also at times drive towards one another then veer off at the last minute. Can’t wait to get out on the road – not! 

Last night, our very nice, night watchman, Omar, made us some Attaya, Gambian sweet tea. Gambian men sit around in the shade, greeting each other and conversing away whilst brewing the tea. It is amazing to watch it being prepared and a skill to make. It is incredibly sweet and thankfully served in little glasses, so can’t have too much. It’s no wonder the Gambians have such a sweet tooth if they all drink this every day.

Today, we had some luxury and treated ourselves to an afternoon by the pool at Coco Ocean Hotel, Gambia’s premier resort! It was very nice, but don’t get too jealous as I will soon be in my round hut with no hot or cold running water and very possibly a pit latrine for a loo!

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Salaam-aaleekum, our language lessons are going well. I am learning Mandinka and have been trying to practise it a lot with the locals, with varying degrees of success. There are a variety of languages spoken in The Gambia so sometimes the unfortunate person I attempt to practise on just laughs and answers back in Wolof or just smiles! The last few days have been very exciting. I went shopping in Serre-kunde market, which is fantastic. Think Argyle Street on Christmas Eve and treble, you’ll still be nowhere near how busy it is. So many twists and
turns, I had no idea where I was let alone how I would get out. There were cars and trucks squeezing down narrow streets with shacks housing a multitude of stalls on either side. Women and children wandering up and down selling their wares from baskets on their heads. The market itself was a rabbit warren of a place. Lots of stalls selling shoes and sandals. Others sell fish, which seems to be the thing to buy round here. Flies everywhere which was really not nice and not sure I could bring myself to buy fish form there. I loved the vegetable stalls, you could not move for them. Selling fresh tomatoes, green tomatoes, aubergines, salad onions, lettuce, peppers, chillies, what more could you want! I can’t wait to go back.

Today was great fun. We visited a village on the west coast called Ndembam. It only had electricity installed 2 weeks ago. They all said it was a big improvement. However, it has still to be put into the homes and light the school. The electricity has meant street lighting and they are able to use computers in the school. The children we fascinated by us. They followed us around and were very friendly and the older ones chatted away to us telling all about their community. The smaller ones were content just to hold your hand, but would not say anything except their names when I practised Mandinka….and before you say anything it was perfect Mandinka as the adults were conversing with us in it! They live a very simple life and are very content. We could learn a lot from them. The community were very welcoming and treated us to traditional music and dancing. They fed us some delicious Gambian food, Benachi was the tastiest, rice with fish and cabbage. This was served in the traditional shared food bowl where you use your right hand to eat from. A new experience but I chickened out and opted to use a spoon instead. Not quite ready to use my hands just yet!

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Greetings from The Gambia. I am finally here and starting to get settled into the Gambian way of life, which is slow, slow, slow, rush, rush, rush!!! I have started with a very nice bunch of volunteers from a mix of countries. For the first few days we were overwhelmed with information about Gambia and its culture and so much more it made our heads spin!

Gambia is an amazing place. At the moment we are in the Kombos, which is the tourist area. It's very western and lots of 'toubabs' (foreigners) around. I have visited a few markets, unlike anything back home. Lots of 'bumsters' around wanting to talk to you and try to sell you things. Some are very nice and funny others find it very difficult to take NO for an answer. However, all the Gambians I've met so far are very friendly and are always happy and smiling. Such a contrast to Glasgow. The markets are hectic and crowded and full of noise and little stalls crammed into corners. Bartering is a way of life in these places and can be quite fun! I managed to get an item down from D250 to D225 (dalasi)......Result! Think I may need to work on my skills slightly.

Yesterday we moved out of our luxury hotel with free wi-fi and hot water and into the VSO house and bucket showers for the rest of our training. 7 of us crammed into 4 bedrooms, so far it's been fun but it is only Day 2. Today was also Day 2 of our language training. I am learning Mandinka and it's been quite good fun so hopefully it will prepare me for up country in Basse. "Ah! very hot", is the standard phrase from any Gambian I tell where I am going.  

I have also been given my first Gambian name - Alimatu. Apparently, it's very common to be given one and all the volunteers, new and exisiting, have each been given one. My compound family in Basse will christen me too. I have been told that my accommodation will be a round hut, so for those of you that said I'd be living in a mud hut you may not be far wrong!

That's all for now. I'll post more soon.

Kayira be (Peace be upon you)