I have made it to Basse, eventually, after a mammoth 8½ hour road trip up-country! And that was without the involvement of any ferries. Basse is only about 300km or so from the kombos (coastal area) but it may as well be in another world. We took the south bank road, which as yet unfinished. Part of the time you are driving on lovely tarmac roads, other times on dirt tracks that pass for roads here. However, what is most upsetting was when we were driving on these aforementioned dirt tracks, beside tarmac roads covered with rocks to prevent vehicles from using them as the road was apparently not open yet! The south bank road is still under construction and I am reliably informed it was even worse before. Everyone is very excited about the finished road inching towards Basse and hopefully it will be only a few months before the road is finished. At the moment it is a long and for some arduous journey. At one point on our trip up-country we passed a gelli-gelli with 3 people hanging off the back as they did not have the fare to travel inside!
By the time I got to Basse, it was dark. In The Gambia darkness comes at about 7.30pm every night. One moment it’s light, the next it’s dark. So when I arrived I couldn’t quite appreciate my new house and there was no power either so no electricity. Our lovely VSO driver, Alieu, put up my mosquito net and then my bed collapsed! What a start, he fixed it for me and promised to be back with the carpenter in the morning. I was so knackered I crawled into bed and tried to sleep. I wasn’t very successful, kept thinking about what was crawling about outside! Alieu arrived with not only a carpenter in tow but also an electrician to fix some faulty wiring. They were there for a good couple of hours fixing things before he set back off on his mammoth trip back to the VSO office in the kombos.
I should tell you about my compound family. My compound mother is called Mariama Njie and she has named me after herself. She has 6 children, 4 of whom live in the Kombos. The 2 youngest boys, Lamin Ba and Alieu live at home. They are 14 and 15 years old and very nice and friendly. Lamin Ba is especially very sweet. I also have 2 other compound brothers, Seygo and Forday. They are not related to Mariama but are staying with her while they go to school here in Basse. They are 15 and 18. Forday (18) is in Grade 8 which is equivalent to 2nd year at high school. In The Gambia you have children in the same class of a variety of ages, it all depends on when they can start school. Although education is supposed to be free, in reality they pay for it and sometimes they cannot afford to send their children to school till later. Forday was unable to pay his school fees of 225 dalasi a term. That’s only about £5. I would have loved to have helped him out but it may have led to an expectation in future. Thankfully his older brother has sent him the money to enable him to attend school. My compound is lovely and very different to other ones I have seen. They have trees planted everywhere, so lots of shade. The boys are also planting a nursery garden out the back of my hut, so we will have lots of fresh vegetables I hope. Alieu and Forday took me to visit their school to show me their school’s vegetable patch. It is amazing. I have never seen anything as big back home. There were lots of children there, watering and tending to their patches. Carrots, aubergines, spring onions, tomatoes all growing in abundance. When they are ready they will see them for school funds so naturally I’ve put my name down for some!
I have had a couple of days at the Education Office and spent 7 hours in a cluster monitor meeting on Friday! That was a long day and I didn’t really say anything, which is very unlike me! Truth was I was unsure of what exactly was being discussed and decided at times, it all seemed to be quite vague and overwhelming. My VSO counterpart in Basse, Sarah, said that it is pretty much vague all the time. She was not given much help or guidance when she first arrived and had to find her own way and projects to implement. I am glad that she’s here to at least get me started. She is working on introducing a phonics scheme with a Swedish NGO in the area. Prior to my arrival, she sent emails and letters out to various charities asking for books and she got a huge delivery last week. We spent an entire morning sorting them and trying to classify them into 3 levels, as book banding is unlikely to work here as it would not be possible to book band the children’s reading levels properly. Classes can have up to 45 children in them and 40 in composites. There are no classroom assistants and some primary schools can have up to 1000 children in them. If the school roll is below 760 then Headteachers must be class committed. Teachers will sometimes work double shifts, making their day in the classroom from 8am to 6pm. They are unlikely to get any time to assess the children on a one-to-one basis let alone spend time working with an individual child. I now realise just how lucky I was with my small classes and actually having time to work with individuals in my class. Over the next couple of weeks I hope to go out on trek with some of the cluster monitors to visit some schools. I will be primarily working with the schools on the north bank of the river. So once my motorbike arrives I’ll start visiting some schools. This week I hope to observe some training on Jolly Phonics in a local school and meet some teachers from the north bank clusters.