I have recently returned from The Gambia after a reasonably successful visit. My aim was to catch up on projects we have started to see how they were getting on and to deliver two lots of sewing machines. If you read my last report you might remember that these were the ones that travelled to Nigeria and back before they finally reached The Gambia on December 30th after three and a half months of travelling!
This visit did not start well and at one point I thought it was going to be as unfruitful as the last one. The problem this time was that there was no fuel. I arrived in The Gambia on Monday 25th of February and our plan was to go up country to two villages on the Wednesday. I needed to visit various schools to see how some of our sponsored children were doing, measure some land for a new house for Sarjo's family and to deliver some plasters and bandages for the clinic at Mayork, kindly given by a Friday Folk member.
Our driver turned up a bit late saying that he had been trying to find diesel for the trip but there was none to be had. At that point I was ready to give up and I won't repeat my language! However we set off and found a filling station that said a tanker was due to arrive soon so we parked in front of a pump. Three hours later we managed to get enough fuel for the trip. (It took one hour to fill our tank due to an air-lock.)
By the time we reached the High School the morning shift had finished and a new set of teachers and pupils were there. At the clinic the morning shift had also finished and the two nurses were only there because they had no fuel in their car to go anywhere.
We had brought a large amount of rice and chicken with us for a treat so when we got to the village the fire was lit and a couple of hours later we had our first meal of the day, just before we had to leave. We sorted out the house foundations but everything else was a disappointment as we only saw a few of the children we wanted to see. All in all it was not a good day and the last straw was when the fan belt on the car broke just as we were nearing home and we had to abandon it and get a bush taxi for the last bit.
After that day things did get better I'm pleased to say.
The Charity was started in 1999 and one of the first things we did was to befriend a women's group in Lamin at the request of John P. Bojang, the then High Commissioner in London. He told us that these women could only grow crops in the rainy season as they had no water supply on their plot of land. We looked into a bore-hole for them but the cost was far beyond our means. When we heard that the women had to plough their large field by hand we offered help to hire a tractor when the first rains fell in June and money to buy fertilizer. This tradition still goes on fourteen years later. Lamin is only a few miles down the road from us in Fajikunda so the next day was an easy one. The ladies were pleased to see us and we heard that their peanut crop had been very good last year but the couscous was a bit disappointing. I always give them the money when I visit - four months before they need it - and I was pleased to hear that they have started using it to make more. They buy in bulk and sell to the group to make a profit. The more money they raise the more fertilizer they can buy.
Their garden was amazing - full of cabbages and onions. They told me that dried cabbage goes very well with palm oil in a type of soup. I must admit it didn't appeal! As soon as the cabbages finish they will be growing tomatoes and okra, both are extremely good dried. But before this happens it will be mango time. All around the garden and everywhere else in the village there were huge mango trees carrying hundreds of fruit. This will be the time that the solar drier comes into its own.
The sun was just setting as we left the village and drove back to where we were staying the night. It was an agricultural camp owned by the government for agricultural workers just north of Soma and it was much better than I imagined it would be. We each had a room and a bathroom, although we had to wait until the generator was switched on before we could get any water. Food was in very short supply that day.
Next morning we went into Soma to find some breakfast. It was not easy. The one café that looked reasonable was not open so we had to resort to squeezing up on a bench in a not-too-hygienic store where all they could manage was sweet Nescafe from a thermos flask - better than nothing.
It turned out that Soma had very few places to eat and hardly anything to buy. Nearly all the shops sold the same stuff - a limited amount of groceries and soft drinks. We were told that shop keepers and people in general had to travel to Serekunda, roughly 130miles away, if they wanted to buy anything other than this. Soma is quite an important town as it is on the main highway for trucks and people travelling to the North Bank and Senegal. It is just south of the first ferry crossing point of the River Gambia since Banjul. (At the moment Banjul hasn't even got a ferry as the three boats they used to have are broken. New ones were bought only to find that they were too big for the docking area.) Huge lorries rumble along the streets emitting lots of fumes although quite a few were stationary because there was no diesel to be had.
Our first stop of the day was to a very large village called Baro Kunda where we had given a drier some months ago. Half of the village was reasonably well-kept and the other half was very poor and run down. There were two different tribes living side by side but I won't mention which ones! Our drier was in the poorer one and they have had great success with it so far. Let's hope it will make a difference for them.
When we reached our next village, Jassong, the drumming started as soon as they saw the car approach. The tradition is that they drum, sing and dance the guest into the village. It was very hot and dusty but I duly got out and joined in.
They took us to show us their garden after all the dancing and drumming was over. It was very impressive. The concuran (a mythical figure similar to our Green Man) came too.
We were there to hand over two sewing machines so after lunch the meeting started.
So far we have provided around sixty five villages with sewing machines and many of them have made very good business out of them. This village was very optimistic that they could do the same and they were very grateful for the chance to do so. Along with the machines go a small amount of money to buy scissors and material and advice on caring for them. We also suggest business opportunities like contacting local schools for orders to make the uniforms. When these are made in the villages it encourages more children to go to school.
We arrived at our last stop at about ten o'clock where the women of Mesembe were so pleased to see us. They have had their frame for quite a while now and it has made an amazing difference. It was full of a certain type of dried leaves, very beneficial to good health, and cassava. Cassava is a good thing to dry as it grows all year round and can be made into bread, pancakes and porridge.
They were so pleased to see us and to say thank you that they gave us a chicken to take home. We have promised them a second drier as they have done so well with this one and it is a very big village.
We were now on our way home a bit earlier than we had hoped because our driver had to pick up his boss. As we approached the filling station in Brikama where we had got our fuel we saw that nothing had changed.
The strange thing is that there was nothing on the news about the situation so nobody really knew what was happening and why. The next day, on the Monday, everything was back to normal.
Our sewing machine project is extremely successful and has made a lot of money for many villages. The problem we are facing now is that when they arrive in the port we are having to pay duty on them even though charity goods are exempt. We sent in our documents last November proving we are a registered charity but government departments are not known for their efficiency and we had to pay the duty before we could get our machines out of customs because our records could not be found. I am not one to let them get away with this as it is hard earned charity money that they are taking, so we went into Banjul and found the relevant department to make a fuss. It turned out to be a very pleasant meeting with very dedicated people who are helping to develop small businesses for women, exactly what we are doing. From now on I hope to help by sending them electric sewing machines, which up until now I have refused to send. This, of course, depends on whether we get our duty waiver next time!
The last village we visited a few days later was Mandinari and it was close enough to go on a bush taxi. As soon as we got off the taxi the drumming started. For the next hour the ladies (and myself) danced and sang in a small space in front of the house. They were enjoying themselves so much it was hard to stop them so that the business could start. On the ground were about thirty piles of soap. It became clear during the meeting what was happening. These people had their drier a year ago and they had made a lot of money during the mango season. For the first time none of the fruit was wasted. I was shown the books and it was impressive. Now they are able to buy commodities in bulk which makes it cheaper for them and also makes profit for the group. The piles of soap were handed out after the meeting.
Two years ago I delivered two sewing machines to a village close by this one so I asked if these people knew how they were getting on. I was told everyone from this village goes to have their clothes made there and they now have thousands of Delasis in the bank. Another good result.
This was my last day and overall the visit had been a success. I did not get done all that I wanted to but I suppose that's Africa!
Sarjo is still working hard and loves what he is doing. The family is fine. Abi is well and cooks us wonderful meals. Dawda is now walking and makes lots of noise while Ousman, at four, behaves like a wise little man and is always smiling.
I left behind all the money needed for our twenty sponsored children's education for the next academic year and enough for ten solar driers. This is all thanks to the generosity of you all.
Thank you so much. We couldn't manage without you.
Barbara and Sarjo's Trek Reports and experiences.