My Gambia Experience – from Dave Moseley

I wonder how many of you remember my Christmas letter sent from up the Gambia River in 1987, in which we asked for books to be sent to a new, very basic, mud block school in the village of Bintang, which had no books at all ?

The Gambia, West Africa.  Just 25 years ago, in 1987, my wife and I sailed up the river on sailing boat TRIXOLAR and spent 3 weeks there, anchoring in several places, before crossing over to Brazil. I have several old photographic slides showing people who we befriended in the riverside village of Bintang, including one of me holding a newborn baby girl, with father and mother beside me. Now 25 YEARS LATER, there were tears on both sides as I met that baby, just 25 years old, married and with her own baby boy, and all the extended family. Sadly, the father we knew had died in 1997, (same year as my wife Julie died ). Where there had been about 15 family members living in the small compound, there are now more than 40, crowded in the same small area, including almost half of them young children, and still with the one groundnut field to support them all. With nobody in a paid occupation, the second son Buba, by tradition is responsible for supporting the whole family. Though mobile phones are in use everywhere, no member of this family owned a phone, or had a surface, or email address.  The 1978 village of approx 300 inhabitants that had built the one new mud brick school with no books, now has five schools, with neither books nor furniture, and a population of over 3000, very predominantly babies and young children. I spent two whole days being shown round the village compounds, the schools, the fishery plant, and what is now a town, with a newly surfaced road from the highway down to their river bank situation.

Over 7 weeks, (52 days) I cycled 948 miles along north and south banks of the winding river, slept in 22 beds on a lone bicycle tour, drank ceremonial ‘green tea’ with many groups of young and old Gambians, stayed on local compounds, in a few guest houses, and the occasional Residence or Motel. For 7 weeks I lived as a white Gambian, called Dowda (David) Ceeshay, sharing my life with the most friendly, open, honest and happy people I have ever had the good fortune to meet. Everywhere I was invited to join roadside groups in an evening, crowds coming out of school, and market stalls offering me a place to sit while I ate my Nyebe. I never locked my bike once, even in a crowded market place, or deserted road!


BUT,,,, Gambia also has the most corrupt government, and extravagant, callous President that I have ever had to witness. He drives to his newly-built massive Mosque in a cavalcade of armed military vehicles, six huge new limousines, and other motorbikes and vehicles, which the general public are not even allowed to photograph.  His fellow Gambians just a few miles up river are desperate for food for tomorrow, with babies lying on sand floors along with the goats and chickens, and children fighting over half a banana. Schools without furniture, and teachers so poorly paid that classes of 50 are the norm, with children walking several miles to school each day.

If you book a Gambia holiday with a recognised tour operator, I am sure that you'll enjoy a perfect vacation, finding perfect weather, very good hotels, food, guided tours, and souvenir shops. They are all situated in an area south of Banjul, called ‘Combo’, along a beautiful long and varied stretch of beach, from North Point down to Kartong on the Senegal border. Beach bars, sun shaded recliners, large pools, bars, and all you need to relax for a short break from work. BUT YOU WILL NOT SEE GAMBIA AS IT REALLY IS.

Gambia is a vast divide.  Government sponsored TOURISM by the sea, in approximately only 8% of the country’s area, and the other 92% of the country, UP-RIVER….. There I found villagers even worse off than 25 years ago, with a surfaced main road, and power lines, but a population that can not afford to fit a meter, with power only part of each day, and inadequate generating stations that very frequently break down. Roads used by donkey carts, and Gilygillies, 14 seat vehicles that carry 21 or more passengers with roofs piled high with anything from rice sacks, melons, live goats or even in one case when I saw, 7 extra passengers ! They are all in a complete state of dis-repair, poor tyres and smoking engines, in a country where you can buy an MOT without even visiting a garage.

All the Voluntary Aid, World Subsidies, EC Grants, Sponsored Projects, and a host of other Charities and Foundations are pouring money into the country that is mostly squandered, either by corruption, a lack of initial supervision, or more usually, by no follow-up maintenance, or a complete lack of skilled technicians available or paid to oversee the project.

In Bintang again, a failed iodized salt making project, defunct for the last two seasons because of one mobile seawater pump in need of repair. Also, a vast complex of fisherman’s buildings and a massive ice making plant, built ten years ago, with Italian money, but failed after only two years use, and now completely derelict. No lessons learned, and even now, a huge new solar powered water pumping station and tank, not quite two years old, but failing because the man and his family in charge of the project have NO training, qualification or experience of pumps, electricity or solar panels. The tank was only one quarter full, blamed on “not enough power”, but with all the solar panels covered with sand, and loose wires hanging in the hot sun, not securely fixed to anything solid.

There are exceptions to this of course, and far more than I managed to see, I have no doubt at all.   Three that I did see are shining examples of successful external funding with follow-up.

If you have time to Google, ‘Gunjur Project, Gambia‘, you will find a holiday to remember, in a small enclosed area, lovely private rooms, great bar, restaurant and swimming pool, quiet district, and even tours and entertainment. Out of the tourist area, quiet and true Gambia, with a fishing village close by. The unusual aspect here is that it is funded, built, and run by a family from UK, Mum and Dad, daughter and husband, and toddler Charlie. All the local employees are virtually members of the family, and Jo the Mum looks after the charitable side of the business, sponsoring local children and schools, with INDIVIDUAL attention to each and every pound donated. A very well worthy charity, and great holiday venue.

Another, quite different approach was another accommodation type, Tumani Tenda Ecotourism Camp, up-river on the south bank. This was started with a private European donation, but it was built and is run entirely by the locals living in the village. This was one of the best basic places in which I stayed, with exceptional food. Every Dalasi spent was meticulously recorded, income and expenditure, it was staffed by the village, and their committee decided on development and maintenance matters. Swimming was in the river, and you would really be, and feel, as though you were in the true Africa. Well off the main road , reached by almost 3 miles of sandy track.

I stayed too in , Juffreh Resthouse, again very basic, but built and run by the village, clean, very friendly, right in the middle of the old ‘slave trade area’ and on the north bank of the river, a fishing village with historic connections.

I tried to visit schools as I travelled, as we did back in 1987. Good examples of funded schools were those run by CCF or I believe now called CF. In two of their schools , Bintang and (north of airport ?), I was able to look around, and found good examples, with classroom furniture, wall charts and blackboards, also school gardens where the pupils were able to learn growing their own produce, with the help of a paid gardener. Even in these schools overcrowding was a problem.

The state run schools, almost without exception were very poor in all respects. Almost every one I saw had new buildings, but hardly any furniture or anything else in the classrooms. It was strange to see the old abandoned buildings which were often purely in need of small repairs to bring them up to useable standard. I gathered that maybe the reason for this was that the government, (President) could gain credibility by boasting new school buildings, possibly built by one of his own companies, whereas new desks and chairs were not so obviously praiseworthy.

At a senior boarding school in Janjanbureh, (or Georgetown as it was ), on Mcarthy Island, I was taken round the technical department by the tutor. I can not describe the poor state of the workshops. A room full of woodwork benches, probably 25, all bunched in one corner, very battered and old, and only one of them with a vice ! The metalwork shop had a drilling machine that had not worked for years, and two lathes in the same condition, in fact nothing at all that worked, and a literal big pile of good hand tools in a side room, never used. No tool racks or signs of organisation at all. A Drawing office with no desks. The teacher obviously knew his theory, and the blackboards in all the rooms had very good drawings and theory notes, but there was just NO money or backing organisation at all, and he had classes of 50 pupils in each class.

One outstanding exception was the all age state school at Jinack Island where I was given a very enthusiastic tour of classes in session, by the headmaster and his deputy, and then a meal with some of the staff, sitting on stools around a communal bowl in the school yard. Classrooms and walls were packed with teaching material, and pupils obviously enjoying lessons. The head was in his second year there and had made great changes and progress, particularly in the senior class. Here he had persuaded the villagers to choose his local school instead of opting to send them away to other villages with better educational reputations, and the class number had almost doubled. A spirited rendition of the new school anthem, African style, was really exciting. The enthusiasm from all pupils and staff was remarkable.

It was difficult to travel around as I did, on a bike, without guides or recognised normal transport, but I was in constant close contact with the local community, and individuals. I can honestly say that up-river I met hardly anyone who was NOT in need of some kind of assistance, from needing food, school fees, books, home repairs, or a host of other basic necessities. I have returned, certainly changed.  I can not switch on the light, without thinking of candles or a flashlight; clean my teeth, drink water, eat breakfast, or go to the toilet without being thankful.

And how was the cycling part ? The Dahon folder was great, and my home sewn bike bag, for air travel, held up OK too. Only one puncture and the green gunge in my tyres worked very well. One broken spoke, fixed brutally but perfectly ! My bag/rucksack carrier was fine too in spite of being completely one sided, except that it made pushing the bike difficult on the soft sand tracks. First surprise was driving on the right side of the road which put the bag into the passing traffic, but contrary to what I had been told to expect I found all drivers except big trucks to be considerate with a little toot to warn of their presence, and then passing well clear.  

Roads varied from perfect surfaced main roads through red bumpy but hard surface, to very soft sand tracks, but red dust was everywhere coating me and the bike. In the Combo area traffic was thick with buses stopping everywhere, pulling over right in my path, but as I have said, Combo is different in every way to the majority of Gambia.  The main south and north bank roads were largely empty except for primitive transport. The surfaced road on the south bank finished at Kalagi bridge. Some stretches were undulating but dead straight with no shade, even to take a water drink, and no place to buy anything. The temperature was unbearable in late October until the second week of November when it cooled a little.

My mobile phone (camera) worked well, giving email and message access, when there was a signal, or when I could charge it, which was not always the case. Initially I used Africel which gave only spasmodic coverage, but a change to QCELL proved much better. Both cheap.

The big problem was getting cash. Though banks say they have an ATM and outside it is advertised as available, in fact that is wishful thinking. Going east, after Brikama, there is only one working ATM on the whole length of the river, in Farafini, and that was out of order for two whole days when the town power was off. My Visa card was programmed to allow only one withdrawal per day, in case of theft, but Gambia banks only allow a maximum withdrawal of 3000 Dalasis which is about £65. I was spending between £12 and £20 a day, which made budgeting very difficult while on the move up river. My whole tour cost £777 and return flights were £720.

Coming home from real poverty to Christmas holiday shopping and presents madness, I could not help wondering how Christ’s message had got lost ? Holiday season, yes, but celebrating the birth of Christ, maybe not!

I have in mind several situations where I think that I could maybe make changes for the better, either for a group, a school, or for an individual. Once things have settled down after the holiday, I will try to consider relative merits and methods. Maybe I could be asking for your help?

I hope that this is not too long, too depressing, or giving the impression that I did not enjoy my seven weeks travel. It was a VERY interesting experience that I am happy to have had, but I have come back to my life here with a changed set of attitudes, rather difficult to explain. I can say in all honesty that it is my belief that the average Gambian is worse off now than he was 25 years ago. Is a leaky corrugated iron roof better that the old free palm leaves ? A good road is only good if you need to move, electricity is fine if you have a job to earn money to pay for power. What will make a basic change in living conditions ? Education is not yet up to the job.

David Moseley   Dowda Ceeshay

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