Saturday, 28 February 2015

27th February, 2015 Friday. State Opening of Parliament

First thing Kebba loaded the truck with the tools to start building at Nemasu.  After a quick breakfast we set off to the bank to get money for cement, collecting two workers on the way.
We stopped in Sukuta to buy 30 bags of cement, loaded 10 on to the truck and arranged for a donkey cart to bring the rest.
We arrived at Nemasu just as the pupils were leaving, Friday is Holy day and a short morning for schools.  Sanaba was already waiting for us and the men immediately started unloading the cement and moving the sand to start making the blocks.  A very large mango tree is in the way of the building and a team of men have been engaged to cut it down.
We left them making blocks and called at Timeless for a very early lunch as we have been warned that we may be a long time in Parliament with no food. 
Home to put on our finery and off to Banjul to arrive just before 3pm.
The National Assembly building is surrounded by buses full of people all wanting to get a glimpse of the President, military and plain clothes people mingle with the crowd (there was a coup attempt just after Christmas)  We are met by a policeman who inspected our invitations and then told us where to park.  It was very hot and I am melting in the unaccustomed tight clothing, my makeup threatening to slide off my face. We park under a canopy in the nearby school and immediately the cooler air is welcome.  We disembark and Steve puts on the jacket, his best shoes, and we leave our sunglasses in the car, it will be dark I think when we come out.  Steve carries my camera, Ousman promised I could take photos.  The policeman escorts us to the side entrance where 4 girls dressed in identical green traditional dresses, inspect our invitations, search my small handbag, camera bag and take keys etc before we enter through a security arch.  We collect our things and are told to climb the large circular stairs to the third floor public gallery.  It is 3.10pm, of course being English we are on time, but the stairs are still being mopped and we have to wait before being allowed into the gallery at 3.30pm, we are the first arrivals!  We really should know better after living here for 9 winters.  More girls in green escort us past chairs with pieces of paper with names and titles printed in large letters.  We are taken to the far side where 30 chairs are nameless and asked to sit on the front row of 4.  This building is very impressive, we are in a gallery overlooking the main event.  The gallery runs round under a large domed ceiling which looks to have marble pieces set into it symmetrically climbing to the centre.  On closer inspection the marble is actually material around wooden pieces getting smaller as they reach the centre patterned piece. Small windows surround the dome allowing in light.  This must be the most elaborate building in the whole of the Gambia.  Everything is new and shiny, the auditorium below has a horseshoe arrangement of desks and chairs, the area names of the National Assembly members on black name plates.  It looks like the buildings used for UN meetings. They all face the platform where the President and the Speaker of the house are to sit.  Photos of the President are above all the doors which lead back out onto a corridor running round between the main room and the outside walls.  New and impressive bathrooms are let into the walls, new and fancy washing bowls are set on vanity units, a large mirror, a flushing toilet in the ladies and I am reliably informed, the gents.  Notices on the doors forbid ritual washing for prayers.  I wandered onto the corridor and can see outside the lines of military, a band, sailors, other dignitaries and crowds of people everywhere waiting for the arrival of the President.  They must be hot!  We are in the bliss of air conditioning and I am able to repair the makeup, cool down and return to my seat.  I take out my camera to snap the room, but a stern man in a black suit (Special security) tells me no photos allowed.  Such disappointment.  We wait and after a short time other guests start to arrive, we have the Deputy Mayor of Banjul to Steves right (a lady) and she is joined by the wife of one of the National Assembly members.  Both have beautiful outfits and I am allowed to take their picture.  Gradually the gallery fills up, the largest party being the traditional chiefs, all dressed in impressive costumes, either green or purple and they fill a complete section.  I ask the man on my left the significance of the costumes, but he said it is just a matter of choice which colour they wear.  The man is over 60, an important man in the Government and is sat with his wife, she looks about 20, if that, and doesn’t look happy. (who would?)
Gradually the National Assembly Members arrive, they are to be seated by 4.10pm, but of course some are late. The Judges in their red robes and wigs file in and sit downstairs opposite us.   Everyone is dressed in their finery and the room is an explosion of colour, few are in lounge suits, most opting for traditional dress.  The Ladies in particular have bright colours and intricate head dresses made from the waxed cotton they love here.  We spot only 6 other white faces, one we are sure must be the British Ambassador, maybe also the French? Only one European lady aside from me and maybe some Spanish or Cuban.  The Cubans have a contingency of doctors and nurses here training Gambians in all the hospitals.
The Speaker of the House takes his place and says Prayers, instructions are given to turn off all mobile phones.  The National Assembly Members are invited to go outside and greet the President.  We all sit and wait.  A man arrives and says ‘Chiefs Rise’ and they all go out to greet the President.  Many are elderly and are complaining about the 3 flights of stairs.  Eventually they and the National Assembly Members come back and sit down.
Then there is a stir in the corridor and the President has arrived.  We all rise and he hurries in behind a man with a large rod similar to Black Rod in the UK.  He takes his seat on the podium and we all sit.  The Clerk begins with a small speech, the microphones are switched on and the President begins his speech.  Every section is addressed to Mr Speaker.  It is now 5.30pm, I decide to take notes.  The local news cameras come round from time to time and film us in excruciating slow motion, it is difficult to know where to look, up, down, interested, bored, at the camera?  The man next to me is asleep, well into the proceedings his mobile phone rings, everyone looks, the man does not know how to switch it off, he tries to sit on it to muffle the sound, it stops.  The speech continues and covers all aspects of Government each section is partly read and then the President ad libs and adds his own views.  He is humorous, entertaining and informative.  All negative press aside we found it interesting and believable.  Certainly things have moved on greatly in the last 9 years.  This speech laid out plans for this year and beyond, his 2020 vision and 2030 goals. The most relevant parts for us were about the improvements to the crossing points on the river, a round of applause for this, The President stopped and looked at the members applauding and said ‘I know you are from the North Bank’  Laughter and more applause.  The mobile phone next to me goes off again and doesn’t stop, The President asks if this is a mobile?  The people around him try and switch it off and fail, eventually they take out the battery. The speech continues, the most relevant part for us was about Education, no mention of Nursery Schools, but all Lower Basic Schools from 2013 have abolished school fees and examination fees.  From September 2014, all Upper Basic Schools have abolished the same, and from September 2015 all Senior Secondary School fees are to be abolished and all exams are to be free.  A huge round of applause from the auditorium, The President said he realised that the women in the audience were clapping the loudest as it is they who find the fees. A large part of the speech praised the women of Gambia for doing all the work, and criticised the men for sitting around in the dry season, talking and drinking tea. 
Other topics included:-  No terrorism allowed in The Gambia or Imams preaching subversive Islam.  He says that Isis and others are using Islam, a loving and peaceful religion to cloak their inhuman activities.
-         No Genetically modified crops will be allowed.
-          From 1st March vegetable imports of any variety which can be grown in the Gambia will be banned.  Grow what you eat and Eat what you Grow is the new slogan.
-         Plans to Electrify more of the country.
-         Piped water for more of the country
-         Energy, oil, plans for building, many other topics.

The speech came to an end after 2 and half hours and everyone rose to give a standing ovation.  (which was also tabled in the programme of events we had been given)

It was after 8pm and we made our way out of the building, we were met by the same policeman as before, he escorted us to our truck through the huge crowds of people, who were now dancing, drumming and chatting.  The people outside had been watching proceedings on a large screen and were ready to party.
We drove carefully through the crowds and headed for home.  A very interesting day, but long and we were very tired.  We arrived home to find the power had gone off, Kebba was waiting to hear all about it and so we sat by torchlight talking for a while. (our generator has broken and needs repair)  Eventually the power came back on just before we went to bed.

26th February, 2015 Thursday. Yet More shopping.

So Steve needs a lounge suit!  Fortunately I have traditional outfits in my wardrobe and need only to iron one and get some jewellery.  We find a shop which has a suit which miraculously fits Steve and get me a necklace and earrings.  Steve drops me at home to turn up the trousers which are left for the customer to do and he headed to Waterpoint, the solar bore hole company to start the process of a solar well at Kumbija, kindly donated by our Canadian friends James and Mell.  Kebba went to the local hardware shop to buy tools and I set about hemming the trousers and then ironing the very crumpled (and expensive!) suit.  A full suit including waistcoat for the equivalent of £10.50!
We had a late lunch/early dinner at Neils’ bar and then home for the evening.

25th February, 2015 Wednesday, more shopping

We need more supplies for the house and so after a leisurely breakfast we head off to go shopping.  We call at the pool maintenance company to pay for all the supplies that Kebba has used in the rainy season, collect more and chat to Julie about the Ebola situation.  They have been doing some work in Sierra Leone, but of course that is suspended now.
A stop at Trust bank to pay Mr Sowe for school lunches, and then some food shopping before stopping at Sambas for a cool drink and a relaxing hour.  Again we are two of only four customers in this normally busy tourist place.
Back home for a quick change and on to meet Ousman and Agie for dinner at Cabanas.  We were there for our appointed time of 6pm, Ousman arrived Gambia time at nearly seven.  He had a surprise for us; the Speaker of the House had sent invitations for representatives of the Charity to attend the State Opening of Parliament on Friday.  Lounge suit or traditional dress.  We were very surprised!  We were given the invitations and advised to be there by 3pm to get a good seat in the public gallery.
We had a very pleasant dinner, arranged for Steve to borrow a tie, and left around 9 to return home.

24th February, 2015. Tuesday. Nemasu

Kebba loaded the truck this morning with the items we had stored ready in the house.  We set off mid morning to call at Nemasu Senior Secondary School with a fully laden truck.  This school was originally a private school set up by one wealthy individual, unfortunately the benefactor died and the school struggled for a while before being taken over by the government.  A new block was built two years ago and is dedicated to science and technology, the headmaster asked us for science equipment and we are happy to deliver items donated by Holy Family School in Keighley and Ilkley Grammar School.  Tonbridge school in Kent has sent science books and sports equipment.  The headteacher was there to greet us, he had assumed we were not visiting this year because of Ebola and was delighted that we realised it was not in the Gambia.  Several students were engaged to unload the items and several photographs taken to send to the sponsors.  The computers which were donated last year by Thornleigh are being used well and the students are benefiting from all new efforts.  From here we drive the short distance to Nemasu Nursery where we are greeted by Mr Sallah who was very happy to see us.  All classes were taking place and after a short chat to Mr Sallah including about the new classroom which we intend to start the building on Friday, making the blocks after the children have left, giving them time to dry out before they all return on Monday morning. We visit each class in turn to greet the teachers and watch the class in progress.  Mr Sallah has a list of requirements ready and waiting which we collect before leaving for home.
Sanaba and Kebba are waiting for us at home to sort out a delivery of sand for the blocks.  We drive to the bank to collect some money and send the two of them off to arrange the sand delivery, two double trips to the school at Nemasu.  Steve and I go to Neil’s bar for lunch and then home for the afternoon.  In the evening we head off to Colours Bar (the new name for the Courtyard) to take part in the quiz.  We are asked if Marion and a friend, Malcolm can join us we form a North and South team, and the four of us manage to win. Geoff (quizmaster) ignores our new name and announces that the Clever Bastards from yonder have won.  Marion was happy as another team win every week and she wanted to beat them!!

23rd February, 2015 Monday. To Naata and Banjul

The wind has got up again, bringing fine sand from the Sahara, covering everything in a layer of dust.  Fontou, the lady who cleans for us is fighting a losing battle, but trying to keep the dust under control.  We leave her battling the elements and head out.
Our first port of call this morning is Naata nursery school with boxes donated by Windhill C of E school in Bradford.  We arrive at the school and are met by the caretaker, Ibraima, coming to ask us how Steve’s foot is.  Ibraima had a hernia operation in April last year just before we left and it seems that he is fully recovered, but not lifting things quite as heavy as before.  Classes are taking place and we just put our head round the door and greet each of the teachers in turn.  Ibraima helped Steve unload the boxes and we open them for the staff to see what we have brought.  Mr Jallow arrived a little later and we had a short meeting with him about the school.  Class sizes have been reduced this year, they had grown to unmanageable levels last year.  Abi is back teaching after her second baby which is being minded by Ibraima’s wife.  We had a photo taken with Mr Jallow and Yorro who has grown and is now attending the Upper Basic school just near Naata and had arrived on the back of the motorbike with him.  A list of requirements is drawn up and then we leave.
We had an email reminding us that we had not paid the port for the container in December, so we then head to Banjul to sort that out.  Ousman has been in touch and asked us to call and see him when we are there.  Everywhere is still quiet, very few tourists, and so very few taxis on the road, the journey to Banjul is quicker than usual.  We arrive at the new National Assembly Building and ring Ousman to let him know we have arrived.  We are invited into the foyer, a first, we never went into the old building, we used to wait on the road outside for him.  The building is new, enormous, stylish and air conditioned.  We have a long discussion sat on a very comfortable sofa in reception, interrupted by various of his colleagues coming to see who we are.  We agree to get a letter for the port authority, discuss future plans and arrange to meet him on Wednesday evening for dinner with his new second wife.
A short drive then takes us to the shipping office where we get a copy of the invoice and head off on foot to the bank to get the money.  We stop for a late lunch at Ali Babas café in Banjul on the way to the bank.  We collect the money and then take a taxi back to the shipping office where we pay and collect the truck to drive home, even though we drive through the main tourist areas the roads are still quiet with many taxis parked at the side waiting for clients who do not arrive. Many of the hotels and restaurants have closed or open for shorter hours than normal.  Staff have been reduced, sometimes by a third to try and save money.
We spend the rest of the evening at home, watching another film with Kebba.

22nd February, 2015. Sunday Day off

We decide to have a day off today and so the first thing we do is head to the tourist area to find a café for breakfast and Wifi.  Tourism is down by at least 65% this year, everywhere is quiet and we are the first customers of the day at 10.30am  in Wild Monkey in Kololi.  We order breakfast and coffee and sit and relax.  Wifi is available and I try out my new ipad and watch the world go by.  Steve is having problems wearing sandals and so we go to one of the tourist shops and buy new shoes with some ankle support for him.  The rest of the day we are at home, enjoying the weather and the garden.  In the evening we set up the new Dvd player and watch a film with Kebba.

21st February, 2015. Saturday. Shopping for essentials

Steve’s leg is still healing and so this year we will not be travelling around as much, we are going to take things a little easier.  So today we leave the house and go to do some essential shopping for the house.  First stop, we need food and water and so we go to Kairaba Plaza to stock up.  Then onto our Dvd shop to buy films to watch.  We  stop at the garage to pay Musa for the extra work he has done on the truck in our absence, a metal grill between the cab and the load bed to stop anything coming through the window.  On to the electrical shop to replace the Dvd player which has of course spoiled in the rainy season, the dust has iron in it which spoils all electrical appliances.  We also needed to buy chairs for the garden, again these plastic chairs spoil in the sunshine and need replacing every year or so, these are also bought at the electrical shop.  Back home where we spend the rest of the day relaxing.

20th February, 2015 Friday. Storeroom

Up early with the sunshine; breakfast with Kebba and Sanaba.  We drive the short distance to the storeroom so we can load the truck.  The container arrived in December and I had a short visit where I arranged the unloading and then everything was stored away until our return.  The store is full to the doors with chairs down each aisle making it difficult to move around.  We have been asked to send books to Region 6, the far end of the country where they rarely get supplies.  We are going to be here for only 10 weeks and will not have the time to deliver everything ourselves and this is a good option for us.  The Government will provide a large truck and so we set about sorting through the 800+ boxes kindly donated by our supporters to find suitable boxes to send.  Many boxes are marked with a particular destination school from a twin in the UK and they are put to one side, along with any which we have been asked to keep until the sponsor is able to visit themselves.  Tonbridge School in Kent have sent several boxes for Nemasu Senior Secondary School and we load these into the truck when we find them, ready for an early delivery next week.  Steve is sent to get water and biscuits for Sanaba, Kebba and I as this is going to be a long job!
We spend several hours sorting and arranging before going home to unload the Nemasu boxes into our hallway.
Steve and I have a quick wash and then drive to Timeless restaurant at the turntable to meet Channeh, the previous headteacher at Jamwelly who is down in this area on a Head Teachers Management course.  We all have an early tea and a long chat, Channeh would like us to take her when we travel to Jamwelly on a Thursday so she can collect items from her old home.   Home for a relaxing evening.

19th February, 2015 Thursday. Schools Closed

We woke early with the sunshine, a treat after the grey days in the UK.  The Schools are closed today as they continue to celebrate Independence. We had coffee and breakfast and then set about looking at the damage caused by the rainy season this year.  Parts of the outside of the house need painting, a job for Bas, and the ceiling at the top of the stairs needs replacing, we had a major leak during the storms in the summer, water poured down the stairs like a waterfall.  Fortunately Amy, Francis and James were staying and managed to mop everywhere and clean up the mess with Kebba.  Kebba and John made a new flat roof, so hopefully that will ot happen again.  The biggest problem is in the garden, where the white fly have proved that they can resist any kind of chemical or organic treatment and our 3 orange trees have died.  Kebba has already removed one and the other two are going soon.  We decide to have a big sort out of clothes from our wardrobes as many have faded and spoilt over the years and we have brought some new ones this year.  This takes all morning and then we go to Yashminas for lunch and to relax for an hour or two.  We call at Neil’s bar on the way back for coffee and to use the Wifi.  Lots of familiar faces and we find out where the local quiz is now held before returning home, where we are met with another familiar face, Sanaba, here to greet us, enquire after and inspect Steve’s foot and also to see if there is any work going.  We arrange for him to come and help in the storeroom tomorrow and then spend the rest of the evening at home.

18th February, 2015 Wednesday. On our way at last

Up at 3am and ready for our taxi at 3.45, arrival at the airport, long queues for the Gambia flight.  All checked in, the security procedures and then breakfast and a welcome cup of coffee.  Then boarding and eventually we take off half an hour late at 7.35am.  The flight is uneventful and then we are there, circling over the familiar landscape, not the usual green of November, but already dry and turning yellow from the heat.  We land and notice the red carpet laid out on the runway, sadly not for us!  Today is Independence day. The 50th Anniversary of The Gambia’s Independence from Britain and there are a number of foreign dignitaries and Presidents who have arrived to walk down that red carpet.
The queue to get into the terminal is longer than usual and we realise why when we enter, every person is sprayed with hand gel and then inspected for temperature and eye condition variations for signs of Ebola.  Thankfully the Gambia is Ebola free and they want it to stay that way.
We collect our luggage and then make our way through the x ray machine area where I am taken into a side room because they believe I have food in my case, they are happy when the ‘food’ turns out to be treats for our dogs and let me go.  Musa our mechanic is waiting for us with a large grin on his face.  Welcome, welcome, How is Steve?  This is a refrain we hear many many times over the next few weeks.  We climb into our truck and Musa drives us home where Kebba is waiting, a huge grin and a big hug awaits.  How is Steve, how is the leg,  we missed you!
It is a big welcome home and we are glad to be back.    Tired after our journey, we have a quiet afternoon, unpacking and then went the familiar walk round the corner to Neil’s bar for an early supper and bed.  Fireworks lit up the sky and large bangs continued for a while as the nation celebrated their Independence.

17th February, 2015 Tuesday. Journey begins

At last the Doctor has given us the go-ahead to fly and so we are on our way back to Gambia.  All packed and ready to go, Ruth and John arrive to take us to Manchester to stay the night before the early morning flight.  The weather has been unpredictable and so we leave at 2pm to avoid any chance of them getting stuck in bad conditions over the Pennines.  A smooth journey and arrival at the Premier Inn, at Manchester, near to the airport: a grateful farewell.  Dinner, then an early night.