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.