My last post here was just before I headed out to the Gambia for my annual school charitable visit. I was nervous when I wrote then about what we would find- Ebola, which never got anywhere near Gambia, had nevertheless put off almost all tourists from visiting and our own trip had been postponed by six months.
First impressions were that I was right to be concerned- it was obvious that the tourist industry was in real trouble and there were other signs that the overall infrastructure of the country was in disarray. On our first day, we struggled either to buy water or change money (in one of the banks, the staff were actually selling shoes from the back of the building rather than actually doing anything financial.)
At the same time, in a country like this where the majority of the population have virtually no income, a loss of a high proportion of the economy can still become quite invisible. We found that most of what we saw was as we remembered- the market and the streets of the capital, Banjul, were still every bit as insane as ever and the welcome we received everywhere was just as warm.
There were two non-ebola related changes which did affect things. The first was that we were in the country towards the end of Ramadan. Gambia is mainly Muslim and this meant that our Gambian friends were not able to eat during the day or drink in the sweltering heat. In the villages where we are normally greeted with dancing it also meant that things needed to be more subdued than that. Nevertheless, the Gambian version of Islam is as welcoming and tolerant as you could imagine and the villagers did everything they could to fill the visit with joy.
A second difference this year was that this was the rainy season. In many ways I was really keen to see this as we know from the past what a difference it makes to the villagers’ lives. A low amount of rain (as they had last year) means that crops die and they go hungry, but while they therefore welcome the rains, the storms cause great damage to their fragile homes. As our plane came in to land we could see thunderstorms in the distance and these became a nightly show at the hotel. However, during the days it rarely rained and we just had to cope with a bit more humidity than was normal. The bigger effect for the trip was on the wildlife- there were insects everywhere and, most frighteningly of all, an infestation of scorpions at the Tendaba camp- one member of staff found one under his pillow in his room and on another evening we ended up patrolling the site and attempting to protect our students by throwing rocks at the creatures.
It is too early to say yet whether there was going to be enough rain for the harvests, but in other ways it was clear that this has been a particularly hard year for the villages we visit. This was most obvious when it came to medicine- we provide most of the medical supplies in the communities and because we had postponed by seven months, they had run out and we believe that people had died as a result. If ever there was a moment when I was reminded that this is so much more than a school trip, it was when I heard this- it brings up so many questions about our responsibilities here and the value of the aid we bring and the dangers of any dependence we might create. When the trip was first beginning 25 years ago, the school were helped by the charity Action Aid. One of their key methodologies is that they announce when they first arrive in a village, that they will help them for ten years and then move on so that during those ten years the whole plan is to help the village towards self-sufficiency- would the hospital in Kaiaf, for example, have run out of medicine if we had done the same? I suspect, it would still have happened- there simply are not enough resources, but we have to keep thinking around this.
At the same time as there was such bad news as this, the villagers still managed to make us feel so much joy- for my group of students the highpoint was in our village of Genieri where they held a naming ceremony for us. We were each given a Gambian name (I am Landing Bana) which placed us within one of the leading families in the village. Amazingly for me, as I was introduced to my family in the village, it turned out that the matriarch of the family was none other than this woman, who’s picture I took several years ago.
This has always been one of my favourites of my Gambian pictures and indeed features in my previous post. I will be seeing her along with the rest of my Gambian family when we return again in December.