Saturday, 31 March 2012

10.3.12. Naming Ceremony

Yesterday I went with Saffie to a naming ceremony. Traditionally, Muslims will name a new baby on the eighth day after it has been born, and they hold a celebration to mark the occasion. (However, sometimes the naming ceremony won't take place until a few weeks or even a few months after the baby has been born – a bit like a christening or dedication service).

In the morning the husband will tell his wife the name he has chosen for the baby(!), and there is a religious ceremony usually conducted by the almaamo (imam). This tends to a family occasion, but later in the day there is a celebration. Men and women celebrate separately, so when I go with Saffie we sit with the women. It's very much like a party – lots of chatter and laughter. Many of the women have babies either tied on their backs, or ready to be passed round. Every time a new person arrives they shake hands with everyone who is already there, and greet them – it is unthinkable in Gambian culture not to greet people when you arrive at a gathering. The first time I visited my partner school, every child got off the school bus and came straight to shake my hand, even thought they didn't know me!

Lots of 'ataya' (green mint tea) is brewed, and sometimes food is prepared. People usually bring a small gift of money to contribute to the new mother. Everyone looks very beautiful in their colourful clothes, and it's a really enjoyable occasion. Some of these photos have been taken at previous naming ceremonies I have been to, but they should give you an idea of the atmosphere.

Sunday 4 March 2012

Today I attended a meeting of the Bakassouck Youth's Association (Gambia Chapter), invited by Lamin's brother Numo. This is a self-organised group of young people whose families come from Bakassouck, an island in Casamance, Southern Senegal, where many of them grew up. They meet monthly for a number of purposes, but this month the main focus was to discuss a bee-keeping project they are developing, as a means of providing employment and income for their members.

This project was their own idea, and although at the moment they are reliant on help from the Kumoo Kunda Bee Farm, (a local bee-keeping project), they are determined to become independent and make it sustainable. They have allocated a budget (mainly drawn from the monthly subscriptions), and have a clear plan about how they want things to develop.

The meeting was held in a mixture of English and Karoninka, but they regularly summarised things for me, and Lamin was also there to help provide translation! After the 'official' business of reading minutes from the last meeting and a financial report, they got down to business.

So far they have had five people trained in bee-keeping, which includes how to build hives, look after the bees, and also how to make products such as soap, skin cream etc form the honey and beeswax. Two of these have had advanced training so they are now able to train others. They have also used the facilities of the existing bee-keeping project to make the products, which they encouraged people to buy. Each trainee gave a verbal reports to the meeting.

They have invested in 10 hives, which have been deployed already and now eight of them are occupied. They are expecting their first harvest in a couple of weeks. However, at the moment they are hampered by lack of equipment and facilities which means they have to rely on hiring the Kumoo Kunda Centre to produce their goods. They encouraged everyone to think about how they could contribute to help e.g. buying a soap mould for D50 (about £1), buckets, storage containers etc. The soaps and creams are chemical free and good quality. The plan is that group members buy the products at a wholesale rate and sell them on with a mark-up. This would give them funds to buy more products, but could also provide an income. It could even be combined with schooling, so the profit could be used for paying school fees. Everyone was encouraged to buy at least one item.

They have been given some land in one of the local villages to build a training centre which they will staff and equip themselves, and so they also want to raise funds towards this. However, start-up costs are high e.g. a wooden hive costs D650 (about £14, almost a month's wages). The trainees know how to train others how to build grass hives, which are cheaper, but at the end of the season the hives are dismantled to obtain the honey, so the bees disperse – in other words, this is a cheaper option than using wooden hives, but not as cost-effective. However, one of the group was a skilled carpenter, and offered to build hives for free if the group could supply the materials. Another problem is the siting of hives – the group needs offers of places to site the hives (we have already offered them space at Balaba for this, but they need more).

After discussing some other issues, each member of the executive committee gave an impassioned plea to the members to make sacrifices in order to make the bee-keeping project successful, and also the other projects they are committed to. (I subsequently found out they have started building a primary school on their remote island, as there the nearest school too far away for the younger children to walk). They were keenly aware that family members in the past had made sacrifices to enable them to succeed, and so it was now their turn to make sacrifices to benefit today's children.

There is a big focus in The Gambia at the moment on youth employment and vocational training. A recent report by the International Monetary Fund has produced some alarming statistics about the number of young people who are unemployed, many with little prospect of accessing training or education to help them. It seems to me that this project is addressing many of the issues raised in that report, and perhaps more importantly, doing it themselves rather than waiting for an external organisation to produce a solution. I really hope it succeeds.

As a footnote, I happened to catch sight of the notes taken by the chairman (who was also leading the meeting). Although everyone had spoken in English or Karoninka (usually a mixture of both), his notes were in French! The language skills of everyone in The Gambia put me to shame when I think of my very poor efforts.

Friday 2 March 2012

Friday was a restful day. In the morning we went out to buy palm wine, a local drink which is actually the sap of the palm tree. It's harvested by the palm wine tapper who shins up the tree armed only with a cane 'hoop' which goes round his waist. There he makes an incision in the tree, inserts a funnel made from palm leaves, and ties on a plastic bottle. The next day he goes back to harvest the palm wine.

Going to buy palm wine is not like popping down to Tesco. Naturally it's important to try the different brews (only alcoholic when they have been left to ferment!), and then we need to sit and talk for an hour or so whilst drinking palm wine together. The tappers also pass the time by making the funnels – they challenged me to have try, and my dismal failure to produce a workable funnel caused much amusement! It's not as easy at it looks!

I helped Saffie with the lunch (more details another time about how cooking is done), and spent the afternoon in a hammock with my Kindle – something I had promised myself for a long time.

After dinner everyone sat outside and huddled round a small portable DVD to watch an episode of '24' on a minute screen. Since I know very little about '24', I had some difficulty following the plot, not helped by the Chinese subtitles!

1 March 2012

My flight to the Gambia took off at the relatively civilised hour of 10:00 am, meaning that I didn't have to be at Gatwick until about 7:30 am. As I am usually used to bumbling about at 4:00 am and leaving for the airport in darkness, it was quite nice to leave when it was light. Luke drove me there, but then had to rush off to work, and it only took 10 minutes to check in, so I was able to have a leisurely latte, browse the shops, and read my latest Kindle download before boarding.

I thought I had hit on a brilliant strategy of renting a film through iTunes to play on my laptop, making up for the lack of in-flight movie on the six hour flight. I had chosen 'First Grader', an inspiring film about an 84 year old man who took advantage of Kenya's new law allowing free access to education for all. However, the seats were so small it was only possible to view it by holding it at a very strange angle on my lap – however, it was worth the discomfort!

As always, the comforting warmth that wrapped round my shoulders at the door of the plane felt lovely, and even the waiting around to clear immigration and collect my case didn't seem to take too long. Of course, it was lovely to see Lamin again after 4 months, and to meet his cousin Zilbert, and before long we were on the road heading to Brikama. There we stopped at the 'Nice to be Nice' bar for drinks; meeting up with John Sambou (Naomi's husband). Lamin disappeared to buy fish and chicken, whilst I shook hands with everyone who came into the bar, and ended up holding my first (but certainly not my last) Gambian baby, who surprisingly did not burst into terrified tears at the prospect of a white face! We waited for some time because Michael (the best man from our wedding) had called to say he was on his way to see us – he was travelling from his barracks in Bakau, which is some distance, and he was only able to stay a short while, but it was great to see him.

After some more shopping at the supermarket, we then headed out of the hustle and bustle of Brikama onto the Gunjur Highway, an excellent tarmaced road with very little traffic. We passed the usual sights that had amazed me so much on my first visit, but were now very familiar: women carrying large bowls or piles of wood on their heads (often with a baby tied to their back), donkey carts pulling firewood, children playing games perilously close to the road and of course, the palm trees all around. It really felt like coming home.

But Balaba is truly my second home! It's hard to describe the peace and tranquility there, and how relaxing it is to sit under the trees listening to the BBC World Service and talking with friends. I had a very interesting conversation with Lamin's brother Numo, and his cousin Zilbert, about the plans of their Youth Association to develop a bee-keeping project to provide employment for the young people. I was invited to their meeting on Sunday to find out more.

I slept really well after so much traveling. Waking the next morning to the sounds of the African dawn chorus is probably the best way in the world to start the day!

Since I am going to be spending a good deal of time in The Gambia, several friends have suggested that writing a blog would be interesting.

I hope it will be a useful way for friends and family to keep track of what I'm doing in The Gambia, but I will also try to include some more general information about life here, to give you some insight into the culture. Hopefully it will be a mix of some 'diary-style' entries, and other entries. Feel free to pick and choose what you read!

If you are not sure exactly what my plans are, well neither am I! At the moment I am in the Gambia until the end of April, then I am returning to the UK as I have a role volunteering at the London Olympics, so I need to attend training and work at a test event. After the Olympics I will be returning to The Gambia, helping my husband Lamin run his tourist camp (if you want to know more about the camp, visit for more details), and possibly working with the VSO. However, everything is very flexible, so it's hard to predict how things will turn out!

I hope you enjoy reading my blog.