Tuesday, 17 April 2012

A Day in the Life

A day in the life....

I thought it may be helpful to try and give you an idea of a 'typical' day at Balaba, although in reality every day is different. However, there is a broad overall pattern, although timings can vary a bit, and unexpected people dropping in (which happens almost every day) can throw things out too!

4:00 am
The first cockerel crows. Lamin keeps chickens, and they run around freely on the camp. The number varies considerably, as they are sometimes eaten! During one visit in the rainy season, there was no fish on sale in the local market, so we were planning just to eat rice and vegetables, but several members of the family turned up for a visit. Gambian hospitality demands that guests are given a meal, so Numo (Lamin's brother) and I were running round in the rain trying to catch two chickens!

5:45 am
The first call to prayer at the local mosque about 1km away in the little village of Madina Salaam.

6:45 am (ish)
I roll out of bed and dress, then head for the kitchen to collect up about seven large plastic bowls, plus a variety of buckets, and take them to the well ready for watering the garden. It takes about 25-30 buckets to water half the garden, and the well is deep so each bucket takes 22 pulls (I know cos I've counted!). Lamin has rigged up an ingenious double bucket system so that as one bucket is being pulled up the other is being lowered. This, combined with a new pulley, has made the task faster and a bit easier. The water is then poured into the bowls, and when that's done we open the garden gate (which takes a while – see the post on the garden I wrote earlier!). We then use smaller buckets to transport the water to the garden, and water the plants. However, Saffie will often put a large plastic bowl on her head to carry it – that is one Gambian tradition I don't intend to learn! If we are both there, Saffie and I share the pulling and watering, but if one of us is out (e.g. gone to Brikama), the other will do it alone. Sometimes Saffie has other jobs such as washing or sweeping the compound, so I will do the watering. The whole process takes about 90 – 120 minutes, but it's lovely to watch the sunrise and the birds coming down to drink at the bird bath Numo put up for me.

The men will often be out working too – maybe sorting out fencing, repairing the huts, or just general maintenance. They might be preparing the fields ready for the rainy season. It's often hard physical work!

9:00 am
Breakfast! As well as watering the garden,  Saffie boils water on the fire and puts it into large thermos flasks – we use this to make tea. Numo cycles to Madina to get bread (which is similar to french stick), and we usually have bread, peanut butter (locally made) and tea, with occasionally some fruit e.g. bananas. In the rainy season Lamin will often pick a mango and we can have that as well. Gambians usually have leftover rice and fish from the  previous day, and Saffie will often eat that instead. Sometimes she will make 'porridge' from leftover rice, by adding milk and sugar.

9:30 am
By now I am ready for shower! I pull water from the well, which is tepid and not too cold, and wash using a bucket and a jug. It's very refreshing.

10:00 am
Saffie and I wash the bowls etc. from the previous evening (water pulled from the well of course!), and then Saffie changes into her smart clothes to go to the market. I normally do any chores which need doing e.g. sweeping / cleaning our room, making the bed, washing clothes etc. Sometimes I try to get on the internet, as the speed is better during the day, but this depends on whether we have been able to charge the laptop. The wireless router has to be wired to a car battery with crocodile clips. Lamin will often put out a large solar panel to charge the solar battery, and we can charge one 'gadget' at a time (e.g. laptop, camera, mobile phone). Occasionally we put the generator on (if it's working) but the fuel is expensive (about £4 for an evening), so we don't do it too often. The men will return to their work too.

12:00 pm
Saffie has returned from the market, and changed into her 'wrapper' – working clothes – a bit like putting your apron on. I also change into mine, and we go to the kitchen to start cooking. I will write a more detailed post about the cooking one day, but it's all done on an open fire. Saffie will prepare the fish by scaling and gutting them (I am learning to do this but I am still very slow!). I pound black pepper, garlic, chilli and onions in a huge pestle and mortar – this is the base of every Gambian meal. Other things are then added e.g. tomato puree. I also peel vegetables to accompany the meal. We cook the fish and sauce first, then the rice, and cook enough fish and sauce for the evening meal too. This normally takes about two hours.

2:00 pm
Lunch is served. Gambians all eat from one dish, and it's usually placed on the floor. Everyone sits round and eats – the children will use their hands, and adults will often do so too, but at Balaba the adults tend to use spoons when I am there. However, Saffie uses her hands and breaks up and shares the fish out to everyone. Lamin will be given the fish head, as it is a delicacy given to the most senior person there – if he doesn't want it he will pass it to others, but if his father visits he gets the head!

2:30 pm
Lunch is finished. By now it is too hot to do much physical work, although Saffie will often be making soap or preparing it to sell (more about that another time), cleaning palm nuts, or other domestic tasks.
I usually rest for a while with a book or some needlework, or write some updates for the blog. Neighbours will often drop in, someone is usually brewing ataya (green tea), and there is often lively conversation.
Sometimes there is a naming ceremony or some other kind of celebration to attend, so Saffie and I will go out.

5:00 pm
Time to water the garden again!

6:30 pm
I pull some water for a shower, and get myself organised for the evening. I have learnt the hard way that it's not easy trying to get organised if you can't find your torch!

7:00 pm
Time to cook the rice to accompany the evening meal. Again, the rice is cooked on the open fire, and Saffie will often be multi-tasking by preparing her soap for selling.

8:00 pm
 Saffie and I serve the evening meal; by now we are working by torchlight, but it's amazing what Gambians can do when they have a torch wedged between their ear and their shoulder. Sometimes the men will be grilling fish, or if we have visitors, they will be preparing the fire and the drums ready for the evening's entertainment. Numo will also  refill and the light the kerosene lamps and put them around the camp.

8:45  pm
The evening meal is finished and we have cleared away. If we have visitors, there will be drumming and dancing round the fire. Often the neighbours will hear the drums and come along to join us! If there are no visitors, we could do several things. Sometimes we will sit and chat – this is often without lights. The stars are very beautiful at Balaba because there is no light pollution to get in the way. Also, the moon is very bright – when it's full moon you can read your watch in the compound! Sometimes we will wire up a small portable DVD player to a car battery and watch a DVD. If there are lots of devices which need charging, we will put the generator on, providing we have fuel. If the generator is on we can watch TV, but there is only one channel!

10:00 am
By now everyone is usually tired, so we will go to bed. I might read my kindle (using the battery powered light I bought so that I could read in the dark), but I am often too tired. We need plenty of sleep ready for the next day!

Monday, 9 April 2012

A visit to Bakassouck 22 – 27 March 2012

For some time I have wanted to visit Bakassouck, the remote island in Casamance (southern Senegal), where Lamin, my husband, grew up. Lots of his family still live there, but the journey is long and difficult, so it hasn't been possible to go until now. To get there involves travelling to Brikama then to the border crossing at Seleti, and then on to the fishing village of Kafountine. There you need to take a boat (there is only one direct boat a week) and travel for about four hours – there is no other way to get to Bakassouck, and as the boat departure depends on the tide, you need to be there early so you don't miss it. Last week we finally made the journey.

Day 1

6:30 am
Standing in the darkness in the Gambian bush, drinking palm wine with Lamin's uncle Antoine. He has been in the bush all night, sleeping in the shelter made of palm leaves, and he got up very early to go and tap palm wine, because he knows I like fresh palm wine. He is travelling to Bakassouck with us, and has promised to teach me some more Karoninka – this is the language spoken on Bakassouck.

7:00 am
We collect Lamin's great uncle, who lives on Bakassouck but has been visiting Lamin's mother in Marakissa. He has walked some miles to get to the main road, and Lamin's mother has already travelled on to Brikama to do her shopping in the market.

7:30 am
We arrive at Brikama. The market is already teeming with people, and the road is busy with cars, all hooting and rushing about. This is mixed with people on pushbikes weaving in and out, donkey carts transporting wood, and of course many pedestrians doing their best to avoid being mowed down! We meet Lamin's mother briefly, and also buy a 'bread' for breakfast. This is a french stick filled with dried fish, sauce, vegetables and spaghetti – it. I eat half my stick, and re-wrap the other half in the newspaper wrapping for later – a very good plan as it turned out!

8:00 am
We are stopped at one of the many police check points, and asked for our ID. I show my passport, but there is some kind of altercation between the official and Antoine, and the official then demands angrily that we all get out of the car. I get out, but hide on the passenger side to avoid the angry exchanges going on on the other side! However, finally we are allowed back into the car, and we continue on our way.

8:30 am
We arrive at the border crossing at Seleti. We have to get out of the car three separate times to show our ID. Mine always takes longer, as they record my name in a register as I am from the UK, but the Gambians only need show their ID cards. We then continue towards Kafountine, initially on a tarmac road, but then on a very dusty and bumpy track, passing huge lorries throwing up even more choking dust as we go. We have to keep the windows wound up in order to breather, but it makes the car quite hot!

9:30 am
We approach the outskirts of Kafountine, and get caught up in some kind of traffic jam. It turns out that this is a protest march to accompany a strike involving students and teachers. We are anxious to get to the boat, but it takes us quite a while to get through to the turn-off we need to take. Finally, however, we arrive at the place to take the boat. This is small and virtually deserted – there is a small shelter (built of wood and palm leaves), with some wooden benches for passengers to use when waiting. We unload our bags, and leave Lamin's uncle to watch them whilst we return to the main town to park the car at a relative's compound, and find out about today's departure time. However, we discover that the boat driver has heard about the strike, and so it seems he not running his boat today (although no-one is sure) – the next direct boat will be the following Thursday. We could get a boat to one of the nearer islands, but we would then have to walk for several hours and wade across a creek to get to Bakassouck. We return to the boat station, and wait to see what happens. After a very long wait, and some animated discussions with a different boat driver, Lamin and Antoine persuade him to take us to Bakassouck, if we pay for the fuel and also pay him a fee.

2:15 pm
The boat is now ready to depart. There are several passengers, and a lot of 50kg bags of rice have also been loaded into the bottom of the boat. We wade through the creek (with water up to my thighs!) and clamber on board, sitting on a three-inch wide plank; this is to be my seat for the next five hours. Antoine, clearly a seasoned traveller to Bakassouck, promptly lays down across the boat with his legs dangling over the side and falls asleep. I don't want to miss anything, so I stay awake, watching the amazing wildlife (especially the birds), and marvelling both at the narrow 'bolongs' (creeks) where the mangroves touch the boat on both sides, and when we reach it, the very wide river. We stop to take on more passengers, and also 12 bags of cement, which are also loaded into the bottom of the boat. On the way we call at several islands to drop passengers and goods; each stop take a long time as people like to have a chat and goods need to be unloaded. Finally, we are the last remaining passengers and we head for Bakassouck, and 90 minutes later we arrive. Again we have to wade through the water to get ashore, and we then have to walk about a kilometre to reach the village.

7:30 pm
We enter the settlement to great excitement from the residents. It's only a small settlement (the only one on the island) and everyone is related in some way. The children rush up and offer to carry my bags and water bottles, and one old woman starts an impromptu dance – everyone is delighted when I do my best to join in! We meet our hosts, Neena and her husband Sang-Marie, and are taken to our our rooms in her house. There are about ten rooms in the house, each occupied either by a couple or shared by older children – the younger children share with their parents. The floor is sandy; the whole island is covered in sand, but it seems unusual to get out of bed and feel as though you are walking on a beach! After a meal of tilapia (the local river fish) and rice, we are glad to get to bed!

Life on Bakassouck
We stayed at Bakassouck for nearly a week, and I had the most amazing time. On the first day they held an initiation celebration – last year Bakassouck hosted a huge tribal initiation, which only happens every 26 years. For the men, it's important to take part, as you are not considered to be a full member of the family if you have not been through initiation (women have their own initiation too). However, not everyone could come last year, so some are still arriving at the island to take part. They asked me to take photos for them, and so we walked to the old settlement (about a kilometre away) and I took so many photos my battery ran out. As there is no way to charge it on the island, I could only take a few photos on my phone after that!
During the day the men and women do separate tasks – I spent a lot of time with Neena helping with the cooking, washing, and tending the garden. I also played a lot with the children, and practised my Karoninka – everyone wanted to help me learn, and often someone would teach me a phrase, and then signal that I should get my book to write it down. This backfired slightly one day, when the older women decided to teach me insults – I dutifully wrote them down, but I don't anticipate telling anyone they eat like a hyena!
Sometimes we went to the 'bush' and spent time there drinking palm wine and eating fresh-caught tilapia and rice (the staple food which is eaten for every meal).
On the last evening I set up my laptop (having carefully saved the battery) to show them video and photos Lamin took of the initiation last year. We set it up outside, and started with just Neena's family watching, but in the end the whole village was crowded round excitedly – many of them will not have seen TV or anything similar, so they really enjoyed watching the video.

The journey home
As on the journey there, we need to be sure to be ready when the boat arrives, as there will not be another one for a week. We visit several compounds to say goodbye to family, and several of the girls in the family come with us to carry our bags

10:30 am
We set off for the fishermen's hut where the boat would arrive. The teenage men live there all through the dry season, catching fish and smoking them to sell. We arrive at 11:30 am, and settle down to wait. The boat is due about 2:00 pm, but they were worried that I might not be able to walk fast enough to be sure of getting there(!) so we have arrived early. Neena has brought rice (wrapped in a cloth) and vegetables for lunch – the 'boys' will go and catch fish for us. I am seated on one of the beds, drinking palm wine of course, and watching as the boys prepare fish for smoking. This involves layering the fish in cardboard, and putting on a large platform; a fire is then lit underneath and someone sits and throws water on it regularly to create the smoke. The hut has a hole in the roof, so the smoke goes out through the roof and doesn't affect my side of the hut. When the boys return with fish, (which includes an 'eel fish' with fearsome teeth) Neena and the other women passengers (including Lamin's sister Khadi) prepare it and cook it. One large one is just thrown on the fire to grill, then given to me as a snack. When I first came to The Gambia I didn't eat fish with bones, but I am gradually learning to manage it, and have even graduated to eating the fish head, a delicacy here.

12:00 pm
We discover that the boat driver has to deliver a body 70km up river, and then return to us. He may not arrive till the following morning There is much discussion about whether to return to the village for the night, or to stay and wait – we can't afford to miss the boat. We decide to wait; Lamin and Antoine lay down on one of the beds and sleep, whilst Neena and I go for a short walk to look at the river. During the afternoon Antoine speaks to the boat driver several times, but can't get a clear answer – in the end I think the driver got tired of the hassle and switched his phone off!

6:00 pm
Someone returns to the village to get more rice and vegetables, and the women cook another meal. By now it's getting dark, and again we discuss whether or not to return to the village before it gets totally dark. Everyone else would manage it easily, even in darkness, but they are concerned about me. Lamin warns me that if I miss my footing and fall in a rice field he will leave me there and let the women carry me back – I think he was joking. However, we decide to wait it out.

10:00 pm
Now it's very dark, and we are all tired (although no-one has complained – waiting is just part of everyday life here), and we have no idea when (or if) the boat will arrive. One of the women goes to the next fishing hut, which is much larger, to ask if the women can sleep there until the boat arrives, as they have more beds and even a mosquito net! This is arranged, and so we set off in the dark through the 'bush' on narrow paths between the rice fields, leaving the men at the first hut. When we arrive the men are brushing off the beds and they even find me a piece of cloth to use as a pillow. Whilst we are waiting I try out my Karoninka on the fishermen, occasionally reverting to broken French when all else fails! Finally, after a drink of ataya (green tea), and much laughter and chatter from the women, we settle down, Khadi and I sharing a bed. I am just drifting off to sleep when, in the distance, I hear an outboard motor!

11:30 pm
One of the boys arrives at the hut to tell us the boat is coming. We trek back through the bush, and get ready to board. This boat is much bigger then the previous one, and I am put into a small, and very wobbly dug-out canoe, and one of the crew pushes me out to the boat. The boat man lifts me into the boat easily, and I find a plank to sit on. I am just about to throw my rucksack onto a tarpaulin on the bottom of the boat when it moves – I realise that there are two women and two babies asleep on the bottom of the boat! Once we get underway, everyone settles into the bottom and goes to sleep – only Lamin and I are left awake (apart from the crew), and the 17 year old driver navigates by starlight, only using a torch occasionally when the bolongs get narrow. A couple of times we scrape along the river bed, and once we have to stop to untangle a fishing net from the outboard motor, but overall it's peaceful journey.

3:15 am
The boat driver takes us as close as he can to Kafountine, but by now the tide has fallen, so we have to get out the boat and continue on foot, initially wading through ankle-deep mud, then wet sand, and finally on dry sand, carrying all our belongings. Still, no-one is put out, and there is much laughter as we walk. At 4:30 we reach the outskirts of Kafountine, just in time to hear the first cockerel crowing. The relatives seem completely unconcerned to be woken at 4:30 to prepare beds etc, but it's 5:00am before we finally settle down.

9:00 am
After a breakfast of bread and peanut butter, and my first cup of tea in a week, we finally set off in the car for home. I have mosquito bites up my legs, and a sore bum from sitting so long on a plank, but it's an experience I will never forget, and I have some amazing memories of a fantastic visit.

How to make a Women's Garden

  Find a piece of land that can be used for a garden. Make sure it is near the well, so that you don't have to carry the water too far when you are watering the plants. It will need lots of sun so that the plants can grow well, so don't put it where the trees will cause too much shade!.
Hire someone to clear the ground of weeds and small thorny bushes. Put the weeds in piles ready to burn later – the ashes can be spread on the plants as fertiliser.

Dig some holes ready for the fence posts. You will need a very strong fence to keep out the cows, goats, pigs and chickens, which all wander around during the dry season looking for food. If a cow gets into your garden it can eat everything in a very short time!

Then you can begin to prepare the ground. The ground will need watering first, to soften it, so you will need about 50 buckets of water from the well. Then you use an African hoe to remove the furrows left from the previous crop of cassava plants. Collect all the weeds for burning.

Ask some kind teenagers to collect palm leaves from the surrounding forest, and lay them out to dry in the sun. After 24 hours they can create the fence, making sure the leaves are tied firmly to the posts.

Use the hoe to pull up a little wall around each bed; this will keep the water in the bed when you water the plants – you don't want to waste water if it all has to be pulled from the well! If you have any fruit trees in the garden, include them in a bed so they will be watered when you water the vegetables.



Invite the neighbours to come and help make the beds – it will take a very long time if you make them on your own. They will be happy to help, and everyone will have lots of fun and laughter in the process. (It may get a bit noisy!)

Ask your brother-in-law to make a strong gate. To keep the garden safe you will need to close the gate, cover it in an old duvet, then cover it with strong netting. Put some boards across any gaps near the ground (to keep the chickens out), place a huge palm leaf in front and wedge it with a stick. Finally put a broken chair in front to discourage the larger animals from nosing their way in!

 There's a lot of work involved in establishing the garden, so accept all the help you can to dig, make beds, and pull water.

You can buy some small plants from a friend or relative to get you started. You can also buy seeds for sowing in Brikama, the nearest town (about 25 km away). If you eat fruit such as oranges, grapefruit, and tangerines, you can save the pips for planting. You could also buy a pineapple, cut off the top, and plant it in an oil container for propagation. The neighbours might sell you chillis, so you can save the seeds for planting.

Many hands make light work!

Only the women do vegetable gardening in The Gambia, but the men may come along and make ataya (green mint tea) to keep everyone refreshed. The children will take it round to everyone on little metal trays.

When all the work is done, serve a meal of chicken (a real treat in The Gambia), vegetables, sauce and spaghetti to thank everyone for all their hard work.