Saturday, 23 February 2013

The Luckiest Chickens on the Planet

Warning! Don't read this if you are of a nervous disposition!

At Balaba we have several chickens, but it's a bit of a battle trying to make sure we always have enough, as they tend to have a short shelf life here! If there is no fish, which happens quite often if it's windy (because the boats don't go out in very rough seas), or during the rainy season, when the fishermen are all farming to provide food for next year, then sometimes we need to eat them (sorry, chicken lovers!). They also eaten by predators, which view a chicken as a tasty meal.

This means chickens need to be replaced regularly. Recently Saffie was given a beautiful cockerel (which she brought back on the bus all the way from Basse 200 miles up river!), and Lamin's mum gave us a hen. As they are new here, Lamin took out their flight feathers to stop them flying away until they feel at home, although he assures me they will grow back! The Balaba chickens roost in the trees – until I came to Balaba I had no idea that chickens roosted in trees, but sure enough, at about 7:00 pm they flutter up into the trees, accompanied by much clucking and fussing, and settle down for the night.

Our lovely new chickens

As our new chickens can't fly, Lamin housed them in an enclosed storage area behind our house – when we got married so many visitors were expected that Lamin built a large room at the back. He has since enclosed the area between the house and the new room with walls and a door. All kinds of things are stored there (remember, Gambians never throw anything away), including several crates with bottles, some tarpaulin, an old drum shell, and large bundles of cassava sticks which are rooted in the ground ready to plant out in the rainy season.

The enclosed storage area behind our house

Last night, about 1:00 am, I heard one of the chickens squawking. This is never a good sign, because they are usually quiet at night until the cockerel starts crowing at 4:00 am, so Lamin got up, opened our back door, and had a look. Saffie, who sleeps in the attached room, also had a look, but there was nothing to be seen. Lamin came back to bed, but about 20 minutes later we heard it again. This time, when Lamin opened the door, he closed it again, and without a word, went and unlocked the front door, and shortly afterwards came back with a large stick.

Still silent, he went out the back door, and I heard him wedge something heavy against it, to stop it swinging open. I then heard him start to move the crates and other things, working only by torchlight. Now I know that there are several animals here which like to eat chickens. The fox (which is actually more like a mongoose than a British-style fox), is quite common, but rats and snakes are also partial to a tasty bird. If it had been a fox, Lamin would have taken his gun, and he wouldn't have bothered too much about a rat, so that left only a cobra! I lay in bed for what seemed like a very long time, wondering how far we would have to travel to find anti-venom – I suspect we would have needed to go to Banjul, a good hour's journey away, although I wasn't too sure.

Lamin continued moving things around, and I continued to lay and wait, until at last I heard a heavy thud, followed by several more. After a few minutes, I gingerly opened the back door, knocking over a heavy spade in the process. On the ground was a cobra about a metre long, and by now very dead. Apparently Lamin spotted the snake the second time he looked out, and saw it slither under the crates.

A very dead cobra!

Actually, I love snakes – I think they are beautiful, as does Lamin, and normally we would have let the snake survive, but this was in a confined area which we all use regularly – my towel hangs on the line out there, and there is a shower area too. In fact, it's likely that the cobra got in through the drainage hole in the shower, as it wasn't covered with mesh like the other drainage hole.

It's hard to see the very small drainage hole, but we think this is how the cobra got in.

The other drainage hole,  protected by mesh.
Apparently cobras like to scare chickens away and eat any eggs, but sometimes they will kill a chicken, although they don't eat it. The last time this happened when I was here, it was during the rainy season. Then it was outside in the compound, and a much longer cobra actually killed a chicken. Lamin killed the cobra and gave the chicken to a local family, who stripped out the blood vessel with the venom and then ate it – it's such a treat here that no-one would want to waste a chicken!

So I think our chickens are the luckiest on the planet, because there's not much space out there, and they could easily have been caught. But Lamin laughed when I told him I was wondering about where to get anti-venom - all he said was “But I know how to kill a snake. It's not a problem”. However, I don't think I would have liked to be in a confined space with a cobra, moving stuff around and searching for it by torchlight!

Friday, 15 February 2013

The War Against the Termites!

I love being in the Gambia, and many things about living here are lovely. But of course, like everywhere, there is no doubt that there can problems too, and for most Gambians, life is a daily struggle. In the rural areas, most people are subsistence farmers, living on very little, and doing their best to take care of their families. There is no mains electricity – at Balaba we have a solar panel, which feeds a large battery. This means we can charge phones etc. and it gives us light in the two rooms in the house, and for one outside light. But most people don't have that luxury, and so they rely on torchlight after dark. In the dry season, we mainly live outside, so people often light fires as well, and the evening 'entertainment' is usually sitting round the fire and talking.

Maintenance is a constant problem, due to the dust in the dry season, and wind and rain in the rainy season Machinery breaks down regularly because of the dust, and house maintenance is a particular issue. Fences and roofs are usually made from palm leaves, but they are now very difficult to find, and need replacing every two year – in fact the fence around our garden has completely broken down, a victim of the rainy weather.

But probably the biggest menace are the termites! Houses are mainly made from mud blocks, with palm leaves laid on wooden poles for the roof. Termites try to eat through the mud blocks to get into the houses, and if they can, they will lay trails up the wall, and then eat the roof poles. When they can afford it, people try to build on a layer of concrete, as the termites can't eat through concrete, but they can sneak through any small crack, and even worse, they can burrow underneath. This makes the house unstable, and then in the rainy season the walls can crack and collapse – this is what happened to Lamin's mother's house last year. A huge section of outside wall collapsed completely, so the rooms are shielded by plastic, and the rest of the walls are held in place by a patchwork of corrugate sheets.

They have got into several of our buildings, and last week Lamin and his friend Malik tackled one building. These photos should explain the process, which is very hard work.

The termites leave mounds as they munch – sometimes they can be taller than a man!

Termite damage to one of our rooms

You have to dig down to see the extent of the damage – the termite nest is soft and spongy, and need to be completely removed.

The spongy termites nest material, full of termites

This leaves large holes!

A hole left by the termites!

An enormous hole on the verandah outside the room.

This has caused the building to shift, leaving big cracks in the mud block walls.

You can see daylight through these cracks!
The holes need to be filled with rubble – we used some of the concrete floor from a roundhouse which collapsed a couple of years ago.

Lamin filling in the large hole by the door
Rubble filling the hole

Then the concrete can be laid on top, to secure everything.

Adding a layer of concrete to slow the termites down

A brand new step

As I've said before, Gambians are masters of ingenuity, and this plaster skimmer is home-made.
A home-made skimmer

Once that's done, then the cracks can be repaired, and finally the room can be painted.

Now the cracks are filled
Lamin and Ish spent two days earlier this week at his mother's house, doing the same thing. Now a bricklayer is repairing the damaged walls, which we hope will keep the house stable for the rainy season, but it will probably need to be completely rebuilt next year.

So the war against the termites continues.....

Thursday, 7 February 2013

The Story of the Little Green Monkey

A little while ago I wrote about 'The Story of the little White-Faced Owl' especially for my granddaughter. Alyssa enjoyed the story, and asked for another one about a monkey because her favourite soft toy is a monkey called 'Oo Oo' (because that's what monkeys say!). I had intended just to send it to her, but so many people commented that they enjoyed the story of the owl that I thought I would put the next story up for everyone to read as well.

The Story of the Little Green Monkey

This is a true story that happened at Balaba Nature Camp in The Gambia.

Lamin has been living at Balaba for a very long time – nearly 17 years. When he first came here, there was nobody else living anywhere near Balaba. It was in the middle of the forest, with many tall trees all around, and only a few narrow tracks to walk through. Because Lamin was the only person living here, there were plenty of places for the birds and the animals to live. Deer used to walk through the tall grass looking for somewhere to feed, birds hopped around in the trees, and sometimes hyenas trotted along the track outside the camp.

Lamin wanted to help the birds and animals, so he put water out for them to drink. The birds used to love coming to drink and have a bath, because it doesn't rain much in the Gambia so it was hard for them to find water.

But best of all, the forest was home to the monkeys! Lots of monkeys used to swing through the trees, looking for food and playing together. There are two kinds of monkeys in the Gambia: The red vervet monkeys and the green vervet monkeys. Can you imagine a green monkey? Well, they are not bright green, but their fur does look quite green if you get close to them. The red monkeys are very shy, and will hide away if they hear you coming, so it's often hard to see them, but the green monkeys are much braver, and sometimes they would come into the camp to see what was happening.

One day Lamin noticed a little green monkey.

The little green monkey
It would sit in the trees and watch what was going on, but at first it was too scared to come down and look closely. But gradually, day by day, the little green monkey got more and more bold, and it began to come down and investigate the camp.

Eventually the little green monkey decided that it wasn't frightened any more, and so it began to come closer to the chickens and the dogs that lived at Balaba. Of course, at first the chickens were afraid of the monkey, and the dogs weren't very sure about him either, because dogs and monkeys aren't usually friends. But, bit by bit, they learned more about each other, and realised that even though they were different, they could still be friends. So they used to play together on a big pile of sand near the gate; sometimes the dogs would chase the monkey, and sometimes the little green monkey would chase the dogs, and sometimes the monkey even rode on the dogs' backs! I wonder what the dogs thought about that?

The little green monkey liked to see what the visitors at Balaba did as well. One day he was sitting, eating a red fruit from the netto tree, when he heard some visitors talking.

The little green monkey eating some netto fruit

He was a rather nosy monkey, so he jumped through the trees to get a bit closer and see what was going on.

Jumping through the trees

The visitors were just as surprised to see the monkey, and they tried to take photos with their camera – here is a picture of my friend Naomi trying to take a photo. Can you see the little green monkey?

Trying to take a photo

He came closer and closer, looking carefully at what the visitors were doing.

Look how close the little green monkey is!
Nowadays there are many more people living near Balaba, and lots of the trees have been chopped down to make room for houses, so we don't see monkeys here any more. But Lamin hasn't chopped down his trees – he keep them so that the birds and animals have somewhere to live, and he still puts out water for the birds and animals to come and drink. So Balaba is lovely and shady, and dozens of birds come down to drink and take a bath.

Lots of birds!