Thursday, 28 March 2013

Bakassouck Youths: A Visit from the Minister for Youth and Sport

The Bakassouck Youths Association had planned the Minister's visit down to the last detail, which had taken a lot of organising. They had planned a demonstration of how the soaps were made, followed by a meeting with several speeches, and then food. Numo (whose unofficial job description is 'Chief Organiser'!), had been running round frantically for the previous couple of weeks, and spent hours on the phone organising who was responsible for each job, liaising with the primary school to use the grounds, organising drummers and dancers to welcome the minister, and last but not least, arranging food and drink. We had agreed to arrive early on the Saturday morning to help, and Numo went off the day before as he had so much to do.

So quite early on the Saturday morning Lamin and I, together with Ish and Lamin's nephew Yankuba, got in the car to head for Darsilami. Yankuba was keen to drive so Lamin agreed and we set off. However, what we hadn't realised was that it was 'set-setel' that day. Set-setel is something that happens once a month on a Saturday, and on that day everyone is expected to turn out and clean up their local area e.g. cut back grass, pick up litter, and carry out general maintenance. Shops are closed, and no transport is allowed on the road between 9am and 1pm, because everyone is supposed to be out cleaning. In fact, in rural areas there is often little to do, but nevertheless, set-setel happens every month.

There is a regular police checkpoint at Gunjur, and we know the officers quite well (one even came and spent Christmas Day with us), but on this day there was a traffic officer from elsewhere. Very unimpressed that we were travelling when it was set-setel, he insisted that we drove the car into the nearby police station yard, and impounded it (and us!). He asked to see Lamin's documents, but Lamin had left them at home, and unlike the UK, there is no option to present them within a period of time – they need to be available immediately. So the men went into the police station to sort things out, and I sat in the car, wondering glumly if we would be fined. After a while Lamin came out and said we would need to wait there until 1:00 pm, so I should come and sit on the verandah at the front of the police station.

The local police were impeccably friendly and polite! One allowed Yankuba to use his bike to go and get Lamin's documents, whilst the others kept me supplied with green tea, oranges and lively conversation – they seemed a bit embarrassed at the enthusiasm of the traffic officer in impounding us! Lamin went off to get some bread and beans, as we hadn't had any breakfast, and we didn’t know when we would get anything else to eat (about 6:00 pm as it turned out!), and I chatted with the officers. When Lamin came back, they all suggested that Lamin took a photo of me with the officers – they said I could put it on the internet to show that I had been arrested!! They thought it was a great joke, but I told them my family would have a heart attack if I said I had been arrested, so I managed to put them off the idea!

Finally, at almost 1:00 pm, they let us go, but by now we were running very late, and the road from Siffoe to Darsilami is very poor. In fact, during the rainy season, Darsilami was cut off for several weeks as the road was washed away. However, the Minister was also running late, so when we arrived we did what we could to help everyone get ready. Gilbert, the president (who is Lamin's cousin) asked me to take lots of photos, as they weren't sure if the press were going to turn up, so I was happily trying to take as many as possible.

Making sure everything was prepared for the soap-making demonstration

The soap moulds ready and waiting

Heating the beeswax ready for making the soap

Gilbert the President of the Association checking everything is ready 

After a while, we went down to the main crossroads in the village to wait for the minister to arrive, together with the drummers, who were now getting concerned as they had another booking in Kololi and they were worried they would be late.

Setting off to meet the Minister

Some of the local characters!

The shop where the soap is sold

Eventually the Minister's convoy arrived, and the drummers and dancers escorted him through the village to the compound where the soap demonstration was arranged, stopping on the way to greet the alkalo, as is the custom.

Getting ready to greet the Minister

Accompanying the ministerial convoy through the village

There was quite a scrum of photographers, which made it a bit tricky for me to get photos, but the Minister spent a long time watching the demonstration, and asking lots of questions which Gilbert answered really well.

Gilbert explaining to the Minister all about the project

We then moved on to the school grounds, where tables and comfy armchairs had been put out for the minister, plus several other high up guests (e.g. the Forestry Minister, and presidents of local and regional youth groups). One of the villagers acted as host, introducing all the speeches in two languages and welcoming guests. (Meanwhile Lamin made an emergency dash with the car to Kololi with the drummers to get them to their next gig on time). The minister had brought gifts of rice, and said he was very impressed with how the association had developed the project and was also helping other groups.

The Master of Ceremonies introducing the next speaker

The Minister giving his speech

Once the speeches were over, the food was served. Gilbert wanted me to come and eat with the Minister's entourage (as a 'special guest!), so I found myself sitting with the Forestry minister and discussing both the project and his work. He was also impressed with the project, and how keen the young people were to make a success of it.

Once the Minister had left, we went back to the family compound at Jatta Kunda, which was teeming with people all eating benachin out of huge pots, and talking excitedly about the day. As it got dark, fires were lit and we sat around in groups. Two little girls took it upon themselves to teach me some Karoninka, much to everyone's amusement – I'm not sure if it was their teaching or my efforts which caused the most laughter! When most people had gone home the family gathered round one fire, and held an impromptu prayer meeting, when they thanked God for the day, and prayed for the further success of the project.

The press did come along, and later I was able to find a news report (read all about it here). The Youth Minister was so impressed with the project that he then arranged for the association to have a table at the Gambia International Trade Fair in Banjul, which ran for the whole of February!

However, as I lay in bed that night, I did think that there can't be too many people who spend the morning at the police station, and end up eating an meal with a government minister in the evening!

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