(Part of the Gambia Tour 2018 Series)
During our Gambia visit, at the end of 2018, we set ourselves a typical insurmountable amount of work to try to achieve. It was an amazing opportunity to catch up with friends and family, the ongoing community projects, and the new community gardens to launch, but we also have a few new little projects to explore which we know could have impact. From experience, we always come with many bright ideas from the UK but the reality and harshness of the environment, the heat, the infrastructure, the lack of internet or electricity at times, the slower pace of life, the different culture and approach towards time and meetings… it all slows us down a little and forces different approaches. So we started with caution, but we prefer to aim high and ensure we make the most of every visit.
Landing back on Gambian soil is always emotional. There’s nothing like smelling the familiar dry, burning, sandy air or greeting warm, hospitable, friendly Gambian smiles or hitting the frantic hustle and bustle of the busy streets in a local taxi, whilst at the same time being sense checked by goats and cattle slowing down your vehicle to cross the road. There’s something about this instant hit of the Gambia that makes you feel at home (or a second home!)
For Isatou it’s a homecoming. For myself I start to see it like a pilgrimage. The journey always reconnects me to the country, culture and its people, but like nothing else has a miraculous way of also helping me reconnect with myself. As a God fearing country that can be deeply wise, traditional, spiritual and religious I find it helps bring out the better person in me. Not just from facing the subtle and palpable levels of disadvantage and hardship that makes you feel grateful for what you do have and what you can offer others, but simple good natured levels of kindness, forgiveness and friendship. The slower pace of life is always at first stifling. I notice the moments I’m wriggling on my seat finding something to fill the seconds, easing myself back into a slower pace and gradually allowing myself more time to sit happily in silence and think, breath and reflect. It’s a noticeable transformation in every visit.
Coastal Reunions and Baobab Sunsets
As a result of bold goals, we had planned the first few days (but spent the first week) in kombo along the coast, catching up with friends and family, touching base with our network, and confirming meetings. We better prepared our vehicle and support team and started to better engage a local camera man to join us at some point of the journey to capture some filming. A lot of groundwork was laid that can never really be achieved from overseas.
We had the joy of catching up with sisters, nephews, and nieces that now live near the coast.
I even managed to squeeze in an early morning run to Lamin Mangroves just in time for a Baobab sunrise!
Then came the exciting part of travelling up country towards Basse (upper river region). We planned to travel on the Southbank, south of the river. Back in 2008 this was not a laid road but a red dusty track that was littered with potholes. It was always treacherous and an adventure and a journey would take up to 14 hours, often crossing the river multiple times to avoid sections (or killer potholes) of bad road wiped away by the rainy season. During one trip squashed into a shared vehicle it burst into smoke and I had to dash back through the window to help a mother and her baby out of the vehicle. An entire village nearby heroically turned up on horseback and donkey-cart kindly bringing water, for the vehicle and ourselves. We all sat in the shade under a giant Baobab tree chatting, whilst the driver walked 5k under the blistering sun and back fetching a spare part from a nearby town. When the people under the tree saw the driver appear a kilometre away from under the shimmering heatwave bouncing off the road, they decided to push the car towards him to speed up the process!
Potholes and Umpa Lumpa’s
On another journey with Isatou’s father driving my sister and I in a bright orange truck a pothole caused the back window to shatter into a million pieces littering me in the back seat. We arrived turning up bright orange like umpa lumpas, from the dust. A few dozen journeys, with a few dozen adventurous stories to tell.
For a vast number of journeys I squeezed into a ‘sept-plasse’ 7 seater vehicle where my knees often pocked out higher than head, and my but would be in pain after 20 minutes into the 8-10 hour journey! They say your best memories are linked to the company you share. My family still tell a few great Gambia travel stories.
My sister’s visit had another memorable journey when we visited the village of Sukuta in Central River Region, one of the most rural schools in the entire country. We were supporting a fence and kitchen build so they could benefit from the UN World Food program. My sister was gifted a live chicken which we had to travel with by foot, then by donkey cart, briefly by motorbike, then by ‘geli geli’ (local mini bus) accompanied by the Gambian Headmaster Saineh Konteh from the Mandinka tribe. At one point, whilst greeting a village alkalo (village head) the chicken made a dash for it, and a live chase broke out through the village to recapture it for us, with a young school boy triumphant in the glory. My sister dreamt of capturing her travels in a book she titles “Two Tubabs (white-people), one Mandika, and a Chicken!”. Rather catchy I thought.
Goats, Harvest, Tupperware and the Kitchen Sink
My parents had just an adventurous experience, visiting me only a few months into my first year in The Gambia. I wasn’t as experienced with the local travel, and a new Green Bus service had started up, which I rashly decided to take us on, not realising that it stopped at every single village on the way to let on or let off the entire village and their worldly possessions. Beds, furniture, broken down car parts, charcoal, goats, chickens (and the kitchen sink!) were all strapped to the roof and needed unbundling and released before we could move on. Second problem was the Green bus only went half the way.
Stuck at Janjanbureh island, for the second half of the journey we had to commission a small local minibus to take us to Basse. Unfortunately crossing the island by ferry the car must have rolled into the car in front and lost its license plate. Every police and military check point we stopped at then had a field day in grilling the driver delaying us for 30-60 minutes at every point. And it’s difficult not to get caught in the adventure, no matter your status. On a couple of occasions I had the privilege of joining the UN, or ministry of education or a Medical vehicle, in relative comfort of a 4×4 vehicle. On one occasion we had to pull the ferry ourselves (via pully rope), on another the ferry broke down and we were stuck for 4 hours. On another we were caught in political tension with Senegal and a mile lone backlog of lorry drivers trying to cross the river at Farafenini, meant that no ‘priority status’ was going to avoid a delay.
Don’t say Monkeys!
One thing that makes up for it is that the journey itself can be Beautiful! My parents travel back to the capital also had its adventures, but we were blessed with the most amazing Sunset crossing the river back to Banjul! Although Gambian culture prohibits you from saying that animals are crossing the road, I often fall foul with Monkeys (Loook Monkeeeeeeeys!!!!… ooops) and I always enjoy it when cows take over the road, or Donkey’s wonder aimlessly in front regardless of your vehicle. The long dry season means that for at least 7 months of the year the vast majority is dry and arid, passing bushland and villages with roundhouses, and you don’t have to go too far before being mesmerised by Beautiful Baobab trees! In the rainy season everything bursts to life, filling the landscape with lush green.
Swarms of birds follow your vehicle darting in and out of long green reeds. The green leaves roadside turn bright red from the dust, you wouldn’t even imagine that it was not their natural colour. Either season, there are Bolongs, and creeks, and lily filled lakes, and salt plains, and mangroves, and palm tree lined river paths. The most amazing part of the day is around 5:45pm when the sun starts to go down and the intense light eases off a little giving a bright natural red glow of colour to the landscape. The paths become bright red. The silhouettes become defined and glorious. Colours that were there all along appear like wiping down an oil painting. Everything changes, as if it’s been ‘photoshoped’ in front of your very eyes. Its incredible to witness. As many journeys are long, day turns to dusk and dusk to night. Sunsets can be incredible and starry night skies awe-inspiring. Most miraculously are the number of donkey carts, cyclists, and walkers that still travel long distances under thick darkness between villages, returning from working on the farms, or visiting cousins.
A journey is always an adventure!
This particular journey, this time around, was no exception. We took a more detailed tour stopping off at a larger number of villages along the way discovering new Baobabs, new villages, new people and learning more about culture, history and community along the way! Find out more as we moved up country in our next blog:
“A journey of a thousand miles, starts with just a single step! ” As a startup we appreciate you joining our journey!
Thanks for Reading
Stay Healthy, Happy and Helpful!
Paul & Isatou
Its that time of year for a reflective refocus on our health and annual goals. So if you are looking to take a fresh step into the new year check out our Baobab drinks and Organic Baobab fruit powder (ideal for sprinkling on porridge, cereal, drinks, yogurt and salads – very versatile)
As a special thank you, for a limited time, use code: ‘HNY2019’ for a 15% off, loyalty reward!
Happy New Year – here’s to a healthy, happy and helpful 2019!
Paul & Isatou