Weekend with Lamin

28 05 2011

So last weekend one of instructors at WACD-TC, Lamin Sonko, was kind enough to take us under his wing and show us what a weekend is like in the Gambia. On Saturday we went to his compound and had home cooked Gambian lunch (Domoda, a chicken and peanut stew on a bed of rice) and dinner (see picture) which were both delicious. We also tried a Gambian juice called Wonjo, which is a sour, dark red drink made from boiling the leaves from the sorrel plant. It is served ice cold and is very delectable and refreshing. Later, we hung with some of his buddies from the area and enjoyed some Attaya (green tea with sugar and sometimes mint leaves), which is a whole experience in itself. Brewing the Attaya is an art as there are many steps to making the perfect pot. I was lucky enough to take a stab at brewing it and although it turned out to taste pretty good, my technique could use some perfecting. The tea has a very unique taste, as it is made with generous portions of tea leaves and sugar. It seems almost everyone likes to sit down and relax to some Attaya after a long day, something I could get used to.

 

Brewing some Attaya

Dinner at Lamin’s

The next day Lamin asked us if we wanted to join him and his buddies for a game of soccer. Being the competitive and slightly cocky guy I am, I told him to warn his friends about us Canadians… that was a mistake. We met the guys for the game around 10am, as Lamin said that’s when they usually play to avoid the heat of the day… he is a liar, it’s always hot here… advantage Gambians. We arrived to a crowd of players and supporters that rivalled the turnout of any one of my organized games in Canada. Being the only two white guys out there, Dan and I were put on the spot (Yena made the wise choice to kick a ball around on the sidelines). Not knowing that almost all of the guys out there practise daily and live at the soccer fields on weekends, I began to run my mouth a bit. With both Dan and I letting the team know that we have years of soccer experience, they let us crack the starting line up. No more than 2 minutes after kick off both Dan and I had slipped on rear ends numerous times… cleats would have been a smart choice for soccer in the sand. I quickly realized that in this different environment, I am no longer the ball of energy I once was. After 40 minutes and my fair share of missed opportunities and give aways, followed up by noticing the little kids on the side lines who were having plenty of laughs at my expense, I tucked my tail between my legs and watched the real players duke it out in the second half. You can tell soccer means everything to these people, every single person out there was giving it their all and played hard until the end. We ended up losing the game in a heartbreaking 1-0 fashion.  Although the defeat was hard to swallow, we all had lots of fun and a few good laughs.

Team Picture

 

After the game, we went back to Lamin’s Family compound. This was a much larger compound than his own place and it is where most of his extended family stays.  We enjoyed some fresh coconuts that were picked from one of the trees on their compound and then again were treated to a great meal. After this, Lamin suggested we go watch a soccer game, so we walked to this video room which was about a block away. This shack was the size of a small bedroom and had aisles of shaky wooden benches line up like church pews facing a 30inch tube in the front, nothing to complain about considering the 10 Dalasi (35 cent) cover charge. At least 20 people packed in here for the big game as we watched Manchester United come back against Blackpool and win the English Premier League title. This was definitely the most fun I have had watching a soccer game.  Again, it wasn’t hard to notice that the Gambian youth love their soccer.

From here, we called it a day and went back home to ice our wounds from the game.

Jaama rek,

Lamin (oh yea, I acquired a Gambian name)

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Summer School Gambian Style

22 05 2011

The past week has been relatively busy, that is from an African point of view of course. On the weekend we went with Kebba around to three different job sites to do a little surveying and check how the projects are coming along. The real work with them starts in two weeks, so for now we’re just getting a feel for the kind of work they do. On Monday we joined the West African Community Development Training Center (WACD-TC) to begin a three week course on development. The course will give us an opportunity to get some experience working with the locals and see how some of the teaching methods here differ from back home. After only a week of class, I have had lots of fun getting to know my fellow classmates and adapting to this different way of learning. To give you some idea, I’ve shown below the outline for our class, which is posted on the wall of the facility, and under it I have shown the outline we have been following for the first week of class.

 Now I knew before coming to The Gambia that they live on ‘African time’ here, meaning they take things much more slowly and rarely rush to do things. For most of you who know me well, know that this is right up my alley but, in the first week, there were times when even I was getting a bit frustrated here.

Typical Day at WACD-TC

9:00am – 11:00am Class Session

 -Arrive before 9, chat with the classmates outside… get seated around 10 after, chat some more… start class around 20 after. Coast slowly through the material; spend a large amount of time on seemingly simple activities. Do an individual activity, given more than enough time to finish it multiple times. Go over answers with the class and beat the point of the task into our heads. Break around 11.

11:00am-11:20am Break

-Have a break for some fresh air. Grab a bite to eat from a close by shop. The snack of choice is a roll of bread (tapa lapa, see picture) with mayo and potato or egg, sauced up with ketchup (woo!) and sprinkled with some powdered beef broth. If this doesn’t sound appetizing enough, it’s all wrapped up to go in the news section of yesterday’s paper. Surprisingly, it’s one heck of a treat.

– Check my watch at 11:20, notice nobody is back in their seats yet… continue chatting and joking around with the class outside. Return to seats around 11:30.

11:20am – 1:45pm Class Session

-Class resumes around 11:45. Typically we would now form groups. Getting these groups sorted seems to take a good 5 minutes. Once in these groups, another ‘hands on’ activity is done. Again, a seemingly excessive amount of time is given for the task and the topic is then taken up with the facilitator and beaten to a pulp once more. Break when the activity is complete, usually between 1:30 and 1:40.

1:45pm – 230pm Prayer Break

– This break is pretty much the only strict structure for the class, as the locals pray at 2pm. I usually get another tapa lapa and then hang out with the classmates and maybe squeeze in a small lesson of Mandinka (one of the local languages). Stroll back to our seats around 2:40.

2:30pm – 4pm Class session

– Session. Usually another group activity (more than enough time given) ending with a presentation. We end around 3:30pm and that’s it for the day!

From my description you might get the impression that not much is getting done here, however, it is quite the opposite. The way they have set up the course is laid back and stress free, which I feel has made it easier to absorb the material and at the same time I have been able to get to know many of the locals pretty well.

Anyhow, that’s been my week. Now time to sit back, relax and catch up on some sleep… under a bugnet doused in bug spray, of course.

Hope the May 24 weekend is treating all of you back home nicely!

Until next time,

John





Wolof, Banjul and a little bit of action

13 05 2011

Me, Alpha Jallow, Dan and Yena at Alpha's House

Well it’s been a week since I touched down on African soil for the first time and I feel like I’m beginning to get used to the lifestyle here. This past week has been mainly about getting used to the culture and familiarizing ourselves with the area. The first couple of days were spent with our Gambian contact Alpha Jallow learning one of the local languages, Wolof. Alpha took us to Leybato, where under ocean side palm trees we were taught the Wolof script, greetings (a huge part of Gambian culture) and some useful phrases. The language isn’t too complicated so learning it in that low stress environment and by listening to the locals speak it, I’ll be fluent (passable) in no time! 

Alpha also took us out to the country’s capital, Banjul. To get there, we decided to use local taxis for the first time which was quite the experience. The cabs here are much different than back home as instead of hiring them; they all just have a set rate to get to a certain area. This can be convenient as there are constantly cabs slowing down beside you, honking their horns and yelling out where they are heading… however, you can probably see how this would get super annoying if you are walking down the street not looking for a cab. Nonetheless, it took two cabs to get to Banjul which is about 20km away from where we are staying and cost about 1 Canadian dollar. Once in Banjul we visited the famous Arch 22 which overlooks the entire city (see photos) and the crowded Banjul market, both must sees in The Gambia.  Before coming to The Gambia, I assumed that since Africa is a lot less industrialized, there would be a lot less smog. However this doesn’t seem to be the case. Keep in mind, I am just talking about the popular ‘tourist’ areas around the coast in Banjul, Fajara and Serrekunda, I’m sure it’s not like this up country. Although there are much less cars here, almost all of them have +350 thousand km’s and just spit out the darkest and thickest fumes. Between that and the smell of fresh fish in the market I was holding my breath for most of our journey through the city.

The next day, we went to the MoA (Ministry of Agriculture) offices for the first time to meet the staff. We had a brief meeting with the team that specifies on soil and water management where they outlined some of the projects that they are currently working on and where we would come into play. They all seemed quite enthused to have us there and from what they were telling us, it seems like we will have a busy and adventurous few months ahead of us!

A few days back; Yena, Dan and I were walking down the ocean side road to check out the fishing market when about 20 soldiers came running up the field towards us yelling and wielding assault rifles (AKs). As if this wasn’t enough, they all then dove and aimed at us. At this point I was getting ready to grab Dan and use him as a human shield and then we figured it out that they were just training and noticed the group of soldiers standing on the other side of the road laughing at us. They seemed to think it was hilarious… I wouldn’t agree. From here, we went to the Kachikally Crocodile pond to check out some croc’s (check the photo and video) and then called it a day.

Thanks again for reading,

Jaama rek,

John





Landed safely in Africa, Let the fun begin!

6 05 2011

Wow. What a day.  13 hours of flights, 7 hours of hanging out in airports, a car ride and we’re finally here! The flights were pretty standard; watched 3 movies from Toronto to Brussels and then on the second flight to The Gambia we were blessed with a 6 hours feature presentation that I liked to call ‘the screaming of an angry baby’. Not the most ideal conditions to squeeze some sleep in, but at that point I took what I could get (about an hour, tops).

It hit me when we were descending towards the Banjul Airport and I could actually see the River Gambia. The country that looked so small on the map suddenly grew vast as we approached. After landing at the tiny Banjul International Airport (tiny in comparison to Pearson Int. Airport I guess…) things got real Gambian, real fast. We were met by our Gambian contact at the airport and packed into his 80’s Land Rover complete with one side view mirror, a malfunctioning speedometer and shocks that had seen better days. From here we took off to Fajara (a small, relatively developed village we are staying in by the coast) which was about a bumpy 15 minute drive from the airport. We found out very quickly that the rules of the road here aren’t the same as in Canada. First of all, almost every car is at least 10 years old and people honk like it’s their day job.  Gambians honk for absolutely everything, it was not a problem that the radio in our car was long gone as we were serenaded with a symphony of beeps and toots during the entire trip. Another thing I noticed quickly was the amount of bikers and people walking on the edge of the road. When I say ‘edge of the road’, that is exactly what I mean. The main road we were on is paved but there are no shoulders what so ever. You can imagine the yelp I let out when we approached oncoming traffic while passing a biker for the first time. Nonetheless, the locals seemed to be used to this terrifying driving scenario and although I was holding my breath during every pass, there were no collisions…not today at least. You might be wondering, as I was for a second, why these cyclists don’t bike beside the road. Well this is because the sides of the road aren’t any safer. Just as the pavement stops (has broken off) there is just dirt/sand which either has massive holes or it is covered with garbage. With just one look at the side of the road it wasn’t hard to see that this area has a serious garbage problem. There is garbage littered everywhere, I even saw a woman walking out of her house with a garbage container, dump its contents beside the road and just walk back inside. Pretty crazy.

Shortly after, we arrived at the Sunbird Lodge which we will call home for the time being. This place is owned by an English man and his mother and is about a 3 minute walk from the beach. We each have our own room which is equipped with a bed, bathroom, kitchen (with fridge), wireless internet and has mango trees surrounding the outside. Yup, we’re roughin’ it here in Africa.

And just as I finished typing the above paragraph, the power went out for the night and most of day 2. As a result this is posted a day later than I would have liked, better late than never though!

Thanks for reading, I hope it wasn’t too long and boring… but since it was my first post from Gambia, I wanted to include as much as I could!

Ps. I also found out quickly that JulBrew, the local beer, is 25 Dalasi (28 Dalasi = 1 USD)… Uh oh!





Why The Gambia?

9 04 2011

Hey all!

Since I am traveling to The Gambia this summer, I have decided to keep a blog. I plan on adding new posts weekly to update everyone back home on what I’ve been getting into. Hopefully this will allow me to forward my experiences to you and act as a looking-glass into a developing country. I am new to this, so please bear with my seemingly inevitable blogging faux pas.

For those of you who don’t know, The Gambia is the smallest mainland country in Africa and is located on the north-western coast of the continent. Agriculture is huge for The Gambia, as it accounts for 90% of the country’s exports. However, due to Gambia’s intense rainy season (June – October), whereby they receive ~1000mm of precipitation, the country has numerous issues in the agricultural sector, specifically with soil loss and erosion.

How is a country where 1/3rd of the people live on less than $1.25/day supposed to grow and thrive when the means in which it relies on for income is continually challenged by Mother Nature?

During the summer, Dan Hyland, Danielle Ahadzie and I will have the privilege of working with The Gambian Ministry of Agriculture with the aim of addressing the roots of these problems and providing our insights into how to approach these issues. Now I know full well that 3 months in a country is not enough cure it of its long-term ailments (I mean I’m good, but not that good…), but I feel that with the drive and determination that we bring to the table we can realistically get the ball rolling on an improved future for the Gambians. 

As I count down the days until my May 4th departure, I am growing more and more excited but also apprehensive of the lifestyle that I will have to become accustomed to. As this is my first trip overseas, I have my own thoughts on what it will be like to live in an African country, as I’m sure you all do, which stem mainly from T.V., movies and some background research. Hopefully my firsthand experiences will enable me to paint a new picture of Africa in all your minds.

Thanks again and enjoy!

ps. Please feel free to comment on my posts with your thoughts or concerns and contact me directly if needed.