Friday, April 13, 2012

Life in the Gambia

We live at the far left of the map, west of Serrekunde

The Gambia is a tiny country of less than two million people located on the West coast of Africa; it stretches along the Gambia river and is surrounded on three sides by Senegal. It is so small that it is hard to find on some maps. Although you may know quite a bit about our work here from previous posts, we also want to describe some aspects of daily life here.

We were rather surprised, when we arrived in January, to discover how "cold" it gets in the Gambia! Cool breezes from the ocean and harmattan, the dust-laden wind thats blows down from the Sahara, together have given us surprisingly cool days and nights ever since we got back.

We notice it especially in the evenings. During the day it can get quite hot, and even more when you are some distance inland, as we discover whenever we go to the university in Brikama. Thus, there are advantages to living where we do in Kololi, right near the ocean, although it is about 30 kilometers from the main campus of the university.

It can be cool even on the beach

In Nigeria it could also be cold in January and February, since we lived in Jos, on a plateau. We were not fully prepared for the cold, because the last time we were in the Gambia, October-December 2010, we found October so hot that we would sleep even without sheets, and the fans going full blast (when there was power, that is). Thankfully, it got a bit cooler in November that year, but we did not need any sweaters for those three months. During the past few weeks, however, we sometimes wondered whether we should have taken blankets and warmer sweaters along.

We are located about 10-15 minutes walk from the beach, which stretches as far as the eye can The see. These are not the most beautiful beaches we have ever seen, since they have been badly eroded by storms. A Dutch dredging company has tried to reconstruct the most severely damaged parts of the beach, but recent high tides have undone much of the work, leaving only piles of sand bags behind.

Since this photo was taken there has been further erosion

The most severely damaged part of the beach fronts two of the more popular local hotels. Kololi is the center of the tourist area of the Gambia. Numerous hotels and resorts have frontage on the beach, but they can also be found along the coastal road and some side roads leading to the beach.

The more popular hotels are quite pricey, but there are also apartments for less well-heeled tourists. And you can also find an endless array of restaurants, serving both Gambian and international cuisine at reasonable prices, at least by international standards. We can have a chicken dinner for two, drinks included for about ten dollars in total. Other dishes are slightly more expensive.

Our house is on a dusty street on the edge of the tourist area. It is actually part of a compound of two big houses that is rented by the Christian Volunteer Movement (CVM) to house the teams of surgeons, dentists, agricultural specialists, or pharmacists who come here every year for several weeks of ministry.These houses can sleep about thirty people, mostly on bunk beds.

During this period of our stay in the Gambia (January-May) we have had one house entirely to ourselves. We occupy a large bedroom, where we also do our work. The house has two more bedrooms upstairs, but none are in use at present, since no team is here at the moment. Some teams are expected in June, but we will have left by then.

Downstairs there is a huge living room with a large table that can seat about twenty students. This area is used as a classroom for the GTI courses. There is also a kitchen, a small dining area where we eat, and an office, where CVM has a printer. The other house is the mirror image of our ours in design, but without a classroom.

This year, because our stay has overlapped largely with the tourist season, we have found that provision of electricity has been better than in 2010, but it is still intermittent, and we never know when it will go off, and for how long. The tourist season is nearly over, and so we expect the power to become worse, but even so, it is certainly not worse than what we experienced in Nigeria, where we counted hours of available power, not the hours when it was gone. 
A cup of coffee on the beach

When we stayed here in 2010, we had someone cook for us during the week, but we went out to eat on Saturday and Sunday. Since we are here for four months this time, we are happy that we can cook for ourselves, although we still go out occasionally. And can buy the basics within easy walking distance. The nearest grocery store is only 300 meters away. It is nowhere the size of the average grocery store in North America, but is quite well supplied for everyday needs. Thus we have survived quite well so far.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are also available at stands along the main road. But they are quite expensive, relatively speaking. There is a major market about five kilometers from here, but we rarely go there. And  there are numerous outlets on any given street where one can buy fresh bread every morning. Gambia is noted for its tapalapas, which look like small baguettes, but are chewier.

Although we have the use of CVM`s vehicle, a Land Rover, we use public transportation as much as possible. The rates are fixed per distance and are not expensive. When Wendy travels to Brikama for her classes she uses a combination of taxi`s and mini-vans, and the total cost of traveling 30 kilometers is less than a dollar!

Walking barefoot along the beach

We enjoy walking. Almost every day we go for long walks along the ocean, especially when the tide is low and the sand is firm. The only drawback is that we are regularly approached by young Gambian men who want to sell us jewelry, get us to try their juice, or simply to engage us in conversation. Some who market themselves as tourist guides are called "bumsters," but they dislike the term.

They seem friendly, but they can be very aggressive. They latch on to tourists, and offer to accompany them wherever they want, for a fee, of course. And they refuse to take "no" for an answer. We have found it best to ignore them. Yet they are so persistent that at times one almost has to be rude to be rid of them, and walk along. But they can act highly offended and show rudeness in return.

Some of the young men clearly aim at forming a relationship with a female tourist, with the hope of going to Europe and the UK, which is where the majority of the tourists are from. Often one can see these "bumsters" walking had in hand with a "toubab," as foreigners are known here. They are quite noticeable, as no African would walk hand in hand, not even with their spouse. Recently, we saw a woman, who was at least 75, walking with a Gambian young enough to be her grandson. Sad to say, the women are complicit in this; they are often lonely and come here for companionship and sex.

This is sad. It is no more acceptable, of course, when older men find young Gambian women as companions on the beach. It the sordid side of tourism, which has become the most important part of the Gambian economy, since there is no industry to speak of.

Some Gambians keep cattle near the beach

Many Gambians survive by farming; even if they live in the city, they will have a plot of land in their village where they go when the rains come. But the rainy season has been reduced in the last few years; while it used to last from May to October, much as in Nigeria, more recently the rains have not come until July. So many people are hungry here.

Begging is common throughout Africa In the past most beggars here were people with disabilities, but in the last few weeks we see more, especially women with small children. We typically do not respond by giving money on the streets, primarily to avoid attracting attention to ourselves as having deep pockets. But we also feel that there are better ways to help Gambians survive. It is our hope that the help we give through education will, in the long run, give our Gambian friends a means of survival that protects their dignity. Yet our hearts are torn by the suffering we see everyday.

There is much more to tell about living in the Gambia. Words, and even images, cannot convey the sounds and smells of life here. There is much that makes us sad, but we are also very thankful that God has brought us to this country to help train pastors and other church leaders and to teach at the university. This is the reason why we are here.


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