23rd October 2018
It’s already our long awaited mid-term break and we booked Lamin and his jeep to take us to Bijilo to book a beach hotel for three days before going off the beaten track into the African bush to see the famous wall art in a village called Bukuneh.
We were happy with Lemon Creek Resort and booked two double rooms in their laid back Spanish style hotel, then headed off to south east Gambia along rutted jungle tracks – thank goodness we had Lamin to drive us in his four wheel vehicle! The recent rains had gouged out the sandy paths and the jeep tilted quite alarmingly in places so we had a hair raising ride much to Jordan’s delight (he was riding ‘shotgun’ in the front passenger seat!) before we finally made it to Galwoya and Bukuneh.
Wall art is a very urban phenomenon worldwide but in The Gambia these amazing paintings by renowned wall artists from Europe and the USA have been done on the mud walls of village huts in the bush a few years ago and have quickly become a tourist attraction.
Sitting by the swimming pool of Lemon Creek Hotel in the Bijilo district of The Gambia enjoying a three day holiday from our television-free, power cut prone & running water challenged house (the Wacky Warehouse) in Bakau during Marina International School’s week-long Mid-Term Break. In this beautiful oasis of creature comforts, standby generators kick in within seconds of the power going off, water gushes giddily out of taps & showers, there is air conditioning in the bedrooms and cable TV with a family movie channel – so the kids are in heaven!
Can’t believe we have already been here for two whole months. It’s been a truly out-of-body experience! We are continually amazed by the daily challenges that Africans have to face and yet their smiles are genuine, their handshakes warm and they are always only a heartbeat away from breaking into song or moving to the music.
I greatly admire their resilience and their love of life in the face of grinding poverty, untold hardship and insurmountable obstacles such as the criminal lack of public transport, the terrible condition of their roads, the unhygienic condition of their food outlets (even in urban areas), the poor selection of products in their shops and supermarkets, the horrendous state of their government schools, private schools and even their premier international school (Marina!), their university which is out of reach for the majority of young people because it charges such high fees, the widespread corruption that seems to be endemic in this part of the world…..
Yet the Gambia (being the smallest country in mainland Africa) has a population of only 1.5 million – and I recall how it didn’t take that long for President Premadasa to build 1 million houses for our people back in the late 1970s – so how hard can it be for the government here to build 500,000 houses – one for each family living here and to provide each of these wretched bush villages with electricity – just as Premadasa did! It’s not rocket science, is it?
Sometimes I get so incensed thinking about it, I feel like seeking an audience with the new President of the Gambia – Adama Barrow (who is a kind, peaceful man who was voted into power when Gambians finally rose up against their former Prez Yahya Jammeh who was a greedy, cruel and power-hungry dictator (sound familiar?) who ruled this lovely country with an iron fist for 23 years) – and telling him how to obtain the foreign aid he needs to feed, clothe, house and educate such a handful of people.
Is it because I’m 60 now (and have seen my own country develop so well – even with such a comparatively huge population AND in the aftermath of such a long drawn out & debilitating civil war) that I see it as something that is not that hard to do…?!!
My heart goes out to the little children (we thought Chinese little ‘uns were the cutest kids ever when we lived in Tianjin 12 years ago – but are now convinced that African children are the most beautiful in the whole wide world!) and young people in this country – to be denied the right to education seems so criminal to me, born and raised as I was in a country that provided me with free education right the way through to university! I mean, how much would it cost to give the few Gambian young people aged 18 – 25 years old, free university education? They are such a small population group, it wouldn’t cost much at all!
Marina School has provided us with a house which is only 5 minutes’ walk away (which is actually the best thing about the Wacky Warehouse!) We do remind Jordan and Rai about the immense privilege they have of being one of the few kids worldwide who can walk to school every day within the space of a few minutes!
Right outside our boundary wall though are a bunch of very young kids who play in the sandy lane there (only a handful of main roads are tarred here) and I have a burning desire to teach them English. I bought some Ladybird First Readers from Timbooktoo Bookshop with my first salary and hope to kickstart my first lessons next Monday after we return from school at 4:00 pm.
I know this is only like fixing a band aid over the huge ulcer of extremely poor educational facilities here – but I have to do something to help these kids in the face of such a massive lack of education and opportunity in their lives!
However, Paul is not very happy at work in Marina Junior School. The school board has run the place in a very inefficient way for years and years and are reluctant to change things around for the betterment of the school. The staff is paid really low salaries – and (as they used to say in Sri Lankan international schools) it’s obvious that if you pay peanuts, you will only get monkeys! The grounds are huge and the school buildings are very well situated but the facilities are in desperate need of an upgrade! The board (consisting mainly of parents) seems to have frozen the school fees as well as teacher recruitment over the past year so there is a basic lack of finances to develop the school in key areas. The list goes on….
Because he isn’t very happy in school and feels that what he can achieve for the school is very limited, Paul also feels that the country itself is quite challenging to live in due to the power cuts every 24 hours (anything from 1 – 3 times during the day and/or night with the duration of each outage being a few minutes or upto 4 hours at a time!) and the lack of running water in our bathroom and kitchen whenever the power goes off – because they have fixed an electric water pump to the water tank in the backyard and there is no water in the taps or shower unless you switch the pump on…???!!! So if there is no power and you can’t therefore switch the pump on, then you don’t have any access to water in either the kitchen or the bathroom! Weird, or what??! But then, this is Africa!!!
Paul is also impatient with the lack of transport (there are no buses or trains – and we do recall trishaws with lots of nostalgia – haha!) We are dependent on flagging down bush taxis (really ancient Mercedes Benz cars painted yellow with two green stripes running across the roof and bonnet!) and negotiating prices before every trip to the bank or to buy groceries can be very disheartening! He also gets put off by the lack of available products and the limited food choices available here.
So during this school break we have been doing a lot of thinking and discussing and examining our options about whether we can and will stay in The Gambia for the duration of our two-year contract – or tell the board that we will stay for just one year – or even only wait for the six month probationary period on our contracts and then return to Sri Lanka.
Coming to Africa has been an awesome experience for us all and has enabled us to really understand and appreciate the immense privilege it is to have been born and raised in SL – what a truly blessed island we belong to! Paul talks often of how beautiful and modern and developed SL is as a country and has now begun to call it ‘home’ – a term he only used to refer to the UK before! Now he says fondly ‘I have two homes – one is England because of its meadows and sheep (!!) and the other is Sri Lanka because it has such a ‘wow’ factor (beaches, tea plantations, ancient cities, wildlife reserves – it’s got EVERYTHING!) – and because you and the kids are Sri Lankans!’ He says he really needed to come to Africa in order to get a kick up his backside to help him appreciate just how wonderful life was in SL!!
Jordan is being a typical teenager and loves wandering the streets of our neighbourhood and making friends with the local boys. He enjoys Gambian street food (‘Benachin’ which is rice cooked with fresh fish and tomatoes, ‘Domoda’ chicken or beef or mutton cooked with vegetables and peanut sauce and chocolate buttered French bread which is his favourite dessert!) and plays football on the beach every Friday and Saturday. However, when we ask him whether he likes it here, he always pulls a face and says ‘This country is crap, the life here is crap and Marina school is crap…’ etc. Funnily enough, that is exactly what he said about Sri Lanka and the British School when we were still in SL..…haha….so we’re not too unhappy with his comments and, in fact, we suspect that he will be the one who misses Gambia more than the rest of us if and when we do go back to SL!
Rai absolutely loves Marina School – she likes the new friends she has made (a Nigerian, an Indian and a Lebanese girl), her class and all her High School teachers! She also likes being in the Gambia – loves the colourful clothes the girls wear and has plans to get her hair braided like theirs – in those complicated corn rows! She turns thirteen tomorrow and is thrilled to be celebrating her birthday in this country!
I love being here too and really enjoy working at the High School teaching English to the First, Second and Fourth Formers there. However, life IS challenging with all the many hindrances to smooth daily living that we so take for granted in Sri Lanka and elsewhere in the world.
We are definitely at a crossroads right now and would appreciate your prayers for God’s wisdom and guidance to inform our decisions over the next few days and weeks as Paul and his colleague William (the Head of High School) confront the school board with what they think is wrong with the way the school is run and with their proposals to solve the many problems that it faces.