We Survived Three Months

24thNovember 2018

It’s hard to believe that it’s exactly three months since we landed in the Gambia. The past month has definitely been a trial by fire for us. The main reason is that the water supply provided by the National Water & Electricity Company (NAWEC) of Bakau which is the suburb where we live came to a complete standstill four weeks ago and there was absolutely no water from the mains! Looking back I find it hard to imagine how on earth we managed to survive such an acute shortage of water. 

We don’t think we will ever look at water in the same way again – a trickle of water from a tap became as precious as gold dust to us over the past month! We learned to save water like crazy, collecting every last drop of water in buckets, basins, bowls & bottles. We learned to have a wash with a one-litre bottle of water poured over ourselves before we went to work and school in the mornings. We were told that we could call the Fire Brigade who came last week and filled up our water tank with a huge fire hose – the sound of gushing water was absolute music to our ears! Of course we had to pay for it and we suspect that they were providing the service illegally! We also borrowed water from a neighbour who was rich enough to have dug their own borehole and passed a hose over the wall so we could fill up our tank – although they weren’t too keen to provide this service on a regular basis. 

Then this morning – lo and behold! NAWEC had finally got their act together (after 4 full weeks of procrastination and mismanagement!) and we had water flowing into our pipes from the mains!! What a shock to turn on a tap and find liquid actually flowing from it!!! The lack of water was the main pressure point of frustration for us. It certainly is for me. It’s the only reason that I would consider leaving the Gambia.  

It’s true that the power failures every 24 hours still continue unabated but somehow we have all got used to that –  even in spite of the weird way you have to pay for electricity. This is on a pre-paid card system where you have to buy an amount of electricity beforehand and when the power cuts off (most often in the middle of the night of course – aarrggghhhh!), you then have to get your torch, pick up the pre-paid card, peer at the TWENTY digit number on it and read it out to your husband/son/daughter who should be up on a chair in front of the electricity meter to punch in the numbers in the correct order – then you wait with baited breath for the power to turn back on automatically! If it doesn’t, it means you messed up with the numbers, so you have to try again!!    

It’s also true that there is a lack of transport that can be very annoying when one wishes to just go down to get some essential items from the shops. You need to stand by the road and wait until a bush taxi trundles past, then flag it down and haggle over the price before getting into one – and then you need to repeat this process after you come out of the shops with your bags of groceries!

Henry Caring’s brother gave Paul his first haircut in The Gambia!

Then there’s also the fact that there are no street names or house numbers in the Gambia – yes, you read that correctly! So when Paul and I went to open our bank accounts (in order for the school to deposit our salaries there), we filled out forms with our names and workplace etc – but for our place of residence – we had to describe where exactly we lived to the bank clerks at GT Bank and in the space where it said ‘Address’, they drew a map of where we said our house was – without a number or a street name to identify it – hahaha!!! Paul is apparently always teasing his Junior School senior management team saying that he and his wife are going to start a new fashion by going outside our house and painting a big (random) number on the boundary wall – so that everybody will follow suit – and it will start a revolution! We have no idea how on earth the post office (or courier companies) manage to deliver letters and parcels?!!!

So, as you can see, life is really quirky in Africa. It can be irritating and frustrating and downright incomprehensible at times. But then there are those moments of splendour that completely blow you away with the sheer variety of His creation on this beautiful and bizarre continent: like when you’re walking to school crossing the vast playing field and you come across a huge flock of vultures in the middle of the tall waving grass, so ugly with their bald heads and scrawny necks and yet with such majestic wingspans, they take your breath away! Or the brightly clad women in their flowing dresses and headscarves, chubby babies tied to their backs, waving cheerfully to you from across the street. Or the huge herds of white goats that trot haphazardly along sandy lanes and confidently across paved roads in the face of oncoming traffic which grinds to a halt as though there is a tacit understanding among the drivers that the goats have right-of-way! Or the big white smiles on the beautiful black faces of girls with their hair done in perfect cornrows. Or returning home after a particularly tiring day at school, you find a donkey lying down right in front of your gate and no amount of cajoling by the owner’s small son is making it move – the donkey is unmoved by the little boy’s pleas and closes its long-lashed eyes firmly – so absolutely sweet in its stubbornness!   

Bringing Christmas memories of another donkey trudging to Jerusalem with its precious load

Jordan and Rai had a bout of the ‘flu this past week but were back in school by Friday. They are both sitting for their term end exams over the next three weeks. The school term goes right upto December 20th. We are not sure what we will be doing over Christmas other than watching a black man in a red Santa suit riding a donkey cart on the beach! Because Paul (together with William, the Head of High School) was (and still is) having an ongoing tussle with the school board about the running of the school, we weren’t sure whether we would still be here at Christmas so we didn’t make any concrete plans about how we would celebrate it. Since the board has capitulated on several fronts, both Paul and William have decided to stay on at Marina International – at least for the second term. So we do need to make some definite plans now.  

Over the Christmas holidays, I would like to visit Senegal the big sprawling neighbouring country that completely surrounds little Gambia –  because it is a Francophone nation and very different to the Gambia apparently. Paul’s bugbear is that we have no transport which makes us too dependent on the bush taxis – so he wants to buy a secondhand car and the school is willing to give him a loan that he wants to pay back within a few months. He wants to concentrate on finding and buying a vehicle over the holidays – no mean feat since we are foreigners and wont to be played out by local car dealers. We would, of course, have loved to have come back for a Sri Lankan Christmas but the very short duration of the school holiday and the exhorbitant prices of the air tickets makes this quite impossible for us.

30th November 2018

Since I had been to the Methodist and Baptist churches in the neighbourhood as well as a charismatic one, I thought I should also go to the Anglican St Paul’s Church which is only around the corner from where we live. It was a lovely little congregation with three women priests officiating and afforded me the chance to have my first communion in The Gambia. After the service, they served breakfast snacks and juice in a small hut outside overlooking the sea.

The choristers leaving the church after communion service – the singing was beautiful!

The weather has changed quite dramatically now that the stifling heat of October has been swallowed up by much cooler mornings and evenings. We have been told that this is the beginning of the nine months of near-perfect weather in the Gambia which makes it so attractive to European tourists especially in the winter months from November to April. This is also the start of the harmattan, the cold dry wind that sweeps across all of sub-Saharan Africa during this season and I am immensely excited to be here to experience it. 

That is mainly because all the African literature I have ever read never fails to mention it – and it has therefore always sounded so romantic to me! By the way, I am now reading an average of five books a month – a little more than one per week – haven’t read like this since I was in university! Reading a cross-section of novels from west African authors (Nigerian & Ghanian) and south African writers (from Zimbabwe & Botswana) have greatly enriched my understanding of the continent and it’s simply awe-inspiring to be here in the Gambia reading African literature!   

Our severe difficulties with the lack of water over the past few weeks has meant that I couldn’t start my English classes for the poor kids in our neighbourhood. I am in the throes of designing, delivering & marking the end of term English exams to Forms 1, 2 & 4 over the next three weeks so I simply won’t have the time to start the neighbourhood classes until the third week of December. I am disappointed about the delay in starting these classes but have come to understand that I have to work according to GMT (otherwise known here as ‘Gambia Maybe Time’!)

We celebrated Jordan’s fifteenth birthday by taking him and William (his principal) to Sunday Brunch at the Sheraton Hotel on a lovely stretch of beach in the suburb of Brufut. Spoiled as we are by Sri Lanka’s excellent hotels and buffets, we were still very excited to be faced with an array of different western and Gambian dishes – and the kids had a lot of fun because William is a born entertainer who has rattled around the world and has many tall stories to tell! Jordan had already celebrated his birthday on the day itself (Friday) with his friends on the beach but he had posted a video on Instagram of the Sheraton lounge and pool area with the caption ‘Best birthday present ever!’ so Paul and I were happy that we had made the right choice in taking him there for his birthday treat!  

Birthday Boy with his Special Guest

However, morning, noon and night the one thing that has occupied my heart and mind over the past month has been the series of political crises in our beloved land. I have been repeatedly shocked by the events that have unfolded over the preceding days and weeks in our tortured nation and greatly saddened by the vileness & complete unworthiness of human beings against the mesmerizing beauty of a land that I always think of as ‘God’s own country’. I pray every hour for His divine and merciful intervention in our homeland! 

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