Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Uncle George and other characters

I love the cast of curious, inspirational, eccentric and adorable characters that I have met during my time in The Gambia, both local and expatriate.

Uncle George heads the list for the most well-connected, and the snappiest dresser. A former national footballer, and president of the National Olympic Committee, he is the ‘fixer’ in the team due to his impeccable connections with the who’s who of the country. And he is always the epitome of sartorial splendour in his co-ordinated safari suit and pork pie hat.

He’s also an amazing host and invited me to his home for dinner last week, laying on a fabulous spread of Gambian dishes including a super indulgent Benachin, the most delicious spiced fried onions I’ve ever tasted and peanut sauce baked chicken pieces.

He also had a most interesting guest list – myself and Ndimbalan, the runner-up in the Miss Africa pageant (a long-legged beauty with the appetite of a horse and an equally eye-candylicious brother as an escort) and a trio of gorgeous young Gambian girlies.

Maurice, the co-proprietor of Safari Garden and Sandele Eco Resort, is also another memorable resident. Gruff,  irascible, a stickler for service consistency and a great dry sense of humour, he is old school expat meets Victor Meldrew, but in the nicest possible way. And he makes a killer chocolate and beetroot cake.

Add to the mix, my quartet of colleagues at ASSET/Plymouth Banjul – the quiet but deep Ndimbalan, sassy Sarah the admin and finance manager, smart-mouth Daouda who should really be in politics, and tenacious Badu; as well as Adama – my big boss who has been such an inspiration – and his daughter Mariama, the new face of Gambian businesswoman.

My expat friends – the Fajara Massive – including construction manager and drum n’ bass diva Gemma, her partner DJ Two-Bad Toubab Dave, Sam the card sharp/ architect, ‘too cool for school’ hospitality student Fatou – the Gambia returnee - and Tom (Foday), the absinthe fairy (long story, don’t ask), all contributed their own individual magic.

This post has dissolved into an Oscar-worthy thank-you speech and before I get too maudling I shall end with a quick vote of thanks to the Safari Garden team, who took such good care of their often only guest – Lamins 1 to 4 including PaBoy the model, Mohammed, James from Guinea-Bissau, Serrah the general manager, Fernando the silent but special, Kemo, Manjiki, Bakary and Adama the chef.

The volunteer culture mixed with the weird and wonderful world of international expatdom plus a heavy dose of Africa makes for a heady brew and strong cast of characters. It almost reads like an exotic soap opera. Colonialisation Street.

Let them eat..biscuits

The Gambia has a long history of oral storytelling, and ASSET’s menu of cultural encounters includes an afternoon session spent with a local orator and musician, listening to folklore tales with the gentle strains of the traditional kora (stringed instrument) as background music.

Myth, magic and Mandinka rites of passage set the scene for the evolution of the country and its peoples, but one of my favourite stories concerns the current president.

The former bodyguard of the last president, he rose to power via a bloodless coup and has been at the forefront of the country’s drive for modernisation and expansion since the mid-90s.

A popular figure with the masses he periodically embarks on tours of the country – which surely can’t take long as it’s smaller than Yorkshire – visiting the populace and checking on various initiatives.

Apparently the presidential caravanserai travel in a fleet of Hummers and assorted vehicles, and it is a federal offence to be on the road in your own charabanc should the procession pass by your village/town/road less travelled. In fact you are legally obliged to pull off the road, switch off your engine and wait patiently, with the opportunity to hop out and wave of course.

He also has a penchant for distributing sweet treats along the way, with flunkeys assigned to casually toss small packets of Nice biscuits out of the back of the Hummer entourage en route.

A friend of mine had the dubious honour of being hit fair and square on the head with a packet of the aforementioned cookies. Definitely a tale to tell the grandkids.

The president passed through Fajara last week. I begged my colleague Ndimbalan to let us park up and sit roadside in the hope of catching a crumb or two, but he had me on a strict schedule so it’s been rainchecked till my return in November. After all, I DO know the vice president – and I love a nice biscuit with my tea.

School for scoundrels

I’m no fan of the Gambian bumster – as you may have surmised - but I am guilty of stereotyping the young male of this fine nation as I have discovered that the fine art of bumstering is not confined to this slip of a country, and is a multicultural affliction.

And it’s not other West African nationalities. The first was a senior official from the Libyan Embassy, a regular at Safari Garden who seems to have taken a fancy to me. 

Maybe this is his attempt at a rapprochement between our two nations? 

Unfortunately his line in small talk is well, small, and his most exciting comment to date has been to berate me for having lived in the Middle East for 12 years and not be fluent in Arabic. Hmmm. Our subsequent – unplanned – meetings at a local Lebanese shisha joint and on the terrace where I was marooned during a rainstorm haven’t exactly cemented a lifelong friendship. He has even taken to lurking around the guesthouse and pumping my friends for information on my whereabouts.

The other international bumster-in-training was a 50-year old Filippino chap I met at a VSO farewell party on Pipeline Avenue. OK, he had been out in the boonies advising local farmers on the best crop cycles but I thought it was a bit presumptuous.

By far my favourite bumster has been the baggy trousered, half-my-body-weight, skinny-assed MOFO wannabe at Fajara Craft Market. He’s well known to the Safari Garden crowd and is usually a cool guy, but for some obscure reason – slow day at the office? – he decided to chance his luck with me. Big mistake. After a swaggering shirtless attempt at persuading me that Gambian guys really are the best I berated him for his appearance and told him to only come back and attempt to speak to me if, and when, he purchased some grown-up trousers and a belt.

For once he was speechless, you could almost see the pre-prepared patter dry up on his tongue, and he was off in a jiffy - but only to find his ID to prove to me that he was in fact a 33-year old male of the species merely masquerading as a Tupac lookalike. It didn’t help his case.

Despite their bad rep, I think I will almost miss the local bumster set, they’re good amusement value – if you can give as good as you get. But on the flip side, the sight of middle-aged British women, dolled up in their peacock splendour, walking the Senegambia strip and holding hands with nubile Gambian 'totty' is not something I could ever get used to and is truly cringeworthy.

Material girl

The Gambians set great store by good grooming and Friday is the day when practically everyone spruces up in their Sunday best – Gambian style – in acknowledgement of the Juma’a prayers and the end of the working week.

Not that Gambians aren’t well dressed at any other time. You will always see men neatly turned out in crisply ironed shirts and the women always seem to make an extra effort, but Friday sees a riot of colour on the streets as traditional dresses, shirts and headwraps are adopted by the masses.

After sporting the unplanned and inappropriate backpacker look in Ndemaban last week I wasn’t going to make that mistake again.

Sam, another volunteer friend, took us to Serrekunda Market at the weekend to pick up some authentic African print fabric. There’s something fascinating about African markets and sucking on our GMD2 bags of water (a cheaper alternative to bottles) we browsed the dusty lanes, declining offers of hooky DVDs, random plastic housewares and secondhand clothes (apparently this is where a lot of your charity garment donations end up – for sale), in search of  material bargains.

After sweating it out in a dark, fabric filled shop I emerged a few Dalasi lighter and clutching 10 metres of in your face primary coloured fabrics.

Lamin, the nimble fingered seamster of Five Star Tailor was press-ganged into a rush job so I would have something ready for the end of the week and came up trumps completing all three pieces by Thursday evening.

The large baggy African print harem pants and floor length bias cut red print skirt were briefly considered but for my grand Friday entrance it could only be the bright green patterned Gambian dress – the favourite colour of the President no less.

And did it elicit squeals of delight or derision? The former of course. We had a photocall in the garden to celebrate the occasion and the fact that I was bang ‘on trend’.

The only missing bit was the matching headwrap but rather like tourists getting their hair braided I knew there was only so far I could carry the whole look off.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

It's raining...when?

That's the million Dalasi question. The 'green season' rains (green season is the PR spin for monsoon in this neck of the woods, but an apt description) can strike at any moment, and the gathering of dark clouds isn't always a sign of heaven opening its floodgates until you feel the wind suddenly pick up.

After two extremely hot and humid days interspersed with overnight showers, I had just about reached breaking point, not just because I'm a wussy toubab but because of the various insect repellents and factor 30 suncream us pale faces need to slather on to survive the season. 

The sticky residue on my skin drives me insane, but I am still too new to this country to give it up, and too vain to go the sunburned package tourist route.

So the feel of that first juicy fat drop of rain on my skin while we were driving down the coast this morning, past the pungently scented fishing village of Tanjie, was an almost sensual experience. And all the better for being firmly ensconsed in a (virtually) rainproof four wheel drive.

By the time we made it back to Fajara however, the aftermath of the hour-long torrent had transformed Kairaba Avenue - the main drag - into a tranche of foot sucking gloopy red mud broken by pools of water deep enough to throw small children into.

I squelched into the Gampost office to finally mail my postcards home oozing worms of mud from between my toes with my flipflops casually throwing out little sprays of wet sand. I'm pretty sure the guy on the door rolled his eyes in dismay as he looked at my trail.

Of course when we got back to the office the rains had outed the electricity for most of the day so we were back on generator power, which roars like a bad-tempered lion, drowning out most attempts at quiet conversation.

To top it all off, three young men from the company that supply our printers etc. came to replace the toner cartridge. I think they were in training because as they pulled the security seal off the cartridge it erupted in a cloud of black powder...all over me, my laptop, the office.

And then the generator blew up.

All par for the course in Africa. 

Coming to you live from West Africa!

This Camp Africa media caravanserai just keeps on truckin’ and it is definitely going to my head.

The Gambia Tourism Authority has its own weekly radio show called ‘Tourist’ on West Coast Radio  (streaming live on 92.1FM in case you’re interested) and my colleague Ndimbalan and I were invited on as guests to talk about the Camp Africa initiative.

I’d forgotten what fun radio broadcasting is, and it briefly made me nostalgic for my days co-hosting and producing Saturday Xtra on Dubai’s talk radio station 103.8FM. I remember the frustrations we had with technical problems on the weekends and the dated studio set-up but we were positively spoiled in comparison.

While West Coast Radio doesn’t have the chi-chi carpeted, receptionist-staffed environs of its Middle Eastern counterparts, it does have bucketloads of enthusiasm, hip-swaying African music (Jalibab Kuyateh is the Cheb Mami of The Gambia and is top of my playlist this month) and a phone-in line that rings off the hook as Gambians are certainly not shy in expressing their opinions.

We were also joined by the colonel chap from the Tourism Security Unit down near the Senegambia tourist strip, who was on our eco village launch bus ride last week, and who is the regular ‘go to’ guy for complaints from both tourists and Gambians re local security issues.

Today he was talking about the Sunday Beach – an off-season initiative for Gambians which opens up the local beaches for picnics, football and general fun-making on the weekend. Unfortunately it has also seen an increase in harassment of younger women by groups of men due, allegedly, in part to inappropriate dress by the women. The thighs are a particularly salacious part of the body here in The Gambia and as such tight jeans or short skirts are frowned upon and the colonel and his team are now enforcing a stricter beach dress code.

It was an eye-opener, and the listeners – of which there are reportedly 250,000 across The Gambia as well as overseas expats – were all for the enforcement of the new dress code as sexual assault is not an accepted fact of life here in a country where virginity is still highly prized.

Our chat with the host Kebbeh on Camp Africa also elicited several calls and text messages, mostly of support, and I even managed to sneak in a couple of words of badly-pronounced Wolof as we wrapped up.

I felt a little dizzy when it was all over, not due to having reached the heights of stardom, but of the dehydration kind. My friend Gemma has gone down with malaria and is on a heavy dose of quinine (not the most pleasant drug) to get her back on track. This induced a mild level of panic as I’ve been sniffling away with a head cold for a couple of days and have been using it as an excuse to sink an extra JulBrew with lime every night as an added anti-malarial precaution. So today I’m back on the water, and feeling altogether more grounded and definitely less starry-eyed.


Monday, July 12, 2010

Back to the root(s)

I pushed the boundaries of my Gambian experience this weekend with a trip up country to the villages of Albreda and Juffureh – the place where US author Alex Haley traced his slave roots in the mid-1970s.

It was an 8am start (far too early for me in my relaxed African mode these days) and was pelting with rain when I left Safari Garden to head to Banjul port to join the river cruise.

Banjul is a commercial port and the visitor arrival experience is hardly the same as that of Dubai’s glitzy Cruise Terminal, rather a zigzag cab ride through towering columns of cargo containers and the beep-beep of reversing trucks. It’s definitely a ‘local’ experience.

It was still raining when we arrived and the sea was rather choppy, so we had to wait 30 minutes for the swell to subside before boarding the ‘Lady Jacerene’. Operated by husband-and-wife team Mervyn and Trish Baldwin, the boat was originally sailed over from the UK and now plies the River Gambia on a regular basis carrying a human cargo.

The trip to Juffureh was an opportunity to learn about human cargo of a different kind – the slave trade. West Africa and The Gambia was a prime pick-up point for slaves in the 18th century – and is where Alex Haley’s ancestor, Kunta Kinte, was captured before being transported to the tobacco plantations of Virginia in the US.

The twin villages of Albreda and Juffureh are a two-hour boat trip from Banjul and have been milked to the nth degree in the name of tourism and the Roots legacy. Recent moves have been made to make it an altogether more sensitive experience for first-time visitors to The Gambia. This doesn’t mean dumbing down the horrors of slavery, which may have been forgiven but certainly have not been forgotten (an oft repeated phrase by local villages guides), but making it a comfortable experience for western visitors to enjoy and not feel ‘preyed upon’.

A walking tour through the village is alternately traditional and trying. Kids are asked not to shout out ‘toubab toubab’ along the way or ask for things, but they invariably do and that can be dealt with, but the procession of women proffering calabash rattles, palm leaf fans and loofahs while you’re trying to get into the spirit of the place is a little taxing. And the stalls that make up the craft market at the end of the tour are best avoided as tourists are virtually manhandled into looking at bangles, masks and batik print items.

The Museum of Slavery is simple but well thought through, and there is also an audience with the village leader – another lady (go Gambia girl power) – although they do try and foist a photo opp on you as well as offering a home-printed certificate of visitation for GMD25.

Most disturbing for me was the wheeling out and photo opp of Kunta Kinte’s ninth generation descendant, a wizened old lady who just sits looking bemused at the assembled toubabs while a man named Omar Sharif, (gangsta style in aviator shades) plugs his book on the history of Juffureh from a worn briefcase.

That said, the locally trained guides are very helpful and knowledgeable and are paid for their services by the tour organiser, which avoids the whole distasteful handing over of cash on the jetty as they bid a fond farewell.

My favourite part of the day was the walk round James Island, opposite Juffureh, which, although being gradually eroded by the tide, houses the remains of the slave fort including one surviving dungeon – a dank basement room that could comfortably fit three of me inside it, but which would’ve had 24 male residents in its day. Slaves were also offered the opportunity to swim for their freedom to Juffureh on the opposite bank . A three-mile swim that looks entirely feasible but which after a few weeks spent chained, manacled and starved, led to an immeasurable number of watery graves.

We were escorted home by a small pod of black dolphins, another familiar sight on the River Gambia. The sun was beating down mercilessly on the return trip but I was grateful for the opportunity to be up on deck and mindful of the fact that the Mandinka of Juffureh, packed in to the hold like sardines, would have just been grateful for a lungful of fresh air.

Village people

One thing I’ve learnt here in The Gambia is that things are not always what they seem and it’s a question of going with the flow and jumping in with both feet.

Last Friday I was invited, last minute – African style - to go on a site visit to check out a new eco tourism initiative in the village of Ndemban situated around 45 minutes up country from Fajara. Dress code was casual as we would be walking the site with officials from the Gambia Tourism Authority (GTA) and a few local dignitaries.

The GTA laid on a bus for us, a spicy prawn and chicken take-out dinner and, in addition, to various officials and representatives the bus also filled up with a half dozen khaki-uniformed military types including one rather stern colonel, complete with a swagger stick, who commanded a sharp salute at every police checkpoint en route.

It all seemed a bit much for a casual site visit.

So the sight of a 12-foot tall masked man on stilts, group of chanting ladies attired in the colour of the national flag (green, red and blue), drummers and dancers, villagers dressed in their Friday best, waving kids and local elders was something of a surprise, to say the least.

Especially as I looked like a backapcker of the worst variety – a dowdy moth to the multitude of butterflies flitting around me.

The hospitality couldn’t have been warmer though and we assembled in the central square for a series of welcome speeches, prayers, introductions (this included a short intro about me in Jolla, which concluded with a Gambian version of a solo Mexican wave and bowing of sorts) and an explanation of the project and how it will benefit the community.

This was accompanied by some good-natured heckling by the multi-hued chanting ladies who are apparently a village tradition and were the ‘town criers’ in days gone by, and who are now a prerequisite for any official occasion.

We did do the site visit – surrounded by curious children, some of whom cheekily tried to nab my water bottle and some of whom shyly slipped their hands into mine or high-fived me - and had a walk-through of the areas that will transform the regular village activities into a working tourist village that blends subsistence farming with new initiatives aimed at the interested tourist without it being bumster central.

To wrap it all up, we were invited to dine in the schoolhouse from the communal bowl of benachin (rice spiced with various things and chunks of beef) and a delicious bowl of chakri (yoghurt, milk, enough sugar to ruin the dental hygiene of an entire tribe and local couscous). Thankfully this was scooped up by the ladleful, otherwise I would’ve gone home without dessert!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Hangin' with the powers that be

Who would’ve thought that I would come all the way out to West Africa’s smallest nation and meet one of its most popular politicians?

‘Uncle’ George, the ex-footballer turned man-who-knows-the-world-and-can-get-anything-done, swung us an audience with the (female) Vice President of the country this week to present the Camp Africa project.

Thank goodness I brought one vaguely decent dress with me, although after forgetting to get it ironed I had to resort to laying it flat on the bed and piling all my books on top.

The meeting was a seriously cool coup and it got me a peek into the inner sanctum of Gambian politics at the State House in the capital, Banjul. I was prepared for stringent security pat-downs and much handing over of identification etc. but apart from the glut of police and national guard at each major checkpoint as we got further into the building, the only thing that attracted any undue attention was the gigantic piece of artwork we had with us as a gift for Her Excellency.

The d├ęcor was very much in emerging nation style with lots of early 80s floral stuffed sofas decorated with lace antimacassars and tables with photo albums of previous delegations. We waited in the office of the protocol chap who also had the luxury of a very large TV showing CNN.

Her Excellency was running late so we had a 90-minute wait. Once we’d exhausted small talk three of my colleagues had a little nap while I tried to erase the ravages of heat and humidity that continue to leave me looking like a hot sweaty pasty tourist with bad hair.

We were finally ushered in to a mahogany-veneer paneled office decorated with the biggest green leather sofa suite I’ve ever seen, lots of gold detailing and an ormulu clock or two. And it wasn’t the most intimate of briefings as we has a camera crew, local print media, a photographer, assorted other ministers, our gang of six and some other random people lurking at the back.

HE Aja Dr. Isatou Njie-Saidy has been a doyenne of the local political scene since the last republic, which makes her a major player, and she is well-respected and admired by all. I thought it would be a 10-minute courtesy call but she afforded us a whole 30 minutes of her time and we all got to say our bit before handing over the painting (although we did nearly create an international incident by almost spiking her in the eye with the pointy bit at the top).

Exit stage left.

And to top it all off we made the 10pm news bulletin which showed a wrap-up of the day’s government activity; and there we were, on GRTS (the national TV station), smiling and nodding. Next time, hair and make-up please!

Taxi know-how

Public transportation in The Gambia is in a league of its own. It can be quite daunting for the first-time visitor, but if you’re up for a challenge and love a bit of local interaction then it can be a lot of fun.

The yellow taxis are known as 5-5’s because it costs GMD5 (that’s Dalasi, the local currency) for a short-hop journey on either the Bakau to Serrekunda/Westfield Junction road or the Fajara to Senegambia road. Apparently it’s been GMD5 for years and although they tried to increase the prices last year to GMD6 it didn’t work, as it was just too much of a hassle to sort out change for GMD10.

To get a 5-5 you simply wait on the main road and put your hand out. These are shared taxis so if you pick one up at Traffic Light (this is a crossroads where the first traffic light in The Gambia was installed, hence the name), the cabbie will wait till he has three other passengers to fill the car and only then will you trundle off. Picking them up en route can be hit and miss, but in low season at least, there seem to be hundreds of them around.

My first 5-5 journey was with a delightfully rotund couple dressed up in their Gambian finery and a bandana-ed youth dressed in faux-ghetto stylee. It was a squeeze in the back, I think I had one buttock on the seat and the other barely inside the door, but thankfully it was only a 10-minute journey as we were a full vehicle.

The most amusing journey so far was the ride home from a local bar the other night. After 11pm as a toubab it’s often quite hard to find a 5-5 and so you need to negotiate a rate. We got him down to GMD40 (£1), a drop in the ocean for us, a good fare for him. Lamin (which is the local equivalent of Mohammed and always the name given to the firstborn son in the Wolof language) was a huge reggae fan and sang along to the radio at full volume all the way home, even through three police checkpoints.

If that’s too authentically local for you then the green tourist taxis are still ludicrously affordable, and you’ll get one all to yourself, but where’s the fun in that?

New broom, sweep clean(ish)

Bounding out of bed on my first free Saturday, ready to hit the highway and explore beyond the bounds of Fajara town I was thwarted by a national initiative known as ‘Setsetal’.

As mandated by HE, The President, the last Saturday of every month is national clean-your-compound-and-neighbourhood day. Actually it’s just from 9am to 1pm, but is religiously observed by the 1.5-million-strong population.

I think it’s actually a good excuse for a lie-in and for businesses to open for a half-day only. Major emergency? Need a taxi? You’d be lucky.

When the world finally emerged from its sweeping frenzy, I left Safari Garden expecting to be dazzled by a Singaporean-like veneer of fastidious tidiness – no more rotting mangoes on the street corner or stray plastic bags blowing by, but it all looked pretty much the same as the night before.

My local friends tell me that people do make an effort at home but I guess that if street cleaners can’t get taxis to get to work to pick up their brooms then there is going to be a missing link in the clean-up chain.

I think the Dubai government should implement the same thing, for all sectors of society, and have a task force conducting random checks of local neighbourhoods. Free brooms for all!

Tasty Volunteer 3, Winged Creatures 0

There was a massacre in room no. 4 at Safari Garden last night. I have been most assiduous in ingesting and anointing both body and bedroom in anti-mosquito measures but two gin and tonics and a late night debate on the merits of using marabous (local witch doctors) led me to be a bit careless with the mosquito net.

I knew I should’ve stuck to my usual bottle of JulBrew (the local beer), but at least tonic water has quinine.

So, I fell into bed at midnight to find two of the little devils dive-bombing the net from the outside. Armed with my imported can of PifPaf (I already have my eye on a mega can of the Gambian equivalent, Bop, when stocks run low) it was a case of quickest on the draw wins. Once they are dazed and confused with the fumes then it’s a quick vicious hand swat against the whitewashed wall – sorry Housekeeping – and job done.

It was only 20 minutes later as I dropped off that the whining started up again. One more mozzie had made its way under the net – or was it silently lying in wait? – and was on a revenge mission to avenge its fallen brethren. This time it was a handy flip-flop that saved my hide.

But joking aside, malaria is no joke here. Most of the expats I’ve met who have spent any length of time in the country have all had a bout of malaria at some point, even when taking prophylactics. And apart from the high incidence in small children, Gambians who travel overseas and then return home often succumb to a dose before readjusting.

Achy joints, headaches and flu-like symptoms are often a precursor and the advice is to go get a blood test if you even remotely think it’s malarial. The symptoms occur in repeating eight-hour cycles and if diagnosed early it just takes a course of antibiotics to return to full health but if untreated it can be extremely serious, or even fatal.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

From loofah to Wolof

The Gambia is Loofah-ville.

And that's not some wacky Jim Carrey-type character from a Dr Seuss tale.

I'm not much of a botanist and I always thought that loofahs came from the sea or mangroves. Turns out that they actually grow on vines. These vines are the pariah of the tropical garden as they are devilishly cunning and will wind, bind and choke their way through an entire residential compound.

The reason I am now rich with loofah facts is because I won one during a random poolside game of Trivial Pursuit last night. I think it may actually have been a booby prize but when I was handed the long fibrous cone on a stalk I thought it was an ear of dried corn.

But as I 'unwrapped' my gift (yup, how handy is that, they come ready wrapped!) it revealed a ready-to-use dried loofah. Fabulous. It also came with a couple of handfuls of dried seeds that I have been told will thrive in even the most desolate of environments (i.e. Dubai).

So it's loofah gifts all round I reckon. Am going on a trawl of the neighbourhood back gardens tonight to fill a potato sack or three...AED30 in Body Shop? Pah, I'll be hawking them in Meena Bazaar for AED28 a piece.

I've also just had my first language lesson. It's hard to know which local language to opt for out here as there are several including Wolof, Mandinka and Fulla. Wolof seems to be fairly universal though so I am ready with the pleasantries - "Nagadef?" (how are you?); the necessities "Dama kheef" (I'm hungry" and the cautionary "Ba la'lama" (Go away!).

Sarah, the finance and admin manager at ASSET has also asked me to help with the marketing of their cultural resource centre located over the Timbooktoo bookshop round the corner from the office. It's just got a new manager and they are relaunching the cafe, which is already a popular spot for travellers looking for WiFi, but they want to up the culinary offering and also attract the local VSO, other NGO, British High Commission and US Embassy workers looking for a value lunch spot. 

Gosh, there's so much more I could get involved in and I already feel like I'm running out of time even though I've barely stepped outside of Fajara...and still an entire country to get to know.

Working 9 to 5..African style

Ah, it’s good to be a working woman again, albeit on a volunteer basis. I confess that I tossed and turned a fair bit last night – a combination of the four-hour long torrential tropical thunderstorm beating down on the tin roof of my bungalow room, and nerves at the thought of having to train four smart Gambians on the vagaries of PowerPoint, not something I am truly au fait with.

But after a brain enhancing breakfast of fresh fruit – the mangoes here are possibly the best in the world – I was striding off along Kairaba Avenue, backpack secured, sneakers churning up the blood-red sandy earth in my wake and a head full of positive thought.

And after Dubai’s general apathy and my own indulgent malaise it is already refreshing to be meeting people who dispel the African stereotype and who are completely committed to their country and its untapped potential.

The team at the Association of Small Scale Entrepreneurs in Tourism (ASSET) are the new breed of go-getter that Gambia needs to re-energise its tourism offering. Working out of a converted villa in a quiet side street ASSET may be light on resources but is rich with enthusiasm.

Badou and Ndimbalan were first up for training and I emerged from their resource centre over six hours later really feeling that I had helped to expand their already impressive knowledge base with a small insight into slide-based presentations. OK, it’s hardly going to change the world in the long run, but their passion and eagerness really made it a pleasure to help out.
It also helped in making me forget about taking a lunch break which is a definite bonus, as after just three days I am already starting to like the traditional Gambian dish of domoda (a rich groundnut sauce-based concoction slathered over chicken, beef or vegetables) a little too much for my hips’ liking...

Stranger in a strange land

I have a new name, I am Toubab. It’s not peculiar to me nor is it an expression of fondness that I’ve acquired in my first few days under the African sun.

“Hey Toubab,” is the catcall for any and every unfamiliar white person walking the streets of The Gambia. It’s a catch-all term, not malicious, nor confrontational, it simply is what it is. And looking down at my pasty chicken legs I definitely deserve this new moniker.

I also had my first run-in with the delightfully named genre of local jeune homme called a ‘bumster’. These men prey on the tourist as a way to earn their living, from offering above-board and overpriced general assistance to the list of sexual services that has earned the Smiling Coast a less than favourable reputation. It’s not all down to the high rate of unemployment though as it has been preyed upon in equal measure by, shall we say, ladies of a certain age, whose idea of an exotic beach vacation includes some young affordable flesh. And no, that’s not why I’m here.

As it’s ‘off season’ my bumster wasn’t the choicest pick. Probably around my age he was in serious need of some dental work and a script that went beyond mere pleasantries. It didn’t take too long to dispense of the gentleman as my innate ability to fabricate a credible expat existence in any foreign land (long-time resident, husband works for your president, I’m off to meet the minster of xyz, me no speakee Ingliss) seemed to do the trick. Mind you, I was hot, sweaty and wearing camouflage pants, so I wasn’t the exactly the best deal going either!