Sunday, 31 March 2013

The Sounds I Heard

Today Karen was ill. Ill enough not to go out. Consequently I spent the day in our apartment, reading, chatting, mixing ORS (oral rehydrating salts), and listening, hearing the sounds of the many things that shape Gambia and what it has become.

The birds are quite noisy here. There aren't many cats and there are many trees throughout the city. Birds, insects, small rustling animals and larger monitor lizards all make themselves heard. They are the oldest and longest established sounds one hears.

Last night and throughout the day at different times, in fact going down the street right now, are groups of children and young adults beating drums and plastic bottles, imitating the tribal sounds of many centuries. They walk the streets with a "djinn" (tribal spirit) dancing amongst them chanting, singing, posing for photos and hassling tourists. Originally it had some ceremonial significance, now it is to raise money for their football club or for sweets. Although a Muslim country, Animism is still a strong force, and traditional African culture still strong.

Five times a day, every day, the Mosques start calling the faithful to prayer. Probably not as many faithful as they may like. Gambia, as I have said, is Muslim but there aren't many obvious signs. Women may dress somewhat modestly, but that would be compared to traditional African dress (or lack of!) and not Middle Eastern standards. You see some Arabic script around but mostly English - the traditional languages haven't been historically written so English became the lingua franca of all written texts. There is polygamy but that is more cultural than religious. Still, though, the Mullas shout in optimism.

This morning as I was drinking tea I heard something I had never heard before in a live act of worship: a group of nuns singing latin plainchant. Behind our apartment is a convent and being Easter morning the nuns were in the garden singing. It was beautiful. Later some more of the congregation joined in. Later again we heard a Pentecostal church singing with great gusto. The sounds of Christian celebration of the One Risen From the Grave were shouted with enthusiasm for all to hear, in Gambia and throughout the world. Hallelujah!

As I write this and continually throughout the day there have been the sounds of traffic, radio, news programmes off the internet, the sounds of modernity. Loud, intrusive, less pleasant than all the other sounds I heard today, but still not loud enough to drown out the more primitive and pervasive noises: I can still hear the crickets and the buzz of a mosquito. 

Good night.

For Angus (and anyone else who cares to read)

So Angus, you sent me an email this morning asking what Africa looks like and feels like.
These are flowers on the wall where I am staying. See the blue gate? That is the compound gate to WEC in Gambia. That is who Karen works for and where we are staying. Aren't they beautiful flowers? There are birds all over them sometimes.
I took some photos for you and hope it will help to answer your question.

Firstly, Gambia is coming to the end of the dry season. Other than one day's drizzle in January, there hasn't been any rain for several months. Consequently it is very dry and dusty. Ask Dad to explain what 34% humidity means. The air is dry; the ground is dry; I am dry and need to drink a lot.

The street outside where we are staying. You can see the dusty roads and the tower behind with the scaffolding? That is the local mosque (where Muslims worship) and every morning at 6.00 I am woken up by a loud call to prayer.
We are also close to the equator which means that the days are almost exactly 12 hours long and the nights are also 12 hours long. The sun is mostly overhead which means you don't get such long shadows like you do in England. It is also hot. Yesterday was about 35 degrees. Despite putting on sunscreen I did get a bit burned, and I was hot all day. Even in the evening when we sitting outside eating a meal I was warm and eventually put on a cardigan just because of the sea breeze.

Can you see the stitching around the outside?
Yesterday we went to a market. Sadly it was suggested that I didn't take any pictures there as it might not have been safe to take my camera out. The market was busy and you could buy lots of things there: most people have their clothes made, not bought ready made in a shop. Consequently there are lots of fabric stalls, haberdashery stalls (zips, buttons, lace, beads, so on pretty flowers and things), stalls selling mobile phones, buckets, brooms, copied music, and a lot of stalls that repair things. I had my sandles repaired. I had forgotten that the sole was falling off them but Karen said not to worry and Stush took them to a cobblers. For 50p the sole was sewn back on. In England I would have been told that they weren't repairable and to throw them out but in Africa, where people have less money, most things can be repaired.

Beautiful palm trees on the beach with Karen and Stush
Our drinks arriving
Later we went to the beach. The coastline here is on the east side of the Atlantic ocean and the waves are very strong. It is difficult to swim so Karen and I spent time jumping the waves and being washed over by them. I collected some shells for you and a sea urchin shell. We also had a drink made from orange juice, banana and baobab fruit. It was lovely. You need to look baobab trees up on the internet: they look a little as though they are growing upside down.

No idea what this is. It was wading in the waves.

There are also lots of beautiful flowers and birds here. II will try to take some photos of them for you. In the garden where we are staying there is a grapefruit tree. Most of the fruits have been eaten but there are still some left. Everybody is talking about when the mangoes will be ripe - in about two or three weeks time.  There are unripe mangoes falling off the trees all over the garden. Stush goes each morning to collect limes from a tree in the garden too. He make a lovely drink with bananas and lime juice and he has it for breakfast every day when the fruits are available. Most people here only eat fruits and vegetables that are in season as it is so expensive to import them.
In the garden where I am staying
Mangoes on the ground
The last few pink grapefruit

Saturday, 30 March 2013

In Africa

I made it. It was a bit touch and go at times, but I made it.

The first flight didn't leave until 11.50 so we all had a somewhat leisurely breakfast, although Angus started getting very clingy and wanted to "buy and ticket and come on the seat next to me."  Isla just wanted to go to Grandma and Grandpa's and then go and see Granny's new puppy. She did manage a goodbye, though.

My major concern about the journey out here was how I would cope with the connection at Dakar to Banjul. Buying the ticket had been very difficult as it had to be paid for and collected from a Senegal Airlines office. Okay, except that they only have offices in places other than the UK!

Karen came to the rescue and sorted out the payment and I allegedly only had to get to a Senegal Airlines office once in Dakar, show them my passport and collect a boarding pass to be allowed on to the plane.

Easy. Hhhmm.

Ken, Angus and Isla and I had prayed that morning that I would be kept safe and the journey would be easy. It was. When I arrived at my seat on the Paris Dakar flight I was asked by a polite English gentleman if I wouldn't mind swapping with his wife who was seated on the opposite side of the plane. Of course. My new companion was a Senegalese lady who had studied English literature and then a Masters in Irish Poetry whilst living in Paris! When we discussed my travel plans she duly offered to escort me through the airport, take me to the office, helped collect my ticket and made sure I got to the checking in gate. Wonderful. I would not have liked to try it on my own as chaos does not quite describe the place, even at midnight.

Karen and Stush met me at the airport and although I had been warned by the Senegalese lady that it would be cold, I had left Newcastle in the snow. Africa was warm, very warm. And dusty. And a bit muddled. It has that strange sound quality that you only seem to get in hot countries where the sound is muffled and punctuated with bird song and the periodic call of the Mosque.

And now we are going out before it becomes so hot that we may burn. It may be my only chance this year!

Thursday, 28 March 2013

12 Hours and Counting (and why I didn't blog yesterday!)

This time tomorrow I will be on the plane and about to land in Dakar. I will be flying over Senegal. To be honest, as with many big events, the reality of the trip seems so far removed from what I am doing now, that it is somewhat too big to grasp. Tomorrow could carry on as normal, but it won't. I will wake up on the UK and go to sleep in Africa. In Gambia. You see? A big difference and too much for my little brain to really grasp. At least I have made myself do the packing, and write lists.

Lists are really important: at least I have some reassurance that most of the jobs have been done and most will happen while I am away. Mind you, between Ken, his parents and my Mum I don't think the children will get bored, starve, go hungry. Ken will hopefully look after himself. Although having said that, the second week I am gone when Ken is on his own he has threatened to survive on his favourite diet; it consists of foods beginning with the letter "p": pasta, pasties, pizza, potatoes, pies, peas. It kind of works.

I am wondering what will happen while I am in Africa. I am wondering how I will react to the differences that I will see. I am wondering what I will learn through all this and how I will change. I am wondering how I will relate all this back to Ken and the children. I am wondering what God will say to me and whether I will end up working out just what I am meant to be doing in the future. I am wondering if that will even seem relevant or important.

Right now I am just wondering about a lot of things.

I had intended to give you a sort of "countdown blog" of my trip, but then yesterday evening whilst packing I remembered that I was meant to start my Malarone yesterday (anti-malaria). So I took a tablet. I didn't notice that it was meant to be taken with food or milk. Suffice it to say that I haven't eaten much today and am still feeling a bit nauseated. I will NEVER again forget to take my Malarone with food.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

The Nuts and Bolts of my Trip

Wow, I have had a lot of emails about my trip. Nice to know that people are interested and curious.

So, to answer your questions, some of which will seem very dull, but I need to make sure that my readers know what it happening.

1) I fly from Newcastle, via Amsterdam and then on to Dakar on Friday. I will then take a connecting flight to Banjul in Gambia arriving at 12:35 am Saturday morning. Hopefully Karen or Stush will be there to meet me!

2) We will be spending a few days in and around Banjul: resting, beaching, marketting, wildlife park visiting and generally being tourists. Then travelling to where Karen and Stush live. I will visit Karen's hospital, read, rest, be sociable and whatever else Karen and Stush decide I should do. Apparently they haven't worked that out yet. Sounds bliss! (No snow. Warm. Sun...... Sorry.)

3) I fly back to Dakar on Sunday and will meet the World Vision team later that evening. There are nine of us in total: six Ambassadors who have all sponsored children through World Vision for varying lengths of time. There are also three staff: Sharon who co-ordinates sponsorship in the UK, and two others whose normal WV jobs wouldn't take them to the field. They are going to see more closely what WV does. Great idea. We are all women, no men.

4) We then leave Dakar and travel nearer the development projects. We have been asked to meet various leaders of the communities, schools supported by WV, other projects with which they work and then we will meet our sponsored children.

5) I arrive back on Saturday flying via Paris and Amsterdam. Others in the group will be staying on for personal travel. Hopefully Ken, Angus and Isla will be there to meet me at the airport, but see below.

6) The trip is mostly funded by us: we pay our share of the travel, hotel, meals, vehicle hire and driver. World Vision staff have volunteered their time and are covering their own costs. 

7) Ken and the children are spending Easter weekend with Ken's parents in Edinburgh. They are then all coming to Newcastle as Ken has to work. Ken and the children are travelling to Macclesfield the following weekend as Angus and Isla are spending the next week with my Mum. He has to come back to a week of batchelordom. (Subtext: climbing, squash, games evenings with Al, pub. Maybe some DIY). We are not sure how Angus and Isla are going to travel back yet. Ken may have to go and fetch them as my Mum has had foot surgery and is yet to drive. In which case it will probably be a taxi back from the airport. Some of this plan is still fluid but it will hopefully work out.

8) The aim of the Ambassador programme is to show us exactly what World Vision does, help us to understand more of what they do and how and encourage commitment to their work in us. Hopefully when we return we can raise the profile of World Vision by talking to people and making presentations to groups such as school, scouts, WI groups, churches, etc. World Vision is a surprisingly large charity, it is just not so well known in the UK. The talking bit shouldn't be too difficult for me, should it?!

There. Any more questions? Anything I missed out? Now I need to go to sleep - I woke up last night trying to work out what I had forgotten to pack and what I still needed to pack. As Ken says, "Just make sure you take your passport and credit card. If you have to, you can buy the rest."  Just maybe not in Gambia or Senegal.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Seriously Exciting Easter Travel Plans

I have some seriously exciting travel plans for Easter. 

Let me put them in context: for the last 15 years I have sponsored a child through World Vision. Not the same child, you understand. I am on my third! He is a ten year old boy called Aloyse and he lives in Senegal. Have you worked out where this is going yet?

Last year World Vision UK started what they are calling an Ambassador Programme. The idea behind this is that people who have shown a commitment to the work of World Vision are invited to visit their sponsored child and see for themselves what WV do, where their sponsorship money goes, and how it makes a difference in the lives of the child they sponsor and their community. I was asked if I would like to go. After some deliberation, discussions on the logistics of it (who would look after the children, being our main concern!), and debate, I said, "Yes, please!" I am off this Friday.

Senegal is on the furthest western point of Africa and surrounds The Gambia.
The plan has become a bit more wonderful and complicated by the fact that a good friend of mine, Dr Karen, lives and works in Gambia running a hospital. Gambia lies within Senegal. Good eh? So, first I am flying to Senegal, then catching a flight to Banjul to spend a week with Karen and her new husband, Stush, and finally flying back to Senegal to join up with the WV group.

Karen, visiting last May for a much needed break.
I must admit that I am both excited and apprehensive: I have never been to West Africa. I know that it is hot, a fact which, considering the current UK weather, has led to a few slightly serious but also tongue-in-cheek derogatory remarks coming my way. I also know that there is Malaria and I am not even allowed to set foot in Senegal unless I have been vaccinated against yellow fever. I also know that there is a lot of poverty, the kind that we can't even really imagine. I know that Aloyse lives in a hut of some kind and relies on subsistence farming. I know that until last year the medical clinic in his village relied on a generator which wasn't much use when there was a medical emergency in the middle of the night.

I also know that WV have already made a huge impact through the development work they have undertaken in Senegal. I am very excited about seeing that. At the moment my sponsorship consists of a figure on my bank statement each month, with a letter from Aloyse twice a year and me sending him a birthday card and Christmas card. To see some tangible benefit, a person and his family behind it, will hopefully make it all more real. For that I am very excited.

I will endeavour to keep you up to date with progress while I am away but don't hold your breath! You may be able to follow our trip via their World Vision Facebook page and their website and hopefully on this blog and my facebook page.