Once upon a time - the eleventh and twelfth of August actually - the trainees came to visit me in my house in Farafenni. They were on "volunteer visit", where a trainee stays with a volunteer for a few days, ostensibly in order to see their work and life, but in effect as a break from the training program and a chance to see how volunteers are at home. It's tradition to take good care of the trainees, have a party or something, get them good food, etc. My site is uniquely suited to this as it’s the biggest town around, and I have friends with actual paying jobs, generators, etc. So, when the trainees showed up, I had made some plans.
A volunteer in Kaur, about 37 km down the road, was also hosting a trainee, and I asked him to come over, and I think some other people showed up from somewhere as well, so we had a rowdy gang of nearly ten of us drinking and carrying on in the best ex-patriot gone wild fashion. For the second consecutive training, we returned someone worse for the wear, but happy enough, I hope. We also visited the lumo (weekly market) in Farafenni, as a group of about seven, which was enough for two horse carts. Thus, of course, we got them to race. It was good times, not quite Ben Hur, but suspenseful navigating various kinds of traffic (pedestrian, taxi, truck, goat, donkey, etc.) over the two km route, and ended in a neck-and-neck slow trot finish. The horses here are visible rib skinny, so one feels a bit cautious asking for more than very slow progress.
After that I packed up my bike for my two-week trip to Kiang for model school and the end of technical training. I decided that I would rather bike the fifty? something kilometers instead of using gele-geles over that road, it is nearly as fast, involves much less waiting, and seems to be easier on my back somehow. This trip was ill-fated, though, as I didn’t get an early start (adventures at the lumo) and waited for lunch at my compound, then it was hot hot, so I waited a bit longer, got away around 3:30 or so.
A fun ride to the ferry was followed by an hour of watching the single ferry running be unable to make it into the landing canal because the current was stronger than the engine. They would find a line, try to steer in, and get pushed out of the way – it happened a few times before they got it sorted. Then, when they landed, the ferry got wedged behind one of the two new, big, beautiful ferries tied up next to the shore. Not in use, those two. So, after they finally unloaded – a process that included inching a huge and massively overloaded Senegalese truck down with me fully ready to run when the thing toppled over and applause when it didn’t – the boat was stuck for another half an hour before they worked it back out and to the main river. We made good time across, I was thinking that my trip was not in jeopardy, and they must have been trying to make up for the screw-ups. Which they accomplished by running hard aground less than one hundred meters from the landing, along the side of some mangroves. By this time I had had a chance to get to know my fellow passengers a bit, and was chatting with three Italians who were traveling in Senegal and transiting the Gambia on their way to Casamance. So, we hung out in the late afternoon sun – it was around six thirty at this point, if memory serves – sweating and pondering if we could get through the mangroves somehow, and trying to communicate with any words we could find in common. One of them knew a touch of English, helpful. I had packed everything into a series of plastic bags, so thought I could somehow just throw my bike onto a mangrove branch, hope for the best, and drown on my way to shore. So, I didn’t do that, and finally the ferry crew got us unstuck – perhaps the tide came in a bit farther.
Getting away from the ferry terminal is always a joyful moment, back to the freedom of my bike and the less diesel-y air of the road. This time, however, the terminal was completely flooded so that whenever a vehicle drove through, it sent a wave washing over everyone’s feet. I usually travel in Chaco sandals, great for everything. This time, I was wearing my running shoes as I was hoping to do some training. So, feet soaked with water foul in ways I don’t want to remember, I walked away from the ferry, feeling quite defeated. Good times!
I made it to Soma about the time the sun was setting, and had to figure out if I would rather stay there, sweaty, dirty and everything, or try to cross the Kiang road in the dark to get to Tendaba. Naturally, being a class A idiot, I continued on. It was a breathtakingly beautiful ride into the sunset, gorgeous cloud formations coming in – and predicting rain. Which was the only thing I hadn’t had go awry on this trip, so of course, it rained. I bounced through the potholes and splashed through the puddles for a couple of hours, getting to camp around nine, tired but somehow happy that I’d fought it out and knowing I had a good story for someday.
The next two weeks were the high point of education technical training, as the trainees taught model school in the mornings, with students from the surrounding villages coming in to sit as training dummies – but real, live, surly, and uncooperative ones – and tried to focus through talking head sessions in the afternoons. It’s good experience, the only way to really understand the various problems endemic in the school system here, but painful and tiring at the same time. I went through it last year, and was able to commiserate with them and pick up their spirits when they were too low down. This included helping them to coordinate a couple of parties while they were there, and the group proved themselves much more ready to let loose than others have. More good times.
After all of that, I biked to Bambako, the village where I spent training last year. The next morning a group of about eight of us went across to Sare Samba, a wollof training village that is seven or so km from the road and consequently hadn’t gotten visits from other trainees. It’s a beautiful spot, a nice village surrounded by millet and corn fields in a very gently rolling countryside. I spent two days there, studying some wollof and enjoying village life. Then I went back over to Bambako for a big soccer match amongst the boys – little kids mostly – played with a ball that I’d bought for them. They also had a “program”, which consisted of a rented/borrowed generator, a speaker, and someone playing some tapes at highest possible volume in an unused classroom at the tiny school there. I stuck around for three minutes longer than absolutely required by etiquette, then went home to sleep and biked back to Farafenni in the morning.
It was a great trip, good to see so much of Kiang again – it’s the least developed area in some ways, and where I first came to love this country. And good to feel strong and healthy enough to spend some time biking around in the heat that is our constant companion for another month. But just one more now!
After that, I spent nearly a week at home, fixing up things and generally getting back to square one. After that I came down to Kombo to get about my business, and to meet up with Sarah as she flew back from her two month trip. We went to an odd resort near Kartong, about thirty (?) km south of here, where we didn’t pay anything for lodging, but bought all of our meals there and had a great couple of days on an isolated beach. It’s a bit rough around the edges, but a cool idea. I think it is in the process of being built by a group that participates in the annual Amsterdam-Dakar rally race, who come to the Gambia after the race to donate their cars in an auction for the schools. Pretty cool, really.
I returned to the Kombo area for the last week of training, culminating with the swearing-in ceremony for my new pals last Friday and a big party that night. Working on training was a great experience, has helped me rediscover some motivation and given me a lot to think about and look forward to in the next year. My time is already growing too short! I feel as though I’ve just gotten settled, gotten my feet and shoulders squared, and I know that very soon I’m going to be facing my end of service conference and what comes next. Perhaps that’s the biggest difference between the first and second year – two years seems like a longer time as you try to adjust, deal with all of the seasons and events and transitions, but once you’ve gone through all of that once, you realize that you have less than a year left, and with the way that projects and time unfold here, you will be gone before you know it. African time, long afternoons and brief months, somehow it’s at the heart of the difference between this continent and other places I’ve been.
In any case, this post is way too long, but it’s an attempt to catch up, to make up for so many weeks I haven’t posted in the last few months. I am hoping to change that, to get back to weekly posting. I would love to hear from people – I know I’ve been bad at emailing but hope to also fix that.