Tuesday, March 26, 2024

The Gambia: From Banjul to Basse

Last fall, I had the honor of accompanying a client and their funders on a trip to The Gambia. It was my first time in West Africa and the second international trip I have taken since the pandemic ended.

The Gambia is the smallest country in Africa. It touches the Atlantic Ocean on one side and borders Senegal on all others.

I was there for 10 days, flying into Banjul, and then heading "up country," which means along the Gambian River. The journey to the town of Basse takes about 8 hours by jeep. Thankfully, the roads are well-paved, though you do have to slow down frequently due to cows, tractors, and kids in the road.

I won't be able to write much about the work since I do like to maintain client confidentiality, but I will write about my own observations and feelings. Below are diary excerpts from the trip:

"In the distance, there are birds chirping and also hooting. A blue bird with a long black tail just made a fascinating sound and landed on a palm tree. The ocean is just footsteps away. It is humid here, like a rainforest, sweat emanating from all pores in my body. I don’t bother to wear makeup, only sunscreen. And it is so, so hot; I sweat everywhere. Even the indoors bring no relief. The air conditioners are no match for this heat and humidity. You cannot escape the heat.

When we landed, I could not stop smiling. I was glad to be here, glad to see it. Somehow pleased that it was different from Ethiopia. It is significantly less developed, for sure. Less coffee, fewer shops, fewer malls. But everything seems to excite me. I can’t explain it yet, how different I feel."

- 8:39am in the morning after I arrived

"Today was better than expected. I slept in until 9:00 am, drank my coffee (though it was cold), got in the pool (though I had a neighbor this time), and leisurely checked out at 10:30 am. The drive upcountry was alright. I think because everyone was preparing themselves mentally for 9 hours, we were okay. I talked to my colleague the whole time and listened to another colleague's commentary on the jeep radio. It was delightful. I was pleasantly surprised with the drive, with how fast time flew. I thought this would be the longest, hardest day, but who knew I would like sitting in an air-conditioned car the whole time.

The guest house is both better than expected and a disappointment. I told my partner the decor was like a knock-off Caesar’s Palace in the 1980s. Brand new but also broken down. Glistening, as well as shoddy and unkempt. The rooms are larger, the floor is pristine marble, and there is AC and large TVs, but there are also bugs, no real sheets on the bed and no real blankets, and no towels and no functional wifi. It's like that guy in Malaysia said: food is either delicious, cheap, or doesn’t make you sick; pick any two. So the two we picked are: AC and no need for mosquito nets.

I wanted to write in my diary this morning but ran out of time. Coffee was cold before I got to it. Three coffees today: one cold one in the morning, another at Some in the school, and a third tonight. I won’t hold back - I will drink it all. I thought I might write in the car, but time passed too quickly. Instead, I made some handwritten notes which I may try to transcribe tomorrow. I am regretting not bringing a novel. A novel is better suited for an escape than work. Instead, I have fundraising books and anthropology books, and articles I don’t want to read."

- 9:54pm, first night up country

"Because it is cloudy today, I was able to find a lounge chair by the river with a log for an end table that holds my coffee. The area near our room was just a mud pit, so I walked further to find a place where the water reflected the sun, where the ripples of the current were gentle. Only the leaves that have shed from the trees and float on the surface of the water convey its speed. The tide rises and falls in 6-hour intervals based on waves of the ocean.

The breeze really is merciful here. I felt it in the village too. It was so cooling and healing that it felt almost spiritual. I pray to the god of breezes and clouds.

At first, my notes from The Gambia were only bullets, words, and phrases. Then they became sentences, vignettes, and finally, proper journal entries. Finally, I have the space to write.

I never get used to the timezone difference; I have to check the clock on my phone regularly. In this journal, the client to-do lists have become overtaken by my notes and lists and reflections of the day. My mind has caught up to my body. And I can even imagine coming back here - how strange."

- 9:45am, from the last lodge up country the morning before I leave

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