In The Gambia I planned a busman’s holiday. I wanted to visit a few development projects. One was St. Joseph’s Training School for men, which is in an historic Portuguese building and also has a market where you can buy things made in the school. Instead our driver took us to the Presentation Girls Vocational School. I knew this wasn’t where I wanted to go but I didn’t want to say so in front of Sister Rosine Sanyang, the principal. The students are aged from 15 to 25 and had either been victims of abuse or were young mothers. The school is run by the Catholic Church and the church and state. Girls can take courses either in embroidery and sewing, hair dressing, or business and marketing. All of them take English, math and computer. If they are going into hairdressing or embroidery they also take some business and marketing courses. After graduation many business and marketing diploma holders get jobs in tourism. For embroidery grads the school gives groups of three girls a sewing machine and helps set them up a business. As they learn they make altar cloths for churches and clothes to sell at their school fundraising bazaar.
Next we wanted to go to a project called “Wide Open Walls.” Well known African and international artists have painted surrealistic murals on walls in order to bring in tourists to look at the walls and to buy crafts in the markets. It’s a different type of marketing ploy. The town hosting “Wide Open Walls” is Kubuneh according to both their website and Lonely Planet. The town we visited was Makumbaya (as in the campfire song.) Makumbaya has painted walls (although not of surrealistic quality I was expecting) and it is not the “easy drive” that Lonely Planet told me it would be. Makumbaya requires a high clearance vehicle. As we bumped long our guide said “ah, the Gambia experience.” I told him I’ve seen worse.
He agreed. South Sudan that probably has worse roads. No one in Africa wants to be worse than South Sudan.
I kept asking the guide how Makumbaya’s wall paintings could work as a development project when the road was so difficult and there was no shop to cash in on the visits. He said people visited the school and brought books or money for books, it was a UNESCO project. I looked up the Makumbaya project on the web when I got back on the ship. It’s not UNESCO, but a project in partnership with a British group “Building Futures in The Gambia.” The organization paired the Makumbaya school with Newman University and Kitwell Primary School, both in Birmingham, which sponsored concerts of African music to help pay for a school library. As we drove by kids shouted “Tubob, Tubob” which was the insult used against white people in Alex Haley’s book “Roots.” Our guide assured us that it was just a generic name for white people. I have no idea how the painted walls in Makumbaya fit in with this project.
Makumbaya is also the sight of a couple of different infrastructure projects including a solar electric generating plant and a well to provide water for the school and village. While interesting I was frustrated that we never got to see the surrealistic art at “Wide Open Walls.”
Our next stop was another private British development project, and this time we actually got to where we had intended to go. The Makasutu Culture Forest is In the Gambia River tidal estuary. In a small area you have mangrove, rain forest and savanna. You walk the culture trail to see different aspects of life in Gambia demonstrated. Here is someone climbing palm trees and making palm wine. Here is a local medicine man gathering herbs and making local remedies, a certain mint wards off mosquitos, a certain flower and fruit can lessen the effects of malaria. We got a chance to take a paddle along the Gambia River and through the mangrove. The reason I wanted to come was to look at a successful development project that is bringing cash to a poor rural area and is preserving local culture. I found it a particularly rewarding visit. Seeing this country and these customs brings the first 160 pages of “Roots” (which I’m rereading now) to life. At the end of our walk there is some dancing, drumming, singing and a craft’s market. We opted skip lunch but did have some “World Cola,” the local soft drink. It is vilely sweet. It lists sugar, saccharine and Aspartame as ingredients. It’s naturally sweet with the artificial aftertaste.
When the drumming from the dancing ends and most of the tourists leave, the baboons arrive to clean up any dropped food from the lunch. We lingered long enough to watch them scavenge the shaded eating area before heading to the beach for a beer to wipe out the taste of “World Cola.”