Wednesday, 2 January 2013

The Gambia - people and places

Here's my last post on the Ornitholidays tour to The Gambia in November. The last two posts have focused on the birds - now it's the turn of the equally colourful places and the folk that live there. (As usual, click on each photo for a larger image). The big change I noticed from previous visits is that it's no longer a place where you get hassled as soon as you set foot outside the hotel. In past years, everyone wanted to be your guide, to show you the birds or the shops or their taxi. 

South of the main hotel area, there are magnificent sandy beaches and many small fishing villages, such as here at Sanyang. The fish are caught by nets from these small boats, and landed on the beaches - a great example of a low-impact sustainable fishery. There is always a lurking fear that just over the horizon, predatory trawlers from Spain and other EU countries are hoovering up the fish-stocks that should be harvested by these developing African nations. 

Our Gambia tours have always made a point of visiting a school, where we talk to the staff and children, and offer them pens, exercise books and other stationery. Here they are watching their teacher closely as he leads them in a 'Jolly Phonics' rhyme that helps them learn their letters. This school has 500 children, in 14 classes. Since they have only 7 classrooms, there is a morning and an afternoon shift. The two villages that make up the catchment area speak different languages - Mandinka and Fulla - but in school, English is the medium. Many of them walk several miles in each direction to reach school. The children were brilliantly behaved! After they had sang us a song, we attempted to reciprocate: with a chaotic version of Old MacDonald had a Farm, which brought a smile to many young faces.

And what of Gambian politics? Well, nominally Africa's smallest country is a democracy, since it goes through the motion of elections. But only one candidate is allowed to appear on these huge billboards that line the main roads: President Jammeh, who came to power in a bloodless military coup in 1994 and has no plans to let go any time soon. The 2011 posters are still up everywhere, and no doubt will be until the run-up to the next elections. At least the country is stable and peaceful; and infrastructure such as good roads and street-lights has improved greatly in the last ten years. The one area that didn't vote for Jammeh also happens to be the one without a good tarmac main road!  

Finally, back to the wildlife. These Square-marked Toads were a feature of the two up-river camps where we stayed, especially below the electric lights where insects gathered. The nights were a breath of fresh air after the daytime tropical heat: December and January are the coolest months in The Gambia. 

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