When travel restrictions to The Gambia eased a little in late autumn, our Chairman James Holden was able to return to see for himself how things are in a country where Covid levels appear relatively low but where the economy has suffered massively - a challenge compounded by the devastating storms which have recently wrought havoc on many of the Trust's school and hospital projects. We asked him to send us his thoughts and impressions.
25th November 2021
I’ve just left my home in Warwick. Temperature 2 degrees Celsius and it’s due to rain shortly. By this time tomorrow I’ll be in The Gambia- temperature 32 degrees C and it won’t rain until next July!
I’ve been going to The Gambia ever since 2004 when I first visited what was then called James Island. It’s a World Heritage site that’s slowly falling to pieces. And yet it’s slavery’s equivalent of the Holocaust’s Auschwitz: James Island was one of the main holding areas for Africans before they were shipped to the New World as slaves.
It’s called Kunta Kinteh island now, after Alex Haley’s famous ancestor whom he traced through historical records and the extraordinary memory of Gambian griots who carry the history of their people orally. As I’ve already said, the island, which lies relatively near the mouth of the great river Gambia, is gently mouldering. The cells where the stolen Africans were caged pending transportation are now open to the fierce West African sun which frequently generates breezeless temperatures close to 40 degrees. And yet whenever I have visited I have found myself strangely chilled.
To be honest it was this ‘James Island’ experience that prompted me to establish the AOT and I’m about to make my 21st visit. I really do wonder what I’ll discover on my visit. How has Gambia and its people fared? How are the schools and the hospitals that the AOT supports doing?
I guess I shall find out soon enough…
Tears of a Clown
On one level all looks unchanged. It’s still peaceful in the countryside and chaotic in the towns. They are preparing for presidential elections and yesterday we drove past a major rally for the UDP who stand for ‘Change is Coming’. The major town of Brikama was thronged by horn blowing Gambians uniformed in yellow T shirts. No one wore a mask.
They certainly wanted change because on another level there’s a deep problem. Whilst many Gambians still believe that the virus is a hoax- they all recognise the economic damage wrought by the devastation of their tourist industry.
I am the first client my bird guide has had in two years. The entire state support that my lodge received during lockdown amounted to £84.50 at current exchange rates. And this for a staff of 11. So far the AoT has had to rescue three financially devastated nurseries and has had to make special appeals for feeding programmes and to cover exceptional repair work due to severe storm damage.
It just makes me realise how blessed we in the UK have been. For sure there has been a variance in the way that people have fared during lockdown, but nothing like the deprivations of The Gambia.
And yet the people continue to smile and help and ask for little in return. Only today our car battery failed when we were way out in the bush and yet within 10 minutes a gang of young men gathered -all very willing to help us bump start our 4x4 down a steepish bush track.
It is true then that The Gambia is still the smiling face of West Africa on one level but I suspect that their smiles are like those of clowns - they hide so many tears.
The bee and the straw
I’ve been back in the UK for a week now and was pleased to come out of self-isolation when my PCR test came back negative. I emerged into a world very different from The Gambia in so many ways. I have also learned that the results of the Gambian election mean an extension of power for the incumbent President Adama Barrow. His electioneering slogan was ‘Peace and Development’ – an outcome devoutly to be wished for.
But is it just that a wish? Peace I think is a likely outcome and of course without this development is impossible. However, positive development is another matter altogether, particularly as much of the developed world moves back into Covid restricted status. The prognosis for Gambia’s tourist industry for next year is once again poor and that augers badly for so many in what is already a desperately poor country.
As I waited in the departures lounge a bee fell into the dregs of a bottle of Fanta I was drinking through a straw. It struggled madly to escape and much to my surprise it managed to begin climbing up on my straw – a veritable ladder to freedom. However, the effort proved too much and it fell back down into the sweet orange liquid. I thought it was doomed, but once again it struggled for dear life and I decided to help. I placed the straw near its whirling legs and once it had gripped it I lifted the straw gently up and through the bottle’s neck. After a brief period of recovery and drying itself in the afternoon sunshine my bee disappeared into the vast blue African sky.
One can take analogies too far, but as I look back I realise that this is how I see the African Oyster Trust. It offers a ladder for freedom for those Gambians whose life it touches. I am grateful for the chance to be involved in that task.
The News Diary is a regular account of all that is happening at The African Oyster Trust. Please pop back for regular updates, follow us on Twitter or sign up for our RSS feed to have the latest news sent straight to your computer!
The news diary is written by a number of people close to the work of the African Oyster Trust, including founder James Holden, his co-directors, trustees and volunteers.