Monday, 25 October 2010

a little hiccup

As the sun came up on Saturday morning we dragged ourselves out of bed to head off to Kwinella for a cluster based Phonics workshop. Although Edrissa had returned my bike the night before from its most recent breakdown, we decided it would be safer all round if I were to go on the back of Lucy's bike. I took the essentials out of my trusty rucksack and packed them and the course materials into the box on Lucy's bike. It's very handy having a metal box for transporting things. I don't have one, or a number plate, but no-one seems to mind very much. The drawback of a big metal box however is the way it bangs into your spine as a passenger when going over bumps. I can normally put up with this for the quick journey to the office and back, but for an hours trek on a seriously bumpy road, my trusty kidney belt got it's premier outing. This is something that was recommended in our kit list and from my searches on ebay, seems to be worn by trail riders. It is a bit like a corset that goes around your waist, with thick rubber support for the small of your back. It has a Velcro fastening around your stomach and is incredibly hot to wear. I'm not certain what it is supposed to do normally, but it's great protection against metal boxes.
Off we went in the relative cool of the morning, a fantastic opportunity for me to watch the birds as a passenger, which are stunning here, very colourful and have increased tenfold since the rains. We regularly see birds of prey circling overhead, their enormous wingspan catching your attention. About 20 minutes into the ride we pulled over to stretch our legs, or so I thought. Not having much room to move with 2 and a box on a bike and holding your feet still on tiny pegs over enormously jarring bumps, really takes its toll on the joints. It turned out that we'd stopped because something had stung Lucy through her trousers on the upper thigh. She rolled her trouser leg up to inspect the damage, drawing the attention of a few passers-by in a Muslim country where thighs are much more erotic than breasts! There are definite benefits to being a passenger - a built in human shield being one of them. Obviously having swapped bags due to limited space, I didn't have my handy bite cream, so Lucy just had to suffer. Off we went again. The rest of the journey passed without incident, except for the part where children threw stones at us as we passed. I swore loudly. Sometimes it is necessary. We arrived on time at Kwinella, prepared ourselves for the workshop then sat and waited for everyone else to turn up - which they did eventually.
The day went well. Many workshops we have experienced here have had teachers sitting all day listening, with content pitched too high and deviation from the schedule allowed for intense arguing about the smallest details. We steered away from this, knowing what we wanted to achieve and having a good idea of what level to pitch it at from our work so far with teachers. We demonstrated a phonics lesson, then split teachers into small groups. Each member of the group received a sound they had to teach to their group. They were given the steps they had to follow and shown how to use the handbooks that are already in schools to find the story for their sound and the action. We moved around watching these lessons and offering advice where needed. Interestingly, although we had provided the steps that had to be followed on a small piece of card for each group, teachers spent their time writing out a lesson plan, then not really following it, reflecting what we have observed in schools on the rare occasions we have seen a lesson plan. Progress was made, but maybe not as much as we'd have hoped. We continued with some work on blending and games for learning vocabulary which were thoroughly enjoyed. We learned very quickly when we arrived that Gambians love to play games. This is a problem in class, when you show teachers games they can play or observe them being played, teachers find it very hard not to jump in and answer all the questions themselves - we often remind them to let the children play!
There is a procedure here for applying for funding to run training, but experience has shown that the process is lengthy and funding may not be received before the end of a placement. As a result, rightly or wrongly, many volunteers fund training themselves from their meagre allowance. If you are running a regional workshop teachers are paid a travel allowance, an accommodation allowance and are given their meals. For cluster based workshop like we were running, teachers are expected to fund their own travel - although in reality they will often having to travel many kilometres through the bush where no transport is available. We paid for the food for 45 people. This is very different to at home where many teachers will choose training according to the location and it's reputation for food, but will pay handsomely for the privilege. Training completed on what turned out to be an incredibly hot day, over 100 degrees I believe, we drained the last of our water and got back on the bike for the return journey. About 10 mins down the highway the bike lost power and slowed to a standstill. Fantastic. There was no re-starting it, so we gave in, stripped off the unnecessarily hot clothing and phoned the mechanic. He didn't sound too thrilled to be phoned late on a Saturday afternoon and told us to clean the spark plug then try again. Great because we both knew how to do that. Feeling slightly panicked at our lack of water and shade, (of course I didn't have my suncream, that was in the bag I didn't bring) we compared our phone situation. I had battery but little credit, Lucy had credit but little battery. We called the lovely Cluster Monitor, Seedy Jammeh, who we'd just spent the day with and asked where we should look for the spark plug. By the time we had figured out the correct combination of spanners, cleaned the spark plug and returned it to it's rightful home we were exhausted. Luckily we had broken down on a particularly rough patch of road, meaning the gellies were forced to fly past us dangerously close. I tried to move the bike further off the road, slipped in the loose rubble and dropped the bike on my arm. That was nice. When the bike failed to start after cleaning the spark plug, we started to worry more. We called the mechanic back, he hung up on us. People don't say goodbye on the phone here, so this often takes you by surprise. Did this mean he was pissed off at us calling on a Saturday and he wasn't going to come, or that he was going to come? He didn't say. I phoned Terry, explained my credit situation and asked him to call the mechanic and plead our cause. Lucy set off with the empty bottles to try and collect some well water from a school she though might be just over the brow of the hill. I sat in the sun and waited, imagining our long slow death in gruesome detail. Lucy called, the mechanic had phoned and was on his way.

Lucy returned triumphantly with one full bottle of well-water and one half-full flask. A strange decision I felt considering our stranded situation. Not long after we saw Seedy arrive on his bike with a headteacher he was taking home on the back. Such relief to see a friendly face! He jumped onto the bike and started it first time. We were understandably embarrassed. He roared off down the road only to slowly judder to a halt in a replay of our original breakdown. Dignity restored. Seedy cleaned the spark plug again, clearly not trusting us to have done it properly the first time, the bike started again with the same result. He unclipped the fuel pipe suspecting water in the fuel and called us over to watch muddy water pour out of the fuel pipe. At least it wasn't us being rubbish. Lucy set off to replenish our again depleted water supplies and returned with the
mechanic, who looked distinctly unimpressed. He dispatched Seedy on his bike to collect a container for the fuel. He showed us the carburetter filled with water. We waited whilst the fuel was drained, the water poured away and everything cleaned and put back together. There has been an ongoing conversation with the mechanic about us leaving our bikes in the rain. Yes Dad I know. I have told him if he finds us something to use as a ramp I am happy to put the bike under cover, but I can't lift it up the step. My counter-arguments include; my bike was breaking before the rains started, Lucy's bike has been in the rain just as much as mine and is fine (or was), everyone else leaves their bike in the rain and are fine. I personally have my suspicions about the fuel itself, but stranded in the middle of nowhere, we weren't in a position to argue.

We made our way home. Just to add to our anxiety, every time we slowed down to 2nd gear the bike cut out and took a whole lot of effort to restart. It didn't feel very fixed to me. We made it home eventually, tired and a little emotional, with my view of motorbikes reinforced. I skipped dinner and went straight to bed, waiting for the well-water to take it's revenge.

Any views expressed are my own and are not representative of VSO.

Friday, 15 October 2010

drawing the line

There are plenty of aspects of living here I find hard, but one that is particularly frustrating is working in a different culture. Excellent training by VSO prepares you for this, but - like teaching a difficult class day after day, it begins to wear you down. As a woman I am treated with less respect than my male colleagues, by some people. I am younger than most of the people I work with, therefore less experienced, regardless of why I was given this job. I have always found it difficult to see inefficient systems in use and not change them, or to happily comply with a new initiative I know will create problems later on. Managment don't seem to like this, maybe it highlights their own short-comings, but that's their problem. There is absolutely no way I could do that here; it's not my job, it's not my place and there is the added necessity of encouraging people that goes with capacity building. I often have to bite back comments that I wouldn't think twice about at home. Knowing that you could improve things, but not being able to, is incredibly frustrating. Some volunteers fit right into this lifestyle and are able to work with long-term goals. I don't have the patience and I'm not sure why I ever thought I would have.
There have been significant staffing changes recently and there is a buzz about the place that wasn't there before. Deadlines seem to be suddenly looming and things which may have been overlooked before have become important. My advice is rarely sought, in the event that the two male volunteers are unavailable, my skills may be utilised, but mostly Lucy and I continue to work on our own projects, hoping that some difference is being made.
There is a paranoia that goes with working in a different culture. I am not merely travelling, if I upset people - however inadvertantly, relationships can be damaged. Things are very different, behaviours that would be considered rude at home are common place here. For instance men who are considered to have a lesser status, regardless of age, may be reffered to as 'boy', often being called across the street to run an errand. Similarly, I am sure that I must have offended people without knowing or intending to and I would guess that those instances probably involved greetings or food. However it has come to the point where I struggling to tolerate certain behaviours, in fact I am sure that many of my friends and colleagues here would also consider them to be inappropriate. It is time to reassert myself. I may be from a different culture, one with a horrendous and deserved reputation, I may be a woman and may be quite young, but there is a limit!

Any views expressed are my own and are not representative of VSO.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

feeling a bit shy

We discovered the stats tab for our blogs today and spent a good hour finding out who has been reading and from where. I'm now thoroughly paranoid. I don't know anyone in most of these places.... introduce yourselves immediately.

We giggled at the search term "do people have swimming pools in their compounds in soma" which led to one hit on Lucy's blog - you clearly all think we're lying when we whinge.

So world wide audience, consider yourselves the reason that Gambian teachers had less than their fair share of training today.

Any views expressed are my own and are not representative of VSO.

Sunday, 3 October 2010


With the start of a new academic year comes the process of stabilisation. Teachers and Headteachers alike may find they have been posted to a new school in a different area of region and often don't want to move. The regional managers have to trek around the region checking there are enough teachers in each school and dealing with any issues. We hear reports that the mud has been somewhat hindering this process, with a great deal of waiting for tow-trucks involved in this years stabilisation.

Yesterday we visited a local Early Childhood Development centre, or nursery school to you and me. Unfortunately for us it was a private centre which excludes it from our remit. It was however the best educational setting I have seen yet in the region. 3 small classrooms were filled with the things you would expect to see in such a setting – colourful objects hanging from the ceiling, pictures and home-made storybooks pinned to the walls, books and jigsaws piled on tables that were clearly used by the children. The place was crammed with children from around 3-6 years, the new starters not yet in uniform being led around by older siblings, behaving as children of that age should – looking at and touching things, talking to you and each other and generally interacting in a way that seems to be stamped out of children as they get to primary school. It was a revelation and full credit to the incredibly young, and as of yet unqualified, teacher running the place. A world away from an ECD that Lucy visited recently where the room was laid out in the style of a university lecture theatre with full-sized benches and chairs for toddlers!

Any views expressed are my own and are not representative of VSO.