Dashing through the sand...

Trip Start Sep 14, 2012
Trip End Aug 16, 2013

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Flag of Gambia  ,
Thursday, January 24, 2013

Happy new year 2013!!! Meilleurs Voeux et bonne heureuse année !

4 months of my life have now been spent living in Senegal, yet this country doesn't fail to vex, amaze and surprise me. Just the other day Amee & I went for a bike ride down a deserted track to find a beautiful but rugged, empty expanse of beach where we flew the kite Amee’s dad sent and gobbled up some locally grown bananas. It’s the precious instances like this that stick in my mind, the moments when I think 'if I hadn’t chosen to take this year out, I would never have known…’
You can’t beat the moment when a student catches on and the smile crosses their face, picking up Marieme from school and her running into your arms, successfully gutting, scaling and cooking a fish (something you were previously terrified of), clapping your hands in time to the drumming circle where the locals shout and dance carefree, the laugh of a local as you struggle along in Wolof – yet their delighted that you’re even trying.

December was a whirlwind of teaching, clubs, choir practice and basketball. Teaching is going really well, last week I started teaching my year 12 class. The majority of the students are older and taller than me, and there are 60 of them! It was daunting at first but is fast becoming my favourite. We get to discuss ‘real’ topics in English such as gender equality which contrast so heavily to the topics studied in the lower level classes.  Their opinions on such topics are fascinating to hear. 
Fas Jom, the group for teaching uneducated girls, is going from strength to strength as Connie is formalising it into a ‘proper’ organisation and last week we welcomed 15 students. It’s challenging as you have to be really patient but so fulfilling when the student that couldn’t hold a pencil learns to write their name. I have now established a daily routine, I teach between 4-6 hours in the morning, bike home to chomp down some Thieboudienne before skipping off to a club or basketball. This is followed by choir practice - Church is beginning to feel like home from home, I think I should bring a sleeping bag and call a pew my own. There are choir practices 3 times week (though we usually only sing on 1 of these and just procrastinate for the others, turns out the conductors does a mean impression of the queen!), mass twice a week and after Christmas I joined a prayer group ‘Charismatique’ that involves shouting, dancing, singing and praising in such a liberal way that you struggle to associate the same people with the Sunday Morning mass. I also started attending a Bible study group with a load of my German students – we haven’t started studying the Bible in German just yet! Of course it isn’t just a list of activities, the people are incredible, so friendly, welcoming and lovely, they are truly my family in this crazy crazy country.

December saw us attend a ‘prize giving ceremony’ for the best students in Joal – however this seemed to consist of 3 hours of speeches, drummers constantly interrupting the speeches and grannies dancing granny-ish-ly and throwing their head-scarves at important men.
On top of this we made the ‘5-hour-crammed-into-the-back-of-a-sept-place-with-your-knees-under-your-chin’ journey to Saint Louis for an English teachers conference. With more enthusiastic English speakers than you could dare to dream of, this weekend was slightly bizarre with every conversation beginning ‘Are you fine?’ ‘Yes I’m fine, are you fine?’ ‘Yes I’m fine!’ We were staying in the Lycee there, West Africa’s first official High School. Amee and I dared to venture up a rickety old ladder attached to the wall onto the roof of the school. The view was spectacular, Saint Louis is an incredibly beautiful city, albeit of course with Senegal’s trademark: litter.
December also saw us stay at the British Embassy for the Christmas Carol Service. I ate some amazing gingerbread, had a hot(!!!!) shower, curled up on a sofa(!!!!!!!) with Dickens and sang Away in a Manger, 2 days of paradise before hitting reality on the return to Joal.

We didn’t stay in Joal long however as our travels and the Christmas Holidays swept us away; first stop Thies where we attended Aicha’s niece’s wedding. Things really kicked off in the evening where we overlooked an open air Avon party, the women dressed in the most magnificent boubous, then escorted the children of the wedding to the reception. The room adorned with bright flashing lights and a wedding cake iced baby blue, it reminded me of ‘My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding’ without the alcohol.
The next morning I found myself back in that same place – the back of a sept-place. We swerved, off-roaded and pot-holed our way to the Gambian border where Senegalese politics truly came to light.
"You’ve overstayed your visa. You’ll have to pay a fine. Where do you live?"
“In Joal.”
“Oh wow, I’m from Joal too!” proceed a drilling of a map of Joal, including locations of the schools and churches, and we were free to continue! The Gambian border guard, Mouhamed, was equally friendly and took one hour to take our details, chill a while and slip his phone number into my hand – I was going to avoid this offer, Tom however crossed the border later, took his number and invited him around for drinks on Christmas Eve.
We spent our time in Bakau, The Gambia with all 8 volunteers, lapping up the sun, eating imported Cadbury chocolate and speaking Gambian Wolof, which is frankly, just a little weird: ‘Yangi nice? Yangi cool? Yangi alright?’ Amee and I even ventured to Serekunda market where we bought fish which I later made edible – perhaps one of my greatest moments so far! On Christmas Day we devoured bacon sandwiches, had Secret Santa (involving wine, a rasta hat and lots of Biskrem!) and chilled out on the beach where I got a lovely phone call from the huuuge Davidson Clan back home. Sending lots of love to you all! Upon returning to the hotel we were invited to join the hotelier’s family for Christmas dinner; I did have turkey on Christmas Day afterall!
Amee and I then waved goodbye to our fellow English speakers and set off for Abene, a tiny village on the coast of the Casamance region (south of the Gambia). The Abene Festivalo is a percussion festival that takes place over Christmas and New Year, attracting zany travellers, locals and Gambians who think they’re Rastafarians. We spent a couple of blissful days there, exploring by foot and Jakarta, basking in the beauty of the Casamance region. The campement where we stayed was owned by a joker named ‘Cherif’ who serenaded us with ‘Who shot the Sheriff?’ whenever we saw him. Incidentally, he spoke French, Wolof, German and broken English which made my mornings all the more interesting; guessing which language he was going to greet me in and working my brain into gear to splurt out the correct response. Our fellow guests included some Belgians who made the most of the local sex tourism opportunities and a middle aged German man who wore hot pants and baseball cap.  (I told you they were zany!) At the festival, we looked on as the musicians drummed, clapped, strung and sang until they dropped. They were accompanied by ‘ballet’s, dancers who shook and contorted and shimmied. The audience would join in too, running onto the stage and showcasing their ability to throw their arms and legs around in time to the music. Shamefully a few tourists did too, though not quite managing to pull it off the same way that the Senegalese can!  We spent New Year’s Eve on the beach – where else? We huddled around a colossal bonfire, lit at midnight, and sipped fanta in the smoke of the drumming circles that commenced post-0,000 hours. Health & Safety would have had a field day as fireworks were set off into the crowd – the man next to us as high as a kite, remarking ‘oooh that’s a pretty flower, red is my favourite flower’. We fell into bed around 4am with hands red raw from clapping and feet tired from stamping. 
Our journey back to Joal was definitely one of a kind; due to Abene being so remote and travelling on New Year’s Day. The 14 hour expedition included half an hour on the back of a Jakarta, a crammed ‘car rapide’ (minibus), several sept-places, taxis and a ferry. Tiring, but SO worth it. I’m coming to learn that nothing happens fast in Senegal, Aesop’s old tale gets me through the day: ‘slow and steady wins the race’.

The rentree was much easier than expected and more than I ever thought possible, I love Joal. This small fishing town where the people are so welcoming, the fish come in fresh and the sun always shines, it’s my home. Time is flying quicker than you can say ‘Alhamdoulilah’, before you know it I’ll be back in Kirkby, that small trundling town where the people aren’t so welcoming, the fish are only fresh thanks to Morrison’s and the sun rarely shines – though of course, it will always be my home.

P.s. Thank you all for your prayer, messages, Christmas cards and support – you are all WONDERFUL. 
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