There are 8 of us plucky and adventure-minded individuals who have arrived at the same time in the Gambia to generously donate a year or two of our lives to saving the world
[pause for applause] and will be carrying out our month long training course together before being set loose on the country. We are motley crew from corners of the world including Spain, Canada, Kenya, Holland, and a place they refer to as 'Edinburgh' which I am reliably informed is in Scotland. I am among the youngest, but make up for it through high volume and an assortment of passionately argued, if ill-informed, opinions.
Our entrance to The Gambia was memorable for the fact that our plane landed in what appeared to be a lake. "Oh yes, the rainy season lasts from May until November" I remember nonchalantly boasting to people before I left. Did I take into account what this meant? No I did not. If I had done, I would not have bothered to pack my hair-straightener because I would have realized the pointlessness of such an exercise given the amount of moisture in the air. Needless to say, you will not be receiving any photos of me in my new surroundings any time soon because I permanently look like a poodle. The rain that greeted us into the country obscured the ridiculously disproportionate length of the runway which was built by NASA to provide an emergency landing site for their space shuttles should one ever be needed. The Gambia does not have tarmaced roads, but it does have a role in international space exploration activities; just one of the many entertaining contradictions I have come across so far.
For the first week here, VSO charitably put us up in a hotel to ease us gently into our new environment. It's much easier to cope with the sweltering heat, homesickness, self-doubt and flourishing insect life, when you have a swimming pool and a glass of chilled hibiscus juice to take your mind off it.
For those of you who experienced the full brunt of my wrath after joking in my presence about sponsoring my 'holiday', and are now feeling justifiably indignant, let me reassure you, such luxury was fleeting. After a few short days we were ejected from our comfortable lodgings and I have now moved into what is to be my home for the rest of my stay here, of which I shall write more in the future.
My time to date has been engaged in meeting the existing VSO volunteers and going through our In-Country Training (ITC) programme. Thus far I have learned How To Catch a BushTaxi (nod at a yellow car if it honks at you, try to avoid the ones where the windscreen has been sellotaped together), How To Eat A Gambian Meal (stick to your part of the communal bowl, only use your right hand) and How To Haggle At The Market (lots of exclamations of disbelief, stomping off and blasť re-entrances).
My favourite part of ITC so far was the security briefing. This is apparently normally delivered by a high ranking police officer and should consist of a realistic assessment of the security situation in The Gambia and detailed practical advice for living here. Unfortunately said gentleman was unavailable and in his absence an alternate stepped in. Clearly conscious of the unusual honour being bestowed upon him, the temporarily promoted substitute saw this as a PR opportunity for his country and the positive spin he gave it, would put Alistair Campbell to shame. Possibly he had failed to notice that we had already arrived in the country and were therefore not in need of persuasion to visit. According to our new friend there was zero crime throughout the country, residents are genetically programmed to only ever be happy and non-violent, and as for the jails, why, they were mainly used for storing crops as there was never a call for them to house prisoners. After his departure we were given a hastily assembled re-briefing by VSO.
The only unusual warnings we received were in relation to the ongoing civil war in bordering Casamance region of Senegal and also the forthcoming Gambian election on September 22nd. President Jammeh took over The Gambia in a peaceful coup in 1994 (he basically just wandered into the cabinet and announced he was taking over, although I am sure the army hovering behind him helped persuade people). Jammeh is considered something of a hero by most of the people here. He was only 29 when he made his ambitious play for glory and was presumably as surprised as anybody else when it came off. During the election, a number of the volunteers including myself have organised a 3 day beach trip for that weekend to a town bordering Casamance. If there is trouble with the elections, we figure the civil war will protect us. Only kidding, it's out of the way, so it should be fine. If you don't hear from me again, I was wrong...
Just a quick line from the searing heat of West Africa to let you know I overcame the first hurdle of arriving here in one piece, which I managed admirably despite not starting to pack until 45 minutes before I had to leave my house (if only I'd had 4 months to organise myself?). A slight hitch at Gatwick airport thanks to an overzealous check-in manager who for some reason objected to my 58kg of luggage, was solved by a bout of feminine tears (mine not his) and me and my luggage (including essentials such as my hairstraightener, pink stiletto heels, and vast quantities of tea) proceeded without further incident. I now simply have to meet the second and slightly larger hurdle of surviving another 12 months here.