Behind The Mosquito Net – The Jet-Set Life of a Best-Selling Author.

The more observant among you will have noticed a distinct lack of posts recently on MWi.

Simple fact is I’ve been rather preoccupied sorting my residential status here in sunny West Africa, having come far too close to being deported as an illegal immigrant.

There’s a common misconception among many in the First World that only rich countries need immigration controls, to keep the nasty foreigners at bay, but it’s fine for us “rich westerners” to just jump on a plane and go where we wish. That our dollars, pounds and euros mean we are above local laws and can travel and live wherever we choose. The reality is rather different. All countries have immigration laws, and they all enforce them rigorously.

Due to technical glitches this end my annual visa renewal took much longer to sort than usual, and the past month has been endless trips to and from the tiny Gambian capital trying to coincide my visits with no powercuts so the immigration authorities could resolve a very simple issue with my resident alien permit.

All fixed eventually, but there were times it looked like I might have had to leave and return to civilization. While I will be doing just that this summer, to escape the worst of the rainy season (impossible to use the laptop here with the electrical storms) and sort business matters, the idea of leaving my little piece of paradise for any length of time was a depressing prospect.

Which brought to mind the oft-asked questions about what my life here is really like.

Do I really live in a mud hut surrounded by crocodiles and hippos, with neither running water nor sanitation? Do I really live close to golden beaches and palm trees, and plush hotels and swimming pools and well-stocked bars, yet rarely visit?

The answer is sort of, to all of them. And by the way, those crocs are just a few miles from here.

In fact I have three homes here in The Gambia. All rented, and all local quality. Yes, there are wonderful European-standard properties available, especially in the tourist zone, and for a fraction of Europe’s costs one could live in luxury here, no question.

But material wealth and goods hold little interest, and the idea of living in such needless splendour while people around me have no running water or electricity and bring up families on less than a dollar a day, is quite anathema.

I rent three homes to facilitate my travel around the country for my various community projects.  There are very few roads worthy of the name (the country has no railway system and until two years ago just one set of traffic-lights) and travel over even short distances can be arduous and time-consuming. On a good day.

Individual houses are a luxury of the rich here, and most people live in “compounds” usually comprising two or three rooms as part of a block, with shared sanitation and cooking facilities.

Below is one of  “my” compounds. It’s probably no bigger than most people’s back yards in the USA, but here there are eight families in situ, comprising over thirty persons. I’d rate my residence as middle-class.

My little “home” is the door to the right with the blue walls. The one with the collapsing roof. Two rooms, which for one person is a decadent luxury, but I do need my workspace.

As you can see from the sandy ground, we’re on the edge of the Sahara Desert, and most roads are little more than sand tracks.  It hasn’t rained here since end September, and none is expected before late June. Despite which there is a surprising amount of greenery. Trees here have deep roots and there is no shortage of underground water supply at this stage. Whether the water can meet the countries needs as the population grows and development continues remains to be seen.

My office is of course the height of hi-tech efficiency. The desk is an old, rusting metal gate precariously balanced. Mosquito swatter, lamp and Kindle are essential tools of the trade, along with the laptop and a decent keyboard. The lap-top cooler is actually a couple of egg-trays. Very effective.

Air conditioning? Of course. It’s that hole in the wall that masquerades as a window.

My other furnishings comprise an equally delapidated swivel chair, a roll-up mattress I can carry to each home as needed, a mosquito net, and a couple of locally made seats which look a lot more comfortabe than they are.

No TV, of course, although TVs are quite common (all the junk TVs from Europe find their way to Africa – and some even work!), and freeview satellite dishes are relatively cheap. Relatively being relative to Europe or the USA. When you earn local wages such things are still an unotainable luxury for most here. And I’m not sure CNN 24/7 is a luxury in any circumstances.

In theory we have electricity, but rarely a day passes without a powercut – often several – and outside of the “Kombos” (the development area) electricity and water, are rationed – 9am till 2pm and 7pm till midnight. That’s where electricity and water are available at all. Many people don’t have any electric supply (and couldn’t afford to use if they did – it costs me about a dollar a day).

Many areas are still reliant on wells, but communal taps are spreading. Up until a year ago we had to walk a quarter mile to the communal tap, shared between the entire village, fill containers and cart them back for the day’s requirements.

As a European in these temperatures (30C / 90F average – often a lot higher) several showers a day is unavoidable, so in a rare moment of self-indulgence I paid to have water brought to the compound. About a year’s income for local people. No suprise then that there was a big party when the tap finally arrived.

So now we have our own water supply.  Of course, that only gets the water as far as the premises. You still need to fill one of those containers and lug the water to where needed.

The shower, for instance.

If you want a warm shower just leave the bucket of water in the sun for an hour or so.  By midday the ground has anyway warmed up such that the water comes out of the tap pretty tepid. But overnight the ground cools and the first shower of the day can be quite a wake-up experience!

One of the reasons I chose this particular compound was the luxury toilet. Most latrines here are simply holes in thr ground. Here my predecessors somehow came across a western style u-bend basin, positioned over said hole in the ground. Unparalleled luxury! Of course you still need to lug the bucket of water from the tap to flush.

Both shower and toilet are beneath the shade of a huge mango tree. Which can be quite an unnerving experience in the post-summer months whern the mangoes are ripe and liable to fall at any moment. Mangoes are incredibly dense and heavy for their size and a lot more dangerous than falling coconuts!

Needless to say at night the mosquitos swarm in vast numbers in the hope some foolish European will expose soft pale flesh for their delectation.

Of course we also need water for washing.

When the washing machine and dishwasher breakdown we have to do things by hand. No, hold on. We haven’t got a washing machine or dishwasher.  Where would be plumb them in if we had?

And of course we also need water for cooking.

In the event I have an uncontrollable urge for a pizza or fries I can always head off to the tourist zone and spend more on one meal than a family will spend on food all week, but I prefer to live as the locals do. Cooking on charcoal or open fires can be a slow and tortuous process, but always with tasty results.

Here’s one of my lovely neighbours sorting lunch in our communal kitchen.

My second home is not quite so plush.

Could do with a new roof before the rains start.

While it may not be the most comfortable lifestyle, it is always a pleasure to be among people who have more important things to worry about than the latest smartphone, or upgrading their iPad, or whether they need a third car on the drive.

Money can’t buy happiness, and believe it or not a TV, computer games and Barbie dolls are actually not essential to life. Just ask these kids.

Or ask that Mark Williams character.

Of course there are some times when money can be put to good use.

Malaria is the single biggest killer on the African continent, and the single largest cause of infant mortality.  This close to the coast malaria is not quite as prevalent as inland, but still a major threat. But mosquito nets cost more than most people can afford. Nets for babies, like this one, are especially expensive. This one costs the equivalent of a week’s wages for a teacher. About twenty dollars. Ponder that next time you spend twenty bucks on the latest hardback.

As the baby grows out of it the net can be passed on to another child and re-used until beyond repair, which sadly isn’t that long. As for the growing infant – bigger nets cost more, and for children big and small malaria is a risk they live with every day.

Imagine in London or New York, Paris or Perth, being unable to protect your children from the risk of a  fatal disease every night, for the sake of a few dollars. If it’s not malaria there are plenty of other killers to choose from.

One in five babies born on this continent will not live to see their fifth birthday. Most of those deaths will be preventable. Little Ramatoulye, above, has a 20% likelihood of dying in the next five years. In the twenty-first century that’s just not good enough.

My lifestyle here in West Africa may seem far removed from yours in the rich west. But by African standards I live a jet-set life.

Tomorrow I’m off north of the river to follow up on some projects in the outlaying villages. Needless to say my private yacht will be waiting.

Or maybe not. I’ve got other prioroities for my money. Mosquito nets for babies, for instance. So I’ll cross the river as the locals do.

Almost time to roll up the bed, pack the laptop and head off. I leave you with this image of the luxury first-class travel experience that awaits me.

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    • Ruth Harris
    • April 20th, 2012

    Mark, Loved this look into your country & your life + your insights into what makes for a happy, satisfying life.

    But I could not take the mosquitos! They LOVE me & I suffer. DH, on the other hand, can sit next to me & not get ONE bite. Bleh!

    • Mosquitoes are definitely choosy about who they dine on, Ruth. Some people seem immune to their interest, while others attract them like moths to a candle.

      This far into the dry season there are relatively few to worry about. But come the rains and the breeding season, with standing water everywhere, the things will be out in their droves.

      Fortunately so wil the local spiders which thrive on them. Unfortunateiy the spiders are pretty monstrous too, and while they’re allegedly quite harmless I prefer not to put that to the test.

      Liuckily mosquito nets also keep put maurauding man-eating spiders. 🙂

  1. Mark, what a powerful post. In many ways I envy the simplicity of your lifestyle, but then I look at the dishwasher … and …

    No, seriously, I am in awe of what you do and the lifestyle you lead. It is rare, these days to find someone campaigning for a better deal who also walks the talk. Please let us know what we can do to help. Regards, Karin.

    • Thanks, Karin, and thanks for your private message too.

      There’s a lot that can be done with very little in countries like this, and any assistance in any form is always welcome.

      I’ll follow up shortly.

  2. Long time no hear!Mark what a beautiful post! Now I definitely want to come visiting. Did you know that the luxury of a western toilet is actually very detrimental to our health? Squatters do it better, apparently. Those kids look so much happier than most western children. They still play outside, without gadgets, hooray! I will bring the whole family 🙂

    • I’ve heard squatting is better, but that’s a fine art of balancing that can easily end in disaster.

      Kids don’t just play outside. They play outside unsupervised and, except for rogue crocs and hippos near the river, complete safety. Imagine sending a four year old off to nursery school a half mile away accompanied only by other four year olds. That’s normality here.

    • That’s how we do it with ours! It’s all about breast feeding, carrying the babies and letting go from a deep sense of security while trusting their instincts! I’ve had my toddlers climb up ladders to great height thre is no need for fear and over protection if the kids get what nature wants them to have.
      I remember a few years ago the two oldest ones (8 and 6 at the time), disappeared for a night with two friends: They’d taken sleeping bags, a loaf of bread and stayed out all night camping in the river bed where there are wild boars and even snakes and scorpions. They have no fear of the wild. The other parents were freaking out but I knew they were safe and went to sleep. The next morning they came back and asked if they could stay out the next night as well!. The worst thing you can do for children is to overprotect them and not let them take any risks.
      Ours walk a mile to school, uphill, and we accompany them with the dogs because it’s such a glorious morning walk and we talk about stuff. The only other people we meet are mothers, children cooped up inside a car, racing up the track, burning the petrol to get their kids to school. I just wonder: when will they get any exercise?

      Maybe it’s 60 years of bad news coming into people’s living room via TV that have created this vibe of fear and mistrust… ?

      Have you read The Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff?

  3. Maybe we can do something on line to collect money for mosquito nets for babies?

    • As per above, any help is welcome, Denise.

      One thing I’m keen to develop is baby sponsorship, where those in the richer lands can support a baby through those early years, and in return get direct contact with the family with a constant supply of photos and video to show their contributions are not being squandered on needless “expenses”.

      • Let’s talk numbers: How much for sponsorship? If we can avoid the big charities and the money goes straight to the families, that would be fab!

  4. Wondered where you were! I find the scourge of malaria heartbreaking–especially considering we more or less eradicated it here in the west with DDT before we banned the stuff locally.

    • Yeah, I’m still about, George, and need to folow up with you on a few things shortly.

      Ironically malaria is makinga come-back in parts of Europe as “climate change” takes its toll and (more relevant) vectors like mosquitoes are inadvertantly brought back to the west.

    • thaedeus
    • April 20th, 2012

    Thanks for sharing Mark. It is definitely an eye opening experience to live in places like that where priorities are entirely different and survival is an integral part of everyday life. Keep fighting the good fight.

    • Subsistence living is a way of life across much of the world. Fortunately here there’s no-one actually starving, although malnutrition is common, especially among young children. Whihc in trun reduces their resistance to ailments that in the West would be consdiered minor irritations (diarrhoea for example) but here can be life-threatening.

  5. Ah, there he is! Wondered why I had a distinct lack of emails from him today – he was blogging! I hope those photo’s came from that camera that you have finally figured out how to use! 😉

    Wonderful post Mark, ’bout time you shared your existence with everyone, I am sick of people asking me where you are and what you look like. Now they know!

    Of course, the downside of you coming away from your home for the summer means that you actually have to spend more time with me. Batten down the hatches and world prepare yourselves for whatever we come up with when doing so!

    In all seriousness though, someone mentioned maybe doing something to collect money for mosquito nets. If you would like to organise a writers justigiving page or something, I am sure you can trust Mark to see that the money gets spent DIRECTLY where it is required and that it doesn’t get absorbed in the coffers of a faceless charity.

    Just get in touch.

    • Batten down the hatches indeed!

      There’s a lot happening in the UK just now that will be of immense interest to authors, and I’ll be liaising with Saffi and some other parties this summer to make sure we can all benefit.

      I’ll hopefully run a short blog next week on some of the latest developments. .

    • Charley R
    • April 20th, 2012

    Though I know I wouldn’t last a minute in your lifestyle – I’d burn up into a little puddle of ashes in seconds for a start – I have to say your humility is absolutely inspiring.

    This might sound ridiculously soppy and probably like a big fat lie, but I’ve been thinking about – in the best of all possible situations – trying to set up some sort of trust fund for schools and literacy programs in somewhere Third World if I earn enough money to set some aside. That is, if I’m not starving to death and eating out of rubbish bins myself.

    Also … I want to steal your sunglasses. They look pretty cool.

    One last thing – doom on Barbie dolls! xD

    • A trust fund would be a wonderful thing, Ms. Charley, and you’ll soon be making millions and should have a few pence to spare.

      But there’s no need for anyone to wait until they’re rich to before trying to help others i9n the Third World. For young people like yourself your most valuable assets are not financial, but rather your time and enthusiasm. Helping raise awareness, helping organise, and building links across nations is often more valuable than mere cash.

      For example, helping link schools in The Gambia with schools in the rich West is something that would involve no financial costs but bring all manner of future benefits to both sides

        • Charley R
        • April 21st, 2012

        Hmmmm, cunning plan that. And, as I have absolutely no money myself al momento, that might be a good idea. My school sponsors this orphanage called “The Nest” somewhere in Somalia I think … I’ll see if I can work from there or something …

  6. Your life put things in persepctive thats for sure. It makes my worries seem downright silly… I don’t know if I can break my bonds and do what you do, but the world is a much better place because of people like you; and the books you wirte (Have you heard my rave on Anca’s story yet?) :}

    Anyway I know this for certain – when I’m published a percentage of my profits is totally going for charities. So if you manage to put something together, I’ll try to stay in the loop.

    Good to hear from you too, but I’ll save the tackle hug fro Charley or Miriam, unless you want it because Iseriously thought about it when I saw you had a blog post up. *grins*

    :} Cathryn

    • A bit behind, Catherine, but I did indeed see your revioews of Anca’s Story. Much appreciated.

      As per my response to Charley, above, money is not the only way in which you can make a real difference.

  7. A true inspsiration. We were in Kenya about five years ago and saw the same problems there. I hope we can all join together and do somethng to help.
    You’re doing great work.

    • Thanks, Elizabeth. Kenya and the African Pacific Rim countries are a very different world from the poorer West African states, but some themes – poverty and disease notably – are common throughout the continent.

    • Miriam Joy
    • April 20th, 2012

    Loved this post, Mark! Hadn’t noticed the lack myself as exams and preparation are eating my soul, so emails aren’t tending to get read at the moment.
    I love having a look at how you live. It’s so interesting to know background, because so many people blog about writing and publishing but it’s people’s own stories that are the unique ones.

    • Thanks, Mimzy. Now get back to your studies! 🙂

        • Miriam Joy
        • April 21st, 2012

        It’s GCSE Art… it’s not studies, it’s CLAY! (And acrylic paint, and mod roc, curse it… my clothes will never be the same again. There’s a REASON that Helen rants about that….)
        Hooray for phone internet. Only thing that keeps me sane when I can’t use a laptop for the art experimentation that’s going on between me and it.

    • annerallen
    • April 20th, 2012

    Thanks so much for sharing these great pictures and information about your life in the Gambia. Fascinating and inspiring.

    OK, I’ll stop kvetching about my broken dishwasher now.

    • It’s amazing what cold water and sand can do. Sand is a great dish-washing detergent that can bring a shine to pots and pans with none of the pollutants.

  8. Wow, a picture of the elusive Mark Williams! And all this time I was expecting a Twilight Zone twist where you were actually some kind of super computer with a Southern English accent.

    This is probably your best blog post by far (and that’s saying a lot). Perhaps you should consider publishing some non-fiction ;D

    • patricefitzgerald
    • April 22nd, 2012

    Thank you for sharing, Mr. International. It’s eye-opening to realize the contrast between the way we live and the way a lot of the rest of the world lives. Count me in to help going forward.

    We want clearer photos of you, though! Tell all those happy kids to turn the camera on you next time.

  9. Mark (motherFREAKING-Teressa).
    Wow, incredible Mark

    • senbooks
    • June 11th, 2013

    Love this site. Home sweet home.

    • Ruth Harris
    • June 11th, 2013

    Mark, so happy to hear from you again! I must say I love outdoor showers! And with sun-warmed water! There are different kinds of luxury & outdoor showers are definitely included!

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