Posts Tagged ‘ Gambian children ’

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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