Weekly Wednesday Video: A visit to a nursery school in The Gambia

About a month ago I posted a video from crossing the Sahara in Mauritania, inspired by fellow globetrotter Francis Tapon’s 3-year Africa trip. Well, now that Francis is about to enter the The Gambia, it’s only fitting to reminisce about my own visit to the tiny English-speaking sliver of land in West Africa. The country was the fifth and last destination on my West Africa tour last year (not counting my return to Senegal thereafter).

Gambia school

The Gambia is dubbed “The Smiling Coast,” which is funny since it only has about 35 kilometers (20 miles) of coast line. It’s Africa’s smallest nation, shaped like a crooked finger that protrudes into Senegal. Teeny it may be, but it’s still a crowd favorite: this year’s visitor numbers may amount to 180,000. Europeans flock to the Gambian beaches especially from November to March.

Initially I was hesitant to go to The Gambia – I had heard an awful lot about its reputation as a hotspot for female sex tourism. I thought I would need to fight off potential suitors with a stick, and as a solo female traveler, would be a prime target for the bumsters looking for a sugar momma.

Luckily the reality on the ground was much better than I feared. I visited in the off-season, so tourist hassle was at a minimum. Also, for most of my two weeks, I was Couchsurfing with locals and expats. I thus ended up having a pretty different experience to most tourists.

The highlight of my Gambia visit was getting to hang out at St. David Nursery School in Serrekunda, a private school for 3-6-year-olds. The father from my Gambian host family, Abdul, is the principal there, and his daughter Bintou is one of the professors. Bintou brought me along to school with her on three consecutive days, so I got to spend a lot of time in the company of the super energetic students. Whenever the kids saw me,  they exclaimed “Toubab!” (white person) and ran over to hug me. I felt like a movie star. 🙂

This week’s video shows the students going through their morning ritual and studying in math class. With 120 children in three rooms, the noise level at the small school was through the roof. I have no idea how the kids manage to learn anything in that environment, but they all seemed really smart and enthusiastic. Despite not having the best facilities, the were such happy campers. It was quite humbling.

If you’d like to donate money to the school, click here to learn more. The website is run by a German lady who sponsors St. David Nursery.

Advertisements

Weekly Wednesday Video: Crossing the Sahara Desert in Mauritania

This week’s video is very short and simple – just 30 seconds of scenery from Mauritania, a little-known nation I visited last year on my West Africa Tour. Some 75 percent of the country is desert, as is obvious from this video that was shot from inside a shared taxi.

Mauritania has been on my mind lately as a fellow travel writer, Francis Tapon, just spent three weeks there. I’ve been eagerly keeping up with his Facebook and Twitter updates to hear about his adventures. Francis is working on a documentary called The Unseen Africa and plans to spend three years touring the continent. That’s quite the plan!

Francis has his own car, but I mostly got around West Africa with public transportation. In Mauritania that includes the bush taxis, which are usually of the Mercedes make (while in Senegal they prefer Peugeot station wagons and call them by the name Sept-place). The shared taxis take off for their destination when enough people have showed up to fill the car, or when the driver figures he has a good change of picking up the missing number of people along the way.

Shared taxis are a pretty handy and cheap way to get around, and observing the locals’ wardrobe choices is an interesting way to pass the time.

Those of you that speak Finnish can read more about my adventures in Mauritania and the Sahara Desert in this article titled “The Sahara isn’t easy on the tourist” that was published by Finland’s biggest newspaper Helsingin Sanomat last year. Among other places, I visited Cap Blanc, known as the largest graveyard of shipwrecks. By February last year, some of the 300 ships had already been hauled away by the European Union, but quite a few could still be seen in the horizon. This one on the beach is the Moroccan ship United Malika that crashed in 2003. This shipwreck bay was definitely one of the strangest sights I’ve seen in my life.

Picture 1

Have you been to Mauritania or tried out the shared taxis elsewhere in Africa? 

Weekly Wednesday Video: West African Dance Party

I woke up today convinced it was Tuesday. But would you believe it – turns out it’s Wednesday! Again! Wasn’t it just Wednesday?

Well, who I am to fight it. It’s time for my Weekly Wednesday Video! So let’s travel virtually to Senegal’s Casamance region where I witnessed a wild dance party during my West African roadtrip last year. The fiesta took place in Oussouye, a small town that loves to bust a move. This particular time the celebration was in honor of someone’s birthday, I was told. Who wants to do the same for my birthday next month??

Casamance has in fact been on my mind for a number of reasons lately. One is that I just wrote an article for The InterDependent about how the United Nations is starting a sanitation campaign to build more toilets. As you may remember, in Casamance I visited a family that lived in a tiny town without a single toilet.

Yeah, that was quite an experience. I had been in Bouyouye for a couple of hours by the time I discovered the situation. I had looked into every nook of the little clay house I was staying in, and poked around the yard’s various corners. I just couldn’t see it.

“Where’s the toilet?” I finally asked my weekend’s host, Jeannette Diatta, 40. The cheerful mother of six school-age children pointed at the sky-reaching Fromager tree in front of me.

“Just go behind there. Nobody will bother you.” She handed me a bucket on water for cleansing, as is the local custom.

So off I went, climbing over the wide roots of the so-called elephant tree and wading through piles of brown leaves in search of my own makeshift latrine. Finally I found a spot where I could comfortably go about my business while leaning on the trunk of the tree for support. I tried to be careful not to step into other people’s leftovers, should there be some, but luckily I didn’t see any.

Later on that day I realized why – there were rows of happy little piglets running all over the town that is the full-time home of about 300 people. A human’s dump is a piggy’s treasure. I secretly felt relieved the Diatta household wasn’t serving pork that day for dinner.

During my travels in more than sixty countries on six continents, I have come across many types of latrines: the low porcelain squat toilets of India, a hole in the wooden floor a’la Mongolia, the no-wall group stalls of old Beijing and the high-tech Japanese toilets that give you an automated butt rinse.  But my visit to West Africa last year was the first time that I came across people without access to any kind of a toilet. In Guinea-Bissau’s Bijagos Islands, I even saw locals nonchalantly pooping on the side of the road.

Little did I know how typical these folks actually were: According to the UN, there are 1.1 billion people in the world still defecating out in the open, some 15 percent of the world’s population. To read my piece on what the UN is doing to change this, click on the photo below.

Picture 17

While West Africans may not all have toilets, they’ve sure got the moves. What did you think about my video of the Casamance dance party?