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.

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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?

Yes, I got robbed in West Africa. But I’m sure you won’t.

I probably should have seen it coming. After all, just three weeks earlier I had received an email from my dad that said:

“Be careful. If you keep on traveling, one of these days you will get robbed.”

I guess to him and most other people it seemed inconceivable that I had been roaming the globe for nearly 12 years without encountering any major problems. To me, it seemed perfectly normal and I expected to be able to continue  at least another dozen years without a hitch. After all, I found the world to generally be a safe place and I had my wits about me.

But sure enough, shortly after my dad’s email I got robbed on a quaint tropical island in Guinea-Bissau, namely the tiny town of Bubaque in the Bijagos Islands. And not just robbed – properly punched in the face.

It happened back in March when a big guy attacked me from behind as I passed him at night on a quiet street. The strange thing was that it had only been about three minutes since I had told my friends that I felt totally safe walking home alone.

Since I didn’t want to give up my purse without a fight, the robber decided to let his fist talk to my mouth a bit. Feeling the impact of the hit on my teeth, I fell back and thus the straps of my purse broke.

Off the guy ran with my dear belongings: my brand new camera, an iPod full of comfort music, spare memory cards and worst of all, my journal with two months of travel memories carefully jotted down for future personal and professional reference. What a sad sight that was, seeing him run down toward the beach and being able to do nothing about it. Though the physical and mental wounds have pretty much healed by now, I still mourn the loss of that diary.

While most of my friends were truly shocked by what happened, some people have not been so understanding.

“C’me on, you were traveling in Africa by yourself as a female. You were clearly asking for trouble!”

Well, yes and no. But mostly no.

Yes only because it probably isn’t the smartest thing to walk alone on an eerie street at 10 p.m. anywhere in the world by yourself. That I admit. But Bubaque seemed like the safest place on earth, so I really didn’t think anything of it.

And no because believe it or not, I found West Africa to be a really safe region to travel around as a solo female. Much safer than most of the 50+ countries I’d visited before. This is for a number of reasons.

The first is that unlike in countries of Latin America, for example, there’s hardly any criminal gang activity in West Africa. In the words of my American friend who lives in Dakar, “Nothing in well-organized in Africa, not even crime.”

Secondly, as this is one of the poorest regions of the world, most people couldn’t own guns even if they wanted to. Their priority is to put food on the table on a daily basis, not to buy ammunition for their imaginary AK-47s.

Thirdly, West Africa just does not have a tradition of robbing or being violent with tourists. I don’t know if it’s because of religion – Islam, the main religion in the area, orders Muslims to take good care of visitors- or if it’s because of some other cultural traits.

African life is generally very community-oriented and criminal behavior isn’t tolerated well. In fact, it’s a surefire way to isolate yourself and to turn into an outcast. Who would want that?

So for the most part I only met people who were incredibly friendly, hospitable and nice. Rather making an enemy out of me the locals wanted to be my friend – inviting me to their homes to stay, teaching me their languages and showing me around town.

Sure, some folks only saw me as a rich foreigner and expected me to shower them with  lavish gifts or help them get visas for Europe, so of course there were some subtle efforts to take advantage of my presence. But not once did anyone try to reach for my wallet in a pick-pocketing effort.

In fact, of all the foreigners that I met over my time in Africa, not a single one had been mugged and only one managed to get his camera nicked from his pocket in the busy border post of Rosso between Mauritania and Senegal.

After my robbery, Titi, the Senegalese manager of my guest house Chez Titi, tried to console me: “You know, you are not the first person this has happened to. Six years ago a French lady also got robbed here.” Geez, SIX years ago?! So what are the odds that this would happen to me? I should play the lottery more often…

In his 20 years of living in the Bijagos Islands, Titi recalled hearing of three robberies before my case. THREE.

Comparing this to the stories of travelers in Latin America where you’ll hardly meet a person who has not been robbed or mugged, the difference was staggering. (Though despite traveling in Latin America for more than eight months in total, I’ve never been robbed there. In Guatemala City I had a close call last year but managed to run away.)

So go on guys and especially gals – travel to West Africa if you are interested in the region and don’t be afraid of going at it alone. At least not from a safety perspective.

(Surely this cute chimp from The Gambia’s Baboon Island agrees!)

You are more likely to be mugged or robbed at home than to encounter the kind of a rotten apple  that I did. And even I could have probably avoided my uncomfortable fate by asking my friends to walk me back to my guesthouse that night.

So no, I was not asking for trouble by traveling to Africa alone. But since I did find it – who knows, maybe it was just my time to get mugged, in honor of my 12-year globetrotting anniversary. So unless you’ve got the same celebration coming up, I’d say you’re fine!

My Weekend with Senegalese Subsistence Farmers

“So how was Africa??”

Ever since flying out of Senegal in May, not a week has gone by that I haven’t heard this question and soon been retelling my African roadtrip stories to some friend or acquaintance. Nowadays I feel like I’m starting to sound like a broken record since I already know what memories I want to share and what aspects of the experience I’ll focus on. Not that it’s been easy narrowing my four months down to a few short tales, quite the contrary!

Still, one of my favorite stories to tell is how I spent a weekend visiting a tiny rural village in Senegal’s Casamance region – a town that did not have a single toilet, not even of the hole-in-the-ground variety. Instead there was a tree behind which you had to go in times of need, and little piglets roaming around eating the leftovers. Magically it was one of the cleanest toilet arrangements I encountered on the continent.

The most memorable part of the weekend in Bouyouye was going oyster fishing with a few of the village ladies. 

The trip made such an impression on me that I even wrote a story about it for Passblue.com, the same website that recently published my article about the new Cabral museum in Guinea-Bissau. Should you want to learn more about life in rural Senegal, check out this link:

http://passblue.com/2012/07/25/in-rural-senegal-oyster-fishing-is-not-a-hobby/

But even if you are not in the mood for reading the longish piece, don’t miss out on watching this video of a dance party that took place in the village on my last night there. There was really no special occasion for the fiesta nor was it planned at all- one of the guys just started playing his kora (a small guitar-like African instrument) and suddenly the whole village came out to jam. It was quite the scene and this is what went on for hours:

Wow! I was looking at the goings-on with a mix of awe, amazement and a hint of jealousy. If only I had such rhythm in my blood! Unfortunately my efforts to copy these ladies’ styles looked pretty pathetic, so I left myself out of the video. 😛

Altogether if I had to choose one weekend that has had the most profound effect on me this year, this just might be it. While in Bouyouye, I started thinking about what’s really important in this life and questioning our modern world where nobody has time for an impromptu dance party anymore.

Visiting the village made me want to simplify my life even more, and to make time for meaningful human interactions. And it made me less understanding of people who choose to work a 70-hour work week just to make more money to buy more useless material things. I’ve never seen houses more bare than the ones in Bouyouye, but I’ve also never seen happier people. Somehow I feel like there must be a connection… don’t you think?

Have you ever visited this type of a rural village? Did it have as profound of an effect on you as my visit to Bouyouye did on me? 

The Worst Interview of My Life

As you may have read from the last post, I spent more than three weeks in tiny Guinea-Bissau during my Great West African Tour of 2012 (four months, five countries, two occupied territories – surely the name of my trip is not much of an exaggeration?). 🙂

Besides liking Guinea-Bissau a whole lot, one of the reasons I stayed there for some extra time was that I was reporting on a new museum that is opening up soon. It’ll honor freedom fighter Amilcar Cabral, Africa’s “Che Guevara,” who fought for the independence of his home countries of Guinea-Bissau and Capo Verde in the 1970s. The museum is housed in Cabral’s childhood home in the town of Bafata, which was recently renovated by UNESCO.

I visited the museum and wrote the story for Passblue.com, a website that reports on issues related to the United Nations. The article can be read here and I’d love for all of you to check it out! After all, this piece was very challenging to complete, so please show it some looooove. ❤

Why was it so hard, you may ask… Well, mostly because I don’t speak Portuguese Creole, the official language of Guinea-Bissau. And people there don’t speak much English. So there was a bit of a communication barrier…

But one language I do speak fairly well is Spanish, and many Bissau-Guineans can also communicate in Portuguese. So rather than spending time (and money) looking for a translator, I decided to try to somehow manage on my own.

So I traveled to the town of Bafata, organized some interviews, went over to meet the people of UNESCO, called the governor of Bafata, and dug up some relatives of Cabral and thought everything would just be smooth sailing from there on…

And boy, was I wrong.

It didn’t take me long to figure out that speaking Spanish does not equal understanding Portuguese, no matter how closely related the two languages supposedly are. And understanding Portuguese Creole is next to impossible, as at times it sounds nothing like the language it’s based on.

This was painfully evident during my interview with Amilcar Cabral’s niece, Iva Helena Gomes. I’d ask her a question in Spanish and then she’d give a great, long-winded answer in Portuguese (and/or Portuguese Creole), detailing the complex life story of her uncle… and I’d understand about 1/10 of each sentence, if even.

Every time the friendly lady spoke, it felt like a knife was being twisted in my stomach.

“This is the worst interview I’ve ever done, without a doubt,” I thought to myself as she went on in a language that might as well have been Chinese. I was totally lost, no matter how much I tried to search for familiar words. I have never left less in control of an interview.

In the end I had scribbled down just a few words out of the entire 30-minute interview. It was a sad, sad day. I left Gomes’ house without any spring in my step. Only a bit of panic in my heart. (“How can I write this story without any good quotes??”)

My interview with Bafata Governor Adriano Gomes Ferreira was also not the greatest of all times. Despite knowing Spanish, he would occasionally shift to Portuguese without even realizing it.

It was only during a lunch meeting in the governor’s house that the conversation got a bit easier. I think at that point the guv and his wife finally realized the limits of my Portuguese… Well, better late than never. 🙂

Luckily my other interviews went better, as they were conducted in proper Spanish and one even in English. So at least I learned I feel comfortable reporting in Spanish, but that I already knew from last year when I covered an HIV march in Guatemala City.

In the end the Cabral article turned out fine and I managed to work around my limited quotes. The editor of Passblue.com, Dulcie Leimbach, certainly seemed to like the outcome based on her email.

“I’m impressed you could use your Spanish so well in a Portuguese country. You deserve a Pulitzer!”

Well, thanks Dulcie but I’d hold off on the Pulitzer Prize for now. 😉

And while I did okay, I can’t help but wonder how nice would it have been to be able to choose from 20 great quotes instead of using the only two I understood?

So note to self: Next time I am in a Portuguese-speaking country, I should definitely hire a translator! Spanish is not the same as Portuguese. 😛