Entomology, chemical ecology, evidence-based environmentalism and science in general. I like big bugs and I cannot lie.

Monday, 1 June 2009

MRC Fajara

I'm accustomed to waking to the Hounslow dawn chorus; the scrape of
metal on metal of the next door shop's ventilation fans, punctuated by
the sporadic roar of planes overhead and with a baseline provided by
the rumble of traffic. So it was a pleasure this morning to wake up
to the hoots and shrieks of Fajara's exotic birdlife. Some of the
calls didn't even sound like birds; it took quite an effort to
persuade myself that there are no monkeys here, but I'm certain that
there are no squeaky wheels or wobble boards in the mango trees
outside my window, however insistantly my ears may tell me otherwise.

Today is a public holiday in The Gambia, giving me a chance to settle
in before starting work in earnest. (Tomorrow may also be a public
holiday but this hasn't been decided yet - presumably it depends on
how hard the people who make these decisions party today.) My main
task for the day was therefore to change some money and to this end
one of the MRC drivers, Omar, picked me up at ten in the MRC jeep.

The journey into town was picturesque to say the least, past scenes
that I'd only seen in National Geographic magazine. Donkey carts
shared the road with trucks seeming to defy the laws of gravity with
impossible amounts of baggage pled on topof them, and with people
dressed in vibrant waxcloth hefting equally improbable loads on their
heads. The buildings appeared to be in the process of either
construction or disintigration and sometimes both simultaneously, but
gaily flapping laundry hanging from balconies showed them to be
inhabited. Splashes of green were rare in that dusty red landscape
but insted sprays of red or purple hibiscus flowers hung over the
whitewashed walls. The smells too were incredible; sunbaked earth,
roasted meat, unwashed bodies, dung, diesel fumes and underneath it
all the tang of the sea. This cocktail should have been unpleasant
but I actually found it triggered pleasant memories, of festivals and
childhood holidays on the Isle of Wight (I'll let you guess which
smells were which).

Sadly I seem destined to be an observer rather than someone who has
much interaction with the local people for some time yet. My
relationship with Omar feels rather awkward - I forgot about the
formalised greetings (a scripted exchange of "How are you?" "Well"
"How is your family?" "Well, praise Allah!" "How is the day?" "Good")
when we first met which must have come across as incredibly aloof and
rude. My subsequent attempts to make small talk foundered against a
wall of either disinterest or incomprehension ("Why is there so much
building work here? Is the city growing?" "A lot of people are
building houses") and I was a little startled by the scope of the role
of a driver; I had assumed that he would simply take me from A to B
but instead he took my money and bartered for the best exchange rate
then changed it for me, and then when we got to the supermarket
insisted on pushing my trolley, packing it for me and taking the
shopping to the car. I felt that the effort he had put in to changing
my money for me went a long way beyond the call of duty - I could
certainly never have got such a favourable rate on my own, so
afterwards I offered him the equivalent of £15, which seemed
reasonable as I had changed several hundred. The reaction was not
what I had hoped for. He seemed shocked, then slightly insulted,
before finally taking the money with a mumbled "God bless you" that
was hard to read. I'm going to be spending quite a lot of time in his
company, so I'm going to have to find out pretty quickly from someone
how to deal with someone who seems more like a manservant than a

Returning to the compound I met some of the other people sharing my
accomodation block,including the luckiest placement student alive who
was sent out here to work on hepatitis for his undergraduate project,
and two women from the university of Iowa who I recognised from my
flight. I got chating to one of them, who was working with a group
trying to reduce the incidence of female genital mutilation in The
Gambia. This sounded amazing, and I raved about how worthwile her
work sounded before turning to her friend and asking whether she
worked on FGM too. "No, I'm a statistician." she replied. Oops.

Anyway, off to enjoy the comfort of my air conditioned room and
ensuite shower while I have them - I won't get this sort of thing
upcountry. Night all.

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