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

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Frustrations and a Mission update – 12/7/10

A blog I'm rather enjoying and sympathising with is http://whatsgambianforbluescreenofdeath.blogspot.com/, maintained by a VSO volunteer trying to get various virus-riddled Gambian computers into some sort of working order. He perfectly captures the frustrations involved in trying to get anything done out here, where everything is a little bit more complicated than you expect and nothing quite goes according to plan.

A perfect example of these difficulties is the little saga of the water tank, which concluded today. The Catholic Mission's water tank is supported on a platform three metres or so in the air, to produce enough pressure to get water through the taps and showers and so the sun can warm the water to the perfect temperature for the breeding of assorted nasties – shower with your mouth closed please. When he was up here last week The Professor noticed that the planks supporting the tank were nearly rotten and decided to get them replaced before they gave way and the falling tank made someone considerably shorter. This involved contacting a carpenter, to replace the planks, and a plumber, to drain the tank so that the carpenter could reach the platform.

The plan was for the plumber to come on Saturday morning and for the carpenter to come on Saturday afternoon. The plumber did not arrive on Saturday morning. Saturday afternoon brought a carpenter but no plumber. The carpenter cut the wood and hung around while the plumber was contacted, said he would come and failed to do so, and eventually went home after being told that we would contact him when the plumber had arrived. Late on Sunday, by which time it was too late to contact the carpenter, the plumber arrived and did....something. We're not entirely sure what because when the carpenter arrived this morning he found that the tank had not been drained. He was understandably quite angry about this and demanded that we contact the plumber. Surprisingly he came only an hour later, at which point I showed him round to the watertank and discovered that the carpenter had already erected the platform. I was a little surprised and asked how he had done this, hadn't he needed the plumber after all? It turned out that the carpenter had, rather enterprisingly I suppose, sawn through one of the water pipes to drain the tank himself so it was lucky that we now had a plumber to fix this.

So we now had a completed platform, which in the UK would have been the end of it. The carpenter wanted paying, which shouldn't have been a problem as I had the money and it looked to me as though he'd done a pretty good job, apart from his little bit of improvisation with a saw. Unfortunately, as the repair would be paid for with MCR funds I needed a receipt to account for them and this was where the trouble started. The carpenter wanted the money but did not want to give me a receipt. I tried to explain that I was quite happy to give him the money but I needed a receipt. I didn't raise my voice, was reasonable but firm. The carpenter got angrier and angrier. The guards joined in to harangue me "This man does not make receipts. He has done the job, why will you not give him the money?". Sirra the Mission cleaner joined in, as far as I could tell on my side (sisterhood ftw). The carpenter said he did not have a receipt book, so I gave him a sheet from my notebook and told him to write me a receipt on that. And then, horribly, it emerged that the man couldn't write and I'd just shamed him in front of the substantial audience that had built up. So I paid him and wrote the receipt myself and one of the guards signed it.

And that still wasn't the end of it. The carpenter had bought and planed eight timbers for the job but had used only seven of them. Technically we had paid for the extra timber, but I couldn't see MRC using it whereas a carpenter probably could so I told him he could keep it, trying to make a bit of a peace offering after the receipt business. Unfortunately this was taken as a signal to launch into a speech on how hard it was to be a carpenter in The Gambia when materials were so expensive, could I provide him with more materials? No. Why not? You are a toubab and you have so much money. I am a student and I don't have much money actually, and there are a lot of people in The Gambia who need help and I can't help everyone. But when you have studied you will have a good job and you will be able to help me. No, just no, I'm so very, very sorry but I get this from every single person I meet and I can't help you. Also I need to check my fly traps. Sorry, goodbye.

Just to complicate matters while all this was going on I was also trying to arrange for the MRC mechanic, (who shares a name with a member of the Adams family and damn it's appropriate) to fix the generator which broke yesterday, having to contend with dodgy reception and his complete unwillingness to spend any of his credit calling me, and of course to carry out all my experiments which aren't working so well at the moment. Luckily the students went to Senegal on Sunday to watch the world cup and have returned with what in Britain would be a very nasty bottle of rosé, but which will I have no doubt taste like the nectar of the gods out here so I plan to accompany tonight's instant mash and packet curry with a glass of that.

And a quick update on Mission – I think I spotted him once in the distance, loping along with a scrawny brindled creature, but yesterday whilst spending a brief peaceful moment sulking or skulking in my room I heard the unmistakeable flapflapflapflapflap that any dog owner will recognise as a long-eared head being shaken. I went out to investigate and there under my window was Mission. I've been trying to convince myself that he can't really remember me, that the encounter in the street was just a coincidence, but that belief is becoming increasingly untenable. For a start he had chosen my window over all others to sleep under, possibly because he could smell me (and believe me you don't have to be a dog to smell me out here, I hum) but rather more conclusively as soon as he saw me his tail started thwacking the ground and he rushed up to me, squirming with pleasure.

So at this point I decided to say sod sensible and went and found a pair of latex examination gloves so I could touch him and the antibiotic skin powder one of the students had bought and started trying to treat the sores on his ears, which was made rather more complicated by the fact that all this little dog wanted to do was roll on his back sneezing in ecstasy while the nice toubab tickled his ears. And actually after the initial shock I realised he didn't look quite as bad as he had first appeared – under all the scars and scrapes and sores he isn't nearly as thin as some Gambian dogs I've seen. I'm still not going to put up a picture of him because I think some of you might find it too upsetting, but if his ears heal up maybe I will.

So I'm going to try and fix the worst of the sores with the antibiotic powder, and maybe if I come back to Farafenni look at getting him castrated and vaccinated, but I think all in all Mission is probably happiest here- he's obviously getting enough food and has a little friend to run around with. I must admit that after my first encounter with him I did have a moment of weakness and start googling the procedure for bringing Gambian dogs into the UK. This only served to convince me of how thoroughly impractical the whole enterprise would be, but did turn up this rather interesting charity - http://www.gambicats.org.uk/ - a group of vet volunteers who come to The Gambia to neuter and vaccinate stray cats and dogs.

If I can't do much for Mission I can help dogs like him and I will be making a donation to Gambicats – while it may seem selfish to care about animal welfare in a country where children are going hungry, it really isn't any more selfish than to care about animal welfare in the UK while children are going hungry on the same planet. If you want a justification in terms of human welfare, castrating strays to reduce their numbers in a humane way will reduce transmission of worms and vaccinating strays will reduce transmission of rabies. I can even justify it in terms of my project – dog faeces breed Musca sorbens and cat faeces certainly seem to attract them, so fewer strays should lead to less breeding material in the environment. But to be honest I care about the animals here – Mission and the cats Claire and Vassie and Vassie's kittens, provisionally named Smoky and Midnight – for my own selfish reasons. When you and everything around you is filthy and dusty and your clothes stick to your body and there's grit in your bed it's so nice to have something soft and silky twining around your ankles, chirping prettily, and in a country where it can so often seem that people are only interested in you for your estimated bank balance and perceived power to secure a visa, to have Mission genuinely pleased to see me just because I once showed him a little kindness really makes a difference. I have given gifts and donations to people here and to be honest donating to Gambicats feels a lot less morally ambiguous – I don't need to worry whether I'm encouraging dependency and the patronage system or only giving to those who are already advantaged enough to be able to explain their needs to me. In short, I'm doing this because it makes me happy and I don't think I need to justify myself beyond that.

I do, however, need that rosé.

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