Saturday, 24 March 2012

We made it! Have cleared Gambian customs. Yahoo! Yesterday we had our last wild camping, about 70 miles from the border. Had a fantastic ride, met lots of great people. Mike lost the tent folding championship this morning, he says now he'll just stick to teeth. Staying tonight at Eddie's place in Farafenni, very African style hotel, but had cold beer and cold showers, so awesome after camping in a cow pat last night! Very very hot, only 80 more miles to Bansang, nearly there.

We’ve made it to The Gambia!!
Crossed into The Gambia at Farafenni with the minimum of fuss – much to our collective and individual surprise. The chief Inspector of Police wanted  pens  but we didn’t have any so I gave him an IPA badge instead, and he was delighted. I hammed it up for effect – standing to attention, calling him sir. He loved it.

Arrived at Eddy’s – it was OK. 1930s style , very basic but OK, and right in the heart of town, which was  a great incentive to go out. Also meant we were besieged every time we did though. Went looking for an internet cafe Nadine could book a flight home ( she was originally going home in the truck but decided to fly in order to give her more time to prep for Mongolia and get some work done) But the chap wasn’t there (they are shut in the hot part of the day which seems to be all day and  open in the late evening when it is a bit cooler) so some kids took us round the corner to a little bar. One of them was clearly very intelligent – told me he used the internet for his homework as well as finding out about the world, asked up a great deal of information. He knew about   most countries, the European monetary fund and how it worked, cars and engines. I was really impressed with him. He wants to be a surgeon and move to Toronto.
Also met Bember, a 12 year old welder. He had mastered doors and windows and was hoping to move onto bigger things soon. He was really little but a real street wise dude. Both of them entertained us with their repertoire of bike tricks.

One of the kids was then sent to find out if the internet chap had arrived; he had, so we went round there and found Modo, a military policeman sitting outside on his police bike. He took me for a spin around the town and back to Eddy’s so that I could get him a police badge.
Nadine found` a flight but couldn’t book it because it wouldn’t take her card details. A bit frustrating for her but she got the number and booked it by phone the following morning.

We also met the Gambian Olympic selection team at Eddy’s. Nice chaps – the National football coach, Tambong from Kick Off Gambia, the team selection manager and a couple of other people. Offered me a photo job for the London Olympics but I can’t do it of course because I will be in Mongolia, but did some posed shots for them.

Just as we got to Eddy’s, we were met by a group of blokes who called us each by name. Very bizarre and it took us all by surprise, particularly Nadine who was asked about her knee. It turned out to be David Gibba and friends from Sutton United Gambia who had been waiting for us all day. How kind was that? Unfortunately, something had got lost in the various emails and they thought we were on our way back from Bansang rather than to it. They had even sorted exit customs for us. But we will see them on Friday morning in Banjul and go to their club.

The Final leg to Bansang

Nearly there. The truck had a tyre problem which Iain and Gordon sorted out. Then Dennis’ carb needed fixing – the pipes leading to the fuel  filter had spanned and the whole place stank of petrol. That delayed us a bit longer than we’d hoped but we got underway soon enough.

Then it was the last leg to Bansang. We were all excited  and although nobody said anything in particular, there was a palpable upbeat vibe  in the posse because the end result was almost within our grasp.

Roads were good and it was metalled all the way so we made good progress. Stopped off at Wassu stone circle, a World Heritage site and old burial ground. Lots of kids appeared immediately but they were great and just wanted to talk. Had another mass dancing session with them listening to various Ipods.

Then it was off again for Bansang and the ferry. A brief wait on the bank  amongst assorted goats and children, then a ride onto a rickety small boat across the Gambia River. Half  way across , the  drums and singing of the most magnificent reception party reached us from the opposite bank, complete with Anita Smith at the waterside, waving madly amongst the  riot of colour and noise. Other passengers seemed somewhat bemused but joined in.

 And what a fantastic reception it was – full on drums, the Governor, hospital staff all on motorbikes – many of the previous years’ C90s, now Gambian registered – an ambulance, various vehicles etc. Lots of hugs and handshakes all round and then a 11 mile procession to the hospital.

But then it got even better as we reached the hospital. The whole village had turned out – lining the road en route, waving and shouting ‘welcome, welcome, thank you,  thank you’. Kids, old ladies, workmen, shopkeepers. The whole lot. One of the outriders was doing tricks on his bike as we rode and as we got nearer the hospital, a kid jumped on the back of mine, Debz and Nad’s bikes, and they rode with us, waving madly and shouting loudly.

All of us were so overwhelmed. The culmination of a very long journey through difficult terrain, difficult conditions, heat, lots of nothingness in the Sahara, and also battling the tiredness, the sand in the eyes, the stiffness that comes with riding a very small bike long distances, frayed tempers. But we’d made it; here we were 4000 miles from home, having survived relatively unscathed, arriving in a small town in rural Africa, where it was clear that we were actually could make a difference to the lives of ordinary people. I think all of us had wondered during the long journey whether or not that was really the case or whether it was just an excuse for a bit of an adventure holiday. But here was the proof.

The noise was incredible – more drums, more singing, whistle blowing, shouting, waving,  people in best clothes, kids in no clothes, colour, two people dressed up as some straw characters ( later found out it was something to do with circumcision rituals which worried a couple of the blokes). I was dragged straight off my bike and pulled into the dancing circle. No choice but just to get on with it – wild African moves, very fast and totally unplanned. A bit hot in bike gear but it had to be done. Then I was given a cold beer and made to sit down as others got dragged up –everybody. Then the hat came out – if the hat got put on your head, you had to dance, and so I was up again. The wilder the better, all of us hammed it up and joined in. A phenomenal  atmosphere. But the funniest one was Mike. Captain clean himself who at the start never seemed to have a hair out of place was right there in the middle of it all, blowing a whistle and throwing some shapes. Fantastic. But he still had his jacket on and of course, it was still clean.  

One of the women tied my Sahara headscarf around my head, Gambian style, which again amused  the women, and led to me getting dragged up to dance again. It was very hot though. This all went on for an hour or so, and it was a spectacular with us at the centre, a special day which all of us will remember always, not least for the knowledge that the villagers had all contributed financially to the celebrations, even though they have so little themselves.

Then it was off to Mr Fatti’s and the hotel. Right by the River Gambia. More beers and more importantly, hot showers, then food. Wonderful. Up went the mossie nets and off we all went to bed.

But the rooms were so hot. I endured it for several hours before decamping to the roof terrace with my therma rest and silk liner to sleep on an unfinished but very cool floor, amongst the cement and brick dust. It was much cooler, the mangoes smelt beautiful and the breeze was wonderfully cooling.


First sight proper of the hospital today, and a tour around it, into every nook and cranny. What a sobering experience that was. 1930s British Colonial one storey buildings in a small gated complex, opened in 1938. Rough dirt roads within the hospital grounds with the occasional glimpse of what had once been ‘proper;’ road in the main avenue between the Children’s ward and the main hospital block, hidden and broken under the sand and dust.

 This had clearly once  been an impressive medical facility, catering for local people and it was still doing so. However, it was immediately clear that the demand for medical treatment far outweighed what the place could offer and the once pristine facilities were not only old and tatty but were dilapidated and in many cases, derelict.

 But old and tatty is not necessarily a problem because peeling paint and outmoded styling is of no consequence if systems and machinery still work and relevant staff can use them to good effect. But at Bansang, that is a hit and miss process.

A meeting with the hospital Board first who outlined the main problems. Too many people needing help, the need for education in the community to prevent things and reduce the need for cure, the rapid turnover of staff because wages in the area are low, basic facilities for trained professionals and very poor and most people want to stay within the familiar support network of their families rather than move out alone and live in poor conditions for low wages. Combine that with an astonishing lack of systems, chaotic disorganisation, vital machinery and infrastructure that has been poorly maintained and is way past repairable, and the problem starts to emerge. Bansang Hospital is bursting at the seams and can’t cope – although it is clear that it is doing exceptionally well in the circumstances and has come a long way since the Bansang Hospital Appeal was started by Anita Smith 20 years ago, so much so that it is now also a major source of medical care for the wider Gambian community, and also treats people from Senegal and Mali. That is a huge  catchment area but an extra burden on staff and facilities that are already stretched  way beyond their capacity.

But Bansang goes  further than the immediate hospital complex and does its best to support patients in the community and create regional health centre  points for ongoing out patient cases, palliative care and prevention initiatives.


Went to a remote village today to meet a 3 year old boy with hydrocephalus.  He  is a terminal jcase but he is well loved and cared for by his parents, although he is not developing at all and there is no hope of any western medical help to either improve his condition or prolong his life. He was a lovely little chap but very small; the body of a small toddler and a head like a football. And now he has a healthy little brother just a week old, named after Anita’s son Laurence. The hospital helps and supports  his parents with counselling and how to care for him as he slowly dies, and the health worker uses a previously donated scooter to reach him. Couldn’t do it without one.

We had a fantastic ride to his village though. Belle, Debz, Gordon, Nads ands Sue on scoots, with Iain and John in the truck. A wild ride across the Gambia River and red dust and rough tracks for 40 kms. We were filthy but the villagers didn’t seem to mind. They are so remote and perhaps don’t  see that many westerners that often and assume that’s how we normally look. But we were even worse by the time we got back to the ferry several hours later and people waiting to cross definitely knew the score and  had a good old laugh at our expense.

The ferry was a chain ferry, pulled by passengers, although we seemed to be the only ones actually pulling. It was quite hard work and a bit of a chain gang like experience but we worked our passage. Literally.  And then Africans looked on , no doubt bemused by  five women and three men all covered from head to toe in red dust and sweat, hoofing them across the water.

The high spot of the day was Mark and Peter finding a rat living in a flooded toilet pan in one of the foul toilets in the main block. It was swimming quite happily alongside a large turd.


A day around the hospital today recording interviews and collecting audio for a radio programme, and taking pictures of the chaos that exists just under the surface e of the great work they are doing there.

It is difficult to comprehend the whole picture. There is the full range of illness, injury, birth and death that any community experiences – the usual living, dying and problems along the way. But unlike in our world where most of us have access to some sort of preventative education, or general help, these people don’t and its all made worse by the influence of some  tradition and superstition that frequently clash with accepted  practice.  Diet is key to health and recovery and  people in Bansang appear healthy and well fed, but speak to Asha the Malnutrition specialist at the hospital and she will tell you that many, children in particular, have multiple problems accentuated not by the lack of food but more by the wrong sort of food –  the wrong stuff in the wrong quantities.  The staple diet is high carb rice or couscous so people are not hungry but lacking in vital nutrients as food is rarely supplemented with any meat or vegetables, and their health starts to break down. She is trying to introduce a demonstration garden to teach people basic nutrition and improve their general health – but can’t hope to get started because there is no money available and no infrastructure to get it going or maintain it.

Then there is the problem of basic sanitation. Again, people appear fit and healthy and are clean and well dressed, but sanitation at the hospital is appalling with collapsed drains and overflowing sewers running through the complex, and rats, goats and vultures all using it as their local supermarket. And it stinks. Really stinks. So much that the resident vultures sit  up high, well away from the stench, swooping down only when something in particular takes their fancy.

The hospital laundry washes all soiled sheets by hand. They do at least 50 per day then hang them in the sun on washing lines  adjacent to the hospital kitchen. Nothing wrong with that - except the oven blew up a while back so cooking is now done on tradition open fires – which create smoke right next to the clean, drying sheets.

Or the total lack of maintenance. That is a bit of a misnomer as there really isn’t any although the maintenance  boss is rarely far away, sitting in the shade, chatting on his phone to friends and family. And while he does this, his workmen also sit around and jobs pile up. No surprise then that a look in the maintenance dept office reveals nothing other than a pile of dusty broken furniture and scattered tools. No job sheets, no repair schedules, no plans for anything. Yet this is a key area for keeping the place going and reducing further problems. When a recent consignment of hospital beds proved faulty and one collapsed on the ward, breaking an existing patient’s arm, nothing was done, despite the fault  being  quickly identified as faulty welds, something that could and should have been rectified easily – had the maintenance man bothered to do something about it. Instead, an already hosptialised patient then had a broken limb to contend with –something that the hospital offers no treatment for.

Then there is the cardiac and cancer problem. There is no treatment for that at Bansang so unless it can be caught early and the offending body part amputated, all cases are terminal and last for as long as it takes a patient to die.

What has shocked everybody is not the age of the place and facilities but the lack of  any organisation and systems to ensure that what they do have  gets used properly and effectively, and is kept in good order.  What is the point of keeping records of ongoing treatment or birth complications if those records are strewn across he grounds? Why are usable and still sterile and in date essential medical items such as syringes, cannulars and sterile  dressings  dumped on the pile of broken items in the maintenance department instead of stored in the storerooms where they can be easily accessed and used?

Yes, some donations are ill thought out. The American incubators donated to the maternity wards which sucked in red dust from the atmosphere and clogged the prem babies lungs? The hi tech machinery that works well in stable western hospitals but can’t cope with the frequent power surges and cuts of Africa. And why is the operating theatre, all prepped, stocked and properly wired by last year’s team  still unused and mothballed when it is so badly needed? It is bizarre, frustrating and beyond comprehension.

But and all around positive seemed to be the dental clinic where Mike and Carolyn were busy at work removing the teeth of Bansang.  They had a production like going, Mike firstly inspecting waiting patients, selected those needing extractions, injecting them, allowed the injections to work, then getting them in one by one to remove their teeth. Carolyn assisted and they did a great job , which was noted by both patients and Haddy the dental nurse. According to her, the regular dentist ( who is rarely there) is disliked by all and is unreliable, and makes no effort to comfort or calm patients but just leaves them to suffer., But not this week. Patients attending this week were lucky and many remarked on how good Mike was and how kind he was to them. Haddy also said that he had taught her as he went so that she now knew what instruments were for and how to use them. That means that she  is now better prepared to help the regular dentist (a German trained Gambian)  and not get  shouted at by him when he does turn up for work.

Mike also said the teeth he extracted could not be saved, havi ng rotted away thanks mainly to soft drinks imported from the west. It is a big problem and many of the children we have seen already have signs of very badly decayed teeth due to poor dental education and the African habit of cleaning teeth with a stick. Whilst the is effective e for removing food, they do not  rinse their mouths and so dissolved sweet material remains on them and rots away. So Mike and Carolyn were instant hits and made  a huge immediate difference to many local people.

Many of us are already tired with the ‘ this is Africa’ line that gets trotted out time after time. Yes of course it is Africa and of course things work differently here. That is just how it is. But they don’t seem to have the same trouble turning up on time or accepting western money or goods when it suits them, stuff  given  to them for free and with good heart. It does make you wonder whether the effort bit is  actually worthwhile. People need stuff and others are willing to give it but if the indigenous infrastructure is not going to facilitate the passage of those things, then what is the point.  I was a bit fed up today as a result.

The afternoon was better though. Gordon, Peter, Nads and B elle followed the chief’s son to the field that his father has donated to the hospital to grow food for the patients. At the moment, it is just an empty field not due to be cultivated until after the rains are done, but it was important to us because it was our friends and families who had raised the money for the oxen and bulls and farming equipment and we wanted to see on their behalf where  their money would be put to good use. Had a bit of trouble getting there though; the ‘this is Africa’ excuse came out again but Anita sorted it with a phone call.

Following the son’s chief on his own motorbike, we rode across country, down sandy tracks and through villages into the middle of nowhere, to his village where we met the Chief. Nice man , very welcoming and exceptionally tall. He told us through an interpreter that he was keen to support the feeding project because it was for all humanity, and he of course was right.

The field was far bigger than we’d all expected, something like 20 hectares, most of which had been harvested but some remaining planted. We were miles from anywhere but still a gang of small boys appeared out of thin air, all clamouring to have their picture taken and then view it on the LCD screen. It's  probably the first time they have seen their own image in such a way and it seemed intrigued and delighted each of them.

On the  way back, we stopped at a village with a regional health centre run by a young bloke called Jallow. He had the surrounding villages all mapped ,medical trends  shown as graphs and displayed on the wall, together with a complete  record of staff, their speciality and training status. So simple and san indication that things can be done in Africa if somebody can be bothered to organise and supervise it.

Peter had a race with the women drawing water from the village well and lost badly. We were also invited into the village hut for a meeting – me and Nads too. Nobody here – or in any of the countries we’ve travelled through - seems to have  a problem with women; must be an outmoded  bigoted  western man control thing surprisingly displayed by one particular man throughout this trip. Tedious and disappointing in this day and age.

So a difficult morning turned into an encouraging  afternoon.

The Police Commissioner came the hotel tonight to have a drink with Belle and Gordon. Nice bloke, and very tall. Gord had met him earlier in the day and invited him. Turns out he’d joined the job in 1984 and was very impressed we were Met officers. Gave us his personal email and a Police Mag, and we presented him with the last IPA badge which delighted him.


We all slept upstairs again last night but it rained and everybody except me went back to the rooms. Lasted until about 0430 before moving to a covered area outside where I slept with the cleaners. They didn’t mind and I slept well.

Packed up this morning, donating everything we couldn’t cram into our one bag to the kids at the hotel. Sleeping bags and mats, clothes, mossie nets, shoes, hats, puppets etc. It was obvious that it would make a huge immediate improvement to their daily lives and again, they were delighted. The oldest girl hugged me and Nads and told us how happy she was and what it meant to her. It really hits home when people say things like that. Here she was a young girl (20) with a 2 year old child, working hard but earning so little that she had no hope of ever getting her foot on to even the lowest rung of the ladder up and out of the hand to mouth existence she was living.

Also gave them our cups and plates etc, despite Dennis insisting they wouldn’t want them and that he would sell them to future trip’s.  Again they were delighted and put them to immediate use.

Nads, Gordon, Belle and Will rode up the hill for a view over Bansang. That was well worth it. Also rode up to the radio mast and found the giants footprint – a wind worn pattern in the sandstone rock does actually look like a large footprint. Some great views from up there and lots of kids waving and chasing us.

Gave Asha the malnutrition nurse various useful bits of medical kit and stuff as she is one of the people who is actually organised and getting on with stuff. She really deserves every bit of support we can give her. She was also in tears and I think was genuinely sorry to see us go.

Then it was goodbye to Haddy the dental nurse.  She had promised me  a Gambian scarf, and true to her word, arrived and tied it around my head, much to the amusement of assembled kids who called me ‘ Gambian woman’. Again, genuinely sorry to see us go and I gave her my boots for the rainy season as she has to walk across town to work which is difficult in flip flops.

The bike handing over ceremony was supposed to be  at 2pm but needless to say, we were delayed because of more faffing  about.  It was actually quite sweet and all of us were sad to give our bikes up but confident that they will be put to good use. So we said our goodbyes, we ere all on the bus ready to go and the driver disappeared. He was discovered picking over the goodies left by us and meant for the riders who will receive bikes, and so not for him. He came back quite sheepishly but quickly once he realised we were preparing  to hotwire his bus and drive it ourselves.

A quick trip back to the hotel to collect our bags, say final goodbyes, load them on the roof and then we were off. Made it 1 km before the truck had to stop for fuel.   Then we acquired a passenger, a lady going to  Banjul. She seemed nice and very happy at the prospect of a free lift. Not sure who she was though.

The bus was super crappy. Mangled suspension, cracked windows, broken seats and a wobbly steering column, but. It held up well, particularly when driven at high speed over unmade roads and through dust clouds. Only nearly crashed a few times but got stopped by military roadblocks more often. Today is election day in Gambia and there is a notable police and army presence. Took a picture at one point but got captured but the woman soldier just wagged her finger at me. Also saw a few ordinary trucks with machine guns mounted on the roof. Weird.

Now in Banjul having had a great night last night. Good hotel and we’re all clean. Yaay!! Its cool here too; breeze coming off the sea but a pleasant temperature.

This morning we’re off to Sutton United Gambia to meet with the football blokes who came to Farafenni and give them the trophy and bits that we’ve carried all the way from the UK. The flight is 1600 this afternoon. Just hope its not a Gambian driver flying the plane.


All sorted and ready to go. Had a bit of an adventure this morning when the cabbie who picked us up strayed into a rival taxi zone and started off a mini war at a police checkpoint. It got a bit dodgy when they all started pushing and shoving but eventually they calmed down and we were allowed to continue.

Met David, Buba and Soloman from Sutton United Gambia, who took us to a street football project where they're teaching the kids football to keep them away from street crime and drugs. Had a good old kick around with them - particularly Nadine  and the kids were very impressed that a girl could even kick a ball, let alone do tricks.

They'd also brought along a Gambia Musician called Jimmy Fixer the Bongo man ( I kid you not) who was great, making up songs and accompanying them on a drum thing with four sawn off hacksaw blades which he pinged along to the music. Had a great old laugh and dance with them all, photos etc.  Then Buba the young policeman from Farafenni to whom Belle had given the IPA badge gave Belle and Gordon a Gambian Police teeshirt each. Bless him; he'd worked night duty the previous night, gone home, had an hour's sleep, bought two shirts and come to meet us because we were fellow cops. And he was well impressed when Gordon told him that the only people in the Gambia who had the special edition IPA badges were him and the Police Commissioner!

Flight back was OK. A bit cramped but only a bit of turbulence which is never good but it didn't last long. Peter talked the whole way, even when Sue ( not very politely) suggested he rest  his jaws.  We even had a reception party at Gatwick which was nice - assorted family members etc.  Then it was back to Gordon and Belle's for the night, a few hours kip, then goodbyes all round.

A great trip, some great and lasting friendships made, some unforgettable experiences, and some stunning riding. And hopefully  we did make a bit of difference to the people of Bansang in the process.