Getting Schooled in The Gambia

Nov. 2, 2016:

Today, the Navigator docked in the incredibly hot and steamy port of Banjul, The Gambia. That’s right, they call it THE Gambia. It’s a very small country located entirely within the boundaries of Senegal along both sides of the Gambia River, which is huge. Right away, you could see that the country is much poorer than Senegal, and the quality of housing in the city center is pretty shocking.  However, as we went into some nicer areas, there was some better housing, mostly made of concrete block with metal roofs.

Our excursion for the day was called “Off the Beaten Path”, and was it ever!  We traveled in a caravan of huge 4 wheel drive trucks. They had open sides and a thatched roof ,and seats kind of like bus benches inside. I snagged a window seat so I could snap photos. Our journey would take us out of Banjul, which is technically an island formed by tributaries to the Gambia River, and out into the country.  As we left Banjul, we saw some government buildings and the monument known as Arch 22 built to celebrate the dictator/president’s 22nd year of rule (in 2014).  We then travelled to the west and southwest through a crazy commercial stretch of the largest town in The Gambia known as Serekunda. One thing that was immediately noticeable was that the people were very friendly, with most waving at us as we passed by, and children shouting greetings and running alongside the trucks. Only the main street we were on was paved.

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Arch 22
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National Parliament
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Inside our trucks
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Our monster trucks

Shops lined the main street and gave a quick idea of what crops are grown here. Watermelons were everywhere, and our guide told us they originated in this part of the world. However, there were also peanuts, smoked fish, oranges, limes, mangoes and tomatoes, plus everything else under the sun. Once again, driving through their area presented a great visual tableau!

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Leaving Serekunda we headed south into the rural countryside.     We also passed what appeared to be the one stoplight in Serekunda, which had cows sleeping on its side median.

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We left the paved road and drove along narrow tree-lined dirt roads. headed first to visit the home compound of a farmer, and he proudly showed his newly harvested corn drying in the sun and his fairly large home, which had almost no furniture in it.

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Peanut farmer harvesting his crop
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Corn crop drying
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Oranges
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Kitchen

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Outhouse
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Farmer’s house
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Entertainment system

We then travelled to visit a primary school called the Banyaka Lower Basic School, which was probably the highlight of the day. This school serves about 400 students from ages 7-13. The country only guarantees an education to that age. However, because the facilities are so limited, students attend 1 of 2 half day class sessions. The headmaster was very proud to tell us that the school was entirely built by the villagers with no financial assistance from the government. Further, they are one of the top performing schools in the country with nearly 75% of their students passing the entrance exam to go to their equivalent of junior high school. The children were overwhelmingly friendly, and all had clearly been taught to shake hands and say “Hello”. Actually, many spoke fairly decent English. We gathered in a classroom which had very basic amenities (i.e., no desks or blackboards), and the drama club for the school presented some songs and even got some of our fellow passengers up to dance!

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Volunteer painting the school

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Headmaster thanking us for bringing school supplies

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From the countryside, we travelled west towards the coast to have lunch at a cool beach club called Jungle Beach Resort.  We got some time to spend on the beach after lunch, and I captured some photos of the yellow weaver birds which had completely overwhelmed the tree in the entrance yard.

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Finally, we cut to the north along the coast road, and travelled through the beachside town of Tanji. Just north of that is the area where many of the upscale hotels, embassies are located and western style housing communities. Weirdly, there were numerous billboards advertising properties for sale in these communities. This area is all low lying mangroves and wetlands, and the birding possibilities looked great. The Gambia is home to over 500 different bird species. As we drove back towards the ship, we visited a museum dedicated to showcasing native customs and natural history in Tujereng on the way back to the ship. Most interesting was the weaver, and he created some lovely tightly woven scarves, one of which I purchased.

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Finally, very hot and dusty, we returned to the ship.

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