A Drink of Water

1 Nov

What do you do when you want a glass of water? Do you drink bottled water? Do you prefer it straight from the tap? Or maybe you have a chilled water dispenser in your fridge?Of course, things in Gambia aren’t quite as straightforward!

You can buy bottled water here, but it’s fairly pricey at around £1 per bottle, and since I get through at least two every day, it’s not really an option.

Many areas of Gambia now have taps. Villages may have a couple of communal taps, which anyone can use, but of course that does mean someone has to collect and transport the water, which is very heavy. In the towns, many people have individual taps in their homes, which are metered, so they pay for the water they use.

But here at Balaba, our water comes from the well.



10 Ways You Know You’re Back in Gambia

29 Oct Balaba Nature Camp, Gambia

Well it’s been a long time, hasn’t it? A combination of political difficulties in The Gambia (thankfully now resolved), and family illnesses kept me in the UK for a long time. But at last I’m able to come back, and it seems I’m seeing Gambia through new eyes.

So I thought I’d begin with a slightly tongue-in-cheek look at ten ways you know you’re in The Gambia.

1. As you exit the plane and stand at the top of the steps, the warm air wraps around your shoulders like a blanket. As we’re just ending the rainy season, the daytime temperatures are in the mid-30s, and overnight it’s in the high 20s. The humidity is also high.


An update about this blog

13 Mar

Unfortunately, due to family illness, I’m not currently in The Gambia and I probably won’t be back for some months. This means I won’t be updating the blog until my return, but I hope to be up and running again as soon as I get back. However, please do sign up for email updates so you’ll know when I start blogging here again!

How to Re-Skin a Drum

7 Jun

Think of Africa and you’ll probably think of drums! Drumming is a hugely significant part of the culture here, and almost every tribe uses drums in their cultural activities. Here at Balaba, we often have drumming round the fire if we have guests (and occasionally at other times too!), but that means the drums get worn out. A while ago, Lamin decided to ask someone to come in and re-skin our drums, so we spent a lovely morning watching the drum expert at work.

We already had a deer skin, and Lamin also arranged with Amadou to provide a goat skin as well. So Amadou arrived with everything he needed to repair the drums and set to work.

First, he removed the old skins, and then he cut the new skins to size. Each skin was stretched carefully over the top of the drum frame.

Then a hoop was hammered into place over the top.

Amadou attached ropes all round the hoop. There’s an intricate arrangement of rope and knots, to make sure the drum can be tuned safely.

Then the hard work began! Using a sturdy stick, Amadou twisted the ropes and pulled very hard to make the skin completely taut. He often used another stick as a hammer and bashed the knots down to pull the skin even tighter. All this took a lot of effort and quite a long time.

Once Amadou judged the skin had been pulled tight enough, the skin was cut to size. Here you can see my friend Naomi trying her hand!


The drums were left in the sun so the skin settled into its new place, and then the following day, Amadou went through the whole tightening process over again.



Then he used a razor blade to scrape the hair off the skins.



Finally the drums were ready. Here you can see Numo trying one of them out. You can also put metal plates with small metal rings onto the drum so you get a rattling sound – a bit like the jingles on a tambourine.

Naturally, it’s important to give moral and practical support(!). So Bakary made himself responsible for brewing ataya (green tea) – you can see he’s a bit of an expert!

The children sat around and watched, and occasionally wandered off for a swing in the hammock. (Please note the clever arrangement of attaching a smaller rope to a tree branch so you can swing yourself without needing any help!).

So now we have our drums all ready to be played next time we have guests. There’s no better way to spend an evening than listening to drumming around the fire.

Maintenance: It’s a Constant Battle

4 Jun

One of the hardest aspects of life here in Gambia is maintenance. Of course, I know everyone has to keep their house maintained – my house in Devon needed roofing work and a complete new bathroom a couple of years ago. But here at Balaba, there’s something that makes it hugely difficult to keep houses, roofs and fences in good order for more than a year or two – termites.

If you’ve read this blog for a while, you might remember I wrote about the work that needed to be done on one of our accommodation blocks (The War Against the Termites). The termites had burrowed underneath, leaving quite large holes under the foundations of the block. In the rainy season these holes fill with water and the building literally shifts if the holes aren’t repaired.

So Lamin spent a long time digging out the termite-ridden soil, filling the holes with concrete, cementing holes in the wall, and putting the building back into good condition. But now it needs doing again, so that’s another job on the horizon before the rains arrive next month.


Yet Another Casamance Journey!

17 May

In my past post (if you missed it, you can read it here), I told you all about our rather long journey from Ziguinchor to Haer. By now it was Tuesday morning, and we were due to catch the boat back from Bakassouck to Kafountine the following day. Again, there’s only one direct boat a week, so we couldn’t afford to miss it! So after a quick breakfast of bread (which we’d brought with us as bread isn’t cooked on the island, so it’s real treat for the people who live there), we set off to walk the 5km walk through the forest to Bakassouck.

We wanted to get there before the sun got too hot, so we walked at a brisk pace. Our route took us through thick forest, with an overhead canopy of leaves, vegetation on the ground, and even the occasional fallen palm tree to climb over. Occasionally we came out into rice fields – these are used in the rainy season so the islanders don’t have to buy rice, which is expensive and has to be brought in by boat. There were some beautiful birds along the way, and sometimes we skirted mudflats and narrow inlets, crossing over little bridges made of a simple plank.


A River Trip in Casamance

14 May

If you need to take a journey using public transport, you need to check the timetable, right? But of course, things aren’t really that simple here! Gelli-gellis and cars wait until they’re full before they leave, so the operator gets the most return for the journey. And boats have to rely on the tide. So when we planned to move on from Oussouye to Bakassouck (which can only be done by boat), we knew it was likely to be a long day. And so it proved…

Our itinerary was: take a taxi or gelli-gelli to Zinguinchor (about 40 minutes drive), then take a small boat to Haer, a small landing point on the Isle de Caronne, which would take around 3 hours. Lastly, we’d have to walk around 5 kilometres through the forest to get to Bakassouck. So I was prepared for a lengthy journey.


Road Trip to Casamance (Part 2)

1 May

Everyone’s heard of the Titanic, but did you know that a few years ago there was a similar disaster in which more people drowned than on the Titanic? The MV Joola was a ferry which ran between Ziguinchor and Dakar, making it easier for people in Casamance to travel to the Senegalese capital. At the time, this was very important, because a rebel war had been going in the area for several years, making travel by road very dangerous.

On September 26 2002, the Joola had made her first voyage from Dakar for several weeks, where she’d been undergoing maintenance. So there were lots of people wanting to make the journey back to Dakar, including traders, tourists, and people visiting relatives. There were also many high school and university students, as well as several Europeans.


A Road Trip to Casamance (Part 1)

26 Apr

Every now and then, Lamin and I decide to take a few days’ break from life here at Balaba and head off to somewhere different. Last year we had a trip all planned, but because I broke my wrist, it had to be postponed. We’d intended to go to southern Senegal (a region known as ‘Casamance’, to visit the provincial capital Ziguinchor and also some of the islands on the Casamance River. So we decided it was time to revive the idea of our road trip, and head off to Casamance.

I especially wanted to visit the island of Carabane, which is almost the most westerly point in Africa. It’s a very historical place, and was once famous as a slaving port. There’s now a museum of slavery there, which I wanted to see, and was also interested to see other historical monuments. So we decided to travel to Ziguinchor, then down to Oussouye, and base ourselves there for a few days. Then we planned to travel back to Bakassouck, the island where Lamin grew up. Our friend Rafael has a home in Oussouye, so he came with us and we stayed in his compound.


Birds and breakfast: A Dawn River Trip

17 Apr

Here at Balaba, we’re only a few kilometres from the border with southern Senegal. Ten minutes’ drive and we’re in the border village of Kartong, which lies next to the Allahein River which forms the border. In fact, we have to go through immigration control every time we go to buy fish at the beach!

But one of my favourite activities is to go for a dawn river trip to see the birds, followed by breakfast on the beach. It’s one of the attractions that we offer to our tourists, but it’s been a long time since I’ve been myself. So since our friend Naomi, together with her family, was staying with us for a few days, we decided to do the trip.

It meant Lamin and I were up before six, boiling water for tea and collecting plates, cups, knives etc, together to take with us. We also need mats to sit on, all kinds of spreads for our bread, and of course, I needed my camera and binoculars. The birds are always quite active in the mornings, and there are fabulous birds such as the African Fish Eagle and ospreys to see.


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