Renovating Our Bird Pool: Part 1

Not many people are lucky enough to have their own bird hide, but here at Balaba we have our own special hide. It started a while ago when we decided to make a bird pool to attract the birds and other wildlife. We then decided to convert one of our rooms into a hide.

When I first came to Balaba in 2008, we were surrounded by forest and there were only a few compounds in the area. But in only nine years, most of the forest around us has been cut down as people move into the land and begin to build. The first thing they do is to cut down the trees – not only does this limit the shade they have, but of course it also destroys the wildlife habitat too.

At Balaba, we have quite a large area of land, so Lamin has left a ring of forest around the compound in the middle, and we have many mature trees. The loss of the forest around us means that we do attract lots of birds, as they have very little forest left in the area now.

Lamin made the bird pool a couple of years ago, but like everything here, it’s deteriorated quite a lot, so last week he decided to give it a bit of a makeover.


First he added a new layer of cement to the large pool – it seemed to have developed a slow leak.

He also patched up our clay bowl that had a crack in it.

Then he cut some long shoots from our malina trees (which grow very straight) and fitted them horizontally to hold the fence posts in place.

The fence behind the pools had been badly munched by termites (if you want to read more about the damage termites can do, check our my earlier posts The War Against the Termites and Giving the Termites Some Food for Thought). Some of the fence posts had almost been eaten right through, and the leaves were in very poor condition.

Termite damage to the fence post

Lamin checked every fence post, rooting out the ones that had gone too far, and realigning those that could be reused. Pampuran sticks have wicked razor-sharp edges to them. If you cut yourself, the wound gets inflamed very easily, so they need to be handled with care.

Lamin also removed the old leaves which were in a very fragile condition.

Next he cut some palm leaves to size with his cutlass (machete), and painstakingly constructed the fence with a patchwork of leaves.

This created a barrier that (hopefully) will keep pigs, goats and cows at bay but let small birds through. Animals are allowed to roam free during the dry season, and it’s amazing how much damage they can do in a short time!

Birds always like to land on a nearby perch before flying down to the ground to check that the coast is clear and free from predators. So we used more malina branches to make two long perches above the fence – this also gives me some good photo opportunities.

Finally, Lamin replaced the clay bowl that we fill with water.

Strangely, it’s the larger birds that like this one. One of the funniest sights I’ve seen is a huge African harrier hawk trying to fit into a small bowl for a bath!


Next time I’ll tell you about how Lamin finished the renovations.

Christmas Day 2012 in the Gambia

My very own Christmas tree!
I was looking forward to my first Christmas in The Gambia (well actually, my first Christmas outside the UK!), although a little worried about how much I would miss my family. My friend Sue had given me a small stained glass Christmas tree to bring with me, so that I would have a Christmas tree here, which I hung on the wall, but it would have been completely impossible to fit any other decorations in my suitcase! Still, we were expecting lots of visitors, and planning special food, so we still needed to do some preparation.
Christmas Day
Our Christmas breakfast was the same as always – bread and peanut butter and tea. Our stepson Dodou was visiting, and we also had various family members, including another little girl staying too, so they also enjoyed the breakfast.
All ready for Breakfast.
I went to help the women in the kitchen, whilst Lamin went to kill the pig for lunch – because we are on solar power here, there is no fridge or freezer, so food has to be bought or provided fresh. 
A double burner!
Delicious pork in sauce.
When a pig is killed, Gambians traditionally cook some in sauce with block pepper, onion, garlic, chill, onions, mustard and flavourings, and also barbeque some with onions. Numo had managed to borrow a small barbeque from some Europeans up the road, although it’s usually done on the inner rim of a car wheel!
Adding flavour to the barbeque.
Numo as King of the Grilling!
Some of our visitors were muslim, so we also prepared fish for them, whilst the men went off into the ‘jungle’ to buy palm wine – as I’ve said before, this takes time because of course, they need to drink quite a lot before deciding whether or not to buy(!). Meanwhile Lamin’s sister Maji arrived, after a long journey from further north – she is muslim but wanted to come and greet us on Christmas day.
Lamin and his sister Maji
One of our visiting friends, Bakary, works as a professional bird guide, and he offered to take me out to look at birds – it certainly felt strange to be out on Christmas morning, wondering whether or not to put sun cream on! He is extremely knowledgeable, and had the most amazing trick of mimicking an owl call; within a few minutes, the nearby tree was alive with birds who had come to check the call out!
It took quite a long time for the lunch to be ready, with the women working on the rice and pork with sauce, whilst the men drank palm wine and supervised the ‘grilling’.

Just to prove I do some work occasionally!
But Saffie is the expert of course….

Meals are served in one large bowl, and everyone either eats with their hands or uses a spoon. Man usually eat separately from the women and children – at Balaba we normally eat together unless there are lots of people, but today we had so many that even the children ate on their own. Mealtimes are not really a social occasion here; firstly, people often have to crouch, and although they are used to it, it’s probably not that comfortable, so no-one spends any linger than necessary, and as soon as they have finished they get up and walk away. It’s taken me quite a long time to get used to this – it somehow felt rude to walk away when others are still eating. Also, someone once explained that if food is limited, eating is very important, so they like to concentrate on the food rather than become distracted by talking – children are encouraged to eat in silence!

The children are enjoying their Christmas dinner.
And so are the adults…
Grilled pork with onions anyone?
So Christmas lunch was eaten in the shade of the cashew trees, where we also relaxed after eating. One of our visitors, Almamo, kept up a constant supply of ‘ataya’ – green tea; this traditional drink is made all over the Gambia, and there is a complete ritual to making it, which I love to watch, and will try to share some time. It is minty, tooth-achingly sweet, and very refreshing.
A perfect shady spot to while away Christmas afternoon.
Almamo in charge of the ataya.
Later, Maji was moving on to help her niece who had just had a baby, so we drove her to Gunjur and met Fatou (also Lamin’s niece of course), the baby, and two delightful little girls, who were over the moon at having a toubab with a camera in their home. 
Lamin’s niece Fatou and two-week old Lamin (it’s the traditional Gambian name for a first-born son!)
Big sisters – aren’t they lovely?
Soon after we got back, Ara (another of Lamin’s sisters) arrived with her small son, who is named after Lamin. She is also muslim, but again, wanted to come and wish us Happy Christmas.
We spent the evening chatting, drinking palm wine and ‘wanjo’ – a delicious drink made with hibiscus flowers, sugar and flavouring. 
The children are enjoying their wanjo.
I’m not quite sure where everybody slept, but it seems that everyone managed to find a ‘spot’ somewhere – it’s quite common for women and children to be squeezed in together several to a bed!
I did manage to Skype with the family during the day, accompanied by the local children! They are fascinated by the laptop, and when I get it out I feel like the Pied Piper, because they follow me everywhere, and crowd round to watch what I’m doing. They were completely amazed by Skype, and the fact that someone could talk to them through the computer, but it did make communication a bit complicated, as they got terribly excited and noisy!
So my first Christmas in the Gambia came to an end. I can honestly say I had a lovely day, although in some ways it didn’t feel too much like Christmas. For most Gambians it’s a normal working day, and there was very little build-up to it – in stark contrast to the frenzy we see in the UK. It really made me think about how we celebrate Christmas there, and whether we have the right balance between making it special, whilst not allowing it to get out of hand. I wonder whether some of the things we do, and the pressure to get it all done, can get in the way of our enjoyment? Sometimes we seem to reach Christmas Day frazzled and exhausted, rather than ready to have a lovely time. Food for thought maybe?
Next post I will share all about Boxing Day. I hope everyone enjoyed their Christmas celebrations, and had a great day. Merry Christmas everyone!