How We Made Popcorn

Do you like popcorn? Somehow popcorn always reminds me of trips to the cinema when we’d buy a giant bucket and munch our way through (probably to the annoyance of those seated around us, although we did try to limit the crunching sounds!). Popcorn is a popular snack here too, especially as lots of people grow maize in the rainy season, so there’s always plenty of maize kernels around.

When my kids were young, we often used to make popcorn – there’s something magical about putting a small measure of maize kernels into a pan, listening to the popping sounds as it heats up, and then opening the lid to reveal the magically puffy popcorn at the end. So while the cousins were here over Christmas, I decided to make some popcorn for them all.

Here’s how we did it (and thank to Dodou for acting as official photographer!).


Renovating Our Traditional Roundhouse

A while back, I wrote a post about Making Mud Blocks, and I mentioned that Lamin had removed the roof of an old hut. The hut was old, and the termites had wreaked their usual havoc with the roof, munching through the palm sticks that formed the framework for the roof, and the palm leaves that covered it. The roof had to go so we could knock down the walls of the hut and re-use the material for new mud blocks.

But I may have glossed over exactly how much work was involved in removing the roof and refurbishing the hut. So here’s how it was done…


How Our Sheets Were Beautifully Tie-Dyed

In my last post, about the Triple C Youth Skills Centre, I wrote about the showcase held by the students at the end of the autumn term. Needless to say, we were really impressed with their skills, and before long we found a way to make good use of them.

In January, we were expecting several lots of guests who would be staying here. When Lamin and I were sorting out the bedding, we found lots of good quality cotton sheets that were still in great condition but looking a bit tired. Lamin had a flash of inspiration and suggested we ask the students at the Triple C to tie-dye them for us. Lamin’s nephew Yankuba agreed that it was possible, and he also agreed that I could go and watch how it was done. So the following Saturday, I went along to Kartong to watch the students at work.


The Triple C Youth Skills Centre Showcase

In The Gambia, youth unemployment is a huge problem. School is not compulsory here, and although many younger children do attend, the drop-out rate as children go through secondary school is significant. Often young people end up with little education and no skills, making it very hard to compete in a small job market, and this is a major factor in many youths ‘taking the back way’ and trying to reach Europe, despite the dangers and massive risks involved.

One of Lamin’s nephews, Yankuba, is a carpenter, and for many years he’s had a dream to open a skills centre for the youths in Kartong. Recently, a Dutch foundation was formed to help get this project off the ground. It’s taken a lot of hard work and organisation, but in September a brand new skill centre opened – the Change Children’s Chances centre, commonly known as the ‘Triple C’.

Although it’s only been open for one term, just before Christmas they decided to showcase what their students have done so far, and Lamin and I were invited to the presentation.


A Balaba Christmas Party

Even though The Gambia is mainly a Muslim country, the Christians here celebrate Christmas. The Muslims working in essential services like the police, the army and health care, stay on duty so their Christian colleagues can celebrate, (The Christians then return the favour at Tobaski, a big Muslim feast). This arrangement works well for everyone!

We usually have family visiting over Christmas itself, but our Christmas usually begins on 8th December, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. This feast is mainly celebrated in the Roman Catholic church, and acknowledges the conception of Mary, mother of Jesus. For Christians in The Gambia, this is an important pilgrimage day, when thousands converge on the shrine at Kunkujang (near Brikama), for Mass. The family then come back here to spend the rest of the day together celebrating.

This year was no different!


Making Mud Blocks

Do you ever watch the TV programme Grand Designs? There’s something fascinating about watching people devise grandiose schemes for building or renovating a property and then seeing how the project turns out. There’s usually a few disasters along the way, which makes the programme even more interesting!

Well, we’ve been undertaking our own grand designs here at Balaba Nature Camp, and over the next few weeks, I’ll be revealing some of them to you. But because we’ll be doing some building and renovation work, we’re going to need plenty of mud blocks, and unlike the UK, we can’t just pop down to the nearest DIY store and buy a heap of bricks! All our mud blocks are made by hand (usually by Lamin), which is tiring and time-consuming.

Over this last couple of weeks, Lamin has made over 200 mud blocks, and I thought you’d like to see how it’s done.


Roasting Groundnuts With Sand

When I was last here, I wrote a post all about how Lamin roasted groundnuts the natural way. The groundnuts do taste delicious cooked that way, but all that soot does leave your hands looking a bit of a mess. However, now Dodou has solved the problem!

A few days ago, Dodou decided he wanted to roast some groundnuts. Lamin’s mother has grown them during the rainy season, and she kindly gave us a large sackful, so we’ve been slowly working our way through them. Of course, you can eat groundnuts raw, but on the whole, we prefer them cooked and although they taste OK when they’re boiled, roasted is definitely my favourite!

So Dodou collected what he needed: Some sticks, a few large stones, a pan, some sand, and the groundnuts. He kindly agreed I could take photos as he went along, so here’s how to roast groundnuts in a different way.


Repairing Our Well

In my last post about the rainy season, I told you that the support over our well had fallen down. I’m not much of a physicist, but I think I’m right in saying that every pulley you have on a rope system halves the effort need to pull an object. (If I’m wrong, I’m sure someone will correct me! So when the pulley isn’t working, it’s much harder to pull the bucket up from our well, which is around 16 feet deep! And when all your water for drinking, washing, cooking, laundry, and watering comes from the well, it’s surprising how much water you need to pull! (If you want to read about how I got my drinking water clean last year, check out my post about it.)

So on Lamin’s return, one of the first jobs on his very long list of maintenance tasks was to repair the well. And it wasn’t just a case of the sticks falling down – the termites had munched through them, leaving them looking like powdery honeycomb.


The Rainy Season: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

One of the things I love about returning to The Gambia is that everything is so green. As the plane crosses the coastline on its descent into Banjul airport, you can see a carpet of lush green vegetation spread out below. When I leave again in April, it hasn’t rained for months and everything is dusty, dry and desiccated.

Most Gambians say they like the rainy season best which seems very strange to me as a sun-loving Brit! But people rely on good rains to “do farming”, and this is when families grow crops such as rice, which they’ll need to feed their families during the dry season. With a sack of rice costing around a third of a teacher’s monthly salary, growing your own here is less of a lifestyle choice and more of a necessity.

However, the rainy season does bring its own difficulties. Throughout July, August and September, there are massive thunderstorms bringing huge amounts of rain in a very short time. Flooding is common, and because buildings are often made from mud blocks, they’re easily washed away.

So I thought I’d give you a round-up of the good, the bad and the ugly results of the rainy season here at Balaba.


Ten Years and Counting

It’s hard to believe that it’s ten years since I first came to The Gambia, and I little imagined then that eventually I’d end up living here! However, that’s exactly what’s happened, and once again in early November I braced myself to say goodbye to friends and family (the part I hate!) and set off for the sunshine of the Smiling Coast.

The flight out is always horribly early, which meant getting up at 4:30 to be sure of getting to the airport on time, but as usual, my daughter Sarah (nobly accompanied by her wife!), offered to play taxi. So by 6:00 am I was in the queue ready to check in. A quick coffee at Costa’s and then it was time to go through into departures to get ready for the flight.

Fortunately, I love flying, so once the goodbyes are over I can at least look forward to the flight. And I must admit, it does feel good leaving grey skies behind and knowing I’ll soon be seeing blue skies instead!