January, 2010

Dear friends, where do I start? November 23rd we got news of a family who'd lived with their mother in Guinea-Bissau, West Africa. Sadly Muminatu Djalo, a Muslim mother of seven children, died in her home. The children's father having left just before her last child (Hamadu, now four) was born.

Where to Begin…

Until the time of her death Muminatu had been the sole provider for her children, but with her passing the children are now desperate for support. Fatumatu, the eldest daughter at seventeen, is now responsible for feeding the family but she has no work and all seven of them are in a precarious situation.

The Gambia

For some time we've been gathering information about a school in Kiang, The Gambia, that was in need of repair. A Manchester charity had donated £3,000 toward this project some weeks earlier and we'd intended to fulfil this project in January/February of 2010. However, when the news of these kids came through I decided to leave as soon as possible. Monday, November 30th I left for The Gambia accompanied by Ibrahma Djalo (Ibby), a friend from Manchester fluent in many African languages. He'd be essential to fulfil our goals. The flight was smooth and we landed in The Gambia at 2 p.m. Arrangements had been made to stay with an old man known only to me as 'Dad'. He was a nice person who'd suffered a lot over the years. He lost the use of his legs some time ago and now uses a wheelchair.

Off to a Rocky Start

Work began early Tuesday morning. There was a 4x4 in a garage near to where we were staying. It hadn't been used for a long time so our plan was to get it running and back on the road. Having our own transport would be essential for what we needed to do. After a couple of hours spent charging batteries and bleeding the diesel system it burst into life with a plume of smoke big enough to see from space. The turbo was shot, the tyres looked a bit worse for wear, the spare was flat and the air conditioning didn't work either. But driven carefully, I knew it would do the job.

After some time spent obtaining insurance and other travel documents we were finally ready to move. The following morning we went out early to buy a couple of tyres and drive to the school in Kiang (an easy job in the UK, but after two hours here spent looking all over town in 38° C heat we still hadn't found any). As I rounded the corner searching for the next tyre shop the front tyre blew out and we were stranded at the side of the road. We spent the rest of the day in a taxi driving around until we eventually found three good tyres. Another day had passed and still we hadn't even started.

School Repairs

Wednesday I woke early, eager to get to the school. The roads out of town were in a good state of repair but they were full of corrupt police and military with checkpoints set up to extract a few dalasis (the monetary unit of Gambia) from motorists - for what they called 'tea-money'. The smooth tarmac didn't last long and we were on dirt roads full of holes. In some parts we could do no more than crawl our way through, picking out the best route to take. Three hours later we arrived in the village. With nothing more than mud houses and a feeling of decay, this was a poor place. There was no doubt about that. We met up with the head teacher who showed us what needed doing: it was a building away from the main block with two classrooms. The doors were hanging off, the floors were broken up and the roof was full of holes.

We decided to repair it and supply thirty new tables and thirty benches. I measured up what would be required and told the head teacher we would send all the materials, together with a builder, by truck the following day. Building supplies would need to come from Banjul, on the coast, this was around one hundred miles to the west. The following day we bought supplies and sent them off by truck with our builder, Lamin. Now it was time to drive out of The Gambia, through Senegal and into Guinea-Bissau (with the usual 'tea money' supplied at various check points and military stops). They seemed obsessed about paperwork the closer we got to the border.

The Problems Began

Unknown to me was the fact that Senegal is fighting a long-running civil war against a rebel force called the MFDC (this group wants independence from Senegal). Due to my on-the-spot decision to come to Africa I hadn't done my homework. From what we were told, travelling in the daylight was safe enough, but it wasn't a good idea to be here at night. Senegal soldiers lined the roads armed with American M16 assault rifles and .50 calibre machine guns were attached to pickup trucks. Taking photographs was prohibited. At first they gave me a sense of security, however they weren't all the same. As in life, there are some good and some bad. We were pulled over by soldiers a few times and searched, some asking for documents that we had with us but some soldiers never seemed satisfied; asking for things that we hadn't been given at the border. They were as corrupt (if not moreso) than the Police in The Gambia. At worst, we gave a little money. At best, two cans of ice cold coke satisfied them and we were back on our way.

Guinea-Bissau Border

Soon enough we were at the Guinea-Bissau border. I felt a bit happier now but the feeling was short lived. Bissau officials, police and army are some of the worst people I have ever met…they talk to you like you're dirt. There's twenty miles of road where its one thing after another, each encounter involves giving money; Ibby asked for a receipt only to be blasted by the officer with rants do you know the law? Are you saying what I tell you isn't true? Give me the money and wait. I do not give receipts. They have a habit of stopping you and leaving you at the side of the road sometimes for over an hour. Don't get me wrong – if there is a procedure to go through I will gladly do it, but here the law doesn't exist to protect and serve, it exists to manipulate and control using extortion tactics as a tool against its people.

By the end of the day we had crawled through the slums of Bissau city and found the small mud home of the family we went to help. I could think of nothing other than sleep, however there was still much to do. Nigerian gangs are known to frequent the slums, stealing and causing the residents trouble. It wasn't safe to leave the car so we found a spot to park it and paid a few coins to a man to watch it overnight. By this time it was dark as we made our way on foot. I couldn't see my own hand in front of my face. There was electric laid on to a handful of homes but the city had switched it off weeks ago claiming they could not afford to put diesel in the generator. Most houses were the size of my living room; rusting corrugated steel comprised every roof and door and the relatively few standpipes had water one day then nothing the next. This was a poor, lawless place and my concern for these kids was growing by the minute.

Fatumatu's Struggle

The following morning we took Fatumatu down into the city away from everyone for a talk about her future. I started by asking about her plans to take care of her brothers. She seemed uncomfortable talking to me. As I went through a list of questions with her I could see how immature and vulnerable she was. She reminded me so much of my own daughter, Charmaine. As I sat looking at her I could feel my eyes filling up and I struggled to choke down the tears, hoping no one was noticing that I'd gone quiet.

Ibby continued to talk to her and by the end of the discussion it was decided that she needed 46,500 CFA for school fees, 16,000 for rice, 6,000 for bread & eggs, 11,350 for food & drinks and 5,000 for charcoal: a total of 84,850 CFA (£115) per month. She looked at the figure and her face changed I don't know what to do she said …its such a lot. I assured her that our organisation would support her for this amount, for one year. I made that promise to her and I knew that we'd have to find sponsors back home to help, but I was also aware that she'd need this help for longer than I promised. Then came my next shock…what about Alfa? she asked. Alfa Sane is twelve and his mother died in 2005. He's lived with the family ever since. They didn't have money for school fees so he was home each day. His fees would be 7,500 per month. What was I to say? So now we have eight to support. We now need to get a birth certificate and identity card for Fatumatu, so she's able to collect Western Union and open a bank account. Not a big job right? Wrong. In a place where corruption rules and officials hate the general public, this was to become more than a job for us - it would become a quest.

Serviço de Identificaçáo Civil

We met a man who used to work in the office, and he offered to help. The day we left for the office the man who's job it is to make out the certificate was spotted, by chance, thumbing a lift to work. Perfect! I thought. We picked him up and drove the twenty five miles to his office. We paid for the certificate, he took all the details and said it was no problem. So we had the certificate and it was time for the next office. Serviço de Identificaçáo Civil – there really was nothing civil about this place. For two days we tried to get a card and at one point they had Fatumatu in tears, saying she was lying about the death of her mother and that she wanted papers so she could move to Europe. In the end she was told to go home and come back with her mother. The worst part was they took away the birth certificate we had got for her, they said it was now suspended. Two days and we were back at square one. We were at a total loss at this point but Ibby said he had connections at the Bissau embassy in The Gambia. He made some calls and we were told to bring all the information to the embassy in person, along with photographs of Fatumatu. So we left, heading back down the same road we came in on, and back to face the same old problems with the army and police. Only this time the car would give us problems as well.

Car Troubles

The 4x4 had developed a bad oil leak so we used five litres of oil on the way. I was concerned about being stuck in Senegal at night as the border closes at 7 p.m. So we had no time to waste. Every twenty miles we'd stop and I'd top-up the oil. Now down to our last litre, we got to the border and passed through. The following day we got our first piece of luck: I found a mechanic who fixed the leak and Ibby made it to the embassy. They put us in touch with someone at Bissau. We'd have to pay him but he'd get the papers in order. The funny part was we even had to buy credit for the embassy officials so they could make the phone calls for us, you have to laugh. Now armed with new documents and a supposed friend on the inside of Bissau, we left Gambia.

The thought of driving back to Bissau filled me with dread, but to my surprise we had a problem-free journey all the way up to the Bissau border. I knew it was too good to be true…this time they went to town on us. We were pushed from one place to the next, all demanding money for slips of paper with a stamp on it. Arguing with them was pointless, we knew it was all lies, but what can you do? At the end of the day they have the gun and the power. Well, our man was expensive. Thursday and Friday came to an end with no identity card and it'd now be Monday before we could go back. Frustrated and now low on cash I decided to put it out of my mind for the weekend. We went back home to our little mud hut, hoping to relax. As usual, there'd be no such luck. The Father of the children showed up. For four years he hadn't been near and now he's back. I reluctantly shook his hand. I've no respect for this man whatsoever. He tells us he's ill and has made the journey from his village to sell his crop at the market. I took little interest in him. One of his four wives lived nearby and hadn't even asked our kids if they were alright.

My Friend, Hamza

I spent Friday night with a friend of mine called Hamza, we took a walk into the city and bought a drink. He talked of his dream of starting his own business selling second-hand clothes in a shop, it was something I was interested in helping him with and we discussed all his options at length. Hamza doesn't speak much English but there was something about him that stood out to me. Everywhere he went, he knew everybody and everybody liked him. Both men and women always had a smile for him. He'd been employed by the army to teach troops hand-to-hand combat and he has a black belt (3rd dan) in karate. He was a favourite of the army chief. His problems came after the civil war. The army chief was killed and he wound up on the side that lost. Needless to say his career was over. He'd been married but his wife was now long gone, leaving him with a three-year-old daughter to support. I liked Hamza. He's one of life's triers. He'd worked fourteen hours on Friday and earned only 1,000 CFA (£1.35), 100 of which he gave to a badly crippled lady begging outside. He explained that his daughter lived with a friend of his because he worked so much, and in return he paid this lady with food.

Hospital Nightmare

After a few hours we made our way home back to the slums. On arrival at the house there was a buzz of torches and commotion. The kids' father had gotten worse and wanted a hospital. There was no other choice but to take him. My feelings towards him hadn't changed but I didn't want to see him suffering. We drove to four different hospitals before we found one open. We pulled up outside the equivalent of an A&E department and carried him inside. What I saw shocked even me…there was an old desk at reception with a swivel chair - the back of this chair was broken off and a scruffy-looking woman was leant over the desk, asleep.

We walked through, passing rooms where the sick and dying laid on cold hard floors packed so tight it'd be hard to walk around them. We found the only doctor, who took a quick look at the old man before scribbling down a list of things on a scrap of paper. Take this to the chemist across the road. he said. I couldn't believe it, this place didn't have a single drug in the entire building. We had to buy everything. As we waited, I walked around the whole place. Operating rooms were worse than a public toilet in the UK. I saw only three beds and people were packed extremely tightly on the floor of every room - they were even lying outside on balconies. The doctor gave him the drugs we bought and said to take him home. We arrived back at 1.30 a.m., carried him to his bed and left. By 2 a.m. he was dead. Now it will be down to his family to bury him (by 'the family' I mean the kids) so in turn, it would be us. The following day, and another 50,000 later, he was taken back to his village and buried.

Medical Help

Watching the face of Hamza's daughter on Sunday cheered me up. She ran at him as soon as we arrived. He gave the woman a handful of crumpled notes so she could eat for another week. His daughter was so cute, she didn't leave him alone for a second. We ate bread and sipped on sweet tea. At last. I thought. I can relax. It was then that I noticed a dirty, blood-and-puss-stained bandage around the woman's foot. I asked what had happened and she explained that she had cut it weeks ago and it was badly infected. I jumped back in the car, went home to get some Germolene I had brought from England, bought bandages, some stuff to clean the wound and a two-week supply of antibiotics. I took them back and explained what she had to do. She was so grateful I felt a little embarrassed, as to me I hadn't really done anything. I'd have taken her to the hospital if I'd not already seen the place. It made me think of England and how lucky we are.

The Illusive Identity Card

Serviço de Identificaçáo Civil: Monday we headed back to the office and met up with our man outside. Four hours later we got the illusive identity card. Even with our man on the inside it had taken over five days of constant back-and-forth to the office. Still, we have it now. The next day we went to the bank, after three hours of getting even more paperwork stamped. We finally opened an account (the Western Union is in the same building and wasn't too far to walk from Fatumatu's home). Mission complete.

Persistent Setbacks

At 2 p.m. we decided to go back to Gambia. We scraped enough money together for a bottle of water, three quarters of a tank of diesel and (due to the return of the oil leak) a litre of oil. We were left with 5,000, just in case of problems. This was the beginning of a big error in judgement. We drove through into Senegal, this time paying only 1,000 at the border. Things were looking good but then as usual, the bad luck that had followed us had returned. A short distance from the border, a makeshift roadblock had been erected. There were about seven men all holding AK-47s, and dressed in civilian clothing (tracksuit bottoms, t-shirts etc.).

I had a bad feeling about this. We stopped the car and were asked for our papers. It didn't seem to matter what papers we gave them, they just kept asking for others until we'd given them everything we had. They weren't content and told us to go to their car, which was parked off the road under some trees (it was an old, battered pickup truck). The man who seemed to be in charge didn't look like he was going to let us continue. Then, just like that, he said Could we give them anything?. 1000 we said. They took the money and let us go. The problem was, time was ticking on and I knew the border would close at 7 p.m. To make matters worse the oil leak was getting quite bad and it was a bit hit-and-miss if we even had enough fuel for the journey.

By the time we'd driven another thirty miles we'd used all the oil and were approaching another barricade in the road. This time it looked like the army. A car was in front of us and from under a nearby tree a soldier came strolling over. He spotted me and made a direct path to our car, telling the other driver to move on. He was quite an old bloke and I didn't think he'd be a problem. After checking some papers he asked to see the triangle (in case of a breakdown). We went to the back and showed him but he said we needed two of them. We explained that we only had one and we didn't know [we needed two], but it was pointless. If it wasn't a triangle it would have been something else.

He demanded 30,000 but by this time my patience was wearing thin. A stand-off came about with neither of us willing to back down. We had no choice and had only 3,000 left. Time passed and I resigned myself to the fact the border would be closed and we'd have to now wait until morning. It didn't bother me because I knew soldiers were on the border anyway, and we'd be safe enough. By 7 p.m. he gave up. They put more barricades in the road and left. We gave it thirty minutes, drove through and carried on. It was dark now and I really wanted to get home. Within ten miles yet another road block, this time in the middle of nowhere and manned by men in casual clothes. We were told to turn and go back the way we came. Could this get any worse? We headed back to a small town and just by chance spotted a lit-up building, it was a hospital set inside a walled compound. We spoke to the security guards, explaining our problem, and to my relief they said I could park inside and sleep in the car.

Now we were down to virtually nothing money-wise, with the tank less than a quarter full. Daybreak came and we set off again. For the first time we had some luck as all the barricades had gone and there was no-one around anywhere. Soon enough we were at the border with the usual problems but I was past caring. On arrival home to 'Dad' we were greeted with the news that he was in hospital, he'd suffered a stroke on the right side and lost the use of his arm.

The Home Stretch

After a day of rest, a well-needed shower and some food, I'd some time to reflect on these past few weeks. Nothing so far had been easy, we've had no luck. Now with only a few days left I needed to go back to Kiang to check on our school. With a refreshed feeling we set off around 9 a.m. and arrived trouble-free around 1 p.m. The school was a success. The building had a new roof and floors, all walls had been repaired and painted and two new steel doors had been fitted. The headmaster thanked me and asked me to sign his guestbook. I took some photos and paid Lamin. A local joiner was making the tables and chairs (they weren't finished but Lamin said he'd stay until everything was in the classrooms). At last. I thought. All my bad luck was behind me. We left around 2 p.m. and that's when our problems started again. The roads were terrible. I hadn't been driving more than twenty minutes before we had to stop. The bullbar across the front of the car had fallen off, bringing the sump and radiator guard with it. A quick roadside patch-up and we continued on for a while. Then yet another blowout on the rear tyre. It was shredded. I changed it for the spare and set off again, but within a few miles the spare blew out as well.

Now, miles into the bush in 40° C heat, we were stranded. Ibby flagged down the next car and left to find a tyre, this was around 3.30 p.m. So I waited. At 9 p.m., in pitch darkness, I saw headlights coming my way. It was Ibby with a tyre. As we drove back home I couldn't help but laugh, even when the police stopped us three times for nothing. Monday came soon enough and I said my goodbyes. It'd been three weeks of bad luck but everything I'd set out to do was now complete. However, every day felt like it had been hard fought.