Packing frantically the night before trying to ensure my hand luggage was only 5 kilos; the 5am wake up call to get dressed and meet Paul at Finsbury Park; dropping my camera on St Thomas’s road because my smaller rucksack wasn’t properly closed, and phew, finally I was on route to Gatwick airport.
We met the others at the airport on time (!) and after checking in our luggage, Paul treated us to the finest breakfast money could buy- a Wetherspoon’s breakfast. All too quickly, it was time to get on the plane and there started six hours of reading; making nervous small talk with my neighbours; napping; eyeing the mass of boys on a college trip and eating aeroplane food. The journey seemed to go quickly and before I knew it, we were disembarking and the familiar wave of intense African heat from the sun hit my shoulders as we waited for the shuttle. We passed through the airport quite quickly, spotting Howard on the other side of the barrier and were soon ushered onto a coach to drive to our hotel.
That drive illustrated some of the extremes of poverty and wealth found in the Gambia as we passed a curious mixture of buildings and houses that were finished; half finished; and barely started. The architecture of the finished houses a mixture of Italianate balconies and European styles or in contrast Art Deco inspired buildings. The heat, the green landscape, the colourful people walking down the road, the billboards encouraging people to vote/ buy a mobile/ how not to get AIDS; despite being really tired I could not take my eyes off of the road. We finally turned into the main street next to our hotel, a busy street, full of restaurants and people milling around, this was to become a familiar sight over the next six days…
Our first night out as a group was to the restaurant bar Bini’s, I remember thinking as we dined al fresco that it was almost really romantic sitting under the stars for dinner, with summery tunes playing in the background. The stars in the tropics were incredible. As someone that eagerly star gazes out of her window in smoggy old London, I felt like I was on a stage or theatre set with the incredible backdrop of thousands of stars and constellations, the North star piercingly bright. There was the distinct feeling of being on holiday that evening, that feeling was to diminish somewhat in the heat of the sun the next day. For the rest of the week, our routine would be, arise at 6.30am, breakfast at 7am, leave for the building site by 7.30am. Some of you might know that I am not a morning person so my first challenge was to get up each day. I’ll be honest- I set my alarm for 6.50am and if I got up before that, then that was extra 5 minutes to brush my hair!
My first ever Jeep ride happened the following morning, we stopped in a petrol station and I remember trying a breakfast staple- imagine rice pudding but with a slight lemony flavour and a smaller grain. Despite it being warm enough to wear shorts and t-shirts, travelling on the back of a Jeep was quite cool, but an excellent way to see everyone on their way to work; children on their way to school, shouting and waving to us, the ladies carrying vast loads on their heads, men cycling, the sea when we were close enough.
The first day on the site saw me attempt to use a cutlass to clear weeds; and start whitewashing the toilet block. Despite not having rollers or ladders, the main challenges were staying rehydrated and protected from the sun as the temperature had risen sharply and the white paint reflected the heat straight back at us. I was working with a lovely family, Vanessa, and her three younger daughters- Sophie, Lydia and Georgia and together we managed to cover most of the back wall, creating steps with unused bricks and a makeshift stand of two oil cans and two planks of wood. Sophie and Lydia clambered on top to do one side of the wall and their cousin Josh came to help out to do the other side. I was struggling with the heat and was more than grateful when we stopped for lunch.
Whilst we were painting the toilet block, the others were preparing the materials to create forty tables and eighty chairs for the school; mixing cement and cleaning, laying and pointing bricks. There was no running water on site nor any electricity so there were lots of trips to the well to create the cement.
For the first couple of days, the village children were quite shy, curiously looking at us whilst we tried to get them to talk to us. A few of the children knew some English so we were able to exchange names but I think both sides were both quite reserved. That was to change in the coming days. Our first working day finally ended in the afternoon and I was shattered. I fell asleep face down in my hotel room awakening groggily with a head full of sun and sleep. I went to the bar to write my first diary entry, noting that I could imagine the French, English and so on arriving here and feeling like they had arrived in a modern day Garden of Eden; each morning I wonder at the bright cerise flowers and green plants growing everywhere, the jade and dusky pink birds; there are so many fruits growing aplenty that I do not think that you could sell and export them all and I echo my father when I thought, how can a country so beautiful and full of resources be so poor. And of course I know the answer is complex but I can’t help wondering how this came to pass.
I scribble some more, my head full of the things that I have seen that day, we wander to the beach and order a fruit platter from the beach ladies, a delicious treat of chopped watermelon, pineapple, coconut, orange and grapefruit, topped off with some peanut brittle. Finally my first dip in the sea, Howard urging me to go in further and further ‘push your comfort zone Mange’. I remember nothing more of that evening except that I had formulated a painting plan- we were to tackle that back wall immediately on reaching the site and before the temperature rose to uncomfortable heights. And with that I went to bed- except the constant cricketing, chirruping and reggae music from the bars had me reaching for my ear plugs. Before I knew it, it was the start of a new day.