Thursday, 5 April 2012

Saving the best until last; Mali, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Senegal and The Gambia

So where to begin.

Sitting with this little lap top plugged into an inverter amongst Ebu's maize of wires and batteries. There's a generator humming away out side to charge a battery for the party in Kartong later. Baana's brothers are having their circumcision ceremony and there will be a party to celebrate in their family compound afterwards. Living here amongst the palm trees of the forest near the coast in The Gambia I am relaxing at the journey's end. My counter on the bike says over 10000 km and I feel like the job's done, what ever it was in the first place. Perhaps the real meaning is yet to be revealed.

 Cycling from Bamako in Mali back to the Gambia through Guinea, Guinea Bissau and  the Casamance region of Senegal really felt like saving the best till last. Guinea, I remember, felt like my new favourite country until I reached Guinea Bissau that rapidly took its place. The Journey left the noise and stink of the Capital city quickly behind and I was able to abandon my face musk, needed for the dust and pollution, and breath fresh air in the hot dry bush once again. We had had a nice little party on my last night in Bamako and Solo cooked a fantastic stew with the cockerel that had not long before been running around the compound. Some of the crew turned up and we jammed into the evening with the moon full and glowing a peculiar orange through the city air. I have thought of these guys often on my journey of the last 2 weeks as I heard news of the Tuareg continuing their war and taking control of northern towns and then just 10 days or so after I left the Malian military had had enough and lead a coup d'etat capturing the President and taking control of the country. The borders were closed and I think there is still a curfew in Bamako restricting movement. As they say often here “it's not easy in Africa” and it seems Mali is really going through a hard time of it at the moment and the situation feels very unstable. Perhaps this is the opportunity for the Tuareg to finally get what they have been fighting for for so long out in the desert.

Well, I was far from Bamako by the time all this kicked off and felt lucky to be freely drifting the open road exploring the unfolding universe of West Africa. If you can call cycling nearly a 100km every day for 15 days really drifting; it was more of a mission than a drift. There were very few hotels along the way and generally I had no idea where I would sleep each night when I set off in the morning. Most evenings I slept in villages along the way with wonderfully hospitable families. Sometimes I would ask for the chief of the village or more often people I met would invite me to stay with them. They would bring me water to bath, which was always a blessed relief after a hot sweaty and often dusty day of cycling, and we would eat rice together and relax in the evening sometimes drinking green tea or just chatting in the darkness of the African night. People were always amazed by how far I had cycled and the journey I was making alone. And often they would ask how they to could do the same thing. Well, the truth is that they can't. While I am free to wonder  the open roads of West Africa on my bicycle these people take great risks trying to smuggle themselves into Europe on pirogue canoes from  Mauritania. I have heard so many tragic tales from Gambians, Senegalese and now Guineans of them trying to take the 'back route' to Spain. One Man sitting in the shade of a bridge by the Mangroves told me of how a group of them had walked 9 nights into Morocco to Casablanca and then took the boat with the Arabs. It costs them a thousand dollars but generally they seem to get lost at sea or on this occasion made it to Spain only to find the  police waiting for them on beach and were taken to the cells for 25 days. He talked about how they gave them good food and nice beds for their stay and then sent them back but with a bit of money to help them get home. So he did the whole thing again only to be caught once more and sent straight back to Bissau. Others were not so lucky and many die at sea. And so I am left to contemplate one of the many injustices of the African continent; and there are many.

From Mali into Guinea the road follows the magnificent river Niger and during this dry season many of the people in some of the villages that I stayed in were again searching for the precious gold dust that can be found in this earth. It is quite magical when it reveals it's self whilst you wash and sift the sand and there it is just a sprinkling of golden promise in the bottom of the guard.

From the river the road starts to climb and the climate gradually becomes a little cooler until up in the high lands of the famous mountains of the Fouta Djallo there are even forests of pine trees and green lush valleys, thick with jungle or tidy cultivated gardens nearer the villages. I cycled for days through these hills that are renowned for being a home for the Fulani people and enjoyed the calls of "Jaaramaa", "Nalatong", and "Jamtong" greeting folk as I cruised by. One afternoon while a little lost on the back tracks in the hills I happily spent my rest time of the afternoon heat firing a catapult with a young boy and our expert elder who could hit my plastic coke bottle every time with deadly speed and accuracy. These are the little gems of moments that make life on the road so rich. J have met so many folk all with their stories to tell and this journey seems to have become all about these people's stories as they meet my own as a cycling oddity. From the cool of the mountain forests in the high lands of the Fouta Djallo the road descends from Labe north west towards Koundarra on the border between Senegal, Guinea and Guinea Bissau, but the smooth Tarmac doesn't last long and for 3 days the road is a rough track of sand, rock and fine powder dust that winds its way through endless valleys of forest. When I finally did reach the lower lands it was like being catapulted into the roasting heat of an oven. The hot dry wind no longer so refreshing.

I had been warned by some police in Guinea that there had just been an election in Guinea Bissau and things were still very unstable. There were stories of shootings and an attempted coup and this together with the fact that I didn't actually have a visa to get in the country was enough for these guys to suggest that it really wasn't safe for me to go there. I thankfully ignored this advice as being just another occasion of people warning me about their neighbour countries that has happened at nearly every stage of this journey. The Spanish don't trust the Moroccans, the Berber don't trust the Arabs, the Arabs don't trust the black Africans, the Gambians thought it would not be safe in Mali and so on until it seems that no one really trusts their neighbours at all. In fact here it seems some times that no one trusts anyone and yet trust for me has to be the bottom line for any kind of relationship.

In the case of Guinea Bissau it is true; their politics is nuts. It seems to be an endless tale of coups and assassinations, corrupt politicians and army generals making millions from the drug trade. Guinea Bissau turns out to be where all the cocaine arrives from South America on its way to Europe and there is plenty money to be made if you are in control. Meanwhile the people get on with their lives peacefully. The country is very undeveloped with little infrastructure and a wild west feeling of chaos. The national language is a creole mix of Portuguese and local languages and the country has this exotic Latin feel with cultural connections with Cape Verde and Brazil having been a Portuguese colony. Their history is certainly wobbly to say the least and their war for independence during the sixties and seventies was apparently one of the bloodiest and Portuguese colonies were not given independence until the own fascist regime crumbled in 1974.

I loved Guinea Bissau and wished I had more time to explore. The climate is milder and the vegetation so much greener with subtropical forests and endless Cachu plantations that forms the countries biggest export. The coast line has hundreds of small islands that must be a kind of paradise and the land is divided by many large meandering rivers and mangrove swamps. I have promised my self that I'll return some day again soon. I stayed for a few days in St Domingo with some Portuguese and Spanish friends who are trying to run a small restaurant there but struggling to run a business as the reality of the system here doesn't make things easy for anyone. Having cycled through Spain and Portugal on my way here it seemed like my journey had gone full circle and my languages had become utterly mixed up and confused after weeks of speaking French. Unlike most of Islamic West Africa they do love to drink in Bissau, and have a reputation that they like to party hard and breakfast may well involve continuing the cartons of wine from the night before.

 “Every day is party in Bissau” they tell me back here in The Gambia and that is where I am now, winding down at my journey's end and preparing myself for the shock of returning home. And I know it will be a  shock for its been over 7 months now and I could happily stay. Maybe I'll be back very soon.

So as the counter touches 10,000 kilometres my final words of thanks is to my bike. My Thorne Sherper has never let me down and always seems eager to get back on the road. In all this time I have had just one puncture and every day people here try to get me to sell them or give them my bike. I haven't the heart to tell them how much it actually cost in the UK but it was definitely an investment well worth the expense and I look forward to the next 10,000 km of adventure where ever it may be.

Thank you so much for reading my blogs over the last few months and for all you support in many ways on this journey. I look forward to seeing some of you very soon back home in a week or so.
Much love to one and all.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

My heart opens to the people of Bamako.

Firstly the bad news.........

I have just discovered that both of my hard drives of photos and movies have been infected by some evil virus and i'm unable to retrieve any photos to show you lovely people of my time here in Bamako.
Hopefully I'll be able do get a clever computer nerd to rescue things when i get back home but for the meantime you'll have to just use your imagination a little more than usual. My good friends from the Visions Series do have back ups of most of the material so all is not lost..... i hope.

And now the good news......

There will be some links for musicians in this post so why not click on one and listen to some beautiful Malian music while reading. That should make up for the lack of visual aids.

When i first arrived here in the capital city of Bamako I realy didn't like the place. I found the pollution absolutly overwhelming and the taxi drivers cut up the streets like total nutters trusting in Allah alone that we will live to see another day. The madness of city life just made no sense to me. The only green spaces that i first noticed in the city were little gardens growing salads and vegetables on any available piece of land. This maybe wasteland amongst building sites or along the banks of the majesitc river Niger that flows right through the centre of town. But so often these gardens will grow alongside black stinking stagnant pools of water and apperently the local poeple wash their salads with a few drops of bleach just to be sure its clean from any lingering nastees. Mmmmmmmmm, Salad with bleach sir?

With the general state of dirt and dust in this place it was inevitable that I would get sick at some point so after 6 months on the road I had my first bout amoebic nastees that left me laid up in bed in a feveresh sweat and peeing out of my bum. (sorry if that was to much detail for some of you, but i guess its part of the realities of travel in some parts of the world.)

But having said all that and now that I have recovered from my sikness and a little more used to the place I really have grown quiet fond of this city or rather it's wonderful people and culture. I have spent the last 10 days staying in the home of Soloman Dembele right on the edge of town away from the madness. Its pretty much a neighbourhood under construction, like so much of this city, and is as dusty and disorganised as the rest but has a calmness about it and all the local folk I have met have been great fun and very kind. I am staying with a Dutch friend here who is a singer and music student and with Soloman who is fantastic Kora  (West African Harp) player and well known instrument maker. All sorts of musicians pass by and and there's allways a friendly face about the place and sometimes some nice jams going on.

Most musicians here traditionally belong to griot families and will have one of a handfull of surnames such as Dembele or perhaps Diabate or Kouyate. Music plays such a huge part in society in Mali and Malian's cherish their artists dearly. Last weekend i was able to see some of this nations top musicians playing including Toumani Diabate at a club where he plays every friday night. This is a clip of him playing with the wonderful late Ali Farka Toure

On Saturday I went to a festival in a near by village called Selingue on a lake and was blessed to watch The queen herself  Oumou Sangare perform with Sheik Tidiane Seck as well as the legend Salif Keita and Mali's reggae hero Koko Dembele. I had hoped to show you so pictures from the event but check out these video links to get an idea of what their music is all about. It was so good to see another side of Malian culture away from the struggle on the streets and to dance all night to such quality music. It was also beautiful to see how these people really love and honour their elder musicians as the entire audience sang along to Salif Keita's set.

This is what my time in Bamako has been all about, Music, and exactly why i came here in the first place. I have been having guitar lessons every day with fantastic little dude called Kasim Dembele and learning tunes from Mali and Guinea and just love the whole sound that these guys are working with. I'll be hitting the road on my bike again tommorrow west to Guinea and do so with a very warm feeling in my heart about my time here in Bamako. It would ofcourse take months to really get under the skiin of this place and learn just a little ofthe musical culture but my 2 weeks here have been so rich that i don't mind moving on and to be honest it will be nice to breath some clean air again.

I first came to this city in 1995 and I remember being continually hassled by young guys claiming to be guides and looking for tourists to take on excursions to the historic cities of the north including Mopti, Djenne and the infamous Timbukto. Now there are no guides touting for work as there simply is no more tourist industry here these days. Every European government advises against almost all travel here after a number of kidnappings in the north involving groups of bandits, Tuaregs and Al Quieda militias. Timbukto had relied on tourism for amost 50% of it's economy so this is making life even harder for this country apparently rated the 4th poorest in the world, what ever that means. My experience he has been so deeply rich in hunanity, culture and kindness that i think we need a whole new way of evaluating what really counts in this world. Gross National Happiness perhaps, rather than the usual GNP.

Well, once again I'm sorry for the lack of photos this time and i wish you all well and hope that the spring is beggining to warm your toes after the winter months as I'll be peddling of in a hazy 34 degrees tomorrow heading back to The Gambia via the mountains of Guinea.

Much love to one and all

Sunday, 26 February 2012

The Road To Mali

Greetings one and all from Bamako, Mali.

Agrandir le plan

This is it, this is as far from home as i'm gonna go on this trip. 8000 km of peddling. Its my birthday today and i have made it to Bamako, thecapital city of Mali. Today is sunday and, as Amadou and Mariam, the now world famous blind Malian musicians sang in Dimanche a Bamako,  today is the day of marrages and I have seen plenty around town. There's one just around the corner with a band playing that classic relentless Mali sound as the griots sing the praises of all present and bless the famillies whilst they in turn are blessed with cash from the beautifully attired ladies dancing in the circle. The event is taking place in a marque on the busy, dirty street and for me appitimizes the contrasts of this place.
 I am very happy to be here and the first couple of days in this city has already been filled with playing music and meeting good folk. Having said that this is the dirtiest, poorest, most polluted hectic place i've been on this journey and life here is a hard struggle for many. Open sewers and streets litterred with rubbish and overwhelming amounts of crazy traffic, crumbling ghettoes, dust and fumes and the awesome hustle and bustle of city life. This is all a bit of a shock after 10 days of cycling through forests and staying in villages and, to be honest, i don't know if i can handle the stink and hecticness much longer. My birthday present to my self was a face mask that all the scooter riders ware (and there's thousands of them) and it somehow makes it bearable to be on the street.
What an adventure it has been to get here. Thats not to say it's all over in any way as i still have to make my way back to The Gambia and i'm planning to travel through Guinea Connakry, Guinea Bissau and the Cassamance to get there so planty more of the road to come but for the meantime i'm going to spend a week or so learning Mali style guitar and jamming with musicians. At least thats the idea but I'll have see if i can stand the stink first.

 I delayed my departure east to Mali for a week as there were so many worrying news stories of fighting in the north of the country as Toureg rebels who had been teamed up with Gadaffi's militias returned across the desert armed to the teeth with serious weaponry. The Malian army simply couldn't cope and the rebels have taken control of a number of nothern towns. Some 60000 refugees fled in all directions to neighbouring countries and retaliation demonstrations kicked off in Bamako causing the Tuareg resident in the city themselves to flee for their own safety. Some still believe that this could become a serious civil war and as a result of such stories on the BBC world service and the worry of my gambian friends i decided to go to a festival In Kartong on the the Gambian coast for a week and await further news. It was a little holiday away from the open road and great to dance into the night to the varoius Mandinka, Wolof  and Jula bands and just take it easy doing very little. I didn,t even take any photos so you'll have to imagine all the fun that i had. Go on let your imagination run wild!
Well even after all that the calling of the open road bekoned me on as ever so i loaded up the bike again and left the village of Kwinella heading up river into the uknown once again. The first night was spent in the compound of the regional director of Action aid, the next with a Fulani Imam, then a French hunting lodge, another Fula family, a community of migrant gold diggers and more villages of mud huts and grass roofs. Here's a few of my wonderful hosts.....

The experience of heading off each morning and not knowing where you will spend that night, or if there will be a village with food or water continues to be extremely rich and empowering. Somehow each day something or someone appears that just touches my heart and blows me away. The journey inland from Gambia takes you into dryer and poorer lands. Firstly there are far more Fula people and fewer Mandinkas. At least the Mandinkas become the Malinkis and then the Bambara of Mali. These peoples are all related as the Mandinka travelled from the great Empire of Mali many centuries ago. The Fula are a wonderful people and from my experience all ways very welcoming and accomodating when a rondom Engliush cyclists turns up looking for a bed for the night. They were traditionaly semi nomadic cow herders and continue this tradition of looking after the cattle all across west Africa.

 I have had so many great encounters with people and this internet is again painfully slow at uploading photographs that i'm afraid i don't have the time to tell all. Each lunch time has been an interesting routine of finding some place to feast on rice and then relax during the heat of the afternoon. So often people won't even let me pay for food which says something about their hospitality when they really have so little them semlves. We've had the guitar out on several of these occasions and one night the entire village was gathered in the compound to witness this crazy cycling toubab playing the guitar. We sang and danced into the night and the magic of music transformed our hearts and brought us together.
On the road to Mali i met a guy on  a bike heading home after spending several weeks unsuccessfully digging for gold. Then that night i stayed in little encampment of folk who also turned out to be gold diggers. We were at a noisy dusty junction as trucks passed by 24 hours a day from the gold mine to the processing plant. These men worked for an absolute pitence whilst the french owned company trucked riches out of the African soil. It seems sometimes that little has changed here and so often the experience of poverty becomes heartbreaking when the injustice is so blatant.
The landscape changed little for several days heading into Mali with hundreds of miles of sun baked forest with just a scattering of small traditional villages of mud huts and grass roofs. Strangely the road was one of the best I have cycled here and stretched all the way from Kedougou in Senegal untill Bamako. It turns out to have been built by the Chinese and travels straight through the heart of gold country....

So birthday greetings from me in Bamako.
The dude here has run out of internet tokens so times up.
Much love to one and all

Monday, 6 February 2012

A month in The Gambia

A month in The Gambia….

Time passes and gradually I have really started to feel at home here. I have noticed on this journey that once I have stopped somewhere it doesn’t take long for the inertia to kick in and make it harder to leave to hit the road again even after a short rest, but this time it feels particularly difficult. Arriving in The Gambia well over a month ago did somehow feel like reaching my destination as it is here that I feel most connected to the place and people having spent more time over the years. However I did always have it in mind to continue my journey to Bambako in Mali. I was there once before but it was long ago. I have always loved the music, both traditional and more modern that one hears out of that place and it feels like a logical destination for this ride. The Mandinka people of The Gambia originally came from Mali and when I tell people that I’m heading that way, once they have got over the initial shock of the idea of me traveling there alone by bicycle, they often tell me how they have relations there. Tata Dinding told me how his family of musicians or ‘griots’ traveled from Mali and how he would love to visit there one day but sadly was not up for joining me on a bike. Now that the time has come to part with my friends and family here it’s so hard to leave. But Once again the open road calls and soon I’ll be back in the red dust of that highway heading east this time and following my dreams.

                                          looks like some one's hitched a ride.

But what of my time here? Well as I mentioned in the last post about the Fresh Start Foundation I have had a chance to connect with their projects here and help out in a few ways as well as get up to all sorts of other adventures including hosting Ramsey and Tom from the Visions Series filming for the big movie. They stayed for 10 days and we had a great time interviewing all sorts of characters talking about my cycle ride, the power of music in community, education, climate change, and how we can bridge cultures creatively. We interviewed Lamin about the work of Fresh Start and the inspiration to bring about truly positive change and even went out into the bush and took a boat on the magnificent River Gambia with my old friend Wandi to see some of the stunning wildlife of the region.

I took them to meet Tata Dindng in Brikama and we were blessed to be able to film a fantastic jam in their compound that will provide some great music for the film. The following day we traveled with the band along sandy bush tracks across the border with Senegal to a village in the Cassamance region. This area has been troubled by rebels fighting for independence for years and just this week more fighting broke out not far away and I have recently heard that Kwinella village is preparing to receive over a thousand refugees. Presidential elections are due this month and reports of trouble across Senegal has been coming through the crackly air waves of the little transistor radios that play in the shade of mango trees as the heat of the afternoon passes. We were in the village for a music festival and thankfully all was peaceful whilst we were there. The people of Dombondir village are largely from the Jola tribe and the music and performances was very typical of their culture. The drumming and dance was stunning and some great bands played over the weekend but the highlights were the kumpo dance and the traditional wrestling on Sunday afternoon.

The Kumpo involved all the women on one side singing and playing hypnotic percussion rhythms on bits of metal and all the men gathered in a line opposite them. Into the space in between leaped the crazy Kumpo dancer completely covered with long grass like a huge whirling hay stack sending ripples of excitement through the crowd. Every one sang beautiful call-and-response songs whilst the men or women would break away from the lines running towards each other, or the spinning hay stack, to bust some crazy cheeky dance moves and then escape back to the safety of their lines. Other costumed characters appeared including a scary black baboon and a one armed figure dressed in sacking who danced beating the earth with a stick. The whole event was accompanied by full power drum rhythms specific to each of the costumed dancers and involved everybody who was up for it. It was dark and I was too enthralled to take any photos any way but I did get a few snaps of the wrestling the next day.

These guys know how to work a crowd and must have spent a good couple of hours strutting about and dancing before any wrestling actually took place. Wrestling is a big deal in Senegal and top wrestlers are famous stars in the country so it was all taken very seriously and in the end one team won…. And the other lost.

Tom and Ramsey had left the festival early to go and do some more filming with Tata’s band and so when it came to trying to get home on Monday morning I was reminded of one of the reasons why I had chosen to travel by bike in the first place. I hate waiting for lifts in Africa! I was ready by 9 in the morning for a car that by 4 in the afternoon looked like it wasn’t going anywhere after all. Instead I walked with a friend through the bush, passed beautiful rice fields and crossed the river that is the border between the two countries. We never did see any immigration officials or actual border controls and it all felt wonderfully clandestine out in the wilds of Africa.
Tom and Ramsey are back in the UK now armed with lots of great footage to make the movie and I’m ready to embark on the next stage of the adventure. The money’s all finished long ago but the road lies ahead calling and the journey continues.
There’s so much more I could say about the joys of village life in rural Africa but I’ll leave that up to your imagination for the moment and for my part step back out into the reality of the unfolding experience as I’m reminded of an old eighties kids TV program that sang out those immortal words;

 “Why don’t you… switch off the TV and do something more interesting instead!”

Time to get off the computer and water the vegetables in the sun baked plots over in the garden..
Much love to one and all

Sunday, 5 February 2012

The Fresh Start Foundation

The Fresh Start Foundation

As many of you know I have been raising money for the Fresh Start Foundation here in the Gambia and I thought it was about time to tell you a little about the fantastic work that they are doing. I have been in the country for just over a month now and soon it will be time to hit the road again, this time east towards Mali but whilst here I have had the chance to check out much of the charities work and even lent a hand as best I could. You can find out more about their work at
First of all thank you so much to all those who have donated money through my just giving page for this project. Having witnessed first-hand the importance of this work I can assure you that all the money will be used responsibly and go directly towards the positive change that is the focus of Fresh Start. Your donations will be used specifically to support an ambitious tree planting project in the village which I am really happy about and know will be extremely important for the future.
The charity was set up by my good friend Lamin Daffeh. He is the eldest son of Daffeh family with whom I lived in 1995 and on every visit since so that now I have been adopted as a member of their family and am always so well looked after.  Lamin now lives in the UK and set up the charity a few years ago initially to help with the education of vulnerable children in the village of Kwinella but now their work has expanded in so many ways and I will try to outline some of their different projects here.

Education and Skills Development

  • Fresh Start has provided educational materials to 12 different schools in the region of Kwinella and continues to support the village school in various ways.
  •  They funded and built a wall around the school grounds, created a library and continue to provide books, computers, resources and pay staff to make it a positive learning environment, they renovated class rooms and other facilities, dug a borehole that provides much needed clean drinking water, they provide funds to supplement the school meals with fish and vegetables, seeds for the school garden, and support a number of orphans throughout their education.
  • Fresh Start recently received funding to run a series of workshops on the theme of climate change in a number of local secondary schools and as you may know I have run many similar projects with Movingsouunds in the UK and so offered my services to provide a week of workshops to all the year 7, 8 and 9 students. This was great fun and very different to UK schools in terms of the issues it raised and also the response of the students.
                                          In the school getting down to some climate change education.

  • They provide sponsorship to a growing number of students through their secondary school education to help with school fees and this makes a huge difference to the poorer families and enables the young people to continue their education.
  • Fresh Start is building 2 very ambitious skill centers, one in the village and one nearer the city to provide education for orphans and further education and vocational training to young people to help them find work.
                                          This is the skills center currently under construction

  • Clean drinking water is critical for good health and Fresh Start now provides the village’s main source of clean water through solar powered boreholes. This has made a huge difference to the lives of the local people.
  • They have provided equipment to the local regional health centre, renovated the building, wired in the electrics and built accommodation for the health workers.
  • They provide regular eye screenings to villages in remote areas and fund much needed cataract operations. With so many incredible life changing success stories this has become an important focus for their work.
  • They also provide follow on support, drugs and reading glasses when needed.
Agriculture and the land

  • Their ambitious Kunko project in Kwinella aims to provide a community garden for the village with a reliable water source and training in horticulture. I spent many happy mornings helping to create beds for the veggies and water the banana plants. I can’t wait to see the gardens blooming in a few years time.
                                          The first seedlings are transplanted into the new beds.

  • They plan to also support animal husbandry projects and initiate a small agricultural revolution by educating about organic farming methods and sustainable land use. As most of the food eaten here is grown locally this will have a huge impact on the lives and diets of the village community.
  • Provide seeds and try out all sorts of new varieties to see what grows best.
  • They will be planting 1600 trees in the region and educate about the importance of the trees in terms of environmental stability and biodiversity. Gambia is extremely vulnerable to the impending impacts of climate change and deforestation is a huge issue here so this is important work and will be funded by your donations to my cycle ride.
This is just a brief outline of some of the work that the charity is currently undertaking but having met the team I know that so much more is going on than I could mention here and new projects are being developed all the time. Lamin came to visit a few weeks ago and I was amazed to see the response of people to his inspirational work and I hope to be able to continue my support of this project.
Once again many thanks for your support and if you feel so inspired it’s very easy to make a donation, however small at my just giving page. 2p provides a school meal so every little helps.
Much love to you all and more tales of my time in Gambia will follow shortly.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Back home in the Gambia

Well once again it feels like such a long time and another epic journey since I last wrote a post from the Daffeh's compound in Brufut on the coast of the Gambia. I spent around 5 days there with the sisters and Dembo who was visiting from Finland. Dembo had been my student in the village primary school when I was teaching here in 1995 but now lives in Finland and is part of a new generation of Gambians living the dream of a European life. It was so hard to leave the warmth of the family home but the time to move on came once again.

First 30km south to Kartong, the last village along the coast before the border with the troubled Casamance region of Senegal. This is a lovely area further away from the tourists and infamous beach bums and hustlers that prey relentlessly upon toubabs (white people) on the beach up north by the hotels.  I had planned to stay with an English guy called Peter Verne who I had met at sunrise festival in the summer who has a wife and compound here. I met him through our mutual friend Billy, otherwise known as Undercover Hippy, from Bristol, who spent a few months here with a guitar a year or two back winning over the hearts of the Gambians with his musical talents. I have met many people who talk fondly of him and he seems to have made quite an impression on the crew here. Peter was away in England having left just a couple of days earlier but Mamboi, his wife, and the rest of the family welcomed me into their forest compound with true Gambian hospitality. Here was another example of people living the dream amongst the palms and trees of the forest; Oh the simple life out in the bush!
I stayed just a few days but had a great time exploring the village, forest and nearby coast a little and just hanging out with nice folk in the compound. 

the boys fixing the generator again.....

Mamboi and the kids making baobab juice from the fruits of this amazing tree.....

Palms on the river bordering Senegal.

From Kartong I travelled just a short distance inland to Brikama; possibly Gambia’s largest town and stronghold of Mandinka culture. Here I stayed with another old student of mine and good friend called Famara but like so many Gambians is better known by his nickname of Killy. He took me around town to visit all sorts of people including almost a hundred members of his family. We also visited some local musicians and had a fantastic time hanging out with Tata Dindin and his band. I took a few lessons from the guitarist learning some funky little Afro Mandinka riffs and one afternoon went with the whole crew in a heavily loaded minibus, with the entire sound system stacked up on the roof, to a concert in a neighborhood to celebrate the president’s recent election victory. It was a wild experience and quite unlike any party I’d been to. The band rocked it with their Kora driven afro funk and the audience of women dressed in wonderful colorful patterned dresses praised the band by literally throwing money at Tata as he sang. Tata continues the Mandinka tradition of the griots as praise singers and the more he praised the individuals of the local community the more money the women lavished him with in celebration. Take note all ye poverty stricken Brighton musicians if you want to make some cash!

We also paid a visit to a couple of up and coming reggae singers called Philantropist and Messiah… Yes there’s a singer here that calls himself The Messiah which seems kind of extreme in terms of bigging your-self up even for a reggae mc. They were both sound guys though and once again the whole crew were fantastically friendly and welcoming and were very happy to spend the day in the yard chatting, jamming and cooking up a feast of rice and peanuts in new variations….. Yes I have eaten a lot of rice and peanuts by now but still I love it. Tonight we had rice with fish cooked in palm oil, another classic of West African cuisine.

From Brikama it was time to make the trek up river 120 km to the village of Kwinella where I lived all those years ago and taught in the primary school at the tender age of 19. I lived with the Daffeh family here, and it was to their compound, the Daffeh Kunda, that I was now heading. Of course all the children have all grown up and moved on and Ba Felidge (the dad) complains of the place being too quiet now. On my first visit both his wives, Kadi and Fatou, were here and at least a dozen of his children filled the place but now things are quieter and the old simple rooms have been knocked down and replaced by new larger buildings that even have water and solar electricity. Development is slowly coming for some Gambians whilst it seems for others the simplest amenities such as water, housing or enough rice to feed the family can be a real issue. It is here in this village that the Fresh Start Foundation concentrates many of the projects but more about them to come.
It is so good to be back here. Every day I am greeted by people who remember me from back in the day. Some people that I haven’t seen for 17 years but still joyfully sing out my name in greeting and very quickly the kids all join in the call. It really is somehow like coming home after all those thousands of miles traveling through unknown places and meeting people for the first time but here there is history and shared experience and so much kindness and openness that’s almost overwhelming at times. As well as catching up with old friends I’ve been helping to establish a community allotment project set up by Fresh Start and have been digging the rock hard sun baked earth and watering seedlings. It’s so inspiring and great to get down to doing something useful. I am also running workshops on climate change in the secondary school all week which will be a whole different story from working in the UK.

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 I’ll be here in the village for the next week or so and then Ramsey and Tom from substantial films will be here filming for 10 days.

Check out the movie trailer here…..
and their visions project here....

And then the adventures will continue into Mali!
Much love from West Africa.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

From Senegal to Gambia to welcome in 2012

It was so hard to leave the wonderful crew from Guinea in St Louis but after a week on the beach the calling of the open road was to strong to resist. I left a couple of days befor Christmas trusting that i would be in the right place for the special day and excited to be on the road again diving back into the unknown, and that's really how it felt this time.

The first day back on the road was just a short trip down the coast to the next town of Gandiol. I had heard about a lodge on the water side that was meant to be very nice so I payed a visit to the Zebrabar. It was strange to be in a place with lots of toubabs (white people) again. The name apparently comes from 'two bob' as in money back in the day, and seems to maintain some of it's original meaning for sure. It was such a paradise that i couldn't resist staying a night and i spent the afternoon on the lagoon in a kayack borrowed from the lodge. It was bliss and well worth the cost of staying the night. Most of the other people staying there were driving 4 X 4s across Africa but there was also an English couple driving an old Morris Minor to Cape town. It seems that we really are an eccentric nation and long may it continue! Another way is always possible.
The next day the road continued along the coast for a while through fishing villages with palm trees and pirogues pulled up on the beach. This was my first day having to deal with the red sandy routes of West Africa and i rattled over the corrugated tracks and got stuck in the sand but i was so happy to be here it really didn't matter. Then the road turned inland and i was back on tarmac again. I cycled for hours through vast open bush with occasional grazing herds of cattle or sheep accompanied by their shepherds. There was very little traffic on the road but for the odd horse cart and overloaded mercedes vans that are the local public transport. Here they are wonderfully decorated and adorned with pictures of the great Marabout of Touba where i was now headed.
I decided to spend that night in a village but in the first place that i stopped and asked, people seemed quiet bemused by me and no one spoke any french so i continued to the village of N'Diagne. Here i was taken to the compound of Iba Guisse where i could pitch my tent and pass the night. Iba was a wonderful character who was both a vet and an artist. I witnessed him treat a sheep with a prostate uterus that evening and this was something i remember well from my own childhood growing up on the farm, but needless to say the approach to treatment here was quiet different and i don't need to go into all the details now.

We spent that evening chatting and drinking atire (sweet strong green tea) which is the favourite pass time around here. As an artist he felt apart from the rest of the village who were all farmers and saw the world in a different way. He had moved from the city to seek the peaceful life of the village and was actually quiet an enlightened character and we very much enjoyed our conversations together. This was Christmas eve and the next day i would reach Touba, the most holly city of Senegal.
Another day of riding through the dry bush of Northern Senegal on potholed roads and passing only a few small towns but plenty of small simple villages of thatched houses and the endless calls of "Toubab toubab, donne moi agent!" and i arrived in Touba. Iba's friend Talla had arranged for me to stay with a friend of his there called Magga Tall, so eventually i found his home among the sandy streets. Magga is a welder and a hard working man. He runs a metal workshop outside the front of his house with a whole bunch of lads working with him. Once again i was blessed by the great Wollof hospitality of 'Taranga'.

Touba is a very special place and probably the most holy city in Senegal and this is why i had decided to be here for Christmas day and visit the Grand Mosque of Touba. It was indeed a great blessing to be here on this day and also the day of the new moon that is of significance for Islam and the 'Baay Fall' here. The stunning mosque houses the tombe of the saint and Marabout; Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba. There are wonderful stories surrounding his history involving great miracles including laying his prayer mat on the waters of the ocean to pray. This website has some nice info on the place and some stories of this legendary spiritual master if you want to know more as the stories are to many to begin to tell them here. check out:

From Touba it was another 3 days ride to The Gambia cycling through so many villages and open wild country side of bush land and flat delta country. I stayed one night in a bar-hotel in Fatick run by Christians which means that they were completely sozzled on boxing day but i reckon they are drinking there most days anyway. My last night in Senegal was back at the waterside but this time surrounded by mangroves on the river banks. And then to The Gambia!

For the final 40km to the boarder i felt like a long distant runner sprinting towards the finish. I had rested well the night befor and had the wind behind my so I cruised triumphantly into The Gambia.... well sort of. I was held up for quite a while by the immigration officers who seemed keen to get something from me; but the didn't, not a penny and on i went.

My first mission was to find an old friend I had met first back in 1995 here in The Gambia but then have had crazy coincidental meetings with both in the Gambia and in South Africa over the years since then. I have so many stories to tell of the fantastic Njankob Njob but you'll have to wait until the book is written for he shall have a whole chapter to himself. Any way, I found him sure enough, drunk and out on the street ranting at passes by. This did not bode well but we had some great times together over the next few days once he had straightened out a bit and was making more sense... well, a little more sense anyway for it seems that the years have taken its toll on this great man and many would call him crazy, or simply mad.

Still it was a pleasure to see him again, we played music together in the shade as the fisherman tinkered with their boats. I stayed at Lou's riverside compound known simply as 'Paradise' and it was beautiful and once again a lovely crew of folk living there who looked after me so well and again i didn't want to leave but i had it in mind to reach The Daffee Family for new year. Which i did, and this is where i have been staying for the last few days resting up and preparing myself for the next chapter of the journey.

In 1995 I came to The Gambia and worked in a little school up river in the village of Kwinella as a volunteer. I was the tender age of 19 and had never been out of Europe let alone the wilds of rural West Africa. The experience blew me away and became a profound time of learning and growth. Whilst here I lived with The Daffee family in the village and  have kept contact with them ever since. They treat me as a member of the family now and all the children are grown up doing all sorts of things all over the world. Lamin their oldest son now lives in England but has set up and runs a great little charity here called the Fresh Start Foundation and it is this charity that i have been raising funds for through this cycle ride.
Remember you can easily make a donation at 
Take a look at their website as they are doing some incredible work here. I will do a post soon all about what they are up to. I will stay in The Gambia for the next month and support a project that they are running offering workshops in schools around climate change. This as many of you know is what i do a lot of in the UK so it will be interesting to have a whole different perspective on the topic here.

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I feel like i have left out so many photos and stories from the journey of the last week or so but this post is plenty long enough as it is and what with the power cuts and the lunch break of rice and fish it has taken most of the day to write.

So I wish you all a wonderful 2012 and much love from The Gambia, the smiling coast as it is known.