(Photo: Reunion with the children from the neighbourhood where I lived in 2013-4)
A journey begins with the first step, I am not sure how many more steps would be included in the 19,000 plus kilometers it took me to get to the Gambia, but I imagine a few. There were a few diversions.
After spending Christmas with my son and his family in Ontario, the first in many years, my journey took me to Ukraine via Istanbul. After landing and spending a few days in Kyiv it was on to Uzhgorod in the far west, my home for four years, then ten days later another train took me to Sumy in the very East to visit and spend time with a friend recovering from cancer treatment.
My departure for The Gambia was delayed by the upheaval in that country as Gambians pushed their dictatorial president into exile. The trip to Banjul took me through Brussels and Casablanca and on the 29th of January my flight landed in “The New Gambia” with its warmth of climate and kind and caring people. As with any new destination, I always work on securing my anchors, much as you would in setting up a tent, ensuring it is stable and watertight.
This analogy relates to my boyhood holidays, which were two week camping adventures to Big Falls in the wilds of Newfoundland. In those early days there were no parks or highways only road side clearings, usually near a brook or a stream – water is important. Accommodations were a very basic tent made of canvas and our first tasks were to set up camp.
Over the first weeks my Gambian family all came to greet me, spend time and hang out. After two years the kids had grown and everyone had had new experiences. I spent much time getting the apartment that I had previously rented in 2011 up to its original standard of comfort. There was much to do, many contacts to make and re-familiarization with the place and people I knew. While much had changed, especially over the previous few months, so much was the same. The first month went by very quickly.
The second month was much the same, never enough time in the days to do what needed to be done, deal with the many issues within my families and spending time with the children, especially Nyima and Ebrima who have become my constant companions; they both are very special treasures.
Nyima has been in my care since she was three months and Ebrima since he was born, albeit this is the first time I met him. My most special memory is of Nyima who came to visit on my first day and the instant that she saw me she escaped her mother’s grasp as she took flight running as fast her little legs could move with arms wide open to hug me – she had not yet been two years old when I last saw her.
I also renewed my connections with many of the people with whom I worked including those in the Ministry of Finance and offered to help with their new economic plan (pro bono). We are working on making this happen now. I also have my own project and have been pursuing that as well.
Then a twist in the road, as the person who was renting the house beneath my upper floor apartment complained voraciously to my friend and landlord about the noise made by the children visiting. While my friend who is now back in Holland didn’t ask me to move, I decided that neither a battle of wills nor the anguish of complaints were in my plans.
The interesting part is that this person is African and also a United Nations Volunteer, obviously this person hadn’t read their UN code of conduct, which is heavily laden with the language of respect, tolerance and adapting to local culture.
I was not surprised as it was part of my first observations noted in my February 2011 article “Rooted in a Colonial Past” written not long after I had arrived:
My early observations provide a view, which one could certainly speculate has all the remnants of a colonial past; but with a different twist. What first struck me was the number of developmental agencies and NGOs that are in evidence, most of which appeared to be foreign based…… One might think that these entities have replaced Gambia’s former colonial master Britain with a whole new wave of them….. In my very short time here, it appears obvious that so much of peoples’ lives in Gambia are controlled by others; mostly outsiders.
Finding a new place was a treat and an experience in itself, as there are few legitimate real estate agents here, instead you have young men, as I didn’t meet many women, who hunt out rentals and are obviously connected. So they take you on a ride that is like a piece on string that gets longer. You approach one and he knows six more and they each know six more, all whom have properties to rent. So last week I walked and travelled in taxis (about 30 cents per trip) enough to have come 1/2 way back to Canada. Then after a week of this circus I found a young man who was obviously more seasoned, who spent a day with me and had identified at least 4 alternate possibilities. I settled on a small house within a compound (a concrete wall and security) – a necessity. Its cost was the same as the small apartment that I had.
It took more than another week to get this place in shape and now I am settled with no one to complain. The garden is full of mangoes, bananas and other fruits. The watchman repairs shoes on a bench outside so my shoes are always in good shape and he helps keep everything clean and tidy and has joined my list of mouths to feed.
Finally, I feel settled and am able to pursue other opportunities that might enable me to maintain my mission here as the demands on my time and money increase and I have a very short window to find a means to solidify this effort and organize it in a manner which is sustainable. At my age it could even be shorter than I contemplate, especially when I look at the obituaries from home.
What I do is only a small component that is required in one of the poorest countries in the world, but for the people I support it is a lifeline, without which, life would be even more difficult. I have come to understand that money is important, as it allows for the basic necessities, but more important is the human connection. They also need someone to relate to, to discuss things with and to share their fears and aspirations and to stand beside them as the maneuver through the difficulties life puts in their path and there are many in this environment.
This is what is missing in our world today. Most appear to have distilled life down to economy which is only business and money. Concern, compassion and care, life’s necessities, have little place and have been transformed into fear, loathing and intolerance of all who are poor, in need or different.
There are those in society who are trying to take the world back into its darkest history. Hopefully there are enough of us alive, willing and with enough concern for life in the broader sense that can turn this tide of obsession, hatred and bigotry into a calmer sea of a sharing, tolerance and compassion. It only takes a small effort to make a difference to someone’s life – I witness it every day. It is our responsibility as humans.
Abundance is all around us, yet some believe it should be all theirs and theirs alone.
Someone recently told me that people are God’s responsibility, not ours. My belief is that we have been provided our creativity, intelligence and will in order to be “our brother and sisters” keepers. We all have a responsibility to care for each other.
Care is neither simple nor easy, but doesn’t necessarily require a lot of money. Its rewards are immeasurable and priceless. The feelings generated by a four year old who remembered me and greeted me with big hugs after two years is something that can’t be bought with money nor provided by force.
Children are life’s most precious of gifts to be shared, but not owned. They need to be cherished, encouraged and given freedom to be all that they can be in concert with others – and not just some children, but all of them.
Written by William (Bill) Pardy
April 29, 2017