I am writing this while sitting on the patio at Leybato looking out at the waves crashing onto the beach. As always, there are many young man jogging up and down the beach or doing push-ups and crunches. Young Gambians like to keep fit and there are gyms all over the place in this country. There is even one variety of lizard that is in on the fitness craze. This grey and yellow creature often stops running and then begins to pump out a few push ups, bending and straightening his front legs while in a perfect plank position. I’ll have to look it up in a field guide to find out what prompts this curious behaviour – surely he is not trying to build up his biceps to impress the lady lizards!
I hope to join the active beach crowd to go for a short jog this afternoon, time permitting, but after our TV interview aired last night (3 minutes into the news cast), I doubt I will have company. A lady that can run from Koina to Banjul is just too scary! It seems lots of people saw the interview on state television last night and I have been getting many positive comments this morning.
The radio interview we had recorded on the beach when we finished the run has now also been on the air. The microphone used on the beach was defective, so we had to go to the studio to re-record the piece. This was an experience in itself. The studio’s equipment was not exactly the latest technology, but it worked. Well, at least when the power is on. We had just started recording when the lights went out and we sat in complete darkness in the studio. This gave us some time to joke around and chitchat and we started over when the power returned.
During the broadcast people were asked to phone in with comments or questions. The response was overwhelming. Kebba tried to call, but could not get through. People were expressing their thanks, others were asking if it really was in Koina on the border with Senegal that we started, and yet others questioned whether I was human or some kind of she-devil, since they thought it impossible for any human to run this kind of distance (ultra running is practically unknown in the Gambia). Many people stated that they would like to have a chance to meet me in person and that what I did for their children will never be forgotten. People also wanted to know about my husband and whether he ran. When they learned he had recently completed a 100 mile run, they said that our children would be able to run around the entire world. The reporter asked why I wasn’t on the Olympic team given how strong I was and I explained that I was far too slow and too old. But no matter what the International Olympic Committee may think, I know that in the hearts of many Gambians, I am an Olympian The sincerity of the callers and their genuine appreciation for what our team had accomplished was moving.
And speaking of accomplishments, the total funds raised from this year’s Love4Gambia run currently total $15,500. This money will allow the NSGA to keep the lights on for a little while longer and to continue providing life-saving health education programs to young people, while at the same time teaching them valuable leadership skills. And just because the run has now concluded does not mean that you can no longer donate. Our Donate Now button on the web site remains active and contributions will still gladly be accepted.
But my last few days in the Gambia are not all about interviews and NSGA business. There is also plenty of time to relax and play tourist. Pa Modou and Kebba picked me up yesterday morning to take me sight seeing. We started our day at the Reptile Farm. I am a big fan of snakes, lizards, chameleons, skinks and the like. The farm did not disappoint. Our guide walked us around and talked to us about the various reptiles they had. She let us hold the chameleon, which sat on my hand with its tail curled in a perfect spiral. We also saw scorpions, small crocodiles and many different kinds of snakes. These reptiles were either in concrete enclosures that did not look high enough to deter a determined snake from leaving or they were in glass terrariums, some of which had inoperative locks to keep the gate closed. Our guide reassured us, that no snake had ever escaped.
We were joined on our tour by two young Dutch women and a family with two young children. All had been eager to hold the chameleon and when the guide brought out and egg-eating snake, she also had some volunteers. Egg-eaters do not have teeth or venom, so are completely harmless. After holding and examining this yellowish snake for a time, I uncoiled it from around my right arm and passed it on the young boy.
But when we came to the terrarium where the pythons were kept, I was suddenly the only volunteer to want to hold one. Everyone else backed away just a step or two. I took the snake from the guide and it started moving along my upper body, its tongue probingly coming out to get a sense of me. It tickled my skin. The snake wound itself around me and the other people gathered up their courage and came closer to watch or even touch it somewhere far away from the head. When Pa Modou was near me, I took the snake’s head and waved it in front of Pa’s face. His expression was priceless and he jumped back with a shout. We all had a nice laugh at his expense, but then he manned up and even held the snake briefly, as did Kebba. I got to keep holding it while we went along visiting some turtles, but then had to put it back in its terrarium.
We left the reptile centre and took a drive along the Senegambia area. We stopped in a fishing village along the way and saw the fishermen repairing their nets and working on their boats. The women were grilling and selling fish from today’s catch. Pa Modou is a Serre and this ethnic group has traditionally been in the fishing business. He enjoyed having a chance to speak in his own language with the people on the beach, as he doesn’t often have the chance to do so at work or with friends. From the fishing village we drove to the market in Serekunda to do some shopping. I wanted to pick up a few gifts and souvenirs. Kebba negotiated hard on my behalf and my newly acquired fame from the media interviews contributed to getting decent prices rather than tourist pricing.
From the market, we drove to the monkey park. While travelling up country, we had often seen baboons and a smaller, light coloured type of monkey crossing the road. I had also seen some red monkeys jumping from tree to tree chattering loudly. Here at the monkey park, the light coloured monkeys came to greet us on the street to get their share of peanuts. We had bought a couple of bags of peanuts and while I am not in the habit of feeding wild animals, there was clearly nothing wild about these monkeys. One female who had a baby attached to her belly was not even concerned by the fact that I gently touched the little one peeking at me with enormous eyes. The baby’s fur was so much softer than the mature one’s. The little one was suckling simultaneously on the mother’s two nipples.
The monkeys stood on their hind legs to reach up and take peanuts from our hands. Some also followed us down the trail eagerly staring at our hands and occasionally grabbing. We went deeper into the bush and then also saw red monkeys in the trees. These ones hardly ever come down and are not easily bribed by food. It was getting a bit dark and taking photos of these fast moving and shy creatures was difficult. Further along the trail, a monkey was seated on a tree stretched across the trail. I stopped and reached up while he extended his hand down to take a peanut. I guess he decided it tasted like more, so he jumped on my shoulder and attempted to wrestle the whole bag out of my hand. We had a short tug of war, which I won. Yet he stayed on my shoulder for a little while longer. We were followed by a small group of monkeys and I handed out peanuts. Every now and again there was some screeching as the primates chased each other away to get the choice morsels.
Following all that monkey business, Kebba dropped me back off at Leybato. I went to the beach restaurant and ordered some food and a glass of wine. After dinner, Leif, who manages the resort with his wife Sussane, invited me to a glass of cognac in celebration of their 27th wedding anniversary. We had a few drinks, ate Crepe Suzette as a midnight snack and talked about the Gambia, Europe, travelling and the challenges of running a business in the Gambia. They told me that when they began managing the hotel, staff had not been paid in over a year, but showed up to work anyway, as they would get some food and the occasional tip from customers. Now they were getting paid again and everyone at Leybato seems quite happy to be working there and takes pride in their jobs.
Morning came early after a late night and Kebba and Pa came to pick me up to go to the Crocodile Pool. I visited the museum first, where I learned about traditional celebratory masks of the different ethnic groups, musical instruments used in the Gambia, as well as about traditional household and farming implements. Then it was time to visit the crocs. Even though the big animals were walking around freely, I was less worried by them than I was by the mosquitoes devouring my legs. I had so many bites that I started jumping up and down, slapping my legs. One of the staff had pity on me and poured some cold water over my lower legs. What a relief! But it was short lived and after snapping a few photos with the crocodiles, we were out of there.
At the NSGA office, we met the four Canadian volunteers who showed off the gorgeous dresses they had made at the market. A lunch had been planned for us with the staff and after many kind words said about the dedication of the young women who spent a month here to teach peer health at schools and then to work in hospitals as interns, it was their turn to address the group. Like I had done at an earlier occasion, they also stated that they had gained far more from their experience in the Gambia than they felt they had given. They, too, were moved to tears by the kindness and spirit of the Gambian people and I know they also plan to be back and will spread the word about the good work of the NSGA when they return to Canada.
I am now enjoying my last afternoon at Leybato. I will lace up my Mizunos one last time here in the Gambia for a run along the beach and will then go for a swim before packing my bags for the trip to Europe. Insha’Allah, I shall return to the Smiling Coast of Africa someday soon. But first, a three week European adventure awaits!
Love from the Gambia,