Last week, me and the other Power Up Gambia workers took a 4 day trip to install solar panels at remote health clinics in the Upper River Region (~5 hour drive from Bwiam). Every time someone heard us say that we were going to Basse, their reaction was, “Oh, Basse…HOT!”, or, “You will wish for rain.” But when you sleep with A/C every night in the Bwiam heat,warnings like these don’t really scare you…until the A/C breaks a night before leaving for Basse and the heat suddenly becomes frighteningly real.
We woke up at 4:30am so that we could get a headstart on our drive to Basse. But “Africa time” means that there’s basically a (+/-)1-2 hours window with any schedule, so we didn’t officially head out until 6am. The cool(er) temperature before sunrise was literally a breath of fresh air, as we sat in the back of the ambulance with all the windows open, scanning the horizon for the sunrise, and listening to the Koran on the radio because it was the first day of Ramadan. We stopped to grab a quick breakfast omelette for those who weren’t fasting (aka all the interns). Somehow Michael and I both had the same allergic reaction to the omelette, and the tips of our noses itched like crazy for the next hour. We finally arrived at Basse around 11, but couldn’t get into the house that the health clinic provided for our accommodation because the man with the key to our house was away on a health trek. Meanwhile, we decided to hit up a clinic on our list that was closest to Basse: Demba Kunda Kuta.
Like Michael said, “I never understood the purpose of paved roads, until now”. Sitting sideways in the back of a Toyota Land Cruiser-turned ambulance, bouncing up and down on a rocky dirt road for 30 minutes was..rough. It definitely made us understand just how “remote” these clinics were. Being greeted in French also showed how close we were to the border of Senegal, 5km to be exact. Since this was our first site, we had to work out a lot of hiccups as to where to place the solar panel, how to maximize the use of 8 LED lightbulbs (connected to a central battery that needs to be hooked up to the solar panel during the day to recharge), and transcribing a 4 page survey by hand because the excel file on Saikou’s tablet couldn’t open. After almost 3 hours, we were finally able to light up the labor/delivery rooms, and write down all the data concerning the facility’s performance, condition, and concerns.
With it being the first day of Ramadan, Saikou and Anabi (our driver) were exhausted from fasting (the infamous Basse heat didn’t exactly help). We ended up all falling asleep while resting under a mango tree, waiting for the man with the key to our house to arrive. Once we finally obtained the key to our house, we realized that there was no running water or electricity so we sat outside, and watched the night sky..hoping that maybe the electricity grid would turn on. Three hours roll by, and still nothing. We accepted the fact that there would be no electricity for the night, so we moved on to thinking about dinner. As we were about to drive out to buy food, we realized that the cleaning person accidentally took the keys to our house, so Michael, Mackenzie, and I had to stay behind to “guard” the house while Saikou went to buy dinner. Ironically, we had to set up one of the solar panel kits to provide light for ourselves. With no fans to circulate the air in the bedrooms, nor water to shower, we all ended up crashing in the living room together – sticky, sweaty. Basse..very hot.
We set out for the farthest clinic (Foday Kunta) on our list, which included a “man-powered” ferry ride in addition to the longest bumpy road we’d have to sit through.
Just like Demba Kunda Kuta, Foday Kunta also urgently needed lights in the labor/delivery rooms – which makes sense considering the fact that every Gambian woman gives birth to an average of 5-6 children (wowza). On our way back, we went to Fototo and watched a Gambian soap opera with the women while waiting for the clinic director to arrive. The classic story line of a prince falling in love with a peasant woman will always make for some good drama in any language/culture. By the time we finished at Fatoto, Saikou and Anabi had to get back to prepare for breaking fast: find cold water & food, wash themselves before prayer, and pray for an hour from 8pm to 9pm.
Meanwhile, we walked around the Basse market trying our best to not look lost or touristy. Regardless, everywhere we walked, children would shout “Toubab! Toubab! (white people)” at us (sometimes, they’ll be more accurate and shout, “Ching ching! Ni hao!”), and adults would ask us for emails & friendships. All this attention made my hunt for a good fabric shop a fail. I’ve sketched out a couple of dresses/shirts that I want to get tailor made here, but still haven’t acquired any fabric. To avoid getting ripped off, I’ve been just asking around for prices and asking the ladies at work if the rates were fair or not. In the end, we only bought bottled water, oranges, and bananas.
After installing the panel at Garawol, we took a rest from the heat before setting out for our last clinic, Basse. Basse Major Health Clinic is the largest facility in the Upper River Region, and all the surrounding smaller clinics refer their complicated cases there. With about 200 deliveries every month, Basse not only needed a consistent source of electricity, but better retention of doctors. Gambians who become health professionals rarely stay to work in the country, and those who do stay prefer postings near the coast for obvious reasons. It takes a lot of love and sacrifice to work at rural clinics and if Basse, the largest of these clinics face this problem, one could only imagine the struggle that the more remote clinics have to deal with.
Right when we got home, it began to rain..and when it rains, it pours. And it feels amazing. Twas a great way to end our trek, enjoying the breeze in the living room and hoping that our electricity would stay on throughout the night because we had no more solar kits to use as back-ups. At 4am, Saikou actually paid the maternity wing at Basse a visit to check on the LED lights and we were surprised to see how much of a difference 8 little bulbs made 🙂
Our 5 hour trip home turned into a 8 hour drive due to random little pit stops we made on the way – washing the car, visiting the fire station (the lady who cooked for us was a fire[wo]man), visiting a Safari resort (Anabi must’ve heard us joking about how people back in the U.S. would always ask if we’ll go on safaris when we told them that we were going to work in the Gambia), shopping at the market in Soma, and buying cold ginger drinks.
We finally pulled into the hospital complex around 4pm and man, it felt so good to be at home. It’s funny how quickly a place becomes home when you leave for a couple of days and return. We may not have A/C anymore, nor running water (there’s a leak in the water tank/line), but the community here is starting to really feel like a family. I’m scared to even imagine how I’ll feel when it’s time to say good-bye…
But anyways! Enough with the feels. Tomorrow is Friday, which means another weekend to explore another part of the Gambia. We were actually trying to plan something “American” to celebrate 4th of July next Saturday, but the U.S. Embassy does a “4th of JUNE” party instead due to Ramadan. Haha, oh wells. Just one of the many quirky things I’m starting to love about this little country.