Pipe dreams & rocket stoves…

How many people have a pipe dream in which they make a new life for themselves in a sunny climate? Whilst many of us do, particularly in the depths of a British winter, few of us have the guts to make that pipe dream a reality…

How many people have a pipe dream in which they make a new life for themselves in a sunny climate? Whilst many of us do, particularly in the depths of a British winter, few of us have the guts to make that pipe dream a reality…

One person who has achieved just that is Simon Fenton, the former head of the award winning social enterprise StreetWise, who left a 9 to 5 job and career, to make a new life for himself.

After travelling to West Africa,  he found himself in Abene (in the Casamance region of Senegal). Now settled with his partner Khady and their two children, Gulliver (4) and Alfie (2), they run the flourishing guesthouse The Little Baobab which is now a feature of Abene life. With a steady stream of guests – many of them repeat, myself included, the business has expanded from nothing to being able to accommodate up to 16 guests. 

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Returning after two years, the traditional “terranga” (hospitality) welcome from Simon and Khady is enthusiastic. Over the obligatory bottle of Flag (one of the many Senagalise beers), I have the chance to chat to Simon  about his experiences of living as a Senagalise family, customs and life in general.

In the course of his time in Abene, as well as running the guesthouse, guiding tours into neighbouring Guinea Bissau and Guinea Conakry, Simon has found the time to write two books about life in Senegal as the “Accidental African”. They make for interesting tale of life as part of a Senagalise family. Far from being seen through rose tinted glasses, this a warts and all take on life in West Africa…the two books which are available through Eye Books (UK) or from Simon direct – “Squirting Milk at Chameleons” and, “Chasing Hornbills”.

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In the meanwhile, Alfie is running around causing mayhem, with his fingers in everything…including helping with the work of building a “rocket stove”.

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The rocket stove, whilst not a new concept, is a very simple means of increasing the efficiency of cooking. The stove works by increasing the heat output, by means of an L shaped pipe, which by causing an increase in the flow of air through the chimney, acts like a throttle…a bit like the way in which a blast furnace functions. This has the effect of both improving the efficiency of cooking, and also signicantly reducing the amount of fuel needed to a fraction of that normally used (charcoal).

Charcoal is the principal means of cooking for the majority of families in urban West Africa (and in many other parts of the world). In addition to improving the heat generation, it also has the effect of reducing the amount of smoke generated – a major problem in many countries and the cause of numerous respiratory complaints.

Whether Simon’s attempt to bring a more efficient means of cooking will be more widely adopted remains to be seen.

 

 

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…doing a Baldrick

In the immortal words of Baldrick, ‘I Have a Cunning Plan’ – an absolute guarantee that things will not go as planned.

In the immortal words of Baldrick (for non UK readers, a character from the TV sitcom “Blackadder”), ‘I Have a Cunning Plan’ – an absolute guarantee that things will not go as planned.

An early start at the Gare Routier (could have been earlier if I could manage to set the alarm), and breakfast on the hoof – hard boiled eggs in a roll, washed down with cafe Touba (a liquorice tasting sweet coffee).

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Having eaten half the roll and shared the rest with some kids, I finished the coffee. Being English and always taught not to litter, despite my travels, I instinctively look around for a litter bin – despite the sea of plastic that is common place in Africa…almost guiltily, I discretely drop it on a pile of rubbish. Strange mentality I know.

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So the plans goes something like this – I would make a one night stop over at Kaolack. Me and Kaolack have a love hate relationship following my last encounter when passing through there in 2014 enroute to Dakar. Then I described it like a Mad Max 3 town – solely on the basis of its Gare Routier, which to put it mildly, is absolute chaos and a fitting description in light of the film.

I decided that I would stay at the rated budget Auberge de Kaolack, which despite its budget tag, boasted a swimming pool. Anyway, arriving at Kaolack, and after a short scooter ride, I pitch up to what was actually a rather nice hotel – but crammed full of expats. Needless to say there was no room, nor at either of the 2 sister hotels in town.

Decision time…do I risk wasting another hour or so trying to find a room (the alternatives being distinctly unattractive), or make a run for The Gambia before the border closes?  Cutting my losses, I head to the Gare Routier, where a giant African kindly helps me find the right car, sort ticket, and water in short order. Happy to tip him 1000cfa.

Heading out, the driver gets side swiped by a truck, removing the protective grill from the rear light cluster. Bearing in mind that a sept places are beaten up old cars, with doors held on by string, barely road worthy (surely that’s a contradiction in terms), so what does it matter one further scratch?  Anyway, a heated exchange follows…police…money…more heated exchanges and after a mere 50 minutes we’re off, heading to the Senegal border.

After an uneventful 80 odd kms, arrive at the border, clear Senegalese formalities and “cross” into The Gambia. Immigration first…write out details in a ledger, usual question as to why you’re coming to The Gambia, occupation, etc etc. The guy then has the brass neck to ask what I had for him. Why??? So I told him I did have something for him…Advice. The advice being that he should help prevent bribery and corruption as it was bad for The Gambia. Perhaps not the wisest thing to say in the circumstances, but it suitably perplexed him and he waved me on my way to clear customs.

A lucky encounter with a local policeman who kindly gave (read for a fee) me a lift to the ferry terminal at Barra, and a chance to relax with a local beer Jul Brew. Well I say relaxed because this is The Gambia, home of the bumster/hustler/fixer…

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Losing My Religion 

Stripping out the rad by the roadside (having scrounged tools from passing drivers), the problem was all too obvious – in the UK it would be call the AA for a tow to the nearest garage, here there is no option but sort it. Luckily every good driver just happens to have a tube of FixIt in the tool box…

Well, it’s inevitable that if you travel by sept places, that you’ll break down at some point or another. In this case a loose bolt from cooling fan/water pump gouged a circle of holes in radiator, leading to total loss of coolant. Fearing the worse, I sat in the shade of a thorn bush whilst the driver got to work.

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Stripping out the rad by the roadside (having scrounged tools from passing drivers), the problem was all too obvious – in the UK it would be call the AA for a tow to the nearest garage, here there is no option but sort it. Luckily every good driver just happens to have a tube of FixIt in the tool box… a judicious application of araldite & sand, and the holes were fixed and we were under some 1 1/2 hours later. Apart from a pit stop after some kms to check all was well, we continued and arrivied into Touba some 2 hours late. Hats off to driver, all in a days work!

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The Mosque at Touba, is home to the Mouride order of the Sufi sect which was founded in 1887 by Cheikh Ahmadu Bamba Mbacke. The building of the Mosque was started in 1931, completing in 1967. It now comprises seven minarets which have been added over the years. The tallest minaret is know as Lamp Fall in honour of the founder Bamba – “Lamp Fall”being the name commonly seen adorning the back of cars and lorry’s.

Incidentally, they cannot exceed 7 minarets as this would be to compete with Mecca!

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Unfortunately at present, it is in the middle of a 5 year restoration project, which is replacing a lot of the marble and plaster work which was crumbling. Certainly the sample restoration work is exquisite and the finished Mosque will be something to see.

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Whilst not being able to enter the Mosque itself, I was free to wander around the exterior courtyards; luckily I had the services of the librarian Marabou Diabaye to take me around and show me the works. Part of the restoration includes replacing the white marble in the forecourts with travantine, as the marble gets too hot to walk on (needing to be bare footed to enter the Mosque).

Ignoring any question of religion (those who know me know my views), the Mosque is certainly a credit to the Muslim community, and no expense spared on the travantine and marble from Italy, lamps from Morrocco and Turkey, as well as the skills of the local tradesmen…