The aftermath…

Ngange kindly collected us from our hotel at 08:30 as promised and we made our way to NDMA headquarters. We spoke briefly with the executive director before making our way to the KMC office where we managed to upload yesterday’s blog and discuss our plans for the day.
Ngange was keen for us to meet an NGO, as we had requested, so he facilitated a meeting with Lamin Sanyang from the Fresh Start Foundation. He was a very busy man; phone constantly ringing with enquiries. He explained that the Fresh Start Foundation worked with the community, focussing on education, agriculture and vulnerable kids. He was very passionate about his work but we didn’t have the time to explore this further, we wanted to stay and talk to him some more but we had to go to another meeting.

We had seen the initial stages of Ngange’s work following an incident, so we wanted to see the position and any progress of the affected families some weeks later. Ngange had kindly arranged for us to visit two families effected by fire in the last few months. We drove through the the most densely populated town in The Gambia, Kanifing Municipality, seeing places that tourists were unlikely to visit. It was humbling and inspiring to see people living in conditions deemed poor by western standards, but every smile and wave was reciprocated enthusiastically.

The area we ended up in was called Latrikunda Sabiji, there has been a huge spike in fire incidents in 2017-2018, Ngange has dealt with the aftermath personally. At the first compound a breast feeding lady told us how the first property in the block had set on fire and affected two more leaving ten people to share one small building. The NDMA were able to supply the basics; food and corrugated sheets for roofing that still hadn’t been attached. The food had run out and the husband was out working hard to provide more for his family, it seems they can’t have it all; food and rebuild their compound, so the timescale for completion willstretch far into the future. We looked through the property, the fire had been fierce, it had ripped through, taking roof and plaster down in its path. She showed us were they all slept; three rooms, two mattresses and two couches for ten people, we are constantly surprised by the locals resilience to everything they come across. We left and moved onto the next persons compound that was no more than half a mile away. This lady was now the head of the household, her husband had passed years before. The fire had made them homeless and relying on neighbours and family. We thought that ten was a lot of people to find beds for but this lady had to relocate more, we think there were eighteen in her family. The NDMA had yet again done their upmost with the initial basic resources they had, they await more resources and Ngange was pushing for this as quickly as he could. The lady couldn’t work and her property was a shell, family displaced and very little money for food, she seemed desperate, we asked how she thinks she would cope, she said she is hoping God will intervene. Whatever your beliefs in this world, keep faith, and maybe intervention will come in the form of agencies such as the NDMA and the fire service. We had to leave this lady so that Ngange could process his letter to the agencies that can push for more resources, so that five other families currently in the same position can progress themselves back to their original status.

After returning to our hotel a little worn out from seeing people that had lost everything we decided to get some dinner and a few drinks. We joined a Facebook group called “The Gambia Tourism Forum.” We shared this blog and so far it has been well received, so we’d like to say thank you and recommend them as a good source of information for anyone considering a visit to this amazing and friendly part of West Africa. 😀

Just rescue the beer!

Rich and I, may need counselling after the job we witnessed today. Ngange was good enough to pick us up to go to his HQ and then onto his office when a call came from Samba… “beer bottling factory on fire.” I almost jumped out of the moving car, ran up the road and changed into some fire gear😂.


We pulled up to the factory and were confronted with a very busy scene. We passed through the factory’s security with Ngange and were met by Samba. He walked us down to the scene of operations and explained what had happened so far. As we walked into the factory, firefighters were busy turning over the burnt debris, further into the building, the roof had already fallen in and the fire was still well alight, efforts were being made to deal with it. Factory workers were helping remove burnt debris, some lifting it and others using wheel barrows. Outside there was a huge store of empty bottles on pallets, stored in cardboard and wrapped in plastic to the left of the building. Paul and I were both concerned about the possibility of fire spread. Samba pointed out to us that the bottles were glass and he too was concerned but after assessment the only hose line was required inside and he was correct. We left the guys to finish the job, they would be there for hours, having to shuttle water to and from the hydrant that was some distance from the job.

We stopped at the disaster management HQ for a brief chat with Mr Dahaba the Executive Director, a great character and knowledgeable man within his field. We chatted about our trip so far and showed him our blog, then onto general work he was undertaking, and what we would do with his department.

After our brief chat we returned to the scene of the house fire from Saturday, this was so Ngange could talk to the homeowner, unfortunately he wasn’t there so a meeting was arranged for later. We left for St David’s School as this place had left its mark on us; one of the poorest areas of Gambia, with some of the happiest kids. We wanted to ask if we could help in any way so waited for the headmaster to arrive, no kids today as they were off for Easter. He told us they had started to build a new school not far away so we walked to have a look, the framework is up but they are struggling to finish it off. We asked them to get quotes to begin work again, we emphasised that we aren’t rich by any means but we will endeavour to help, bear in mind how cheap building equipment is here. Our initial idea is to help with clothing and school supplies, then if the quotes are cheap enough see if we can raise the funds. One of the biggest dangers is electrical fires, but they don’t have electric which is essential to make the school better, this would be expensive for locals but affordable in western terms, think of the price of a stag do weekend and the school electrics could be up and running. We await the quote before we decide what we are going to do, this may come across as cheesy but the kids and school have struck a chord with us.

After visiting the school we headed to Ngange’s office at Kanifing Municipal Council (KMC) and discussed various aspects of his work within the NDMA he provided us with some photos from the last time Ebo Town flooded and showed us various documents and statistics which were very interesting (to disaster management students anyway). We were waiting for various people to turn up, a resident from the fire we attended on Saturday for a needs assessment and a member of a local Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) who was potentially going to help with some supplies for the members of the community effected by the fire. While waiting we were introduced to Ngange’s office staff, all volunteers, and then a member of the public health office popped in to chat. We talked about the diseases he deals with in general and after a disaster, flooding being the worst to bring about illnesses. He is part of a preparedness programme that involves informing the community of disaster risks and vaccinations against water borne disease. Part of his job is to visit schools and community groups to educate and help them be more resilient, this is working in many ways for the community, as flood related illness, injury and deaths are declining.

We were then invited to speak with the vice chair of the interim committee, Maria Dacosta, these are the people who will run the admin side of the municipality until the newly voted councillors take over. She was a very open person who explained the politics of the upcoming election to us and why the committee was necessary. She had studied and resided in Reading to complete a Masters degree before returning to The Gambia to eventually work as a community development officer. Her main aim was to share development responsibilities bility’s with the communities and make them self sufficient in a sustainable way, making them more resilient in the process and in a country low on resources this is necessary.
Today our experience was framed from a different perspective, it was very interesting and helped us form a more holistic picture.
Paul & Rich.

Day tripping…

Destinations

Bakau Fire Station
Bakau Sea Rescue Station
Brufut Sea Rescue Station
Tanji Sea Rescue Station
Sanyang Sea Rescue Station
Gunjur Sea Rescue Station
Brikana Fire Station
Samba’s house
Paul’s house

Today was spent driving down the coastal road to visit all the boat rescue stations, The Gambian waters are renowned for being rough, full of fishing boats and tourists to be swallowed up. Samba and Paul picked us up and had dressed casually, we wished we had known it was a dress down day, anything not to wear the uniform in this heat. We had a whistle stop tour of Bakau fire station, where we were given the usual smiling welcome with a salute. There were piles of breathing apparatus sets in storage which gave us hope that the guys won’t have to walk into a fire without protection, but the compressor was broken. Leaving here we headed past lots of embassies on the left, looking clean, expensive and well guarded, on our right were houses of corrugated metal. We turned down one of many many sandy, rocky roads that bumped us around the 4×4, passing cattle, cats and goats everywhere, the chickens are hard as nails and literally played chicken with us. Down a concrete ramp we passed hand made wooden boats that were very impressive, they were brightly coloured fishing vessels that any carpenter would be proud of. Stepping into the heat there was still no sun as the dust from the Sahara winds have covered us. The smell of fish hit you first, then the flies buzzing about. We were being offered fish from all angles, and saluted by a guy who used to be a fireman, then asked for sweets by dusty, cute kids, alas, we had none. We entered a building that looked out to sea; they would have been amazing views on a sunny day. Once more we were met with salutes and handshakes by the lady in charge. She showed us the equipment they use, yet again, it was all basic but they have the initiative to overcome and the sea experience to know what to do. The boat they have to save people from rough seas were maybe 8ft long and 3ft wide and made of plastic. The outboard motor was separate and left in the building, this was the same at all stations, they drag the boat to water and someone carries the motor and off to sea they go.

The theme continued for most of the day, bumpy dusty tracks, chickens, donkeys & goats. The smell of fish cooking on open fires was very inviting and we were offered food and drink everywhere we visited. Samba had packed some grilled chicken that his daughter had been very kind to prepare for us along with an ice bucket full of cold drinks. We enjoyed these together during our stay at Sanyang, the chicken was amazing. We were given more food at our next stop and being that the smell of the smoked fish had been so inviting all day we couldn’t turn it down. The meal, called Chu, was lovely and probably the freshest fish anyone is likely to have, we took a spoon each and dived in; communal eating is the norm throughout Gambia. Stuffed, we were invited by the ground commander, as he proudly announced himself, to the beach. We passed the same scene as at all the coastal areas; market stalls, gutted fish, handmade boats and nets lined up ready for the next day. We got to the sea and a long line of people were in convoy carrying baskets of fish on their heads from a boat to the new processing plant, it looked like hard work running in water, on sand and with a decent weight on your head in high humidity, not sure it’s for me.

Leaving these guys we headed back up the coast, again lots of animals on the road, I (Paul) saw wild monkeys, Rich didn’t 😂. I think we were flagging by this time, Samba was aware of this so we stopped at another fire station, one that he had worked at many years ago, to meet the guys and stretch our legs. Refreshed and back on the road we were privileged that Samba asked us to meet his family. He took lots of twists and turns down back street short cuts, we found ourselves in Lamin, a bustling town with markets and garages everywhere. Pulling through the gates, it was a squeeze, we met Samba’s lovely family; dad, mum, wife, kids, nieces and nephews. The usual family setup here is that they live in separate houses but they are joined in the same compound, these properties are built by family members and passed through generations. Samba explains his parents looked after him and he will look after them in old age, this will carry on for decades to come, but all in the same compound and houses. Paul invites us to his home to meet his family, the area looks very similar just a bit more rural, we chat to his neighbours who offer us cashew juice but warn us it is potent, we stuck to beer. All of Paul’s family come to say hello, as with Sambas family, they are all living next door.

After a cracking day, which, although fast paced was less work related we are both exhausted. So back at our hotel with a cold one and a poor internet connection we will sign off of the evening. Pictures from today will be added to this entry when the internet improves.

Paul & Rich out!

From training to the real deal…

Today’s plan was a simple one, we arranged for a slightly shorter day and the only item on the agenda was to watch the guys at Serekunda Fire Station carry out their training. We thought they’d do some ladder drills and few other basics but nothing with water, as this is a precious resource here. Samba collected us from our digs, as promised, and we traveled toward Serekunda making one visit to Kotu Fire station en-route. The guys at this station were as welcoming as ever and after a short chat and our farewells we headed off again. Paul and I both thought that they were a good bunch and that it was a shame we couldn’t have stayed longer, however, little did we know that we would all be reunited again very soon and under very different circumstances.
We had only been traveling 20 minutes when the call came in, no loud priority radio message, no station sounders, just a mobile phone call and Samba’s words, “there is a very serious fire in Kombo Saint Mary will we respond?” Paul and I are here to learn and observe but before that we are firefighters, there was no discussion we both said yes immediately. Of course we weren’t there to help, just to observe and this proved to be a very difficult task indeed.

We could tell from a distance that it was a going job; smoke billowed, even with the Saharan sand storm going on it was obvious which was the fire. Driving down the back streets in a 4×4 was a difficult task due to terrain, crowds and traffic. On arrival people were screaming and crying and the crowd of onlookers grew by the second. We fought our way through, following samba, to an alleyway rammed with people and smoke, the lads were jetting water into the buildings from the outside while neighbours walked inside to grab furniture and belongings. We both stood watching and biting our tongues while the guys worked with the equipment they had and struggled due to what they didn’t have. They had to walk in and out of a job that engulfed three houses without breathing apparatus (BA). The constant African heat has perished the rubber around the masks and they have all broken. We had the appetite to help but it is not our place, holding back is hard to do especially when you see things that could help them in a small way achieve their goal. Despite the lack of resources and locals hindering their progress; arguing with each other, moving hoses as well as ordering firefighters around, they had a good stop on the job. A “stop” in fire services terms means that they have surrounded and extinguished the fire. The crowd grew even more during operations and we were getting some sideway glances, men piled into an unaffected house to remove property for the family. We stood there thinking what great community spirt and it was, until one guy was accused of stealing, a fight kicked off and they dragged him to the main road, we feared he would become the victim of “mob justice” but luckily Samba took control of the situation and had the police take care of the accused and got him away from the mob. Although stealing from somebody in this manner is intolerable, we are always mindful of the poverty of some people here. That said the majority of people were trying to help and some help was productive whilst some was a hinderance.




 

Once the fire was extinguished three homes were uninhabitable and a fourth had been evacuated. One resident was due to fly to the USA today but his passport had perished. Samba once again came to this mans aid and called the embassy and flight company, it appears this guy is on a flight for Monday, Samba and his crews have both gone above and beyond as always.
Paul and I both admit the effects we felt today and two things stand out, the lack of breathing apparatus and the energy it took to hold ourselves back from digging in with the crews. The hardest part of that was stopping ourselves pulling back firefighters from committing without BA. All we could do was give them our very sincere praise on our return to the station and provide them with some condensed milk (good for their throats after the smoke) and some biscuits. However they didn’t have time to receive these from us directly as they were called straight out to another “serious fire” so we left them with Samba. On our way back to the hotel we returned to the scene of the fire to talk to Ngange, he wanted to show us his role following these kind of jobs. He provided the basic food requirements and assistance in re-housing where possible. The next stage is to carry out an assessment to get the household more help from NGO’s and government. His job is technically difficult as there are tenants, owners and members of the public involved and all have their own needs and no one to supply them, insurance doesn’t really exist for houses in The Gambia. We then made our way home emotionally exhausted.
There is much to tell of todays events, a lot of which will be discussed with various party’s but is too lengthy to describe here and maybe not proper to do so.



It’s all about the kids…


Ebo town community health centre.

After being collected by Ngange from our hotel and taken to meet with Samba at the fire station we all made our way to Ebo Town. This town is a friendly and welcoming suburb that is prone to domestic fires and floods. We were introduced to the town councillor, his assistant and two residents who have both experienced domestic fires in their homes as well as flooding. After the usual warm Gambian welcome, we joined them in prayer before commencing our conversations. The members of the community affected by the fires both described what had happened to their homes. In both situations, the families were out during the day when the fires started so no one was hurt. The local community called the local fire station to request assistance, they also started to extinguish the properties before the fire engine arrived. Samba’s fire crews worked hard to put the rest of the fire out and helped the occupiers with anything else they needed. The residents spoke very highly of the crews who turned up, they believe they went above and beyond in their job; not just the fire but the humanitarian side as well. Once the fire was out, the NDMA assisted with an initial package of food and basic building materials as well as a needs assessment to be dealt with in the near future. The fire crews conducted a fire investigation and determined that both jobs were electrical faults and recommended breakers be fitted and updating of wiring. As residents are responsible for sourcing materials and installing their own electrical installations after the electrical companies meter, the temptation to buy cheap cables is very high. Another problem is presented by the way the fire service receives fire calls. Every fire station has its own phone number and many communities don’t know or remember the numbers and often opt to run to the fire stations to raise the alarm, despite the sustained efforts by the fire service to teach the communities what they should do. Breaking embedded norms is difficult. Solutions to many of the communities problems were running through both our minds, most were very practical but would incur a cost which is a huge stumbling block especially when sustainability is concerned. Then we discussed the notion of education from a young age and how this would eventually filter throughout the community and with any luck become a new norm. This project was already being implemented by the fire service and we were shown many photos of their work in schools and other establishments. Only two days in and the efforts of Avon Fire Service, The Gambian Fire Chief and the crews over the years are obvious to see if this continues then any small deficiencies that may exist will soon be a thing of the past.

 

St David’s Nursery School.

We left the health centre behind and drove down a bumpy dirt track, we got out into the humid day and met with the squeals of kids playing. Walking into a dusty playground no bigger than a terraced house garden, the kids stopped and stared at the strangers…for about 30 seconds before “chase” began again. We were surrounded by inquisitive eyes and snotty noses, and greeted by the caretaker and teacher of the school. The building was the size of a two bedroom flat and packed full of long tables and chairs in 3 small rooms. This would have been a little depressing if it wasn’t for the happiness shown on the faces of the kids, they beamed constantly after they were used to us. We walked around the school and saw that yet again the Gambian people have amazing initiative; working with minimal resources to achieve great results. We chatted to the kids about school, the fire service and football, the football won hands down. The caretaker and teacher mentioned that they like to look for potential in the children even at the young ages that these kids were and this included future football stars.



 

Ngange’s Family Home in Brikama.

After our emotional visit to the school (missing my daughter & Paul his nieces and nephews) we took a 45min drive across the Gambia to one of our host’s house to have a meal and meet his lovely family. Our new friend Ngange welcomed us into his home as he had when he welcomed us to his country and his place of work. We have nothing but praise for Ngange despite the fact he is an avid Manchester United fan. After allowing us to relax in his lounge for a while why he went to the mosque for Friday prayers, he introduced us to his lovely family who simply reinforced our views of the Gambian people and their welcoming hospitality. He has a lovely family and his two-year-old daughter Ida was the apple of his eye and very, very cute. Ngange’s sisters prepared our dinner, a Senegalese fish dish called Benachin, of rice, fish and veg which we devoured. The sense of family is apparent as Ngange’s father had bought the plot of land in 1995 and passed it on to his future generations, Ngange and his brother had built other buildings thus sustaining their family residence. We finished the meal and wandered into the humidity to see the rest of the family eating together outside, we said our thanks and goodbyes, shaking hand with all the kids again on the way out.

Gambia Vs Central African Republic (CAR). 

I enjoy football but I am not an avid fan like Paul and Ngange. That said, I cannot deny how the electric atmosphere created by the people and enhanced by the tribal band with their African drums, percussion and harmonies was absolutely captivating. The first half was not a great game of football, lots of effort but not many efforts on goal, but I can’t compare this to the premiership. Ngange did say that one of the Gambian players had played for Swansea, albeit not for long. The band kept up spirits during the half that really needed a spark, one never came. The second was totally different, some really good touches and passing between The Gambia team saw some good chances and even hitting the post. One great piece of play down the left wing saw a player being fouled in the box and a penalty was given, enough arguments ensued to send the players off if it was the prem, but the ball was placed. The kick wasn’t great and the keeper saved it but the rebound was smashed home and the home crowd, we included, jumped up and cheered. The rest of the half was the same by both teams until a speculative shot somehow went through the Gambian keeper and into the net…silence. The game declined to foul, injury, arguments and subs which was good fun for the neutral, the game ended as a 1-1 draw and everyone piled out of one gate into the streets. Sirens screamed passed us and this was the 1st lady being whisked away, the crowds were waving and cheering, she was followed by several armed guards and vehicles. Outside the chaos ensued as it would for any football match in the world, as people were trying to get home, although I’ve never seen arguments and purposefully ramming of other cars after a match.


Another day and another blog, Rich & Paul, Masters of Disasters! 😉

Welcome, welcome, welcome!

Ok, so travelling complete and without too many problems. Security at Manchester’s Airport was busy and thorough, thus, it took some time to pass through. We even had a spot check by a very serious member of border control. In the scheme of things this is a good thing, however, when we arrived in the smiling coast of Africa it was proven that you can be thorough with a smile and a welcome. The first person we spoke to was a very militant looking guard, wearing a beret and carrying a hand gun. He asked us similar questions as his British equivalent but had a cheery way about him…welcome to The Gambia 😀

First Impressions –

It was around 22:00 and we were very tired, Paul had worked through the night and I had been traveling since 04:00 to meet Paul at Runcorn train station. We collected our bags and passed through passport control to be met by Ngange (NDMA) & Samba (Gambia Fire & Rescue) who had very kindly been waiting 30 minutes to welcome us in true Gambian style. They had arranged to use their own time outside of their working hours to collect us from the airport.

We drove through the dark streets to eventually come across a dirt track to the Palm Beach Hotel. We checked in with the help of Ngange and Samba. After making plans to meet them the next morning, we headed to the basic, but nice room. At £1 for a beer what’s a couple of students to do but go to the bar, we sat until gone midnight before finally off to bed.

Starting Work-

We woke in the morning at 07:00 after a much needed sleep and headed for breakfast. Ngange arrived on time, as promised and signalled to us at our table that he was here. We went to meet him outside the hotel and were greeted by the distinctive sounds of African birds and a beautiful view of where the Kotu stream meets the Atlantic Ocean.

Our first stop was in at the Gambian Fire & Rescue services headquarters in Banjul. We had a very inspiring meeting with the services Chief Fire Officer. Both Paul & I were very impressed with his charismatic, holistic, common sense based and can do attitude. We were further impressed to learn that he had served forty years in the fire service and was clearly as enthusiastic today as he was as an officer cadet forty years ago. His views on investing in his workforce, whom he sees as Gambia’s people, was awe inspiring. We got the sense he had no plans to slow down as he has an ongoing project to drill a bore hole in rural Gambia, allowing access to water for fires and for locals to have fresh water to drink and grow crops.

We had a informal introduction to many people who worked at Churchill’s town fire station, all would come to attention then shake our hands. We met heads of fire safety, communications, HR and I.T. before being shown new buildings that were in progress as the new workshops. We returned to a more formal introduction with the Firefighters on duty that day; blue watch, yet another salute before Samba was telling them why we were visiting the country. He is a very open and friendly guy even though he is the boss, there is obvious respect from his crew. Once the formalities were over with we mingled around the sparse fire engine, we were both shocked at how little equipment they had available even though they attend the same kind of incidents we do in England, our respect for them was growing by the minute. They were telling us how they had to adapt to the limited resources, despite Avon fire service being very generous over the years, some of the initiative they had to use made us wince at times as it was something we couldn’t do in our own services. There is obvious pride in what they do for a living (so there should be) and also grateful of the help they have been given by their partners in the UK, Avon fire service have done a great job in assisting them this far.


Their interest in the way we worked was shown by them enthusiasticly surrounding us and asking lots of questions, we were asking them more by the end of the session. The main disaster they are affected by is flooding, it even floods in the fire station to the extent they can’t move the pumps, there is work being done to try to act against this but it takes educating communities and finance which is a large speed bump on the road to progression.

We left the guys to go to prayer and for their lunch while Rich and I sweated in the office, chatting about the day so far and what the coming days had to offer.

Cheers, Paul & Rich, Masters of Disasters having a beer!

It began in Gambia

Our trip to The Gambia – The Smiling Coast of West Africa.

This is our very first blog post on our new blog site www.daepam.com. This site was created to document anything Disaster and Emergency related throughout our studies and our professional lives. A place to share our experiences and thoughts.

As human life is thought to have started on the African continent, what better way for our blog to start its journey than a trip to The Gambia in Africa. This opportunity was presented to us by Marion MacLellan one of our lecturers from Coventry University and arranged by my partner in crime and fellow Firefighter Paul Cowin.

So after various injections, malaria tablets, packing and gift sourcing, we are ready to leave to gain some valuable and much-appreciated experience. Paul & I will be working with Gambia’s Fire Service and National Disaster Management Agency to whom we are very grateful for allowing us to visit and look forward to meeting. Only three trains, a car journey, a six and half hour flight and a twenty-minute taxi ride to go…. we are both very excited!

Although Paul and myself serve in two different UK fire services, we would like to acknowledge David Hutchings and the GAFSIP for their support for our visit.

Paul and I are both serving firefighters in the UK and are currently studying towards our MSc in Disaster & Emergency Planning & Management at Coventry University. For anybody considering furthering their career or a career change, we can both highly recommend both this course and Coventry University.

Richard Clark GIFireE