Life at the end of the road

March 7, 2009

Satellite problems

Filed under: daily doings — lifeattheendoftheroad @ 9:41 pm

I’m really sorry guys but that miracle of modern  technology that is satellite broadband has gone wonky on me. I’ve been trying to start this post for over an hour now and as soon as I try and insert a link or picture it goes pear shaped and I have to shut down and re log in which for some reason is taking an age to do. Which is a disaster because it’s been a pretty exciting couple of days.

Friday 6th March

The day started fine enough and after the normal bout of feeding I headed south on the school run, taking my trailer and brush cutter with me to cut some rushes at the side of the road on the way back. It’s an easy way to cut bedding as there’s some lovely thick clumps at the side of the road with the added bonus that when the lambs arrive with their suicidal tendancies  in a month or so they’ll be a little easier to spot! I left the trailer a couple of miles from the house and continued on to Raasay Primary. Once the boy was dumped at the gates I went to do an hours caravan dismantling near the Raasay village hall, managing to finish removing all the aluminium off the sides and come away with 5 bags of insulation. I know insulation is cheap but there’s no B&Q on Raasay and I’d rather see it in my loft than rotting in a landfill!

The Hairy bikers

Feeling very pleased with myself ( I’m easily pleased ) I went to meet the ferry at 9:45 as Jonny McMaster, Roger Giller and a BBC Camera man were coming over on a very important mission

and I just tried to post a photo there and lost it again!!!!!!!! Jonny aka HRH Oonyack and Roger aka Thunder are two of the riders that will be making the 5000 mile journey from ‘Calum’s road’ on Raasay to the soon to be new ‘Calum’s road’ in the Gambia

Well the link seemed to work! Around 20 bikers are doing the trip for charity but most importantly they are funding it entirely out of their own pockets so all money raised will go directly to the charity.

A little background courtesy of  Roger Hutchinson and the WHFP


On a summer morning four months ago I found myself 150 miles up the Gambia river in west Africa, waiting for a congress of local headmen to begin.
Courtly, elegant men in flowing robes and flat white skull caps, they travelled to the meeting over rough country roads, on foot, by bicycle and in donkey carts. They entered the compound of the district chief and sat down beneath a thatched rectangular shelter. When a quorum of some twenty headmen had been reached the chief brought the meeting to order.
They had gathered to discuss a road: an important but presently impassable road which runs between where we were seated in the village of Kudang and the market town and administrative centre of Kuntaur 12 miles away.
Before the discussion started I handed round a photograph of an elderly Raasay crofter pushing a wheelbarrow along a track through a rocky landscape some 20 years ago. The headmen already knew this man’s story but had never before seen his face.
They examined the photograph with intense care and respect – and with politely concealed surprise.  Their experiences of northern Europeans were of colonial administrators and other relatively affluent professional types. They did not encompass hard-working outdoorsmen and subsistence farmers such as Calum MacLeod of Raasay, and such as themselves.
Then they spoke of how the absence of a negotiable road between Kudang and Kuntaur is strangling their communities.
“We built that road ourselves,” said one man, “through forced labour when the British were here. But it has gradually fallen apart and now we cannot use it. We have done work on it, we have tried to repair it, but we cannot do enough. Our young people are leaving. We need it to survive. We must have this road. Not having a road is killing the farmer here in Niamina district.”
I was under that thatched roof in rural Gambia because a couple of years ago I wrote a book about Calum MacLeod, the crofter in the photograph, who built a road connecting his village to the outside world after Inverness County Council had for 40 years refused to do it themselves.
There are strong Scottish connections with The Gambia. The first president of the post-colonial independent republic, Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara, who served from 1970 to 1994, was a graduate of the Veterinary Faculty of Glasgow University.
Animal welfare helped to confirm a modern link between Scotland and The Gambia. Back in 1973 Ian MacIntyre and Max Murray, two young professors (with strong Highland connections) from President Dawda Kairaba Jawara’s alma mater, visited The Gambia on a livestock development programme. Murray and MacIntyre met and befriended an expatriate British family which contained two young sisters with a highly developed interest in animal care and conservation. Their names were Stella and Heather Brewer.
They never lost touch. Max Murray is now the Emeritus Professor of Veterinary Medicine at Glasgow University and a trustee of the Horse and Donkey Trust which is based at the village of Sambel Kunda in the Niamina district of upper Gambia – where I sat in on the headmens’ congress four months ago. This project helps to care for the working animals of Gambian smallholders. “A healthy draught animal can improve the income of local farmers by up to five times,” says Murray. The Horse and Donkey Trust, which is managed by Heather Brewer Armstrong, is in its turn an offshoot of the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Trust which was established on three nearby islands in the River Gambia by the late Dr Stella Brewer Marsden, OBE, and is still run by her widower David Marsden.
These trusts do not only care for chimps and donkeys. They provide rare jobs as well as amenities in the Niamina district. “We are there to help the community as well as to improve the lives of the animals,” says Heather Armstrong.
They were therefore unable to ignore the fact that no matter what anybody, African or European, did in the scattered rural townships between Kudang and Kuntaur, the resident population was perennially blighted by the fact that during the dry season its lifeline road link to market and to secondary school was no more than the eroded vestige of a colonial track, and during the wet season its bedding had subsided so much that it was covered by several feet of water.
“We are cut off,” says a headman at the meeting in Kudang. “Not only must we sell what we can at the big weekly market in Kuntaur, we also depend on that market to supply us with horses, donkeys, farming implements and even rice. If we cannot get there it is a disaster for us.”
He can’t say that often enough. The Niamina district is, thanks to the River Gambia meandering back on itself in a giant looping body-swerve, effectively an inland peninsula. This peninsula is eight miles wide and twelve miles long. It contains forty villages and up to 20,000 people. They have always looked down the rutted road towards the market town, the administrative and business and health and educational centre of Kuntaur, but for half of the year they can now hardly reach the place.
Three miles from its destination, the track disappears into a series of deep and stagnant pools. The overworked culverts are mostly beyond repair. The wheel tracks have become small lagoons. In the face of such dramatic erosion the piecemeal efforts of local men and women to maintain it have become futile. This is no longer a road requiring maintenance; it is a road which needs to be completely replaced.
Stella Marsden died early in 2008 regretting that she had not done more to help her neighbours in the Niamina district to rebuild their connection to the rest of The Gambia.
“I wanted to build the road because Stella asked me to,” says her sister Heather Armstrong at the Horse and Donkey Trust in Sambel Kunda.  “One of her last requests before her death was to make sure that the road was built.
“I felt a little daunted by the task, although I obviously promised her that I would. I was discussing it with our trustee Max Murray and he told me about Calum’s road in Raasay. I read your book and that moved me. I told Calum MacLeod’s story to some of the village headmen.
“They totally identified with Calum and were inspired by his response to official indifference. They sincerely believe that with a little help from the outside, the communities involved can sort out their own road. Labour they can provide, but some materials will need to be purchased. And we agreed to call the completed new road to Kuntaur ‘Calum’s Road in The Gambia’.”
Like Calum MacLeod and his parents and neighbours in north Raasay in the 20th century, the people of Niamina have for many years petitioned their council and government for a new road. But it has not been delivered and it will not be delivered by central or local government.
“That road is the most serious problem in our entire region,” says Maku Sisay. He should know. Maku Sisay was born and bred in the Niamina district. He is now chairman of Janjanbureh Area Council, which administers much of central Gambia from a dingy cluster of former colonial buildings on an island in mid-river.
“That road is our main concern,” repeats Maku Sisay. “It should have been done years ago. But we don’t have the resources. Neither central government nor ourselves has the money to spend on it. There was a scheme to improve it in 2003 but it was suspended for lack of funds.
“Janjanbureh Area Council serves some very poor people,” says Maku Sisay. “It is difficult to collect taxes from many of them, as they have no money. We have 200,000 constituents and the whole council must serve them from a resource base of £25,000 a year.”
Twenty-five thousand pounds does not go very far, even in The Gambia. Janjanbureh Area Council has only one motorised vehicle at its disposal. The rest of its transport fleet is composed of donkey carts.
Highland Regional Council, which now has responsibility for Calum MacLeod’s road in Raasay, also has 200,000 constituents scattered across a large rural area, but it serves them from an annual budget of £653,000,000 and a fleet of 850 vehicles.
A fundraising effort is now underway throughout Scotland and the rest of the UK to raise money for ‘Calum’s Road in The Gambia’. There have been online appeals, ceilidhs, collections and dinner-dances. Last week Johnny McMaster of Waternish in Skye announced his plan for a sponsored group motorbike ride from here to there in 12 months’ time.
Those are all wonderful initiatives, and may eventually succeed in accomplishing the object.
But those figures haunt me. Our council has £653,000,000 to spend on us each year. Theirs has £25,000.
Sixty years ago, after the Second World War, twinning programmes between different towns and regions of Europe helped to re-unite our stricken continent. That is why Inverness is twinned with Augsburg and St Valery-en-Caux.
But those wounds are now healed. Europe is at peace and re-united. The post-war twinning programme, comfortable as it may be, is now redundant. How much more imaginative, how much more constructive, how much more rewarding in the 21st century if we could look elsewhere. If Highland Council could look south, say, to a rural regional council which is almost its twin in size and demographics but is impoverished to a degree that we can only imagine.
The children of Raasay Primary School are in correspondence with the children of Sambel Kunda. “Why,” one of the Raasay pupils said to me recently, “why can’t we just send them stuff for their road?”
I didn’t have an answer.

[You can learn more about and contribute to Calum’s Road in The Gambia on:]

He also sent me some excellent photo’s which I’ll post as soon as I sort out my internet connection.

Back to Friday

Anyway Jonny and Roger came over to judge the designs drawn by the pupils of the Raasay primary for a logo for their trip.


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