Private performance

Yesterday we went to the capital, Banjul, formerly Bathurst; built on an isthmus in the mighty Gambia River. The overcrowded taxi van wobbled and lurched through wide streets lined with two storey Creole type buildings to ‘ferry terminus’: the bustling river crossing point for the north bank and Senegal.

We had been directed to ‘Emporioum’ for dress fabrics. Well named, an exotic enchantment of colour and cloth where we got lost for an hour squeezing between thousands of rolls of fabric. The waxed cotton prints I was looking for were in a separate boutique franchise, and the stall holder absent.  The Indian owners directed us to another part of the city to find the man’s original shop and although being more than half way across town it was less than 10 minutes walk. Or it would have been if we had not been hustled into every other wholesale fabric shop lining the wharf.  Eventually I bought some fabric, later to discover I had overpaid, by quite some amount. It is OK though as I bought 12 metres of colourful waxed cotton for £20.

We braved the Albert Market and wound through the souk like stinking stalls to find the craft market and one particular stall holder: Lamin Kuyateh, a griot and Kora player. A member of one of the few families who keep the Senegambia oral tradition alive, Lamin has played at WOMAD. This gentle man gave us a private recital for more than an hour; playing a traditional welcome song, his own composition about the evils of money and a rite of passage song. He explained that at 14-16 years young men are taken to bush school for a month, where they are circumcised and undergo their transition to manhood. The song included the myth of the Ninky- hanky a one horned monster that lives in the river; a sighting portents death. This polydactyled musician made my day!



I am so cheesed off ‘working alongside’ a lunatic egomaniac in a ‘partner’ organisation that I wish I could take advantage of 95%+ of The Gambia’s populations dedication to prayer today.  I suppose I could think about doing a ‘POETS’ (piss off early tomorrow’s Saturday)?  But it is not in my nature: when I commit, I commit.

Tomorrow, Chris and I will venture out before it gets too hot for ‘toubabs’ and get in a van to Banjul.  We need to visit the craft market, National Museum and Emporium to inform another part of our volunteering projects.  I am fascinated to see more of Gambia’s culture, arts and crafts, so am not unhappy about using our limited ‘time off’ for this trip. (We will be working hard again on Sunday at the second Good Market: Gambia’s first farmers market, so that’s taken care of this weekend.)

This morning we got a green tourist taxi almost all the way from our bungalow to the office: result!  The young man had woken up late and was grateful for the equivalent of a shared taxi fare to get him to his workplace. So we travelled in style: a different style from yesterdays’ van from Brufut to Turntable. Turntable is a particular roundabout where taxis and vans stop/start and sector fares begin/end at 8 dalasi, about 12 pence for 2-3 miles.  Another destination is ‘Traffic Light’, so called because it is the site of the first traffic lights in The Gambia.  So back to yesterday: a goat was balanced on the roof of the crammed van;  it skittered and clattered and slid all over the roof as our earphone-wearing, rasta-hatted driver avoided potholes, bumped off the road to drop off and pick up fares and braked screechingly to avoid other crazed road users. I can confirm goats really do have a remarkable sense of balance!

I need to find my balance.  This last week has rocked my usual equanimity.


Shellac whispers

Yesterday I had a pedicure, a very good pedicure.  And I learned a lot: where to shop: for fabric, meat, groceries, the best fruit and veg stalls.  That what I paid on Tanjeh beach for a large red snapper, fresh off the fishing pirogue, was a good price; I was surprised! That it is OK to respond to ‘toubab‘: Wolof for ‘white’; with ‘netku-nuel‘ – black person.  Of the deep problems persuading female elders to stop FGM, despite the President’s Monday night announcement of the prohibition of FGM in The Gambia.  How different tribes practice FGM differently; the Fula, the traditional farming tribe, sewing up their young women to be cut open on their wedding night.  Of the celebrations and cheers for the fearless, tireless, once vilified, now vindicated, FGM campaigners. And of whispered conversations – because walls have ears.  How, that if there had been someone unknown in the salon, we would not have enjoyed such easy chatter.

Yesterday I heard a sad story about why our Saturday trip south to celebrate a community new business project has been cancelled: there have been disturbances over protecting the environment from sand mining; arrests and imprisonment.

Yesterday we met a Brit who has lived most of his life in Africa as a mercenary, now a ‘security consultant’ who would not state why he was in The Gambia. Possibly a bullet-scarred Walter Mitty, but I think not.

Yesterday the electrician was detained by paramilitary police on his way to fix the restaurant lighting.

Yesterday I was told to be careful about what I blog – a frisson of fear ran up my spine; an unusual feeling for me – a woman who considers herself ‘brave’, except around reptiles, and rarely thinks about issues of personal safety.

Last night I slept uneasily: more to do with re-calibrating my understanding of myself than anything else.  As a teenager I dreamed of being a heroine; thinking I could have been an Odette if born a generation earlier – even parachuting to see if I had the ‘cojones’!

This morning I realise how easy it is for me to be ‘brave’ in Britain: to find the courage to tell my truth.  Blessings upon blessings to every journalist, blogger, and person who posts on social media at considerable risk to themselves in order to speak their truth in less liberal countries.


Toubab means ‘white’.

The children in Brufut village, where we live now, find us fascinating – a relative rarity and with smiling surprise come up to us and gently say ‘toubab’.

On the Senegambia central tourist strip, full of hustling ‘bumsters’ trying to cadge money, a wife/husband and passport to another life, ‘toubab’ is more derogatory: a target for manipulation and extortion.

Reminding the shared taxi and taxi van drivers that we want ‘Gambian’ prices rather than ‘toubab’ prices is greeted by guffaws of acknowledging laughter. Those who want to offer a ‘town taxi’, exclusive use of their taxi at a hiked price, melt away with a shrug, whilst the majority squeeze up to fit the two (large) ‘toubabs’ into their already overcrowded vehicles.

I don’t know why bumping along storm damaged, pot-holed red dirt roads in dangerous vans with crowds of locals makes me smile, but it does!

My wide smile is pale in comparison with the infectious smile of white teeth in blue-black faces.


Oct 12, 2015 5:00 PM (GMT+1:00)

Our first day off in 3 weeks and we have found a garden oasis full of playful iridescent humming birds in a boutique hotel around the corner from our new home in Brufut.

I have left Isa, our maid and ‘wife’ of the Gambian owner, cleaning out the filthy kitchen cupboards and washing everything in the kitchen drawers.  Hopefully, Lamin Jobe, her ‘husband’, once married to an alcoholic English expat (now deceased) will turn up with the promised dongles (for Internet) and fix the ceiling fan switch so I can cook without sweat pouring into my eyes in the infernal heat.

GMT (which is the local time) means Gambia Maybe Time and we experienced that in spades yesterday with Good Market, the first farmers market in The Gambia. Chris and I made the market happen from a standing start (comatose would be more accurate), in one week.

The market was due to start at noon, by which time there were two stalls set up: a Dutch woman running a Norwegian NGO and a 21 year old local egg entrepreneur, about whom I could write much – so impressive.  Another Dutch woman who has a highly successful business making beauty products from local ingredients rocked up at 12.30, followed by a traditional healer with medicinal herbs. A fascinating man, from whom Chris has purchased all sorts of green things to make infusions for complaints ranging from high blood pressure to impotence!  The women from the National Association of Food Producers allegedly ‘got lost’ and arrived at 2pm. 8 stall holders failed to show, only one of whom made any form of apology: the commonplace and totally irritating ‘unavoidable circumstances’.

Most attendees were the ‘organising committee’ who had organised bugger all, but who turned out as the the media were in force and they could have their moment on TV. The chair put the press briefing in the middle of the market buying area stopping anyone from getting to a stall for over an hour whilst he puffed and huffed for the cameras. I was invited to take part and probably yawned to camera for most of the briefing. At least I was able to say ‘thank you’ to the stall holders who had trusted me and come.

I conducted some research amongst the few consumers, mainly white expats, who were looking for organic fresh fruit and veg. Organic certification does not exist here and it is hard to find farmers who are not using globally banned pesticides.  Sadly, the chair of the organising committee had stopped me approaching recommended fresh fruit and veg suppliers saying  it is too early in the growing season: which is total bollocks.  This morning he phoned, knowing it is our one day off, asking me who I had been recommended as he thinks we need some fresh fruit and veg stalls! This is the man whom I laid into a week ago for doing absolutely nothing with the Swedish funding he had received in April this year for this farmers market and other activities.

The Gambians turned out in force for the (free) Good Market entertainment: due to start at 4pm, actual start time 5.30pm…the performers all had to to be fed (free) before they would start. And this despite the menu being priced for Gambians with a selection of 4 tasty local dishes for £1. The expats who ate could not believe the pricing.

Ah well, we will learn – and get it better sorted for next Sunday hopefully.

We are going bird watching later today – organised for 2.30 GMT, let’s see what time we start!

Ladies who lunch.

Today I was invited to lunch, a ‘ladies lunch’; normally this would not be ‘my thing’, but I knew the topic was a little different from what I consider the usual: bitching and moaning about husbands/men; it was FGM.

Mandy, chef proprietor of an art cafe that Chris and I haunt regularly for its cool vibe, air con and ginger cooler, had invited me to join her and Bomzy, who works at the US Embassy.  It was a lunch of good food, great company and mind-blowing conversation.

FGM in The Gambia was a ‘right of passage: both adolescent males and females were circumcised in a ritual as part of their transition into adulthood.  Some speculate that this was a remnant of an Ancient Egyptian or Nubian practice where the clitoris was considered male and needed to be excised from the female body.  In later times, religion has been cited as the raison d’etre; in Sierra Leone it is a Christian tribe who promulgate it; in The Gambia some use Islam to justify the practice whilst other Imams say there is no such instruction in the Qu’ran or Hadiz and that the prophet’s daughter was never cut.

According to doctors, 80% of women in The Gambia have undergone FGM, a practice on women BY women.  Increasingly men are speaking out against the practice – it is not something they want for their wives or daughters.  Indeed an Imam at a recent conference on the subject spoke with tears streaming down his face about how his precious daughter was cut against his wishes when he was travelling out of the country. Nowadays, young couples who do not wish to have their daughters mutilated have to keep a watchful eye on their babies and toddlers against an auntie or grandmother secreting the child away: for no other reason than custom.

Women seldom talk about FGM; of their pain, sickness, side effects and least of all – their frustrated sexual passions.  Infidelity in marriage by women is common; promiscuity rife, with high levels of STIs; there is speculation that this could be women desperately seeking the satisfaction they crave through trying yet another partner; unwilling to accept that this is denied them surgically.

In a society with tremendous social capital, where family and neighbours support each other, malodorous older women are tragically outcast.

Thursday’s lessons!

I am constantly amazed by Gambians ability to switch between languages, lots of languages.  English is the official language, but Wollof is the lingua franca.  Many can speak sufficient French to communicate with their Senegalese neighbours.  And most seem to switch between at least two of the (7) tribal languages with ease.  I just about remember to greet new people with a Salaam Malekum.

Greetings are very important and take quite some time.  Passing by someone in the street calls for at least: hello, how are you?  And I’m not talking about the bumsters, who can be a plague and a pest with their clever banter and way of wheedling information to entrap and manipulate as they gaily, smilingly walk alongside for quite some distance.  Nor the sly beggars asking for a ‘loan’ or ‘credit’ because they’ve lost their job/wife’s sick/had a baby…the permutations are endless!  The real beggars: clearly sick and old; are given small change by many locals.  Respect is a powerful concept in The Gambia.

As was explained to me: greetings are the prelude to ANY topic and have to be properly conducted – even if you are bearing news that someone’s mother or father is sick or has passed away.  Gradually and cleverly the topic will be raised, say through asking about the other person’s family, then they might recall that a parent is ill…and so on.

This morning I was asked to give a talk to some students who had (been) volunteered to help with distributing flyers for our current two projects: the Good Market – Gambia’s first farmers market (this Sunday) and a restaurant opening (tomorrow).  It took an hour before I/we got to the point!