River witches

Allegedly, there are witches in the River Gambia.

I had heard of the mythical river dwelling monster – the Ninky Nanka; sighting it’s horn emerging from the depths augurs death.  A tourist trail up country had been proposed; it did not float.

The mighty river is called ‘virgin’ for its under-utilisation for transport and tourism, even for irrigation.  Day trip boats used to ply up river as far as Basse, but no longer. Peanuts were transported down river on barges, but no longer.  Rainy season flood water fills the rice-fields, but there is no system of dykes and ditches to stop the Sahelian drift.  Planned bridges to replace antiquated dangerous ferry-crossings are halted by unknown forces. Perhaps it is fear of the river witches?  Some would argue it is this fear that has kept the few pockets of virgin rain forest on the river banks intact.

Not so many years ago, witches were brought from the villages to the Kombos, incarcerated and their devilry exorcised with hallucinogenic potions before their release.  I have been told that in the Middle Ages I would have been a candidate for the ducking stool or stake.  Safe at home, I feel proud of my witchy ways, longing to become a dangerous old woman; perhaps I need to be more conservative here?



Yesterday we enjoyed an hysterical, totally non-PC jaw with two African Americans who live here.

Funny, wise women who have lived across the continent and find themselves settled here for better or for worse.

One described her view of the people of The Gambia as descendants of the ‘leavings’ from the slave trade; slaves were selected  – only the strongest, fittest, brightest were shipped. She is a woman of great faith and committed to enabling adult female literacy.  She describes how the women stand a little taller when they can read.

Illiteracy is crippling: intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.  No wonder self-esteem and pride seem missing. There seems to be an underlying sense of inferiority and a child-like desire to be looked after, which for some becomes a right.

That day her pastor preached from the pulpit: ‘eat from the King’s table and you will forever be a servant’.

Sums up a lot perfectly to me.

Five star

This will be my third attempt to post my moaning Minnie views. I wonder if my blog is being monitored, but then think: who am I to flatter myself that my views would be of any interest to the authorities? I doubt they are of much interest to family and friends – the ramblings of a known nutcase.

‘Five star. Five star’ call the taxi boys at Turntable as they seek to fill seats in the battered yellow -green old Mercs that ply the Demba Doo Highway up and down to Ghana Town, opposite the Sheraton.

We have visited a few 5 star establishments here and though I am sure they have all the amenities required of a 5 star rating, they are disappointing.  At one, the ‘espresso’ was possibly the worst cup of instant coffee served to date over 8 weeks of powder. Imagine my excitement when I spied an Italian machine, with frother!  There is one in the GTHI (hospitality training school) too, but I am not sure anyone in The Gambia has barista training to work or teach how to make proper coffee.  My ‘double espresso’ arrived in two cups – there was not a cup large enough for two shots; which is not surprising when a ‘shot’ is the size of a mug.

A planned Christmas ‘treat’ was to enjoy a meal at another 5 star hotel.  We walked through lush tropical gardens past the spa, gym and various pools to the beach bar restaurant overlooking the Atlantic rollers. Grubbily attired waiters with stained fraying trousers crowded around to serve us, failing to communicate with each other over our order.  The ‘tempura’ battered fish was battered alright – with a sledgehammer paste; the turmeric dusted calamari had been cut from a giant squid. The bill appeared with an unannounced heft of VAT.

In our travels to other climes, a very occasional 5 star visit has provided an oasis of calm luxury where we have escaped to feast and be pampered, emerging refreshed and ready to tackle the craziness of the outside world.

Next time I fancy a ‘five star’ break here I will remind myself I would do better to take the ‘ five star’ taxi and walk back to Brufut along the deserted beach.

Culture and integration

I watched Sheikh Omar Jallow being interviewed by Gambia TV on these issues in his capacity as a representative of the National Centre for Arts and Culture. It was an interesting coda to our long discussion earlier in the day when I had been asking him about how I could see beneath the surface and begin to understand what I observe?

SOJ was fascinating on the history of the various tribes and why Wolof is the lingua Franca rather than Mandinka, the majority tribe. The Wolof came from Goree to Bathurst (Banjul) with the British when they traded strategic strongholds with the French. Being closer to the (new) colonial masters and in administrative positions of relative power, their tongue took precedence.

Ultimately the way each of us chooses to live is borne of our culture: the over culture, under culture, traditions, ‘tribal’ allegiances, family stories, myths and legends with which we grow up and go about our daily lives. We each are the one and only: no one before was like us and no one to come will be like us; so each of us carries the responsibility to BE ourselves and the best we can be. I am a baby boomer – one of the socially upwardly mobile generation; one of the first in the family to be university educated; travelling abroad from my teens; an early retired ‘spend the kids inheritance’ Home Counties yahoo moved north for a new life. Now I am volunteering in a country that I don’t begin to understand and I am finding it hard to ‘walk alongside’; I find myself increasingly critical and depressed. I am ‘finger pointing’, something I furiously discourage at home (pointing one figure has three fingers pointing straight back at self); taboo here.

The blame game seems a national sport. Wrestling is promoted by Destination Gambia as the national sport, though it seems football has taken its place. I asked SOJ how we could get to see a wrestling match? Apparently we have just missed the President’s Challenge, sadly not advertised to toubabs. No advertising is needed to see the blame game. It cripples action, creating layers of approvals to avoid individual responsibility and cover one’s backside, leaving the top jobs susceptible to firing on a whim. Who would want to rise too high?

Self-esteem is low; ‘sorry, sorry’ they say when I hurt myself accidentally, as if it were their fault. Self-confidence too, but with only 183 passes across the country this year in school leavers maths and English that is hardly surprising. It took me a while to twig that the reason taxi drivers had a problem stopping where I asked is because I was navigating by road signs they could not read; the long wait for a food bill is a result of painful addition and re- addition, checking on a mobile phone to make sure and getting the sum wrong still.

Money pours into the country from major international agencies to individuals wanting to do SOMETHING to alleviate poverty; too seldom requiring sustainable planning beyond the funding stream. Unsurprisingly, initiatives fizzle out. I fear a culture is being bred of feeding from the trough, and snouting out the next meal rather than empowering self-feeding. I feel anger at the waste.

Waste: point the finger? Three at me, yes: i am wasteful; extravagant; a heavy consumer. And I find it hard to accept the wasted money donated by well meaning hard working people to a lazy (oops judgemental), laid back local population. I am angry at the wasted spend on large NGO administration, travel, vehicles and accommodation: what example does that set? I am angry at the wasted resources, the brilliant reports sitting in filing cabinets, the hours time money and energy poured into projects that die when the funders or first world enablers leave. I see the social capital of the family compound. I understand the necessity to hold the family close – they are the social security system. I can see that a different pace of life is a VERY GOOD THING. I know I can learn much from these multi-lingual warm peaceful tolerant smiling people. And I think we are so mistaken in the way we ‘support’ them and fund them. Teach a man to fish. Teach science, maths, IT, business skills, creativity, self esteem and self confidence, empower, give a voice to the voiceless but let’s think hard really hard about funding where there is no built in sustainability.

‘To thine own self be true’

An evening of the bard’s playful wisdom in the Ebunjan Theatre, where a mixed ethnicity British company performed to an equally mixed audience: peacock men; be-wigged, plaited, braided, extra-ordinarily coiffed women wrapped in fantastic fabrics; a mother with her two young daughters in matching Camilla Batmangelidh outfits; an elegant woman towering 6’7″ without heels; more soberly attired US and British Embassy staff; the ever present NGOs driving large gas-guzzling 4x4s; small children with books to keep them quiet; ex-pats and the two ‘toubabs’ – Chris and me.

The Hamlet Globe to Globe tour opened at Shakespeare’s Globe on 23 April 2014, the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. This theatrical adventure will see Hamlet tour to every single country on earth over 2 years.  The company of 16 extraordinary men and women are travelling and performing in a huge range of unique and atmospheric venues. The Ebunjan is certainly both: its pink washed exterior and eco-brick domed-ceiling auditorium is ventilated with wrought iron ‘windows’  and filled with a late-arriving noisy rabble!

At first the locals usual disdain for time was extremely irritating to me; the audience ambled in, chatting animatedly, dragging extra chairs in for the duration of the first half of the performance. A TV/video camera and sound boom decided to plonk themselves in the main aisle near the stage, obscuring the view for the majority of the audience, before one of the theatre staff realised this was inappropriate and moved them somewhere less obtrusive.

For one night only, Hamlet came to The Gambia, but without the majority of the company’s props and costumes, lost in transit from Angola. The Gambia was the 155th country to date.  By the end of the lively accessible professional performance, the audience were on their feet applauding with delight.  I wondered whether the evening had been more like an Elizabethan performance than anything at The Globe today?

The bard’s words struck me forcibly: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”.  

Be the change

A day and night interviewing two European eco-lodge owners; both multi-award winners, each with very different start points in developing their eco-lodges and eco-tourism offer.  One borne of practicality, one of passion. Both providing good food and accommodation in verdant, bird-filled paradises.

The practical man had invaluable advice for success in Africa from an old hand: be good, be honest, be true.  Setting up a facility on a green field site where there was absolutely no power, water or waste disposal forced him down the ‘green’ route.  And David has done it well, very well.  Hot, hot water from photo-voltaics; cold drinks from solar powered fridges; a fresh water swimming pool limpid and clean from gravity fed filtration through Senegalese black rock (and an assiduous pool man) and compost loos that fertilise the permaculture herb and vegetable garden.  An ex-financial man, he believes in paying his staff fairly and charging his customers appropriately – no cut-price offers based on keeping his staff on ‘average earnings’ for The Gambia. Bravo.

The passionate woman (and her husband) live ‘be the change’.  Geri and Maurice run a beautiful lodge acknowledged worldwide for its eco-design credentials and eco-tourism offer; built by their own eco-construction business. They host students and trainers on the EDE (eco-design education) Programme, certified by Gaia Education.  They do more than employ their village neighbours in running the lodge and providing services, crafts etc; they actively consult with and support the KART community committee.  In 2002, 2 years before they acquired the land, they started a conversation with the community; it was 2006/7 before they were ready to open.  The conversation has not stopped: Geri is the current chair of KART.  Geri and Maurice have put their hearts and souls into The Gambia in so many ways. Utter respect.

Crazy days

Yesterday my understanding of working in The Gambia was changed entirely. From frustration at GMT (Gambia Maybe Time) and seemingly somnolent business attitudes I experienced an entirely different working style.  Together with Sheikh Omar from NCAC (culture department), Chris and I walked into some of Gambia’s biggest enterprises, unannounced and secured funding and support for a carnival event at New Year!

It looks as if our idea for a Masquerade and Fanal Festival is actually going to happen, in 2 weeks time!