Yai-Fatou

A phone call from a fashion designer asking about taking a stall at Good Market; unusually this person wanted to see the set up and know the financials, so a few hours later we met. Chris was taken aback when Yai-Fatou politely but firmly refused to shake his hand: ‘I don’t shake hands with men’ she stated.

Having dealt with the details of the Market, I asked Yai-Fatou about her background? I knew she had exhibited at Fashion Weekend Gambia a couple of times, though we had missed her show this year and I wondered how she had got into fashion, especially as there are no art, design, tailoring courses nor institutions in The Gambia? Her response was surprising: she has a masters in Civil Engineering from University of Leeds, having first gained her BSc in mechanical engineering and business management in Canada. Yai-Fatou has worked for the UN, Gambian construction association, set up her own engineering consultancy and currently is working on a sea defence issue in the Senegambia area. In her spare time she creates fashion designs and oversees her shop and tailors in Bakoteh.

Yai-Fatou provided a different sense of why young Gambians lack self-esteem and their parents (and they) do not seem to value education. The University of The Gambia is only 10 years old, before it was established bright young people who wanted higher education had to find the ways and means of studying abroad; many never returned. Today’s home-grown graduates seldom find employment in the collapsed economy. Their families have paid over many years for an education that has failed to provide employment and an escape from poverty, so why bother?

Nowadays many youngsters don’t go to school or leave school early to support the family’s means of income generation or bum around on the beach, seeking easy dalasi off foolish rich toubabs – prostitution pays well. The laziest just hang around the compound. And that is the boys. For girls there is always work: preparing food in the compound can take half a day; gardening and farming the family’s food supply: rice, cassava, fruit and vegetables; rearing babies – their own, or others;  washing and cleaning. I despair how to get girls literate with a chance of empowerment?

Despite this, being with Yai-Fatou was inspirational: she is a clever, committed, engaging woman. A soul food meeting that left me feeling hopeful for The Gambia after a day when I felt hopeless, having discovered 3 different auditors had signed off accounts over a 5 year period reporting non-existent investments.

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White benachin

We spent a morning with the fabulous Ida Cham; dressing up in Gambian clothes and visiting Tanje fish market to buy the produce for our home cooking experience creating a celebration feast. Toubabs attired in full West African garb carrying neat little baskets created a certain amount of hilarity in the busy crush as we jostled to find the freshest fish at the best price, before pawing at vegetables to select the most succulent and firm. Ida paid about 10% of what I have paid when I think I’ve done really well negotiating!  And she introduced me to ingredients I had seen but had no idea about: dried sea snail and dried bush cherries.

We had agreed to cook a fish benachin recipe. ‘White or red?’ asked Ida. After explaining red simply meant the rice was coloured with tomato paste, we decided on a white benachin. The cooking process started at around 10am for the 1pm meal and involved Ida and her two assistants as well as three toubabs picking over sorrel leaves, pounding vegetables in the large pestle and mortar or calabash as instructed.

Some things took time; time to be taught wuri, a game I’ve seen played all over the place.  Deceptively simple, like backgammon, playing with an experienced opponent leaves one losing miserably fast!

We left stuffed to the pirogue gunwhales: feasting from a huge platter of white benachin served with sorrel sauce, hot chilli sauce and tamarind sauce and (the best bit) a bowl of the crusty scrapings from the cooking pot! Followed by fresh mandarins and oranges and washed down with mborr mborr: a tisane to aid digestion (required!)

Recipe for Ida’s white benachin

Stock:

  • Vegetable oil
  • Fish head/s
  • Dried sea snail – soaked to remove salt
  • Onions, garlic and fresh tomatoes pounded to a paste
  • Cassava

Cook for up to 90 minutes at a rolling boil.

Vegetables:

  • Bitter tomato
  • Aubergine
  • Pumpkin
  • Mooli
  • Sweet potato

Wash and cut into large chunks (about 4 inch cubes), cook in prepared stock. Remove, keep warm until final assembly of dish

Fish:

  • Catfish
  • Grouper
  • John Dory

Wash and cut into large chunks, cook for 10 minutes after vegetables have been removed from stock. When cooked, remove and keep warm. Remove sufficient stock to finish tamarind sauce

Rice:

  • Gambian rice
  • Carrot
  • Spring onion

Wash, steam and cook in remaining stock with diced carrot and finely chopped spring onion

Sorrel sauce :

Pick wild sorrel leaves, buds and green flowers from stems and discard stems.

Boil in water for 5 minutes. Drain and pulp in calabash pestle and mortar

Chilli sauce:

  • Sweet red chillies
  • Garlic

De seed red chillies and pound with fresh garlic. Cook in oil and let down with a small amount of water. Boil until a paste consistency

Tamarind sauce:

Fresh tamarind soaked in hot stock

Mborr mborr:

Boil bush tea leaves with lemongrass. Strain and keep warm. Serve as a digestif.

 

Place rice in a large platter and arrange cooked vegetables and fish on top.

Serve with sauces and a separate bowl of crunchy scrapings from the bottom of the rice stock pot.

Eat from the bowl with the right hand forming the rice around bits of vegetable and fish to make a rissole shape. Alternatively, provide spoons!

My Farm

Two months late we arrive for an afternoon at My Farm, a project funded by the Norwegian Kavli Trust and managed by the energetic effervescent Dutchwoman Kelly Smeets. My Farm is a learning environment from seed to food; growing moringa, fruit, vegetables and herbs; producing teas, jams, juices, oils, soap, honey and beeswax products; cooking, baking and processing on solar ovens, grills, driers and biogas burners. Growing organically, using aquaculture and solar powered water towers; raising pigs, chickens and geese and using their manure with farm and cooking waste to compost, mulch and create biogas.

Alhagie, a popular and respected young teacher, started our tour showing us the micro and keyhole gardens, classroom and IT suite where young children were learning to code using ‘SCRATCH’ an interactive self-learning tool. Isaac, an agriculture student who starts his BSc on 1st February, continued the tour explaining My Farm’s farming methods.

There is a converted fire engine to take their learning tools to schools. Courses run for farmers to learn new techniques to take back to their community and a new project teaches entrepreneurial skills: a hands on process of theory, practical product creation and selling in the marketplace.

Kelly is a graduate in Tropical Agriculture from Utrecht and has been in The Gambia since she first came on a 2 year VSO placement 17 years ago. She ran Gambia is Good – a food security project which died in part from neighbour jealousy over crop harvest and Presidential disfavour, before turning her talents to creating a productive organic garden from an overgrown mango orchard some 4 years ago. She has collected a tribe of adopted children and a gaggle of workers and volunteers, some more reliable and hard-working than others.

At times Kelly sinks into depression with the ceaseless demands on her personal resources to keep the project alive and sustainable, compounded by the cavalier attitude of parents and older students towards the value of education. For very many in The Gambia, education is not seen as a way out of poverty. Bright children will be asked to abandon school for more pressing demands in the compound, little interest is shown in their school work and achievements. It is life-affirming to find a passionate, articulate and dedicated young Gambian here and staying here – the brain drain leaches much talent away; it makes the struggle for outsiders to support the country seem worthwhile,  through so much that can be depressing.

Confreries

Muslim Sufi brotherhoods or confreries are a major economic and political force in Senegal. And I wonder if they contribute to the very different attitudes to work between people of the same tribes and families in The Gambia? I have asked many people why young Gambians are idle and supported by their family compound when their brothers in Senegal are expected to work and contribute to the economy of their compound? Answers have laid the blame at the English education system; a better hand over by the French administration at independence to a shrug of incomprehension.

The confreries follow the teachings of marabouts who are deeply revered by local people and wield great power. Perhaps the most famous brotherhood is the Mouride brotherhood: followers of Cheikh Amadou Bamba, a 19th century humble marabout based in Touba. He was followed by Cheikh Ibra Fall from whom a different branch emerged – the Baye Fall or Lamp Fall, who believe in the righteousness of hard labour. Today’s disciples are easily recognised wearing their patchwork clothing with heavy leather amulets and sporting long dreadlocks.

The Mourides today are Senegal’s major economic force and control the country’s groundnut production and processing. The Grand Magal, an annual pilgrimage to Touba, attracts thousands from across the region. I could not get a taxi from Banjul one day in November, the vans and taxis had crossed the river to ferry the faithful to Senegal….where perhaps their passengers enjoyed the famous ‘Touba coffee’ too?

La lutte

Demba, regional wresting champion in the 1990s and chef at our campement in Toubakouta, invited us to an evening wrestling bout in the village. The previous evening we had joined a party of Kansas City students at a toubab specially staged bout a few kilometres distant. It was a long evening of caterwauling calls between two crones amplified with screeching feedback accompanied by crashing arrhythmic drumming, lit by two overhead bulbs, seated inescapably on dusty VIP plastic chairs until well after a heavy dew had sodden everything. So I was rather surprised to find myself readily accepting an invitation to another night of fighting.

The arena was specially created: a large dust square ringed by wooden benches and enclosed with plastic sacking cloth sufficiently high to prevent free peeking. The ticket office was an horizontal rip in the perimeter screen through which cfa and tickets exchanged hands. The entrance flap was manned: no ticket, no entry. There were 4 energy saving light bulbs to light the proceedings: 100% more light than the previous match.

For the first hour there were more contestants with their juju men, patrons and seconds than spectators. Lines were drawn in the sand, holes dug with sticks or cow horn, potions drunk and bodies doused with magical fluids and sand before the strutting, dancing, circling, trance like warm up. The acrid tang of testorone fuelled sweat is so strong it can be tasted. Suddenly there was a break in the hypnotic griots chanting and drumming and the first bouts were announced. Competitors stripped to their padded loincloths and tied and retied their grigri, leather straps, around their waist, arms and legs. Their seconds and juju men stood overseeing their preparations as the referees called them to position, two bouts at a time.

Diola wrestling disallows punches and kicks, confining contestants to a contest of agility speed and strength in getting their opponents shoulders to the ground. Competitors crouch and bend at the waist, gorilla like facing each other: resting their weight on one set of knuckles whilst the other hand attempts to distract their opponent: throwing sand, patting the head, waving at peripheral vision. After a lot of waving and feints, there is a sudden attack and the wrestling begins.

It was a knockout competition over three nights in three categories: juniors, junior seniors and seniors; to move through the categories requires skill and there is no differentiation by weight or height. These young men are beautiful. Much honour (and a sack of rice) crown the winners. Shame and wailing worthy of premier league footballers for the losers as they roll and prostrate themselves in the sand. And there are manners: one young poser, Pascal, was warned by his patron and elder brother he would never be a champion if he continued to shame his losing opponents at the end of a bout; unnecessarily and rudely, he had sat astride the loser having thrown him

Delta Sine Saloum

Across the infamous Barra ferry (see FCO advice about its dangers) to the North Bank of The Gambia and a further 19km to one of the more porous border crossings I have encountered. There was a loud hissing as we waited outside the Gambian immigration post: Dad had committed a chargeable offence – taking a photo in this sensitive area. Although it featured donkey carts or caleche as they are known 20 metres away in Senegal, his camera was taken and the photo deleted. Suitably admonished we crossed into Senegal’s Delta Sine Saloum.

Toubakouta is in the heart of the Bamboung area of the delta, a renowned wetlands biosphere where a conservation project run by the villagers has resulted in the creeks restocking with fish. A UNESCO heritage site for the cultural remains on some of the islands, for many it is an ornithological paradise.

In the late afternoon we walked down to the shore. A pirogue, generously caulked with plastic bags and carrying no life jackets, sputtered into life and we cruised out into the mangroves. A monkey passed us swimming to the mainland. The inept skipper had a collision in a narrow creek which skimmed the wooden trim off the other boat; dad and Chris narrowly missed a severe skinning as the plank sheared off into our leaking boat.

We motored on to the Isle de Coquilles built up on layers upon layers of shells rising to a 20 foot cliff edge on the inshore side. Baobab tower in the centre of the island, a sure sign of previous habitation. This extraordinary upside down tree is called pain de seins (?) in Senegal (monkey bread), now it’s fruits are known to be a human superfood rich in vitamin C and minerals. I stepped down inside the island’s holy baobab to receive a blessing from the spirit of the tree, as men and women have done for centuries, praying under my breath there would be no hidden snakes. A flutter of moths rose up around me.

As dusk began to fall we puttered across the wide expanse of tidal water to an area where birds roost. A skein of Pelicans skimmed overhead, the odd member trying to land to the noisy objection of the heron, egret, and kingfishers lodged already on a guano covered mangrove ‘island’. The sun sank like an orange orb over the still creek at the end of the daylight hours.

And what a day! In the morning we had visited Fathala a safari park where the local Giant Derby Elland has been the subject of a successful Czech funded conservation project. Since then animals have been imported into this ‘ zoo’; for several thousand cfa one can walk with lions – 5 youngsters imported as cubs and acclimatised to tourists (at least for the time being). The safari jeep gave us an African massage as we bumped around the trails to find warthog, zebra, giraffe and a rhino. Apart from the retiring giraffe none of the animals were camera shy : I stepped down from my perch for a photo opportunity with the rhino!

Our day ended at la lutte. The subject of another story.

Night noise

The canopy of the night sky seems closer: a billion star light tears in the heavenly midnight blue. Is there a difference that affects acoustics also in the tropics? It seems so.

Last night, for the first time, we noticed a strange but regular ebb and flow: the sea! Crashing and rolling on the golden sands at least a mile from our compound. It’s mesmeric rhythm soothing my night time waking.

Nothing keeps me awake as long as the Spitfire thrumming of a mosquito on its victory roll before silently plunging and biting my anatomy. I cannot sleep whilst one is alive in the bedroom.

The blackness of the night sound is animated by the whirring cicadas whilst everything else sleeps, or so it seems until there is a strange clattering over the roof. A huge lizard? Rats? I am not brave enough to investigate.

The muezzin calls before dawn, even before the splendid rooster who lives over the wall with young Modou’s extended family. A baby brother or sister mewls for its mother’s breast. The donkey ensures anyone sleeping is awakened by its wheezy intake and braying exhalations.

As dawn breaks the weaver birds fight over the crusts we have left out and the laughing doves giggle. It quietens and I sleep again till 7am and the strange and beautiful quiet of the morning. Within an hour the cacophony of Gambian life will be at full throttle until the exhausting midday sun quiets the noisiest nosiness of these smiling people- leaving mad dogs and Englishman out alone.