Beads, beautiful beads

On Friday evening we went to the International Trade Fair at the football stadium.  Several people had said it was a ‘must’: a glimpse of the ‘real’ West Africa, unlike so much of the sanitised ‘smiling coast’ – smoothed, primped (and pimped) for tourists.  I expected a dusty, animalic, extravagant cacophany  – a sensual assault; I was disappointed.  There was an auditory assault, from competing stands music, and the biggest treat were stalls from Ghana and Mali. I bought some beautiful black and white clay beads from Djenne in Mali.

Clay beads date back to 1000 BC. In Ghana and Mali, clay beads were used for trade; other countries used them in prayer strands, as amulets, or to adorn the poor. West African clay beads play a role in traditional rites and ceremonies such as circumcision, coming of age, marriage and burial; mainly worn as pendants and bracelets, they are a visual language that speaks of the beliefs, status, family, life experiences and accomplishments of the wearer.

African trade beads originated from Europe with the coming of the Portuguese in the 15th century. Glass working had not been discovered in Africa and the locals were in awe of the exquisite glass beads the European traders had to offer; Venetian millefiori can be found still on antique bead stalls in Gambia. Used in bartering slaves, they were to later earn the name ’slave beads’ or ‘aggry’ – the chief’s currency in exchange for slaves, gold, ivory and palm oil.

I am thinking of sharing my stunning beads with the important people in my life IF I can bear to give them away!




I had promised myself that I would be happy if ONE project was sustained beyond our volunteering period.  Increasingly that looked a forlorn hope, until last night’s ASSET Masquerade and Fanal Festival.

The idea was serendipitous; we had spotted a fanal in the dusty, decaying National Museum in Banjul at the end of November. At a subsequent meeting with the Director of the National Centre for Arts and Culture (I cannot recall why I was there), Baba explained the fanal custom and dug out some archive material for me.  Chris and I were hooked; the replica fanal in the museum was a small scale model – real fanals are big lantern-lit constructions made from bamboo and filigree-cut coloured paper, traditionally based on boats, attended by costumed ‘sailors’ (the bearers) a ‘captain’ (who conducts the dancing fanal as it swoops at shoulder height over imaginary seas) and entertainers.  Fanals are built by clubs and paraded to their sponsors as a fund-raiser at the end of the year.  Masquerades appear on the streets at the same time; costumed tribal traditions: hunting, fairies, mythical monsters with their drumming, singing entourage.

I wrote a concept paper and Chris and I hawked it around the GTB (Tourist Board) and potential sponsors. Everyone loved the idea and despite having less than a month to go a budget was agreed and we were set loose to make it happen.  And it did. Last night. Despite enormous personal frustration and lack of effort by many in positions of power who had agreed to lend their support.  (Regular readers will be aware of my increasing depression at working practises here.)

Everyone who attended the Festival thought it spectacular. Locals say they saw cultural performances last night that they had never before seen in the Gambia.  And the GTB committed to making this an annual festival.  Tick.

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.


We discovered fanals at the National Museum in Banjul where there is a beautiful miniature example of a ‘boat fanal’.  Fanals are lantern lit floats built by local boys and men’s community groups that parade around their club sponsors at the end of year; a thank you for patronage and fund-raiser for the new year.  This fabulous spectacle: lanterns beaming through the dark night, borne by costumed ‘sailors’ for the traditional boat fanals and accompanied by drumming, dancing and entertainment, is largely unknown and unseen by tourists.  A competition, hosted by Banjul City Council, is seldom attended by West Coast tourists – tour operators advising their clients against wandering far from their accommodation after dark.  Tourism in the city itself, is limited with the lack of hotel accommodation nowadays.  And last years BCC fanal competition was cancelled at the last minute due to an attempted coup!

A meeting with the Director General of NCAC (National Council for Arts and Culture) about revitalising ‘Guaranteed Gambian’ arts and craft works and a chance aside enquiring about fanals and their cultural tradition, has turned into creating a fanal festival in Senegambia, the heart of the ‘smiling coast’s’ tourist trade, this New Year’s Eve.

Chris and I met yesterday with an energetic NCAC executive and today we are each swinging into action.


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.