Story medicine


On Monday I returned from Colorado where I had sat at the feet of Dr Clarissa Pinkola Estes as she penetrated my soul with her story medicine. Her ‘Original Voice’ workshop took me to hell and back through Dante’s Inferno.

I discovered the stories I have made up that snag me in each Circle of Hell; what keeps me stuck and which virtue I could practise to regain my equilibrium.

I have my artist vision statement for the painting diploma I start in January; with joy I shall celebrate my witchy, bitchy, dangerous old woman and cronies – physically, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.

I know my work.  I will not talk it away.

I have the beginnings of a daily ritual to keep me conscious and growing as my her-story  foments and ferments.

I have found my tribe. Thank you, Dr E

Amen, amen, amen…….and a little woman!




Dream catching

A couple of days before our flight home I dreamed I was arrested at Banjul airport and thrown into the hotel, the infamous Mile 2 prison. My big mouth had got me into trouble: sounding off about the lunatic pronouncements of His paranoid Excellency Sheikh Professor Doctor blah blah, the ridiculous tourism master plan, FGM, The Gambia as an Islamic State, the collapsed economy, the cerebral palsied hidden in fear of bad juju and so on. I had been troubled by instructions to be careful over blogging and today can feel the constriction in my throat from unspoken feelings and observations.

I am feeling unbalanced and sad; the minute I crossed our home threshold, our 3 months volunteering seemed a dream: a busy, short dream. I have been trying to catch the tail of the dream since.

I have a different perspective to Chris, who seems angry, writing off the experience as an expensive waste of time and energy – I sense his powerful sense of justice has been disturbed. I have known for weeks that I was going to miss The Gambia: the night heat with its addictive red dust earth and lemon balm scent; warm, friendly smiles – white teeth in blue black ebony faces; colour; the constant chatter communicating nothing but ensuring loneliness is unknown; and being so very valued for our contribution even for things about which we knew nothing, like opening a restaurant!

We have worked hard and given much and I know this strange exotic dream will give more in return. We have learned much. I was depressed by some questionable business dealings I uncovered in preparing a strategic review for a not for profit organisation, but an evening with some highly educated white Gambians gave me a fresh perspective. Kamal and Mandy are second and third generation Lebanese immigrants, their forefathers settling at least 150 miles inland as required in this part of Africa. Over a family feast of tabouleh, roast cauliflower and tahini, hummus, Baba ganoush, grilled meats and fruit platters sprinkled with halva we discussed how Africa confronts, with the power of a full frontal assault, the sensitivities of our developed world view and values. Yet lift the veil and the UN (useless nits), IMF, major corporations and our own home grown non-doms play the same game of favour, self-preservation and lying by omission. It is easy to get aerated by recipients sweet shop mentality towards funding, lack of project sustainability, iniquitous distribution of wealth, illiteracy, food security, women’s empowerment and much more. For me, the question is what I am going to do about it?

I feel Kettlewell is too small right now, but maybe this is an over-reaction; I want to change the world, when I know the reality is we change ourselves first and our true impact is in being the change we want to see in the world.

‘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”.  

Janjanbureh jato

Still upcountry

Omelettes for breakfast: as thin as pancakes, delicious with finely chopped onion, pimento and tomato.

First stop CREN Basse – the original nutrition camp for malnourished babies and children, serving a population of 245,000 of which some 45,000 are 5 and under. As at Soma, the director explained that much malnutrition is little to do with lack of food security but poor education and a desire for western junk food; so much so that much of the family income from agriculture can be ‘blown’ on buying branded goods, stocks of which run out in a few months rather than processing the foods they grow to be stored and eaten throughout the year. The importance and intervention of the community health nurses in re-educating young mothers cannot be overstated. These nurses are employed by the Ministry of Health, their medicines, soaps and food supplements are supplied by UNICEF, the costs for transport to remote communities have to be funded by charities such as the Catalan ‘Nutrition without Borders’, who built the CREN facility and together with NaNa fund the two centres running costs – a truly multi-agency solution to a problem that a couple of generations ago was far less evident.

Whilst at CREN we were introduced to a colourful laughing group of older women: TBAs – Traditional Birthing Attendants, who were on a WHO funded education programme to train them to INCREASE institutional births. Apparently WHO have (to me, counter-intuitive) research that shows TBAs have no positive influence or effect on infant and maternal mortality rates. I could hardly speak through tears of anger: I feel sure this is an insane policy and one day new research will show the exact opposite. In the meantime these wonderful doulas listen with cynicism to their new training.

We stopped in Basse for Daouda to find a weaver of traditional cotton cloth in the market. He did not want us to join him, our presence would skyrocket the price for this now rare, expensive fabric, which looked not unlike a thick old fashioned tea towel! I stopped at a stall surrounded by a rowdy ‘queue’ of women, they were eagerly bartering for small black turd like tubers. One woman offered me a taste; I copied her picking sweet nutty flesh from the black skin, it is a rare delicacy: bush potato.

By lunchtime we were crossing over to Janjanbureh, formerly Georgetown, a British Fort built on an island in the River Gambia. The British ‘purchased’ this strategically positioned 13 X 3km island in 1823 from the Aku, a ‘tribe’ of returning slaves from the Caribbean and Americas. In the centre of the sleepy main street is the first Mission Church in sub-Saharan Africa. The island hosts the second largest prison in The Gambia; uniformed prisoners, looking like film extras in their navy and white prison pajamas and soft caps, ride around on tractors. Armitage, a British boarding school for the sons of tribal Chiefs is a shadow of its former glory and dominated by a Saudi funded 2 storey mosque. A creole house stands, just, home until a couple of years ago to a famous descendent of the Aku. This fine example of Creole architecture should be a museum and house the Kankurang, hunters, fairies and Kompo masquerades the NCAC (National Council of Arts and Culture) showed us in Banjul being prepared for the new concrete block museum down the road. A memorial to Mungo Park lies a few kilometres upstream.

We met the wonderful Janeba, Jane Smith, a retired teacher from Malvern Common, who almost single -handedly funds Just Act – a group of youngsters under the dynamic Omar, more usually called Jato (lion), who are setting up small businesses connected with tourism. JustAct are members of ASSET the organisation we are working for. Jato was one of the first people we met at ASSET bantaba; it was his passion and energy that persuaded us to stay and give of our best; many things we encountered almost had Chris on a plane home.

Together we ‘did’ Janjanbureh, including listening to fanciful stories about various buildings cruel slave history – all of which post-date the abolition of slavery. We were treated to Taki and his ‘talking drums’, dancing in the dusty back streets with some gyrating toddlers. We boarded the car ferry to cross to the north bank and visited some eco lodges. Women were harvesting rice; boys and girls on their way home from working in the community gardens after school gathered around the ‘toubabs’ and giggling asked our ‘nice names’.

We chatted into the night by the light of smiling white teeth – the power was not due to be switched on until 10pm, returning to sleep in the Social Security guest house alight with power at the other end of town, due to its proximity to the Governor’s House!

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.

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!