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.
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.
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!
Yesterday was depressing as I discovered the stark reality of getting things done here in The Gambia: nothing, NO THING would happen without Chris and me on the projects we are supporting. We are launching a restaurant on Friday and a farmers market on Sunday. Walking alongside locals to enable and empower is exhausting: the minute I walk away having answered questions and encouraged initiative, either zip action is taken or everything goes back to what it was beforehand! As one German lady commented in an encounter on a Sunday morning walk along an almost deserted beach: no wonder their President has become increasingly dictatorial over time.
Yesterday I phoned around to get the stall holders for the Sunday ‘Good Market’…..it’s a bit difficult to have a market with nothing on sale. The list of possible stall holders had few contact names or details, so that was a challenging starting point. I managed to get farm fresh eggs, shrimps, artisan breads, organic fruit and veg, honey and bee products, jams, peanut butter, medicinal herbs, soaps and natural beauty products. A chef from an upmarket hotel is going to do ‘a taste of the real Gambia’ tapas dishes and local juices, coolers and smoothies. However, the entertainment HAD been organised, so everyone involved is looking forward to having a good time! Today, I have been to two local radio stations to get publicity sorted…one radio station agreed to do a talk show and interview a selection of the stall holders as some of their personal stories are amazing. For example, The Gambia imports 95% of its eggs and the 5% produced locally is often dodgy: the layers fed on cheap fish food and bio security ignored. The egg guy I was introduced to by a restauranteur and guy from the US started selling fresh eggs from his bicycle when he was 15. Six years later he has 5000 layers, full bio security and is expanding fast unable to satisfy demand. Meeting young entrepreneurs like this keeps me going… It is such a pleasure to support them in their passion.