Community Visit

On Saturday we left Bakau in a minibus at 8am GMT (Gambia Maybe Time – that’s to say at least 30 minutes behind schedule) and drove about an hour up country to visit the community at Ndemban, learn about the village system and see what life is like in the countryside.

The road out of the Kombos is good and we were soon passing through open country with cultivated crops, cattle (placid looking creatures with huge horns), sheep and goats. I was then given a lesson about livestock by my Zimbabwean house mate as I mistook the local sheep for goats – lets hope I’m not asked to help separate them! We entered Brikama, home of the National Agricultural Research Institute where a colleague of mine will be working, and also home to another busy market extending out of town along the roadside with all the consequent traffic, colour and bustle of trade, and then emerged into another flat rural landscape – quite a change from the traffic and crowded streets of the Kombos. I mused that an up country posting had its advantages despite the lack of sea breezes, the beach, and the urban facilities.

When we arrived at Ndemba we drove into a large sandy square surrounded on three sides by smart white painted school buildings and were met under a large mango tree for formal greetings by a welcoming committee of the “alkalo” (headman) and various village elders, and a colourful troupe of ladies who formed the village cultural group and welcomed us to their home with much singing and dancing.


Afterwards we retired to one of the classrooms where the alkalo explained his role and responsibilities as leader and we were able to ask a variety of questions about community life, and the challenges facing village development before enjoying a walk around the immediate surroundings and a tour of the community market garden. Along the way we gathered up quite a retinue of children who seemed delighted to accompany us and hold our hands as we walked, and even more delighted to relieve us of any empty plastic water bottles which they could use at home! We learned how to grow cassava, and saw the problems faced in the garden from insect pests (red spider mite) and diseases, and how hard it must be to grow vegetables in the dry season when the only means of watering on a large scale is by hand, from a bucket.

We visited a nearby well which was reputed to have magical properties, and then regrouped under the shade of the mango tree while the ladies prepared lunch. Meanwhile we enjoyed yet more (participatory) singing and dancing with the cultural group, and made new friends in a mixture of Mandinka, Jola, Wolof, and Fula. They sang us local songs about their village, and in return we treated them to Ilkley Moor, Bobby Shaftoe, and When You and I Were Young Maggie which seemed to go down very well. Gambia_0073_750tall

Lunch was a communal meal of benacin (see previous blog!) served in huge quantities in a different classroom while most of the villagers ate outside, and although we were encouraged to join in with the locals and just use our fingers, we were again provided with spoons to make life easier. You’ve probably never tried eating rice or couscous and a kind of stew mixture with your fingers, but there is a certain art to it. To our hosts, it must have been like watching children eating, and apparently I still had yellow stains on my nose well after we had finished!


After lunch there was an agreeable hiatus while we digested our food before once again forming a circle seated under the mango tree for another question and answer session, mainly about village development with the chairman of the VDC (Village Development Committee), and then more formal speeches thanking us for visiting, making us honorary villagers, inviting us to come again, and apologising quite needlessly for lunch being a little later than intended! During this ceremony a very smart Nissan 4WD pulled into the square causing much excitement and three of the occupants got out and proceeded to go round the circle shaking hands and exchanging greetings with the village elders first, and then with our group. The leader was obviously a man of influence and the proceedings were interrupted while he joined the circle for a while and led us in prayers. The elders introduced him as a respected leader who has accepted the role of “Father” of their community and it was only afterwards that I found we had been honoured with a brief visit from the brother of President Jammeh!

After his departure the farewell speeches concluded and we were treated to yet more singing and dancing, but this time sitting watching was not an option! From the merriment caused it seems that our group managed to acquit ourselves well enough and now all we have to do is persuade Cameron Mackintosh to finance a London production. As for the video, suffice to say that I will pay good money for any copies in existence!

The final item on the agenda was a visit to the inter school sports competition which was taking place on the adjoining field, but unfortunately as we were behind schedule we were only able to stay a short while before bidding a fond farewell to our new found friends and embarking again for the return trip to the city – still on Gambia Maybe Time!

Language Practice…..and a Feast

The main part of our schooling during the last week has been language lessons. Three of our group who will be working further out from the Kombos are learning Mandinka which is more useful “up country”, and the rest of us, myself included, are learning Wolof which is the predominant language in the urban area. Modu, our tutor (I’ll spell it as it is pronounced, rather than try to write in Wolof) is teaching us about the local culture and customs and trying to give us a grounding in basic phrases for greetings, getting around, shopping, and everyday life.

The Gambians are a very sociable people to whom greetings are very important so it is only good manners when meeting to exchange several phrases of greeting, and to ask how they are, and how the family is, even if we have not met them before. So we begin each conversation with the ritual phrases “nanga def” (How are you?) to which the reply is “mang fi” (I’m fine) even if you are not fine, followed by “ana waa kur ga” (How’s the family?), to which the reply is “ñun fa” (They’re fine), and probably other queries about “How’s your day going?”, “How is work/business?” and various other good wishes including the catch all “salaam aleekum” (response “maleekum salaam”) or “jamarek”, wishing each other peace and goodwill, before we begin to think about the business of the conversation for example “Please may I have two bread rolls?”.

This morning, for a practical lesson we were taken to Serekunda where there is a huge market selling fish, meat, fruit and vegetables, clothes, household goods, fabrics etc, and there let loose to practice our Wolof skills on the stallholders by enquiring about prices, what some of the items were (there are plenty of foodstuffs I have never seen, or can’t name) and to buy the ingredients for our lunch. I was delighted to be asked by one lady “deega nga olof?” (Do you speak Wolof?) in response to my stumbling enquiry about the price of tomatoes, but had to reply truthfully “tutti, tutti” (A very little). Still at least she understood and I bought 5 tomatoes for 10p!

Following our shopping experience we went back to Kanifing to the compound of Awr (Eve) another of our language trainers to help make a “benacin” (One pot) using the meat and vegetables we had bought earlier. The ladies of the compound were very patient with our efforts, instructing some of us how they wanted the vegetables prepared (large pieces mostly it seems) while others of our group helped with the preparation of “juusi buy” (baobab juice) which involves soaking pieces of the baobab fruit in water, then sieving it and adding large quantities of sugar, condensed milk, vanilla essence, banana, (or other fruit) and results in a delicious sweet creamy fluid like liquid silk. You will think the taste can’t be improved until you discover wonjo juice which looks like blackcurrant and is produced by boiling a dried red (sorrell?) flower in a pan of water with a little mint. I missed the rest of the process as I was peeling onions, so there may be other ingredients too, but when this is filtered and added to the baobab juice the resulting mixture is like nectar of the Gods

Soaking baobab for the juice

Soaking baobab for the juice

Juusi buy nearly ready

Juusi buy nearly ready

Cookhouse duty for the boys

Cookhouse duty for the boys

Ready for the pot

Ready for the pot

Meanwhile the meat was fried in oil, and added to what can only be described as a cast aluminium cauldron over a wood fire together with a large quantity of stock with tomato paste and various spices, herbs and flavourings and bucket loads of vegetables, and left to bubble away while we chatted and drank glasses of “attaya” a sweet frothy tea, and the remains of the bowl of “juusi buy”. Maybe 90 minutes later after some of the vegetables had been removed to prevent overcooking, a huge bowl of rice was put to steam over the cauldron, and then later still mixed in with the stew and covered to soak up the juice. The result when dinner was served, fed about 30 people very well, tasted delicious, and if our budget was anything like correct had cost less than £1 per head.

Traditionally Gambians eat together from a large communal bowl using their right hand to pick out pieces of meat or vegetables and to knead small balls of rice and dip it in the juices, but as “toubabs” and honoured guests we were provided with plastic garden chairs and spoons which made eating a little easier. So “jerejef” and “jamarek” to Awr and her extended family for a great meal and good company and for introducing me to some unknown vegetables.

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Lots of stirring…..

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…..and pounding

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…..till the boys return from school….

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……and we can sit down with Awr to enjoy the feast

Back To School

Well it feels as if the holidays have ended and I’m back at school again! The past week has been occupied with form filling, briefings about the country and cultural context, VSO policies, health and safety, and language lessons. We even went to the British High Commission for an introductory briefing by the Deputy High Commissioner! I’m now the proud holder of a photo ID from the Department of Immigration showing my residential status in the Gambia, which reminds me whenever I produce my card of that song by Sting – “I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien” although I believe that was about Quentin Crisp – “An Englishman in New York”. I expect to receive my VSO identity card shortly, and then soon after that, my tax office number, as although being an impecunious volunteer I have no tax to pay, without that vital number I’m unable to open a bank account. So that means more form filling, and another photograph for identification. Which one should I use from the many pictures I was advised to bring with me? My “happy” face or the one that looks like a “Wanted” poster? and how should I choose which one of about 14 banks I should entrust with my few dalasi while I am here? After some thought I decided to use a large international bank rather than its smaller Gambian cousin as although I’m told the bank charges (yes, there is no free banking here, unlike the UK!) are slightly higher, it has a larger network from which I can access cash when necessary.

Public transport is taking a bit of getting used to. The main means of getting around the Kombos is by taxi and there are two types, distinguishable only by colour. They come in various shapes and sizes but are typically a battered diesel Mercedes saloon, either green for the tourists (i.e. higher price), or yellow for the locals. The yellow ones will either charge you for a “town trip” at a (higher) price negotiated before you get in, and take you wherever you want, or drive fixed routes and are known as “Seven Sevens” as the fare is 7 dalasi (14p) from wherever on that route you get in, to wherever you get out. There are large numbers of these taxis (– sometimes it seems every car in the Kombos is a taxi) driving slowly around the area blowing their horns, shouting and waving at those on the street, particularly “toubabs” (white people) such as myself in an effort to gain a fare, but before getting in (if you are wise) you will shout at the driver “Seven Seven” and your destination, otherwise if the taxi is empty, you may be charged for a town trip instead of the 7 dalasi per head fixed fare! The other option is to take a “gelli” which is a kind of minibus operating on the same principal, but with an attendant taking the fare as well as the driver. It’s all very noisy and looks chaotic at times, but it seems to work, as around half the population of the Gambia live in this urban area, and at rush hour it seems as if they all cram into the taxis and vans to get to work. I’m sure that in time I’ll get used to the system and to the boom box which blasts out West African music from behind my head in most of these vehicles!

Meanwhile, being from Yorkshire, I’ve quickly adapted to the volunteer mentality – “If I can walk, even if it takes 45 minutes,  it will save 14p” so only take a Seven Seven for the longer distances and travel much of the time on foot.