Tapilapa time

“Tapilapa time” for me is usually about 1pm, and possibly again about 7.30pm when I get back from work, and my fondness for tapilapa regularly causes amusement among my co-workers.

For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about I should explain that “tapilapa” is the staple bread here which is sold in every bakery and bitiko (corner shop) and is very similar to what I would call a “French stick” or “baton” at home. It’s delivered fresh about 7am to our bitiko by a man with a small and dilapidated red van holding dozens of tapilapa loose in the back, or elsewhere you will see delivery bicycles going round town with a large square box above the back wheel in which are stacked a number of tapilapa fresh from the oven.

There are two types of tapilapa – a longer, thinner loaf with a harder crust, and a shorter, softer type known as “serrefour”. I love them both and always take one to work with me for my lunch break, and often have another for my supper. So far I am still managing to maintain my slim sylph like figure! The shopkeeper will butter the tapilapa if required and add a filling of hard boiled egg, or you can buy a filling from one of the roadside stalls which spring up morning and evening as the local ladies sit out with a large bowl of whatever is on the menu that day. This might be beans, or mayonnaise, or even pasta – but for myself, I prefer to make my own sandwich, often with cheese (real Cheddar), or Marmite. I’m told the latter makes me less attractive to mosquitos, and certainly they seem to prefer the flesh of my African friends. I have tried introducing some of them to Marmite but the taste is obviously acquired and so far my efforts have not been very successful. (Note: if anyone from Unilever is reading this you could always send me a large case of samples so that I can spread your Marmite more widely…..or more thickly)

My Gambian colleagues have quite different eating patterns and diets to me. It seems that although the day begins early here, I am considered strange because I have a bowl of cereals before leaving for work, whereas the locals eat nothing at home saying it’s too early, but may well have “breakfast” about 9.30 or ten o’clock. Then, for them, the main meal of the day comes around mid afternoon, by which time my lunch time tapilapa is settling nicely, and at that time they eat a large rice based dish, often eating communally from one bowl. Fortunately for me, when invited to join a communal bowl I am usually provided with a spoon, which is perhaps just as well, as when I try to eat with my fingers, kneading the rice and sauce in the palm of my hand, I invariably end up with sauce all over my face!

The major agricultural crop here is groundnuts (peanuts) and as a result they feature heavily in the menu. “Domoda” is a very common Gambian dish with a sauce made from groundnuts, or alternatively you may be offered “benacin” (one pot) where the rice and vegetables are cooked together in one large pot topped with fish or chicken, or possibly beef. Whichever you choose you will find a very liberal use of cooking oil – indeed one lady told me that you should be able to take the rice in your hand and squeeze oil out! The vegetables are most commonly cassava, bitter tomatoes, onions, okra, peppers of various kinds, and potatoes; and spices and stock cubes are used widely to add flavour. Cooking takes a long time and the ladies of the compound spend much of their day preparing meals, usually in large quantities, and often cooking over an open fire.

Here in the Kombos we are lucky to have the choice of a quite wide and varied cuisine. There are Indian and Chinese restaurants, European dishes too, Lebanese bars providing “chwarma” (a bit like shish kebab), and in the evening the Afra bars open until the early hours selling grilled meat. Most of the time I’m perfectly happy with the diet, although in this hot climate I find I need less “maintenance ration” and so I’m eating rather less than at home, but it would be lovely to have a nice plate of home reared roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, and an apple cream turnover would go down a treat! It’s at times like these that I’m glad I’m not up country all the time as it seems the diet there is considerably less varied.


“TOT” is shorthand for “Training of Trainers” and that is one of my roles as an agricultural extensionist, so this week I’ve been away “up country” as they say for anywhere outside the urban coastal strip, although in fact I was only probably about 50 miles from Banjul.

It was my first crossing on the ferry from Banjul to Barra and I had heard stories of people waiting for hours to get on the boat, but we were waved on board early on Sunday morning almost as soon as we arrived on the dockside despite the queue of vehicles in front of us, although it seemed as if some port staff wanted us on the boat, and others didn’t! I don’t know whether the VSO sign on our pickup truck helped us, or whether someone pulled some strings or knew somebody, but only about half an hour after driving on to the dockside we were under way – about 3 hours earlier than expected. The ferry fleet is ageing and in need of repair although on Sunday there were two boats running backwards and forwards which is not always the case, and the process of docking on the north bank – another source of regular delays, looked to be tricky and our ferry took some time to line up with the vehicle ramp. As we pulled off the dockside into Barra we were surrounded by the usual crowd of street vendors selling food and other goods and while we waited I succumbed to the charms of a young Gambian lady about 9 years old with a ready sales patter who sold me a large bag of cashews from the tray on her head. She then smilingly told me that one bag wasn’t enough for the six of us in the vehicle! She was right of course so I bought another, after which she proudly told me she could speak four languages, and when we had finished our chat she presented me with one of the smaller bags as a gift! Obviously my 100 dalasis (£2) made me a good customer.

We were well ahead of schedule so called en route at a village where the in-laws of Abdoulie our programme manager lived. Here we enjoyed good food and hospitality and spent two very enjoyable hours playing with a large group of children (after I had managed to convince them that I wasn’t going to eat them!). We played Blind Man’s Buff and taught them “What time is it Mr Wolf?” although it took some time for them to learn that Mr Wolf hadn’t to see anyone moving when he looked round, and we sang “Frère Jacques” with them, and they sang local songs (including “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”) and found a hedgehog to show us.


How many children can we get on this mat?


Games in progress

Our journey took us a short distance further to Kerewan, and then after buying stocks of bottled water from the village store, a further six miles down a dirt road to the National Agricultural Training Centre (NATC) at Njawara which was to be our home for the next five days. The NATC was set up as a Centre of Excellence in 1990 but now looks as though it has seen better days – I believe the funding from international donors ran out. On the first evening we were shown round the village by three of the horticulture students and it looks as though the village too has seen a more prosperous past. It looked half deserted and we were unable to visit the cultural centre as the custodian was absent so instead walked down to the riverside and back.


Fatoumata, Munya, Jainaba and Godfrey

On Monday morning we began our training session in a large open sided classroom with an introduction to the course and a welcome by the Governor. Our 20 or so trainees were from a number of organisations including the Department of Agriculture, National Association of Women Farmers (NAWFA), Department for Community Development (DCD),  Wuli and Sandu Development Association (WASDA) and Agency for Village Support (AVISU), and we were delighted when the students who had shown us around the previous evening also joined us with several more of their colleagues and took an active part in as much of the week’s activities as their existing college duties allowed.

The training was based around a new Business Development and Management Training manual developed by VSO which is aimed at helping improve agricultural productivity and growers associations and is part of the Growth and Competitiveness Project funded by the World Bank, and we started from the basics of identifying what the participants understood by the words “business”, what constitutes an entrepreneur and what attributes are necessary to be successful. We then moved on to define what makes a good business idea and began to show how to develop a business plan. The course was participatory so much of the work was done in groups of about eight people who all worked extremely hard. One evening – the night before each group was due to present their business plan to the rest of the participants I advised one group who were still working hard by torchlight that perhaps it was time they called it a day. It was 11.40pm and the other two groups had only just packed up their papers.


Group work


More group work


Nearly midnight, but still working on a business plan

Along the way we also discussed marketing, business finance, records and basic book keeping, and family and business relationships and had many lively discussions and presentation sessions. Food was typical Gambian fare – breakfast at 8.15am consisting of tapilapa (bread roll) with a savoury filling and a glass of coffee, and a rice-based main meal about 2.30pm, then a slightly smaller meal about 8.30pm.


Three hard working ladies in the kitchen

(I still haven’t become accustomed to Gambian meal times – for me the evening meal time is later than I would like, but as the Gambians normally stay up a lot later than I do they have more time to digest their food before bed.) The vegetables were all grown on site and in the mornings the students could be seen busy weeding and watering before breakfast. One morning when I was in the garden before breakfast talking to one of them we heard a kind of bellowing in the bush and he asked me excitedly if I had heard it. I had no idea what it was until he told me it was a hyena, and that they were not often seen, but were a pest to the livestock farmers as they sometimes preyed on their cattle.


Munya questioning Kodou about her presentation


Casting an eye over group work in progress



Babou, Fatoumata, and Jim developing a business plan

The final full day of the course dealt with group theory, leadership skills, organisation of meetings, and conflict management and resolution, and on Friday we were able to wrap up loose ends in the morning and leave soon after midday as many of the participants had a long journey ahead of them. As the ferry crossing at Barra was expected to be very busy we turned east and drove further inland along the north bank until we came to the next river crossing about 30 miles away at Farafenni. As we were in a small vehicle we were able to queue jump the long line of (78) trucks waiting for the boat and drive straight to the river side. Two boats were in the dock but a large heavily laden articulated wagon was stuck on one of them – the trailer leaned over to one side and it looked as though a wheel had come off, but eventually after much whistling and shouting they managed to drag it off and loading began. Meanwhile we waited and were besieged by a gang of small girls desperate to sell us water, quite undeterred by the fact that we obviously had our drinks with us. A man came by with a paintbrush and an open pot of silver paint wanting to paint the pickup wheels, and the riverside teemed with a collection of stalls providing for the needs of waiting travellers. At last we were able to cross – the river is narrower here and the crossing only took a few minutes – and set off once more. The road  forms part of the Trans Gambian Highway linking Senegal from Dakar in the north to Casamance in the south and led us to Soma where we turned west again back towards the Kombos. So far the roads we travelled had all been good tarmac surfaces, but for a while here we drove along a bumpy, dusty red laterite strip alongside heavy earthmovers working at grading and compacting the surface of the last remaining unmetalled section prior to laying the top coat. Work seemed to be proceeding well and very soon this last section should also be surfaced, completing the east-west road from Basse to the coast.

Our driver now had home in his sights and we sped quickly west, stopping only for the police checkpoints and to buy mangos, arriving in Kombo about 7.30pm. I was glad of a reliable shower and a few other little luxuries (orange squash and breakfast cereal!) but had thoroughly enjoyed my first stay up country and hope to go again soon.


Natalie on nursery duty with young Babucarr while his mother Fatoumata was delivering a presentation


Fatoumata who took a very active part in the course while at the same time nursing a small child. I take off my hat to her.


I’ve been in the Gambia for over three months now and don’t think I have yet mentioned the bumsters which are a feature of everyday life here.

A “bumster” is the local name for the (mostly young) Gambian males who act as unofficial guides, touts, fixers, companions or whatever and who are found all over the Kombos, but particularly in the tourist areas. They are looking to make a living by providing you with services like arranging taxis, foreign exchange, fishing trips, or in some cases by befriending you and then giving you a hard luck story about a sick child and not being able to afford the medicine, or telling you that they have just got married, or have a new baby, and asking you for cash. When you bear in mind that the average wage here is around £200 per annum, the truth is that there is more money to be made out of tourists than by any other means, and a bumster doesn’t have to work very hard on them to earn a comparatively good living. A white face marks you out as a possible source of income, so even though I’ve been here long enough now to be recognized by many of the locals, I’m still occasionally a target.

As I’ve said in previous posts, greetings are very important in the Gambia, so typically as a bumster approaches he will come out with some stock greeting, and shake your hand (usually holding on to prevent your escape), often following this up with another standard line ”You remember me, it’s me – Omar – I’m the security guard at the hotel!” (or something similar). This tactic relies on the toubab not wishing to give offence by failing to recognise the bumster, and usually works, even if the two have never met before! I hadn’t been here long (although long enough that I should have known better) before I was caught like this on my way home from work one evening. It was while I still worked only ten minutes walk from home that I was first approached by Omar, a tall gangly young man with a wide grin who treated me to the usual chat up line, and I fell for it and “recognised” him thinking he must have worked at Safari Garden Hotel where we stayed for our first few days in country.

Unfortunately for Omar however, as he walked along beside me telling me he had just got married (obviously expecting me to congratulate him and fork out for a wedding gift), he carried his tale too far, talking about supposed mutual friends of ours and at that point I realised I had never met him before in my life. Since then I have come across Omar many times and he insists on greeting me with “You’re a Gambian now” and trying to attach himself to me, and he is the only bumster to whom I have so far been sufficiently rude to just ignore and walk away, or on one occasion tell him he was out of his usual territory and should go back to Atlantic Road! Normally I exchange greetings with bumsters, we pass the time of day, shake hands and I move on, but somehow poor Omar manages to annoy me everytime we meet and I actively avoid contact.

At this time of year, as most of the tourists have gone home there are slimmer pickings to be had and consequently less bumsters active, but while the tourists are here it is impossible to walk along the beach without being hassled by someone trying to sell you fruit, juice, belts, bags, nuts, crafts or excursions. In tourist season on the beach you also pass numbers of very fit young Gambian men, working out, doing press-ups, playing football, or just sitting staring at the ocean and hoping to catch the eye of an unattached white female whom they can chaperone for a week or two…..or who may possibly be their ticket to a better life. It seems that the Gambia has become a popular destination for lonely middle aged Europeans who are looking for love and/or sex, and as a result it is quite common to see what at home would be quite incongruous couples, usually a middle aged white woman with a young Gambian man, but occasionally a middle aged white man with a young Gambian woman. It is so easy to be cynical and say that for the Gambian partner it is simply a meal ticket for a while, or possibly even at some point a route to Europe, but not all these relationships are purely commercial ones and there are undoubtedly genuine success stories too among the tales of disappointed love.

To the European tourist just off the plane, bumsters can be annoying, or possibly even intimidating, and as a result the main tourist area of Senegambia is approached through a security check point manned by tourist police to prevent bumsters hassling the tourists, and on the beach the hotels have security guards and the occasional policeman ready to chase away anyone who becomes too much of a nuisance. Outside this enclave though you’re on your own, but you soon learn how to deal with them  – a few words of Wolof help so that you can say “I have no money”, “Another day perhaps”, or something similar, but if not a smile and greeting in English, polite “No thank you” and keep walking will deter all but the most persistent huckster.

Of course there are variations on the bumster theme and I was amused one Sunday as I walked through Fajara by a security guard sitting outside one of the office buildings, asking me point blank “Why don’t you employ me?” The young men hanging around near my house greet me with “Hey! My neighbour!” as I pass and occasionally ask me for money to buy attaya, and the children ask boldly in the street “You buy me a football?” or simply “Minty?” and view me as a provider of sweets or pens simply because of my white face.

It’s difficult to know how to treat the children because as they have so little it’s very tempting to give small gifts, but I can’t help feeling that this only perpetuates a dependence culture which makes the situation here worse in the long run. These mini bumsters are growing up from birth to view Europeans as cash cows to be milked, rather than being encouraged to try to make some income by other means.

And the youth form the bulk of the population………