Strange Fruit

One of my pleasures is listening to music. All kinds of music. So on my iPod you will find several thousand tracks ranging from mainstream “pop” music (anywhere between the 1950’s and the present day) to opera, from rock music to country, from classical to R&B, to soul and anything in between. I find however that my tastes go in phases so that I will listen to the same play list or artist quite regularly for a period and then not again for quite some time, although a number of favourites reappear quite frequently. At one time I might be listening repeatedly to Mozart, another time Queen, (or Abba!), and last night I went to bed listening to the marvellous tones of Richard Burton narrating “Under Milk Wood”, but the title of my post this week is taken from a song on another of my current favourite lists. You’ve probably never heard of Coope Boyes and Simpson – they are a male vocal trio from the north of England who sing unaccompanied traditional and modern folk music and also some of their own compositions – often quite political in content with thought provoking lyrics about modern social issues, and memorable vocal harmonies. I suggest you try them out by visiting their web site , or look them up on You Tube and hope you will enjoy their singing as much as I do.

So……”Strange Fruit”…..


The humble mango can hardly be described as strange but should figure here simply because it seems to grow everywhere in the Gambia. There are a number of different varieties and three or four weeks ago when the trees in every compound were still laden with fruit the children were busy each day picking ripe mangos, or more likely using long poles or throwing stones into the trees to knock them down. (No attempt seems to be made to catch them, but nor do they seem to suffer any bruising even though a mango weighing maybe a kilo must have quite an impact). At night you could frequently hear the crash as yet another mango fell onto the corrugated iron roof, and one day at work I was disturbed by what sounded like an earthquake. It appeared that the gardeners were harvesting the fruit from a tree which overhung the offices and the mangos were landing on the roof by the barrow load and sliding down the tin before dropping off the eaves to the ground below. At this time the roadsides everywhere were full of little stalls selling mangos and if a vehicle stopped it was immediately besieged by a mass of women and children each with their tray of fruit trying to persuade the passers by to buy THEIR wares rather than anybody else’s. I don’t know how you were supposed to make a choice as to me they all looked very similar, and because of the competition the price doesn’t seem to vary. Unfortunately mangos do not store well so during the season they are everywhere, and after a couple of months they have disappeared although there are now one or two entrepreneurs trying to dry mangos on a commercial scale for export. So far it seems this industry is in its infancy.


Mango hunting requires a long pole…….


…….and someone who can catch!


Volunteers after a free lunch



Also in the compound at work we have two other strange fruit, both edible although one is not yet ripe. The “seesop” is a green fruit with a kind of hooked exterior and a white fleshy interior with large black seeds. It has a sour but not unpleasant taste which is difficult to describe although I thought it reminded me a little of coconut and a little of pineapple and sucking the seeds was quite refreshing. Having said that I didn’t rush back to try another.

As I was showing an interest in finding out if there was a European name for seesop (“soursop”?) one of my horticultural colleagues took me to show me a jack fruit tree growing near the engineering workshop. It was a tall spreading tree with large yellow-green fruit of irregular shape, but covered in lumps as if the fruit had been attacked by a swarm of bees. Apparently it belongs to the mulberry family and the fruit can grow to about a metre long and over 30kg in weight, so the mechanics of our compound who take their breaks in its shade will definitely need to be wary as the fruit ripen!


Jack fruit


 The “kabba” is another fruit I had never heard of and is a dirty yellow in colour rather like an oversize lemon (the lemons here are green by the way!) and another one that I was advised would taste sour. The ladies who sell it at the roadside stalls slice off one end and stir in a spoonful of sugar, – or salt if you prefer. I tried one with sugar and enjoyed the taste – again you take the pith and leave the hard black seeds but the version with salt hasn’t so far tempted me.

Three ‘R’s

A friend wrote to me yesterday, concerned that I hadn’t written anything last week and wondering whether I had caught malaria, got married, or been eaten by a crocodile. Well, Steve, none of the above applies and  hopefully if I write a little more this week the good people of Leeds will overlook my lapse, although once again I’m struggling for photos for illustration!

Last weekend however I had to go into work on Friday, so the usual three day break was compressed into two and on the Sunday afternoon, having completed my chores, and faced with the difficult choice between staying at home sweating over a hot laptop or meeting two other volunteers at Baker’s Dozen cafe in Fajara for one of their delicious chocolate milk shakes, I’m afraid to say I neglected my readership, succumbed to temptation and sat for a couple of hours enjoying the breeze on a first floor balcony, and not one, but TWO milk shakes (we really know how to enjoy ourselves on a budget) while we compared notes on our recent activities and made plans for the following weekend. (Bird watching at Kotu if you’re interested, but although it was intended for this afternoon, we have postponed the trip until Monday as it appears that July 22nd is another public holiday (celebrating the day of the coup when President Jammeh took power) so we get an extra day off work.

The first ‘R’ of the title is for the ‘Rainy season’ which normally starts about 15th June, and in fact did so up country where some of my colleagues work, and where I understand it has not really stopped since. In the Kombos however, a month later, we haven’t really seen a great deal of rain. We’ve had two or three heavy downpours with thunder and lightning, and one evening I had to shelter under a tree for half an hour caught between the VSO office and my home, but the storm soon passed over, the tarmac dried quickly in the heat, blue sky reappeared, and apart from the large pools of standing water by the roadside, you wouldn’t have known it had been raining. A field next to where I was sheltering has recently been cleared and sown, but I don’t think the rain will have done a great deal to stimulate germination, although just as at home, a drop of rain soon leads to an explosion of weeds! A friend of mine planted some cassava cuttings last weekend and is praying for rain as he fears they will not survive much longer, but yesterday while I was visiting other friends at Brikama (about 20 miles away) we sat in the shade under a mango tree, listening to the thunder and watching dark clouds in the distance drop rain over Kombos, and last night we had heavy rain in Bakau again so perhaps the rainy season is now really starting and I shall have to carry a jacket with me in future. The storm last night began about 4am when I was woken by the wind whistling through my bedroom and had to get out of bed to shut all the windows. Being woken was quite a surprise as I normally sleep so soundly it would take the Angel Gabriel to rouse me, but last night it sounded as if the roof was about to come off, the trees in the next door compound were waving wildly, just as we see on the television news at home when a storm hits some tropical paradise, and then the rain began, just a few big juicy drops at first, then a torrential downpour bouncing off the tiles on the patio and rushing away down the yard in a torrent. As my bed was still dry, and hopeful that the steps up into our house would prevent us being flooded, I drank some juice and ate a couple of Cream Crackers (just in case we had to be evacuated), and returned to my slumbers.

The second ‘R’ is ‘Ramadan’ which began about ten days ago and continues until the first week in August. This is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, and during this period Muslims (with a few exceptions such as children and the sick) have to fast during daylight hours. The act of fasting is said to redirect the heart away from worldly activities, its purpose being to cleanse the soul by freeing it from harmful impurities, and to teach self discipline. Food and drink are served early in the morning (before about 5.30am here), and then again about 7.45pm, but in between those times my colleagues at work have no food or drink, not even water. I don’t know how they manage without water (although of course they are acclimatised to it from an early age), and I consume my lunchtime tapilapa while they are at prayers and take solitary guilty gulps of my orange squash whenever I’m alone in the office. Some of my colleagues have suggested I try fasting with them – “just try one day”, but at risk of being considered undisciplined and licentious and not achieving Paradise I think I’ll limit my fasting to those periods between meals, and continue to drink large quantities of liquid to keep me hydrated.

As no food is eaten until sunset, the small shops near my home where I buy my daily tapilapa stay closed in the mornings so I have to buy bread for my sandwiches the evening before, and by 2pm the following day it is rather dry. The one consolation is that new deliveries arrive about 7.30pm so I can have oven fresh bread soon after I get home from work, but I still look forward to August when I can once again buy fresh bread each morning.

During Ramadan it seems that Muslim ladies are allowed to leave work early (varying times seem to apply from about 2pm onwards depending on where you work) in order to go home, do the shopping, and prepare a meal for their family. Suddenly too the streets are now full of young boys selling dates. (According to scripture the Prophet Mohammed broke fast with three dates, so by tradition many families do the same before having evening prayers and then returning for “iftar” the evening meal.)

Meanwhile work/business continues as usual although I can’t help but think that less gets done because dehydration and hunger leads to fatigue, but my colleagues assure me not although I see some of them wilting by midday. Perhaps it’s just the heat and humidity, as I feel the same myself some afternoons.

The third ‘R’ is one you might expect – ‘Reading’. My cousin asked me yesterday what I did in my spare time and I seem to remember saying “Not a lot at present except doing the shopping, going out for a meal or a drink with other volunteers, and trying to keep cool”, but I should also have mentioned “reading”. When I was younger I read voraciously, but over the years the habit slipped and since I came to the Gambia I seem to have taken it up again. I often go to bed fairly early (around 9.30/10pm) and sit and read until I feel sleepy. I can read in the dark on my tablet if we have no power, and it costs nothing as so many books are available to download free of charge from the internet. I’ve renewed my love of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, laughed with Jerome K Jerome (Thoughts of An Idle Fellow), adventured with Jack London in the Yukon and in a future tyrannical oligarchy in the USA,  battled Dracula at Whitby with Bram Stoker and strange alien machines in London with HG Wells, and just given up trying to appreciate the writings of H P Lovecraft. I’ve also dipped into the library at VSO office which is well stocked with books left by former volunteers and through them have been on the road in 1940’s America with Jack Kerouac, and more recently travelled round Europe on a motorcycle with Mike Carter.  At present I’m thoroughly enjoying Jane Austen – I brought several films with me including Pride and Prejudice but haven’t yet watched it so hope that when I do so Keira Knightley and Matthew McFadden can live up to the book (or to the earlier BBC series with Jennifer Erhle and Colin Firth which remains one of my all time favourites).

Also on the theme of reading, my co volunteers and I receive regular visits from our neighbours’ children and I’m trying to help some of them with their reading skills, but struggling a little at times. It seems that they are taught the alphabet at school (“Ay, Bee, See, Dee etc”) just as we were, but it also seems to me that in some ways, this is a hindrance. How does the child learn to string the sounds together so that “cat”  is pronounced as we do, rather than “SeeAyTee”? I seem to remember being taught to add the sound of letters together in small batches to make syllables so that “Atlantic” (we were looking at a map of the Gambia) is split into “At” + “lan” + “tic”, and that works for me, but seems a hard concept for the children to grasp. They seem to recognise word shapes instead, so that if we come across “Brikama” for example on the map, it can be read/guessed as “Senegal” presumably because it’s another long word that we have just seen, rather than seeing it can’t possibly be Senegal because it doesn’t even begin with the “S” sound!

Perhaps it’s just as well I didn’t choose to become a teacher.

Frustration…..and satisfaction

This week has been a week of frustrations, mostly caused by the lack of systems and resources which we take so much for granted in the UK.

It is now the rainy season here and although the rains on the coastal strip have so far only been intermittent – usually falling at night when I can listen to the torrential downpour on the tin roof sheets and watch the flashes of lightning from the safety of my mosquito net, it is getting hotter and more humid. The daytime temperatures are around 90 degrees which combined with nearly 80% humidity feels hotter and doesn’t encourage much movement outside, and although this drops at night, with no breeze in our small compound it still feels uncomfortably sticky for sleep until the early hours. It also seems to affect the infrastructure as the cuts in power and water supplies seem to have become rather more frequent and I’m told that is quite usual at this time of year, though whether this is because of greater demand, or simply because the generating machinery overheats more quickly is unclear. It does explain however why many Gambians spend a lot of the daytime resting and wake up at night when it’s a little cooler.

Unfortunately as our office hours are from 8am to 6pm, I can’t adopt this practice, so it was particularly annoying to arrive at work on Monday morning and find we had no electricity – doubly so as the previous day we had none at home either so my laptop battery was nearly exhausted. Until about 9.30am I assumed that it was the normal power cuts (sorry, I mean “load sharing”) which everybody endures, but was then told that we had no power because we hadn’t paid the bill! The system here is “Cashpower” whereby you buy advance credit for your meter from the power company office and receive a ticket with a code which you tap into a keypad on the meter. It seems that nobody in the office where our meter is placed had been checking it and as a result it had run out. Of course this meant (being both Gambia, AND a government department) that we would be unlikely to have any electricity for a week or so as forms would have to be filled in with the accounts section at Head Office to requisition the cash to pay for the credit etc etc…… and no-one seemed particularly bothered about it. I managed to find a little work that could be done without power, but of course nowadays all my work files are kept on computer, and as a result I couldn’t do a great deal!

Fortunately for me, Tuesday was our quarterly volunteers meeting at VSO offices for us all to report back on what we had been doing since we arrived here, how that fitted with our placement objectives, and what challenges we faced/how we planned to tackle them. The thought of an air conditioned conference room with a standby generator and chance to connect to the Internet without using my mobile data card sounded very appealing and perhaps by the time I got back to the Ministry we would have renewed our credit with the electricity company.

I was also due to attend VSO on Wednesday morning as we were being taken to Banjul for registration by GAMBIS (The Gambian Biometric Identification Service). However as our group had been booked in advance we rather hoped to get through this process reasonably quickly, and perhaps I might be able to get back to the office before the day was over……..

We arrived in Banjul about 10.30am and rather than join the queues waiting their turn on the long wooden benches outside the immigration building we took up position across the road while our paperwork was taken inside and the powers that be were told we had arrived.

The first hour was quite interesting as we chatted amongst ourselves and watched the panorama of African street life with street vendors selling sunglasses, belts, car mats, food and drink, DVD’s and goodness knows what else, and the stream of traffic going to/from the docks. On our side of the street the pavement was occupied by a number of enterprises set up to provide photocopies of documents, visa and passport photos, and what looked to be some kind of a legal service issuing paperwork with a large red seal attached. A travelling cleaner spent 15 minutes washing the dust from a car parked at the roadside – I don’t know where he got the water for his bucket – meanwhile the tide of people on the benches ebbed and flowed, the queue seemed no shorter than when we had arrived and there was no sign of our expected “Fast track” entry………….

By about 2.00pm the queue on the benches was thinning out and I had just gone to order a tapilapa sandwich from a pavement vendor when there were signs of action. Our turn had come! The excitement was short lived however as we were first of all taken into the processing office by one officer, and then turned back out again by another who seemed to have decided there were too many of us, or perhaps it was prayer time.

At least the benches outside now had room for most of us to sit down and after a short hiatus we were again called inside to a counter with four booths, two of which were dealing with our applications. At the first one, after checking our identity and welcoming us to the Gambia we had both thumbs scanned for the records and then were passed to the second booth for our photograph to be taken. Standing back against the wall it felt like being in a prison drama – goodness knows what my picture will look like! Our identity cards should arrive in about two weeks, but meanwhile we were each given a receipt to prove that we had been registered and told to carry it with us in case we were stopped for identity checks.

By the time we arrived back in Kombo it was after 4pm so instead of going back out to the office for an hour I made use of the uninterrupted power supply at VSO to run a virus/malware scan on a laptop belonging to one of my colleagues. Unfortunately I was unable to finish the scan as it took rather longer than I expected – by 7pm it still hadn’t completed (although it had found over 200 infected files) and the office was closing, so home I trudged dusty and hot, and looking forward to a cold refreshing shower – only to arrive in Bakau to find no water or power!

The following morning we still had no electricity at the office when I arrived but after a while the Director called on a flying visit, power was restored for a while, and I was able to work until mid afternoon at which point our fuel ran out again. I was quite pleased it was the weekend!

However, in case you’re thinking that it has been only frustrations this week, I had better mention Thursday evening. Another volunteer, Helen, who has been working as a doctor in Banjul for a year finished her placement last week and flew back to the UK on Friday, so had organised a farewell supper at a local restaurant which was attended by about 20 of us. I hadn’t been to Labas before but it was a real treat – rather more upmarket than our usual haunts, and an excellent buffet. Would you believe we were given two courses with real meat – chicken, fish, and beef, and such unaccustomed delicacies as broccoli and MASHED POTATO?! The starving volunteers fell on this feast like a horde of locusts, and as we walked home about midnight my two companions had to admit that it was after all possible to have a good vegetarian meal in the Gambia!