Tobaski (2)

It seems such a long time since the streets were full of livestock traders with their little flocks of rams to sell for Tobaski, and yet there is still a distinct sheep smell in the air as I walk across the road to catch the van at Westfield in the mornings. The litter from the roadside market there has largely disappeared – I saw a number of Gambians busy with brushes and rakes by the main road a couple of days after the feast and numerous small bonfires burning along the verge as they burned the debris. I don’t know whether this was an organised clean up, or just a group of neighbours tidying up after the invasion. Either way, the scene has reverted to the usual brightly coloured umbrellas with vendors of food and drink, bags and belts,………but still the smell of a sheep market lingers.Gambia_2_0157_750wide

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Gambia_2_0165_750wideI was told by a neighbour that on the morning of the feast before prayers rams were taken down to our local beach to be washed so I duly went down to the fish landing at about 8am only to find I was too late. I saw an odd latecomer being led into the waves for a scrub, but apparently most of them had been there before 7am, and some as early as 5am in the dark.Gambia_2_0191_750wideI had been invited to join a colleague’s family for the day and received instructions to be there by 11am so I duly donned my new shirt for the occasion and caught a van from Bakau to Westfield to catch transport there for Banjulnding. The taxi/van interchange is usually crowded in the mornings but not today as it seems many of the taxi drivers had disappeared – presumably returning to family in Senegal, or up country Gambia for the festivities, so there were large spaces where there is usually a seething mass of yellow Mercedes taxis looking for passengers. I crossed the road to the van stop where I usually find about half a dozen vans heading for Brikama, each with their attendants trying to persuade passengers to get into their van rather than somebody else’s, but this morning not a van in sight although there was a small crowd of people on the roadside waiting for a ride. Slowly the travellers dispersed as at intervals a van appeared with spaces and the usual free for all took place to push your way onto the van at the expense of the other waiting passengers. When I arrive here from Bakau in the mornings with a full van load we usually find a crowd of schoolchildren waiting to catch the return trip and they usually do their best to push their way on before any of the alighting passengers can get off! It’s a bit like a rugby scrum without the ball, but nobody ever seems to take offence when somebody pushes in front. The van men today were keen to fill their vehicles with passengers going all the way to Brikama (18 dalasis – about 25p) rather than dropping off/picking up at intermediate stops, but after about twenty minutes I managed to get a seat by paying 15 dalasis for a trip which normally costs 10 and about twenty minutes later I alighted at my destination.

A short walk later and I was enjoying a delicious bowl of chakri (a kind of sour milk drink with ground cous) at my friend’s house. Although I have been here on three or four occasions I am still treated as the honoured guest so on arrival I am placed in solitary splendour in the best room while everyone else sits outside on the veranda or in the yard. This is quite customary here in the Gambia, and I find it quite uncomfortable at times although I am aware it is a means of showing respect for honoured visitors. While I am here, curtained off from the outside world, there is much shuffling in the passage as some of the many children take turns to come in, shake my hand and greet me. I usually take some little gifts when I go and the smallest children can’t wait to see if there are any biscuits or sweets while the older ones stand around looking hopeful as we unzip my bag. I am served meals “in solitary” although I have persuaded the family that I prefer someone to join me at the dinner table so now instead of placing in front of me a bowl with enough food for about three people, the quantity is increased and my colleague Nyima joins me although she seems intent on pushing the choicest morsels onto my side of the bowl and shouting instructions to one of her younger siblings outside to fetch me a cold drink from the shop next door!Banjulnding072_750tall

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Banjulnding082_750tallAfter refreshments I am asked if I have brought my camera as it is time to slaughter the rams for the feast and I am expected to document the event. By the time I am in the backyard the first animal has been despatched and is being skinned. It is a group task for the men as the ram is led out from the shed, laid on its side and gently held down by about five of them while it’s throat is slit and the blood drained into a small depression scraped in the ground. The operation takes place without any fuss and is over very quickly. Father sits in the background supervising while the younger men do the work, and the boys also take part, presumably in doing so learning the skills required for later life in their own compounds. Three rams have now been killed and at this stage Mother takes a more active role dividing the meat up into various bowls (a third is given away to less well off friends and neighbours who can’t afford to buy their own), and Father disappears with a pickup to distribute the charity while the ladies begin to prepare the meal.Banjulnding054_750wide

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Banjulnding062_750tallHaving taken a few photographs I am now at a loose end so go back into the main compound and sit with some of the women and children while one of them cooks the livers over a small charcoal stove and another slices large quantities of onions. It seems to take a long time with much slicing and turning but the end product is tender and delicious.Banjulnding086_750tall

Banjulnding085_750wideAs I have already been obliged to eat a large portion of “breakfast” when I arrived, and also sample the liver and onions, I am not at all dismayed when one of the ladies apologises that the main meal will be late. The afternoon passes slowly in traditional fashion sitting under the shade of a tree drinking attaya and chatting and I take more photographs as the ladies and children appear in their finery in many cases bought especially for Tobaski. Banjulnding063_750tall

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Banjulnding092_tallThe ladies change dresses during the day and about five o’clock it seems customary to withdraw for a shower and return in a different dress with make up and possibly a different hairdo. (While we have been sitting here some of the young girls have been having their hair plaited, or new fingernails and eyelashes applied, so we have a very glamorous company by night). Banjulnding105_750tall

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Banjulnding120_750tallAlso about now the visitors start to arrive – the children of the neighbourhood who go round the district saluting the compound heads and expecting “salibo” in return. Fortunately I have come prepared with a pocket full of change, so following a handshake and polite greetings a coin is pressed into each small hand. I leave about 7pm by which time a constant stream of children is trooping into the compound for their salibo, and I then have to wait by the roadside for about half an hour before I can board a van. Fortunately it is not raining. Most of the passing vehicles are full of revellers returning from Brikama to the Kombo and eventually I settle for a seat on a van for Serekunda which entails a brisk 15 minute walk through the crowded streets to Westfield Junction where I am lucky enough to catch a van for home almost immediately.

Tobaski

Next week is Tobaski, the Islamic festival of Eid al-Adha when devout Muslims all over the globe commemorate the willingness of the prophet Ibrahim to sacrifice his son Ishmael in response to God’s command. The Islamic story is very similar to the Christian version as told in The Old Testament book of Genesis when God ordered Abraham as a test of faith to sacrifice his first born son Isaac. In both versions the devout father was willing to submit to God’s command, but just before the sacrifice was carried out an angel told him to stop, the child was spared and a ram caught in a nearby bush was sacrificed instead.

This is an important religious festival for the Muslims and preparations have been going on for some time. It appears that many Gambians will travel “up country” to celebrate with their family on the first day of the festival, which is predicted to be on Tuesday (15th), but this will only be confirmed the night before as the date depends on the lunar sightings which regulate the Islamic calendar. Everyone is expected to dress in their finest clothing for special Eid prayers and it seems customary for them to order new clothes for the occasion so the tailoring workshops have been busy for several weeks trying to complete their orders before Tobaski – a task which has not been helped by the frequent power cuts here in Bakau. The whirr of sewing machines can be heard at all hours when the electricity supply allows, and new outfits which have been ordered well in advance are now nearing completion and being anxiously tried for fit as the big day approaches.

After the ritual ablutions and Eidh prayers have taken place it appears that the party begins. Muslims who can afford it (and many who cannot!) will sacrifice a ram and as a result the Kombos is full of small flocks of sheep (all rams as apparently castrated lambs are not acceptable as a sacrifice) for sale at the roadside – the number increasing daily as more rams arrive by the lorry load, and as I travel home each night I see potential buyers assessing the quality and arguing over the price before leading their purchase away with a rope, or bundling it into the boot of a car or onto the roof of a van. (Amazingly the animals don’t seem to mind in the least so I guess they are used to being transported. I can’t imagine sheep in the UK behaving in such a docile fashion). I’m told that this year the supply is plentiful but that the price is high. It sounds as if a good meaty animal can cost as much as 15,000 dalasis although the lesser ones might be half that. As usual in such situations the dealers are being accused of profiteering, and they in turn are blaming the higher price on the current unfavourable exchange rate with the CFA – I’m told a lot of the livestock is brought in from Senegal. Whatever the reason, D15,000 is a huge amount from the average Gambian’s income representing about two months wage for a mid ranking civil servant. Nevertheless large numbers will be slaughtered and barbecued – a third of the meat is supposed to be given to the poor and needy, another third to friends and neighbours, and the final third kept for the family feast. If the cost of a ram is out of reach, it seems that it is acceptable to buy a cheaper alternative, but no-one likes to be thought unable to afford it so some take out loans to enable them to do so. This conspicuous consumption seems ridiculous to me, but is only comparable to the attitude seen in the UK at Christmas when some spend more than they can realistically afford just to demonstrate that they can, and spend the next few months paying for it. My Zimbabwean housemate suggested to an impecunious Gambian colleague that he should buy a ram on the second day of the festival as it was bound to be cheaper (like post Christmas turkey at home) but was told that would be no good “because then it would just be meat”!

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Rams by the side of a busy dual carriageway quite unperturbed by the Electricity/Water Board employees on their ride to work

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Checking the quality at Abuko – the main livestock market/slaughterhouse

As yet we haven’t been informed when our offices are closed – it will be announced on Monday, but I expect Tuesday and possibly Wednesday will officially be public holidays, and by the sound of things not much will be done on Thursday either, so as we don’t work on Fridays it will probably be a one day working week. On Tuesday (assuming that is the day confirmed as Tobaski) I have been invited to visit a friend’s family compound for the celebrations which apparently involve much feasting, but at least I now know about “salibo” so am prepared. This is the custom whereby at the festivals children go round the local area in their best clothes visiting the neighbouring compounds with polite greetings and expecting to be given small gifts. At Korite I knew nothing about salibo but watched as my host gave small coins to a constant stream of young visitors. Then the following day I was treated to the same spectacle at my own compound when our neighbouring children came knocking at the door. By the time the last children visited the cupboard was bare as we had no more change to give out and had exhausted our small stock of toffees from the fridge so I had to apologise and send them away empty handed. They probably thought I was just being mean, so this time I’m better prepared. I’ve been saving up my loose change and adding bags of sweets to my shopping basket over the last three or four weeks, and this morning I got a bag full of coins from the bank. Let’s hope its enough! Our maid was very grateful for a bonus in her pay packet this week, but a colleague of mine told me this morning that one of her office staff had made a point of telling her that a previous manager had bought them a ram. I gather that if she is expecting the same this year she will be disappointed.

So….another new African shirt will be aired for the occasion, and tomorrow I must go and buy another pair of smart trousers. There are a number of second hand clothes stalls by the roadside on Kairaba Avenue and I have a friend for life at one of them after buying a pair of trousers from him some time ago. The trousers were the same brand as some I have at home, clean and pressed and looked like new for the equivalent of about £6. I’ve been highly delighted with them but unfortunately caught the leg on a bit of jagged iron getting out of a van and made a small tear, so can’t possibly wear them for the festivities! My trader friend will be delighted as ever since I bought the previous pair he has made a point of greeting me whenever I walk past his stall – even if I’m on the opposite side of the road he never fails to spot me and shouts and waves across the traffic!

Sweating It Out

This morning the temperature here in the Gambia is around 85° with about 90% humidity so it feels rather hotter, and the temperature will no doubt increase during the middle of the day. With the exception of a few days it has been like this for a while – we are still in the rainy season, so this is perfectly normal, although the rainfall is not as frequent as expected and started about a month later than normal. By November however the average humidity should be dropping and it will be considerably more comfortable, but meanwhile we must just endure it. Unless you are lucky enough to have air conditioning at work you spend the day bathed in a thin sticky film of perspiration and it is a relief for me to arrive home and jump into a cold shower – assuming the water is on. If not, a cold drink from the fridge helps (assuming the electricity is on too!), but although the refreshing liquid feels wonderful as it passes through the mouth, it seems to have no long term cooling effect and I’m soon reaching for another. If the water is on, the shower has a cooling effect for a little while longer but within ten or fifteen minutes of emerging the body feels just as hot as before, even clad in just a towel. The humidity doesn’t get much lower in the evenings either, so I’m grateful for the slightest breeze during the night time so I can leave my clammy bed sheet to stand naked by the window for a few minutes and try to cool down. (Those of a nervous disposition should look away now!) The compound wall prevents much air movement and even with both my bedroom windows open the fly screens and mosquito netting hinder further ventilation but a little relief is better than just lying sweating it out.

I’m also grateful to live with a fairly regular supply of running water as I could equally well have been posted to a more remote placement where water had to be carried in buckets or jerry cans (hopefully from not too far away) and where a bath/shower was only possible using a cup and bucket. We take such luxuries for granted in the developed world, whereas here such privations are just a part of everyday life for much of the population, and even here in Bakau many of our neighbours spend much of their time carrying water from a standpipe. It is quite common to see a youngster struggling up the street back to the family compound lugging a full jerry can or balancing a bucket of water on his/her head.

When the electricity supply is cut off (“load sharing”) which happens quite frequently at the moment we sit and wonder what to do next as the laptop battery fades, and I often end up going to bed a lot earlier than at home, to read a book by the light of my head torch, or on my tablet. I was rather dismissive of e-readers until I bought one myself and although it does not perhaps give the same satisfaction as the printed page, it is certainly very convenient, and many books can be downloaded from the internet free of charge which is a bonus. So living without electricity on a daily basis becomes acceptable provided there are periods when the power is restored and the phone, laptop, battery lantern etc can all be recharged. This period is often in the early hours of the morning so I have learned to plug everything in when I go to bed and hopefully I will wake to find I’m recharged. My Gambian neighbours are amazed to hear that power cuts are virtually unknown at home, and usually only occur as a result of mechanical damage to the network or adverse weather conditions. I can imagine the complaints if electricity was only available in my home town between 2am and 7am for a week or more. No doubt heads would roll, but here it is quite normal and you soon get used to it. The water supply however is a different matter and I think I would find it very difficult to manage with such limited availability as affects some of my colleagues elsewhere.

In this situation the heat and humidity make normal life even more of an effort than normal yet still the women spend large amounts of the day collecting water, sweeping the compound, washing clothes, going to the market, preparing and cooking food, and looking after the compound children, then in the evening sitting for long periods by the roadside with a little stall of groundnuts, or perhaps a small stove grilling fish from the nearby market for sale to passers by. All around there are street sellers trying to persuade you to buy water or fruit juice, cashews, bananas, telephone cards, videos, bags, belts, watches, sunglasses. So many of them are selling exactly the same goods as their neighbour, so it must be a bit of a lottery as to which one achieves the next sale. It is difficult for me to shrug off the feeling of guilt as I refuse yet another 5 dalasi bag of nuts from someone who is only trying to make a living, but there are so many, and I constantly have to repeat to myself the mantra “you can’t help them all”.

The same is true of the regular requests for help with school fees. By European standards the fees are quite low – for example a one-year Higher Diploma course in Business Studies at one of the local colleges may cost the equivalent of about £400 but it is quite outside the reach of the average student unless they find sponsorship. Similarly the fees for primary or secondary school education seem insignificant but so many are unable to continue education simply because they can’t afford it. Nevertheless I see huge numbers going to school in the morning, and again in the afternoon as they operate a two shift system although the same teachers have to teach the afternoon classes finishing about 6pm as have taught the morning classes beginning at 8am. The shifts apparently change so that classes alternate to gain the benefit of a fresh teacher in the morning who may be rather more jaded in the afternoon.

It is easy in this climate to succumb to a general sense of indolence and I am conscious of it myself – I have written to friends and family rather less recently than before and my blogs over the last month have not been as regular as heretofore. Some of you have reminded me of this, so please forgive my current inertia. The cooler weather will soon be upon us and normal service will be resumed as soon as possible!