Christmas in Gambia

Christmas Day

Christmas Day 10am. It’s a strange feeling. This is the first Christmas I have spent outside the UK and it doesn’t really seem like Christmas at all yet. I woke at 6.30 (forgot to switch my alarm off) and lay for a while listening to the sounds outside. Nothing out of the ordinary there. I had already heard the Muslim call to prayer from the mosques in our neighbourhood and now peace had returned. It was overcast outside with a cool breeze flapping the curtain, probably about 18°C, so winter as far as Gambians are concerned and my neighbours had obviously gone back to bed. I’ve noticed that on cooler mornings there is a lot less activity when I get up as the locals wait for the streets to warm up before rousing and today was no exception. Christmases at home have always previously engendered a sense of expectancy and there has been some activity outside in the street as I drink my morning tea, but here all is quiet and it just feels like a normal weekday morning. I boil the kettle and eat my cornflakes and as it slowly gets light Hassana arrives to sweep the yard and water the plants, so it’s a normal day for her too.

Later today we are having a lunch party with some of the other volunteers and friends in Kotu. Dr Joe, who lives there on his own has room in his compound to accommodate us all (I think there will be about 25 of us), and also owns a barbecue, so his place was the obvious choice! VSO country office have made a contribution to the celebrations so three volunteers have been busy stocking up with crates of soft drinks and a selection of meat for the barbecue (aah………roast pork!!) and the rest of us have each been asked to provide something for the feast. In my case I was asked to bring cheese and biscuits so I had a rash trip to Marouns, a supermarket in the Senegambia area which caters for the toubabs (and charges accordingly), and bought a selection of Stilton, Brie, Wensleydale with blueberries, and a pack of Tesco cheddar (Tesco products – usually cheese or pate – appear in a couple of the supermarkets here from time to time,) which will all make a nice change from the usual bland slabs I buy for sandwiches.

Apparently NAWEC (the electricity and water supply company) haven’t realised it is Christmas Day either as they have just switched the electricity off again. Do they not realise that I’m listening to Christmas Carols and need power? The spirit of goodwill is evaporating fast as I pack up my laptop – the battery is exhausted and won’t hold much charge now, so I’ll just have to hope power is restored this evening by which time with a belly full of Christmas fare I will no doubt be in a more genial mood towards them!

Boxing Day

Praise be, power was restored before evening yesterday, but I’m sorry to say I missed out on the roast pork! The Christmas barbecue was a marathon affair – I ferried my neighbours and their baskets of provisions to Kotu in two loads arriving soon after one o’clock but it was about three by the time everyone had assembled and the first course came off the barbecue.

We even had a Christmas tree

We even had a Christmas tree

For a vegetarian, Amar is showing an unhealthy interest in Joe's BEEFburgers

For a vegetarian, Amar is showing an unhealthy interest in Joe’s BEEFburgers

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Peter and Godfrey tuck in

By that time I think we were all ready to eat and tucked enthusiastically into Joe’s home made beefburgers and a good selection of salads and dips together with ice cold bottles of a famous soft drink. This led seamlessly on to a second course of chicken, and some time later, a third of grilled red snapper. I passed on the fish course intending to save myself for the pork, but there was still a way to go. Joe and his assistant Lamin did sterling work in relays on the barbecue and plates of delicious meat were circulating all afternoon.

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Dr Joe showing Lamin how it is done!

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….followed by a well earned break!

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Spicy lamb…..delicious!

At some point (my recollection of time is hazy) it was decided that the presents should be distributed so we gathered round the tree and took it in turns to pick a present from the “secret Santa”. This allowed time for digestion and some fun. Francis looked as though he had been awarded an Oscar as he unwrapped his lip salve

P1000254_100PPI750talland I was delighted with my bar of Nivea soap (helps retain my youthfull bloom and freshness!) but the person who put a packet of chalk in the the sack has something to answer for!

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One of our younger members defaces the garden path……..

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Don’t worry Joe, it will wash off when the rains come…..next August!

P1000269_100PPI750tallNicola amazed us all with her packets of artificial snow (just add water and watch it fluff up before your eyes) while we relaxed in the afternoon sunshine and DJ Tapilapa played the music system as a gang of little boys sat on the roof next door watching what the toubabs were doing. At first they kept kicking their football over the wall so that someone would have to come and retrieve it, but after that palled, they found a few bangers to throw over and keep us awake.

What is that beer bottle doing near Munya?

What is that beer bottle doing near Munya?

P1000249_100PPI750tallBy seven o’clock however, after the roast lamb, I was faltering – a full stomach and ready for bed, but I manfully stayed awake until after the shrimps arrived, (big and juicy and fresh from Bakau fish market that morning), before throwing in the towel and heading for home. I felt duty bound to offer to return later with the car to collect my friends, but fortunately they didn’t take me up on the offer but instead caught a taxi home about midnight by which time I had been long asleep dreaming of succulent roast pork. Oh well, another day perhaps.

Today has I think been a quiet day for most of us spent at home although some of the more energetic members of the crew met in the afternoon at the beach to finish off the food. As for me, I’m saving myself for tomorrow evening when we are meeting again to bid farewell to one of our group who is leaving on Saturday to take up a post in South Africa with the United Nations.

Good luck Janneke, and safe journey.

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Driving in Gambia

As I recently bought a car, I have been studying the rules of the road and have set out below a few notes which may help aspiring drivers in the Gambia. The points marked with an asterisk * apply principally to taxi/van drivers but can be used by private vehicles too.

BEFORE YOU BEGIN

·         It is essential to pass the following skills test before attempting to drive:-

  • Open the door (left hand side front normally, but this can be changed when circumstances require) and settle yourself in to the driver’s seat
  • Make sure the radio is in the correct position for starting (full volume) and that the windscreen stickers or knitted decorations obscure at least 20% of your view. (If the vehicle has been licensed, a judiciously placed licence disc will help obscure a vacant place on the windscreen even if it is out of date)
  • At night check that at least one of the lights will illuminate – for vans it helps if this is the interior lamp so that the “apprenti” can count the fares.

When you have practised these manoeuvres sufficiently (i.e. at least once) you will be considered competent and may start the engine and proceed.

·         Make sure you have at least four wheels with tyres, (two is sufficient for a motorcycle) and that these are all attached to your chosen vehicle.

·         Wash the vehicle regularly (including the tyres and engine bay if necessary) as this will improve performance and fuel consumption*

HELPFUL ACCESSORIES

  •  Invest in some colourful pictures of a celebrated Islamic scholar to stick in the windscreen, or paint his name across the front/rear of the vehicle in large letterS.  (If you prefer you can paint a catchy slogan like “Get Rich or Die Trying”, “Justice”, “City Boy”, or similar on the bonnet or boot instead)*
  •  Flashing LED lights in various colours, and vinyl flames pasted down the sides of the car will improve your driving considerably

HAZARDS ON THE ROAD

·         Hazards can be defined as any person or object you may encounter within 100 yards of the road and are best just ignored. If however you really feel the need to take action the following hints may come in useful:-

  • When approaching a hazard (for example a donkey cart, a broken down lorry, a van parked in the carriageway, pedestrians, or a driver coming in the opposite direction) maintain your speed and course until just before the point of impact, then either brake hard while blowing your horn, or if you are able to do so accelerate and swing sharply out past the hazard (right and left side are both equally acceptable) while blowing your horn and waving.
  • If you spot a friend or acquaintance on the roadside or in another vehicle maintain your forward speed but ignore the traffic in front so that you can attract their attention and hold a conversation in passing.
  • When you are behind a queue of vehicles it will miraculously clear the stoppage and help traffic move forward more speedily if you lean hard on the horn.
  •  On dual carriageways bicycles and motorcycles are permitted to travel against the normal flow of traffic (as are private cars, vans, donkey carts, and pedestrians).
  •  Traffic lights if encountered can be safely ignored, unless a police officer is on duty, in which case you are advised to try to decipher which of his flapping hands applies to you and wave back graciously.
  • At junctions and roundabouts the normal approach is to maintain forward motion (with horn blowing and waving where appropriate) so that someone else has to give way and let you in. Sticking your hand out of the window sometimes helps provided you wave it about in an indeterminate manner.
  • It is considered bad manners for drivers ever to give way to other traffic or pedestrians although this rule may be ignored when waving someone across a busy road in front of you, provided that before doing so you ensure other traffic is approaching fast from behind (or the opposite direction) – this keeps the pedestrians alert.
  •  If you are driving a van, please remember that tying a large assortment of heavy and unwieldy items onto the roof will dramatically improve your vehicle’s stability and handling characteristics. If you only have a car, why not try a settee and 2 armchairs, or simply leave the boot lid flapping open with something long protruding to the side. (Bundles of steel reinforcing bars are another popular roof mounted accessory but should not protrude over the bonnet by more than a foot or two. Any excess can safely be left dragging on the road behind you. If you are unsure of the area, the marks on the road will help guide you back the way you came.)
  •  Don’t forget that everyone else on the road is a complete idiot, without the benefit of your superior knowledge and skills, and draw this to the attention of your passengers/other road users as often and as loudly as possible.
  • When approaching a toubab walking towards you, blow your horn loud and long as this will invariably persuade them to hail your vehicle for a long ride in the opposite direction to which they were heading *(taxi drivers only)
  • When driving any kind of emergency vehicle ensure you use the flashing lights and sirens at all times. Other road traffic will think it is the Presidential motorcade and move to the side thus enabling you to arrive at your destination at least 30 seconds before you would otherwise have done so.
  •  If you intend stopping to pick up or deposit passengers, it will help if first you overtake the vehicle in front so that you can cut smartly in front of them without indicating. If this is not possible, consider stopping as sharply as you can and as close as you can to any other parked vehicles.*

Judicious use of the horn is advisable to notify other road users of your intentions, particularly in the following circumstances, although this list is not exhaustive:-

  • When turning left or pulling out
  • When turning right or pulling in
  • When stopping
  • When at a roundabout or junction
  • When stuck behind other stationary traffic (very important here)
  • When you see a friend or relative
  •  When you see a toubab
  • When someone tries to cross the road
  • When some other idiot pulls out in front of you, stops in front of you, or otherwise impedes your progress

N. B. On a dual carriageway it is advisable to change lanes frequently and without warning so that you can see the road in front and stop drivers behind from doing so or getting in front of you. If you are driving at speed in the outside (left) lane, approaching a left turn with queuing traffic, undertaking is best left until you are about to collide with the stationary vehicle in front of you.

If you pay careful attention to the above you will soon feel perfectly at home with the rest of the drivers on the road in Gambia!

Tribulations

I mentioned last week that I was having problems with my new car – the battery was flat very quickly and so I bought a new one which seemed to solve the problem for a couple of days but then was also exhausted. I haven’t yet found out whether the alternator is charging properly, or whether there is a problem elsewhere as I have yet to find a Gambian who can trace the fault and rectify it. Being a Volvo, the side lights are always on, even in daylight, which is fine as a safety measure but drains the battery more quickly, so I have disconnected them for the time being and make sure that I have my spare battery charged daily at work so that I can swop it over when necessary to keep the car going.

This has worked fine as a temporary measure and Bobby who drives one of the pickups at work and who lives not far from me tells me he knows a mechanic near my home who will repair it so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that he will know what he is doing. So many skills that we take for granted at home are simply not available in the Gambia, although on the other hand I have seen some novel repair methods here – but as they say “necessity is the mother of invention”.

 Last night however I was a little later than usual leaving work and as it was getting dark I had to stop and reconnect the lights before I reached home so that I could see and be seen. Although the distance left was not far, the extra drain on the battery was soon evident and by the time I got to my street in Bakau it was about 7.30pm, nearly dark (the power was off in our area again) and I couldn’t see well enough to safely continue the last 200 yards or so to my compound gate, so I pulled off the road, locked the car, and left it until morning. My housemate said we should go back with lights and remove the car but I thought it would be safe overnight and left it where it was. How wrong I was!

When I went back at 8am the following day someone had broken into it through the back door and stolen my good battery and a box of assorted spares that were in the back, but left the spare wheels, car radio, and two good tow ropes. A man who lives in the compound next to where the car was parked, came out and made a big song and dance about it saying he had wondered whose it was, and why it was there etc, and how wicked the thieves were, but I was only reminded of Queen Gertrude’s remark in Hamlet – “The lady doth protest too much, methinks!” and have my suspicions he knows who took them! Whatever the truth of the matter there was nothing else for me to do but get some cash as soon as the banks opened and go back to Westfields to buy another brand new battery (£45). Half an hour later I was back on the road, eventually arriving at work about 10am.

My friends and colleagues were all duly sympathetic – I have seldom heard so many expressions of sadness except at a funeral – and keen to tell me what a bad area I live in. According to them my district of Bakau is nothing but a nest of thieves who don’t want work but sit about all day drinking attaya and then go out after dark looking for things to steal! I suppose this is true of some, but I also have to say that it is a very poor neighbourhood. I certainly don’t condone theft, but the average Gambian is finding it harder to make ends meet as the price of goods and services continues to rise, and the temptation to help yourself must be very strong, particularly when some careless toubab who apparently has a lot more than you leaves something of value unwatched.

I should also report an incident which took place about 10pm on Sunday evening when I was a passenger on a van and one of my fellow travellers tried to pick my pocket. Just before reaching my destination the passenger immediately next to me got off and the vacant place between me and the door was immediately taken by a middle aged man who moved forward from the seat behind me with a large parcel on his knee. When I got up a little further on to alight, my passage was effectively blocked by his parcel and by two more men who got up to exit in front of me. I don’t know whether the other two were his accomplices and were also there to delay me – they had all been sitting together on the back row before he changed seats, but as I stood waiting for them to move past I felt a touch on my trouser pocket. Unfortunately the thief was a little clumsy in his attempt and I promptly grabbed his throat with both hands and told him what I thought of him. (This rather surprised both of us but I did it instinctively!). There seemed no point in holding everyone up and calling the police, so having frightened him I left him on the van to the mercy of the other passengers. I have heard of instances where a thief has been badly beaten by the honest Gambians who make up the bulk of the population, but have no idea of this man’s fate. If he had any sense he will have got off the van at the first opportunity to avoid the other passengers who would mostly be going to Serrekunda.

So now all of a sudden I’m wondering whether my closing remarks last week about human nature were justified, or whether my natural cynicism and suspicion should prevail?

On a lighter note I am pleased to say that Bobby from work took me to see the mechanic here in Bakau on Friday. I was dubious whether he would have the necessary skills to trace the fault on my car, but his friend Omar set straight to work under the shade of a tree and soon decided the alternator was not charging properly. I expected he would tell me it needed replacing but instead he promptly removed, cleaned, repaired and refitted it, renewed a faulty lighting connection and announced everything was now working, so hopefully I will have no more problems. The whole process with a very limited toolkit took about two hours. His boss meanwhile made a fuss about it being my first visit and hopefully not my last as I was now a valued customer, and afterwards charged me the equivalent of about £8! I guess at home it would have been ten times that amount and the garage would probably have wanted to sell me a new alternator.