“Let me just come” said my Gambian friend as he left my office, and once again I was reminded of the differences which still confuse me between English as I know it in the UK and the Gambian version. The “Let me” in the phrase wasn’t asking my permission to do something, but expressing an intention or an imminent action. As for “come”, well here it seems to mean the exact opposite of what I would expect. It is a phrase I hear regularly and seems to be the equivalent of saying “I’m going now, see you later” and as often as I hear it I’m still tempted to say “No, you are not coming, you are going!”

In the same way I find the Gambian interchangeable use of masculine and feminine confusing – frequently I hear phrases like “her wife” which could mean “HIS wife”, or perhaps “her HUSBAND” as “his” and “her” or “he” and “she” seem to be used equally and could refer to either sex, so I have to try and work it out from the context. This can get quite complicated when in family relationships where a reference to someone’s “mother” can in fact be what I know as an aunt, or “brother” can be what I would call a cousin. (Click here to read my earlier blog on the subject if you don’t know what I’m talking about!)

People can be referred to in quite general terms in conversations –  “the man” or “this man” said this, or “a lady” did that, and it takes time for me to work out that “the man” in question is in this case my Director or that the “lady” is the speaker’s step mother. Of course the speaker expects that I know what they mean, and everyone else seems to understand, so perhaps it is just me that is slow on the uptake. Either way I am treated to blank looks when I ask “which man? who are we talking about?”. Surely it’s so obvious!

Some of these phrases are a little easier to understand. “The Big Man” being referred to is probably President Jammeh, or if not it must be the most important man in the group/organisation/area which is being discussed. (And of course in this male dominated society it’s always a man).

People visiting my home often call out “Come, come” as they walk in and this seems to be the equivalent of “Hello, are you at home? Can I come in?” The response “Come, come” being taken as “Yes, the door is open, come on in”

I don’t know how these different meanings have come into general usage although there are others that are easier to understand – I’ve heard “bed” used as a verb (“I bed” meaning I am about to go to bed, or I was  asleep) and “No light” meaning there is a power cut.

“I’m on my way coming” is often used in answer to a question asking where somebody is, but this doesn’t mean what it says. The speaker may well not have set off yet, and if they have, they are probably nowhere near arriving at their destination. In fact it is often difficult to find out exactly where they are as that precise question seems not to have a direct answer, so it is equally difficult to know whether to expect their imminent arrival. I once waited at home two hours for a Gambian to arrive having been told three times in  response to my telephone calls that they were “on my way coming” from Kotu which is a fifteen minute trip from my compound. Eventually I went out for a walk on the beach, whereupon my friend promptly arrived and seemed bewildered that I was no longer there waiting for them! Time here is elastic it seems so when told something will happen “soon”, (or even “soon, soon” which you might think would be the equivalent of “immediately”) I now wait for evidence of activity, and the same is true even when an official time is stated, for example the start of a concert.

At New Year there was an “Open Mic” music event at the Bakau stadium which was billed to start at I think 10pm. A neighbour who acts as “roadie” for one of the local bands involved was keen to sell me a ticket telling me I needed to be there by ten. When I expressed disbelief he assured me that it would definitely start at 11pm and for the first hour anyone who thought they had talent could have 1 minute at the microphone. Then, on the stroke of midnight the real entertainment would start, and it would definitely be on time because there were a number of big name acts who all had to be accommodated with time on stage, and the event HAD to finish by 3am at the latest.

The following morning I was woken by the call to prayer from the local mosque at about 5am, and then some time afterwards by the tramp of many feet – it sounded like an army on the move – as the crowds of revellers walked up Mamakoto Road on their way home from the concert…..

Another New Year

I was asked recently what I had done to celebrate the New Year and the answer is “not a lot really!”. I spent a couple of days at the very end of December staying at Boboi, a small lodge down the coast near Kartong, so most of the time I sat under the palm trees relaxing and enjoying the peace and quiet. I’ve been there before to get away from the noise of the Kombo and it’s amazing what a difference there is in a short distance down the coast. The journey from Bakau is done comfortably in an hour and it feels like a world away. Gone are the crowded streets and noise of my home neighbourhood in Mamakoto, gone is the “Costa-like” atmosphere of the Senegambia area where the big European style tourist hotels are situated, and in their place are three or four Gambian round houses set among palm trees just off the beach, together with a couple of tree houses and a small bar. I’ve only stayed in the round houses (which cost about £24 a night including breakfast of bread and fruit) as I prefer somewhere with shower and toilet attached, but for those on a tighter budget half that price will rent a tree house although if you’re caught short in the night you have to climb down the steps in the dark and walk across the yard!

If you’re looking for a lively time forget it (although there was a party one night about ten minutes walk down the beach, but in typical Gambian fashion it didn’t start until about 10pm and then continued until the early hours), but for a relaxing break I would highly recommend it. On New Year’s Eve I drove a few miles further south down to the very end of the Gambia – past the military checkpoints and immigration officers to the River Allahein which forms the border with Senegal and sat on the bank watching a local with a canoe ferrying passengers backwards and forwards to Casamance. Two young German travellers were wanting to cross to Senegal but had some difficulty with the boatman who insisted on charging them considerably more than the locals. They looked to me like penniless students, but to him they were obviously rich Europeans! The area on the other side of the river is disputed territory where the separatists are fighting for independence and an area where our Government advises UK citizens only to travel on certain routes and then only in daylight hours to avoid the possibility of hijackings and robbery. It all looked peaceful enough from my side, just a chap on a motorbike waiting to pick someone up from the ferry.


River Allahein – at the border


That afternoon it was windy and overcast so I went to visit the nearby Reptile Farm which has a good collection of snakes, crocodiles, turtles and the like. It is the only such place in the Gambia and is set up as a research and education centre. Our guide obviously knew the science but was also very entertaining, and as you can see from the picture I too was able to demonstrate my extensive knowledge of rock pythons.

The reptile expert

The reptile expert


At present they are conducting a survey of crocodiles to ascertain the balance between the crocodile population and the fish stocks (crocodiles are a protected species but it is thought their numbers are getting too high in the Gambia) so it is possible to book an afternoon learning about crocodiles and how to handle little ones and then take part in a night safari in a boat on the river counting the beasts. Sounds like fun!

We had talked about going to Senegambia that evening to see the New Year in – apparently the hotels have a big firework display, but it is also apparently very crowded and when, as I drove home past Senegambia that afternoon I saw three fire engines parked up ready for the festivities I thought it better to stay away. (I hear there was only one small restaurant fire!). In the event we had a bar meal near home – including pancake for dessert as it was a special occasion – and then went home to bed, only to be woken about midnight by what sounded like World War Three. I felt I should go outside to watch the fireworks … promptly rolled over and went back to sleep.

On New Years Day a number of us went to Banjul to see the “hunting” celebrations. There are various hunting societies (which in days gone by actually went into the bush to hunt wild animals and then exhibited what they had caught/killed) who process round their own neighbourhood with a dancer dressed as an animal followed by the rest of the members some of who have weapons, and then at New Year gather in the capital for a kind of competition. Most of the afternoon was spent just watching the crowds milling about backwards and forwards with the occasional “animal” going past and by 7pm I was ready for home. The costumes were quite remarkable, although mostly fairly similar apart from the head, but apart from that I failed to see what the locals were finding so exciting about the event, and the crush was indescribable as we struggled to get out and find our way back to the car


Don’t ask! I have no idea of the significance of the golf club!


I thought they were North American?

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Another exotic animal.....and another golf club!

Another exotic animal…..and another golf club!

Last Sunday however was just the opposite. One of my neighbours had organised a boat trip so about twenty of us assembled at 9am on the riverbank with picnics and fishing tackle and spent the next seven hours pottering about the creeks enjoying the sun or moored in the middle of the river sitting idly fishing and barbecuing our lunch.


Joe, ever the professional, nonchalantly demonstrates an overhead cast


Helen looks on in awe. “Which way do I turn the handle?”

While Paul shows them both how to do it....

While Paul shows them both how to do it….


As I’ve said before, “It’s a hard life being a volunteer in the Gambia!”