“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…..

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