Family Matters

Family relationships are very important in the Gambia and by European standards these relationships can be quite complicated leading to a wide range of words in Wolof for different family members. When the relationships are explained, the logic behind much of the naming seems clear but in these extended families it is a little difficult at times to remember who is who, so I hope I’ve understood the basics enough for a brief explanation.

Traditionally a Gambian man (assuming he is a Muslim) may take up to four wives at a time if he can support them, and it is not unusual for Gambian women to have five or more children, so he may quite easily father an extended family of 20 or 30 children by different wives, all of whom live together in the same compound, and thus the relationship between members of the family becomes quite complex. It is common for a man to have a wife (or perhaps more than one) who is considerably younger than he is, and so it is quite possible he will die first. Traditionally it would be quite usual for one of his brothers to then take the young widow for a wife, and continue to support the family. Perhaps this is why the terms “uncle” and “aunt” do not have quite the same meaning in Gambia as in the UK. Here the term “uncle” refers to your mother’s brother(s), and the term “aunt” to your father’s sister(s). Any brothers that your father might have are also regarded as being your father too, and the Wolof term for them (“baay bu ndaw”) means literally “little father”, –  so if your biological father dies leaving a young widow and family one of the other little fathers may take his place. Similarly your mother’s sisters are called literally your “little mother”. A similar system of naming continues with those that we at home would call your “cousins,” who are called such only if they are children of your mother’s brother, or your father’s sister, as any children belonging to your father’s brothers or your mother’s sisters are regarded as being your brothers and sisters too. Are you still with me? Perhaps you will understand then that your only nephews and nieces are your sister’s children if you are a man, and your brother’s children if you are a woman. All others are regarded as your own children too!

The term “goro” for your parents in law can also refer to the older brother of the husband, or the older sister of the wife, while the term “peecargo” for brothers or sisters in law is restricted to someone who is married to your sister or brother, not someone who is married to your wife/husband’s sister or brother.

Then of course there are also different terms for first wife, last wife, and other co-wives – but perhaps I’ll leave them for another day.

[ As an aside, if a large number of men do in fact still take multiple wives, and as the overall ratio of males to females is roughly equal in the Gambia, – and this ratio is similar across each age group, I wonder what happens to all those spare men?]


Family ceremonies are also important and last week there was some kind of wedding celebration in the compound next door but one to where I am living. It sounded a great party and kept the street entertained for hours. There was a lot of loud music with the obligatory drumming and singing during the afternoon, and when I joined one of the little girls next door and stuck my head over the wall to have a peek it looked like a hen party with only a few men in evidence. There were two very smart cars parked on the street outside our gateway, decorated with balloons and what looked to be blobs of shaving foam in the shape of hearts, and about seven o’clock the girls moved out into the street as if preparing to leave. I think the bride is the girl in the red dress, but there’s no sign of a groom, so I still don’t know if this was the hen party, or just a bit of a warm up to get the sisters in the mood before going to the ceremony.

Language Practice…..and a Feast

The main part of our schooling during the last week has been language lessons. Three of our group who will be working further out from the Kombos are learning Mandinka which is more useful “up country”, and the rest of us, myself included, are learning Wolof which is the predominant language in the urban area. Modu, our tutor (I’ll spell it as it is pronounced, rather than try to write in Wolof) is teaching us about the local culture and customs and trying to give us a grounding in basic phrases for greetings, getting around, shopping, and everyday life.

The Gambians are a very sociable people to whom greetings are very important so it is only good manners when meeting to exchange several phrases of greeting, and to ask how they are, and how the family is, even if we have not met them before. So we begin each conversation with the ritual phrases “nanga def” (How are you?) to which the reply is “mang fi” (I’m fine) even if you are not fine, followed by “ana waa kur ga” (How’s the family?), to which the reply is “ñun fa” (They’re fine), and probably other queries about “How’s your day going?”, “How is work/business?” and various other good wishes including the catch all “salaam aleekum” (response “maleekum salaam”) or “jamarek”, wishing each other peace and goodwill, before we begin to think about the business of the conversation for example “Please may I have two bread rolls?”.

This morning, for a practical lesson we were taken to Serekunda where there is a huge market selling fish, meat, fruit and vegetables, clothes, household goods, fabrics etc, and there let loose to practice our Wolof skills on the stallholders by enquiring about prices, what some of the items were (there are plenty of foodstuffs I have never seen, or can’t name) and to buy the ingredients for our lunch. I was delighted to be asked by one lady “deega nga olof?” (Do you speak Wolof?) in response to my stumbling enquiry about the price of tomatoes, but had to reply truthfully “tutti, tutti” (A very little). Still at least she understood and I bought 5 tomatoes for 10p!

Following our shopping experience we went back to Kanifing to the compound of Awr (Eve) another of our language trainers to help make a “benacin” (One pot) using the meat and vegetables we had bought earlier. The ladies of the compound were very patient with our efforts, instructing some of us how they wanted the vegetables prepared (large pieces mostly it seems) while others of our group helped with the preparation of “juusi buy” (baobab juice) which involves soaking pieces of the baobab fruit in water, then sieving it and adding large quantities of sugar, condensed milk, vanilla essence, banana, (or other fruit) and results in a delicious sweet creamy fluid like liquid silk. You will think the taste can’t be improved until you discover wonjo juice which looks like blackcurrant and is produced by boiling a dried red (sorrell?) flower in a pan of water with a little mint. I missed the rest of the process as I was peeling onions, so there may be other ingredients too, but when this is filtered and added to the baobab juice the resulting mixture is like nectar of the Gods

Soaking baobab for the juice

Soaking baobab for the juice

Juusi buy nearly ready

Juusi buy nearly ready

Cookhouse duty for the boys

Cookhouse duty for the boys

Ready for the pot

Ready for the pot

Meanwhile the meat was fried in oil, and added to what can only be described as a cast aluminium cauldron over a wood fire together with a large quantity of stock with tomato paste and various spices, herbs and flavourings and bucket loads of vegetables, and left to bubble away while we chatted and drank glasses of “attaya” a sweet frothy tea, and the remains of the bowl of “juusi buy”. Maybe 90 minutes later after some of the vegetables had been removed to prevent overcooking, a huge bowl of rice was put to steam over the cauldron, and then later still mixed in with the stew and covered to soak up the juice. The result when dinner was served, fed about 30 people very well, tasted delicious, and if our budget was anything like correct had cost less than £1 per head.

Traditionally Gambians eat together from a large communal bowl using their right hand to pick out pieces of meat or vegetables and to knead small balls of rice and dip it in the juices, but as “toubabs” and honoured guests we were provided with plastic garden chairs and spoons which made eating a little easier. So “jerejef” and “jamarek” to Awr and her extended family for a great meal and good company and for introducing me to some unknown vegetables.

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Lots of stirring…..

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…..and pounding

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…..till the boys return from school….

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……and we can sit down with Awr to enjoy the feast