Koriteh

Wednesday night marked the end of Ramadan, the month long period of fasting during daylight hours and abstaining from worldly pleasures, so yesterday was the feast of Koriteh (or Eid al Fitr as it is known elsewhere), and for the Muslims this means party time. The Islamic calendar is lunar, divided into 12 months of 29 or 30 days (354 days in all) so the timing of Ramadan varies, moving forward by about eleven days each year, and although the dates are predicted in advance, the actual timing depends on sightings of the moon so until Wednesday evening we weren’t sure whether Koriteh would be Thursday or Friday although my colleagues assured me that I needn’t come to work on Thursday as they were sure it would be Koriteh. As we were about to leave work the heavens opened and for over an hour we were confined to the office as the thunder rolled, lightning flashed and the rain sheeted down. Eventually the deluge stopped but heavy cloud still covered the sky and there was no possibility of a moon sighting where we were.

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We drove home along flooded roads with several abandoned cars, and as we passed Abuko the site of the main slaughterhouse, the small roadside butchery stalls looked to be doing a roaring trade with long queues waiting to buy meat for the expected feasting. It reminded me of Christmas in the UK when the shoppers at the supermarkets give the impression they are stocking up for a six month siege, not just one day when the shops are closed.

At about 8pm (at which time I was told we would know if it was Koriteh the following day) I scoured the internet for news and found that the authorities in Abu Dhabi had declared a sighting by their official moon sighting committee, so Koriteh was confirmed for Thursday, and I breathed a sigh of relief – for me Ramadan had meant I was unable to buy fresh bread in the mornings but instead had to rely for a month on dry rolls from the previous evening for my lunch time sandwiches. What hardships we have to undergo as volunteers!

During the weeks before the feast there is much preparation to be done – it is a point of honour to provide a good show for your friends and neighbours, and the Gambian tailors are very busy making new outfits for all the ladies to wear. I had heard it was a time when everyone dressed in their best new clothes, so as I had been invited to join a colleague’s family for the day I too made an effort and bought a smart shirt for the occasion. (It amazes me what the countless small tailoring workshops can produce with limited facilities, and at what seems to me a bargain price, although I understand some of the more elaborate creations can be several thousand dalasi (D1000 is about £20), partly depending on the amount of embroidery involved. One lady told me the “stitching” on her dress had cost over D1500 – it looked cheap at the price to me.

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Ready for the party!

On Thursday I received a call at about 11am asking where I was – apparently I had been expected to join the family for breakfast following the 10am prayers, so I made my apologies and hastily made my way out of town to their home at Banjulinding. The taxis were packed – everyone going to join family and friends for the festivities, but by about 12.30 I had arrived and was being greeted as an honoured guest by the entire family. Half an hour later I was made aware that although I had not been present for breakfast, I was still expected to eat it, and was faced with a huge plate of tasty beef and pasta with bread rolls, and a bowl of chakri. There looked to be enough for at least two people and I had to confess myself beaten by the quantity. Following breakfast we sat and chatted in the house and played games with the children who kept wandering in until about 3pm at which time the ladies retired (to pray, or to do the washing up I wondered?) and I was shepherded outside to join a group of the men resting under a mango tree.  Meanwhile there was a steady procession of visitors to the compound – apparently it is a time at which you visit your friends and neighbours and ask their forgiveness for any wrongs you have done them, especially those you committed during Ramadan when you were hungry, tired and short tempered. The visits are many but short, consisting of the usual ritual greetings and handshakes all round (by the time I went home my right hand ached!), and there was a constant procession of children dressed in their best clothes who go round the entire neighbourhood to greet people and ask for “salibo” – small gifts. I was unprepared for this so had no change with me, but my hosts had a ready supply of dalasis, and after the handshake and polite greetings each child was given a coin. During the course of the afternoon there must have been around 200 or more children calling for gifts – there was a steady stream which was still continuing as I left about 8pm, and it must be an expensive day for the family head! The children usually came in small groups of up to a dozen or so of all ages and each one, even the smallest tot came forward to shake hands before being directed across to the house to receive their gift.

Before I came outside I had been told my lunch was ready, but managed after many protestations that I had only just eaten breakfast, to convince my hosts that I really couldn’t eat anything else just yet, and persuade them to leave it for later. It constantly surprises me how much Gambians can eat as the meals are large, and in this climate I find I eat a lot less than I would at home.

I had been told that one of the family had a laptop that needed attention and expected that it would be brought to me at some point to see if I could resurrect it, but instead I was asked to assist with another task – proof reading/editing a dissertation on the production of tomatoes in the Gambia so spent the next hour or more in the shade of the mango tree going through it with the author and suggesting alterations to the wording or spelling corrections. I’ve noticed before that many Gambians when speaking/writing English use the singular when we would use the plural, and use tenses differently to a native Englishman, presumably based on the construction of their own local languages. At first I thought it was just a few of them, but it seems there is a distinct language of “Gamblish”!

By 7.30pm I thought it was time to head back to the city, and also thought I had got away without eating lunch, but was then presented with a large plateful of benacin to take home, together with three sweet grapefruit from my host’s tree. I had already eaten quite enough to last me until bedtime but was firmly told to eat it the following day. The ladies in fact were keen for me to stay for dinner which was apparently due to begin fairly shortly, and my host seemed put out that I was not returning the following day to continue the feasting, but I felt discretion was the better part of valour and caught a van for the journey back to town. As we drove through the suburbs the streets were crowded with locals on parade in their very best costumes, although it seemed many of the roadside stalls were open for business too, and when I reached Westfield the road outside Jokor nightclub was absolutely packed with people, so I assume it was full inside too and the traffic was all being slowly guided through the crowds of youngsters by a policeman on point duty. At the next junction where I change to another van for the ride back to Bakau there were fewer taxis and vans than usual, but again the area was busy with Gambians enjoying themselves, promenading, meeting with friends, and generally celebrating the end of a month of abstinence. As I arrived home music was once more booming out from the compounds around us, and it seems life has returned to normal.

I found the house in darkness – my housemate had retired early, and after a glass of squash I too collapsed into bed. All this partying is quite exhausting!

Back To School

Well it feels as if the holidays have ended and I’m back at school again! The past week has been occupied with form filling, briefings about the country and cultural context, VSO policies, health and safety, and language lessons. We even went to the British High Commission for an introductory briefing by the Deputy High Commissioner! I’m now the proud holder of a photo ID from the Department of Immigration showing my residential status in the Gambia, which reminds me whenever I produce my card of that song by Sting – “I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien” although I believe that was about Quentin Crisp – “An Englishman in New York”. I expect to receive my VSO identity card shortly, and then soon after that, my tax office number, as although being an impecunious volunteer I have no tax to pay, without that vital number I’m unable to open a bank account. So that means more form filling, and another photograph for identification. Which one should I use from the many pictures I was advised to bring with me? My “happy” face or the one that looks like a “Wanted” poster? and how should I choose which one of about 14 banks I should entrust with my few dalasi while I am here? After some thought I decided to use a large international bank rather than its smaller Gambian cousin as although I’m told the bank charges (yes, there is no free banking here, unlike the UK!) are slightly higher, it has a larger network from which I can access cash when necessary.

Public transport is taking a bit of getting used to. The main means of getting around the Kombos is by taxi and there are two types, distinguishable only by colour. They come in various shapes and sizes but are typically a battered diesel Mercedes saloon, either green for the tourists (i.e. higher price), or yellow for the locals. The yellow ones will either charge you for a “town trip” at a (higher) price negotiated before you get in, and take you wherever you want, or drive fixed routes and are known as “Seven Sevens” as the fare is 7 dalasi (14p) from wherever on that route you get in, to wherever you get out. There are large numbers of these taxis (– sometimes it seems every car in the Kombos is a taxi) driving slowly around the area blowing their horns, shouting and waving at those on the street, particularly “toubabs” (white people) such as myself in an effort to gain a fare, but before getting in (if you are wise) you will shout at the driver “Seven Seven” and your destination, otherwise if the taxi is empty, you may be charged for a town trip instead of the 7 dalasi per head fixed fare! The other option is to take a “gelli” which is a kind of minibus operating on the same principal, but with an attendant taking the fare as well as the driver. It’s all very noisy and looks chaotic at times, but it seems to work, as around half the population of the Gambia live in this urban area, and at rush hour it seems as if they all cram into the taxis and vans to get to work. I’m sure that in time I’ll get used to the system and to the boom box which blasts out West African music from behind my head in most of these vehicles!

Meanwhile, being from Yorkshire, I’ve quickly adapted to the volunteer mentality – “If I can walk, even if it takes 45 minutes,  it will save 14p” so only take a Seven Seven for the longer distances and travel much of the time on foot.

First thoughts

Well I’ve been here in The Gambia three days now but it seems like an eternity since I arrived. There were four of us flying from Heathrow on a packed plane to Casablanca, then onward to Banjul via Conakry in Guinea, a trip which took about ten and a half hours. At Conakry the plane emptied most of its human cargo and almost immediately filled up again with the same number for the final 80 minutes or so to Banjul. Obviously a popular route, with European faces in the minority so we received our first taste of African society on the trip. We landed about 3.30am but clearing immigration took about an hour – three of our number plus another volunteer from the Phillipines who had joined the plane at Casablanca came through without incident, but the fourth member of our team (who shall be nameless to protect the innocent) was pulled out for questioning – probably because of the sheer amount of luggage he had brought. Poor Rao – it seems that all his family had contributed items to his luggage and he arrived heavily laden!

We were met at the airport as promised by Alieu from VSO and driven the short distance from the airport to our beds at the Safari Garden hotel. Tired but not sleepy, I spent the first hour reading part of the welcome pack provided by the office to prepare us for life in The Gambia, before finally falling asleep about 5am. As a result I was surprised to be awake about 9am the following morning and ready to meet the others for breakfast in the courtyard. It was a day to ourselves as we were the first group to arrive and the others were not due to land until 11pm so we had a relaxing morning, then about midday we set off as a group for a walk along the nearby beach.

FIVE HOURS LATER we arrived back at the hotel. It seemed as if the entire population of The  Gambia wanted to be our friends, shake hands, welcome us to the country, and find out our names and where we came from. We cooled our feet in the waves, drank freshly pressed juice and ate fruit from some of the many stalls along the sand, apparently in the process becoming part of the family for Mama and Fatou Binto, who taught us a few words in Wolof, then left their stall to show us back to the coast road and along the way told us about many of the plants that were being grown in the market gardens we passed  through. I must also mention Maria and Maya at the craft market who are ready to provide all our tailoring requirements in nice brightly coloured printed fabric – I believe I became engaged to one of them (possibly both!) but must certainly remember not to patronise any other seamstress when the time comes for me to buy a new shirt!

The following day, in company with the new arrivals we were taken to the VSO office to meet Haddy and the rest of the staff, receive details of the forthcoming In Country Training, and fill in the various forms for bank accounts,  Residency Permits, Tax Identification Numbers (- although we don’t pay tax here on our allowances, we need this detail in order to open a bank account). We were also each given a bundle of banknotes equating to about £130 sterling which is our first month’s living allowance, and two SIM cards, so I can now talk to the world on my new Africell mobile telephone number. There are currently about 51 dalasi to the £ sterling, and a meal costing 200 dalasi would be considered quite expensive – in fact today we have eaten well at a roadside stand for 30 dalasi each – thanks Omar, we’ll definitely be back. By 2.30pm we were free for the rest of the day until evening when we were due to meet with Abdoulie our VSO Programme Manager for dinner at the Safari Garden. It’s a hard life!