Three ‘R’s

A friend wrote to me yesterday, concerned that I hadn’t written anything last week and wondering whether I had caught malaria, got married, or been eaten by a crocodile. Well, Steve, none of the above applies and  hopefully if I write a little more this week the good people of Leeds will overlook my lapse, although once again I’m struggling for photos for illustration!

Last weekend however I had to go into work on Friday, so the usual three day break was compressed into two and on the Sunday afternoon, having completed my chores, and faced with the difficult choice between staying at home sweating over a hot laptop or meeting two other volunteers at Baker’s Dozen cafe in Fajara for one of their delicious chocolate milk shakes, I’m afraid to say I neglected my readership, succumbed to temptation and sat for a couple of hours enjoying the breeze on a first floor balcony, and not one, but TWO milk shakes (we really know how to enjoy ourselves on a budget) while we compared notes on our recent activities and made plans for the following weekend. (Bird watching at Kotu if you’re interested, but although it was intended for this afternoon, we have postponed the trip until Monday as it appears that July 22nd is another public holiday (celebrating the day of the coup when President Jammeh took power) so we get an extra day off work.

The first ‘R’ of the title is for the ‘Rainy season’ which normally starts about 15th June, and in fact did so up country where some of my colleagues work, and where I understand it has not really stopped since. In the Kombos however, a month later, we haven’t really seen a great deal of rain. We’ve had two or three heavy downpours with thunder and lightning, and one evening I had to shelter under a tree for half an hour caught between the VSO office and my home, but the storm soon passed over, the tarmac dried quickly in the heat, blue sky reappeared, and apart from the large pools of standing water by the roadside, you wouldn’t have known it had been raining. A field next to where I was sheltering has recently been cleared and sown, but I don’t think the rain will have done a great deal to stimulate germination, although just as at home, a drop of rain soon leads to an explosion of weeds! A friend of mine planted some cassava cuttings last weekend and is praying for rain as he fears they will not survive much longer, but yesterday while I was visiting other friends at Brikama (about 20 miles away) we sat in the shade under a mango tree, listening to the thunder and watching dark clouds in the distance drop rain over Kombos, and last night we had heavy rain in Bakau again so perhaps the rainy season is now really starting and I shall have to carry a jacket with me in future. The storm last night began about 4am when I was woken by the wind whistling through my bedroom and had to get out of bed to shut all the windows. Being woken was quite a surprise as I normally sleep so soundly it would take the Angel Gabriel to rouse me, but last night it sounded as if the roof was about to come off, the trees in the next door compound were waving wildly, just as we see on the television news at home when a storm hits some tropical paradise, and then the rain began, just a few big juicy drops at first, then a torrential downpour bouncing off the tiles on the patio and rushing away down the yard in a torrent. As my bed was still dry, and hopeful that the steps up into our house would prevent us being flooded, I drank some juice and ate a couple of Cream Crackers (just in case we had to be evacuated), and returned to my slumbers.

The second ‘R’ is ‘Ramadan’ which began about ten days ago and continues until the first week in August. This is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, and during this period Muslims (with a few exceptions such as children and the sick) have to fast during daylight hours. The act of fasting is said to redirect the heart away from worldly activities, its purpose being to cleanse the soul by freeing it from harmful impurities, and to teach self discipline. Food and drink are served early in the morning (before about 5.30am here), and then again about 7.45pm, but in between those times my colleagues at work have no food or drink, not even water. I don’t know how they manage without water (although of course they are acclimatised to it from an early age), and I consume my lunchtime tapilapa while they are at prayers and take solitary guilty gulps of my orange squash whenever I’m alone in the office. Some of my colleagues have suggested I try fasting with them – “just try one day”, but at risk of being considered undisciplined and licentious and not achieving Paradise I think I’ll limit my fasting to those periods between meals, and continue to drink large quantities of liquid to keep me hydrated.

As no food is eaten until sunset, the small shops near my home where I buy my daily tapilapa stay closed in the mornings so I have to buy bread for my sandwiches the evening before, and by 2pm the following day it is rather dry. The one consolation is that new deliveries arrive about 7.30pm so I can have oven fresh bread soon after I get home from work, but I still look forward to August when I can once again buy fresh bread each morning.

During Ramadan it seems that Muslim ladies are allowed to leave work early (varying times seem to apply from about 2pm onwards depending on where you work) in order to go home, do the shopping, and prepare a meal for their family. Suddenly too the streets are now full of young boys selling dates. (According to scripture the Prophet Mohammed broke fast with three dates, so by tradition many families do the same before having evening prayers and then returning for “iftar” the evening meal.)

Meanwhile work/business continues as usual although I can’t help but think that less gets done because dehydration and hunger leads to fatigue, but my colleagues assure me not although I see some of them wilting by midday. Perhaps it’s just the heat and humidity, as I feel the same myself some afternoons.

The third ‘R’ is one you might expect – ‘Reading’. My cousin asked me yesterday what I did in my spare time and I seem to remember saying “Not a lot at present except doing the shopping, going out for a meal or a drink with other volunteers, and trying to keep cool”, but I should also have mentioned “reading”. When I was younger I read voraciously, but over the years the habit slipped and since I came to the Gambia I seem to have taken it up again. I often go to bed fairly early (around 9.30/10pm) and sit and read until I feel sleepy. I can read in the dark on my tablet if we have no power, and it costs nothing as so many books are available to download free of charge from the internet. I’ve renewed my love of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, laughed with Jerome K Jerome (Thoughts of An Idle Fellow), adventured with Jack London in the Yukon and in a future tyrannical oligarchy in the USA,  battled Dracula at Whitby with Bram Stoker and strange alien machines in London with HG Wells, and just given up trying to appreciate the writings of H P Lovecraft. I’ve also dipped into the library at VSO office which is well stocked with books left by former volunteers and through them have been on the road in 1940’s America with Jack Kerouac, and more recently travelled round Europe on a motorcycle with Mike Carter.  At present I’m thoroughly enjoying Jane Austen – I brought several films with me including Pride and Prejudice but haven’t yet watched it so hope that when I do so Keira Knightley and Matthew McFadden can live up to the book (or to the earlier BBC series with Jennifer Erhle and Colin Firth which remains one of my all time favourites).

Also on the theme of reading, my co volunteers and I receive regular visits from our neighbours’ children and I’m trying to help some of them with their reading skills, but struggling a little at times. It seems that they are taught the alphabet at school (“Ay, Bee, See, Dee etc”) just as we were, but it also seems to me that in some ways, this is a hindrance. How does the child learn to string the sounds together so that “cat”  is pronounced as we do, rather than “SeeAyTee”? I seem to remember being taught to add the sound of letters together in small batches to make syllables so that “Atlantic” (we were looking at a map of the Gambia) is split into “At” + “lan” + “tic”, and that works for me, but seems a hard concept for the children to grasp. They seem to recognise word shapes instead, so that if we come across “Brikama” for example on the map, it can be read/guessed as “Senegal” presumably because it’s another long word that we have just seen, rather than seeing it can’t possibly be Senegal because it doesn’t even begin with the “S” sound!

Perhaps it’s just as well I didn’t choose to become a teacher.