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.

Thoughts of England

As part of my preparation for a year abroad I have compiled a photograph album to take with me, partly for my own pleasure, and to remind me of home when I feel the need to see familiar faces and reminders of “my life before”, and partly as a conversation piece to show my new friends in the Gambia what that life was like, as I’m sure they will be just as fascinated by life in the UK, as I expect to be by their life in West Africa.

This album began as a collection of photographs taken from my youth to the present day, so shows my childhood home, my parents and siblings, friends from university days in Newcastle, family life, scenes from my work at auction sales and on the farm; family, friends and colleagues from the present and recent past, and scattered amongst them for variation, pictures of the area in which I live.


Not just the picturesque moors and dales of North Yorkshire, but also the splendours of York Minster and Castle Howard, the small market town where I live, beaches at Scarborough and Filey, cattle markets, pheasant shooting with local farmers, and of course a picture of H M Queen Elizabeth and members of the Royal Family with the Bishop of Leicester attending a church service. I thought it would give a window into a different world and show how the English live, but this weekend I have added to it something quintessentially English which will probably be completely incomprehensible to a West African farmer.

For this weekend I have been staying with friends in a small village in Northamptonshire and attending the annual Farthingstone village pantomime. My friend Peter writes a script (Jack and the Beanstalk this year, based on the well known fairy tale but with plenty of local and topical references) and he and a few locals spend several weeks rehearsing and then put on three performances of a two hour show for the entertainment of the villagers and to raise funds for the village hall.  It’s certainly not the National Theatre as the hall is tiny, with an open stage at one end, no curtain, only one exit/entrance to the stage, and about ninety seats for the audience, which were all filled at each performance.  It’s amazing what they achieve in the limited space but they put on a very entertaining show for children and adults alike with plenty of jokes, music, singing and audience participation.

The performance on Saturday night was recorded so I’m hoping to be able to load a copy of the film onto my laptop. I have no idea what the Gambians will make of it – a rather large and well padded dame with bright orange hair and lipstick applied with a yard brush singing falsetto, a French maid with feather duster and dubious accent, a sinister “baddie” in black leather trench coat and jackboots, a lovable pantomime dog, an emotional Irish nun, and a large hairy green Scottish giant may all need translating. Still although the dame may take some explaining, at least there wasn’t a principal boy too to complicate matters – that might have been just too much! As for magic beans which grow overnight……oh well, hopefully the farmers won’t expect me to provide new seed as part of my placement with the Ministry of Agriculture and perhaps some of the other volunteers will understand!