On Saturday we left Bakau in a minibus at 8am GMT (Gambia Maybe Time – that’s to say at least 30 minutes behind schedule) and drove about an hour up country to visit the community at Ndemban, learn about the village system and see what life is like in the countryside.
The road out of the Kombos is good and we were soon passing through open country with cultivated crops, cattle (placid looking creatures with huge horns), sheep and goats. I was then given a lesson about livestock by my Zimbabwean house mate as I mistook the local sheep for goats – lets hope I’m not asked to help separate them! We entered Brikama, home of the National Agricultural Research Institute where a colleague of mine will be working, and also home to another busy market extending out of town along the roadside with all the consequent traffic, colour and bustle of trade, and then emerged into another flat rural landscape – quite a change from the traffic and crowded streets of the Kombos. I mused that an up country posting had its advantages despite the lack of sea breezes, the beach, and the urban facilities.
When we arrived at Ndemba we drove into a large sandy square surrounded on three sides by smart white painted school buildings and were met under a large mango tree for formal greetings by a welcoming committee of the “alkalo” (headman) and various village elders, and a colourful troupe of ladies who formed the village cultural group and welcomed us to their home with much singing and dancing.
Afterwards we retired to one of the classrooms where the alkalo explained his role and responsibilities as leader and we were able to ask a variety of questions about community life, and the challenges facing village development before enjoying a walk around the immediate surroundings and a tour of the community market garden. Along the way we gathered up quite a retinue of children who seemed delighted to accompany us and hold our hands as we walked, and even more delighted to relieve us of any empty plastic water bottles which they could use at home! We learned how to grow cassava, and saw the problems faced in the garden from insect pests (red spider mite) and diseases, and how hard it must be to grow vegetables in the dry season when the only means of watering on a large scale is by hand, from a bucket.
We visited a nearby well which was reputed to have magical properties, and then regrouped under the shade of the mango tree while the ladies prepared lunch. Meanwhile we enjoyed yet more (participatory) singing and dancing with the cultural group, and made new friends in a mixture of Mandinka, Jola, Wolof, and Fula. They sang us local songs about their village, and in return we treated them to Ilkley Moor, Bobby Shaftoe, and When You and I Were Young Maggie which seemed to go down very well.
Lunch was a communal meal of benacin (see previous blog!) served in huge quantities in a different classroom while most of the villagers ate outside, and although we were encouraged to join in with the locals and just use our fingers, we were again provided with spoons to make life easier. You’ve probably never tried eating rice or couscous and a kind of stew mixture with your fingers, but there is a certain art to it. To our hosts, it must have been like watching children eating, and apparently I still had yellow stains on my nose well after we had finished!
After lunch there was an agreeable hiatus while we digested our food before once again forming a circle seated under the mango tree for another question and answer session, mainly about village development with the chairman of the VDC (Village Development Committee), and then more formal speeches thanking us for visiting, making us honorary villagers, inviting us to come again, and apologising quite needlessly for lunch being a little later than intended! During this ceremony a very smart Nissan 4WD pulled into the square causing much excitement and three of the occupants got out and proceeded to go round the circle shaking hands and exchanging greetings with the village elders first, and then with our group. The leader was obviously a man of influence and the proceedings were interrupted while he joined the circle for a while and led us in prayers. The elders introduced him as a respected leader who has accepted the role of “Father” of their community and it was only afterwards that I found we had been honoured with a brief visit from the brother of President Jammeh!
After his departure the farewell speeches concluded and we were treated to yet more singing and dancing, but this time sitting watching was not an option! From the merriment caused it seems that our group managed to acquit ourselves well enough and now all we have to do is persuade Cameron Mackintosh to finance a London production. As for the video, suffice to say that I will pay good money for any copies in existence!
The final item on the agenda was a visit to the inter school sports competition which was taking place on the adjoining field, but unfortunately as we were behind schedule we were only able to stay a short while before bidding a fond farewell to our new found friends and embarking again for the return trip to the city – still on Gambia Maybe Time!