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.
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.
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!