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.


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!

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.