The main part of our schooling during the last week has been language lessons. Three of our group who will be working further out from the Kombos are learning Mandinka which is more useful “up country”, and the rest of us, myself included, are learning Wolof which is the predominant language in the urban area. Modu, our tutor (I’ll spell it as it is pronounced, rather than try to write in Wolof) is teaching us about the local culture and customs and trying to give us a grounding in basic phrases for greetings, getting around, shopping, and everyday life.
The Gambians are a very sociable people to whom greetings are very important so it is only good manners when meeting to exchange several phrases of greeting, and to ask how they are, and how the family is, even if we have not met them before. So we begin each conversation with the ritual phrases “nanga def” (How are you?) to which the reply is “mang fi” (I’m fine) even if you are not fine, followed by “ana waa kur ga” (How’s the family?), to which the reply is “ñun fa” (They’re fine), and probably other queries about “How’s your day going?”, “How is work/business?” and various other good wishes including the catch all “salaam aleekum” (response “maleekum salaam”) or “jamarek”, wishing each other peace and goodwill, before we begin to think about the business of the conversation for example “Please may I have two bread rolls?”.
This morning, for a practical lesson we were taken to Serekunda where there is a huge market selling fish, meat, fruit and vegetables, clothes, household goods, fabrics etc, and there let loose to practice our Wolof skills on the stallholders by enquiring about prices, what some of the items were (there are plenty of foodstuffs I have never seen, or can’t name) and to buy the ingredients for our lunch. I was delighted to be asked by one lady “deega nga olof?” (Do you speak Wolof?) in response to my stumbling enquiry about the price of tomatoes, but had to reply truthfully “tutti, tutti” (A very little). Still at least she understood and I bought 5 tomatoes for 10p!
Following our shopping experience we went back to Kanifing to the compound of Awr (Eve) another of our language trainers to help make a “benacin” (One pot) using the meat and vegetables we had bought earlier. The ladies of the compound were very patient with our efforts, instructing some of us how they wanted the vegetables prepared (large pieces mostly it seems) while others of our group helped with the preparation of “juusi buy” (baobab juice) which involves soaking pieces of the baobab fruit in water, then sieving it and adding large quantities of sugar, condensed milk, vanilla essence, banana, (or other fruit) and results in a delicious sweet creamy fluid like liquid silk. You will think the taste can’t be improved until you discover wonjo juice which looks like blackcurrant and is produced by boiling a dried red (sorrell?) flower in a pan of water with a little mint. I missed the rest of the process as I was peeling onions, so there may be other ingredients too, but when this is filtered and added to the baobab juice the resulting mixture is like nectar of the Gods
Meanwhile the meat was fried in oil, and added to what can only be described as a cast aluminium cauldron over a wood fire together with a large quantity of stock with tomato paste and various spices, herbs and flavourings and bucket loads of vegetables, and left to bubble away while we chatted and drank glasses of “attaya” a sweet frothy tea, and the remains of the bowl of “juusi buy”. Maybe 90 minutes later after some of the vegetables had been removed to prevent overcooking, a huge bowl of rice was put to steam over the cauldron, and then later still mixed in with the stew and covered to soak up the juice. The result when dinner was served, fed about 30 people very well, tasted delicious, and if our budget was anything like correct had cost less than £1 per head.
Traditionally Gambians eat together from a large communal bowl using their right hand to pick out pieces of meat or vegetables and to knead small balls of rice and dip it in the juices, but as “toubabs” and honoured guests we were provided with plastic garden chairs and spoons which made eating a little easier. So “jerejef” and “jamarek” to Awr and her extended family for a great meal and good company and for introducing me to some unknown vegetables.