It seems such a long time since the streets were full of livestock traders with their little flocks of rams to sell for Tobaski, and yet there is still a distinct sheep smell in the air as I walk across the road to catch the van at Westfield in the mornings. The litter from the roadside market there has largely disappeared – I saw a number of Gambians busy with brushes and rakes by the main road a couple of days after the feast and numerous small bonfires burning along the verge as they burned the debris. I don’t know whether this was an organised clean up, or just a group of neighbours tidying up after the invasion. Either way, the scene has reverted to the usual brightly coloured umbrellas with vendors of food and drink, bags and belts,………but still the smell of a sheep market lingers.
I was told by a neighbour that on the morning of the feast before prayers rams were taken down to our local beach to be washed so I duly went down to the fish landing at about 8am only to find I was too late. I saw an odd latecomer being led into the waves for a scrub, but apparently most of them had been there before 7am, and some as early as 5am in the dark.I had been invited to join a colleague’s family for the day and received instructions to be there by 11am so I duly donned my new shirt for the occasion and caught a van from Bakau to Westfield to catch transport there for Banjulnding. The taxi/van interchange is usually crowded in the mornings but not today as it seems many of the taxi drivers had disappeared – presumably returning to family in Senegal, or up country Gambia for the festivities, so there were large spaces where there is usually a seething mass of yellow Mercedes taxis looking for passengers. I crossed the road to the van stop where I usually find about half a dozen vans heading for Brikama, each with their attendants trying to persuade passengers to get into their van rather than somebody else’s, but this morning not a van in sight although there was a small crowd of people on the roadside waiting for a ride. Slowly the travellers dispersed as at intervals a van appeared with spaces and the usual free for all took place to push your way onto the van at the expense of the other waiting passengers. When I arrive here from Bakau in the mornings with a full van load we usually find a crowd of schoolchildren waiting to catch the return trip and they usually do their best to push their way on before any of the alighting passengers can get off! It’s a bit like a rugby scrum without the ball, but nobody ever seems to take offence when somebody pushes in front. The van men today were keen to fill their vehicles with passengers going all the way to Brikama (18 dalasis – about 25p) rather than dropping off/picking up at intermediate stops, but after about twenty minutes I managed to get a seat by paying 15 dalasis for a trip which normally costs 10 and about twenty minutes later I alighted at my destination.
A short walk later and I was enjoying a delicious bowl of chakri (a kind of sour milk drink with ground cous) at my friend’s house. Although I have been here on three or four occasions I am still treated as the honoured guest so on arrival I am placed in solitary splendour in the best room while everyone else sits outside on the veranda or in the yard. This is quite customary here in the Gambia, and I find it quite uncomfortable at times although I am aware it is a means of showing respect for honoured visitors. While I am here, curtained off from the outside world, there is much shuffling in the passage as some of the many children take turns to come in, shake my hand and greet me. I usually take some little gifts when I go and the smallest children can’t wait to see if there are any biscuits or sweets while the older ones stand around looking hopeful as we unzip my bag. I am served meals “in solitary” although I have persuaded the family that I prefer someone to join me at the dinner table so now instead of placing in front of me a bowl with enough food for about three people, the quantity is increased and my colleague Nyima joins me although she seems intent on pushing the choicest morsels onto my side of the bowl and shouting instructions to one of her younger siblings outside to fetch me a cold drink from the shop next door!
After refreshments I am asked if I have brought my camera as it is time to slaughter the rams for the feast and I am expected to document the event. By the time I am in the backyard the first animal has been despatched and is being skinned. It is a group task for the men as the ram is led out from the shed, laid on its side and gently held down by about five of them while it’s throat is slit and the blood drained into a small depression scraped in the ground. The operation takes place without any fuss and is over very quickly. Father sits in the background supervising while the younger men do the work, and the boys also take part, presumably in doing so learning the skills required for later life in their own compounds. Three rams have now been killed and at this stage Mother takes a more active role dividing the meat up into various bowls (a third is given away to less well off friends and neighbours who can’t afford to buy their own), and Father disappears with a pickup to distribute the charity while the ladies begin to prepare the meal.
Having taken a few photographs I am now at a loose end so go back into the main compound and sit with some of the women and children while one of them cooks the livers over a small charcoal stove and another slices large quantities of onions. It seems to take a long time with much slicing and turning but the end product is tender and delicious.
As I have already been obliged to eat a large portion of “breakfast” when I arrived, and also sample the liver and onions, I am not at all dismayed when one of the ladies apologises that the main meal will be late. The afternoon passes slowly in traditional fashion sitting under the shade of a tree drinking attaya and chatting and I take more photographs as the ladies and children appear in their finery in many cases bought especially for Tobaski.
The ladies change dresses during the day and about five o’clock it seems customary to withdraw for a shower and return in a different dress with make up and possibly a different hairdo. (While we have been sitting here some of the young girls have been having their hair plaited, or new fingernails and eyelashes applied, so we have a very glamorous company by night).
Also about now the visitors start to arrive – the children of the neighbourhood who go round the district saluting the compound heads and expecting “salibo” in return. Fortunately I have come prepared with a pocket full of change, so following a handshake and polite greetings a coin is pressed into each small hand. I leave about 7pm by which time a constant stream of children is trooping into the compound for their salibo, and I then have to wait by the roadside for about half an hour before I can board a van. Fortunately it is not raining. Most of the passing vehicles are full of revellers returning from Brikama to the Kombo and eventually I settle for a seat on a van for Serekunda which entails a brisk 15 minute walk through the crowded streets to Westfield Junction where I am lucky enough to catch a van for home almost immediately.