Monday, December 31, 2007

Serigne Touba Dies

Serign Salieu Mbakeh, son of Serigne Touba, and the caliph of Mouridism in Senegal died this week.  Mouridism is one of the biggest Islamic sects in Senegal, with adherents all over the world, from the Gambia to the US, and the event got much media coverage. Senegal's current President is a Mouride, and he was one of the first people to go to Touba to pay his respects to the new caliph. 

I have long been fascinated  by the Muslim brotherhoods of Senegal. Nothing on the same scale exists in The Gambia - in Senegal everyone is a member of one of the brotherhoods, and swears allegiance to one of the Serigne. Every year the brotherhoods hold large Gamos, huge gatherings where all members convene and Allah is praised, and speeches/lectures are given by the Serignes. When a Serigne dies he is replaced by the next male heir in line. Serignes wield great power, perhaps even greater than the President: theirs is a religious rather than political rule, and therefore more enduring - it is lifelong, and not at all open to any form of challenge, as the Presidency (a democratic position) is. 
People over here join one of the Senegalese brotherhoods, and cross over into Senegal to attend annual Gamos and visits to pay homage to their Serignes.  Mourides all over the world work hard and send back money every year to Touba. It is a disciplined, hard-working order (for the sci-fi buffs: it brings to mind the Fremen of Frank Herbert's Dune sequence of novels, and Mu'addib, their messiah).

Mouridisme and all the other brotherhoods build up on the foundation of Islam - they are extensions rather than completely different religions. I think it's fair to say though that quite a few Mourides respect and revere - or feel more of a connection with - Serigne Touba than the Prophet himself (I use Mouridisme as an example because it is the one brotherhood whose adherents walk closest to the thin line separating acceptable Islamic practice from blasphemy - I have heard Mourides compare Touba to Mecca, and Serigne Touba to God, drawing horrified gasps and "Asta-furrlah"s from my Tijan grandmother). So all the brotherhoods work within the frameworks of Islam. But what would have happened if Islam hadn't made its way to us in the first place? Would Serigne Touba, for example, then be free to start his own religion?(Discouraging the starting of new religions is on of the things monotheistic religions are especially good at: in Islam for example worship of false Gods is one of the worst crimes you can commit). Perhaps, if things had gone differently, if Africa did not occupy the position at the bottom of the stack which it does now, importing religion and culture and language, the story of world religion would be different, with African religions being spread all over the world, an African messiah being worshipped and expected to come back to herald the coming of the end times. An African God - gods? - watching over us as we went about our daily lives.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Nice Quote...

"The continent is too large to describe. It is a veritable ocean, a separate planet, a varied, immensely rich cosmos.Only with the greatest simplification, for the sake of convenience, can we say "Africa". In reality, except as a geographical appellation, Africa does not exist."

- from "The Shadow of the Sun:My African Life" by Ryszard Kapuscinski

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Holy Quran in Wolof Translation

I saw an ad in the paper about two weeks ago for the Holy Quran in Wolof (and Mandinka, and Pular) translation, being sold by the Ahmadiya Center here, and I bought myself a copy: there is a dearth of books published in Wolof or any of the local languages, and I bought it not only because I was interested in seeing how the old, "high" language of the Quran would translate into Wolof, but also because any attempts at producing a body of work in the local languages ought to be encouraged, in my opinion.

I went to the Ahmadiya center with high expectations, and I wasn't dissapointed. The book itself is a plain black one, hard-cover, solidly-bound so pages don't fall out. On the front is "The Holy Quran" in Arabic, and beneath that the words: "Al Xuraan Bu Tedda Bi, Bindi Arab Ak Pirim Wolof". ["The Holy Quran, Written in Arabic and its Wolof Translation"]. There is also a handy string bookmark to mark your place when you stop reading.

Inside, after the copyright and book information pages, there is a full-page Preface ["Ubbité" - literally "Opening"] detailing how the whole translation project came to take place (an idea the Ahmadiyya Center had, as a way of spreading the religion), and how long it took (5 years: from 1997 to 2002), as well as a list of the translators involved.

After the preface there is a table of contents, again in Wolof, though the Sura names are not translated, but written as they are pronounced (Al-Faatiha, Al-Baxara, etc.). Then the Quran itself starts proper.

As I said at the beginning, I bought this mainly because of my interest in the Wolof language. The Wolof currently spoken all across the country (especially in the urban areas) is a mixture of English, French, Arabic and Wolof words. The same is also mostly true across the border in Senegal, though there are more words borrowed from French than English. The Wolof in the translated Quran however is "pure" Wolof (in as far as a language can be called pure), and thus it is very instructive to read it. Ironically enough, I find myself reaching for the English translation every time there is a Wolof word I don't understand - I compare the English translation with the Wolof one, and that way get the meaning of the Wolof. (The irony lies in the fact that when I apply for schools in the US, for example, I have to check a little box on the form to tell them that English is not my first language; yet I need to use an English dictionary to understand words in my first language).

The verses are beautifully rendered in the Wolof - the translators did a very good job. The fourth verse of the first Sura (Al-Fatihah - "The Opening") reads "Master of the Day of Judgement", and is translated into Wolof as "Buuru Bés Pénca". Read that out aloud - it rolls, like a rumble of thunder, carrying with it an undercurrent of both the Mercy of this Master, as well as the terribleness of His wrath, and the absoluteness of His rule come the Day of Judgement. The sixth verse of the same Sura reads "Show us the straight way". This, translated directly, would have been "Won ñu yoon wu jub wi" - the translators instead chose to render it as "Gindi ñu ci yoon wu jub wi" (literally "Make us choose the straight way", i.e. don't just show us the way, but make it our volition to take it). I do not speak Arabic, but I have a feeling this is closer to the original Arabic meaning of that verse, considering it is a prayer.

The Quran is full of metaphors, and allegories - where necessary, the translators have not shied away from injecting these with local color, to make them more meaningful to local readers. For example, the first part of verse 27 of Al-Baxara reads: " Allah disdains not to use the similitude of things, lowest as well as highest...". The translation of the same section reads: "Yalla du kersawu ci def misaal ci lu tuutee ni yoo walla lu ko gënna ndaw" - "Allah will not disdain from giving examples from creatures even as tiny as the mosquito, or even tinier..."
. Notice the introduction of the mosquito, that tiny, irritating, but nevertheless ever-present part of Gambian life; and how the mentioning of it points at the omniscience of Allah, who notices even the things we consider small and beyond the consideration of one as high as Him.

This is an indispensable book for those interested in improving (or perhaps even learning) their Wolof. Used simultaenously with an English translation, it will teach you quite a lot of the language. It is not easy-going, but it is certainly rewarding - definitely worth buying.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Banjul in 1818

A short excerpt from the Observer by historian Hassoum Ceesay, from the journal of a "passing British Observer".

Interview with Author Bamba Khan

This does not happen often: an interview with a Gambian author (Bamba Khan, co-author of a book of proverbs reviewed here in the past), by Foroyaa's "Arts and Culture Column". Check out Part 1, and Part 2.

Monday, December 3, 2007

The Waiting Generation

Walking through Banjul, you'd be excused for thinking attaya was the national drink. On every street, every few meters you walk, there is the telltale kettle on a small charcoal stove, its accompanying glass tasses arranged on a plate near it. There is the attaya maker, who lifts the lid of the kettle to check whether the green tea is done, when to add sugar, when to make it foam, how much longer to wait before serving. Seated around the attaya maker are a group of young men, dressed in jeans and shirts, lounging in the shade of a building. Sometimes there is music playing, but mostly it's their voices which you hear, now down to a murmur, now rising and loud again, as they discuss football, and women, and the government. They tease each other, and laugh so hard they get up and bend over. They talk about famous street fights that have happened, about the winners and the losers, and afterwards when someone has finished narrating a story about just how crazy a particular "Banjul boy" was, after the laughter has died down someone else will ask "whatever happened to them?". And the reply will come (in your time here, you have counted only three possible replies): they are in prison, finishing off their sentence. Or they have flown, they have made it - they are in Europe (Swiss, Germany, Austria), sending money home, coming back every summer with a new car to dazzle those left behind. Or they are living in Banjul still, grown old and cynical (which means they've turned forty, and almost given up on ever going to Europe), and they spend the remainder of their days as they have spent all their days, eking out the meanest existence in this dying city, dreaming of the mansion they will build one day, and how they will honor their parents by sending them to Mecca.

On TV last night, you watched the President give a press conference. When the issue of the youth of the country came up, of what advice he had for them, of what could be done about them, he said what he has always said: that they are lazy, that they refuse to work, that they sit at street corners all day long and never do anything but drink attaya. Foreigners, the President said, are the people who come here and do all the country's hard work, work which could be done by our youth. But they sit and drink attaya all day, and then they complain about my government, they complain about the state of the country. There was heartfelt applause from the people present at the interview, the Ministers and the other higher members of Government - they couldn't agree more. You watched this televised event at a friend's house. This friend - and his other 'boys' present in the room where you watched - are all of the 'lazy youth' category mentioned in the speech, and when you turned around to look at them there was an ugly sneer on their faces, to a man. You looked at the TV again, and were surprised: it was the same look - of animosity, of the inability to ever understand or accept each other's positions as valid, of contempt and complete lack of communication - that you saw on both sets of faces: the Ministers' on TV, and the youth's in the room. In that moment, the TV became like a mirror, reflecting the youth in the room, but warping them in the process, making them better dressed and older, yet with the expressions on their faces unchanged. You felt strange, when this realization dawned on you. You felt as if everyone in the room you sat in had been replaced with a complete stranger. These people you joked and chatted with only that afternoon suddenly seemed not so real, not so close and friendly, in the night.

This afternoon as you sat at the vous, the street corner, with your new friends, the youth of so much contention, a young man passed selling sunglasses. One of the boys called him over, and as soon as he came, before he had said a single word, they were all talking to him in faux Senegalese accents, teasing him in the way they teased each other. "Mais, you are Senegalese.", someone said. "Mais, you have to sell us these sunglasses cheap". The man played along, showing his wares, patiently telling and re-telling them the price of each item they asked for, even though they only handed it back and moved on to another one. In the end no one bought anything, but his patience paid off - they served him attaya (he had come right in time for the first serving), and gave him cold water to drink. The teasing relented, and they spoke - in their normal Gambian accents - to him, asking him which part of Senegal he came from, how long he had been around. Finally, when he got up to go, he thanked them, and they told him it was no problem, graciously. No one had asked him how he got started in the sunglass business.

There are horror stories. When people from here go abroad - to Europe and the US - they say they do all sorts of menial jobs. Not having papers and therefore not legal enough to even demand minimum wage, they do the jobs everyone else will not do, from cleaning toilets to bathing old white people. When they come home, of course, they are none too keen to discuss exactly how they make their hard-earned cash. These stories are instead bogey-man props, used by adults to try to scare the youth still at home into not going. Stay in your country, they tell them, at least here you will retain your dignity and respect, even if you only have a scrap of a job. The youth's response? I would rather go to Europe, even if all I do there is change some old toubab's nappies. The first time you heard this, you were shocked. Why?, you asked the person who had uttered these words, Why would you not stay in your country, with your family and friends, and get a job instead, in your own country, with the people you know and love around you? That was not the last time you asked that question. Always you get the same reply: the vague accusations against the Government (corruption, nepotism, they are there only for themselves), against Aunts and Uncles who have done nothing, or have not done enough to help out, against Society in general, the way it does not care about the youth. In every single one of these youth's minds a dichotomy has been set up, between us (the poor, hapless, innocent youth), and a revolving cast of them (at various times the Government, the extended family of the youth, Society, even Babylan, the land of the white people). Underlying this is Reggae music, the soundtrack of their lives and the myths they create: Bob Marley, Sizzla, Capleton, Luciano, singing of a time when Babylan shall fall, and "the people" shall once more rule the Earth.

At night, the vous is a place of calm. A spliff is passed around, and people take turns to draw tokes from it, passing it on. The darkness descends in the gap between streetlights, enfolding everything in its warm fuzziness. Conversation, if it happens, is unhurried, and not as strenuous as it was in the afternoon. Afterwards, one after the other, people get up to go to the shop or the sandwich seller around the corner, to spend what little dinner money they have on a loaf of bread and some potatoes, or corned beef, or perhaps some cassava and beans. Each dinner may be different, but the ceremony performed is the same: when you bring your dinner, before ever you take a bite out of it yourself, you must first give everyone else a chance to cut off a small piece for themselves. "Here", you say, and hold out the loaf of bread bulging with sauces and meat, "cut some". If they say thank you, you mustn't immediately go off - you must offer it to them a few more times, insisting that you will not finish it, that they should have some, that you wish them to have some. Only after you have done this with everyone can you sit and devour your sandwich. You mused on how unnecessary this was, how redundant, until you realized that everyday there are a few people who don't go buy dinner, there are always a few who sit there, and make conversation, but never get up to go to the shop, or the sandwich seller, for one simple reason: they do not have any money. So in addition to being a kindness, the sharing of bread in the vous is also an insurance deal: feed me today, and I will feed you tomorrow. The revelation is striking, when it first comes to you, and it sets you off on a new train of thought, it makes you start to notice little things that had gone unnoticed before. Slowly you start to work out that there are rules, there is an order, even a hierarchy of sorts. When you look closely, what you see is a forgotten tribe on the streets of Banjul, an ancient clan that has existed since Independence (and perhaps before), with its own myths and rituals, its own way of doing things.

Two O'Clock is lunchtime. After those who have placed all their hopes in God have prayed, at the mosque, Bakary, who is married (and spent two years in Germany - the last three months of this time in prison - before he was deported) has his wife serve lunch in a big bowl, and invites the boys over to eat. Some go. Others politely decline, heading home to their own family lunches, sitting on the ground around a bowl with cousins and aunts. You eat at Bakary's house: domoda, rice and a groundnut paste sauce with fish. There are not enough spoons, and you share one with Mamadou, passing it back and forth as the radio plays Jaliba Kuyateh in the background. "where are you going?" everyone asks when you get up, "you did not eat at all", and you smile and nod, and say you had a late breakfast, and thank you. There is only a little rice left in the bowl, at this point. Afterwards you sit around outside drinking attaya and making conversation, under the shade of Bakary's house. The sun is at its hottest at this point in time, and most people are in their houses, waiting for the taakusaan prayer, when the sun would have gone down, and they can venture forth. The day is divided by prayer times, like the pillars of a house, the spaces in between suited to different forms of activity: sleeping, eating, work, languorous conversation.

When the attaya finishes being made, there is a serving order - the older ones get served first, little foam-covered tasse-fulls. Age has always been an important part of Gambian culture, and it's no different here. Sometimes, in the middle of yet another heated debate on some triviality an older "boy" appears (everyone is called boy here, no matter their age - boy has somehow come to mean "man", or "fellow"). Immediately someone younger will spring up from their seat and offer it to them to sit down. "No, it's OK - I prefer to stand", the older person will say, but the younger one will insist, until at last he yields, and takes the freshly-vacated seat. Only then will the debate continue. You enjoy these debates. In the time you have been here, they have discussed, and almost come to blows over, everything, from whether Arsenal scored the most goals ever of any team in the champions league, to whether Islam was here before the drum, or vice versa. Last week you spent three hours listening to them present increasingly incredible claims supporting both sides of the question: "does romantic love really exist?". Anything goes during these debates - no claims have to be backed up with hard evidence. Mo, a Bai Faal recently started a relationship with one of the neighborhood girls, was the most fierce proponent of the existence of romantic love. "It is something God puts in your heart", he said fervently, the picture of his Serign he wore around his neck swinging wildly, "you cannot stop it", and there was general laughter at his earnestness. "There is no love", another guy, Ablie, declared after the laughter had died down, "there is only increased familiarity, to the point of not being able to do without each other", and this set them off again, coming up with wilder and wilder examples, until someone was comparing the heart to the two-story building with faded paint in the shade of which you all sat, a building which housed a whole regiment of Senegalese, all going off to the market in the morning to sell merchandise, all chipping in to pay the rent at the end of the month.

It is not always so trivial, the conversation. Sometimes you have serious talks, the kind you enjoy, about families and life, about the future and dreams. These happen usually when you are alone with one of them, or at most two or three - it is only then that they are willing to let their guard down enough to talk about themselves un-selfconsciously, without the macho affectations and mannerisms which make one a ndongo Banjul, a man of the City. There is a law you have worked out, which links the number present in the vous to the topic of conversation: two of you means a serious heart-to-heart, three means the same, but with a bit of teasing added, four or five means a conversation that is not so personal, perhaps a bitching session about how bad life is treating them; six and over means raunchiness, attempts to impress each other with tall tales. Obviously you prefer the smaller numbers, though these are rarer, usually only happening early in the evening, before everyone has congregated, or very late at night, when almost everyone has gone off to bed. The last time this happened you found yourself alone with Mamadou, and he spent a cozy half-hour (even though it was a cold night, freezing outside) telling you about everything he had planned. Something about his voice as he spoke - you had never heard him speak this seriously about anything, or with so much heart - kept the cold at bay. My first six months in Europe, he said, the first thing I'm going to do is save up enough money to build a house. Why a house first?, you ask. Because it is the most important thing a man should have, a place for himself and his family. You take this to mean that he is tired of living with two of his uncles' families, in the house that his dead father left, having to share a room with a cousin and an assortment of relatives from up-country. He does not look at you as he talks, but instead down into the gutter, as if amidst the black bilge-water with mosquitoes on it he can see the foundation stone of his new mansion. - After that, he went on, I will get a car. House first, then car. Then afterwards I will send my mother to Mecca. Then perhaps I will get married. There is silence, and a smile on Mamadou's face as he says these things. - And coming home?, you ask, finally, after you have all this will you come home?, and Mamadou waves his hand impatiently, as if this is beside the point. - When I have enough money, he said, maybe I will come and go. There is a power-cut after he says this, and the other boys come pouring out of their houses to sit outside, away from the added heat of the candles being lit in the houses. With everyone there, the mood changes, and Mamadou once more becomes his usual self, making jokes, laughing loudly, spitting through the gap in his teeth into the gutter.

You could substitute Mamadou in the conversation above with any of the other youth, and it would still ring true. They have the same dreams, a group-dream, produced by a group consciousness. There is a certain scent in the air that you could not identify at first, but that you recognize now, and which threatens to choke you sometimes - it gets so powerful. It is not the scent of the head-expanding weed, or the waxing and waning odor of the street gutters. It is only after you spent some time with them, began to empathize with them, feel what they feel, that you realized: it is the musky scent of waiting. Every single one of the youth of the ghetto is waiting to leave the country, by however miracle such a thing may happen. Most of them dabble in religion - there are quite a few who go to the mosque regularly, and a few others who are ardent followers of Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba, and yet others who are almost completely areligious (to the extent Gambian society allows), but if there is one belief they all share it is the belief that if they wait long enough, and do not allow doubt to overcome them, somehow a way will materialize, a path down which they will walk through golden gates and into the sumptuosity of Babylan. Almost superstitious in nature, this belief is reinforced every time one of the boys gets a visa (tickets are not the problem, or passports, or any of the impedimenta of modern travel - the visa, that much sought-after stamp of approval from Babylan is the only thing which continues to deny the boys entry. Here the visa is a rare animal, almost extinct, and there are less and less sighted every year.). A wave of melancholia descends over the vous every time it is announced that some one has left, or that someone got an elephant (the slang term for visa: the largest land animal for the largest hope) today. - How long?, is always the first question, though it hardly matters - a 24-hour visa would be enough, really, they assure you - they just want to get in, that's all, to arrive and get lost and never get found again by the immigration police. So when the bearer of information says three months, or six, or perhaps a year, or two, they all say how lucky that person is. Then everyone will get lost in their own private little world of moody thought, (for how long depends on how close the lucky visa recipient was to the vous) for a moment everyone is all alone, even though there are all of you here, sitting on this vous-bench. The looks on their faces are like those of condemned men who have learnt that one of their number has been pardoned, you think, and you are almost glad on these nights when you finally break up for the night, each one going back to their house to sleep, much earlier than usual.

Daily life revolves around this belief of eventual escape. Sometimes, one of the boys gets a low-paying job, which they keep at for a few months, griping about the low salary and how much the boss gets to pocket after work. Sometimes one of them even starts a course - perhaps a computer course at one of the many computer centres in the country, or one of the skills courses offered at GTTI (the Gambia Technical Training Institute). But all of this is done with the understanding that these are just temporary activities - the real living of one's life begins after one has entered Babylan. And it's so simple once you understand it: all those youth you see on all those street benches, they are not being lazy bums, who'd rather die than do an honest day's work. What they are doing - and this is markedly different from doing nothing, from being lazy - what they are doing is waiting.

There is a very large difference, between laziness and waiting. The man who is lazy sits around all day doing nothing. For such a man, one would try various incentives, to tempt him from his sloth and spur him into useful activity. And then, when incentives failed, one would try scorn, and anger, and contempt, hoping that these would make the blood rise in him, and get him onto his feet and working, if nothing but to regain his dignity. The man who waits also sits around doing nothing, but it is a different form of doing nothing altogether, it is an active doing nothing, rather than a passive one. The man who waits is not (necessarily) lazy - he has seen the various available courses of action, and convinced himself that of these courses none available in the present suit him, and he would prefer one which is only available in the future. So he decides to wait for this future course, and shows his dis-interest in all present courses by sitting them out, awaiting their end and the coming of his preferred path. For such a man, the incentives offered the lazy man would not work, unless they outweigh what he has come to believe will be his reward for waiting; scorn, contempt, etc., also will not work, as they only make him firmer in his belief that he knows better, that time will prove him right and show those who doubted him.

The trips to Spain get mentioned, sometimes. Before you came here, you imagined a place where frustrated youth sat together in clumps, scheming and plotting, thinking about how they could make enough money to pay a boat owner to take them. So you were surprised, the first time you raised the topic, to find that these people - the "affected demographic", the disaffected youth - treated it just like every other item on the news: with a shrug, a nod, moving on to other things. It's not a big item of discussion - nowhere as big as football, for example. The destination is more important than the journey. Getting there, and not letting anything stand in your way. Focus on the positive, and ignore the negative, because it will get you nowhere. You could write a book, about their philosophy and the way they take life. How happy they look, beyond all your expectations. (You came here expecting a sadness underlying every action and every word).

Who has answers? Let the government create more employment opportunities. Which of these youth will work for the government, at a starting salary of D700? The ticket to Mecca is D80,000. A new house will cost at least half a million. And we haven't even mentioned cars yet, and marriage to a good wife. Let us make our education system better, train teachers better, concentrate on quality. Ah - but even the educated ones are leaving. Education does not take away your dreams. It gives you grander and more expensive ones. Let us police the waters, capture any illegal human traffickers, give them stiff prison fines. Even if the resources were available to do this, how could you ever close all the points of departure. You will monitor the whole Ocean, inch for inch, for small boats? The desert as well? All the roads and all the ways out? All the time? You might as well build walls, around the whole continent. All these things run through your brain, at night, as you swat at mosquitoes and curse the heat and your useless electric fan. Who has answers?

Soon it is time for you to leave. When you tell them, they are sad to see you go - they ask for your contact details, and promise to keep in touch. They say they will miss you, and you are touched. You smile, and nod, and promise to write. On the TV on the night of your arrival home, there is a news headline: fifty bodies, off the coast of the Canary Islands. A shot of one floating face-down in the water, with the caption "Food for the fish". The Spanish minister, shaking the hand of his African counterpart, both dressed in fine suits and smiling widely for the cameras. More jobs, the newsreader says, more opportunities at home. You switch off the TV, and settle back in your chair. You feel tired, and it is not from the journey home. You close your eyes, and for a moment feel as if you are God, with a perfect understanding of all the arguments from all the sides in all the rows in the world, with perfect understanding of all the characters and all the situations of all the people in the world, understanding beyond stereotypes, and archetypes, which no novel or short story or essay can ever give you, understanding which comes only from living with these people, living as them. You feel like an anchor, slipping down a terrible abyss, taking its hopeful ship along with it, the expectant sailors on board. Mercifully the moment passes, and you are left only with the knowledge of how easy it is to choose simple solutions to problems, because the alternative is to bear such weight, such great weight, that few of us are ever willing to bear.

Watching the news will never be the same for you again.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Illegal Emigrants Essay in Today

There's an interesting feature essay in today's "Today" newspaper, covering the issue of illegal immigration into Spain (unfortunately not available online). The essay comes down hard on the human traffickers who are behind the whole operation, seeming to take the view that if only both the public and the government came up in arms against these "Mafia", things would be much better. Maybe so - but my view is that whilst human traffickers certainly play a big role in the whole fiasco, they are by no means central to it, and taking them out of the equation will only solve the short-term problems. I remember a time when there was a great amount of excitement on my street (at least amongst the youth population), because people had discovered a "hole" into Europe via Ireland - you got entry into Ireland relatively easily, stayed in some cheap hotel overnight, then took a train (at least this was how it was explained) into Europe. Before that, my friend Sabally tells me, in their day (this was in the 80s), they traveled across the Sahara desert.... My point: there will always be ways to get in, which might be illegal, but which people will exploit nevertheless.

Trying to stop people from leaving by closing as many holes as possible will have as much effect as the worldwide war on drugs has (where there are users, there will be a drug supply), to use a much over-used analogy. What we want to do is make conditions at home so good people want to stay here instead: now that would be a permanent fix...

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Cafe Touba

Until about a year ago, I did not drink coffee.

I had tried it a couple of times, but hated the taste so much I did not make it past the first two or three sips before I was pouring it out in the sink, and making a good old cup of tea instead. And then finally about a year ago, having nothing better to do and bored out of my mind at a workshop, I sat down and drank a whole cup of Nescafe. The results were spectacular: it felt like my head had grown bigger, my eyes wider, I could sense things, man, all around me, the Universe and everything, you know. [Before you call me light-headed or weak, oh gentle Reader, consider that this was my first ever full cup of coffee]. After that I drank Nescafe now and again, for that feeling (alas - over time it dwindled, though it never completely went away). I still hated the taste, but the fact that it heightened my awareness so and kept me awake nights was what I liked, what forced me to make a cup. Yet more often that not, I would pour out a cup after I had made it, more interested in the idea of coffee drinking than in the torture that the actual practice entailed, the bitter taste in my mouth that even milk and plenty of sugar couldn't disguise. This, then, was my view of coffee: that like medicine, it tasted horrible, but you didn't drink it for the taste, you drank it for the after-effects. And so I drank, and grimaced, and bore the pain, and wondered how come people looked so happy in Nescafe ads on TV.

Then I went on a trip to Senegal. I stayed at a friend of a friend's house, and in the night, after
we had had dinner and were watching TV, he disappeared into the kitchen, and came back with a dish with little tasses on it. "Cafe Touba", he announced gaily, asking how many sugars we would take. I had seen Cafe Touba before, mostly being made by Bai Faals on street corners down here, so they could stay awake all night during one of their chantas - theirs was black as night, and they served it from large buckets, using their plastic cups to make it foam, before they drank it without sugar or milk. This coffee now was a gentler coffee - perhaps because of the home environment and the TV, when the Bai Faals would serve theirs under the harsh glare of a streetlight - but still I felt some amount of dread, as I had never tried it before.

It turned out to be the best coffee I had ever tasted, real coffee (if I may use the term), as close to Nescafe as real people are to the plastic manikins they have in stores. For the first time I realized: you could drink coffee for the taste - the coffee tasted golden, the coffee tasted brown, the coffee made my taste buds dance with joy even as it gave my brain a jolt like that very first cup of Nescafe. "What is this?", I asked my host in wonderment and surprise (my tastebuds wizzed! my brain wuzzed! I swear this is not just for dramatic effect! The world actually seemed a better place, I felt like loving my neighbor, being my brothers' keeper, etc., etc.) and my host explained that it was industrialized Cafe Touba, that some bright guy had taken the Cafe Touba previously available only on the streets from small sellers, and created a factory that packaged them and sold them in little brown sachets, a carton at a time.

Three days later, after I had packed and was on my way back to the Gambia, the last thing I picked up was my carton of Cafe Touba. On the ferry, I held tightly to it, looking around suspiciously at the man who stood behind me and looked away every time I turned around, making plans in case he should make any wrong move, plans which mainly involved throwing my bag of clothes at him and running away with the box of Cafe Touba. I brought it home, safely, in the end, and stashed it away in a secret place in my room, where I keep things I hold of great value. Now, whenever someone I know goes to Dakar, I make them get me a carton, and add it to my jealous stash. I am writing this blog post on Cafe Touba - every weekend, a mugful of it after dinner is what keeps me up all night, wide awake when everyone else is fast asleep. It is a ritual I look forward to the whole week, putting it on the stove and waiting for it to boil, pouring it into the mug, adding sugar, the long, contemplative sips afterwards, the feeling of deep calm, like I have finally arrived...

These days, I look in pity at drinkers of Nescafe, when I pass them on the streets in the morning, their pale faces and unhappy grimaces, the lines of disgust worn into their mouths, so they look to be forever revolted by the world and the people around them. These poor, poor, people, I think, shaking my head and smiling a secret smile, that no one else can see, if only they knew what they were missing....

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


I just got back from Bwiam, where I went on business with my boss Poncelet. We stayed at the Bwiam Lodge, a nice little place set up by the CCF (all profits are fed back into the community, the Lodge manager informed us, and this works so well that no one in Bwiam pays school fees, from primary through into senior secondary school. We were impressed - this certainly makes sense for an NGO to do, instead of sending money every year).

Bwiam itself is in Western River Region, beyond Brikama (why Brikama as a reference point? Because my (extremely deplorable) knowledge of Gambian geography stops around there), and about 90 minutes' drive from Kanifing. About two-thirds of the road there is good - the rest is still under construction, and is very gravelly and covered with layers of dust, and there are pot-holes everywhere, so that your car bounces up and down violently each time you hit one, and approaching vehicles leave behind a train of dust. We spent the journey rolling up the windows of the vehicle whenever we spotted a car approaching, then winding them down again to get some fresh air, after the dust had settled. To get an idea of how much dust there is, consider that the very leaves on the trees are brown instead of green, the thick, dirty brown of the road surface. When we got to Bwiam we met one of the workers at the Lodge who had also travelled from Kombo. "I just got back from Kombo", she said, pointing at her dusty clothes and dirty hair and face as proof.

We ate shrimps for almost every meal whilst we were there. Apparently so much shrimp
gets caught at certain times of the year that they have to throw some away (the Rural Electrification Project has not reached Bwiam yet, and so apart from small privately-owned generators there is no electricity, and no fridges, fans, electric lights, etc.)

There is a certain conceit which living in the Banjul/Kombo area affords you, that everything that's happening in The Gambia happens down here, and that everything else is unimportant. Travelling upcountry is a good thing because it dispels this - it shows you that there are people out there, and they are doing things, or at least trying to live their lives just as much as people in the city (notwithstanding the fact that the city has more opportunities and better infrastructure). We saw kids and schools, we saw a group of men on the road sweating and trying to rope in a donkey, we saw a kid cycling down the pot-holed road, covered in dust and grinning crazily at us. And all through the journey, before we reached Brikama, we saw construction crews on the road measuring and surveying and drawing lines on the ground, and were made to slow down as we approached each crew by tired old men in construction hats waving red flags and motioning at us to go slower.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

In which the local team drops out of the Nawetaan

My local team, F.C. Revelation lost to Digi Daambi in the hotly-contested, very prestigious semi-final stages of the Nawetaan - the local football tournament - today. (OK, maybe drop the prestigious part, but the Nawetaan still is the Gambia's most attended sporting event, beating the Gambia Football League tournament itself by an order of magnitude). We lost in a penalty shootout, the team we were playing coming back from trailing one behind us at half time to equalize in the final minutes of the game. Right now, every single person in my neighborhood has a theory about why 'the boys' lost, and you only have to mention the word 'football' to anyone you pass on the street (or even, as I discovered to my chagrin today, look like you're going to mention football) before they launch into a detailed analysis of the game, including not only what the coach did wrong, but also what the person giving you the analysis would have done which would without a doubt have ensured that we won the match today. It's so simple, they always say at the end of the explanation (which leaves you feeling a bit cross-eyed), all he had to do was... and then they go off again, repeating word-for-word everything they just said. I nod, with a fixed smile in place, desperately looking around for an excuse to leave, whilst at the same time the would-be-masculine-unto-pain-of-death part of my brain tries to say something intelligent, and pretend that I know the difference between "centre-forward" and "pointing half-back". [1]

The Nawetaan is popular for two reasons:

1) it allows anyone with a D1000 and enough stuffing to play through the grueling, soul-sucking, completely unforgiving (and I mean completely - you lose a single match you're out, waiting for another chance next year) qualifying rounds to get to the main tournament. This means that teams are usually made up of people who live together in the same neighborhood, or at least know each other enough to trust each other on the field, where they become closer than brothers the more they play [2]. It then becomes a matter of doggedly ploughing on year after year until you make it past the qualifying rounds (it took my team - Revelation - three years, of sweat and blood and tears, and an unbelievable amount of mud, to get there).

2) Because the teams are neighborhood products, the supporters tend to support their home teams, going to matches, sticking up flags on streets when they win trophies, hugging each other on the streets and dancing after each match won, etc. This does not happen with the more commercial, more impersonal professional football league. The Nawetaan does teams-as-community-collectives. The professional football league does teams-as-businesses.

It also helps a lot that the Nawetaan matches are held at local football fields in each region, instead of at one of the few stadiums in the country - people are willing to walk a few streets to go watch Alieu from next door play goalie, but generally only die-hard football fans will pay to go to the stadium in Bakau to watch League matches. Hence the bigger turnout.

So yeah, this (in the end far more long-winded than I thought it would be) post is to say we lost today, but we got as far as the semi-finals, which is a record for us. Maybe next year, maybe the trophy...

[1] A few hints if you're ever caught in such a situation: 1) Blaming the coach is always safe. 2) Blaming the goalkeeper, whilst not as safe as blaming the coach, is also not a bad gambit, and should save you most times. 3) Blaming the changes the coach made (if they made any) is a good idea. You don't need to remember the names of the players changed - just talk vaguely about how the changes happened 'at the wrong time' - say this with conviction. 4) A few stock phrases might help - football has quite a lot of these. Be sure to repeat them to add weight. 'when you're leading, you should concentrate on defense'. 'the best defense is all-out offense'. 'the game was ours. I'm telling you, the game was ours'. 'we played much better than them. if it wasn't for that defensive error'. 'exactly! exactly!' 5) if all else fails, ask the person you're talking to where they think the game went wrong. The trick is to ask it not as if you don't know yourself, but as if you are testing them. "So you think the game went wrong when the coach took out one of the defenders?". Then stand back, and get ready to listen for a long, long time.

[2] there's something about mis-timing a tackle and feeling your heart sink deep into your mud-covered boots because you are sure you have just given away a goal, and then turning around to find out Modou has saved you, diving in front of the attacker with such perfect timing and recovering the ball so spectacularly right before it entered the (muddy) space between your goalposts, that will make you feel a sudden rush of bonhomie which you would not normally feel, say, only saying hello when you met him on the street, prompting you to run up to him and give him a heavy swipe on the back, both of you grinning like mad (which is the footballing equivalent of a hug and a kiss).

Monday, November 5, 2007

Gampost Postal Charges

I just got back from picking up a package from the Gambia Postal Office in Banjul, a set of books and DVDs from Serign. After ripping open the package, the fine postal worker informed me that whilst the books (which weighed a ton and included "Infinite Jest" [which must be one of the heaviest novels on the planet]) could be received at no charge, I would have to pay for the DVDs. He then slowly endeavored to count out the DVDs one... by... one, before informing me that I would have to pay D150 for each single one! Now I wonder what they were thinking when they made up those postal charges. Hmmm, let's see, let's let books in for free shall we, because education is the key to, etc., etc. and the inflow of books into the country should be encouraged at all costs. But CDs and DVDs? Instruments of the devil, if ever there were any! What do you mean they weigh much less than the books and are easier to transport - that is completely irrevelant, I tell you! Let's make the prices so high people won't be able to receive more than a few at a time - that should stem the flow of the tide of immorality washing its way through the country! Less DVDs, CDs, and other media, that's what this country needs...

I don't know who to write to, but hopefully someone working at our fine postal establishment will read this, and be able to do something about it. It really makes no sense to charge that amount for a single CD, especially if it is going to be used for non-commercial (even educational - the media Serign sent included a BBC documentary) purposes. If our (fine) postal establishment can see its way to waiving the charge on a couple of heavy books, should his (her?) generosity also not extend to light-as-a-feather CDs?

Binda - the Gambian Writer's Collective

We recently started a Gambian writer's collective called Binda (Wolof for "to write"). It is open to both writers living in the country, and Gambian writers abroad (writer here meaning both the published and doing quite well for themselves types, as well as the aspiring, "will I ever be good enough" types), as well as non-writers generally interested in Gambian literature. We don't have a website yet, but we have an online discussion forum which you can join by going to, or by sending an email to Once you join, you can post your work online to have it critiqued, and interact with other members online.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

"Proverbs of the Senegambia" Review

I got a copy of "Proverbs of the Sene-Gambia", by Bamba and Mariama Khan, this morning. It's a beautiful little orange book, very well laid out, with a nice illustration of a xalam player on the cover. Inside is a brief introduction by the authors, then the proverbs start, numbered from 1 through 275, with about five on every page. The small size of the book is a great thing, making it easy to carry around and the whimsical font-face adds to the laid-back tone, letting you flip through at random, on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

The main problem I had with the book was the lack of attribution. In the preface the authors allude to certain resource persons they used for the different languages, which gives you the impression that they did their research well, and built up a database of proverbs before they started. My impression is that they collected these proverbs in their local language forms, then translated them into English for the book, which is certainly a laudable enterprise. However I felt it would have worked out better if they had also included the original proverbs in the local languages. They did this for one proverb only - the one on the front cover of the book - for the rest they went only with the English translations. This leaves me, as a speaker of Wolof, mentally trying to translate each proverb I read back to its original Wolof. Most proverbs have quite a bit of local color in them, and translating into English left this color behind in the local language, only carrying across a sense of the meaning (or what the authors thought were the meaning). Also, as the proverbs came from a variety of local languages, it would have been nice to know which tribe originated which proverb, allowing people to place them in context. I think this is something the authors should definitely look into, in a second edition.

Apart from that, it's a fantastic book. There are some beautiful sayings in here, which work in any language, such as:

"Walking barefeet for ages will in the end be like walking in shoes"

"The stranger does not know it when you cook for him the reserved coos that was stacked on top of the thatch"

"The person who is yet to cross the river must not laugh at the one who is about to drown"

You can pick up a copy of this book at Timbooktoo.

Sending Money Home

Remittances - people sending money from abroad to their families back home - are one of the biggest sources of income in Africa. There's an interesting article in the Financial Times about this, as well as beautiful graphics in the New York Times. The New York Times graphic shows that the amount of remittances sent to The Gambia in 2005 as a percentage of the GDP was about 11.44% (more than Senegal's 6.85%). This is not surprising, as a lot of families over here depend on the monthly allowances sent from abroad, to keep afloat from month-to-month. (As a result, the strengthening of the dalasi against the dollar is a mixed blessing: it may mean reduced prices in the future, but it also means the dollar allowances sent do not stretch as far).

Another interesting graphic from the NY Times article is the one showing the percentage of countries' populations abroad. There are apparently over 15% of the Gambian population in another country (compared, again, to Senegal's 2.8%). Again, this is not surprising, as most youth (who comprise the majority of the population of The Gambia) are interested in one thing only when they finish school: getting out of here. In fact the percentage leaving would be much higher if it weren't for the overly strict visa laws that govern travel to almost all European countries and the US.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Great Grudge of Dr James Watson or How White People are More Intelligent Than Black People

Apparently black people (yes, your blogger included) are less intelligent than white people - the "testing" proves it. :-) And this from no less an authority than the Nobel prize-winning, DNA-double-helix-unwinding Dr James Watson himself. OK, sensationalist headlines to attract more readers aside, I think this is clearly a case of some scientist dude having a bad experience with their (black) employees, and generalizing it to cover every black person on the planet.

Something like this:

Dr Watson comes home from work. His wife waits with dinner on the table, heated right on time for when he got here (Dr Watson is never late, Dr Watson is never early). He sits, dons napkin, waits for the first course to be served.

His wife comes in with the first set of dishes, exuding cheeriness and goodwill, because she senses that something is wrong, tonight. It is in the way Dr Watson sits, the way he holds the soup-spoon, the angle of his neck, how his gaze seems fixed yet takes in nothing (a wife learns to read these things, especially if they are married to a temperamental but famous scientist doctor).

Wife: What's wrong, dear?

Dr Watson: It's those bloody black employees again...

Wife: [thinks "Oh boy"] Why do you always let them bother you? Look - I made your favorite mutton stew.

She sets the bowl before him, and withdraws to sit at a chair nearby. Dr Watson slurps the stew out of the bowl, angrily and with none of the usual expressions of delight (such as "Hmmm", and "What lovely stew this is!" and "I would give up my Nobel Prize for this stew, darling"). His wife sits watching, worry written all over her face. She wishes she could get her hand on those bloody employees, always putting her husband in such a state - she hates it when he is angry. Finally, when he is done slurping, Dr Watson sets the spoon down and sits looking straight ahead, waiting for the second course, not talking, still fuming (literally - she can see the fumes rising from his angry, hunched shoulders).

The Wife gets up, and as she passes on her way back to the kitchen she places a hand on his left shoulder.

Wife: Dear...

Dr Watson (sounding bitter and disillusioned): Here we are, trying our best to come up with social policies for Africa, and how do these people repay us? They come to work and laze all day, they never do what they're assigned...

Wife: [understanding look] (Dr Watson's wife has mastered understanding looks, to such a degree that she can give them an eloquence which mere words fail at achieving).

Dr Watson: You know, I look at them, and it is clear to me what is wrong - they are less intelligent than us. [He grows excited, so he trembles beneath her hand. "Oh dear", thinks Dr Watson's wife, "here we go again"]. Yes! Yes - that must be it. All these Africans are less intelligent than us - there is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically.

Wife: Of course Dear. Don't get too excited now - you know it's bad for the digestion. Let me get you the second course....

And then, of course, the interview with the newspaper happens the next day, and our hero, still bearing a grudge against those "bloody black employees" lets loose with his new theory.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

[original post]

Quantum's new email to sms gateway

I saw in the paper today an advertisement from Quantum for their new service (jambarr), which lets you send and receive emails from your mobile phone, via a gateway. Check it out - sending emails from your phone deducts from your credit (D1 for each sms, which price includes a reply from the email address); and to send sms from your email address you have to buy jambarr credits, which they say you can get from any Quantumnet Internet cafe. The service works for all the cellphone carriers, which is a big plus. There is a problem with receiving emails as sms though - every time I tried sending an email from my gmail account my phone gave me an error ("Text not formatted as ASCII - could not parse", or something similar). It would be nice if the gateway was intelligent enough to strip out everything but text in any messages it is forwarding, as most emails include images and other non-ASCII characters, which your average user will not know how to turn off.

Of course what will be interesting is what kind of services people build on top of this, social networking or otherwise - I think it has the potential to become big, especially if there's a developer API (hint hint) to allow programmers to build their own services on top of Quantum's.

Arch 22

Say what you will about Arch 22, but it's still one of the best places to go get peace and serenity in Banjul (if not The Gambia). It's cool - that's the first thing you notice when you go there: this is one place the heat does not come in the evening, and this is almost like heaven after the humidity of the indoors.

Occupied Banjul does not have a lot of space left*. All the space on all the streets have been taken up with houses and garages and shops - on some streets there is barely enough room to fit two cars at once, let alone stand and look out at the brave horizon, as the sun sets beneath it. At the Arch though you have all the brave horizon you want - it's one of the few (if not the only) wide open space left in the city, and the ban on normal traffic within the Arch zone (a stretch of road beneath the Arch) greatly reduces the pollution on the main road, both of the noise and filthy air types.

*The emphasis here being on "Occupied" - Banjul has lots of space, but most of it is taken up by Mangrove swamps, and are empty of people and their habitation.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Finding Books in The Gambia

For the rich bibliophile, there's always Timbooktoo, the country's only bookshop. But as Dr King said in her Gambian literature lecture, the average price of a novel at Timbooktoo is more than the price of a bag of rice, which puts it out of the range of most people in the country. So the rest of us have to find other options. Here's how I satisfy my book habit:

1) The National Library: This is located in Banjul, near Gambia High. Just go to Arch 22 and ask any passers-by for directions - they'll tell you where to go. It's the one single place which makes me feel every time I go there that my tax money is being put to good use - they have loads and loads of books, from novels to non-fiction works to even a section dedicated to Gambian literature. Recently there has been a great increase in the number of prize-winning, critically acclaimed books on their shelves, mainly due to the efforts of the Chief Librarian, Mr Mbye, who is as bookish as they come. So much so that they are running out of space on their shelves, and having to have new ones made. You can get a ticket, which lets you borrow 3 books at a time, for D60 a year (I tell my Mum it's the best D60 I spend every year, and it is, for the returns I get from it). It is also usually empty but for a few people, and so you can sit in there and read for hours on end without interruption. (Exception: during school exam periods, when it is swarming with students fighting for seats to do their swotting in).

The National Library also has a branch in Brikama, as well as a "mobile library", which travels up-country.

2) The Internet: Your mileage may vary, depending on how much Internet access you have, but the Internet is one of the best places to find reading material. For example, my reading list every week includes The New Yorker (they have an excellent fiction section), Harpers, The Guardian Book Section, Wordsbody (an African Literary blog), African Writing (a magazine of african writing), just to name a few. You can usually find stuff by doing a google search for the name of the publication you're interested in, or the name of an author (e.g. searching for "Binyavanga Wainaina", one of my favorite African writers, brings up thousands of hits). You can then either read these online, or print them out for later consumption at home.

3) Second-hand book stalls: These are scattered all over the Banjul-Serekunda area, and usually consist of little more than a guy with a mat and a wooden display on the sidewalk, selling (photocopied) versions of the current books on the high school literature curriculum, as well as a few second-hand novels and non-fiction books. My favorite is located in Banjul, near the turn-table just before Albert Market - the guy's name is Alex, and you can't miss him: he's right there on the sidewalk, opposite the park. Whenever I feel the book-hoarding urge kicking in, I head there and spend a glorious fifteen minutes perusing the books he has on sale. The list changes every time I go, and I always get something (he will go inside and get you more from his "book box" if you ask nicely). Since I started going there, I have acquired everything from Penelope Lively to Terry Pratchett, from a book on the history of warfare to an introduction to Marxist theory. All for the extremely cheap price of D25 per title (and less if you're buying more: you can usually talk him into giving you three for D60, for example). You can't beat that.

4) Your friends: There aren't any book clubs, exactly (at least, not that I know of), but there is a literary community, in the sense of "people who read good books". Ask around - you might be surprised. I have more than a hundred books in my personal collection, and would be very interested in swapping with someone. I'm sure there are others out there. Contact them, and ask politely - most bibliophiles I know are usually very open when it comes to books, and will be willing to share. Of course, what would be nice is if someone started a Gambian lit mag, or at least a book club, to rally all of us around.

If you have any other tips, add them to the comments below.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Finding the Diaries

I picked up these diaries at one of the second hand book stalls that sell books on Indepence Drive, near the market. They were dirty, smudged exercise books, with brown water stains on the front, as if they had been left out in the rain, and suspicious looking soot marks all over the cover. The middle pages were stuck together, and the red color of the cover had faded until it was a dull pink.

Nevertheless, I was hooked as soon as I opened the first one. They were the diaries of a man who purported to be "a Banjulian by birth, but a citizen of the Imagination by disposition". As I flipped through the first volume, I found more and more entries like this and, growing increasingly excited and convinced of the value of this book, I asked the stall-keeper how much he would sell the whole pack to me for. He offered to give them to me for free - with a certain weariness, I must admit - if I bought a novel or two, and soon I was headed home with my bag considerably heavier, eagerly anticipating locking myself up in my room to plumb the diary of the rest of its treasures.

Over the next few months I will be posting some of the entries, as I read them, especially the ones I judge you may find interesting. I hope you are as captivated as I am by this skewered, crazy but very, very interesting view of Banjul.

The Ramadan is Over

...and that post title does not even begin to convey my happiness.

It's Koriteh (Eid Ul Fitr) today - people are at the mosque right now praying. The women in my house spent the whole night yesterday at the tailor's shop, waiting for their dresses to finish being made.

It's a joyous time (though nowhere as wild as Tobaski, the feast of the slaughter of the rams - I've always wondered why the slaughter of the rams was not done after the Ramadan, when people have been hungry for a month).

Anyways you can now expect more posts, as your humble author will not be constrained by the gnawing pains in his stomach anymore.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

From the Diaries of Babu Njie

The entry for October 11th consists of only one paragraph:

Today I saw a goat being hit by a van outside the gates of Gambia High. The van drove away, leaving the goat to lie on the ground with its forehead split open, its brains dribbling out as it twitched, twitched. I stood next to a 5-year-old kid and we watched it slowly die. People passed it without remark. At the side of the road, some sheep unconcernedly went on eating their grass breakfast. Finally an apprentice got out of a stopped van, took the goat by the hind-legs, and threw it into the grass at the side of the road. It had stopped twitching. The apprentice got back in the van and went away. The sheep went on eating. The kid looked at me, then ran across the road into Gambia High. Then I got into a van and went to work.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


Yesterday was Laylatul Qadr, the Night of Fate, when the Qur'an was first revealed to the Prophet, and the fates of all men (and women) for the following year are decided. It means there are only three or four days left for the Ramadan to finish, and lunches to come back to The Gambia. It also meant kids going from door to door during the night, in groups of three or four, holding bowls into which adults put sweets and rice and other food they had lying around - like trick-or-treating, but minus the tricks. This is called kulamaa. My mother got a cake, and sliced off a portion for each group of kids who came to my house, until it ran out. Then afterwards most people went and spent the night at the mosque, praying and listening to sermons - whatever you ask for on Laylatul Qadr shall be given to you.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

The Death Penalty (addendum)

Interesting article about the death penalty: apparently the constitution says it should come up for review every ten years, and it's been ten years...

Friday, October 5, 2007

The Electricity Supply

The latest edition of the BBC Focus on Africa magazine has a feature article about power supply problems across Africa, which takes a very thoughtful look at some of the issues currently affecting African countries' power grids.

Some interesting nuggets I didn't know before reading the article:

* Contrary to popular belief, Gambia isn't the only country plagued with power problems (in fact we're not even amongst the worst afflicted).

* South Africa generates nuclear power, and other countries (such as Ghana and Namibia) are considering it.

* The ever cynical-but-witty Nigerians have come up with various inventive meanings for the acronyms used by their power companies. ("Never Expect Power Always" for NEPA, the Nigerian Electric Power Authority, for example).

* There have been a number of attempts to create a combined African Power source, with countries that have a surplus supplying their less-fortunate counterparts, the most recent of which was initiated by NEPAD as a future project (The West African Power Pool).

* Whilst the average Guinean uses an annual amount of power equivalent to putting on an Air Conditioner for 4 minutes every day, Guinea Conakry has been hit so hard with power losses that students troop to the airport and shell stations every night, to sit under streetlights and study for their exams.

We have gone through our share of power problems, in the past, with the power company going through a number of name changes before it became the present NAWEC, each name change announced with new promises of better and constant power supplies, only to fail as spectacularly as the old-named company. Recently the Government privatized parts of the company, and the resultant increase in prices (by 30%) also resulted in a much improved supply. They still go off, every now and then, but nowhere near as much as they used to - in fact, the power staying on for days now has become the norm, and the power going off an aberration, which is the exact opposite of what it was like only a year ago. This is speaking for the urban areas, of course - there is still much of the country left to be electrified.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Another Death Sentence

The Second in two weeks'. This time a Guinean who murdered a fellow Guinean over the matter of D10,000...

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The Strange Case of Tabara Samba

The Tabara Samba case just concluded, and she was sentenced to death for murdering her husband by pouring hot oil on him. On the front page of the "Today" newspaper this morning there was a headline about how she had been put into a cell full of men, and how she had been abused. The article reported that the Magistrate in charge of the case spoke out against these abuses, condemning them and declaring that the accused had a right to a free and fair trial,and incarceration within the legal framework of The Gambia, even if she was a murderer. Then he turned around and called her actions "shocking, deplorable, dishonourable, distressing and distasteful", before handing down a death sentence.

I - and everyone else in The Gambia - have been following the case with some interest, since the beginning. Of course right from the start everyone who heard the news was horrified - how could a woman in cold blood murder her husband by pouring a saucepan-ful of hot oil on him, whilst he slept in the night? She deserved to be hanged! The husband was made out to be a hard-working man who took good care of his wife, only to have her turn around and "betray" him.

But then as the case progressed through adjournments and witness appearances, chinks started to show in the smooth enamel surface of the story, at least for me. For one, the husband had been married seven different times before Tabara - all seven had ended in divorce. For another, no one but Tabara and her (now-deceased) husband were present at the site of the murder - all the reports came from people who say they spoke to the deceased afterwards, and it was he who told them that his wife had without provocation poured hot oil on him whilst he lay in bed. Tabara's story was markedly different: though she admitted to pouring the oil, she claimed she had done it only in self-defense, as they had been fighting and he had attacked her again with a knife whilst she cooked, injuring her on the head and hand.

There are a few, small problems with Tabara's story. For one, she claims to have only poured a 'teaspoon-ful' of oil on him, in her attempt at self-defense - a teaspoon-ful would definitely not have been enough to kill him. For another she says the fight happened in the kitchen, but when the police went into the bedroom the mattress was turned upside-down, in an obvious attempt to hide the oil-stains on the other side. Also a neighbor heard a scream from the house and came running, but Tabara told him it was only her husband having bad dreams, and everything was OK. All these things are what added up to convince the Magistrate (and the majority of the Gambian public) that the accused was guilty of premeditated murder and so, in line with the constitution, deserved the death penalty.

Who knows what really happened that night? But having lived in The Gambia all this time, and knowing how patriarchal the society is and how this gives males almost free leeway to abuse their wives in all sorts of ways, I find myself thinking that perhaps there is a bit more to the story than just an "evil" wife murdering her husband.

At the end of the trial, Tabara's defense counsel, in her plea for mercy to the Judge, said "some women are strong enough and could find a way out, some are strong enough to fight while still others are very weak and would retaliate". I think this sentence alone pretty much sums up the attitude towards married women in the Gambia (and the resignation of the women themselves, given that whatever they do they will come up against the same stiff walls, of public opinion and traditional practise).

The Constitution of The Gambia Online

You can download a draft of the constitution online here (it's in PDF format, so you'll need Adobe Reader to view it).Could be helpful if you need to quickly look something up.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

A Field Guide to Gambian Bread

There are two major types of bread in The Gambia: sen-furr and taapa-laapa. Whilst it is easy for people who have lived in the country long enough to distinguish between them on sight, it is a much more difficult task for guests, peace corps volunteers, and people who have lived here less than ten years to do so. It is in sympathy with these people that this guide has been published, in the interests of creating a better understanding of Gambian bread. Why? Because, as they say, to understand and truly appreciate a country and its culture you must first know its bread.

The ID process itself has been split into a number of steps, to facilitate the process: no one wants to stand around hungry with an unidentified loaf of bread in one hand and "The Rough Guide to Gambian Bread" in the other, trying to work out whether one is holding a taapa-laapa or a sen-furr. So this guide is short and sweet.

To use it, simply:

1) Hold the unidentified loaf (henceforth referred to as the UL in one hand, above a preferably clean, empty surface).
2) Go through the steps below, one after the other. Once you have positively ID'ed the UL, stop.

Note: You may want to inform a friend first what you are doing, in case anything happens. Some of the following steps could result in injury, and you may need someone to administer first aid and/or call an ambulance.

Happy bread ID-ing.


* Wrap your fist around it and press hard, as if to crush it. Does it yield easily? If so, it's Sen-furr. If it breaks your finger-bones it's probably taapa-laapa.

* Find a willing friend (or an unwilling one caught unawares) and hit them around the head with it. Do they fall to the floor unconscious? If so it's taapa-laapa. If they only give you a funny look and walk away it's probably sen-furr. (This is also useful for measuring the age of taapa-laapa, i.e. if your friend falls into a six-month-long coma, the taapa-laapa is only three days old, if they turn into a vegetable the taapa-laapa is at least a month old, if you bash their brains in, three months, and so on)

* Get a small bread knife and slice it into pieces. Examine each of these pieces carefully. If you find a cockroach, half a razor, and suspicious-looking black spots baked in, then it's probably taapa-laapa. If just the spots, then it's sen-furr.

* Get another loaf like the first and hit them against each other. If they produce a large cloud of floury dust which engulfs you and makes you cough, then it's taapa-laapa. Otherwise it's sen-furr.

* Wet the middle with water to weaken it. Then put it on a table and, raising your hand high above your head, bring it down in a karate chop (shout 'Hi-ya!' for maximum effect). If your arm breaks, it's definitely taapa-laapa. If the bread dissolves into a soggy pile then it's sen-furr.

* Leave it overnight on the kitchen counter. Next morning, take a large, enthusiastic bite into it. If your teeth fall out, it's taapa-laapa. If your teeth just crack, it's sen-furr.

* Ask the shopkeeper who sold you the bread which bakery he bought it from and pay them a visit. If the bakers are a bunch of sweaty, half-naked men running around in a room which is barely furnished except for a giant clay kiln which emits heat like there's no hell, then it's definitely taapa-laapa. Otherwise it's sen-furr.

Friday, September 28, 2007

SAT Request

I am currently studying for the new SAT reasoning and subject tests. If any of you, oh my loyal readers, have SAT study guides I can beg/borrow/steal/buy, I'd be very much interested - you can contact me on 9924182, or by sending an email to amrangaye [at] gmail [dot] com.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The War of Barra

The King is Dead - Long live the King

It was the year 1823. The King of Barra, Kollimanka Manneh, had just died, and there was much mourning and crying and beating of chests, as these things go. After all the necessary ceremonies had been performed and the old King buried, a new King was crowned. His name was Burungai Sonko, and unbeknownst to him at the time he would be the first of the Gambian Kings to lose an armed conflict (a War, as it later came to be known, though it hardly justifies the term) against the British. Before we get to the exciting bits, though, we need to lay a bit of background.

All About Niumi

Currently, Niumi (of which Barra is a part) is a small town located on the North Bank of the River Gambia. At the beginning of the 19th century, however, it extended some 40 miles and was quite powerful and respected, for several reasons:

1) It was situated at a very advantageous point ('between land and water routes') which allowed it to become an important trading centre in groundnuts, salt, etc.

2) When the slave trade started, it benefited a great deal, by both taxing traders passing through its territory, and also acting as middleman and slave broker for the trade's different parties.

All in all, Niumi was doing quite well.

But then the British Came...

At first it was OK. When the British decided to settle Bathurst, Kollimanka Manneh (yes, Old King Kollimanka, whose death was our starting point) let them quarry stones from Dog Island, which belonged to Niumi, and for which kindness Niumi expected renumeration, which they didn't get. There were dark mutterings about how stingy the British were.

Then Bathurst (the Banjul you know and love) was completed (in 1816), and the river's mouth sealed off to slave traders by an armed British presence. Left with no choice, Niumi had to continue their trade in slaves overland. And then, not content to stop at that insult, the British started collecting tax on the ships which passed through these waters, money which had previously belonged to the Kingdom of Niumi, lowering it from 20 to 5 pounds (so ship owners had more of an incentive to pay to them). There were even darker mutterings, and pressure started to build on Kollimanka to do something.

But Kollimanka was peaceful, and Kollimanka was old (and, perhaps, Kollimanka was a coward, as some people whispered to each other). Whatever the reason, Kollimanka thought pursuing an avenue of diplomacy and placation would be far more in Niumi's interest than going to war with a power as mighty as the British.

Then in 1823 Kollimanka died. His replacement, Burungai Sonko, had walked amongst the courtiers and the people when he was one of them, and had heard and seen what the King had not been able to hear and see (or chose to ignore): that the people were growing increasingly resentful of the British. Resentment was breeding anger and, since they could not take their anger out on the British, they had started to blame the King who, after all, was the one supposed to be in charge of preserving the Kingdom's dignity, which people felt was being lost. So right from the beginning, Burungai took a strong anti-Bitish stance. It paid off: he earned himself a great number of loyal supporters. Here at last was the King the people deserved, one whose strength and leadership qualities would drive the British out, put them in their place, maybe even cause the slave routes to be re-opened.

In 1827, the British sent a delegation to King Burungai, 'asking' for permission to build a fort at Barra Point and also - just to show his friendship and goodwill towards Britain - could the King also sign this piece of paper giving away all of the River Gambia to the British? Tell you what, old chap, we'll throw in an annual payment. What - that huge man-of-war we have parked opposite your palace? Oh that's nothing, we travel around with that all the time, why would we threaten you - you're our friend. Right?

After that, of course, the King signed the agreement, and gave away the river and all its creeks, inlets, bends, etc. In 1827 the British built a fort at Barra Point, for 'strategic purposes'.

Now you've gone and given away our land to the British, what about us, eh?

Poor Burungai was in a quandary. Soon enough, the agreement he had made was known all over Niumi, and the ensuing mutterings were so dark the sun itself couldn't illuminate them. Though they didn't tell him to his face, he could see it in people's eyes when he went out for walks - it was the way they had looked at old King Kollimang. He knew he had to do something - and soon - or lose all the support he had managed build up since his coronation. Maybe even face a rebellion.

So in 1831 he sent out a message to the British annulling the agreement he had signed, declaring that the River Gambia was the people of Niumi's natural birthright, and had always been and would always be. The British, experts in agreements, took the message to mean that the King of Niumi was no longer interested in receiving annual payment for the river from them, so they cancelled the payment and went right on honoring the other terms of the agreement, including treating the river as their natural property and continuing to collect taxes on it.

In the face of such blatant contempt, the mutterings reached a crescendo. The King could pretend to be deaf no more.

Two Men walk into a Bar....

On the night of August 21st 1831, two men walked into a bar. They demanded to be served, and started a war when they were refused.

The two men were Mandinka, inhabitants of Niumi. The bar was of British proprietorship, and was located at Fort Bullen. The men were armed with machetes, cutlasses, and at least one gun. When the barkeeper refused to serve them, one of them fired a shot straight at him. To his surprise - and the barkeeper's lasting relief - he missed. Having gotten so far only through an excess of bravado and a burning desire to impress their fellow Niumians, the two men turned and fled into the night, back to the safety of their homes.

But their actions had not gone unnoticed - the sound of the shot had carried clear across the water, to Bathurst, where the authorities began wondering what the hell was going on. The war had begun.

The First Attack

What wild tale did the two men tell, when they got home? It was a time of great Anti-British feeling, and it would have been easy to come up with a story about being attacked by an unprovoked group of British on the Beach, whilst out taking a night stroll. The story would have contained just the right amount of courage ("we tried fighting them off - yes, the shot you heard") and the better part of valor ("there were too many of them - in the end we fled") to tap into the raw nerve that was British resentment. With the rabble roused, anyone who dared to doubt the story out loud would have been branded a traitor, one of them, making everyone go with it.

Perhaps this is how it happened, perhaps in another way. In any case, something similar to this must have happened, because the next day, when the British sent a delegation of thirty soldiers and a few civilians to ask that the men be handed over, they found a large armed group at Barra Point waiting to give them their answer.

The British had expected to be able to scare Barra into handing over the culprits, with thirty soldiers. A costly underestimation: within a few hours of landing 23 British soldiers were dead, and the rest had fled in a very undignified fashion back to Bathurst.

To Our Enemies We Say Only: Barra Shall Prevail!

The people of Niumi were ecstatic! They had driven the British - the almighty, un-defeatable British - back in a battle, inflicting great harm on them and making them run away like the cowards they really were.

Meanwhile, back in Bathurst, there was a great deal of activity (not to mention consternation). Fearing that Niumi would follow through their victory with an attack on the island, the Governor sent out messages asking for help, to Goree and Sierra Leone. The French responded immediately,. sending a man-of-war in the command of one Commander Louvel, a lieutenant of the french army.

Upon his arrival, Louvel built a barricade against attack from across the river, and it was at one end of this barricade that he temporarily set up a command post. Then, on 15th September, he attacked.

The Battle For Barra Point

This time, of course, there were more than 30 British soldiers - the British had learnt a bitter lesson underestimating the Niumians, and would not do it again. The new attack force consisted of both local militia from Bathurst, soldiers from the West Indies regiment, and French soldiers from Goree.

But the people of Niumi had not been complacent in their victory - they knew the British well enough to know that they would be back, and with a larger force this time. They were ready for them. They had dug deep trenches, from within which they fought back, defending Barra Point so fiercely that again the British force fled, back to Bathurst.

Back In Bathurst...

There was great consternation, in Bathurst. The Governor renewed his pleas for help and this time, no time was wasted in answering him. In a rare show of cooperation, the French put aside their bickering with the British, and the French Governor himself came to Bathurst, accompanied by an armed force. About three weeks later, the British reinforcement arrived from Sierra Leone. The British and French gathered all their forces, coming together to discuss battle strategies, in preparation for a final, decisive battle.

The last battle started on 19th November, and lasted for about three weeks, with the combined French/British attack force gradually moving inland, as they conquered one target after another. starting with Barra Point. Midway through the war, even more reinforcements arrived from Sierra Leone. To add to Niumi's problems Baddibu decided to use the opportunity to attack from the rear, as all Niumi's resources were concentrated on defending against the British.

This sapped away what little morale the Niumians had left, and on 7th December they surrendered unconditionally to the British, bringing an end to the first (though not the last) of the battles fought by local leaders against colonial authority.


A History of The Gambia, AD 1000 to 1965, by Dawda Faal
Leaders of the Senegambia Region, by Patience Sonko-Godwin

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Gambian D1000 Coin

I wish I could afford to buy this beautiful D1000 gold coin put up on ebay for sale, but with the bid currently at over $800, that probably isn't about to happen. Only 99 pieces were ever made. Still, it's very drool-worthy... [via serign].

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Gambian Literature

I attended this talk about Gambian literature (by Dr. Rosamond S. King) a while back, and it was very interesting. Well worth your time.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

How a Misheard Name can Mean you spend the next five years in prison, wishing you'd gone to a marabout without a hearing defect

"We will now retire for lunch, and afterwards hear the final arguments of the defense", Judge Banner said, banging his gavel on the table and rising in royal fashion, his robes draped about his small figure and embracing him like a mop around its broom handle. Into his chambers he stepped, sending one of the junior clerks out to get him a sandwich from the local deli. Five minutes later, he choked on a tomato hidden deep within the multiple layers of the club sandwich he had ordered, turned a bright purple, desperately clawed at the air, and collapsed in a huddle with his robes spread out on the floor around him. He was dead by the time the ambulance arrived.


Modou called his house, for the last time for a very long time, that evening. His mother got on the phone as soon as he called. She had been waiting - distraught, distractedly telling her prayer beads - all evening for her eldest son's call.

"Mother - it is me". The voice was distorted and you had to strain to hear it - the distance making it sound hollow.

"Modou - oh Modou. We have been waiting all day....". The family had gathered around her - Jawara, Awa, little Cordu - running to the living room where the phone was from all corners of the house as soon as they had heard the rring-rring, seeming to detect by a sixth sense that it was Modou.

"Mother - it is not good. I... the judge... I was given five years..."

The line went dead in Modou's hands. He turned around with a pleading look to the policeman who had been waiting to take him away, but changed his mind about asking him for a second call when he saw the expression on his face: rock-hard, cold as stone.

On the other end, the family tried to revive Modou's fainted mother.


They went back to the marabout, of course. A week later, after Modou's mother had been released from the hospital, after they had finally sat down and taken stock and started to realize the grim reality that awaited them, without the money Modou sent every month for the family's expenses. They found him sitting inside his heavily-incensed room, hidden in a cloud of shadows and smoke. But today, instead of being impressed and awed like they had been the first time, they were only angry. The marabout had said to them "give me the name of the judge only, and then go home and rest: your son will be safe". After it had been established that they had done everything he had asked (down to the sacrifice of the white goat with the black beard), after they had sworn and sworn again that they had given out all the alms he had said they should (even the dalasi coin to the one-eyed man outside the mosque), the matter came down to the issue of the judge's name.

"What was the name of the judge?", the marabout asked - and you could hear in his voice that he was in a great flummox, though he tried to hide it behind numerous throat-clearings and insha-allahs.

"Vanner", Awa, the eldest daughter - who had taken on speaking responsibilities because their old mother was too weak to talk - replied.

The marabout exclaimed loudly and got to his feet, pointing the rosary he held at them like the might of the Lord, indignation in his every action, his every word. "Van-NER?", he roared, putting emphasis on the last syllable "Out! Out! How do you expect my incantations to work when you give me the wrong name. VAN-NER? This woman here", pointing at Awa, who was leaning back in alarm, and half-shaking her head in denial, "called me on the mobile phone", extricating the phone from a pocket deep in his chaya, "and told me", bringing the phone up to his head, as if receiving a call, "the name of the judge was BAN-NER. BAN! NER! Now you say.... Now you say", he was spluttering now, unable to finish the sentence, shooing them out with his rosary, his face wearing such an apoplectic expression they ran out in a rush, all of them, their old mother bringing up the rear, bent over with shame and grief and regret.

In later years, as they slid further and further back down into the deep destitute trench from which Modou had slowly but gradually been winching them, it was universally agreed amongst the family that this whole thing was Awa's fault, for not having been clearer with the Judge's name, when she spoke to the Marabout.

[Context: Marabouts are the local versions of witch doctors, though most of them use the Koran to do what they do, so they are generally regarded as witch doctors of the good kind. When a woman's son gets into trouble abroad, and somehow gets tangled in the legal system, it is not uncommon for them to go visiting a marabout with the judge's name, to get the case 'taken care of', and her son out of trouble. Many women swear by this, and claim it is the only thing that has saved their offspring abroad from jailtime and/or worse troubles. Results may vary - but always be sure to give the marabout the right name, repeating it several times over the course of a few visits if necessary.]

The Oyster Women of Denton Bridge

No, not a mythical race, half-oyster, half-woman, who appear to travelers at sundown and offer three wishes to them. Something a lot more mundane: a group of women (sort of a worker's collective) who gather oysters in the mangrove swamps near Denton Bridge, and then shell, boil (or smoke), and sell them, at the market and on the roadside. Last week on GRTS they were featured on "Baati Jigen-nyi" ("The Voice of the Women"). The presenter went to the actual gathering sites, and sat down and had a very candid conversation with them. They explained their problems: how they have inadequate protection and lack a sense of security (the allegedly murdered corpse of one of them was discovered earlier this year in the swamps), how smoking the oyster (which clients prefer to boiling) is really bad for their eyes and over time leads to sight problems, and how the work itself is just so hard, even though they earn so little for it.

Midway through the interview, our housekeeper (who was at home watching with us) recognized one of the women. "She has held a position many times as a maid, but she always abandons it to go back to the oyster business", she told us, with some disdain. According to her, there is a divide in the housework employee-base (i.e. those women from whom the local supply of house-helps, domestic maids and cooks are drawn): whilst some are willing to work the relatively safe, monthly-wage-earning house jobs, others prefer the riskier but daily-earning oyster trade.

The presenter of the show was very steeped in feminist theory, and kept giving her questions a "lazy husbands" slant, barely keeping check her outrage that these women were here working so hard whilst their husbands stayed home. This, rather than being "empowering", only got irritating after a while, and took the focus off the pertinent issues which the women face everyday. But it also exposed something that I believe is the strongest force opposing any movement for "women's liberation" in The Gambia - the fact that most of the women themselves are quite - if not happy - given in to their lot as the normal state of affairs, not seeing anything wrong with doing 'feminine' tasks, without asking for or receiving help from their male counterparts. At one point in the interview, she asked one of the women (the most vocal, who had confidently stepped into her role as PR person for the other women), where her husband was. The conversation went something like this:

Presenter: Where is your husband?
Woman: At home.
P: Why? Can he too not gather oysters!
W: That is not a man's work - he does other things.
P: Like what?
W: This and that - to try and raise a bit of money at home too.
P: But you do the majority of the work?
W: Yes.
P: And he does not help?
W: Not with the oyster gathering itself, no.
P: Why?
W: Because that is not work for a man.
P: But why!
W: Ah - because it is woman's work.

...and so on.

The oyster women have sold oysters as long as I remember. They are one of the things that have not changed at all over the years in this country - it is still the same group of tired-looking women with saggy breasts and baskets on their head, wading knee-deep into the muddy swamps with a machete. At the end of the program, the presenter sent out "an appeal to all Gambians" who might be interested in taking up the cause of improving these hard-working women's lives. Nothing will probably come of it: oysters are just a little too unglamorous, just don't sound as chic, or make as much advertising sense as - say - the latest short-lived World Cup winning campaign of the Under-20s team. Which is a pity, because these are genuinely hard-working women who deserve to get a break.