Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Teenage Pregnancy & The Abortion Story

There was an article in the newspapers the other day about a nurse committing an illegal abortion on a grade 10 student, and being sentence to 2 years in jail and hard labour. Everyone who heard it was horrified at the callousness of the nurse, performing such an operation on such a young girl, ending a life before it had even started. The nurse's association of the Gambia issued a press release distancing themselves from the whole stinking affair, and claiming that the woman who had performed the abortion should not be called a nurse, as she had carried out her operations without a proper license. People made the right noises of disapproval when someone brought the topic up in conversation, before hastily moving on to something else. And, as always, everyone refused to examine - or even acknowledge - the problem behind the problem.

Here is what typically happens to a schoolgirl who gets pregnant in The Gambia:

1) You discover the pregnancy. You panic, and tell your best friend, who panics. You tell your boyfriend - who tells his best friend - and they both panic. Someone, somewhere in the mess you're in now, suggests a doctor who can be discreet, or a marabout who can give you medicine which, as soon as you drink it, will somehow 'melt' the fetus (you are ready to believe anything at this stage, cling on to any thread). Your boyfriend starts asking around, covertly. You try to go on at home as though nothing had happened, not telling your Mum, evading the presence of your Dad because - who knows - old people might have a way to detect these things. Thank God your Mum is deadly embarrassed about such things as the human body, and has never ever had a serious conversation about such things as sex with you, except for a tightening of the mouth whenever you wear something too short, or are seen with boys.

2) As the weeks progress, your panic increases and becomes a raw fear which has you lying awake at night unable to go to sleep. Your boyfriend cannot find an abortionist - everyone has heard about one who is very good, no one knows where to find one. You lose weight and develop rings under your eyes from worry, and lack of sleep. Your Mum finally asks you what's wrong, and unable to hold it in any longer you give in to the pity on her face, daring to hope that perhaps she is not so bad, and collapse into her arms, crying and confessing. She throws her arms in the air and wails, accusing you of bringing shame onto the family, and what will she tell your Dad?

3) Your Father kicks you out of the house, when your Mother tells him. You go to live with a cousin, or a pitying friend whose parents don't mind. Your boyfriend stops visiting. People talk about you - they look at you with disdain when you pass them on the streets. Your boyfriend is rarely even mentioned, or when he is it is with a certain amount of admiration, at his male prowess. You are the stupid bitch who opened her legs - he is the 'you-old-dog-you' guy who scored. He should be congratulated - you should be shamed.

4) The bulge becomes noticeable. One Monday morning the headmaster calls you into his office and expels you from school. On your way out, stunned, you see your boyfriend leaving class with his mates. You call out his name desperately, but he hurries on ahead, like he didn't see you.

5) Welcome to hardship, and pain, and long nights lying awake sobbing into the bedclothes until they become soggy and wet under you. It's better, after the baby's born, though your heart almost breaks the day the christening ceremony is supposed to happen, and all that happens is that your friend you're staying with's mum gets some meat and cooks benachin, and buys some drinks and calls one or two old men from the street to give the baby boy you brought back from the hospital a name.

6) You can't get a job, because you didn't finish high school. You can't get back into school, because there is no-one to pay - your best friend's mum is doing quite a lot as it is, helping to pay for the child's food and clothes. In any case no school would take you, except for one of the vocational training centers, where you will learn typewriting and English, so you can become a secretary somewhere. Desperately you look around for someone to marry you, so at least you will have someone who can support you. You have given up dreaming about a career in the fashion world, like you used to - dreaming takes up too much time, and the baby doesn't give you this luxury.

Now why, having a choice between the above and abortion, do you think many of our girls would prefer an abortion?

Of course what the nurse did was wrong, performing such a risky operation on a girl without her parent's knowledge or consent. But jailing nurses who carry out abortions is not going to solve the problem of young girls having abortions, because it does not go to the heart of the matter.

Every month, in the news, there is a report about a baby being found dumped at a garbage dump, or flushed down a toilet. Hold in check that thought about Gambian girls being heartless and cruel: they don't do it because they hate the baby, and want to snuff out its life. They do it because they can see the world of pain waiting for them, if they should keep the baby. It's more self-preservation than inhumanity. They made a mistake, and there's absolutely no one willing to forgive them for this mistake - either their parents, or the community they live in. And so they choose the easy path. Which is not necessarily the right path, but most of these girls are nothing more than teenagers, whose hormones got the better of them.

Having sex and getting pregnant amongst teenagers over here has become one of those cliched evils, that generation after generation treat the same way, punishing perpetrators without ever sitting down to think through issues. There have been some improvements: some parents don't kick their kids out of the house, some parents are supportive and help the kids to go on with their lives, and become full and active members of society again. But a lot of parents still need to be educated, and taught that having a child out of wedlock as a teenager is not as bad as their parents made them believe, and is certainly not worth kicking someone out of the house over. There is also a problem with the custom (I'm not sure it's even a constitutional law, which is why I call it a custom) of kicking girls out of school and not allowing them to continue even after their pregnancy ends, whilst the guilty guy gets to finish school like nothing happened, oh no, they just knocked someone up, but who cares? I'm not advocating kicking the boys out too, as some people have suggested - I'm all for letting the girl back in, afterwards. It is not the school's place to pass moral judgments on people.

I think we need to really re-think this whole issue, if we are genuinely interested in saving the lives of babies, and making the lives of women better in this country. Sure, laws and prison sentences to offenders are good, and give you control over your populace. But changes in policy and getting people to look at things from a different angle are generally more beneficial in the long term because they lead to less crimes, and a much better society.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

"Reading the Ceiling"

I started reading "Reading the Ceiling", by Dayo Forster, yesterday. I am only in a hundred pages, but I am completely drawn into the story. The prose gets really, heartwarmingly beautiful at times, and I guess being a Gambian some things resonate with me in ways they wouldn't with someone who has never lived here all their life. I will post a review when I finish reading it, but even now I would highly recommend it, not as "Gambian literature" (as in: read this, and excuse that it may be a bad book, the prose does not flow, the plot does not make sense, because it was written by a Gambian), but just as a good book anyone could enjoy.

Face of Africell Second Round

Yesterday ten people were voted out of the face of africell competition, so now it's down to twenty. The girls voted out put on brave "it's ok we can live with it" faces - for five minutes, then burst into inconsolable tears. The ones who didn't get voted out tried to hide their relief, and be gracious, hugging the others and patting them on the back. The GRTS cameraman swung the camera around wildly ("too many cool shots here - which to choose, which to choose?"), so you'd get a glimpse of a thigh here, a flash of a cheek there.

Afterwards they showed the scores, and Ms Leigh came first on the voting tally, with Lilian Bruce Oliver right behind her. The votes will accumulate instead of being reset at each round, which means unless something unexpected happens they will stay as they are now, with very little change from week to week. The finals are on the 8th September.

The Africell marketing machine has been squeezing every single droplet of advertising milk they can get out of this, which is in stark contrast to what Comium - the third cell phone company here - is doing with the rival competition they are sponsoring, the "Face of the Gambia". I wonder how long it is before Gamcell (the first cellphone company) comes up with their own version of the beauty pageant, with the title changed to Wollof just to show people that no, they are not copying anyone, this idea is actually theirs, and not something they saw on TV.

I was enthused at first about having a fresh new program on GRTS to keep people watching. But I'm not so sure I like the idea of a hundred "American Idol" lookalike programs on national TV. And this reflects the wider society - the tendency over here is for one person to get a good idea, and a hundred other people to just faithfully copy it, because that's so much easier. What we need - in our music, in our TV dramas and programs, all across our arts - is more people with original ideas, more people willing to go down the not-always-easy road of trying out things to see if they work, instead of just sticking to the tried and tested.

Friday, August 24, 2007

The Rainy Season in The Gambia

The rainy season has started in The Gambia again, which means two things:

1) really bad, muddy roads whenever it rains all night. Last time it did an all-nighter there was a news item on TV showing people being flooded out of their houses, and roads being swamped, cars being washed away.

2) more varied weather conversation with strangers on the street (instead of having only the one topic of conversation concerning the weather [i.e. the heat, the almost-unendurable, turning everyone's life into hell but we have to put up with it, damn I wish I could afford an Air Conditioner heat], now there's also the rain to talk about. Including how unpredictable it is, how we don't really need it here in the city and the people upcountry need it more, how August is always like this, etc.).

Yesterday the clouds gathered into a massive party, making the sky go black and overcast, and everyone looked up fearfully and started walking faster to wherever they were going. Then the clouds decided they didn't want to hang out after all, and after throwing down a few uncaring drops, they dispersed and went their separate ways. I was at a Nawetaan match when it happened, the football field still wet from the previous night's rains. The ball got caught in mud when the players kicked it, and the players themselves flopped about like fish, flapping their arms, splashing mud every which way. When the clouds gathered, people put up their umbrellas. Then nothing happened, and they put them down again. The team I was rooting for lost.

Every year, people start talking about the rainy season a few months before it gets here. The more affluent ones repair roofs (the less affluent complain loudly about how their roofs leak). Then, a month before the rains come, everyone starts talking about how the rains are late yet again. The Imams have a field day, giving long sermons about how the rains are being held back by God because of the sinful ways of our times, how we must repent, etc. Two weeks before the rains come, everyone's panicking, and all the mosques and churches offer up prayers to God to forgive our transgressions and release the waters. It's not quite as exciting, but it's almost like ancient tribal dances to the rain god.

Then the rains come. At first, there are a few experimental trickles, which get people in a huff because they have to pack up and run indoors every-time the sky becomes overcast, only to discover that there isn't going to be a big storm after all. A week or two later, the huge rains come, the big ones which last all night long, their voices huge thunderclaps which send people running for cover. There is damage to property: trees fall down on roofs, smashing them in; leaky roofs let water into warehouses, thoroughly making everything wet and ruining it; mini-floods wash into hovels, clearing everything in their path away and leaving behind a giant patch of mud; roads become unnavigable. People do the reverse rain dance, praying that the rains will stop, or at least come down in moderation. Imams seize the opportunity to lecture everyone on the might of God: we ask him for something, but when He gives it to us we discover we are not strong enough to receive it after all.

The rains are not usually a bad thing, though. After the heat of the rest of the year, in fact, they are rather a relief: nothing beats the breeze that travels on the wake of a storm. Sometimes when it rains in Banjul people strip down to a pair of shorts and a shirt and go out into the streets. Everyone stands around in the middle of the street, the water coming down in whole tub-fuls, smiling and talking. There is usually a high building with a pipe set up on the roof so the water doesn't stay up there, and this acts as an improvised shower, with people taking turns to stand under it. Some people bring out soap and take a proper bath in the rain. The gutters overflow, their black depths forming a mess on their edges, topped with all the things that have been thrown into them during the dry season, from used condoms to cigarette packets, plastic bags, someone's used toothbrush. Maybe one of the guys brings out a ball, and we split into sides and play each other, someone taking a nasty spill every now and then, no worries, it's all part of the game, let's laugh and say sorry and play on. Once we ran to the beach during a storm, and it was beautiful. It was right after the beach reclamation project had been completed, and little palm trees had been planted on the sand to stop the water advancing, when they grew (they are gone now, ruined in the hundreds of football matches that are played on the beach every week). The water was choppy, and it seemed like a frisky puppy, jumping up again and again to play with the rain, which was coming down in sheets. Afterwards I went home and changed, then I ate a heavy lunch, and wrapped myself up in a warm blanket and slept for hours.

Enjoy the rainy season whilst it lasts: afterwards come the lean, hungry days of the Ramadan, the heat resuming its job full-time.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Gambian Musicians and how to Identify them

Though it may not be obvious at first glance (or second, or third), there is quite a burgeoning music scene in The Gambia. Because it does not work in the same way as traditional music scenes in other countries, it is sometimes hard to make sense of it. This guide is written to help you identify the different types of musicians, which is always a good first step towards general musical enlightenment. By the time you finish reading this guide, you will know 90% of what there is to know about the current state of music in the country, ensuring you will never be left out again in conversations with your musical friends.

The Different Types (and where to find them)

1) The Rapper Dude: Usually in their late teens or early twenties, from upper-middle class / upper class families. This type of musician can be recognized by the way they dress (jeans, basketball shirts, and blings are good, belts are not - see any 50 Cent clip), the way they talk (a lot of 'nigga!'s and hi-fives), and the way they walk (the swagger: a rapper dude's best friend). They are heavily influenced by rap music, and will swear to you that 2pac is a highly-underappreciated visionary prophet who is still alive somewhere, and is only waiting for the right time to re-surface and once more rule the world. Somehow, in between all the clubbing and 'living the good life', they manage to find a way to actually sit down and make music. This music, which is of varying qualities (from mediocre to just bad), usually consists of the rapper dude desperately trying to sound like their favorite rap star (or, failing that, at least American) over a computer-generated beat. The lyrics of the songs almost never have anything to do with reality, and instead switch between talking about how 'bad' the rapper dude is, and how they are 'gonna shoot you up with their fo-fo' if you mess with them. Don't be scared: the rapper dude is usually harmless, and wouldn't hurt a fly, despite all the posing.

Where to find: Any hip and hap'ning club in the country (currently Cotton Club, but check with hip and hap'ning teenagers in your locality), Sunday Beach (at Palma Rima during the summer).

2) The GRTS Clip Artist: Back in the day, there was a musical explosion in The Gambia, with everyone and their cousin forming a rap/ndaga/reggae group and making a video-clip for GRTS. Some of these were even good, and are still remembered with sentimentality by some folks (Born Africans, anyone?). Then the material from the explosion came back together and folded in on itself, ending in a disappointing whimper (more like a sigh, really). All that remains of that once promising time is... the GRTS Clip Artist. This type of musician can be recognized by their many clips on GRTS, all the same repetitious claptrap, illustrated with wildly-forced-grin-bearing dancers windmilling their arms every which way, as the camera zooms out and then pans in on our artist, also proudly displaying all their teeth and trying to sing at the same time. Due to timing issues, the audio of the song is usually not in sync with the lip movement of our hero artist, and so you get the painful effect of watching the artist miming a (bad) song they didn't even write. The subject matter of the GRTS Clip Artist's song is pre-defined, and can only be chosen from a few topics: 1) The President, 2) Football (esp. the Under-17s, who are hot right now), 3) Any current summit/conference/international meeting currently being held by world leaders in the country, or 4) How nice Gambia is.

Where to find: Watch GRTS any day of the week, especially around 7pm (immediately before the news).

3) The Jamaican Aya-man: This type of artist is usually older than the rapper dude (in their mid to late twenties), but they have a lot of similarities. Whilst the rapper dude is interested in Black American culture and endeavors to make it his own, the Aya-man chooses Jamaican culture, and all that entails. The Aya-man usually is dreadlocked (you need dreadlocks, to shake wildly in the air whilst you sing, if you ever get to make a video-clip for GRTS), and is heavily influenced by Jamaican artists ranging from Bob Marley (the old-school Aya-man), to Capleton (the crazy Aya-man), to Sean Paul (the me-wan-get-laid Aya-man). The Aya-man's song topics of choice, though not as limited as the GRTS Clip Artist's, still needs to be selected from a (rather vague) list: 1) how they wanna fight us, but in the end they will fall down. (they here, though usually used to refer to the West (Babylan), can also mean rich people in the Aya-man's own society, the government, the Aya-man's next door neighbor, and even past friends the Aya-man has fallen out with). 2) how 'da weed' should be freed. (These songs usually include vague [the Aya-man loves vague] arguments about how 'da weed' keeps people healthy, etc., and how they want to prohibit it simply to have more control over us [which ties in nicely with (1) above] ). 3) Jah Rastafari - it is very rare to see an Aya-man devote a whole song to this topic, unless it also has Muslim overtones, as most Aya-mans are also devout muslims, and understand that Rastafarian beliefs can be accepted only up to a certain point, beyond which one becomes blasphemous and liable to burn in hell.

Where to find: Aya-mans give free shows sometimes, which you can find out about via word-of-mouth. The less shy and introverted ones also create video clips of their music, which can be viewed on GRTS.

4) The Hotel Entertainer: Of the many types of gambian musician, this is probably the most respectable. The HE (His Excellency [of musicians] - get it?) can be found in hotels and other tourist locations. HEs usually form bands, and most of the time have some amount of skill at playing at least one musical instrument, even if it's only drums (some HEs have been known to play two, three, or even four instruments). The HE band also includes a singer, more often than not a female (perhaps with a gravelly-voiced male backup, perhaps not), and whilst some HEs do write their own songs, they also perform covers of popular classics. The reason for the HE's comparatively higher quality of performance/skill is probably that most HEs perform music for a living, and there's nothing like knowing that the probability of you continuing at an essential-for-your-survival job is directly linked to how well-received your show was, to keep you working hard.

Where to find: At any hotel / tourist location, especially in the Senegambia area.

5) The Ngenteh Entertainer: This type of musician, the poor country mouse cousin to the Hotel Entertainer's town mouse, is to be found at ngentehs (naming ceremonies), weddings, and other social events. It is probably best to think of them as the poor man's Hotel Entertainers, as they earn less, and are in most cases not as skilled. Whilst the Hotel Entertainers get to perform in an air-conditioned environment, the Ngenteh Entertainer most of the time have to content themselves with a street set up with a "No Entry" sign at both ends, barring cars from entering and ensuring the NEs have full reign for the duration of their performance; the crowd forming a circle, with the NEs at the head, dancers moving to the middle of the circle and back to their seats, as the evening progresses. The equipment of NEs ranges from simply drums of different shapes and sizes (for the less sophisticated), to an almost-orchestra (or as close as you can get, under the circumstances), with guitars, a keyboard, amplifiers, speakers, and maybe even the odd synthesizer.

Where to find: At any celebratory social function (i.e. not funerals, charities, etc., but at weddings, naming ceremonies, and other such happy occasions).

5a) The Lesser Ngenteh Entertainer: There is some argument about whether this type of musician should be categorized as a subtype of the NE. Whilst the Lesser Ngenteh Entertainers claim they were the original entertainers at social functions and so deserve the pejorative 'lesser' to be dropped from their names, the Ngenteh Entertainers claim the LNE are nothing more than glorified beggars, and should not be encouraged by being called artists. The LNE are griots who, having become impatient with their roles as humble oral chroniclers of the people's history, have decided to concentrate on their other (albeit lesser) social responsibility: going to social functions and singing praise songs for money. Usually women (though there are also some men LNEs), it is rare to see an LNE acting alone - groups are the favored form of operation, though an unwritten rule is that you try to make as much money behind the others' backs as possible. The more talented LNEs can make up epic songs on the spot, sometimes doing research within minutes of arriving at an event. [There is a joke about an LNE who, arriving at a funeral, was told by a gang of rascally boys that it was actually a wedding. He walked into the funereal house, singing loudly the praises of the dead man, and was promptly chased out by enraged mourners. This joke is probably not a true story, but you get the point].

Where to find: See (5) above.


These are the main types of Gambian musicians. As with any list, there are musicians who do not fit within any of the categories above, either because:

a) they are hybrids (e.g. a rapper dude who has then gone on to make it on GRTS, becoming a Super-Rapper-GRTS-Clip-Dude) or

b) they are exceptions (e.g. Jaliba Kuyateh, who actually makes good music that is local and on TV).

We hope you find this guide useful. Happy Gambian Music listening.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Moon Tiger

So I was reading this novel called Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively (an excellent novel, by the way), and midway through it someone mentioned "Moon Tiger mosquito coils", and it suddenly dawned on me that they were talking about "Muntyga". Yes, the "Muntyga" your grandmother used to have alight all night in the living room to chase away those annoying mosquitoes.

I always thought "Muntyga" was a Wollof word. I did some research online after reading the book, and found out that "Moon Tiger" was actually the name of one of the companies that made mosquito coils. My explanation is that the coils made by this company were the first to be brought to The Gambia, and so the name stuck and became the generic name of the product. It made me wonder what other words got "imported" into the language this way.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Face of Africell

Africell have been running a competition to 'discover the face of Africell', with first prize a new car, and second a trip to Paris. The winner also gets to be the full-time PR person for the company. There were judges who got to select the first round of 30 people, and now the public are allowed to vote using their mobile phones for who they think should win the competition.

More than 250 people turned up for preliminary auditions. The audition videos of the 30 people who got selected have been on GRTS TV the past three days, and they were really fun to watch. One thing I was pleased to discover was that the judges didn't choose based on proficiency at English alone, which too many times gets to be a problem over here, with people snobbing other people based on their (lack of) English-speaking skills, which is just plain silly, given that it's not even our language.

So there was a good mix with the thirty that got in and though I didn't agree with all of the choices, I think the majority were not too bad, and some were even quite impressive. If I were voting right now I'd vote for the first ibadu who competed (for those of you who watched the TV show), this girl who I later learnt was the daughter of Imam Baba Leigh. She was very eloquent, and not at all fake. I didn't see all of the auditions though, so I'll withhold my judgement for now.

I think this is a really good move by Africell. At some level, you keep reminding yourself that it's just another brilliant marketing ploy (they've got the whole country watching this, something that has not happened for any TV program since the days of 'Maria De Los Angeles'), but I think it's awesome that GRTS finally have a watchable program that keeps people up and waiting for it, and that we are all getting a chance to see the quality of young girls we have in the country, something which doesn't happen often enough.

You can read more about the whole thing here. I will post more as the competition advances.


Welcome to the "Live From The Gambia" blog.

Here I hope to be able to tell you about what's going on in The Gambia, from the point of view of an average guy living and working here. For people living abroad who want to keep up with what's happening at home, this blog will try to bridge the gap between reading stories in the media, and actually being here to experience things. For those at home, maybe this will give you a fresh perspective on things, or at least provoke some discussion around issues.

This is not a political blog, which means we will steer clear of any politics, as much as possible. It is also not a blog set up to teach you anything (apart from maybe what it's like to live here), or to get you to start believing in anything - please feel free to disagree with whatever I post, at any time. The tone will stay light at all times, and I would love to hear your comments on anything posted here.

I hope you enjoy it.