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.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007


It's Ramadan time in The Gambia - it started on Friday, and the days are slooooowly crawling by, filled with hunger and heat, not the best combination in the world. My cousin told me that the sun evaporates your body juices, and it's the best metaphor I have heard yet to describe what the sun actually does to you during the day, should you dare to venture outside. As usual, there have been some pretty wild/funny (at least to the spectators) street-fights, mainly between drivers of cars in the evening, about an hour before the break of the fast, when tempers are really short, and traffic jams really long. Indiana-Jones-style fist fights are not a rare sight during Ramadan.

But mostly it's been mellow and soft (the people, that is - the weather itself has been terrible, the heat harsh and unrelenting as usual), mainly because when you're that hungry and exhausted the last thing you want to do is anything that will make you expend even more of the precious little energy you still have left. Ramadan rules allow you to eat before dawn, so people wake up extra early to eat, all the time anxiously listening for the sound of the muezzin's call to prayer, which is the sign to everyone to stop eating, because the fast day has officially started. Then afterwards you go back to bed, only to wake up an hour later to go to work/school. So it's a pretty exhausting month as well, in addition to everything else.

All apart from religious considerations though, the hunger is not such a bad thing. It links people together, in a way being stuffed never will, makes them help each other out in small ways all over the place, and be more charitable. It's as if the gnawing, empty pain in their bellies all day long is a reminder to be nice to other people, because they feel as we feel, and are as we are. Yes, cheesy as that sounds - I couldn't find a better way to put it. Even better than books, even better than the latest Hollywood movie starring [insert hot young actor here], the best way to get one person to understand the suffering of another is to put them in that person's shoes. And so our common suffering during Ramadan, like boot camp in the military, creates this bond between us that is quite strong, if only temporary. For one whole month, everything is laid down - political, tribal and all the other kinds of machetes people yield here - and everyone helps each other survive through the lean, dry days, and make it to the end, the foodful Eid.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Growing up in Badibu in the '80s

My friend Baba told me a story about Badibu (a town in The Gambia, where he comes from), and growing up there in the 80s that I found so fascinating that I thought I would share it with you. He told me the story in Wolof, and I have tried to make the English transcription below as faithful to the original in tone and meaning as possible. Any errors, however, are mine.

Badibu in the 80s

Every morning, we would be woken up at 5am to learn the Koran until 7, no excuses. The head of the family was also our teacher - I had been given to him as a child to raise - and though he is old now (almost ninety) back then he was still a strong man, capable of giving us boys a serious beating. He would be waiting for you when you played truant, with a long cane and a short one, the better to reach you with no matter your distance from him. I had a strategy I used to handle him: I would grab him, and get lost within the folds of his voluminous waramba. He would try hard to disentangle me - you cannot effectively give someone a beating when they are that close - and I would hold tight until his wife, the mother of the house, heard the commotion and came to my rescue.

I had been assigned the task of fetching the milk for breakfast every morning, and in this I was lucky. Every morning, after our rude awakening at 5, I would be excused about 30 minutes into the class to carry out my duties. I would walk off happily to the shop that sold the milk, a few kilometres away from my house. I would return triumphantly with the milk an hour later, as it was beginning to get light and Koranic classes were almost over.

At 7am, we were let off classes, to eat breakfast, shower, and get ready for school. The primary school was located a few minutes' walk away form the house, and this is where we all went.

Everyday after lunch, at about 3pm, it became so hot you couldn't stay anywhere comfortably, in- or out-doors. So we would go, all of us, to the beach, to swim and splash around in the sea until the heat became more bearable. You learnt to swim, at an early age, to protect yourself from pranks: the older boys would grab any boy who showed the slightest sign of fear of the water or swimming inability, throwing you in and laughing and jeering, not coming to your rescue until you were exhausted and had reached the edge of your panic.

I had a friend, who could stay underwater for so long we would think he had drowned, before emerging again, far from where he had gone under. Many of us tried to beat his record - all of us failed.

Then there was the hunting. In the forests surrounding our village, there were all manner of animals, from foxes to rabbits. We would take our dogs (I had a dog, and it was one of the best in the village), we would take them into the forest. Upon catching sigh of an animal you would bend down and lay your hand on the dog's back. Tsss, you would say, at the same time pointing with your other hand at the quarry.

If you had trained your dog well, it would set off after it, and when it had injured it hold it down to await your arrival, so you could slaughter it. This for docile animals, like rabbits - for ones which fought back, like foxes, your dog only cornered them, until you arrived with a large stick to put an end to the fight they were putting up.

I had a large trap, with a spring so heavy that you had to put it on the ground and use the strength of both legs to prise it open, and wicked metal teeth that clamped onto an animal's legs and never let go.

I would set this trap at night at a spot where I could see many animal's footprints, covering it with a thin layer of dirt and grass so it was invisible unless you knew it was there. I would add a huge stick to the side which would leave a track behind should the trap be dragged away by an ensnared animal. The next day when I returned I only had to follow this track, with my friends, to where the injured and by now exhausted animal lay, bleeding and helpless.

When a fox is caught in your trap and drags it back to its hole, here is what you do: you reach carefully forward and grab it by its barely visible tail. Then you must jerk it out of the hole and throw it away - really fast! - from you, all in one motion. It'll land stunned, and then you and your friends must immediately hurl yourselves upon it, bludgeoning it with sticks until it lies unconscious.

We tried not to kill the animals we trapped: we would stun them and carry them home, where an obliging adult would slaughter them for us, so they were halal. Then the girls would cook them, everyone bringing something - salt, spices, kerosene for the stoves we had back then - from their house as their contribution. We would sit around during the evening, eating meat and drinking attaya, the noise of the dice in the pot as people played Ludo.

This was before urbanization, and the modern world, before everyone had to move down to Banjul and the Kombos, for school, to get a job.

Every weekend my friends and I would work for hire weeding farms all across the village. You would pay us D12 (there were twelve of us), and also give us breakfast and lunch - in return we would work on your farm from nine until noon, weeding and cleaning away the space for plantation. Back then it could take up to three months to weed and prepare one farm - now it takes three, four days. The land has been overused, and consequently the areas available for farming have grown smaller. In any case there are not many farms left, because there are not many people who want to be farmers - they all want to come down to the urban areas, to make it here. The few farms remaining are called gardens, and are cultivated by people who make a little money off of them.

Near my house there was a certain area where you could catch lungfish.They were very slippery, and the trick was to use both hands and, grabbing them from the mud, throw them onto dry land where you could have a better hold on them. We took them home, and our mothers prepared and cooked them. They tasted like kong (catfish).

There were also many rabbits. When rabbit-hunting all you need is a heavy stick. There is a strategy to it: when a rabbit sees you approach its hole, it will bolt. You must resist the temptation to run after it. Instead stand at the hole and wait - it will come back, eventually. Rabbits are very bad-sighted, and if you stand very still it will come right up to you without recognizing you, its nose sniff-sniffing like an old woman with a bad cold. Then - ! - you must strike, hitting it with your stick until it lies unconscious. Afterwards, don't lift it by the ears to carry: they are not strong and will tear off under the weight of its body.

A bush fire happened near my house once, and when I went out I saw a rabbit bolt from its hole as it sensed the approaching heat, running off in the opposite direction into the forest. A few days later I returned to the spot with a stick. The hole was still there and sure enough, after I had waited for some time the rabbit came out, sniffing away. Thwock! Thwock! I went with the stick, and then I took it home to be cooked.

Once in a while, we would decide to throw a party, and that day when us boys went out hunting we would kill more than the usual amount of game, so we could have a feast that evening. If you line up three ants before you go out hunting, and severe their heads with the edge of your knife, there is no way you will come back home without killing something, guaranteed, this has worked for me many times.

These days, when I go to Badibu, there are few of my friends left. All of them have gone away, to the city, or travelled abroad. Last time I went the old man - my foster father - was sitting alone in his room. His wife died a few years ago, and such a good woman she was. I said salamalekum to the old man, and then I got a broom, and cleared away the cobwebs that the spiders had made all across the ceiling of his room. He smiled as he thanked me, shaking his head and laughing as he remembered how stubborn I had been as a boy.

I came home a few days later, back to the Kombos. Badibu will never be the same for me again, as it was, then.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Face of Africell Finals

Yes, it's over. The finals happened on Saturday, from 9pm to about 3am, at the Kairaba Hotel's Jaama Hall. I was invited as a blogger (at the table I was sitting at I mentioned this fact during introductions to an elderly gentleman - he said 'Oh', and turned around to talk to the next person).

Yamundow Leigh won, to noone's surprise. Jainaba Touray came second. All very predictable, given the course of the voting over the last week. Each of the girls got a ten thousand dalasi cash prize, and each of the guests (that's us) got all sorts of cool Africell swag, from sim cards to mobile phone holders.

Now back to your regular GRTS programming ennui...

Thursday, September 6, 2007

An Arab, a White Man, and an African

An Arab, a White Man, and an African went to visit God. God said to them 'I will give you whatever you want - just name it'. So first the Arab came up, and he asked for wisdom, and God said 'So shall it be', and the Arab was wise. Then came the White Man, and he asked for wealth, and God said 'So be it', and the White Man became wealthy. And the African? God asked "What do you want, my Son?". The African shrugged. "Oh don't worry about me, Lord", he replied, "I only came to keep the others company".

If you're a Gambian who grew up in The Gambia, you've probably heard this tale or variations of it. It's narrated more as a joke than anything, perhaps as someone's funny explanation of why we're behind everyone else in the world, during an after-dinner conversation. Yet funnily enough, this joke tells quite a lot about Gambians and their belief system.

1) The Three Races.

First, the three races. You will notice that there is an Arab (a Narr), a White Man (a Toubab), and an African. To the average Gambian, these are the only three types of people in the world, and every human being on the planet falls into one of these categories. This makes it very simple to classify people - they are either toubab, narr, or one of us. Being able to do this also makes it that much easier to neatly pigeonhole everyone into a tight stereotypical container (all Gambians know, for example, that Jews are rich but bad people, etc.)

2) The foolishness of the black man.

Whilst the representative of every other race chooses a gift, the African is so silly he does not think to seize the opportunity and ask for something useful for us. Yet at the same time the story is also excusing the African: he says "I am only here visiting" - he believes he does not deserve what the others are getting because whilst they are there specifically to ask for gifts, he only came along to accompany them. So instead of being crafty and pretending he is one of them, his honesty makes him tell the truth, and get nothing as a result. Thus the image of the African as an honest (maybe even likable) person who is only inferior because he is too naive, and not as coldly calculating and manipulative as the others. [1]

3) The Arab is Wise, The White Man wealthy. We just tag along.

Stereotypes exist all over the world, and The Gambia is no exception. Islam is the primary religion in The Gambia, and Islamic knowledge (of the Quran and Hadith) is put at a higher level in most people's estimation than Scientific knowledge (Imams and Oustasses are certainly more respected than Scientists[2]), hence the stereotype of the Arab as wise (Islam is Arabic). The wealth of the White Man is something that is universally believed to exist, mainly due to Hollywood and life in the west as portrayed in movies, and the many people who go abroad poor and come back (relatively) filthy rich. [3]

4) God as the giver of gifts, and how ours awaits us in the afterlife.

God giveth when he wishes, and God taketh away, etc. Gambians are very religious, and finding an openly Gambian atheist is even more uncommon than finding an openly gay Gambian. [4] Another thing you hear someone say along the same lines sometimes is that God gave the toubabs wealth in this world, and gave us wealth in the other (the afterlife), so there is nothing that can be done about that particular problem except wait for ours. People say this with a resigned air and a knowing smile (yes, you can have both at once), shaking their heads slowly up and down as they think of the heavenly pleasures that await us. On seeing a wonderful gadget or technique, the first thing people say is: "Toubabs are Djinns". This regardless of whether the object they're exclaiming over was made in China, Kenya, or next-door Senegal: if it's technology it's a Toubab's work.

[1] This only applies to this particular story though - at other times and in other stories the African is behind because he is too cruel, he does not like his fellow African, he is an idiot, etc. Every African has an opinion about why Africa is poor. return

[2] Except, perhaps, Doctors - but then they are a special case. return

[3] Thanks to the currency exchange rate, a Gambian-Dalasi millionaire would only be as rich as an average citizen in the US, for example, whilst an average citizen there earning the same amount (in dollars) here would live quite a comfortable - even wealthy - life. return

[4] I myself know of only one (openly atheist, that is, not the other): the distinguished Medical Doctor and Poet Lenrie Peters. I remember as a child watching him profess his atheism in a TV interview (to be honest I remember the scandalized reaction of my mother and her friends more than I remember anything else about the event). I have never met him, but he must have been a very brave man to do that, on national TV. return

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Senegalese Music in Space

On September 5, 1977 a spaceship called "Voyager I" was launched into space. The plan was to have it travel further into space than any other man-made object. Someone had the idea to put a disc of recordings on it, including musical recordings from all over the world. This became known as the "Golden Record".

One of the recordings is from Senegal. :-) It's percussion, and it's the same kind of music as that produced by kora and other local musicians in The Gambia (it sounds very Jola-ish). I thought it was cool, having the sound of Gambia/Senegal in space.

You can listen to the whole record here.

Face of Africell Third Round

Down to the final round now, with Ms Leigh still in top position, and everyone else madly jostling for second (it has changed every single week, with noone staying second position for more than one round).

The finals are on Saturday and, per usual, Africell have managed to create quite a buzz around the event, making it invite-only and limiting the number of invitations available. (If by any chance you're reading this and have an extra ticket lying around, my email is amrangaye [at] gamil [dot] com, hehe).

Ah well - those of us who don't get any invites can still go to the less trendy but still hip Comium-sponsored "FAWEGAM Face of The Gambia" competition, which is a ticketed event instead, and which takes place on Friday.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Reading the Ceiling - A Review

In the slit between my bedroom curtains I see a triangle of sky more grey than blue. [...] I plan to be loose today. But who with?

Ayodele is a young Aku girl growing up in The Gambia. The book starts when, at 18, she has to make a monumental decision: who to lose her virginity to. But it's more than just who she loses it to that is important, it's that she is losing it, rebelling against the strict moral system of her mother's generation where a woman only lost her virginity on her wedding night, to her husband. This sense of rebellion against the rigid structures binding women in place in Gambian society is something that underlies the whole book, always subtly in place, always at the base of all the choices Ayodele makes (or fails to make).

Ayodele has a short-list of possible candidates, and at the beginning of the book we find her running through them in her mind, weighing them against each other. (And the largest mango in my pile? The biggest bonga on my stall?, she asks at one point during the descriptions). It is at this point that the book splits into three, the three possible paths Ayodele's life could take, depending on which choice she makes.

Given the plot of the book, it would have been very easy for it to become nothing more than a cheap gimmick, swamped in righteous sentimentality and a bias for certain choices over others on the author's part. Not so in this case - all the choices Ayodele makes are as valid as any other: there is no preaching, no overbearing moral tone. It is told in the first person, and the storytelling is watertight, and very convincing - the author never gets in the way of her characters, or interferes with them. There is a discipline in the storytelling, and it pays off: Ayodele is ready to step out of the page at any moment, and during her moments of sorrow - and this book, like real life, does not shy away from those - you feel great sympathy for her.

We often think of the choices we make as linked together in a long line, from start to finish, one choice leading to another, which leads to another, and so on until we expire. This view is overly simplistic, and not very realistic. Our choices are more like a web, each choice linked to a hundred other choices, which are linked to a hundred others, the linkages running backward and forward and letting you arrive at different parts of the web via different paths. Dayo, rather than taking the simplistic view here, takes the more complex one: things in one choice-line are echoed in a second one, certain things are repeated in all three lines, even though different choices were made by Ayodele. You find yourself wondering whether this complex interaction between the many choices we (and others) make, are not what we glorify and call Fate (with a capital F).

I feel like I do when I stand on the wet sand on the beach [...] and try to guess which of the waves will reach my toes before their weight pulls them back. [...] It's not the obvious ones, not necessarily the big ones that ride by themselves. More often than not, these waves never touch my toes.

Dayo Forster is a great stylist of prose, and you get the feeling much work went into crafting every word on these pages. The sentences are beautiful, and there are turns of phrase which demand that you re-read them, their lyricism almost poetic in its effect. Yet Ayodele never takes herself too seriously - all through the book there is a thin film of humor lain over everything that happens, and matters are dealt with with a great subtlety, and a very, very fine hand. Take, for example, this description of... well, just read it:

[He] can drive. I direct him all the way. Will you take me home? Why don't you stop here for a bit? Shall we move to the back seat? I have the good sense to take out the condom in my disco bag.

The book is set in The Gambia, and the descriptions and dialogue are very authentic. When Ayodele and her classmates travel up-country to celebrate their graduation with a picnic, you are there with them: the mud and the mosquitoes and the river with the canoes on it. There are many layers to this book, and many excursions into subjects which intrude into the life of every Gambian, despite your best efforts to guard against them: from the large (politics, religion, polygamy) to the small (how many mburu to buy for breakfast). But everything is always viewed from the perspective of Ayodele, and how it affects her life - there are no lengthy excursions into topics which have nothing to do with the plot, but which the author thought were pertinent in a Gambian novel anyway.

All this adds up to create a really good novel, one which transports you breathless from the almost-childish musings of a teenager lying on her bed making plans for the rest of her life, to the end, when Aodele has grown - in more ways than one - and is left, not bitter, not even regretful, but settled into her life, time and experience wrapping her up in a heavy old shawl and sitting her down in an armchair to await.... whatever comes next. Ayodele is a very sad character: one of the themse of the book is how she searches for love in her life continuously, yet never truly finds it (except in one instance when she has it cruelly wrested away from her). The work hovers on the edge of being existentialist - Ayodele is not very religous at the best of times, and outright atheistic at others, yet she always seems to be searching, for herself, for others, for meaning, most of the time without even knowing what she looks for - and you are left with a sense of the futility of all the choices we make, ultimately. By the end of the book, Ayodele has done everything, and done nothing and, as we know (having caught glimpses of her other possible futures) this is the only way it could end. 'I wish I could go back and... and change things", a thousand bad movie actors have said. Maybe someone should get them a copy of this novel, so they'll stop being deluded.

Reading the Ceiling is Dayo Forster's first novel. You can get it on the publisher's website here.