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.