Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Illegal Emigrants Essay in Today

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

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

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Cafe Touba

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

In which the local team drops out of the Nawetaan

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

The Nawetaan is popular for two reasons:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 5, 2007

Gampost Postal Charges

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

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

Binda - the Gambian Writer's Collective

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