Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Gambia

If a bus was passing by with a destination I didn’t know, I probably wouldn’t jump on it...however when an opportunity to visit The Gambia (a country I couldn’t even place on any map) came up - how could I resist the temptation to travel there?

Hence I found myself flying via France for pastries, baguettes and cheese to Banjul the capital of The Gambia (please note that for some strange reason it is never just Gambia but always ‘The Gambia’).

This trip was not a solo affair and I was travelling with Abdou & Renee, friends from The Alice...lol (the)...and we were going to visit Abdou’s family as he is Gambian.

The Gambia is in on the West Africa coast surrounded by on all borders by Senegal...a couple of countries below Morocco...umm yeah...really is hard to find on a map as it is only 300km by 50km...smaller than England if that is possible to believe! It is a British colony and hence unlike Senegal (French colony) people learn English in school and this made it much easier for us to travel. However one should always learn few basics in the local language (Mandinka) so I learnt: Yes=Ha and No=Huni along with some formal greetings and thankyou. Consider now when a ‘bumster’ on the tourist beach asks if you ‘would like a boyfriend’! ...saying No in the local language felt even more odd as a response than the question even felt in the first place...Never have and will I call a boy “Honey”(Huni) but this is what it sounded like as I kept on running.

Banjul proved to be the typical African tourist hotspot and the swanky hotels and the beachside cafes were nice enough but not what I came to Africa to experience. Hence after a few days tidying up last minute errands we were headed up the River Gambia to Abdou’s family’s village – BrikamaBa.Our transport around The Gambia was a bright green diesel Mercedes – just like every other taxi only green and it had no holes in the floor (that I could see). It was ours for use with a driver, for the entire month for $300AUD...Bargain’s are easy to come by when it is not tourist season.

The first journey was typically African and we found that the suspension mounts had rusted through leaving us broken down 25% of the way to BrikamaBa. After some bush mechanics to remove the ‘noisy bits’ (the gas struts clunking with every bump) we continued at a much slower pace until the bitumen where we didn’t need the suspension of course...never mind the lack of stability on the road and feeling like you were riding in a saddle rather than a car seat.

The first I saw of BrikamaBa was at 12.30am whilst we were stopped to ask for directions. I woke up to a screech and crash as a motorbike ran into a donkey – TIA – “This Is Africa”. The next morning I found myself in a village of 3000 people and being the only “Toubab(s)” (White Person) meant we created quite the attraction. Each family had a compound; this is a fenced area with several houses, a toileting area, at least one mango tree to sit under and maybe a well (water) if they were lucky. Unfortunately our compound had a well and no gate...this meant the stream of people to come a see the elusive ‘Toubab’ was legitimised by the need for water.

We had come to The Gambia in the off-season...for good reason tourists don’t go to The Gambia in May...it is bloody hot...it would rival Alice Springs on a summers day...with no air-con or swimming pools though!

I had prepared myself for using a squat toilet (hole) and have never found a bucket bath a hassle in the past. However I assumed like any other village of 3000ppl BrikamaBa would have electricity...definitely not in all houses but at least at the shops. Hence I was even more impressed at how isolated I was as only a few shops had a generator to offer cold drinks, run a TV for cinema nights or the other necessities like sewing machines, welders, etc. There was lucky to be a handful of computers in town so internet was a far fetched idea but sadly the isolation was spoiled by the curse of mobile phones. Shops with a generator would offer charging for mobile phones and the selection of networks...amazing! Just like in Eastern Africa I was amazed at how Africans have embraced mobile technology as squander millions on txt msg’s and chat.

Over the 3½ weeks of living in BrikamaBa I tried to understand how life worked; what people did each day; what they wanted in life and other social questions. The following observations hence are with my western eyes...they will probably spark controversy but seeing-is-believing and truly some things you can never understand growing up in Australia.

Life for the women is hardest...they did everything around the compound and this was the limit of their world. Wake up in the morning and sweep the entire yard/house; fetch water all day long, not just turning on a tap but either walking to the communal tap or hauling it up from a well and then carrying 20litre buckets around on your head; going to the markets to buy food for the day (no refrigeration) was the highlight generally as they got to leave the compound and ‘shopping’ seems to be enjoyed by females world wide; cooking breakfast/lunch/?dinner (?if consumed at all) for the entire compound on a open fire...35deg and using a fire...HOT; laundry (by hand) and when this is all done a few hours rest before washing the children and themselves.

The men have are the breadwinners...when they decide there is a necessary need to work or need for money. It is true that the manual jobs such as building, rice farming, driving, etc are done by men but the time spent working was considerably outweighed by the time drinking “Attaya” (sugar, gunpowder tea and water in these respective quantities). As a national speciality - forget a sport, a dance or musical instrument...The Gambians are the champions of brewing ‘Attaya’. If a Gambian tells you he works 7am-7pm...this includes at least half the time waiting for/brewing ‘Attaya’. It’s a good thing that everyone runs on ‘African time’ as ‘Attaya sessions’ ensure everything is done...eventually (if at all).

So after this hard day(s) work the men will relax in the evening listening to the radio/reading the Koran/talking to other men and of course enjoy more ‘Attaya’. At bed time he decides which wife (you can have up to 4) he wants to sleep with and more often than not she returns back to her own bed after he has finished the deed.

The children are moulded in the model of their parents so as soon as they are able help the girls will carry water and fetch things whilst the boys have considerably more time to play and practice making ‘Attaya’.

The Gambia is devoutly a Muslim country and this keeps the country safe due to its strict adherence to the Koran. Violent crime is almost non-existent and I never once felt my safety threatened. While AIDS has impacted heavily in other African nations, the religious restrictions on sexual freedom has reduced the spread considerably. Charity and helping support those less fortunate is a big part of the Koran and hence everybody shares everything (and has nothing). Their health I feel is preserved by the adherence to prayer and the ritual of cleansing (x5 per day they wash for prayer) and it gives them the spiritual comfort they need to get through the suffering and poverty around them. Hence living life by the Koran plays a big part on Gambians ambitions. The need for children and family was the core of their life. You may be struggling to feed your family but “Allah will provide” for another child if you have one. The children are raised as ‘Somebody to remember you and to support you when your old’...aka...your retirement package. Hence I couldn’t help but feel having a wife and children was more for economic reasons than love.

Prosperity was the other obvious ambition and sadly the only way out for many Gambians is to leave...make money in “Toubab-da-ville” and send it back to the family. Marrying a ‘Toubab’ or getting a ‘Toubab’ to sponsor you is the easiest way to achieve this hence I was a popular person to know in town...fat chance though!

Apart from observing this strange mix of economics/religion/?love? so very different home I had some fantastic experiences.

The boat trip to Baboon Island (a Chimpanzee refuge) will be long remembered for the comedy of errors and hilarity of each moment. Renee and myself enjoyed watching the Chimps hanging over the river whilst bailing (removing water in the boat) continuously so as not to sink. However trying to return to the port proved difficult as our outboard engine failed. 3-4hrs later slightly upstream after our paddling efforts (and sustaining ourselves on mangos pinched from beside the river) the mechanic started the boat and we returned our efforts to bailing out water again rather than both paddling and bailing! Why we trusted African transport let alone water transport shows our stupidity, but it was the best day we had in the Gambia.

Watching the craftsmen in town was one of my favourite past-times. The carpenters carving elaborate bed heads by hand; the tailor embroidering the prayer suits without a pattern replicating the magazine picture by eye;

the welder using sunglasses to “protect” his eyes;

the fish smokers;

the jewellers forge and electroplating device to make “solid silver”.

Catching a donkey cart was a great way to get around if you could stomach the abuse the animal suffered on the journey.
Watching a haircut happening was very different to any other way of cutting hair – it reminded me of shearing wool.

The women plating each others hair into amazing designs.

Doing my own laundry always caused a stir as men never do laundry. Or the first time I was carrying water on my head, spilling it over me and the other women next to the well.

Food in The Gambia was interesting...until I got sick of rice! Every meal had the essential ingredients x1 cup Salt; x4 cups Oil; x2+sachet MSG; x15cups Rice (recipe was for x10 ppl) and the daily variation was either ‘boney’ fish; offal or ground nuts and a few random vegetables. Surprisingly though it became quite addictive to want/need that much salt, oil & MSG. The best part of eating was squatting and scooping the food out of a communal bowl with your RIGHT hand...anything tastes better out of your hand(s).

The baker and I got to know each other very well as I would always wait until I could take the hottest and freshest loaves for breakfast...straight from the wood fired oven it had to be the nicest bread in the world...better than rice anyhow! I made a calzone, cheese&vegemite scrolls and banana bread to the astonishment of everybody (a male cooking and something different to rice!).

The best thing to happen to me in The Gambia however was to meet another ‘Toubab’. Erin is an American Peace Corp worker and for 27months will be in The Gambia; she is 11months into her time. I was invited to attend a naming ceremony for her newborn “brother”. She has learnt the local language of her village, much smaller and only 3km from BrikamaBa and is building a library for the school whist there. She lives in a round house with thatch roof the same as her host family although she boasts a private mango tree...not much in “Toubab-do-ville” but heaven for sleeping under!

The Peace Corp has 3 goals: (1) Show people abroad some American culture (2) Report back to America about the culture she is experiencing (3) Offer support projects in either: education, health or agriculture.

Hence with my birthday coming up we decided to show her Gambian family how ‘we’ celebrate a birthday in the Western World (they don’t even recognise a birthday). We would throw “me” a party.
For my 27yrs356days birthday...I found myself making a Piñata. The Gambians at my compound thought I had gone crazy when I took a bag of lollies and covered them in newspaper glued with whitewash. It was a great birthday, everyone dressed in their formal Gambian clothes (including me); watching the kids smash the piñata; eating a birthday cake (a cornflake, peanut-butter and sugar biscuit); sing me happy birthday (none of them spoke English). As for a birthday present, I was give a ‘Ju-Ju’ which is a lucky charm worn by Africans. The one I wear containing charms for ‘Safe Travel’ and ‘Prosperity’.

Other notable experiences was the prayer session and my African prayer suit/costume;
going to and completing Friday prayer - then trying to figure out with the boys afterwards how I could be a Muslim yet still drink beer and eat pork!;
swimming across the River Gambia faster than the ferry while horrified Gambian’s watched (most Gambians cant swim or are scared by crocodiles & hippos);

eating mango after mango;

getting used to seeing naked breasts...to the point of not even noticing them anymore...except to marvel at how one lady could breastfeed without taking the child off her back!;
playing soccer with the boys every night, coming home filthy from the dust and having to hide my shoes or the ladies would wash them.

We left BrikamaBa abruptly (hence we avoiding being asked for money by the entire town) and on the return trip to Banjul we visited Wassu Stone Circles. These have been compared to Stonehenge and were pretty impressive (although much smaller). I nor the archaeologists seem to understand why they were built but some ‘ancient peoples’ stood rocks in circles 1000s of years ago.

Banjul & civilisation meant turning a tap for water, beer and a swimming pool. It might have been the most I have ever paid on accommodation for myself (a whole $50AUD per night) but the luxury was worth it!Thanks to Abdou for inviting me to see his family; Renee for putting up with me and the assumption she was my wife for the entire trip; Numerous Gambians for their friendship and hospitality and glasses of ‘Attaya’; Erin for the insight into small village life; Roxi for giving me more travel ideas; and Allah for blessing me and letting me be fortunate enough to be able to go there... Allahu Akbar ;)