Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Uncle George and other characters

I love the cast of curious, inspirational, eccentric and adorable characters that I have met during my time in The Gambia, both local and expatriate.

Uncle George heads the list for the most well-connected, and the snappiest dresser. A former national footballer, and president of the National Olympic Committee, he is the ‘fixer’ in the team due to his impeccable connections with the who’s who of the country. And he is always the epitome of sartorial splendour in his co-ordinated safari suit and pork pie hat.

He’s also an amazing host and invited me to his home for dinner last week, laying on a fabulous spread of Gambian dishes including a super indulgent Benachin, the most delicious spiced fried onions I’ve ever tasted and peanut sauce baked chicken pieces.

He also had a most interesting guest list – myself and Ndimbalan, the runner-up in the Miss Africa pageant (a long-legged beauty with the appetite of a horse and an equally eye-candylicious brother as an escort) and a trio of gorgeous young Gambian girlies.

Maurice, the co-proprietor of Safari Garden and Sandele Eco Resort, is also another memorable resident. Gruff,  irascible, a stickler for service consistency and a great dry sense of humour, he is old school expat meets Victor Meldrew, but in the nicest possible way. And he makes a killer chocolate and beetroot cake.

Add to the mix, my quartet of colleagues at ASSET/Plymouth Banjul – the quiet but deep Ndimbalan, sassy Sarah the admin and finance manager, smart-mouth Daouda who should really be in politics, and tenacious Badu; as well as Adama – my big boss who has been such an inspiration – and his daughter Mariama, the new face of Gambian businesswoman.

My expat friends – the Fajara Massive – including construction manager and drum n’ bass diva Gemma, her partner DJ Two-Bad Toubab Dave, Sam the card sharp/ architect, ‘too cool for school’ hospitality student Fatou – the Gambia returnee - and Tom (Foday), the absinthe fairy (long story, don’t ask), all contributed their own individual magic.

This post has dissolved into an Oscar-worthy thank-you speech and before I get too maudling I shall end with a quick vote of thanks to the Safari Garden team, who took such good care of their often only guest – Lamins 1 to 4 including PaBoy the model, Mohammed, James from Guinea-Bissau, Serrah the general manager, Fernando the silent but special, Kemo, Manjiki, Bakary and Adama the chef.

The volunteer culture mixed with the weird and wonderful world of international expatdom plus a heavy dose of Africa makes for a heady brew and strong cast of characters. It almost reads like an exotic soap opera. Colonialisation Street.

Let them eat..biscuits

The Gambia has a long history of oral storytelling, and ASSET’s menu of cultural encounters includes an afternoon session spent with a local orator and musician, listening to folklore tales with the gentle strains of the traditional kora (stringed instrument) as background music.

Myth, magic and Mandinka rites of passage set the scene for the evolution of the country and its peoples, but one of my favourite stories concerns the current president.

The former bodyguard of the last president, he rose to power via a bloodless coup and has been at the forefront of the country’s drive for modernisation and expansion since the mid-90s.

A popular figure with the masses he periodically embarks on tours of the country – which surely can’t take long as it’s smaller than Yorkshire – visiting the populace and checking on various initiatives.

Apparently the presidential caravanserai travel in a fleet of Hummers and assorted vehicles, and it is a federal offence to be on the road in your own charabanc should the procession pass by your village/town/road less travelled. In fact you are legally obliged to pull off the road, switch off your engine and wait patiently, with the opportunity to hop out and wave of course.

He also has a penchant for distributing sweet treats along the way, with flunkeys assigned to casually toss small packets of Nice biscuits out of the back of the Hummer entourage en route.

A friend of mine had the dubious honour of being hit fair and square on the head with a packet of the aforementioned cookies. Definitely a tale to tell the grandkids.

The president passed through Fajara last week. I begged my colleague Ndimbalan to let us park up and sit roadside in the hope of catching a crumb or two, but he had me on a strict schedule so it’s been rainchecked till my return in November. After all, I DO know the vice president – and I love a nice biscuit with my tea.

School for scoundrels

I’m no fan of the Gambian bumster – as you may have surmised - but I am guilty of stereotyping the young male of this fine nation as I have discovered that the fine art of bumstering is not confined to this slip of a country, and is a multicultural affliction.

And it’s not other West African nationalities. The first was a senior official from the Libyan Embassy, a regular at Safari Garden who seems to have taken a fancy to me. 

Maybe this is his attempt at a rapprochement between our two nations? 

Unfortunately his line in small talk is well, small, and his most exciting comment to date has been to berate me for having lived in the Middle East for 12 years and not be fluent in Arabic. Hmmm. Our subsequent – unplanned – meetings at a local Lebanese shisha joint and on the terrace where I was marooned during a rainstorm haven’t exactly cemented a lifelong friendship. He has even taken to lurking around the guesthouse and pumping my friends for information on my whereabouts.

The other international bumster-in-training was a 50-year old Filippino chap I met at a VSO farewell party on Pipeline Avenue. OK, he had been out in the boonies advising local farmers on the best crop cycles but I thought it was a bit presumptuous.

By far my favourite bumster has been the baggy trousered, half-my-body-weight, skinny-assed MOFO wannabe at Fajara Craft Market. He’s well known to the Safari Garden crowd and is usually a cool guy, but for some obscure reason – slow day at the office? – he decided to chance his luck with me. Big mistake. After a swaggering shirtless attempt at persuading me that Gambian guys really are the best I berated him for his appearance and told him to only come back and attempt to speak to me if, and when, he purchased some grown-up trousers and a belt.

For once he was speechless, you could almost see the pre-prepared patter dry up on his tongue, and he was off in a jiffy - but only to find his ID to prove to me that he was in fact a 33-year old male of the species merely masquerading as a Tupac lookalike. It didn’t help his case.

Despite their bad rep, I think I will almost miss the local bumster set, they’re good amusement value – if you can give as good as you get. But on the flip side, the sight of middle-aged British women, dolled up in their peacock splendour, walking the Senegambia strip and holding hands with nubile Gambian 'totty' is not something I could ever get used to and is truly cringeworthy.

Material girl

The Gambians set great store by good grooming and Friday is the day when practically everyone spruces up in their Sunday best – Gambian style – in acknowledgement of the Juma’a prayers and the end of the working week.

Not that Gambians aren’t well dressed at any other time. You will always see men neatly turned out in crisply ironed shirts and the women always seem to make an extra effort, but Friday sees a riot of colour on the streets as traditional dresses, shirts and headwraps are adopted by the masses.

After sporting the unplanned and inappropriate backpacker look in Ndemaban last week I wasn’t going to make that mistake again.

Sam, another volunteer friend, took us to Serrekunda Market at the weekend to pick up some authentic African print fabric. There’s something fascinating about African markets and sucking on our GMD2 bags of water (a cheaper alternative to bottles) we browsed the dusty lanes, declining offers of hooky DVDs, random plastic housewares and secondhand clothes (apparently this is where a lot of your charity garment donations end up – for sale), in search of  material bargains.

After sweating it out in a dark, fabric filled shop I emerged a few Dalasi lighter and clutching 10 metres of in your face primary coloured fabrics.

Lamin, the nimble fingered seamster of Five Star Tailor was press-ganged into a rush job so I would have something ready for the end of the week and came up trumps completing all three pieces by Thursday evening.

The large baggy African print harem pants and floor length bias cut red print skirt were briefly considered but for my grand Friday entrance it could only be the bright green patterned Gambian dress – the favourite colour of the President no less.

And did it elicit squeals of delight or derision? The former of course. We had a photocall in the garden to celebrate the occasion and the fact that I was bang ‘on trend’.

The only missing bit was the matching headwrap but rather like tourists getting their hair braided I knew there was only so far I could carry the whole look off.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

It's raining...when?

That's the million Dalasi question. The 'green season' rains (green season is the PR spin for monsoon in this neck of the woods, but an apt description) can strike at any moment, and the gathering of dark clouds isn't always a sign of heaven opening its floodgates until you feel the wind suddenly pick up.

After two extremely hot and humid days interspersed with overnight showers, I had just about reached breaking point, not just because I'm a wussy toubab but because of the various insect repellents and factor 30 suncream us pale faces need to slather on to survive the season. 

The sticky residue on my skin drives me insane, but I am still too new to this country to give it up, and too vain to go the sunburned package tourist route.

So the feel of that first juicy fat drop of rain on my skin while we were driving down the coast this morning, past the pungently scented fishing village of Tanjie, was an almost sensual experience. And all the better for being firmly ensconsed in a (virtually) rainproof four wheel drive.

By the time we made it back to Fajara however, the aftermath of the hour-long torrent had transformed Kairaba Avenue - the main drag - into a tranche of foot sucking gloopy red mud broken by pools of water deep enough to throw small children into.

I squelched into the Gampost office to finally mail my postcards home oozing worms of mud from between my toes with my flipflops casually throwing out little sprays of wet sand. I'm pretty sure the guy on the door rolled his eyes in dismay as he looked at my trail.

Of course when we got back to the office the rains had outed the electricity for most of the day so we were back on generator power, which roars like a bad-tempered lion, drowning out most attempts at quiet conversation.

To top it all off, three young men from the company that supply our printers etc. came to replace the toner cartridge. I think they were in training because as they pulled the security seal off the cartridge it erupted in a cloud of black powder...all over me, my laptop, the office.

And then the generator blew up.

All par for the course in Africa. 

Coming to you live from West Africa!

This Camp Africa media caravanserai just keeps on truckin’ and it is definitely going to my head.

The Gambia Tourism Authority has its own weekly radio show called ‘Tourist’ on West Coast Radio  (streaming live on 92.1FM in case you’re interested) and my colleague Ndimbalan and I were invited on as guests to talk about the Camp Africa initiative.

I’d forgotten what fun radio broadcasting is, and it briefly made me nostalgic for my days co-hosting and producing Saturday Xtra on Dubai’s talk radio station 103.8FM. I remember the frustrations we had with technical problems on the weekends and the dated studio set-up but we were positively spoiled in comparison.

While West Coast Radio doesn’t have the chi-chi carpeted, receptionist-staffed environs of its Middle Eastern counterparts, it does have bucketloads of enthusiasm, hip-swaying African music (Jalibab Kuyateh is the Cheb Mami of The Gambia and is top of my playlist this month) and a phone-in line that rings off the hook as Gambians are certainly not shy in expressing their opinions.

We were also joined by the colonel chap from the Tourism Security Unit down near the Senegambia tourist strip, who was on our eco village launch bus ride last week, and who is the regular ‘go to’ guy for complaints from both tourists and Gambians re local security issues.

Today he was talking about the Sunday Beach – an off-season initiative for Gambians which opens up the local beaches for picnics, football and general fun-making on the weekend. Unfortunately it has also seen an increase in harassment of younger women by groups of men due, allegedly, in part to inappropriate dress by the women. The thighs are a particularly salacious part of the body here in The Gambia and as such tight jeans or short skirts are frowned upon and the colonel and his team are now enforcing a stricter beach dress code.

It was an eye-opener, and the listeners – of which there are reportedly 250,000 across The Gambia as well as overseas expats – were all for the enforcement of the new dress code as sexual assault is not an accepted fact of life here in a country where virginity is still highly prized.

Our chat with the host Kebbeh on Camp Africa also elicited several calls and text messages, mostly of support, and I even managed to sneak in a couple of words of badly-pronounced Wolof as we wrapped up.

I felt a little dizzy when it was all over, not due to having reached the heights of stardom, but of the dehydration kind. My friend Gemma has gone down with malaria and is on a heavy dose of quinine (not the most pleasant drug) to get her back on track. This induced a mild level of panic as I’ve been sniffling away with a head cold for a couple of days and have been using it as an excuse to sink an extra JulBrew with lime every night as an added anti-malarial precaution. So today I’m back on the water, and feeling altogether more grounded and definitely less starry-eyed.


Monday, July 12, 2010

Back to the root(s)

I pushed the boundaries of my Gambian experience this weekend with a trip up country to the villages of Albreda and Juffureh – the place where US author Alex Haley traced his slave roots in the mid-1970s.

It was an 8am start (far too early for me in my relaxed African mode these days) and was pelting with rain when I left Safari Garden to head to Banjul port to join the river cruise.

Banjul is a commercial port and the visitor arrival experience is hardly the same as that of Dubai’s glitzy Cruise Terminal, rather a zigzag cab ride through towering columns of cargo containers and the beep-beep of reversing trucks. It’s definitely a ‘local’ experience.

It was still raining when we arrived and the sea was rather choppy, so we had to wait 30 minutes for the swell to subside before boarding the ‘Lady Jacerene’. Operated by husband-and-wife team Mervyn and Trish Baldwin, the boat was originally sailed over from the UK and now plies the River Gambia on a regular basis carrying a human cargo.

The trip to Juffureh was an opportunity to learn about human cargo of a different kind – the slave trade. West Africa and The Gambia was a prime pick-up point for slaves in the 18th century – and is where Alex Haley’s ancestor, Kunta Kinte, was captured before being transported to the tobacco plantations of Virginia in the US.

The twin villages of Albreda and Juffureh are a two-hour boat trip from Banjul and have been milked to the nth degree in the name of tourism and the Roots legacy. Recent moves have been made to make it an altogether more sensitive experience for first-time visitors to The Gambia. This doesn’t mean dumbing down the horrors of slavery, which may have been forgiven but certainly have not been forgotten (an oft repeated phrase by local villages guides), but making it a comfortable experience for western visitors to enjoy and not feel ‘preyed upon’.

A walking tour through the village is alternately traditional and trying. Kids are asked not to shout out ‘toubab toubab’ along the way or ask for things, but they invariably do and that can be dealt with, but the procession of women proffering calabash rattles, palm leaf fans and loofahs while you’re trying to get into the spirit of the place is a little taxing. And the stalls that make up the craft market at the end of the tour are best avoided as tourists are virtually manhandled into looking at bangles, masks and batik print items.

The Museum of Slavery is simple but well thought through, and there is also an audience with the village leader – another lady (go Gambia girl power) – although they do try and foist a photo opp on you as well as offering a home-printed certificate of visitation for GMD25.

Most disturbing for me was the wheeling out and photo opp of Kunta Kinte’s ninth generation descendant, a wizened old lady who just sits looking bemused at the assembled toubabs while a man named Omar Sharif, (gangsta style in aviator shades) plugs his book on the history of Juffureh from a worn briefcase.

That said, the locally trained guides are very helpful and knowledgeable and are paid for their services by the tour organiser, which avoids the whole distasteful handing over of cash on the jetty as they bid a fond farewell.

My favourite part of the day was the walk round James Island, opposite Juffureh, which, although being gradually eroded by the tide, houses the remains of the slave fort including one surviving dungeon – a dank basement room that could comfortably fit three of me inside it, but which would’ve had 24 male residents in its day. Slaves were also offered the opportunity to swim for their freedom to Juffureh on the opposite bank . A three-mile swim that looks entirely feasible but which after a few weeks spent chained, manacled and starved, led to an immeasurable number of watery graves.

We were escorted home by a small pod of black dolphins, another familiar sight on the River Gambia. The sun was beating down mercilessly on the return trip but I was grateful for the opportunity to be up on deck and mindful of the fact that the Mandinka of Juffureh, packed in to the hold like sardines, would have just been grateful for a lungful of fresh air.