Friday, 30 May 2008

The Gambian Experience Part Seven (The King & Queen of wind-up). From January 2008.

Photo above:-

The 'King' and 'Queen' of Wind-Up.

Ousman is our hotel's front gate security guard, and the following morning as we trudge through the entrance he tells us what occured while we were out celebrating.
Apparently there was a large disturbance (what the English media would term a riot) outside the hotel's front entrance and all the local shops had to be closed down when the 'opposition' (Boo, hiss...) who had won the seat (Bakau was a different ward/region) and about three miles from the village, decided to take to the streets and attack the losers (the good guys) and the army had to be called in to quell the rioting...
Now come on...
How stupid is that ?
Win the seat and celebrate, that I can understand, but win the seat and smash up shops and cars and anything else on the street ?
That's pretty dumb.
This world does seem a strange place sometimes.
Anyway, I digress so back to Ousman...
Tribally, Ousman is a Serer and Haddy is a Jola.
The Serer are traditionally a fishing community while the Jola are what we would term 'wheeler dealers' with a touch of Arthur Dailey in their soul and never the twain shall meet.
If you put these two together for any length of time then sparks start flying after ten seconds and the fire gets hotter while you watch and listen.
They wind each other up unmercifully and it is so much fun to watch even if I understand next to nothing, but he's a nice guy nevertheless and we always stop for a chat with him at the gate...
He has just told Haddy that she should be climbing the pine nut tree to get down the nuts that are ripe and ready as that is what the Jola monkeys are known for, and she has retaliated immediately by telling him that she respects him because at least he has a proper job sitting on his backside at the front of a hotel rather than sitting on his backside in a boat dreaming the day away which is what the Serer traditionally do...
It is a Gambian thing between two of the biggest wind-ups I have ever met, but at least they do it with a smile. There is no malice and no underlying motive. Just the two traditions joking at each others expense.
Such conversations are close to being banned in England by stupid laws brought in by an increasingly stupid and appeasing government for if we cannot joke and find humour in each other's traditions and stereotypes then we have lost another key in unlocking the humanity within the human heart, which is one of the reasons I will always lampoon others stereotypes and traditions.
After all, they are no better than me and no worse either, we just have different cultures and beliefs and lifestyles and nothing is THAT sacred that it cannot be made light of, not even religion, for there is humour in everything we do within the eyes of others.
It is something that we in the West are rapidly losing sight of and legislating against, but it will not work for it only causes resentment among those who feel that appeasement is unnecessary and that would seem to be most of the population excepting M.P's, Councillors, and all those who make their living by keeping
'people' imprisoned in a ghetto of the mind...
Communication is the only answer, but without humour which is universal, how can anybody truly communicate ?
In a small way this is borne out by the conversations I have had with Ebrima and his friend Amadou.
Obviously there is a language barrier of sorts and their English is far better than my totally non-existent Wolof, but the humour and humanity we find in each others traditions and company is universal and we laugh at each others and our own foibles without a trace of rancour.
It is something that my so called leaders have forgotten.
Humour and music are universal and can be appreciated by any and all cultures and I am glad that I can work with both.
Two of my favourite musical acts at present are Youssou N'Dour, the Senegalese superstar and a North African desert outfit named Tinawiren who sing more 'rebel' songs than either Bob Marley or the average Irishman. Both are totally different and yet both are musically quite wonderful.
I have no problem with either and hopefully they would have no problem with me for the music brings us all together as one.
I do not ponder the why's and wherefore's, for I know...
It is a human tragedy that others do not.

Thursday, 29 May 2008

The Gambian Experience Part Six (Celebrations Gambian Style). From January 2008.

Photo's from the top:-

Haddy and me at the victory celebration.
African suit.
A much prettier African suit...
Celebrating victory in the Council elections.

Tonight we are going out to celebrate the election result as Haddy's candidate won his seat on the local council and I've been told it's not a t-shirt, jeans and bandana do, so I have to dress up.
Sorry dear, I've got a couple of shirts but...
Oh bugger !
They've only bought me an African outfit or two.
I pick the black, red, gold and green with little Africa shapes all over it because the other one (orange coloured) will not go with my colouring and feeling like a bit of a fraud, I dress for the occasion.
Apparently I look smart... Hmmm, I think that is a matter of opinion but then everybody else wears things like this so why not me ?
At least it was their idea and although feeling a bit odd (Where's all me pockets for me bits, then ?) I go with it. Haddy looks great in her cerise and blue, and if you promise not to laugh I'll post a couple of pictures ?

When we got to the building we are all officially met at the entrance and I am formally introduced ??????? and then we are in.
Everyone is given a can of something to drink (Fanta or Sprite) and 'Tufa goes off to get some food as we haven't eaten yet and it's going to be a long night.
Let me say for the record that politicians patting themselves or being patted on the back are not really my thing, but... The band were really good and they seriously
'rocked out' in a distinctly African style. I really enjoyed them and I also enjoyed the fried egg and mayo' baguette that 'Tufa managed to get for us.

The trouble with things like this is that they tend to go on for ever or seem to, and if you are not actually involved then time tends to drag somewhat, but finally, at past midnight, we left.
I'm crashing at Haddy's tonight 'cos I'm knackered.
Sod the hotel.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

The Gambian Experience Part Five (Roots...). From January 2008.

Photo's above from the top :-

Haddy at Albreda 'Freedom Pole'.
Exhibit from Slavery Museum.
Fort James Island.
Ditto:- Plaque.
Ditto:- Haddy and tour guide.
Welcome from the two villages (Albreda is coastal and Juffereh about half a mile inland).
Exhibit from Slavery Museum (The real live 'Cinque' from Steven Spielberg's film Amistad is bottom right).
Exhibit from Slavery Museum.

Today is Thursday and we did the 'Roots' tour.
It's a coach and boat trip with a pick up from the hotel.
Christ !
It is so humbling.
I think that is the only way of describing it.
I mean, I can understand the tour operators going into overdrive to sell the trips and get the tourists to pay through the nose and I really have no problem with that, but...
The poverty that these people live in is astounding to Western eyes.
Don't get me wrong. I've been poverty stricken in England and had to live and pay bills on a weekly income of forty pound a week and I did it for over five years but I'd never have been able to do that if I hadn't owned my own place but that pales into insignificance when you look at what these people have, which is why, I suppose, that everything is done for money over here ?
Take a picture ? Pay the man. Carry your bag ? pay the man. To guide you through the intricacies of what is or what is not permitted ? Pay the man (or woman or child) whatever ?
I wish I could think of a better way of earning money for these people ?
I was bought a necklace at the craft market. I could have bought the equivalent item
at an English market for 99p. Here it cost me the equivalent of £2.50 and yes, I know it's touristy stuff but we did go to Alex Haley's Kunta Kinte's village and I now have a signed document from the head of the village to say I was there, but I also made sure we gave the young lad of about 14-16 who played the kora 50 dalasi.
Given the opportunity to practise his playing that lad could go as far as Toumani Diabate (hope I've spelt that right ?) in about ten years time so I begrudge nothing.
The lad is very good now and he only needs the opportunity to leave the village and take his undoubted artistry to the world. The burning question is will he get the opportunity ? God knows he deserves the chance.

Ok, I know that Haley's ancestry re. the Kunta Kinte/Toby bit is flawed, and he would have realised that too if he had studied a little while longer, but you cannot begrudge the village the opportunity to make money out of it for they have nothing else.
There is a 'Slavery Museum' in the village.
A lot of the information contained within it I knew from my own reading habits and the odd film or two.
If anybody hasn't seen Steven Spielberg's 'Amistad' with Anthony Hopkins as John Quincy Adams then get it out of your local DVD library. It is about as accurate as Hollywood can get when faced with trying to tie down historical fact into a watchable story and I reckon that after reading all about it in the slavery museum then it is probably more accurate historically than Schindler's List but it is regarded in the movie canon as a minor work.
I dunno why because I would say it's about ninety percent accurate which is about fifteen or twenty percent more accurate than Schindler's List and yet that won all the awards going and definitely had a few more million dollars spent upon it.
Oh well...

After we left the villages we set sail (Ok, that's me doing the pirate king and
Errol Flynn'y bit...) for Fort James Island.
A forgotten little footnote in England's proud history... NOT.
It was originaly named St Andrew's Island by the Portuguese after they buried a dead sailor on it. The French took it from the 'Guese and then we took it from the French and then they took it back and then we... You get the drift I'm sure, but in the end we managed to keep it despite losing the buildings to fire at least three times.
There are only ruins upon it now and the slave quarters have vanished into the sea through natural erosion but there is enough of it left to scare people rigid if they think about the implications ? It may be bleak and desolate and only have ruins left upon it but with a little imagination you can fill in all the blanks and images that you would need to complete the picture for Fort James was the slavery staging post and slaves were transported here to be sold off and then shipped abroad to the colonies.
Sometimes you have to stand up and say you actually feel ashamed to be a member of the human race and this was one of those times.
When slavery was abolished here in 1807 there were just under one hundred slaves on the island who were immediately freed...
Then the ships sailed off leaving the slaves to starvation unless they could reach the village of Albreda and touch the 'Freedom Pole' Of which there is a pic' of Haddy doing just that somewhere up above. (They have to keep replacing it as the termites get busy round here) Only three of them made the swim of about two nautical miles. All the rest were drowned.

It is a strange thing but all the Gambians I have met have no problem with their slavery past. They seem happy to explain the triangular nature of it along with the history of it...
Now I have to argue this point all the time in England with the politically correct arseholes but usually just get called a rascist for my trouble by complete tossers who actually know fuck all about the subject, but such is life as it is lived in England... Maybe if the schools taught English history then the new generation might actually glean some knowledge rather than a politically correct soundbite (which is actually a lie) then it wouldn't occur ?
But they don't and so it does.

Domestic slavery which is African on African took place from about 700 AD
through to about 1100 AD when Trans Saharan slavery took over.
Now from the title you should be able to work out what that is ?
Arabs !
Yep, the Moslem world did their bit too, and there's no escaping it because it is FACT.
They managed to keep a hold upon it until in 1492 somebody discovered the stuff that Noah had shovelled off the ark (Joke) and when that occurred it immediately became Transatlantic slavery and this lasted until abolition in The Gambia in 1807.
Now look, I know you don't like it seeing your all your p.c. bollocks get flushed down the pan but please, pray tell...
How the fuck did us Europeans invent slavery ?
These are the fucking dates for Christ's sake and not only did I know that before I came here, it was confirmed by the descendants of those families who were left behind after their loved ones were taken away into bondage, so why is it that I can get all this confirmed by the horses mouth let us say, and then have the same argument when back in England with a horses arse ?
Europe DID NOT invent slavery in Africa.
The Africans did and used it just as we did as another branch of commerce.
No, I don't like that last sentence either, but it happens to be true so we're going with it despite it sounding like I'm dismissing it.
I'm not.
I'd just like the facts and not the lies...
Fort James Island (named after England's King James the second) is just a reminder of a shameful couple of hundred years in England's past and that is all.
Believe me, after walking over the place it is enough and everybody should feel ashamed...
Ashamed but not guilty.
No, we just have to accept it occurred and make sure it never occurs again, and lying about historical fact to suit a politically correct agenda will do no good at all.

Haddy is quite moved by the whole experience.
This is her country after all.
She would like to take her children on this trip but cannot afford to so I've said when I get home I'll try and send her some money to do it if it can be arranged ?
She is right.
All Gambians should come here.
They would only need to do it the once and after having seen it myself I am happy to support the existence of the museum, but I very much doubt I will ever return to Fort James Island.
Let the sea wash it clean for mankind does not seem to have it in it's heart to do so.
You only have to look around you at what is occurring elsewhere in Africa (Middle East, Asia and parts of Europe too) to realise that slavery takes many shapes and forms but remains slavery nevertheless.
Some people never learn.

Monday, 26 May 2008

The Gambian Experience Part Four (Hanging with the boys...). From January 2008.

Apparently Haddy is holding ninety dalasi for Ebrima. (42x dalasi to 1x English pound while I was there, but it has dropped to 37 now).
It is money the lorry drivers dropped for the kids who cleared the waste ground for the political rally and she has given it to Sainabou, her daughter, to look after while we are away with instructions not to give it to anybody else. Trouble is, she is here on the 'Sindola' road and it has caused a few raised eyebrows, so as soon as I've dropped off some things at the hotel, had a dip in the pool (nothing like trying a couple of lengths underwater to clear your head) and got changed, we take the money over to Ebrima's compound where he sits, outside with his friends, on a small square of red carpet and I am invited to sit and share... An invitation which it seems churlish not to accept, so, flip-flops off, I sit and break out the tobacco asking Ebrima to share what I have with his friends.
Haddy leaves me to it, knowing that for me it could turn into a very long night indeed.
So we talk of generalities and the 'Sindola' road and then we hit upon politics...
The Gambia is just about 87% muslim and 13% everything else in make up and yet all faiths and denominations live in harmony with friends spanning the different religious communities. It is something that we in the west seem to have lost sight of, and we could learn a lot about tolerance from these people.

I am being 'grilled' about my beliefs and yet it is done with such patience, humour and friendliness bearing in mind the obvious language difficulty that the questions are quite disarming. This is definitely going to be a long night...
Politics and the general malaises of the west which they can see and hear every night on their television sets and the problems which are going to be caused by their President announcing that The Gambia has just found Uranium and I am asked what I think about it ?
My reply seems to take them unawares...
It worries me.
We all know what it is used in the manufacture of, after all.
I explain that if it is really found to be the case that they have found uranium then the Russians, the Americans and the Chinese are going to be very interested in their country. That possibly with the building of two power stations at each end of the country they might be able to bring in some of the improvements that their President wishes to implement, but that for safety's sake they will have to go with the Americans.
The subject of Chernobyl is broached and we all fall upon it eagerly to use as an example of what could conceivably go wrong.
The Chinese are probably just as bad as the Russians and their programmes are shrouded in secrecy apart from their building which is always done on the cheap side and safety has never been their prime concern so who knows ?
For safety's sake and for that alone it would have to be with the Americans, even though their President is not one of the George W. Bush fan club, but then who is these days ?
I am told that the intellectuals of the country have been saying just that and that they have all heard that view expressed already but hearing the same from an 'ordinary' foreigner with no axe to grind either way raises me in their estimation to another level and the talk becomes one of specifics as opposed to generalities...

Whosoever visits this country and gets to know any of it's people will find out that there are so many levels to it's people and it's culture and that these levels go deep, deep, deep.
It is a country thoroughly aware of it's colonial past but instead of breeding a lasting resentment-take Zimbabwe as an example, it is using the past to learn for the future.
These ordinary Gambian's are as politically astute as anybody in the west and anybody not factoring that into the equation is going to come a serious cropper.
These people will run rings around them and I realise from my own perspective that a lifetime of so called radicalisation mixed with a little bit of work ethic and a dose of twisted morality mixed with my cynical anarchic attitude has prepared me for this conversation more so than any so called advisor to any world leader could.

Haddy returns to see if I am ready to come back but I am held captive by the general conversation, the cigarettes they are all making from what is left of my tobacco and the glasses of mint tea which are going 'round the circle in no discernible order whatsoever but which always seems to turn up in my hand every third time.
As we drink and smoke it is explained to me that the art of what some youths in the west call 'hanging with the boys' or hanging with your 'ho's' is part and parcel of Gambian culture and I am most definitely 'hanging...'
It is a man's perogative here, and women are a definite distraction to the art of conversation between friends.
Just over an hour later I try to stand but my leg muscles have cramped up and made it quite difficult so I take five to get the blood circulating again and Ebrima escorts me back to Haddy's compound.
We shake hands at the gate and he compliments me on the Golden Virginia tobacco that he and his friends have been enjoying, so I tell him I have more at the hotel and when I return in a couple of days I will make sure that my friend Ebrima gets some to share with his friends.
Haddy greets me at the door with a knowing smile upon her face and I mumble apologies about drinking more mint tea than is probably good for anyone and the depth of the conversation, to which she laughs and beckons me inside.
It is no matter. It is a Gambian thing and she seems pleased that her foreign friend can assimilate himself into the customs of her people with ease, although truth be told, I am just being myself and asking the same questions that I would ask anywhere.

The Gambian Experience Part Three (The 'Sindola' Road). From January 2008.

Photo's above all taken at Sindola inc. 'That Shirt'.

Today we took the Mandina-Soma road which should have taken us toward the President's palace so I can get a look at the President's village.
Haddy thinks this is important and that if I wish to understand The Gambia then this trip is a must.
The road itself is a reasonably straight unfinished dust track currently with more potholes than the mountains of the moon.
Apparently it was started about eight or nine years ago and the Senagalese who won the contract to make it were so slow that the President kicked them out and sued for his country's money back.
I have to say that after travelling it I am surprised he did not declare open warfare and my heart goes out to anyone who travels it on a regular basis, even The Gambia's President.
I have never felt sympathy for a ruling President before in my life but I do feel sympathy for him. Nobody should have to travel in that dust.
The road itself is studded with police checkpoints and thankfully we got waved through all but one where we stopped for fifteen minutes for them to check all my and my travelling companion's documents are in order but 'Tufa is insured to drive the car which belongs to one of Haddy's relatives. They queried my heart drugs but I'm loaded with letters from doctors and they are all listed on a form with my passport so eventually we made our getaway after the two smokers had blagged a quantity of good old Golden Virginia and a pack of papers to roll them with.

We finally get to the end of the road and reach the hotel. I've brought money for 'Tufa to stay over too, but he's going off to stay with a friend after we've eaten, so it's just Haddy and myself at the hotel and after two bottles of beer and four brandies I feel just like a tourist.

In the morning 'Tufa appears like magic for breakfast and Gawd help us... He's wearing his esteemed team's colours. I come all the way to The Gambia and I'm stuck with a Chelsea fan... Sometimes there is no justice in this world and I rib him unmercifully about it. Not that he cares... In his opinion there is only one football team and Chelsea F.C. are it. I must be thankful for small mercies... He could have supported Manchester United !

After breakfast and a vain attempt to gain internet access, we take a walk around the grounds of the hotel. They have just shipped out a bus load of tourists so we are on our own. It is absolutely beautiful. That is the only way of describing it.
Whoever designed it did a wonderful job for it is not 'touristy' by any means but is painted in muted colours to fit right into the local landscape and there are more than enough things to do to satisfy the most fastidious European peasant with a propensity for lager and their (usually) obnoxious and spoilt kids (tho' what they make of that road is another matter entirely).
I pose Haddy on a quad bike for a picture for the guys back at work. It's a standing joke as we've had two stolen and it'll give Fred a chuckle in the office when I send him the shot and tell him I think I know where they are...

On the way back we stop at a farmhouse opposite Haddy's plot of land. They are busy building clay blocks to use as bricks to construct a small house upon it for she intends to use the land as a vegetable garden.
After purchasing two bags of charcoal for her 'oven' we pile back into the car and get back into the dust which is playing havoc with my sinuses.
I think I need to stop at the hotel when we get back. I definitely need a swim.
I would go to the beach but I've already come a cropper on a submerged rock and numbed my right knee, so it's back to the hotel.
Personal safety comes first.

The Gambian Experience Part Two. (Ring Ring goes the Bell...) From January 2008.

Part two.

Photo above of Ida's roadside bistro (I can recommend the fried fish).

Ida is about nine years old. She sits outside the compound, a white towel covering the pieces of fruit that she is selling today.
She is one of Mariama's best friends. A pretty girl, actually they are all pretty girls here, and they want to learn so they bombard you with questions in between being told not to by the adults.
These kids are so shy and yet so polite and if you think about it, they will be the elders of the village tomorrow and yet learning within this community comes at a premium... A price.
The schools charge for schooling here as this area is so underdeveloped that there are no state schools with free learning so the children are charged by The Church for an education.
It would seem that should you wish to learn here above infant level then one of God's representatives on Earth will take your money.
I know it goes on elsewhere but it still angers me.
Some of these people cannot even afford a bag of rice to feed their family and still The Church wants money...
I suppose it's because we don't charge for a basic education in the west ?

The Gambian Experience Part One (The bit they don't tell you about in the brochures) From January 2008.

Hey y'all
It's been a while, but then I've had a few things to do since I got back that I believe are important like sorting out my parts and stage of a world music festival which this year features the great (and I don't use the word loosely) Billy Cobham, but here 'tis... Finally.


Photo's from the top are as follows :-

Council elections candidate rally with The Kankurang (what is that guy looking at ?).
Cameras all ready now, then ?
Dancing for victory.
Speeches... Don't you just love them ?
Haddy at the hotel entrance.

The women are doing their washing in small metal or plastic tubs, their compounds full of colour. The sky is cloudless blue as people walk past unhurriedly,
stopping to greet the obvious foreigner in their midst.
"Hi, how are you ?"
"Fine... and you ?"
And another hand is shaken.
A glass of mint tea is offered and partaken of as another business deal is concluded.
Everything is altered from my English state and returning my thought process to encompass what is happening in front of me is proving somewhat difficult, even for one who is used to that sort of thing.
All this is far too much to take in on my first full day in Africa.

The flight had been ok but six hours long. Haddy had met me at the airport in Banjul with 'Tufa, my driver for the forseeable future and taken me to my hotel which I'd insisted upon staying at (just so's I could use the pool) and I'd booked in, dumped some luggage, and then gone straight to her place to meet her children.
Apparently the word is out that I'm coming and people are going to be queueing to greet me which I think is quite strange, but then apart from the charity workers they don't get too many English visitors here, not down in the 'village' anyway.
Visitors to this country tend to stay in hotels.

Slowly the penny is dropping.
The contrasts with the west are immediately apparent for it really is a mixture of extremes...
How can poverty equate with happiness and yet these people who have next to nothing are happy to share it with you with a laugh and a grin ?

There will be a political rally tonight on the wasteground at the other side of the road to Haddy's compound, and she, politically astute that she is, will be going there officially to support her candidate for the local council elections.
People, kids actually, are already working on it. She has managed to conscript the
lads from the local youthclub to clear the scrub and the obvious litter and the local guys who hang on the street are taking bets as to whether it will be finished by this evening ?
The general consensus is that they haven't a hope.
Not that this is going to affect the guys hanging on the street. They just sit and watch and hand out advice to those who have broken their backs lifting, clearing and moving lumps of tree, car and dumped litter.

It is getting near the end of the evening and Haddy is getting extremely angry and agitated about something.
She sits on the front row, glowering toward the candidate and the council executives while Mariama either sits on my lap or the chair next to me depending on whether the excitable lady next to me is either in it or out of it.
I haven't a clue what is going on but something is and I've missed it.
She's up on her feet now and moving toward the speech givers, stopping in front of one guy and bending his ear on something, gesticulating and pointing toward the candidate...
Then the guy is moving toward them himself, tugging on a sleeve of a council official and bending his ear while she just stands, looking at them with some expectancy...
'Something is happening here but you don't know what it is... Do you, Mr Jones ?'
That line of Bob Dylan's comes crashing into my head and what is more he's right...
Truth is ? I haven't a clue.
A piece of paper changes hands and there is a nod back toward Haddy who turns haughtily away and stalks back to her seat.
If anybody is in any doubt about what that looked like then think nature programme about a pride of lions, 'cos that really was 'Mama Lion' in action... The rhythm of the walk, the look, the attitude, the style...
It was all there in spades.
I tap her on the shoulder and ask her what on earth that was all about and she turns and tells us...
Apparently they had forgotten to thank the kids who had broken their backs clearing the area all morning and most of the afternoon.
She explains that that sort of unthinking and uncaring attitude is not something she is prepared to put up with and they should thank the kids, after all, they will be the elders and leaders of tomorrow.
You know what ?
She's right.
They will be.
It is also right that they should be thanked officially for their part in making the evening successful as most of them are too young to vote.
It doesn't cost a lot to keep the young on your side and what does politeness cost these days ?
No more than impoliteness that's for sure, and that can cost a great deal...

When we get back to her place I ask her about it, but she is still fuming that they should not have needed reminding.
I know she is politically active and I really hope that this incident is not going to colour my whole stay ?
The following day she has calmed down (a bit) and she is being visited by others who are aware of what she said...
The general concensus of opinion is that she did the right thing, so that's all right then ?
I hope.