Wednesday, 13 August 2008

The Second Gambian Experience Part One (Rich Man, Poor Man, Beggar Man... What's In A Name ?)

Photo's from the top:-

Haddy and Fatou N'jai.
Relaxing at Cape Point Hotel
Swimming pool at Cape Point Hotel.
It's pouring down and I want you in...
Mum, you said I needed a wash...

So… We’re through the madness of just trying to get your cases through the throng of those who want to carry it for you (for money-what else ?) and we’re in the car and moving out of the airport towards Fagikunda.
It’s a different car from last time.
Last time Haddy borrowed her cousin Pa’s spare one but this time it’s a white Peugeot and we’re making good time.
Actually it’s only about twenty minutes to Haddy’s place from the airport but there are puddles everywhere and she tells me about the rain which has come down so hard that they apparently lost five compounds washed out in the village as they were made of clay bricks and not the usual breezeblocks.
Now that is heavy rain, but then this is the rainy season and I suppose I’m going to have to get used to it…
Wish I could get used to the humidity though ?
It’s bad enough in England but it’s ten times worse here and the fact that I’ve been up all night isn’t helping at all because I’m definitely beginning to flag somewhat and I’m definitely going to need an early night.
Still, we get parked up outside the compound and I’m immediately accosted and greeted by some who remember me from last time…
Blimey ! There seem to be hundreds of them, but then a face I know…
And with a big grin on her face Mariama just jumps up at me and I give her a huge hug, swinging her around while she hangs on for dear life and then I am in and safe behind the compound walls for a few minutes at least.
The twins are there, Sainabou is there, Neighbour Ida is there…
I give them all a big hug.
It seems like old times.

I’ve flown in on a public holiday.
Apparently the President has been doing the rounds and so there have been processions past his podium all day with the result that there is absolutely nothing open that you need… Like a bank for instance.
The Gambian currency is what our banks in England call a ‘closed currency’ which means that you can’t get any dalasi in England and so I need a bank to change some of my travellers cheques because I have nothing else so all those who turn up at the compound to beg for money because they have heard I’m coming back are out of luck.
I try and explain about travellers cheques and getting them cashed but I might just as well be talking quantum physics to this lot and so Haddy has to try and do it.
I recognise a couple of the beggars from my last trip but as Haddy says, If you give them five dalasi then they will ask why they can’t have ten so don’t bother and let her deal with it.
The thing is, as Haddy emphatically says… They are fit adults and they could probably find jobs should they want to ?
It is a brutal realisation that the argument is the same one we use about dole scroungers in England.
The difference being that here there is no dole and so they exist on the handouts of others and one particular bloke at the local petrol station gets up Haddy’s nose so much that she actually gets out of the car to berate him while all the time he’s gesturing to me in the back saying that I should pay him money because I’m white and rich or rich and white…
Well I’ve got news for you mate…
I’m white and that’s it.
Rich, as far as money goes, is beyond me.
Anyway, she’s having a right go at him for being rude and impolite, and also because he doesn’t look as if he’s in any way disabled or ill and he doesn’t look too poor either compared to some of the locals down her way who don’t even have two beans to rub together but who are going to get by if it kills them to do so.
These people have a fierce pride here that I picked up on when I arrived on my first trip but I didn’t really see in action and if somebody is prepared to try then they are given a fair bit of respect and support even if they should fail, but those who just beg are, depending on their obvious circumstances, mostly given a couple of dalasi if they are not taking the mick.
Those like the guy at the petrol station are just told not to be so lazy and to get a job if they want money ?
I wonder where I’ve heard that before ?
The heat and the humidity are beginning to get to me.
It is thirty four degrees outside and thirty two degrees of humidity and the rain is falling.
You can’t move without the sweat pouring out of you and because this is the rainy season the mosquitoes are out in force.
There are only so many cold showers you can take in the day when the water keeps being turned off and the electric the same.
I don’t know how they work these things but Haddy’s area of Fajikunda keeps having their power cut off and yet other areas manage to keep theirs all the time.
It’s annoying as it also cuts her two electric fans off.

It pours down with rain that night and on into the morning and then I’m told that we’re off to a naming ceremony again this afternoon.
This is a serious case of déjà vu because exactly the same thing happened to me the last time I was here.
So, with a warning not to take anything too valuable with me just in case some of the local youth are tempted, we set off down the street. I’ve got my camera tied in a little camera case on my belt and that isn’t moving. This time I want it with me as I lost out on a few natural pic’s last time through not having it with me.
I must remember to ask Haddy why I should beware this time when she never mentioned it last time I was here ?
Am I a target because I’ve come back and so far seem to be accepted as a person and not just a tourist by some of the locals…
Who knows ?
Anyway, the rain has stopped so down the road we go.
As we get to the compound Haddy tells me that I will be sitting with the guys as usual.
Usual ?
I’ve only ever done this once before in my life and that felt a bit weird to my western ways with no women involved so I don’t really think of it as usual to me, however to them it’s perfectly normal.
I’m introduced to a whole bunch of guys, two of whom are holding Djembes (That’s a type of drum for those who haven’t a clue ?) and another is boiling the small kettle on an even smaller charcoal burner while the reggae blares from somebody’s sound system in the background.
The same questions are asked as last time.
Where do I live ? Is it near London ? Do I like The Gambia ? Was it right I’d been before ? How did I know Haddy ? and the first cup of delicious mint tea is passed to me…
Now you’re talking.
The two guys whose names I remember are Moses and Lamin.
Moses was a really nice guy whom I’d never met before and he was holding a djembe that he passed back to Lamin as the conversation progressed, and then started praising his friend';s dexterity on the drum.
Lamin is altogether quieter and knows what he wants to say but it’s what he says and the way he says it that makes the difference.
I know Lamin.
I’ve never met him before in my life before that day, but I know him.
Apart from the fact that he’s a musician that they think quite highly of, and I just write a bit we could almost be the same person a continent apart.
I know this man.
I’ve known him all my life even though we’d never met.
I’m not a fisherman but I’ll try and get the meaning of what I’m trying to impart here a little bit easier to understand.
I am told by people who go fishing that the art of a good session is in going with a friend who appreciates silence and doesn’t want to talk all the time, and yet you can ask any question needed with just the one word should you need to, and whole conversations can be accomplished within a couple of words maybe a couple of hours apart.
Lamin has that quality and I’m certain it’s in him and to be honest I could sit there for hours and listen to him and we wouldn’t need to physically speak...
(Yeah, I know… I’m going a bit ‘weird’ on you, but it’s not really so just try and understand) It’s a quality I recognise pretty much immediately.
Call it strange, call it weird, call it whatever you like, but it’s there and there’s nothing whatsoever I can do about it.
So we start conversing and musically and lyrically this guy knows his stuff.
In a world full of pretenders Lamin is the real deal.
He doesn’t just know his stuff, he ‘feels’ it and that’s how I know him, and hopefully he knows me.
We don’t need any more than that.
The conversation has probably lost everybody else so we just look at each other and smile and slowly between the pair of us we bring it back to the general, it’s so much easier if everybody is involved. This is a family party after all.
Haddy comes over bearing a little tiny one and this time I ask the name and whether I can get a picture ?
Yes, she says, and poses with little’un whose given name is Fatou N'jai…
So thank you Fatou.
Thank you for allowing me to come to your special naming day party because I met you and you’re special because you represent the future when hopefully you will not make the mistakes of the past, and because were it not for you I might not have met Lamin.
I have to admit the guy making the tea is an absolute artist. Those four foot pourings from the kettle or glass held at the top of his upraised arm into the second glass are being accomplished without spilling a drop and he’s been making it, handing it around (Most of us have finished our second glasses already) since I sat down.
It has been a really nice afternoon and when Haddy ‘rescues’ me I’m in two minds as to ask for longer but knowing her there is probably a reason behind it so I stand and make my apologies for having to leave them, shaking hands all around and having to promise that I’ll be back to finish any and all still extant conversations which I’ll happily do.
No problem.
Apparently the girls are going out and so she’s going back to the compound…
We’ll also have something to eat.
Food ?
I’d forgotten all about that but I suddenly realise I’m hungry so lead on MacDuff…

It takes all of three days to get anything cashed at the bank and when I finally manage I immediately decide to have a spend up in one of the supermarkets.
I bought a couple of packs of ‘minced cow meat’ (That’s beef to you) some oregano and basil, tomato paste, olive oil, a few tins of tomatoes and some spaghetti for me to make the family a proper spaghetti bolognaise.
This is going to be interesting as there are no chillis in it and I’ve not eaten much in The Gambia that doesn’t have a chilli or two hidden in it somewhere and I’ve certainly never cooked it on a charcoal burner before…
This is going to be interesting… But when we get back the girls have cooked something for us anyway so into the freezer it goes for tomorrow.

The following day we head out to Cape Point to use the hotel’s swimming pool, which, for a small payment of 200 dalasi (about a fiver) I can apparently do.
The purchase of a pool ticket also entitles us to 100 dalasi off the price of a meal if we eat or order in the poolside restaurant so that is something else we take advantage of.
When we get there we are met by a guy who takes us through to see the manager.
Apparently Haddy’s ‘sort of’ adopted daughter Awa works at the hotel (adopted daughter… That’s new ?) so if you can imagine me in jeans, t-shirt and bandana walking into reception where all these besuited hard geezers are sitting…
The President of Guinea has been staying there and is just checking out (It’s a posh hotel) hence the hard men and they are looking at me like I’m some sort of freak…
(Which I’m happy to admit to anyway).
The one thing I don’t look like is a tourist.
I just look different and they can’t seem to get their heads round it.
Oh well, that’s their problem.
We just sit and order a coffee until the manager is free which he is within fifteen minutes.
Apparently Haddy’s ‘adopted’ daughter is married and is doing really well at the hotel according to the manager who doesn’t look like the sort of guy to indulge in flannel, so I think you can take that as a given.
We have a little chat and he asks us if we’d like to be shown around the hotel as neither of us have been here before ?
Then he makes an internal call and guess who our guide is… Not only that, we are going to start the tour at the suite the President was staying in, which is, to say the least, quite luxurious.
Now think of two floors, lounges, small kitchen and television room downstairs, two double bedrooms upstairs and bathrooms everywhere…
Yep, it’s definitely quite posh and I can understand why they felt a President would happily stay in it.
I would have, had I got the money to spend.
We end up meeting and greeting far more staff than I can remember the names of and finally the tour is up and Awa goes back to work and we go to the pool.
While I’m swimming I start feeling that irritating tickle at the back of my throat and I know that I’m going down with a cold.
Bugger !
That’s the last thing I need in this humidity.
Still, the fried king prawn with salad (twice) takes me somewhere else for about half an hour but I can now feel the beginnings of a sore throat and my nose is beginning to snuffle…
Sod it !
At five pm ‘Tufa comes over to pick us up and now we have another problem…
Apparently President Jammeh is in the area officially again to open a new police station and so all the traffic is being squeezed down two lanes on the same side of the carriageway… and it’s rush hour.
Great !
A twenty minute drive that takes two hours and by the time we get back we’re both knackered and I’m beginning to suffer from a cold which in this humidity is more than just a pain in the arse, it’s downright uncomfortable.
Oh well, no cooking for me tonight, either.
Then the electricity goes off and we’re looking for candles to actually light the compound so that people can actually see in front of their noses while the rain that had started halfway through our journey back from the hotel looks like it’s come back for good.
The following day my cold is beginning to come out and in the rain and sweltering humidity I actually feel quite awful.
It rains all day.
Because she’s been playing outside in the street Mariama has got a little dusty and so she digs out a large plastic tub and in her one piece swimsuit in the middle of the loudest, thunderingest and lightningest storm you can imagine, proceeds to soap herself up while the rainwater fills the tub in minutes.
This is definitely not a summer shower.
As soon as her mum realises what she is doing she is called in but singing away to herself quite happily and poking her tongue out at me she either doesn’t hear a word or doesn’t want to hear a word and carries on as if nothing untoward is occurring.
She’s mad that girl…
Totally barmy.

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