Monday night before the flight and it’s the usual cramming everything into pockets…Haddy still hasn’t worked out the importance of pockets when you’re going to be overweight on the flight.
To whit : ALWAYS wear the things with the most pockets as it’s quite amazing how much the weight comes down when you’re wearing the weight.
Yes, it can be uncomfortable hanging around the airport, but you can always cram the items into your piddly little five kilo maximum bag that you can take onto the ‘plane whilst you’re in flight, and then just carry the bag off at the other end whilst you wait for your luggage.
We’ve booked a two week stay for the car at one of Gatwick’s most outlying car parks, but at least I’ve been there before so there should be no trouble finding it.
Right… Are you ready, love ? It’s two o’clock in the goddamn morning, so let’s go…
Apart from the fact that I’d been up since six the previous morning, it’s such an easy run down to Gatwick at that time.
There is literally nothing on great stretches of the journey apart from us, a few delivery vans, and the long distance truckers, so nobody is jostling for position and it actually makes the M25 a pleasure to drive down apart from the coned off areas…
Hand over the paperwork in the car park, get my ticket and wait for the coach to Gatwick South.
First things first…
Wait at the check-in to see if they’ll let us weigh upfront ?
They’ve changed the system…
After a bit of re-packing we’re three kilo’s over and have to pay the full whack.
Shit ! Bollocks ! and Fuck it !
Buy a newspaper, sit and drink a black coffee to stay awake, find a chair and stuff some of the sarnies we’ve brought down with us, get up and go outside again for a last fag and then hit the departure lounge…
Strip off jackets, shoes, boots, belts and the whole rigmarole to get through the scanners…
Do it a second time because one penny had got stuck in my jeans pocket…
Put clothes back on again and collect the gear…
Which as soon as I hit the departure lounge I realise is short by one set of keys, my camera and my mobile phone…
Back through the ‘No Entry’ signs to ask where the staff have taken them ?
‘Oh, are these yours ?’
Yes, actually, and if you hadn’t moved the tray onto the sodding floor and had left it on the belt, I wouldn’t be missing them, would I ?
Buy brandy for us when we’re out there, and a three pack of giant Toblerone for the kids.
They’ve sold out of any reasonable tobacco, so I’ll wait and chance it when I get there.
Finally, the flight is called and we start the damn near three quarter mile trek to the farthest gates to board the ‘plane, where we finally collapse into our seats.
Can I sleep now, please ?
Typically, Haddy is now wide awake, while all I want to do is get some zzz’s.
Oh well, as soon as we’re up, maybe ?
Stuff an inhalitor in my mouth and lord it over the poor sods who have all forgotten to buy one.
As soon as we’re up I doze for about an hour before the cabin staff start their routines…
Coffee ? Tea ? Drinks ? Duty free ?
That wakes me up… And… There’s a deal on Golden Virginia tobacco.
Right… Two five packs for thirty eight quid.
That sorts out me, Lamin and Hadim and the guys over there who smoke.
God knows what the film is ?
It’s totally forgettable anyway, so Haddy sticks the radio on and I doze off again until dinner.
‘In flight’ chicken and veg’ as usual…
And now we’re over the Sahara desert…
Another cup of ‘in flight’ tea…
Last pee on board as we’re on our way down…
And we’re there.
Banjul airport, and it’s three o’clock… And it’s got to be about thirty five degrees out there ?
Coach to the terminal and let the fun begin…
The uniformed lass in the booth checks the passport and the card and asks why I’ve put down ‘visit family’ for the trip ?
‘Because I’m visiting my family’ I answer.
‘My wife is behind me, and we’re visiting the children…’
‘You are married to a Gambian woman ?’
‘Where do you live ?’
‘Fagikunda, when I’m here…’
She smiles at that point and hands me the passport back, now it’s Haddy’s turn.
It may sound like it’s a problem getting in, but it isn’t really.
The reason it sounds like I’m getting the third degree is that there is no hotel listed on the immigration form, and since unlike parts of Europe, sleeping on the beach is frowned upon and you could get picked up for any number of offences from vagrancy up to drug smuggling or gun running, the immigration staff ask.
It’s no problem.
All you have to do is answer their questions.
If they don’t like the answers you give them, then you’ll soon know about it…
No ‘Tufa ?
Apparently his taxi was absolutely totalled by a relief driver, and so the poor guy is jobless again, but we’re picked up by someone Haddy knows, and driven straight to the compound.
Now the thing is… Haddy had told her daughter Fatou that we were travelling on the Friday and not the Tuesday because she did not want a house full of visitors when we arrived.
It’s a bit sly I know, but bearing in mind the jungle telegraph is a damn site quicker than a mobile ‘phone out there, it seemed a reasonable thing to do.
So as soon as we walked through the compound gate there is a very audible scream from Sainabou…
Surprise surprise !
Followed by hugs all round from Husainatou, Mariama, Jalika, Little Ida and Omar and Mum Ida, and then the noise began as everybody started talking at the same time…
Our missing twin, Hassanatou, is on a college course and is staying with the rest of her classmates at a hotel, and so we won’t be seeing her until Friday.
Then the kids all ran outside to tell everybody that Naneh Kombo was home...
So the following couple of hours were absolute chaos.
Check the freezer for Julbrew ?
Good, they remembered to buy it.
Cheers… I’ll have a beer… Or maybe three ?
And just let them get on with it.
Finally, at about one-thirty the following morning, we collapse into bed.
One of the reasons that we’re here, apart from seeing the kids and the family, is to extricate Haddy from some of the organisations that she’s a member or secretary of.
Most of that involves money and about forty to fifty women of the village.
When you are a bank signatory of an organisation and you live in the U.K. then if the other signatory falls sick or dies or has any other problem involving them not getting to the bank, then problems tend to arise.
Sainabou has been looking after the accounts since Haddy moved, but now they need somebody else to take over Haddy’s position and therefore elections need to be held or organisations closed and the saved money shared back out between the members and Haddy has three of these to sort out.
You’d think that was easy wouldn’t you ?
I mean, put as simply as that then it should be, right ?
Would any Gambians reading this please stop laughing ?
I’m not Gambian, ok… I’m writing this from a European perspective so please do me a favour and cut the hilarity.
Talk about easier said than done.
If one person is prepared to make decisions and stick with them for the good of the group as Haddy did, then obviously Haddy is the person to do the job, which is why they all said she should do it in the first place.
Now, with Haddy retiring from her position, other problems are going to come into play.
Problems which we don’t seem to get too much of in Europe, but this is emphatically not Europe, this is Africa and specifically The Gambia and so you have to factor in the usual things like competence, availability and honesty and then you have to factor in things like jealosy and tribalism…
To tell you the truth, I can see this lot going seriously pear-shaped, but first things first…
I must have been tired because I missed Mosque-man…
Usually I wake with the early morning call to prayers, but not this time…
This time I slept straight through until I got a nudge and heard the sound of a most welcome cup of tea being placed on the bedside table and a voice I seem to recognise from somewhere coming through the fog and telling me breakfast is on the table.
Gimme fifteen minutes and I’ll be there…
Ah… Gambian breakfast.
Lettuce, tomato, sliced onion, cucumber, tinned sardines, tapalapa and mayonnaise.
That’ll do me, thanks very much.
It’s a cross between a baguette and a finger roll.
The shape of a finger roll and the length and consistency of a baguette.
It’s the local bread and it’s baked fresh every day at the local bakers round the corner.
Shower… In cold water, because the kids have run off all the hot before they went to school and college.
Ask Sainabou what we’re short of, provision wise, in the house ?
Get a taxi to the top of the road and then another to Westfield and pick up some money which we’ve sent via Western Union to our bank, and then hit the supermarkets, which thankfully, are together but on opposite sides of the road.
I’ve promised Sainabou that by the time we leave, she’ll be cooking some of the recipes I’ve brought with me.
Sainabou can cook and cook very well, but she wants to learn more about other types of food, not just Gambian or West African, so it’s a good time to stock up on some ingredients.
They’re going to cost a fortune compared to the U.K. but what the hell…
Herbs and spices for instance.
Just under a pound up to two pounds depending on the spice in the U.K.
In The Gambia it’s just under two pound fifty up to five pounds per same sized jar, and that’s if they sell it ?
Food wise, all the prices have gone through the roof over there.
The worldwide problem with the banks and the recession has finally hit them, and it is hurting them badly because it’s a petrol or diesel based economy.
Everything has to be trucked around the country.
The taxis, whose prices are regulated by law, are screaming at the government to let them be allowed an increase in fares because fuel has gone up so much.
So far the government has resisted because otherwise people will not be able to get to their place of work or school or college, whatever ?
But it will have to change soon and they’ll have to put up prices and everybody knows this…
They just want to put it off for as long as is possible ?
JEEEZUS ! How much ?
That was me at the supermarket checkout.
Christ mate, I just want this stuff, I wasn’t planning on buying your bloody shop !
That was a shock to the system, believe me.
We’ve spent probably in U.K. terms, an extra twenty to twenty five quid on the stuff that I’d normally buy when I’m over here.
The herbs and spices are up slightly, but the basics have gone through the roof.
I think I need to get home before my wallet suffers another seizure…
We unpack it all when we get back…
It doesn’t seem a lot when it’s all laid out on the table.
Hey Saina’… Tomorrow we cook.
Moroccan meatballs on cous-cous…
Sainabou is none the wiser… But she will be tomorrow night.
I just hope that we can keep the food within the family, as although I’m just a self-taught cook, when the word gets out that I’m doing the cooking we do seem to get an inordinate amount of visitors at food time…
Not just the blokes, who come over to take the piss out of a man doing the cooking, (It’s women’s work in The Gambia… Men just sit around on their arses and wait)
but the women and kids, too.
Everybody wants a plate of what Uncle Chris has cooked…
Which is why anybody taking the piss out of my cooking the meal won’t be invited to the next one.
This attitude might be a bit less friendly, but I’ll tell you what… Once the word gets round that the food was good, then it stops as suddenly as it starts.
The local vulture population doesn’t want to miss out…
As soon as we arrive back, Ousman appears.Ousman looks after Haddy’s land compound plot at Killy on the Soma road.
I’ve only been there once on my first trip out here, but he looks after it, grows as much rice and vegetables as he can on the land, and then sells it, giving a proportion to Haddy.
The problem out there is lack of water as there are no pipes yet, and so it all has to be carried by donkey cart from the nearest well.
Ousman is a good old boy, and we can talk vegetables without any problem.
He’s been trying to get some dwarf green beans to grow, but the local insect population discovered their taste before they were ready and stripped the lot.
That’s a shame because a kilo of dwarf green beans could get seventy five Dalasi a kilo from the local hotels and fifty Dalasi a kilo on the veg’ markets and at forty two Dalasi to the English pound, that’s a considerable amount if you have a reasonable harvest.
Oh well, keep trying.
If ever a country needed a figure to learn from, then I reckon Scotland’s Robert The Bruce would be perfect for The Gambia ?
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.
We will get those beans to grow.
Don’t know which year, but it WILL be done.
I’m told we are going to see one of the village elders and the village’s oldest resident this afternoon, who I’ve never actually met before.
He has been one of the elders for so long that most people cannot remember him not being one, nd is eighty nine years old which puts him a year behind my Father.
The fact I’ve not met him previously is quite surprising because he’s drum-maker Lamin’s Father.
A couple of years ago, he’d been knocked down by a car and seriously injured and one of his hips had been put out.
Did it stop him getting about ?
Did it heck ?
It made him a bit slower and he now has to rely on his stick a bit more, much to the local kids discomfort if they should come within range of it, but stop him ?
The other visit is going to be Ebrima’s Mother at her own compound.
She had already popped over to visit us last night when she had heard we had arrived, but respect says we go to her.
That I know I’m going to find difficult.
I don’t think of it as a duty, it’s something that I have to do, but I know in myself that it’s going to be a hard one.
It’s the first trip where the old pirate hasn’t come over and given me a hug, and said ‘Hey Chrees, you are welcome…’
So yeah… That’s going to be a hard one.
The noise level has gone up because Mariama and Jalika have just arrived back from school, and little Omar, who is not so little now, but a big, chunky, misbehaving brat of a child, has decided that they are going to play with him.
The sooner that child starts school and learns a little discipline, the better.
Ida, his Mother, refuses to chastise him at all, and so when he does something naughty or spiteful then it’s left to Sainabou, who is slow to anger, but bloody quick when she’s reached boiling point.
Apparently Ida’s cries of ‘You are going to kill my child…’ are getting a little monotonous around the compound.
Oh well, simple answer…
Clout him yourself !
We spend a pleasant hour talking and chatting to Lamin’s Father who requests a photograph to remember the visit.
That’s something we are happy to do.
Now it’s back to the compound and then off to see Ebou’s mother…
As soon as she sees us coming she bursts into tears and has to go inside to compose herself before she greets us, but Ebrima’s brothers are all there to look after us while we wait.
We both get hugs, and tearfully she tells us that Fatou Manta, Ebrima’s wife, is going to leave the compound and go back to her own family.
This means that she will not be seeing Amie or Samsidine, her grandchildren, unless they come for a visit at Koriteh or Tobaski and it upsets her greatly.
Haddy tactfully says that since Fatou Manta now has a stall on the market, then she will be better placed to look after her children, but it doesn’t seem to make any difference.
She is upset.
To add insult to injury, Fatou Manta will be taking her son’s possessions with her including her late husband’s bed.
I don’t quite understand the politics of these decisions, so I do my best to remain understanding and sympathetic.
I’ll have to ask Haddy later.
One thing I do notice is that their compound is a lot quieter…
The local lads do not visit anymore, therefore she has nobody to talk to as she used to while they waited for her son.
I gave her a copy of ‘Ebou’s Song’ and tell her that most of it comes from the times I spent with Ebrima, therefore this is how I will always remember him for these are the things we spoke about whilst we drank tea here in the evenings, and she asks one of the brothers to read it and translate it for her.
As he begins to read the first verse it becomes so silent you could definitely hear a pin drop, even into the dust…
The second verse is in Wollof however, which is when Ebou’s brother starts choking over the words…
Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea ?
He finishes, and the tears are flowing…
I’m finding it hard, but I think the whole family have ‘lost it’ ?
Ebou’s mother takes the paper back from his brother and takes it away to put it indoors somewhere ?
I don’t think she expected this ?
The brothers just cluster around, wiping back tears and hugging me…
One of them saying that ‘He always said you were his true friend and never judged, just said the truth before God…’
I'm not quite sure that comment was totally accurate from my perspective as Ebou' and the guys took no prisoners, but it's close enough.
I was just happy that I didn't come over as some sort of prat.
But by that time I was about to lose it, too...
Haddy hands me her handkerchief and we force back the tears together.
Christ ! I wish I knew what to say ?
Maybe what is written is enough ?
I don’t know ?
What I do know is that you cannot have too many friends in this world, and I’ve lost one of mine.
That is certainly enough to make a grown man weep.
As soon as we can, we make our excuses and leave…
Ain’t no disguising it, I need a brandy.
I woke up the following morning with a thick head…
You can take that any way you like ?
Today I’m definitely staying a little closer to home.
So I become the ‘gift monitor’ as the piles of clothing that we brought over slowly start going down and we finally see parts of the bedroom floor.
When you look at it laid out, with paper names on top of each pile then you realise how much we actually brought ?
It’s no wonder that apart from underwear and socks and a few t-shirts, I’ve got two changes of clothes only.
My only ‘work’ today, is going to be the cooking and so as soon as is convenient, me and Sainabou get together to plan a course of action.
The cooking bit is easy, but what do we serve it with ?
I think cous-cous and salad, the cous-cous as a change from rice and Saina’ seems ok with that, so she shoots off early down to the mini-market to pick up the salad’y bits before all the good stuff goes.
We’ll start the preparation when Mariama, Ida and Jalika get back from school, as then we can involve them, too.
If we don’t then they’ll only keep sticking their noses in, and asking what we are doing, so if we involve them then it’s a win-win situation…
Besides… making meatballs can get a bit messy, so who better ?
Yeah, I know… Cold calculating git.
It’s just seems that way.
The reality is that like most kids that age, they want to help so rather than have them get in the way, let them do something helpful… Especially if it’s messy.
It used to work with my two when they were young and it works with these two now.
They won’t do it for ever, I know that.
But for a first grounding in different foods, then getting involved, especially at the beginning, is invaluable.
First things first… Amadou has popped around for a visit.
We don’t see Amadou too much these days.
He’s stuck at college but is getting out as much as he can.
God ! He’s getting tall…
He’s going to dwarf me soon.
He and Sainabou discuss the forthcoming feast…
Feast ? What feast ?
Oh God ! They mean the meal tonight…
Actually, I should have thought about the ‘How many we could possibly feed and still have some left for ourselves ?’ question, but I sort of stuck it at the back of my mind, which was pretty stupid when you think about it ?
Sainabou does the calculations based on the approximate size of a meatball and how many the family are going to get in each portion.
Yes… It really does come down to that.
As soon as she’s worked it out to her satisfaction then they start the usual messing about.
Those two have a relationship between them that goes beyond care, love, family and friendship.
Sainabou was originally adopted by Haddy when she was young, and Amadou was born when Saina’ was about six or seven, so Saina’ has always looked at Amadou as if he were her responsibility to look after.
Now of course, he’s a young man of twenty-one and she’s twenty six-ish but they still have that special relationship.
Nowadays Amadou can take the mick out of it, being a big growing lad and all, but Saina’ gives it back all the time, causing much hilarity to the rest of the family…
They really are like some old bickering married couple.
Hey ! The kids are back…
Right you two… If you want to help then go and change and then wash your hands… I want to be able to smell the soap on them…
Hey Saina’, we ready ?
The nodded head signifies the affirmative…
Right… Let’s hit it !
We could have made twice the amount and it still wouldn’t have been enough.
Know what ?
Know what ?
We still had people coming into the compound as the last finger wipings of sauce were being licked from fingers.
Chalk up another one.
Sainabou judged it as ‘different, but good’.
That’ll do me.
I ask if she’s going to make it, and she says yes, it was the lemons that made it different and not like Gambian food at all.
Tomorrow I’ve been promised a day off from the chaos and we’re going to rest up at Ocean Bay.I can just loiter in or out of the swimming pool and Haddy can hopefully just turn off her mobile ‘phone and relax.
It probably won’t happen like that, but that’s the plan.
I want to go to the craft market at Banjul at some point and see Hadim, give him his gifts and all that.
The likelihood is that he won’t be there anyway, but I can always leave them with his brother, Badou, if he’s away.
The thing about the Craft Market is nowadays I can just hang there and relax.
I don’t get hassled to buy all the time.
It’s not as if I’m not easily recognisable, and Haddy seems to be known at most places she goes, so we can just drift around and talk to the traders without pressure.
Ok, it’ll probably cost me a bit in Coca-Cola’s, Fanta’s and coffee, but what the hell ?
Anyway, that’s for the future and that changes by the hour.
Right now it’s time to play some music…
The choice seems to have come down to African vs Pop hits (Beatles, Abba, Aretha Franklin… They are all classed as ‘pop hits’) or Reggae ?
OK, mix and match…
Anything’s got to be better than the interminable ‘soap’ that the kids are watching inside ?