Delightful West Africa 17 – Friends and Visits in Coastal Gambia
On the beach I talk to cute teenagers with very good English. The girl wants to study journalism in the UK. They invite me to their compound in Jambanjali, some 20 kilometers inland. We find each other curious and they don't seem to harbour second thoughts.
I go there with my taxi driver Babucar. I order him to buy fruit and school books for this family in advance, but he uses most of my money for his broken car (see West Africa 14).
When I finally reach the family compound, my bag with lots of fruit and schoolbooks bought on the way is received without a word and disappears in another room. People of all ages populate the bare living room, but nobody says a word. I struggle to keep the conversation going.
An elderly, respectable man enters the room. He welcomes me friendly, but I have no idea about who he is. He disappears. He returns in sports dress and says he goes to play football.
They wanted to see a photo show of Gambia, so I build up laptop and speakers and we see the pictures. After that I am terribly thirsty. They have neither offered any of the fruit I brought nor a glass of water. I suggest a village stroll and invite them to a Fanta in a corner store. Finally I get something to drink. I'd much rather down a big bottle of mineral water, but don't want to show how thirsty I am.
Still I don't sense any request for support, a rarity in Gambia from a European's point of view. In the taxi back to my hotel I notice that both zippers of my laptop-bag had been opened while three of us went for the village stroll.
This was the third of three family visits in Senegal and Gambia where I didn't get anything to drink. I ask other contacts, and all insist that a drink would be their very first courtesy towards any visitor.
Something that the Africans don't mention: All people in Senegal and Gambia drink tap water or well water, usually untreated. All people in Senegal and Gambia insist that this water is unsuitable for Europeans. The usual 1,5 liter bottle of mineral water is 0,8 Euro or more in Senegal and Gambia – serious money even for middle class families. Maybe they don't want to buy this bottle of water or they didn't think of it early enough, and they don't want to treat me to their tap or well water either.
Theresa, 27, is a nurse at Banjul's Royal Victoria Hospital and looks like just another Gambian so-called home girl. But as a Christian of Fulaar (Peul) ethnicity, Theresa is a double minority in her own country: Gambia is dominated by Muslim Mandinkas, who are decidedly coarser than the Fulaars. Theresa is one of few Gambian contacts who probably don't see me as a sponsor. Here's her say:
"When I was young, we used to eat grilled monkey. My father caught them. Later we children refused, because the grilled hands and legs looked just too human."
"African food is terrible. All that mayonnaise and fat and french fries. For breakfast I only eat fruit. When I worked in the US, I ate a lot of muesli, hmm."
"You see that fat lady with her huge backside? I'd love to have a backside like that and swing it when walking. An impressive back side we call 'big loppy'. There used to be commercials for a fruit juice that promised big back sides to consumers; that fruit juice was called Loppy. In Africa, we don't hide our features; also see how many traditional ladies bare one shoulder, even the little girls start it. "
"Homosexuality is not right. I've seen on internet how they do it. Most terrible. I believe these people go to prison in my country. Rightly so."
"I hear that Europe has laws against marital rape. I can't understand that. If a man wants to make love to his wife, that's what she's there for. Or not?"
Theresa has finally convinced me to visit her compound. The three fenced-in buildings in the Sukuta neighbourhood are arranged in a horseshoe layout, the sand square in the middle is permanently full of people, like a village square. The men sit together drinking tea, while women do laundry and in the large wooden mortar permanently pound rice or even spaghetti for a porridge. Orange and mango trees give good shade.
In the main building with it's concrete floor, some people walk with shoes, carrying sand and dirt from the compound's square into the house. Chicken walk into the house and defecate onto the floor. Children run around barefoot.
"About 20 people live in this compound", estimates Theresa – "hm, or maybe 23". That includes a few renters. Theresa shares a room with an elder sister and her two young children. They all sleep in one king size bed; I can see that the bed is too small and Theresa says: "Yes, in the current order, my feet hang out, often I accidentally open the mosquito net, mosquitoes come in, they sting the babies, the babies scream, my cousin gets angry about me."
Most people in the compound drink water from the common cup at the compound's vat. Theresa fills her water into a bottle and keeps it in her room.
I am introduced to strings of brothers, cousins and aunts. As usual in West Africa, familial relations are complex. A forty year old men may introduce two similar looking teenagers with the words "my brother and my son". When Theresa introduces her siblings, she says "same father, same mother", the typical phrase at introductions. Some times she only says "same father".
It is a Christian compound of Fulaar ethnicity. All people have western names. Some even introduce themselves in two languages, like Carl and Charles. The general tone is laid-back, well-natured, welcoming, fun-loving. I sense the distance to Gambia's dominating Mandinka tribe with its chainsaw-charmed Muslims and Rasta men. "Don't you have any dreadlocked Rasta men in your compound", I ask Theresa in a quiet corner? "No", she confides: "If any boy styles himself in Rasta fashion, he will be asked to change. We think the Rasta look is not… well… polite."
A sister in her thirties wears a slightly torn t-shirt. One bare breast pops out every now and then, is stuffed back and returns eventually. There's a teenage girl with the same split shirt mechanics.
Theresa: "The cousin over there is 40 and has five children from five different men. Every time I come back from somewhere, she's pregnant again. I told her I can't believe it, but she keeps seeing other men."
We eat Senegambian style Jollof rice. This kind of boiled rice is red-coloured from various spices. It's slightly spicy, hearty and delicious. On top of the large bowl of rice sit several big chunks of fish, chicken, potato and vegetables. We all eat from one bowl, most with a spoon, a few with hands. One caring aunt wants to treat me to more insets, so she crunches pieces of vegetables with her hand and places them in my corner of the bowl. This time we get drinking water, someone even buys a few bottles of Fanta and Coke from the corner store.
This compound has no electricity. In the night it is very very dark, with only a few battery-powered LED lamps giving hints of light. Theresa charges laptop and mobile phone at a neighbor or at work.
Two times Theresa lost things from her room. She had a locked suitcase on the cupboard of the room she shares with a sister and her two babies. The lock was broken; 20 Euro and another time her beloved compact camera disappeared. "It must have been the first son of this aunt", Theresa whispers, "he has trouble with police all the time". She claims that if she had proper evidence, she'd take him to police as well.