Delightful West Africa 20 – Gambia Upcountry: Tinikunda
The bungalows at the German-owned, Gambian-run Tinikunda Lodge have accidentally been built to Friedensreich Hundertwasser's standards: no even planes, no straight lines, no right angles. At eleven Euros per person per night, including breakfast, the whole construction looks decidedly rickety.
But the stilted bungalows sit right over quiet, wide Tinikunda river, on the mangroves' edge, with a balcony over the water. Crabs, wading birds and jumping fish are my neighbors; fishermen and even a local lady in swimsuit and headscarf paddle by on their way to oyster hunting grounds and say "How are you".
There's electricity at night. The toilet can be flushed; after stealing a toilet seat from another bungalow, it is about western style. I want nothing more.
My bungalow's wobbling concrete floor right over the water worries me though. I say to Lamin, the young receptionist: "This spot here in the concrete floor feels very soft. I might break through into the silt below."
Lamin: "Don't worry, you won't reach the mud."
Hans: "You mean I'm too fat to get through?"
Lamin: "No, you won't crash into the mud because there's another wooden layer below the concrete."
It's one of those African accomodations where you wear your poolside slippers indoors and your own light cotton sleeping bag on the bed. At night, birds crash-land noisily on my roof. Still I love the place for its closeness to nature, river and the village and for it's easyminded, mostly unpushy staff. I meet neither spiders nor mosquitoes; according to Lamin, Tinikunda river is salty and keeps the surroundings free of mosquitoes.
The next day I have planned pothole research by rental car (see West Africa 18). But my balcony over the water is so relaxing, and the cloudy day even at noon rather cool, that I simply can't drag myself to the Pajero.
The Tinikunda Lodge's restaurant platform sits right over the water, between river and mangroves. The bats hang out, literally, in the shrubs right next to my chair. Black-and-white kingfishers shoot across the stilted terrace, sea eagles patrol the upper spheres. There's the occasional amplified prayer call from far away, otherwise it is soothingly quiet. For once, no noisy local radio disturbs the idyll. A wide view across waters and green shrubs, and only the birds to be heard, plus occasional laughter from the village nearby.
Two Spaniards and their Senegalese tour guide arrive for lunch and overnight. They play noisy Spanish rock from a laptop. Their phones chime in with hip-hop ringtones. They use the loudspeaker for their phone talks.
According to lodge manager Ousman, the German lodge owner Martin visits his property for maximally three days a year. He never takes any money out of the lodge, all profit is re-invested. Ousman has just bought a veritable truckload of bathroom fittings and drains to replace the old materials; a new lounge area is under construction.
Ousman says that each year the lodge supports two village pupils: They are sent to good high schools in Brikama or Serakunda. Per child per year, that is 405 Euros for food, school fees and transportation. The village teachers will select one girl and one boy, the lodge double-checks the decision.
There's another Tinikunda riverside lodge further upriver, in Kalagi. Like in other underwhelming places, the owner is enthusiastically proud of his offers. Rastaman Aliou "Alex" guides me through the compound. The main feature is the graveyard of five people who drowned nearby, while driving their car across Kalagi's very solid, concrete Tinikunda river bridge.
"Was the driver drunk", I ask Alex?
"No, the car fell down by witchcraft, we have no other explanation. One survived, five are buried here."
That's a nice attraction on the lodge's grounds.
One hot afternoon, I open the door and the balcony door of my bungalow for a good breeze and fall asleep on the bed. Between mangroves and the wide river, I still enjoy perfect privacy.
When I wake up, there is an unknown black man walking around in my room and arranging wooden poles. Or is he a dream?
"What are you doing", I ask, "I was sleeping. Can't you work after I check out?"
He barks: "I am the carpenter. I install new curtain rods. And I'll do so bungalow after bungalow in good order! I finished room 1, you're room 2!"
Obviously not a dream. At least not a good one.
"It will only take 30 minutes!"
Another example for the African's male's fine empathy.
Laptop, mobile phone and other things lie around openly. (But I don't expect theft at all.)
Still dizzy, I sink back onto the bed and let him hammer. Is it like that in Africa? In an eleven-Euro-per-person place, do I have to accept handymen entering my room and working there while I sleep?
He hammers the wooden curtain rods onto the wall. Then he takes off the old curtain fixation, simple nails with a rope tied to them. He removes the batik curtain from the old rope and tries to drag it over the new curtain rod. But the curtain's tube for the rod is too narrow, the rod will not fit through. So he hammers the nails with the old curtain rope back into the wall. Now I have useless curtain rods and the old curtain ropes altogether. And he will at least need another hour for the remaining windows. Should I forewarn the Dutch couple in bungalow 3?
I walk to the restaurant platform and quietly inform Lamin and Aissa that an unknown man entered my room and started hammering while I had been sleeping. They look perplexed and apologize profusely: "We ordered him to install the curtain rods, but never believed he would proceed in that order." They usher him to other, empty bungalows and Aissa cleans my room.
Nervously they continue to utter excuses. "Let's now forget it", I say. We all relax.
Lodge cook Aissa has a heart-breaking smile, five children and no husband. We sit on the uncovered, black terrace over the river, under a phantastic ceiling of stars; at the wish of all dinner guests, the lodge doesn't use electric lights, only candles on the terrace.
Aissa didn't want to join my late dinner, but I forced her.
"The fish in tomato sauce is great", I comment.
Another heart-breaking smile.
Aissa is illiterate and around 38 years old. "But I don't know that exactly. We didn't record such things in my youth, you know."
In quiet hours, Aissa fishes for staff lunch on the lodge pier. Off-season, she works on her rice-field, only going home to cook for her children.
Aissa's is a story I've heard many times across the region (actually, it's a village version of Senegalese Mariama Ba's verbose novel "So Long a Letter"): Aissa's husband sets off looking for work and returns home only after a year or two. After each home visit, he leaves Aissa pregnant. Only by and by she learns that he has other wives across Senegambia.
"But I was his first wife", Aissa insists.
After being sick for four days, her husband dies in the hospital in Kaolack.
At his death bed, Aissa meets her husband's other wives and children for the first time. She hopes that one of her husband's brothers will marry her, as is tradition. But all brothers already have a few wives each. Finally they only marry her husband's younger wives, with less children. Aissa and her five are left alone.
"That was cheaper for the brothers", I comment.
"That was cheaper."
Our starlight dinner hasn't gone unnoticed. The next morning, with Aissa present in the restaurant, rough lodge manager Ousman shouts at me across the restaurant: "You can marry her. I give her to you."
Usually I like all the marriage brokering and will ask back if they'd accept muslim-style polygamy and European snow-chaos. But I can't joke with Aissa.
"You're a very nice lady", I say to Aissa, "and you know we can't talk about marriage".
Another heart-broken smile.
One very cool morning, I walk out to the village pier to get the sunrise from there. I wear a sweatshirt, still I feel cold.
A teenage girl passes me, just with skirt and t-shirt. "It's too cold", she shivers.
She sits down with her face to the east. In five minutes the sun will rise: For once, a romantic local who wants to look at nature's wonders.
"You have the perfect place for the sunrise", I say.
"Nah, I came to buy fish."
I walk on and a dignified old man in mussulman kaftan, with fez and rosary, greets me. I greet back respectfully.
"Munni", he says.
"Munni", I ask? It must be Mandinka language, but I don't understand that.
"Yes." He rubs his fingers and I understand his repetition:
I walk back to the lodge.
On the village stroll, I am joined by groups of kids. The girls ask for sweets and pencils, the boys ask for sweets and sports gear: "A football is only 2,8 Euros; and there's the store to buy it." They are not very pushy, but keep asking. One teenage girl demands a mobile phone from me, then breaks into laughter.
The adults greet me neutrally. They are obviously embarrassed by the begging kids and try to shoo them away, but with little effect. A man drags a boy away from our group and beats him severely with a stick; I am not sure if that is because of the begging. They boy screams at the top of his lung.
Later I am told that tourist cars use to stop in the village center, throw sweets out of the window and happily photograph the "feeding frenzy" among the children.
I am also told that the speeding motorcades of Gambian president Dr. Yahya Abdul-Azziz Jemus Junkung Diliu Jammeh throw sweets and t-shirts around. People have been hurt while trying to get the giveaways.
Tinikunda has a village-owned generator that hammers a few hours in the evenings. At the village's edge is a very uneven, but busy football ground (more on Tinikunda's football team in the next submission). I see cassava trees, peanut fields and rice fields (one harvest per year). They have a school and a nursery station. It is five kilometers to the highway on a sand road that will soon be paved. One or two times a day a bush taxi reaches the village; otherwise they have to walk to the highway, take a donkey cart or try to hitch a ride with one of the very rare private cars. Actually, Tinikunda Lodge's cook Oulimata claims that she reached the village on the back seat of my rental car the day before; I don't even remember her joining me, because I have so many passengers all the time.
There is a village disco in Tinikunda's kindergarden. The building looks like a half-finished factory hall with glassless window openings. Youngsters who can't pay the 0,6 Euro entry fee hang out on the fence. As expected, inside the building it is too dark and the sound extremely distorted. Too bad for all the fun dance music from Senegal, Gambia, Congo and Nigeria (like Nkem Owoh's "I Go Chop Your Dollar"); the music selection is much better than in the expensive discos on the tourist coast, but the sound much worse. Most muslim village girls arrive in sexy shorts or glittering mini-skirts and fanciful wigs; by and by I have realised that all of the dramatic hairdoes in Senegambia are wigs or attachments. As usual, very few girls wear a headscarf. The boys wear their usual dirty training trunks. They all currently have christmas holidays (they really call it like that).
Even at midnight, ten-year-olds jump around the disco, including Abdullah, a boy who had pestered me for a football on my village stroll (se above). I leave the scene long before Abdullah.
Much more important is Jaliba Kuyateh's concert in Tinikunda, his first Tinikunda performance in decades. (For more on this important musician, his traditional, but now electrified "kora music" and another Kuyateh concert experience, see my later article about live music in Gambia.)
On the day of the Kuyateh concert, dinner cannot be taken after 19.30 p.m., because the all-female kitchen crew needs sufficient time to dress up in their finest African robes. Around 22.30 p.m., five staff of Tinikunda Lodge and me walk through the dark village to the kindergarden. Everyone holds a cellphone with built-in torch; only my mobile is not equipped with this useful application. The other lodge tourists don't want to see this very, very African event.
Somehow it happens that I pay the entry fee for everybody (0,7 Euro per head). Some staff have received letters declaring them "patrons". This means, they should donate money in an envelope and get a seat of honour close to the stage. After some stammering from Lamin I conclude that I should pay these donations too. First I give him 200 Dalasi (5,4 Euro) for the whole group and he looks very unhappy. I make it 300 Dalasi (8,1 Euro) and he is still not convinced. "When I go out at night, I never bring much money", I say. Lamin resigns.
In front of the kindergarden gate, it is black. About 100 people are pressing madly, shouting, and our group is soon squeazed to suffocating. You can't even see the face of the man who presses his elbow into your shoulder. Now give us a panic or a fire.
The pressing gets worse. Only about every minute or so, one or two people may pass inside. You have to buy your ticket at one end of the wall and then fight your way to the other end, with the door. Even worse, at the gate they first have to count the "patrons'" donations and write them down. There is only one entry and each single "patron" with an envelope of small bills delays our access for another minute or so. Even my lodge friends have to admit "bad organization". On my own, I wouldn't even have understood how to get a ticket and where to enter.
Finally inside. At this point, early in the concert, there are far more people pressing outside than sitting inside. Plastic chairs with different colors in the dust indicate a complicated seating order; Aissa says she believes that I could sit next to her, but then again unlike her I am not a "patron", and I prefer to walk around freely. The electricity comes from the band's generator. Three bare bulbs hang over the stage. The large audience area has no light whatsoever, and there is no moonlight, so you can't appreciate all the wonderful dresses.
The sound is the most terrible I've heard on any African musical event so far. The complex, repetitive patterns and the eloborate cadences from Kuyateh's 21 string kora can't be enjoyed through the crackling, crushing loudspeakers. The high tones ring especially distorted and painful and it is far too loud. A man in black suit and tie announces through the microphone that some people did not follow the seating order. Over the PA, his voice sounds terribly distorted and aggressive. Most of the time I close my ears with both hands; this mutes especially the high tones and suddenly the music feels agreable.
I stand in an aisle that's not crowded. There's space all around me. Two teenage girls in orange robes gather behind me. "Mooff", they shout, "mooff, we can't see the mahn".
And instantly I don't want to see this very, very African event anymore. I step out into the African night and almost get lost on the pitch black village trails, before I find the lodge. In my bungalow, a kilometer from the stage, Kuyateh's music still reaches me and now sounds quite lovely. Happily I fall asleep.
Next morning, even my lodge friends admit that it was too loud and – after 1 a.m. – too crowded inside. "You couldn't move or dance, so full was it." Nobody stayed until the end.
There do seem to be rather a few similarities between Africa and South-East Asia…