Sunday, 30 December 2012

Boxing Day

Following on from my previous post about our Christmas here at Balaba, I though I would try to give you an idea of how others might celebrate Christmas in the Gambia. I talked to a few people from the nearby village of Berending about what they do for Christmas. Firstly, if possible, everyone in the family tries to get home, even if they work somewhere else in the country. This made much easier because the majority of people here are Muslim, and so they don't celebrate Christmas – in fact, it's a normal working day here, and only the Catholic schools are closed for the holiday – Muslim schools are still in session. Lamin explained that the essential services, such as the hospitals, fire service and the military have a reciprocal arrangement, whereby the Muslims are on duty during Christian festivals, and then the Christians take their turn during Muslim festivals such as Tobaski.

In Berending, there is definitely a community feel amongst the Christians living there. They mostly live in the same areas of the village, and on Christmas Day most of them will go to the Catholic Church for Midnight Mass, and again on Christmas morning. After that, the whole (Christian) community gets together. Of course, the weather is sunny and dry, which means everything can happen outside, so a huge communal meal is cooked, of pork, rice and vegetables, washed down with palm wine naturally! Before Christmas everyone makes a donation towards the food, but if someone is especially hard up and can't pay, they can still go and eat with everyone else – I was explaining to Lamin about how our church makes up food parcels for those who are having difficulty, but in some ways this communal approach seems even better.

After the meal, people will either sit around in one area together, or visit each other's compounds, and their Muslim neighbours may drop in as well. My Gambian friends found it hard to understand how we may go to church on Christmas morning, but then generally go home with just our families for the rest of the day, as Christmas is very much a communal event here.

Later in the day, there are other communal events – an eating competition, a singing competition etc, followed by drumming and dancing which could go on all night. In fact, the whole week between Christmas and New Year is seen as part of the holiday, and I've heard music and drumming floating from Berending every night since Christmas Eve! Presents don't feature as part of the culture here, probably because most people have very little, if any, spare cash.

Anyway, as promised, here is what we did on Boxing Day!

Quite early in the morning, Lamin set off to Kartong to get fish. Kartong is the last village before the river Allahein, which is the border with Senegal, and you have to go through border control and customs to get to the fishing area (although in reality this is just a small checkpoint in the road). Sometimes you need to wait for the fishing boats to return, which can take a while, but this time Lamin didn't need to wait long, and he soon returned with some lovely fish, including an enormous black grouper. 

Tackling the black grouper with a cutlass! 

Ara and Saffie preparing the other fish.

Everyone tends to help preparing fish when there is a large lot to be gutted, so Lamin took responsibility for the grouper, using his 'cutlass' (machete), and Saffie and Ara took care of the other fish. Some was taken to be grilled, and the rest was cooked with the usual addition of black pepper, garlic, chilli, onions and stock cubes. Naturally it tasted absolutely delicious!


As on Christmas Day, we settled ourselves under the cashew trees, along with several visitors, including two cousins who had heard I was visiting, and came specially to see me (this is considered the polite thing to do in Gambian society). I first met them when I went to the Bakassouck Youth Meeting, and it was good to catch up on news about their Congre (Congress), their annual meeting and party, which sadly took place just after `i left earlier this year, and also t hear more about the Bee project.

After a while we decided to go down to the river at Sala, where the palm wine tappers work, partly to have a change of scenery, and partly to get more palm wine. This is a truly beautiful spot, and I have spent several very relaxing afternoons there enjoying the company and lovely surroundings. The tappers build little shelters from palm leaves, in the shade of the trees, surrounded by rice fields; at this time of year the rice has been harvested, but the foliage is still quite high. The river is nearby, and you can go out onto the flood plain, which is encrusted with salt, where there are lots of birds to be seen. It's very remote, and we have to do some serious off-road driving to get there; we need to keep the car windows done up so the surrounding vegetation doesn't crash in!

The flood plain next to the Allahein River.

Bakary hadn't been there before, so was keen to take a look at the river, and I also went along. However, I hadn't accounted for his intrepid spirit, which meant that rather than following the small tracks between the fields, he simply took off through the vegetation (which is about head height), hunting for wildlife. Since I only had my flip flops on, I wasn't really best equipped for ploughing through rice furrows and hedges, but I persevered, and we were rewarded with the sight of lots of birds, including oxpeckers which sit on the local cows and remove parasites.

Oxpeckers hitching a ride!

He tried his owl call trick again, which attracted quite a few birds, and he kindly agreed that I could record it on my phone, so I could use it when I go out on my own. Sadly I found out afterwards it hadn't recorded properly, but maybe we can try again when he comes back in January.

We then relaxed under the palm trees, watching the wildlife and chatting – I even saw a pair of Red-Billed Hornbills rooting through old weavers' nests (small birds), throwing out debris such as feathers and leaves. I can only assume they were trying to find insects to eat.

Finally, as the light began to fade, it was time to pack up and go home for dinner – yet more of the lovely fish. Once it gets dark, we tend to sit around and talk, and often someone will be brewing ataya, so it's all very sociable. But we all felt quite tired, so opted for an early night after a busy couple of days.

Friday, 28 December 2012

Christmas Day in the Gambia

My very own Christmas tree!
I was looking forward to my first Christmas in The Gambia (well actually, my first Christmas outside the UK!), although a little worried about how much I would miss my family. My friend Sue had given me a small stained glass Christmas tree to bring with me, so that I would have a Christmas tree here, which I hung on the wall, but it would have been completely impossible to fit any other decorations in my suitcase! Still, we were expecting lots of visitors, and planning special food, so we still needed to do some preparation.

Christmas Day
Our Christmas breakfast was the same as always – bread and peanut butter and tea. Our stepson Dodou was visiting, and we also had various family members, including another little girl staying too, so they also enjoyed the breakfast.

All ready for Breakfast.
I went to help the women in the kitchen, whilst Lamin went to kill the pig for lunch – because we are on solar power here, there is no fridge or freezer, so food has to be bought or provided fresh. 

A double burner!

Delicious pork in sauce.
When a pig is killed, Gambians traditionally cook some in sauce with block pepper, onion, garlic, chill, onions, mustard and flavourings, and also barbeque some with onions. Numo had managed to borrow a small barbeque from some Europeans up the road, although it's usually done on the inner rim of a car wheel!

Adding flavour to the barbeque.

Numo as King of the Grilling!
Some of our visitors were muslim, so we also prepared fish for them, whilst the men went off into the 'jungle' to buy palm wine – as I've said before, this takes time because of course, they need to drink quite a lot before deciding whether or not to buy(!). Meanwhile Lamin's sister Maji arrived, after a long journey from further north – she is muslim but wanted to come and greet us on Christmas day.

Lamin and his sister Maji
One of our visiting friends, Bakary, works as a professional bird guide, and he offered to take me out to look at birds – it certainly felt strange to be out on Christmas morning, wondering whether or not to put sun cream on! He is extremely knowledgeable, and had the most amazing trick of mimicking an owl call; within a few minutes, the nearby tree was alive with birds who had come to check the call out!

It took quite a long time for the lunch to be ready, with the women working on the rice and pork with sauce, whilst the men drank palm wine and supervised the 'grilling'.

Just to prove I do some work occasionally!

But Saffie is the expert of course....
Meals are served in one large bowl, and everyone either eats with their hands or uses a spoon. Man usually eat separately from the women and children – at Balaba we normally eat together unless there are lots of people, but today we had so many that even the children ate on their own. Mealtimes are not really a social occasion here; firstly, people often have to crouch, and although they are used to it, it's probably not that comfortable, so no-one spends any linger than necessary, and as soon as they have finished they get up and walk away. It's taken me quite a long time to get used to this – it somehow felt rude to walk away when others are still eating. Also, someone once explained that if food is limited, eating is very important, so they like to concentrate on the food rather than become distracted by talking – children are encouraged to eat in silence!

The children are enjoying their Christmas dinner.

And so are the adults...

Grilled pork with onions anyone?
So Christmas lunch was eaten in the shade of the cashew trees, where we also relaxed after eating. One of our visitors, Almamo, kept up a constant supply of 'ataya' – green tea; this traditional drink is made all over the Gambia, and there is a complete ritual to making it, which I love to watch, and will try to share some time. It is minty, tooth-achingly sweet, and very refreshing.

A perfect shady spot to while away Christmas afternoon.
Almamo in charge of the ataya.
Later, Maji was moving on to help her niece who had just had a baby, so we drove her to Gunjur and met Fatou (also Lamin's niece of course), the baby, and two delightful little girls, who were over the moon at having a toubab with a camera in their home. 

Lamin's niece Fatou and two-week old Lamin (it's the traditional Gambian name for a first-born son!)

Big sisters - aren't they lovely?
Soon after we got back, Ara (another of Lamin's sisters) arrived with her small son, who is named after Lamin. She is also muslim, but again, wanted to come and wish us Happy Christmas.

We spent the evening chatting, drinking palm wine and 'wanjo' – a delicious drink made with hibiscus flowers, sugar and flavouring. 

The children are enjoying their wanjo.
I'm not quite sure where everybody slept, but it seems that everyone managed to find a 'spot' somewhere – it's quite common for women and children to be squeezed in together several to a bed!

I did manage to Skype with the family during the day, accompanied by the local children! They are fascinated by the laptop, and when I get it out I feel like the Pied Piper, because they follow me everywhere, and crowd round to watch what I'm doing. They were completely amazed by Skype, and the fact that someone could talk to them through the computer, but it did make communication a bit complicated, as they got terribly excited and noisy!

So my first Christmas in the Gambia came to an end. I can honestly say I had a lovely day, although in some ways it didn't feel too much like Christmas. For most Gambians it's a normal working day, and there was very little build-up to it – in stark contrast to the frenzy we see in the UK. It really made me think about how we celebrate Christmas there, and whether we have the right balance between making it special, whilst not allowing it to get out of hand. I wonder whether some of the things we do, and the pressure to get it all done, can get in the way of our enjoyment? Sometimes we seem to reach Christmas Day frazzled and exhausted, rather than ready to have a lovely time. Food for thought maybe?

Next post I will share all about Boxing Day. I hope everyone enjoyed their Christmas celebrations, and had a great day. Merry Christmas everyone!

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Naming Ceremony in Marakissa

Yesterday the whole family went to Marakissa, the village where Lamin's mother lives, to go to naming ceremony. I've written about the naming ceremony before (see earlier post), but each one is bit different. A naming ceremony can be a small family celebration, but usually they are much larger, and the extended family is invited – there is no need to invite the neighbours as they will come anyway! Everyone helps by making a contribution of food, and by helping with the cooking etc.
Our contribution yesterday was fish, so we asked Lamin's uncle Antoine to catch some for us ready to take to Marakissa for lunch. We arrived at his 'base' in the forest, where he taps for palm wine and catches fish, about 10:00 am, and he had already caught us a huge bucket of fish. These tilapia are small river fish, and are generally eaten by holding it in one hand whilst picking bits off with the other (together with eating the accompanying rice). They are quite bony – the Gambians just put everything in their mouth and then spit the bones out, but as a cowardly Brit I tend to pick out as many bones as possible before eating. However, the fish is delicious, and worth the trouble! 

Antoine and his friend were working on crafting an oar for the boat, using a tool which looked suspiciously like a garden hoe (to my untrained eye), and I was amazed at how carefully they could shave the wood to get just the right shape.

Finally, after the obligatory sharing of palm wine, we set off for Marakissa, arriving at around 11.30. Lots of the family were at Lamin's mother's house, plus all the neighbouring children (about 20 or so!), which is quite normal – because Gambians live mainly outdoors, the children all play together. We went over to the compound where the naming ceremony preparations were in full swing, just to 'greet' the hosts, and were treated firstly to a bowl of rice pudding topped with yogurt, and then grilled pork. Friends and family were cooking vast amounts of rice, chicken, fish and vegetables in enormous pots, and everyone sat around chatting. I can manage a short conversation in both Mandinka and Karoninka now, and if I'm lucky I can sometimes get an idea of the theme of a conversation, but I've still got a lot to learn!

After lunch at Lamin's mother's compound, we then went back to the naming ceremony for the dancing. It's mainly the women who dance, although the men can dance very well, and everyone stands in a circle either clapping or playing sticks, and individuals take in in turns to do a 'solo' dance. I'm not very good at the dancing, but I like to have a go, and it always cause a great deal of laughter when I try.

My brother-in-law Numo is an excellent drummer, and couldn't resist joining in with the professional drummers, with whatever came to hand!

Needless to say, we were all very tired when we got home, and so it was an early night for us all.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Back in The Gambia again!

7 December 2012
After spending so long in the UK, it's hard to believe I am finally back in the Gambia. The year 2012 has certainly been an eventful one! After I returned to the UK in April I was thrown straight into training and a test event for the London Olympics. I was delighted to have been accepted as a Gamesmaker, and thrilled to be working for the Press Operations Photo Team in the Water Polo venue, which was part of the stunning Aquatics complex. You may have seen publicity about the Gamesmakers at the Olympics, and I can honestly say it was one of the best experiences of my life! Not only did I get to be in the Olympic Park almost every day, with an electric atmosphere, but I also got to work with the best sports photographers in the world, often getting to sit right next to the pool and watch every match. On the night Team GB won three athletics medals I finished my shift and watched the races on the Press Room TV, then went outside to hear the cheering in the stadium – it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up! Lamin came to stay for three months in the summer, and we managed to get Olympic tickets, so he was also able to get a taste of the excitement.

The other major event this year was the birth of my new grandson Joshua. Although he wasn't very well when he was born, he's doing very well now, and is, of course, very beautiful. His big sister is very pleased with him (most of the time), and it's definitely lovely to be a grandmother again.

So now I am back in the Gambia – this time until April, so I will be here for Christmas. We are now into the dry season again, but it's still quite green from the rain, and the camp is alive with insects such as huge swallowtail butterflies. This is a novelty for me, as they have usually died off by the time I arrive, and I spent some time this morning trying to photograph them, but as they are never still, it's a bit tricky! Still, I've included a shot so you can see what they look like.

I am hoping to have amore reliable internet connection this visit, so I will do my best to keep my blog updated and keep you informed about what's happening here. 

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

A Day in the Life

A day in the life....

I thought it may be helpful to try and give you an idea of a 'typical' day at Balaba, although in reality every day is different. However, there is a broad overall pattern, although timings can vary a bit, and unexpected people dropping in (which happens almost every day) can throw things out too!

4:00 am
The first cockerel crows. Lamin keeps chickens, and they run around freely on the camp. The number varies considerably, as they are sometimes eaten! During one visit in the rainy season, there was no fish on sale in the local market, so we were planning just to eat rice and vegetables, but several members of the family turned up for a visit. Gambian hospitality demands that guests are given a meal, so Numo (Lamin's brother) and I were running round in the rain trying to catch two chickens!

5:45 am
The first call to prayer at the local mosque about 1km away in the little village of Madina Salaam.

6:45 am (ish)
I roll out of bed and dress, then head for the kitchen to collect up about seven large plastic bowls, plus a variety of buckets, and take them to the well ready for watering the garden. It takes about 25-30 buckets to water half the garden, and the well is deep so each bucket takes 22 pulls (I know cos I've counted!). Lamin has rigged up an ingenious double bucket system so that as one bucket is being pulled up the other is being lowered. This, combined with a new pulley, has made the task faster and a bit easier. The water is then poured into the bowls, and when that's done we open the garden gate (which takes a while – see the post on the garden I wrote earlier!). We then use smaller buckets to transport the water to the garden, and water the plants. However, Saffie will often put a large plastic bowl on her head to carry it – that is one Gambian tradition I don't intend to learn! If we are both there, Saffie and I share the pulling and watering, but if one of us is out (e.g. gone to Brikama), the other will do it alone. Sometimes Saffie has other jobs such as washing or sweeping the compound, so I will do the watering. The whole process takes about 90 – 120 minutes, but it's lovely to watch the sunrise and the birds coming down to drink at the bird bath Numo put up for me.

The men will often be out working too – maybe sorting out fencing, repairing the huts, or just general maintenance. They might be preparing the fields ready for the rainy season. It's often hard physical work!

9:00 am
Breakfast! As well as watering the garden,  Saffie boils water on the fire and puts it into large thermos flasks – we use this to make tea. Numo cycles to Madina to get bread (which is similar to french stick), and we usually have bread, peanut butter (locally made) and tea, with occasionally some fruit e.g. bananas. In the rainy season Lamin will often pick a mango and we can have that as well. Gambians usually have leftover rice and fish from the  previous day, and Saffie will often eat that instead. Sometimes she will make 'porridge' from leftover rice, by adding milk and sugar.

9:30 am
By now I am ready for shower! I pull water from the well, which is tepid and not too cold, and wash using a bucket and a jug. It's very refreshing.

10:00 am
Saffie and I wash the bowls etc. from the previous evening (water pulled from the well of course!), and then Saffie changes into her smart clothes to go to the market. I normally do any chores which need doing e.g. sweeping / cleaning our room, making the bed, washing clothes etc. Sometimes I try to get on the internet, as the speed is better during the day, but this depends on whether we have been able to charge the laptop. The wireless router has to be wired to a car battery with crocodile clips. Lamin will often put out a large solar panel to charge the solar battery, and we can charge one 'gadget' at a time (e.g. laptop, camera, mobile phone). Occasionally we put the generator on (if it's working) but the fuel is expensive (about £4 for an evening), so we don't do it too often. The men will return to their work too.

12:00 pm
Saffie has returned from the market, and changed into her 'wrapper' – working clothes – a bit like putting your apron on. I also change into mine, and we go to the kitchen to start cooking. I will write a more detailed post about the cooking one day, but it's all done on an open fire. Saffie will prepare the fish by scaling and gutting them (I am learning to do this but I am still very slow!). I pound black pepper, garlic, chilli and onions in a huge pestle and mortar – this is the base of every Gambian meal. Other things are then added e.g. tomato puree. I also peel vegetables to accompany the meal. We cook the fish and sauce first, then the rice, and cook enough fish and sauce for the evening meal too. This normally takes about two hours.

2:00 pm
Lunch is served. Gambians all eat from one dish, and it's usually placed on the floor. Everyone sits round and eats – the children will use their hands, and adults will often do so too, but at Balaba the adults tend to use spoons when I am there. However, Saffie uses her hands and breaks up and shares the fish out to everyone. Lamin will be given the fish head, as it is a delicacy given to the most senior person there – if he doesn't want it he will pass it to others, but if his father visits he gets the head!

2:30 pm
Lunch is finished. By now it is too hot to do much physical work, although Saffie will often be making soap or preparing it to sell (more about that another time), cleaning palm nuts, or other domestic tasks.
I usually rest for a while with a book or some needlework, or write some updates for the blog. Neighbours will often drop in, someone is usually brewing ataya (green tea), and there is often lively conversation.
Sometimes there is a naming ceremony or some other kind of celebration to attend, so Saffie and I will go out.

5:00 pm
Time to water the garden again!

6:30 pm
I pull some water for a shower, and get myself organised for the evening. I have learnt the hard way that it's not easy trying to get organised if you can't find your torch!

7:00 pm
Time to cook the rice to accompany the evening meal. Again, the rice is cooked on the open fire, and Saffie will often be multi-tasking by preparing her soap for selling.

8:00 pm
 Saffie and I serve the evening meal; by now we are working by torchlight, but it's amazing what Gambians can do when they have a torch wedged between their ear and their shoulder. Sometimes the men will be grilling fish, or if we have visitors, they will be preparing the fire and the drums ready for the evening's entertainment. Numo will also  refill and the light the kerosene lamps and put them around the camp.

8:45  pm
The evening meal is finished and we have cleared away. If we have visitors, there will be drumming and dancing round the fire. Often the neighbours will hear the drums and come along to join us! If there are no visitors, we could do several things. Sometimes we will sit and chat – this is often without lights. The stars are very beautiful at Balaba because there is no light pollution to get in the way. Also, the moon is very bright – when it's full moon you can read your watch in the compound! Sometimes we will wire up a small portable DVD player to a car battery and watch a DVD. If there are lots of devices which need charging, we will put the generator on, providing we have fuel. If the generator is on we can watch TV, but there is only one channel!

10:00 am
By now everyone is usually tired, so we will go to bed. I might read my kindle (using the battery powered light I bought so that I could read in the dark), but I am often too tired. We need plenty of sleep ready for the next day!

Monday, 9 April 2012

A visit to Bakassouck 22 – 27 March 2012

For some time I have wanted to visit Bakassouck, the remote island in Casamance (southern Senegal), where Lamin, my husband, grew up. Lots of his family still live there, but the journey is long and difficult, so it hasn't been possible to go until now. To get there involves travelling to Brikama then to the border crossing at Seleti, and then on to the fishing village of Kafountine. There you need to take a boat (there is only one direct boat a week) and travel for about four hours – there is no other way to get to Bakassouck, and as the boat departure depends on the tide, you need to be there early so you don't miss it. Last week we finally made the journey.

Day 1

6:30 am
Standing in the darkness in the Gambian bush, drinking palm wine with Lamin's uncle Antoine. He has been in the bush all night, sleeping in the shelter made of palm leaves, and he got up very early to go and tap palm wine, because he knows I like fresh palm wine. He is travelling to Bakassouck with us, and has promised to teach me some more Karoninka – this is the language spoken on Bakassouck.

7:00 am
We collect Lamin's great uncle, who lives on Bakassouck but has been visiting Lamin's mother in Marakissa. He has walked some miles to get to the main road, and Lamin's mother has already travelled on to Brikama to do her shopping in the market.

7:30 am
We arrive at Brikama. The market is already teeming with people, and the road is busy with cars, all hooting and rushing about. This is mixed with people on pushbikes weaving in and out, donkey carts transporting wood, and of course many pedestrians doing their best to avoid being mowed down! We meet Lamin's mother briefly, and also buy a 'bread' for breakfast. This is a french stick filled with dried fish, sauce, vegetables and spaghetti – it. I eat half my stick, and re-wrap the other half in the newspaper wrapping for later – a very good plan as it turned out!

8:00 am
We are stopped at one of the many police check points, and asked for our ID. I show my passport, but there is some kind of altercation between the official and Antoine, and the official then demands angrily that we all get out of the car. I get out, but hide on the passenger side to avoid the angry exchanges going on on the other side! However, finally we are allowed back into the car, and we continue on our way.

8:30 am
We arrive at the border crossing at Seleti. We have to get out of the car three separate times to show our ID. Mine always takes longer, as they record my name in a register as I am from the UK, but the Gambians only need show their ID cards. We then continue towards Kafountine, initially on a tarmac road, but then on a very dusty and bumpy track, passing huge lorries throwing up even more choking dust as we go. We have to keep the windows wound up in order to breather, but it makes the car quite hot!

9:30 am
We approach the outskirts of Kafountine, and get caught up in some kind of traffic jam. It turns out that this is a protest march to accompany a strike involving students and teachers. We are anxious to get to the boat, but it takes us quite a while to get through to the turn-off we need to take. Finally, however, we arrive at the place to take the boat. This is small and virtually deserted – there is a small shelter (built of wood and palm leaves), with some wooden benches for passengers to use when waiting. We unload our bags, and leave Lamin's uncle to watch them whilst we return to the main town to park the car at a relative's compound, and find out about today's departure time. However, we discover that the boat driver has heard about the strike, and so it seems he not running his boat today (although no-one is sure) – the next direct boat will be the following Thursday. We could get a boat to one of the nearer islands, but we would then have to walk for several hours and wade across a creek to get to Bakassouck. We return to the boat station, and wait to see what happens. After a very long wait, and some animated discussions with a different boat driver, Lamin and Antoine persuade him to take us to Bakassouck, if we pay for the fuel and also pay him a fee.

2:15 pm
The boat is now ready to depart. There are several passengers, and a lot of 50kg bags of rice have also been loaded into the bottom of the boat. We wade through the creek (with water up to my thighs!) and clamber on board, sitting on a three-inch wide plank; this is to be my seat for the next five hours. Antoine, clearly a seasoned traveller to Bakassouck, promptly lays down across the boat with his legs dangling over the side and falls asleep. I don't want to miss anything, so I stay awake, watching the amazing wildlife (especially the birds), and marvelling both at the narrow 'bolongs' (creeks) where the mangroves touch the boat on both sides, and when we reach it, the very wide river. We stop to take on more passengers, and also 12 bags of cement, which are also loaded into the bottom of the boat. On the way we call at several islands to drop passengers and goods; each stop take a long time as people like to have a chat and goods need to be unloaded. Finally, we are the last remaining passengers and we head for Bakassouck, and 90 minutes later we arrive. Again we have to wade through the water to get ashore, and we then have to walk about a kilometre to reach the village.

7:30 pm
We enter the settlement to great excitement from the residents. It's only a small settlement (the only one on the island) and everyone is related in some way. The children rush up and offer to carry my bags and water bottles, and one old woman starts an impromptu dance – everyone is delighted when I do my best to join in! We meet our hosts, Neena and her husband Sang-Marie, and are taken to our our rooms in her house. There are about ten rooms in the house, each occupied either by a couple or shared by older children – the younger children share with their parents. The floor is sandy; the whole island is covered in sand, but it seems unusual to get out of bed and feel as though you are walking on a beach! After a meal of tilapia (the local river fish) and rice, we are glad to get to bed!

Life on Bakassouck
We stayed at Bakassouck for nearly a week, and I had the most amazing time. On the first day they held an initiation celebration – last year Bakassouck hosted a huge tribal initiation, which only happens every 26 years. For the men, it's important to take part, as you are not considered to be a full member of the family if you have not been through initiation (women have their own initiation too). However, not everyone could come last year, so some are still arriving at the island to take part. They asked me to take photos for them, and so we walked to the old settlement (about a kilometre away) and I took so many photos my battery ran out. As there is no way to charge it on the island, I could only take a few photos on my phone after that!
During the day the men and women do separate tasks – I spent a lot of time with Neena helping with the cooking, washing, and tending the garden. I also played a lot with the children, and practised my Karoninka – everyone wanted to help me learn, and often someone would teach me a phrase, and then signal that I should get my book to write it down. This backfired slightly one day, when the older women decided to teach me insults – I dutifully wrote them down, but I don't anticipate telling anyone they eat like a hyena!
Sometimes we went to the 'bush' and spent time there drinking palm wine and eating fresh-caught tilapia and rice (the staple food which is eaten for every meal).
On the last evening I set up my laptop (having carefully saved the battery) to show them video and photos Lamin took of the initiation last year. We set it up outside, and started with just Neena's family watching, but in the end the whole village was crowded round excitedly – many of them will not have seen TV or anything similar, so they really enjoyed watching the video.

The journey home
As on the journey there, we need to be sure to be ready when the boat arrives, as there will not be another one for a week. We visit several compounds to say goodbye to family, and several of the girls in the family come with us to carry our bags

10:30 am
We set off for the fishermen's hut where the boat would arrive. The teenage men live there all through the dry season, catching fish and smoking them to sell. We arrive at 11:30 am, and settle down to wait. The boat is due about 2:00 pm, but they were worried that I might not be able to walk fast enough to be sure of getting there(!) so we have arrived early. Neena has brought rice (wrapped in a cloth) and vegetables for lunch – the 'boys' will go and catch fish for us. I am seated on one of the beds, drinking palm wine of course, and watching as the boys prepare fish for smoking. This involves layering the fish in cardboard, and putting on a large platform; a fire is then lit underneath and someone sits and throws water on it regularly to create the smoke. The hut has a hole in the roof, so the smoke goes out through the roof and doesn't affect my side of the hut. When the boys return with fish, (which includes an 'eel fish' with fearsome teeth) Neena and the other women passengers (including Lamin's sister Khadi) prepare it and cook it. One large one is just thrown on the fire to grill, then given to me as a snack. When I first came to The Gambia I didn't eat fish with bones, but I am gradually learning to manage it, and have even graduated to eating the fish head, a delicacy here.

12:00 pm
We discover that the boat driver has to deliver a body 70km up river, and then return to us. He may not arrive till the following morning There is much discussion about whether to return to the village for the night, or to stay and wait – we can't afford to miss the boat. We decide to wait; Lamin and Antoine lay down on one of the beds and sleep, whilst Neena and I go for a short walk to look at the river. During the afternoon Antoine speaks to the boat driver several times, but can't get a clear answer – in the end I think the driver got tired of the hassle and switched his phone off!

6:00 pm
Someone returns to the village to get more rice and vegetables, and the women cook another meal. By now it's getting dark, and again we discuss whether or not to return to the village before it gets totally dark. Everyone else would manage it easily, even in darkness, but they are concerned about me. Lamin warns me that if I miss my footing and fall in a rice field he will leave me there and let the women carry me back – I think he was joking. However, we decide to wait it out.

10:00 pm
Now it's very dark, and we are all tired (although no-one has complained – waiting is just part of everyday life here), and we have no idea when (or if) the boat will arrive. One of the women goes to the next fishing hut, which is much larger, to ask if the women can sleep there until the boat arrives, as they have more beds and even a mosquito net! This is arranged, and so we set off in the dark through the 'bush' on narrow paths between the rice fields, leaving the men at the first hut. When we arrive the men are brushing off the beds and they even find me a piece of cloth to use as a pillow. Whilst we are waiting I try out my Karoninka on the fishermen, occasionally reverting to broken French when all else fails! Finally, after a drink of ataya (green tea), and much laughter and chatter from the women, we settle down, Khadi and I sharing a bed. I am just drifting off to sleep when, in the distance, I hear an outboard motor!

11:30 pm
One of the boys arrives at the hut to tell us the boat is coming. We trek back through the bush, and get ready to board. This boat is much bigger then the previous one, and I am put into a small, and very wobbly dug-out canoe, and one of the crew pushes me out to the boat. The boat man lifts me into the boat easily, and I find a plank to sit on. I am just about to throw my rucksack onto a tarpaulin on the bottom of the boat when it moves – I realise that there are two women and two babies asleep on the bottom of the boat! Once we get underway, everyone settles into the bottom and goes to sleep – only Lamin and I are left awake (apart from the crew), and the 17 year old driver navigates by starlight, only using a torch occasionally when the bolongs get narrow. A couple of times we scrape along the river bed, and once we have to stop to untangle a fishing net from the outboard motor, but overall it's peaceful journey.

3:15 am
The boat driver takes us as close as he can to Kafountine, but by now the tide has fallen, so we have to get out the boat and continue on foot, initially wading through ankle-deep mud, then wet sand, and finally on dry sand, carrying all our belongings. Still, no-one is put out, and there is much laughter as we walk. At 4:30 we reach the outskirts of Kafountine, just in time to hear the first cockerel crowing. The relatives seem completely unconcerned to be woken at 4:30 to prepare beds etc, but it's 5:00am before we finally settle down.

9:00 am
After a breakfast of bread and peanut butter, and my first cup of tea in a week, we finally set off in the car for home. I have mosquito bites up my legs, and a sore bum from sitting so long on a plank, but it's an experience I will never forget, and I have some amazing memories of a fantastic visit.