Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Although it pains me to admit it, my knowledge of cars is extremely limited. Although I would like to be a 'modern' woman, and know how to service or repair a car, in reality my attitude is 'I turn the key and it goes'. If pushed, I can check the oil and rep;ace the screen wash, but beyond that I am stumped. I have to agree with my friend, who when she was asked what she did if the engine started making a strange noise, replied 'I turn the radio up'. On the rare occasion when I've had a flat tyre, I have called out my breakdown service.

However, in the Gambia of course, it's very different. As we live in a fairly remote area, we do a lot of off-road driving, which means the car breaks down regularly (I am on first name terms with our mechanics!), and we seem to get flat tyres with monotonous regularity. This usually results in a trip to the mechanic to repair the tyre, ready for next time, and we try to carry a spare (in our posh new roof rack!).

One day, we were driving to visit Lamin's uncle (Antoine) to collect palm wine, through some rather remote 'bush', when we heard a loud pop. Lamin and his friend Buba, who was with us, hopped out to look, but even I knew immediately that we had a flat tyre. We were miles from the road, on a soft, sandy track, but there was no option - we had to change the tyre. Of course, when I say 'we' I actually mean the men; I acted as photographer instead.

Rather a remote area to have a flat tyre!
And rather sandy soil....
Once the wheel nuts had been loosened, the next problem was getting the jack put together, but it then proved very difficult to jack the car up on the sand, as the jack kept slipping. Buba found a large palm leaf to lay on, and they persevered until the car was finally jacked up (with some handy tree branches used as chocks to stop the car rolling. Once that was achieved, it actually didn't take too long to change the tyre.

Trying to jack the car up on sandy soil was very tricky!

Using a palm leaf to lay on.

A stick acting as a wheel chock

Fitting the new tyre
Before too long we were on our way again, and soon arrived at Sala, where we spent a very peaceful afternoon chatting and sampling the palm wine. Sala is very beautiful, surrounded by trees, and there are also plenty of birds and other wildlife to watch.

Antoine's hut at Sala

Beautiful scenery and birds to look at
Sunset over the river
Antoine usually goes fishing, and comes back with a bucket full of tilapia, which he cooks with chilli and lemon, and accompanied by rice (of course). Finally, we can watch the sun set over the dried flood plain of the nearby river before a slightly hair-raising journey back in the dark, through the narrow tracks, home to Balaba. 

About 25 years ago I read a book called 'Future Shock'. The author argued that the pace of change was accelerating so much throughout the 20th Century, compared with all the previous centuries, that we could not cope with it very well, and that this was made worse by what he called a 'disposable society'. In other words, we had lost sense of the importance of looking after things, and we threw things away far too easily. The week I read it, I saw the first disposable razors on sale, which seemed to confirm his view.

I have been thinking about this a lot in the Gambia, because I am constantly amazed by Gambian ingenuity and the way in which they solve problems and recycle things, rather than throw them away and start again. So I though I would share a few examples with you – I have managed to photograph a few things, but sadly not all.

I first started thinking about this when we visited the car mechanics in Brikama, to have a roof rack made. It was fascinating to watch it being built from scratch, although a bit scary when they started drilling holes in the roof of the car to attach it! But I also wondered why Lamin put an old wheel hub in the car before we left, but all was revealed when we arrived. The mechanics added some lengths of metal, and hey presto - we had a barbeque, which has been very useful when we grill fish.
The welder attaching metal legs to the inner wheel
Our brand new barbeque being tested!

Whilst we were waiting, one of the mechanics was talking to Lamin about a consignment of light bulbs he had bought, but that they had the wrong kind of fitting (i.e. screw-in rather than bayonet). Lamin asked why he didn't change the fitting – and then proceeded to demonstrate how to remove the fitting, and re-wire the light bulb onto a different fitting, armed only with a knife and a broken razor blade! I had no idea you could even change the fitting on a light bulb, but the mechanic was so pleased he gave Lamin several bulbs, which Lamin has now converted to fit the light fittings in our house (which run off the solar battery).

Later the same day, Lamin needed to re-wire a plug to run off the generator, and since he had no insulating tape, he cut strips of plastic carrier bag to wrap round the wires instead. Another piece of electrical ingenuity I have seen (but don't try this at home!), is to use a match stick in place of the third pin on a plug.

Strips of carrier bag ready to be used as insulating tape

Palm leaves are also used for many things here. They are used for roofing houses, although with the deforestation, they are becoming increasingly difficult to find. However, I have also seen a bucket made out of a cut-down 20 litre oil container, with palm leaves plaited to make a handle, and a palm leaf impaled on a stick to make an impromptu 'windmill' to entertain children. And in the rainy season I have seen people using large palm leaves as umbrellas!

When I visited the bee farm (more about that another time), the young people harvested sesame, and put the stalks into a pile, with a large palm leaf underneath to catch the seeds as they fell. They then tied the pile together with woven palm leaves.

Tying up the sesame stacks with woven palm leaves. See the palm leaf underneath to catch the seeds.

I also saw they had used old plastic water bags (drinking water is sold in bags as well as bottles), to make little 'growbags' for seedlings.

Drinking water bags used as 'growbags'.

And of course, palm leaves are also used to make little funnels for inserting into the trees to tap palm wine – there is an intricate way to fold them, and I've tried several times (causing much amusement to anyone watching).

A little funnel made from palm leaves for harvesting palm wine.
Plastic bottles are used to collect the palm wine, and for lots of other purposes such as drinking cups, or as a funnel (with rubber hose attached), for putting petrol into the car.

I also watched Lamin and his friend Malik slice up an old inner tyre and use strips to re-attach a broken handle to a machete – I have no doubt that most of us would have got rid of both the old inner tyre and the machete and started again!

First you cut the old inner tyre with a knife.
Then you wrap the strips round the broken handle to hold both halves in place.

Lastly you wedge a knife under the strips so you can tie it all up firmly.

Things are rarely thrown away here, probably because people have very little spare money, and so they have got very good at finding creative solutions to problems. It has really made me think about how we are so quick to replace things, and we often have tools and gadgets for everything under the sun, but in reality, with a little ingenuity, we could re-use and recycle much more.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

One Day, Five Languages: New Year's Day

Languages have never been my strong point, but I felt that if I am going to be spending a lot of time in the Gambia, I really should make an effort to learn the language. However, this is not as straightforward as it might seem! Because the Gambia used to be a British colony, the official language is English, but on the whole, people can only speak English if they have been to school; as school is not compulsory here, there are many people who don't speak English, especially in the rural areas. The Gambia has lots of tribal languages, but Mandinka and Wollof are the two most widely spoken, and many people can speak several tribal languages, as well as English, and often French as well. Lamin speaks at least six languages quite fluently, which puts my halting attempts at French very firmly in the shade. You might think that living here would make it easier to learn one of the languages, but in practice, everyone here tends to mix the languages – I have often heard them start a sentence in one language and end it in another! As a further complication, most of Lamin's family on his mother's side speak Karoninka, which as far as I know is purely an oral language.

However, I decided I would try to learn Mandinka, so I could communicate easily with most people, and Karoninka so I could talk with Lamin's family, including those in Senegal. I downloaded some sound files from the internet for Mandinka, and played them on loop in my car. For the Karoninka, I have just asked lots of people to help me, and try to keep a notebook handy for jotting things down. It doesn't help when the grammatical structure of sentences is very different from English (think Yoda from Star Wars and you will have some idea!). I am trying very hard to learn a new phrase each day, and use the languages whenever possible. The family here at Balaba are great at helping me, and the local children (although a bit startled that I can speak Mandinka at all!), are also very encouraging – one little boy suggested I visited all the neighbours so they could help me!

Gambians really love it when you have a go at speaking the language, and it seem to be a national game to throw phrases at you hoping to confuse you (which in my case isn't difficult!). I usually find a bit of pantomiming of extreme confusion produces gales of laughter, and I don't often mind, although sometimes if I'm feeling a bit tired, and it's the umpteenth occasion that day, it can be a bit wearing.

Anyway, I thought I would share with you how I ended up using five languages in one day, which just happened to be New Year's Day.

We started the day with a visit to our neighbour's wine tapping 'spot', in the forest next to the beach. Yanna lives in the next compound, and speaks no English, but last time I was here, he made it his business to teach me some phrases, and repeated them every time he visited (which is very frequently). Some other 'customers' were there, so I did what I usually did, and tried to greet them in Mandinka – I can now greet people, reply to them, and ask a few basic questions such as their name etc, and can generally reply to theirs. 

The way through the forest to find palm wine.
You can see the sea on the way to the 'palm wine spot'.
A photo of me with the other palm wine customers.

On the way back, we stopped at the local shop, which is run by a Senegalese man, who came out and talked to me in French – it's amazing how much school girl French I can dredge up when I need to!

After lunch we decided to go and visit friends in Berending, the village to the east of Balaba, a short drive away. We stopped first at a compound of one of our friends, and his father came out to greet us. He sent a child to find me a plastic chair to sit in, and greeted me in Wollof – sadly my knowledge of Wollof is limited to three words – 'Nangadef' (How are you?), Manfi (Fine), and Jerrajef (Thank you), but I did manage a reply! However, most people in Berending speak Karoninka, so I ended up having quite a few conversations in Karoninka. We went on to another compound, where once again, a child was sent to find me a chair, but this time they dragged out a huge padded armchair, complete with enormous cushions – it does feel a bit incongruous sitting outside on the 'street' in a massive armchair! Here we spent a very lovely afternoon, with lots of children playing, goats and pigs wandering past, people washing dishes (and some small children), and drinking palm wine and ataya (green tea).

It's traditional on New Year's Day for the Karoninkas to play the rest of the village at football, and our sitting place was on the main route to the football ground, so dozens of people dressed int heir best finery, went past us on the way to the match. Football is a big event here, and most of the village turned out, including lots of the women who provided the cheerleading and dancing!

The football match.
Some of the spectators

The women and children provide the cheerleading and dancing!

The match ended as the sun went down, so we went back to our chairs for more refreshment. Around 8 o'clock, we decided to leave, but then (as often happens), plans changed, and it was decided to kill a pig so we could have a barbeque. I waited in the pitch darkness with some of the locals whilst the men went off to kill the pig – I didn't really fancy going along to see, and after an age, they returned with various bits of pork to cook the next day. We drove back to Balaba on narrow tracks through the 'bush', with the vegetation brushing the car on both sides.

So, as well as having a fantastic day meeting loads of different people, I also ended up speaking five languages: English, French, Mandinka, Karoninka and Wollof – not bad for one day!

Sunday, 6 January 2013

The Story of the Little White-Faced Owl

This blog post is especially for my lovely granddaughter Alyssa, because I know her mum reads all the blog entries to her, but if you are very good, I'm sure she won't mind if you read it too!

The Story of the Little White-Faced Owl

This is a true story, that happened in The Gambia in April 2012. In The Gambia, the toilets are different from the toilets in the UK – they don't have water in them, but people dig a huge pit instead, so that everything can turn back to soil again. You might wonder what a toilet pit has to do with a story about a little White-Faced Owl, but if you read on you will find out. Lots of visitors are interested on how the toilets work in The Gambia, so Lamin dug a special pit so that they could see what it looks like.

One day Numo (Lamin's brother), came and told us that a little White-Faced Owl was in this big pit behind one of the huts. We went to look, and sure enough, sitting in the corner was a very small owl, who wasn't looking at all happy. He glared hard at us and hissed very crossly. We thought that he may need a rest before flying away, but the next day he was still there, so we thought we had better rescue him.

Nanna wondered about climbing down into the pit, but it was very deep, and she thought she might not be able to get out again, but when Lamin came home he hopped down into the pit, and very gently picked the little owl up. 

The Little White-Faced Owl was a bit frightened of Lamin!

The little White-Faced Owl hissed angrily.

The owl didn't really like being picked up, and hissed angrily, but Lamin opened his wings very carefully to see if one of them was hurt. They both looked alright, but the little owl clearly couldn't fly, so we knew something was wrong.

Lamin remembered that many years ago he had owned a parrot, and so he went to find the old parrot cage, so that the little owl could sit in it safely. The little owl wasn't very sure he would like the cage, but he soon settled down. 

Lamin checked the little owl's wings carefully.

The little owl's wings looked alright, but he couldn't fly.

Once the owl was in the cage, we put him in a hut where it was dark (owls like the dark, you know). All night, the little White-Faced Owl called and called 'Twhoo...Twhit Twhoo' to his friends, but in the morning he still couldn't fly, so Lamin phoned his friend Bakary, who works at a Forest Park, and asked if he could take the owl and make him better. Bakary said we should bring the owl to the Forest Park.

In the morning the little White-Faced Owl still couldn't fly.
The next morning we all got ready to go, but the parrot cage was too big to fit in the car. Lamin carefully put the little White-Faced Owl on the dashboard at the front of the car, where he sat looking very puzzled. But when the car started he got frightened, because he's never been in a car before, so NanaPat held him, but he was holding on so tightly with his sharp claws that it hurt her fingers, so we stopped at the nearby shop to ask if they had a cardboard box.

The little White-Faced Owl was very puzzled at being in a car.

The shopkeeper went and had look, and came back with a box that was just the right size, so Lamin gently put the little owl into the box and closed the lid so that it was dark (owls like the dark, you know). We drove all the way to the Forest Park, and when we got there Bakary took the box with the little White-Faced Owl and promised to look after him.

For a long time, we didn't hear any more about the little White-Faced Owl, but then this Christmas Bakary came to visit us at Balaba. He told us the the little owl had got better, and was able to fly again, so Bakary let him fly back into the forest. So now, if you are out in the Gambian forest at night (owls like the dark, you know), and if you listen very carefully, you might hear the little White-Faced Owl calling 'Twhoo...Twhit Twhoo' to all his friends in the forest.

And that is the story of the little White-Faced Owl.