I haven’t logged into my blog for the past three weeks since the cataclysmic events of Easter Sunday 2019.
I have just accessed my drafts and am stunned that I had written three posts in what now seems like obscene ignorance of the ground reality in Sri Lanka. How happy and carefree my posts sound in the run up to Easter Sunday! Talking about the weather in The Gambia and Jordan’s ear ring and looking forward to a wonderful Easter celebration here in west Africa…..
How wildly divergent the trajectory has been on what I had anticipated and what actually happened that final Sunday of Holy Week!
Like millions of others in SL and around the world, I went into electric shock mode after the news hit me that morning.
And that sense of shock still remains with me, my heart like a heavy brick inside my ribcage, making me feel like a deaf mute in a world gone suddenly berserk leaving me without the words I so desperately need to express my feelings with.
That is why I couldn’t post anything for these past several weeks.
When we first arrived in this country we were warned that the weather would be challenging due to evening thunderstorms in September and intense heat in October – but were assured that from November onwards we would enjoy near-perfect weather over the next nine months. Since Paul and I are both basically islanders hailing (no pun intended!) as we do from the UK and SL, we took this with a pinch of salt because we had no idea how there could be no rain at all for such a long period of time in any country….
In fact, local knowledge has proved to be quite true and we have not had a drop of rain for the past seven months and have indeed enjoyed halcyon days full of sunshine and cool breezes all along. The temperature in the mornings and evenings is as cool as it is in Nuwara Eliya – but without the constant drizzle and grey skies of the hill country (the skies are always a brilliant blue over The Gambia) and the sun is warm at midday – yet not too hot because there’s always a balmy breeze blowing in from the Atlantic Ocean.
I often wish I could capture and WhatsApp you the temperature of this place – same as we can capture things on audio and video – wouldn’t it be great if we could also send each other our experience of the weather in a place? But on second thoughts, no – think what that would do to climate change around the world if everyone could just send pieces of the weather to each other across the globe? What a nightmare that would be!
My Nigerian colleague and friend Nneoma says she grew up in a family that went to the Anglican Church in Igbo country and how marriage (to an expat Nigerian Christian) brought her to The Gambia where she now worships in a charismatic church with her husband.
She relates how she woke up the first Easter after she had married and excitedly greeted her husband as she was used to doing in her family home – ‘Christ is risen!’ and how her husband responded with ‘Hallelujah!’ and how she laughed at him for the inappropriate response, the correct one being of course ‘He is risen indeed!’ She has now lived here for nine years but she apparently still calls her parents in Nigeria early on Easter morning with the greeting ‘Christ is risen!’ and they would always reply joyfully ‘He is risen indeed!’
I am overjoyed to celebrate Easter this year in The Gambia and will go to St Paul’s in Fajara or the Methodist church in Bakau for the morning service. Paul and I have planned to have a family brunch at the weirdly named ‘Butcher’s Shop’ restaurant afterwards to which we have of course invited William (who is now very much a part of our family) but who will only arrive in the country tomorrow morning after his travels in Asia over the past fortnight.
Jordan went off to the Form 5 (Year 11) ‘Sign Out’ party – a big event in The Gambia because it’s basically a farewell to this year’s batch of IGCSE students (from all the international schools) on the eve of their final examinations which start at the beginning of May.
Jordan asked for two weeks’ worth of pocket money yesterday saying that he wouldn’t be going out over this long weekend – then turned up with his ear pierced having blasted all his cash on this ear ring!
I spent a lovely day remembering Amma on her tenth death anniversary today – can’t believe it’s been a whole decade since she left us to go home to the Lord. I listened to her favourite hymn by Hillsong: ‘Above All’ which was also sung at her funeral – it’s a really beautiful song.
I was also keen to attend a Good Friday service at a Catholic Church since I have never really done the Stations of the Cross in a church in Sri Lanka. I took a bus to Bakau and wandered into the poetically named ‘Star of the Sea’ church but found that they didn’t have a service there. So I walked back and decided to catch a bus in the opposite direction to Serrekunda where I thought I might find another Catholic Church.
However, St Therese Catholic Church was in Westfield which I had to walk to – but it was well worth the effort!
A Sierra Leonean colleague called Sombo had told me that in her church (Methodist) they all wore green on Good Friday – not black or white as in the Anglican Church – so not having the requisite coloured clothes to wear, I approached St Therese Catholic Church with some trepidation. I was therefore greatly relieved to see that people had come dressed in a variety of colourful clothes: men in long trousers & shirts mostly but women in long Africana dresses with matching head ties, long skirts & blouses, western style dresses with Muslim style head scarves and of course jeans & T shirts.
They did not do the Stations of the Cross but the service was beautiful in spite of me not being able to understand a word: the congregation was made up of a wide cross-section of rich and poor as well as young and old; the worship was uplifting and communion was served in such an orderly almost elegant manner, it was a real blessing to be there.
These are photos of peaceful country lanes and sandy shortcuts that lead from our house to Marina school. They are now being dug up by huge excavators under a recent government road construction project.
A ‘bantaba’ is a place under a spreading tree where local people sit on battered chairs or benches and sip their ‘attaya’ (plain tea with lots of sugar boiled on small open fires and poured from one tiny glass to another repeatedly until frothy and then sipped slowly with a glazed look of bliss on the face!) while catching up with the neighbourhood gossip, the latest football scores and Gambian politics.
Both Paul and I loved the Wolof name ‘bantaba’ from the moment we heard it because it relates so closely to the English spelling ‘banter bar’ – which is actually what a Gambian ‘bantaba’ is….!
When we first got here, Paul would laugh and say ‘There seems to be a lot of sitting around under trees and doing nothing here…’ It is delightful to see people doing that actually – such a relaxed way of life! When I mentioned that to my (mainly Sierra Leonean, Ghanaian and Nigerian) colleagues, they all chuckled and said that there was one thing for sure: no Gambian was ever going to die of high blood pressure!
Marina Junior School has a lovely ‘bantaba’ too (right in front of Paul’s office) with colourful picnic benches under a huge shady tree in front of the canteen where the kids sit and chat while having their snacks and drinks.
Being an incurable romantic, I am sad that the atmosphere of a serene neighbourhood of sandy lanes will change with the introduction of tarred roads. Although there is still very little motor traffic here and the tarred roads will only have cars on them bringing kids to Marina in the morning and picking them up in the afternoons, it is still the end of an era and I am already nostalgic for the peaceful past.
I have been teasing Paul that he and William would get (undeserved) recognition for having got the road in front of the school tarred after more than fifty years of it being in existence. Neither of them of course had anything to do with it – it was simply a coincidence that the government decided to tar these particular roads – but nevertheless they will both get the kudos for the new road construction.
In fact, a couple of parents came in to see Paul a few days ago to thank him for getting the road done – and in spite of his protests that it wasn’t actually he who had got it done, they still thanked him profusely and went on their way!
So you see, ‘greatness has been thrust upon him’!!
The annual Gambian Trade Fair is held at the Independence Stadium in Bakau just a stone’s throw away from our house and lasts all day and night over the space of three weeks. It has provided endless hours of entertainment for our whole family over this short Easter break.
The entrance ticket costs only 25 dalasi each (i.e. – Rs 85/=) and once you enter there are rows of white tents stretching into the distance on both sides of you housing stalls selling everything from T-shirts to batik cloth, gardening tools to costume jewellery, electrical goods to bamboo craftwork, woven rugs to herbal remedies – you name it, they’ve got it!
Jordan has of course been there since day one and knows the place like the back of his hand now. He goes with a different gang of friends every day and stays there until the wee hours of the morning! I was frantic for his safety on the first couple of nights but have since learned to trust his excellent social skills and his assessment of risk in a given cultural context.
The Gambia really is an almost insanely crime-free country and our neighbourhood is a very safe one which people (even young teenagers) can walk through without fear any time of day or night. I feel so grateful that Jordan and Rai can experience a way of life like this which gives young people such freedom to grow up in.
Rai and I strolled through the trade fair about a week after it started and enjoyed exchanging small talk and having a laugh with the vendors who have come from all parts of the country to sell their wares here. I was thrilled to see some African clothing that I hadn’t seen before even in the more touristy areas and was happy to buy a few gifts for our nearest and dearest. Rai was ecstatic to find a pair of shoes that she’s been gagging to buy for over a year now but couldn’t find until now.
Paul was also overjoyed to find some gardening tools there that he has been wanting to buy for several weeks now – ever since he decided to dig up a corner of our backyard to make a vegetable patch.
Although we did toy with the idea of visiting neighbouring Senegal over this holiday, we gave it up after we had to dip into our savings to buy our air tickets to return to the UK (Paul) and SL (the kids and me) in the summer.
The trade fair was perfectly timed and has given us the chance to have lots of fun over our two-week holiday.
I have spent the first few days of my Easter break eating, reading and sleeping – somehow I felt exhausted when we closed for the holidays.
Thank goodness for the Marina High School library which has a great selection of African literature! I finished all the African classics on the shelves by January this year and am now reading a section of less well-known and much younger writers from across the continent.
Saturday 13th April 2019
I miss the ‘nonagatha’ period of the old year being celebrated in Sri Lanka right now and the great sense of anticipation that is felt in the country as the new year approaches. I also miss my colleagues at Marina High School but feel too lethargic to go into town so am mooching around the house reading my novel and surfing the net instead.
Palm Sunday 14th April 2019
I woke up feeling lazy but was determined to attend a Palm Sunday service. I decided against going to the charismatic Redeemed Christian Church of God that I usually attend and walked instead to the small church by the sea called St Paul’s Anglican Church and was not disappointed when they gave us each a palm branch to wave and the choir sang beautifully plus they also served communion. So I was right in thinking that nobody does Palm Sunday better than the Anglicans!
Now I have to decide which fellowship of believers I will join on Good Friday and then on Easter Sunday: Bakau Methodist Church, Glory Baptist Church or the Catholic Church evocatively called the ‘Star of the Sea’ – all within walking distance of where we live – how convenient is that?!! I consider it an immense privilege to have such a range of venues and congregations from which to choose to worship God here in The Gambia even though it has a predominantly Muslim population ( nearly 95% are Islamic!)
The Across the Board Tests and the Mid Year Examinations are all done and dusted – finally! It’s nearly the end of the second term at Marina International and the children are on Cloud Nine now that exams are over and they are able to let off steam after a hectic three months of hard work.
This school is quite old-fashioned to the extent that it gives such extreme priority to exams and doing well academically with teaching practice based on archaic principles like employing ‘setting’ to group students according to their level of ability – something I can’t even recall ever experiencing in my childhood back in the sixties in Ceylon, let alone in the years and decades that followed after I became a teacher. I have always taught mixed-ability classes and consider that to be the most realistic as well as the most effective categorisation of pupils in order to maximise their learning.
However, it has been an uphill struggle to convince other teaching colleagues who do agree with me on principle but are reluctant to change the methods they’ve been using for years and years at Marina.
Anyway, end-of-term deadlines have been met and all those (oh so important!) marks and grades have been entered online and reports emailed to the parents. The term ends with the usual Parent-Teacher Consultation Day on Thursday April 11th.
After that there will be a two-week break and school resumes for the third and final term soon after Easter.
It amazes me that we are about to complete two academic terms here! It’s hard to imagine how we survived these past seven months in The Gambia.
Paul and I were toying with the idea of going over the border to Senegal for a short holiday but gave up the idea after we had to dip into our savings to buy our air tickets back to the UK (Paul) and to Sri Lanka (the kids and I) over the upcoming summer holiday.
So it’ll be another quiet stay-at-home break and I will miss the company of my English Department colleagues! I have, however, decided to use the time to edit my manuscript over those two weeks – something I had planned to do during the Christmas break but failed due to sheer lack of self-discipline!
No, there was no raging fire and no cats stuck in tall tree branches. They only came to fill up the two water tanks in our backyard because one of the giant diggers preparing the road near Marina School for tarring had accidentally ripped up the pipeline thereby rendering us without water from the mains for the last several days.
Penda poses proudly as one of a hundred new recruits to the Fire Department and representing the Gambian government’s recent attempt to provide equal opportunities for women in previously male-dominated spheres of work.