The Gambia has two main mouthwatering dishes: the national dish ‘Domoda’ is a delicious meat and peanut stew served with rice and the Wolof dish ‘Benachin’ which literally means ‘one pot’ where rice, vegetables and fish or meat is cooked together in a tomato based sauce.
They also have many traditional dishes such as: Plassas (what a name!) which is basically boiled green leaf fried in palm oil and Yassa which is rice cooked with chicken or fish in a tangy, spicy sauce.
Then there is the all-time favourite West African dish which originates from Nigeria, the labour-intensive ‘fufu’ (rice pounded into flour and made into small balls that are then boiled and eaten dipped in meat soup) and the famous ‘gari’ (instant cassava/ manioc flakes boiled and sautéed with vegetables and fish or chicken) served as a quick snack when the hunger pangs hit you.
The Indian presence in The Gambia is very recent with people remembering growing up in the nineties with businesses here mainly run by Lebanese merchants. Within the last ten years, however, Indian businessmen seem to have taken over The Gambia and they now run almost all the hardware & electrical shops, supermarkets and restaurants in Banjul and its suburbs.
The restaurants have, however, adapted their signature Indian dishes to suit the palate of the Gambians so that the biriyani one orders at the neighbourhood Indian cafe ‘Tandoori Nights’, for instance, is smothered in a red tomato sauce (just like the Gambian ‘Benachin’) and does not taste even remotely like the biriyani we eat in SL and the subcontinent.
There is a lovely little restaurant within walking distance of our place called Mama’s which is popular with European backpackers where Paul goes to have draught beer with his friend William and Rai and I sometimes drop in for a mid-week meal of fish and chips. They also serve a delicious plate of ‘Domoda’ and Jordan makes sure he swings by if he knows that Daddy is there because he loves their Friday ‘Seafood Buffet’ with fish, calamari and prawns.
There is also a brunch buffet offered by the Butcher’s Shop restaurant – and yes, it was (and still is) a butcher’s shop that expanded into a restaurant. They do good western dishes and are known for their confectionery items. However, other than what they offer at their Sunday buffet, you need to order cakes beforehand because they don’t have any over-the-counter baked goods for sale. In fact, there are absolutely no baked goods shops anywhere in the country. How weird is that??!!! Memories of The Fab, P&S, Green Cabin and Java Lounge bring tears to my eyes…..
One of the best parts of being on this amazing continent is the sheer thrill of tasting home grown literature on African soil – and what a mind boggling buffet of books there is on offer here!
I kick started my ‘Know Your Africa’ literary journey in the first week that school started in September by checking out my firstborn son’s favourite author, Chimamanda Adichie’s first book ‘Purple Hibiscus’ which I checked out from the Marina International School library. And what a read that was – simply breathtaking – as was her latest novel ‘Americanah’ which I had already read in Sri Lanka. I went on to read her best known work ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ and was deeply moved by her personal and powerful account of the Biafran revolution in 1960s Nigeria. I also read her beautiful collection of short stories: ‘The Thing Around Your Neck’. Can’t seem to get enough of her.
The inimitable Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe was one of only two African authors I had read in my foray into international literature at the English Department of the Kelaniya University during those careless campus days of the late seventies. I re-read his classic ‘Things Fall Apart’. What an evocative name and one that I wish I had thought of as a title for a novel of my own – it so perfectly sums up Sri Lanka in three simple words – and also taken as it is from Yeats’ immortal lines ‘Things fall apart, The centre cannot hold, Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world’. I really enjoyed the story of his hero Okonkwo – then discovered that Achebe had also written a sequel ‘No Longer At Ease’ – about Okonkwo’s grandson Obi which was so good that I devoured it in a day.
The other African novelist I was familiar with from my student days was the famous East African author Ngugi wa’ Thiong’o ( Professor of English at Nairobi University) whose novel ‘Petals of Blood’ (fell in love with that one too – African writers really know how to choose the best titles!) recorded the story of the Mau Mau marxist guerrilla movement in Kenya in the seventies and eighties.
Mrs Williams, the school librarian, let me borrow as many books as I wished so I was able to read a book or two every week since September 2018. I burrowed into her African Literature section like the voracious termites that eat through the wood and cement of our crumbling old house, their trails of brown soil snaking up from floor to ceiling with lightning speed, sprouting brown branches of more than a foot every 24 hours.
I realise that I haven’t read at this rate since my childhood and teenage years. I remember how Amma and Thaththa always bought me a book as a birthday and Christmas gift. And the dark and terrible day when my parents broke the news to me that they could no longer afford books from the K.V.G. De Silva or CLS bookshops because a new tax had been slapped on them that made it quite impossible for them to afford to buy books anymore.
The socialist coalition government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike had just introduced its Import Substitution Policy in the early seventies and all imported items (from foodstuff to apparel and – alas – books!) had been made quite out of reach of any but the richest strata of society. Amma and Thaththa encouraged me to join the Public Library, the American Centre and the British Council which my elder brother Ravi and I did. It was an era of living for Saturday when we would both take the bus from Nugegoda to Kollupitiya – riding the notorious No:112 buses that were not only ramshackle but also very few and far between and waiting impatiently as they limped along High Level Road then branched off onto Dickman’s Road and wheezed up the seemingly endless stretch of Galle Road to our destination. What bliss it was to enter the British Council library and be able to borrow three books and two magazines every week! Nothing compared with the delight of being surrounded by so many books!
I am now re-living those early days of my adolescence and absolutely revelling in the pleasure that reading has always given me. Somehow the cares of adulthood and the ongoing effort to meet the needs of job, family and friends has greatly impinged on that pleasure over the years – not to mention the immediacy and convenience of modern technology which has more recently and brutally cut a wide swathe through the solitude and dreaming that was once an integral part of being human.
Africa with its lack of facilities and modern conveniences that we so take for granted in Sri Lanka has swept the rug from under our feet and forced us to seek entertainment from non-technological sources. There are no CD or DVD shops here and we have no TV and no internet connection at home – although mobile data does enable us to keep in close contact with family and friends in far-flung corners of the world on WhatsApp – so no complaints!)
So after work in the evenings there’s only good old-fashioned conversation, telephone calls and reading to fall back on! Our high energy Jordan jogs for miles, plays football with the kids down the road or spends his time strolling along the sandy beaches of the suburbs. The more sedentary Rai sketches for hours or reads a book a day – fortunately she too has a seemingly endless supply from the school library.
The aptly named Timbooktoo Bookshop is a fifteen minute walk from where we live. It is well-stocked with the latest African fiction by authors from Kenya, Somalia, South Africa, Zimbabwe and of course a range of mouthwatering fare from west African writers hailing from countries as diverse as Francophone Senegal (translated work of Sembene Ousmane & Mariama Ba are available) and English-speaking Sierra Leone and Ghana although the most widely published African writers come from Nigeria.
List of Recommended African Novelists:
Nigeria – China Achebe, Chimamanda Adichie, Buchi Emecheta, Okey Ndibe
We have been blessed with an intelligent and industrious house help that the school hired on our behalf when we first took up residence in the Wacky Warehouse. Mariam hails from a fairly remote village and travels to Bakau in three different bush taxis to get to our house by the time we leave for school every morning Monday to Friday. She cleans our sprawling old house on a daily basis. She is also a devout Muslim and stops whatever she is doing in the house to pray five times a day.
She has completed her High School diploma but her family couldn’t afford to pay for her higher studies. We began sponsoring her this month to do a certificate course in ICT at a reputed institute in town three days a week. We hope she will be able to pass her test and go on to do her diploma there over the coming months.
It was Mariam who made the serendipitous discovery of the tomatoes growing in hidden abundance amidst the wilderness of our backyard.
We are extremely thankful that The Gambia is such a safe country. It is probably the only nation in Africa which has no break-ins or armed robbers! In their ‘Health & Safety’ sections, guide books to The Gambia say funny things like ‘Of course if you are staggering home alone drunk at three o’ clock in the morning dangling your wallet from your hand, then you might get your purse snatched!’
However, the school has also employed Francis – a very well-mannered retired gentleman ‘Night Watchman’ – who reports faithfully for duty at 7 o’ clock sharp every evening from Monday to Saturday and provides us with security (that we do not need) until 8:00 in the morning. Both Paul and I like his old-world charm (he breaks out into ‘God Save the Queen’ at the slightest encouragement!) and we are glad to provide him with the extra income he needs at his stage in life. It has also turned out to be a warm and wonderful experience to be ‘watched over’ – and reminds me of how our loving Father always watches over His children.