It’s exactly eleven months today since we first set foot in Africa!
We stepped off the Royal Air Moroc plane onto the tarmac of Yundum Airport in The Gambia in the wee hours of the 24th of August 2018 exhausted after a gruelling 30 plus hours of travel but filled with excitement to be on a new and unknown continent and quite some trepidation about what life would actually be like here.
It has been a wild ride with this country’s ubiquitous power cuts, lack of running water due to a variety of causes (small water tank, broken water pump, burst pipes, leaking cisterns, water cuts – you name it, we’ve gone through it!) which occurred on average about once a month and the recurrent shortage of necessary food items.
Yet we have been blessed with near perfect weather for nine of the past eleven months (cloudless blue skies and constant cool breezes!), a large rundown old house that we have come to love and appreciate, the hospitality of warm-hearted Gambians (no wonder this country is known as the ‘smiling coast of Africa’), the friendship of neighbours and colleagues hailing from different countries in west Africa (including Nigeria, Sierra Leone & Ghana) and the wonderful sense of freedom that comes from living in a safe country where the 95% of Muslims who live here enjoy a peaceful co-existence with the tiny Christian minority.
And tomorrow Jordan, Rai and I leave for a month’s holiday in Sri Lanka while Paul goes to the UK to visit his mother for two weeks……
We had barely finished the Junior School Fete on Saturday 29thJune when we had to get our costumes ready for the High School Carnival on the first Friday of July. We were all asked to dress up in our House colours of red, blue, yellow and green.
It was a very colourful procession that wound its way out of the school gates and through the neighbourhood but Red House won the first prize hands down for the best dressed as they were kitted out in the most beautiful costumes all in vibrant vermillion – some of the kids who won individual prizes for their costumes looked as gorgeous as those who annually parade the streets of Rio de Janeiro at the famous Carnival in Brazil!
Both students and teachers danced through the streets of Bakau New Town and Fajara for two hours. It was an amazing experience! There was a traditional band, a Western band with drums and trumpets and a massive sound system in a pick up truck that brought up the rear!
When we finally returned to the school field, there was a bouncy castle, popcorn, candy floss, cool drinks & ice lollies being sold at different stalls. It was lots of fun!
The day after that (Saturday 6thJuly) was the Staff Party which began at 1:00 pm at a beach hotel in Senegambia and went on until 11:00 pm where both lunch and dinner were served! Lunch was the delicious Nigerian dish called Egusi Soup (made by two of my friends and colleagues from the English Dept) and plassas (spicy okra & other veggies in fish sauce) served with foo foo (boiled cassava and pounded yam). Dinner was rice and chicken made the Gambian way. It was lovely dancing to reggae music by the seashore looking out across the Atlantic Ocean towards the Caribbean islands where Bob Marley came from.
During the first week of July I also made the momentous decision of resigning from the High School after completing a year there and accepting an English Learning Support teaching position at the Junior School from the start of the new academic year beginning in September 2019.
The catalyst for the change was that they had time tabled me for too few hours and to teach two Second Language classes – Form 4 & Form 5. I realized instantly that it was not for me so I mulled it over in my mind, discussed the matter with Paul and emailed my resignation to William. I felt a great sense of relief after I did so which confirmed to me that it was indeed the right thing to do.
I’m now looking forward to starting work at the Junior School come September with my all-time favourite age group: Key Stage 2 (i.e. – upper primary school) where I will be teaching kids in Years 5 – 6 who are aged 9 – 11 years.
It’s been a stressful, hectic month as the academic year draws to a close at Marina International School. The school takes examinations very seriously indeed so I have been on Jordan’s case for the past several weeks as his End-of-Year Exams approached and he’s been resisting me every step of the way! The Head of the High School, William Arthur, has been excellent at confronting Jordan on his study habits, encouraging him to create his own revision time table and stick to it so that he puts in at least two hours of self-study every day of the week. He has also given him an ultimatum that if he does not pass his Form 4 End of Year Exams, he will not be proceeding to Form 5 for the next academic year starting in September. Yikes! Jordan did work on his revision time table and started off his self-study sessions with a bang that week. However, his initial enthusiasm waned pretty quickly and he was soon back at Square One flying by the seat of his pants as usual.
So we were pulled into William’s office once a week after that in order to enable Jordan to become more accountable to what he had promised to do as exam preparation. He did begin to attend Saturday morning tuition classes with Mr Kenny for History & Sociology and eventually ended up scoring 60% for each of those subjects which was much better than what he had done in the Mid Year Exams in the second term. He also went for ICT classes with Mr Conteh on Saturdays at noon. He refused tuition in the other five subjects and decided to wing it as he had done before.
He did also (finally!) log into the new GCSE Pod programme that William bought for the use of Form 4 & 5 students at Marina School. He was overjoyed to find that watching and listening to the 3 – 5 minute podcasts (designed by world-class teachers in order to deliver the IGCSE curriculum to modern day students in bite-sized, hi-tech form) was right up his street because it suited his learning style. He was also inspired to watch YouTube videos to revise Economics which was one subject that was not covered by GCSE Pod. He managed to get Cs in Maths, English Language & ICT – but failed Econ and Biology – for both of which he had no extra help having refused tuition. He still passed the exam because he got five Cs and was ecstatic that he wouldn’t have to repeat Form 4 again!
Sometimes I wonder how he was raised in this family and still manages to underperform so spectacularly. We know that he’s very bright and also that his high energy prevents him sitting still for very long and affects his level of concentration. However, the main thing that seems to motivate him these days is his teenage rebellion in which he tends to define himself as being anti-establishment and therefore committed to pitting himself against both rules at home and school regulations, including of course passing examinations.
Paul says there is nothing we can really do about his spectacular failures until he experiences a moment of truth and the realization dawns on him finally that doing well in his academic subjects and passing his exams is something he has to do for himself because it’s his life and nobody else’s. So here we are still standing on the sidelines cheering him on and waiting expectantly for his epiphany!
Rai has continued to excel in all her subjects and has passed her Year End Exams with Distinction having got six As for Maths, Science, ICT, Geography, Music & Art and a B for English and Design & Technology. She struggles with French for which she had extra after school classes and ended up with a C.
She has developed into a much more mature person in her first teen year and yet still sorely lacks the social skills she needs to navigate life in a co-educational school in a foreign country & continent. She still complains that she has too few friends (a perennial grumble that she has always had even when we were in Sri Lanka) but she is also someone who likes her own company and can be quite prim & proper in her approach to life which we think is often quite off putting to her peers.
Paul had a very challenging year as Head of the Junior School but managed to pull it all together through the first and second terms. He was just cruising through the final term of the academic year with the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel beckoning enticingly when disaster struck. A nine-year-old girl had an accident while in school where she fell in a sandy area of the playground during break time. Though she seemed alright when she got up and walked to class, and then to the sick bay, and answered the teacher’s and then the school nurse’s questions clearly and coherently, and though her father picked her up soon after the school called him and rushed her to hospital, she became unconscious and died later that night.
We were all heartbroken and Paul was devastated as he had never experienced such a thing in any of the many schools he had been in throughout his life. It was a traumatic ending to the school year and a searing reminder of how fleeting and therefore how precious life is!
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.