Home Free!

18th March 2019

Tonight we’re celebrating the Head of High School’s release from the case filed against him in the Banjul High Court.

The teachers all turned out in full force at the High School early morning and then went to Banjul in time for the 9:30 am court hearing. We all crowded into the courtroom but were then asked to go upstairs to Court Room No: 1 which was a much more spacious one that could accommodate the large numbers of people who had come to the hearing.

Picketing within the court complex just before entering the court room

The lawyers presented their arguments but the judge wanted to deal with one thing at a time and delivered a very wise decision regarding the contempt of court that had been accidentally committed on the 1st of March. He released the Head of High School from the bail that he had been granted on the occasion of the first hearing and stated that he need no longer appear in court because the case would be taken up in future hearings by the lawyers who represented the school.

Paul and I were also very happy that water from the mains had been pumped into our two big water tanks last night and we had running water again (albeit briefly) after three days of using water stored in buckets.

What happened was that early this morning before we left for school and the courts, our power supply short-circuited and we were without electricity for most of the day. Since there was no electricity, there was no way for the water in the tanks to be pumped into our taps – hence we were back to using water from our buckets!

It sometimes feels like we live from one disaster to another here in The Gambia!

However, all’s well that ends well and by evening we had a NAWEC electrician called Bakary come in and fix our electrics – and although there was a short power cut soon afterwards – we were thrilled when the fans started working again and we could pour ourselves a cup of tea!

It has been a hectic and hair-raising two weeks with the severe lack of water from the mains supply, an increasing number of power outages, the court case, mid-year examinations and Paul’s sister & brother-in-law visiting us in The Gambia.

So we’re happy to be home free now!

Waiting for Water

17th March 2019

When we returned home from school on Friday afternoon there was no water in the taps. This is the first time that it has happened after getting our two new powerful water pumps and second 1000 litre water tank. We managed to work in the kitchen and use the bathroom over the weekend because we have an emergency water supply stored in several large buckets in two storage rooms at the back of the house.

However, we had Paul’s sister Helen and her husband Daniel over to Sunday lunch and now it’s Sunday evening and we have still not had any water from the mains – so the dirty dishes are all piled up as we have to save our rapidly dwindling water supply for use in the bathroom.

The severe lack of running water due to the grossly inadequate supply from NAWEC is really beginning to get us down again – and Paul has begun to think of Sri Lanka with nostalgia once more: a land where (if and when water cuts do take place) they are announced beforehand and do not last longer than 8 – 10 hours at a time!

On top of the inconvenience of not having a steady supply of water, the fiasco over the fussy parent attempting to take the Head of the High School to court over the expulsion of her 13 year old for under-age driving (the second hearing of the case has been fixed for tomorrow at the High Court in Banjul) is also proving to be very de-motivating. The teachers are all turning out en masse to accompany William to the High Court and we are hoping for a quick hearing and a just solution.

It would be great to return to normality after a gruelling two week ordeal invigilating mid-year examinations, marking test papers, entering grades and mulling over the many conspiracy theories that are circulating regarding the reason why this particular case has been blown so much out of proportion.

It would also be wonderful to have running water in our house again.

I am African

I am African

Because in the stillness of the night

My heart beats to the rhythm of Gambian drums

And my mind thrills to the resonance of Nigerian poetry

I am African

Eyes drinking in dramatic Malian paintings

Ears thrilling to the sounds of Wolof words

Mandinka phrases, Krio sentences

I am African

Because my body is glad to be housed in a hut

With cool mud walls near a rice field in Kenya

And my soul sings for joy under wide open Ethiopian skies

I am African

Because my skin is brown but inside me I’m all black

And shiny with Zimbabwean palm oil, my spirit soaring 

Over the Kalahari and swooping into an orange sunset

I am African

Because I’m a back-to-the-basics kind of person

And this is the cradle of human civilization, raw

Real, radically different from every other continent.

I am African. 

Cotton Tree Childhood

11th March 2019

One of the best parts of my day is when I walk out of our house and down the red earth road to Marina School every week day morning, cutting across the playing field that separates the Junior School from the High School inhaling the cool morning air and feeling so glad to be alive!

Crossing the Junior School diagonally takes you to the playing field

The cotton trees in the neighbourhood have suddenly sprouted green pods on their branches which have now started exploding like tiny cushions splitting at the seams and spewing out white cotton wool after a pillow fight.

A cotton tree in the playing field reaches out its arms to the blue skies of The Gambia
Lumps of cotton that have burst out of their green pods and lie like fallen snow on the grass

And I am filled with nostalgia for a childhood spent running barefoot down the gravel lanes of suburbia in the sixties squealing with delight as the pods that grew on the cotton trees that lined Jambugasmulla Road suddenly spat out balls of soft white cotton onto the ground for us to pick up and stuff our dolls’ pillow cases with. And I’m struck by the realisation that I haven’t seen a cotton tree in Nugegoda for a very long time.

And I wonder: where have all the cotton trees gone?

One of my (pathetic) attempts to take a selfie as I cross the playing field one morning…..

VIP Visitors from Abroad

7th March 2019

Paul’s sister and brother-in-law visited us in The Gambia and stayed at the plush Coco Ocean Beach Hotel in Bijilo for two weeks. It was lovely to have family around for the first time in this country and we enjoyed spending time with them after school in the evenings and for longer periods over the past two weekends.

Paul and Rai walking through the scenic doorway of Coco Ocean Hotel
View of the Atlantic Ocean from the hotel
Daniel with William and Jordan on the terrace of the hotel
Helen as the lights were coming on at the hotel…..

We also went to the Sunday Brunch at the weirdly named ‘Butcher’s Shop’ restaurant and the posh Indian ‘Clay Oven’ both in the Fajara neighbourhood.

Sister and brother enjoying an authentic Indian meal at ‘The Clay Oven’ in Fajara
The food was exceptional – as were the prices!

Awesome African Attire

Africa is dazzling with its myriad colours and flamboyant clothing. Both men and women are always colourfully clad and look as if they’re dressed to the nines on any normal working day. They seem to celebrate life by embracing colour and form and design in many imaginative ways.

Africana clothing reflects the great love of life that people on this continent have in spite of the grinding poverty, insidious diseases, the obscene consequences of colonial domination and exploitation, the horrendous experience of slavery, widespread civil wars, armed robbers, the proliferation of terrorist organisations, the shocking extent of corruption and the pervasive lack of basic facilities in their day to day life.

My Marina High School colleagues are always dressed very elegantly and re-invent themselves so often and so cleverly that one can easily walk past them without recognising them for several long minutes! They wear a range of different African clothing as well as a variety of hair styles, wigs and head ties.

March Madness

3rd March 2019

A live reggae band plays Bob Marley songs by the pool next to the open-air buffet
Returning to reality after a delicious Sheraton brunch

It was William’s birthday today and we all went to Sheraton Hotel for their famous Sunday Brunch Buffet. We teased him about it being a birthday to remember because of all the tumultuous happenings that led up to the weekend: the fracas on Friday, the farcical proceedings and the fallout from that – i.e. – school having to be closed on Monday 4th and Tuesday 5th March in order to buy time to file a restraining order on the court injunction to re-admit the expelled student to Marina school – before re-opening school on Wednesday 6th March.

We had a good time laughing over what had happened over the past 48 hours and joshing William about how he might well have ended up in a Gambian prison! However, we all felt an undercurrent of apprehension because it can be extremely nerve wracking to be hauled up to a court of law and accused of wrongdoing when one is completely innocent and a foreigner in the country. Suddenly one feels very naked and vulnerable!

William has taken it very well and has shown admirable restraint and fortitude throughout the entire episode. However, it must be terrible to be out on bail in alien territory for a crime he did not commit and have his freedom of movement curtailed since he is not allowed to leave the country until the next hearing on March 18th.

When I messaged the news on WhatsApp to Lokumalli and Mahangu, they were aghast. Loku gave me some excellent legal advice (Paul thinks Ruvan leads a double life – as a laid back university lecturer by day and a very astute legal eagle by night – hehe…) and Mahangu made me laugh out loud by commenting that I must be feeling right at home in The Gambia because of all our national experience of injustice in Sri Lanka…..!

4th March 2019

We woke up late as we didn’t have to go into school today. Paul went in to meet the senior management team of the Junior School to bring them up to speed on what was happening.

There is an emergency PTA meeting called for this afternoon where parents and teachers will gather together in the main school hall to discuss their options and what the school strategy will be if the parent still insists on forcibly sending her expelled son to school when we re-open on Wednesday 6th March.

5th March 2019

Today Paul is accompanying William to the British High Commission (which is just around the corner from where we live) for an appointment with the High Commissioner whom they both met at a dinner hosted by Prince Charles when he and Camilla arrived in The Gambia last November on a royal tour of west Africa. They are trying to ensure that William’s British citizenship will help protect him from whatever injustice is being hatched against him by the parent of the expelled boy.

6th March 2019

The teachers all heaved a big sigh of relief when the expelled boy did not turn up at the school gate this morning. Life at Marina has returned to normal – thank goodness! The High School students slipped quickly back into their exam routine and the school day proceeded smoothly and ended with our usual After School Club programme.

African Greetings

25th February 2019

Gambians are warm, friendly people who have been brought up in the old British colonial tradition. Whenever you pass someone on the street or enter a public area such as a shop or a restaurant, perfect strangers – including small children – will greet you very politely.

Stranger: Morning – morning!

Self: Good morning.

Stranger: How are you?

Self: I’m good. How are you?

Stranger: Fine. How der family?

Self: They’re fine.

Stranger: How der morning?

Self: It’s good. How’s yours?

Of course by the time you have gone through this exchange, the stranger is halfway down the road and doesn’t really hear your replies. These exchanges with total strangers seemed rather weird and unnecessary at the beginning but I now find them quite charming and worry that I’ll make Sri Lankans freak out by trying to engage them in this dialogue when we return home….!

Another bizarre thing is that Gambians, and also Africans in general, do not seem to say ‘goodbye’ to each other. Whether it is a morning exchange like the one described above or as one is leaving school at the end of the day, Africans never seem to use the word ‘bye’ to end their conversations with people. So I have made repeated gaffes by saying cheerily ‘Ok then, bye! See you later / tomorrow/ on Monday’ etc and then become keenly aware of the uncomfortable silence that follows my words. I’m really not sure why people here don’t seem to use any words of farewell and can only surmise that it is linked to a sort of superstitious belief that saying ‘goodbye’ might precipitate bad luck and one might never see that person alive again.

I have also started liking the way Africans end their sentences with an ‘o’ – as in…..

Me: Why is it so loud in the art class today?

African Colleague: Sometimes they do practical projects like tie-and-dye.

Me: But the kids are screaming outside and I can’t do my lesson.

African Colleague: But that’s what it’s like here-o!

I have been told that Nigerians speak ‘Pidgin’ and Sierra Leoneans speak ‘Krio’ both of which are a corrupted version of English that has developed in different parts of west Africa. My Sierra Leonean friend and colleague helps me understand a bit of Krio by speaking slowly and identifying the many English words that are scattered throughout their sentences. Since 95% of people in Sierra Leone speak Krio, I have come to think of it as a great unifier (as opposed to looking down on it as ‘pidgin English’!) since any Sierra Leonean from whatever tribe, race or religion can clearly communicate with each other.

Now I wish Sri Lankans too had a form of language like Krio – it has so much potential to bring people together through a common medium of communication!

All Hell Breaks Loose

1st March 2019

It started off as a normal ‘Thank God It’s Friday!’ (aka TGIF) day with the male staff coming in dressed in traditional garb because many of them go off straight from school to mosque for Friday prayers. School closes early due to this so everybody is in a more relaxed mood because they all consider the weekend to begin on Friday at noon!

I myself have an even better deal because I only teach the first two periods on a Friday so – eat your heart out, everybody! – my own weekend starts as early as 10:00 am on a Friday!

I usually use the rest of Friday to catch up on my marking and put finishing touches to whatever I have started during that week so that’s what I was doing in my little office when the thunderbolt dropped out of a clear blue sky!

During the last half hour of school, I heard teachers talking in urgent voices and stepped out of my room to see them walking out of their classes and converging on the common paved area in the middle of the High School. It turned out that there was a commotion near the front gate.

The word quickly spread that the 13 year old boy who had been expelled from Marina High School in the first week of February for engaging in under-age driving after the school’s cross country run (he was spinning a rented car in front of the school entrance thereby endangering the lives of the other students who were gathered outside the school gates) had returned to school with a court order.

Soon after his expulsion, his mother came into school and threw a huge tantrum demanding that her son be taken back by the Head and when he politely declined to do so, she swore at him and screamed vengeance saying ‘Allah will punish you!’

She also threatened him with dire consequences saying ‘I am Gambian. Wait and see what I will do to you!’

However, the Head of High School and the Board stood by their decision not to re-admit the boy into Marina.

This woman had somehow managed to obtain an injunction from a High Court judge who ordered the Head to let the boy back into Marina or shut the school down. William did neither and by late morning a black car with dark tinted windows and without number plates (yikes!) had drawn up outside the school entrance and three paramilitary men walked forcibly past the security guards and into the school to try to arrest him for contempt of court. We all assumed that they were the police since they were dressed in dark blue-black uniforms. However, they were not policemen – they were a paramilitary squad. Unbelievable!

The fire alarm was rung to get all the students and teachers out of class and onto the playing field where William addressed the gathering and told them that he was compelled to close the school for the day and asked the kids to tell their parents to check their mail over the weekend because they would be sent an email informing them about when school would be re-opened.

That’s when we all realised that things had become serious and all the teachers gathered together in front of the administration building to hustle the paramilitary men away from William. My old allergy towards all military personnel emerged and I raised my voice and asked them to ‘bugger off our campus’. They looked shocked at the angry reaction of all the teachers as all 60 plus staff surrounded them while a few of us closed the door to the Head’s office and stood guard in front of it.

As the paramilitary men were hustled off towards the entrance gates, the students rushed forward after them hooting and stopped at the front gate laughing as they hastily clambered back into their black car. The kids spontaneously broke out into the Marina school song which I have never heard sung with such gusto and feeling before!

The Chairperson of the Board of Governors who is herself a Justice of the High Court arrived within minutes and advised the Head to answer the court summons. So a lawyer parent who had also arrived at the school drove William to the High Court in the capital city Banjul. The teachers all rallied as one and also made their way to the High Court as did Paul and Rai and me who were given a ride by another parent.

We all sat outside the room where the High Court was in session and waited for a couple of hours until a decision was reached. No one could remember such a thing ever happening in the history of The Gambia over the expulsion of one child. And certainly not on a Friday afternoon!

When the Head of the High School finally walked out of the court room, we couldn’t believe what we heard. He was out on bail with the case being fixed for the 18th of March – and one of the bail conditions was that he had to re-admit the boy to Marina School. We were all simply incredulous.

Everyone returned to the school and met in the main hall where we all expressed solidarity with William. He asked the teachers to meet and decide what they wanted to do on Monday and said that he couldn’t tell us what to do because it had to be our decision.

There followed a heated discussion in the staff room and it was agreed that we all signed a petition stating that we were not willing to have the boy in the school and would refuse to teach him in our classes.

Meanwhile the parents and Board members continued their meeting in the hall and made a decision to close the school on Monday 4th and Tuesday 5th March in order to file for a restraining order from the court to stop the student returning to the school – and to re-open Marina school on Wednesday 6th March.

Teachers and parents were sent emails over this weekend informing them of this decision. So we are looking at a four day weekend now and planning for any eventuality that might take place when we return to school on the Wednesday.

A Fast & Furious February

28th February 2019

It’s hard to believe that it’s the last day of the month and February 2019 has already gone down the chute! It started off well with lots of fun days in school (with Extra Curricular Clubs raising money for charity and a cross country fun run) and plenty of running water in the house. We then had a very welcome mid-term break with a five day holiday that included the Gambia’s Independence Day on February 18th.

Gambian flags all over the country fluttering proudly in the seasonal harmattan winds

The Gambian flag’s red stripe stands for the sun, the blue for River Gambia and the green for the forests of The Gambia. The white stripes stand for the peace and unity that binds them altogether and makes one country of all the different tribes (Mandinka, Wolof) and religions (Islam & Christianity).

The High School had an interesting Science Fair last Saturday afternoon where families could come and check out the High School kids’ projects and watch them take part in a mini-robotics competition. 

The Head of High School at the Science Fair shows off his state-of-the-art Gucci sunglasses and Gucci watch while tucking into his very traditional Gambian lunch of Benachin!

But it was all downhill after that with NAWEC seeming to be very mean with their regular water supply during the last week of February so that at the time of writing this post, we have been without a drop of water in our taps for five days at a stretch!

Paul and I started our new fitness regime walking through the neighbourhood after school three days a week.

Towering trees along the grandly titled ‘Atlantic Boulevard’

We walk down the sandy stretch of road alongside our house which falls onto Atlantic Boulevard (in reality, a small tarred road with very little traffic!) which hugs the rugged coastline of Fajara. We then branch off down any of the sandy country lanes that criss cross the area and wander down beautiful paths that cut across forested areas back to Garba Jahumpa Highway (actually just another tarred road with only slightly more traffic than Atlantic Boulevard!) and then back home.

It does get to us though when we have to return home and carry heavy buckets of water through the house just to have a bath afterwards. But hey, what the heck – this is Africa!!