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.
Marina International School had their annual Speech & Prize Day in the first week of December and Rai’s good friend won a prize for some good work done last year.
We broke up for the Christmas holidays quite late with Open Day for parent-teacher consultations being held on Thursday 20thDecember.
Of the more than fifty students that I teach English Language and Literature to at the High School, only 15 parents came to see me. I am used to more than 90% of parents consulting me about their children’s progress every academic term in all the other international schools I have taught in both in Sri Lanka as well as in China and Brunei. So I was surprised by the low turn out here in the Gambia until I was made aware that a majority of High School students did not, in fact, live with their parents (most of whom seemed to be expatriate residents of the USA, the UK or other European countries) who paid their school fees but had entrusted the physical care of their children to grandparents, uncles & aunts or even older siblings. This accounted for the small number of parents who came in to see me about their children’s progress in school.
The ones who did come in were, for the most part, parents or grandmothers of high achievers – which is of course true of most other schools that I have taught in. The children of these caregivers are highly motivated learners who are fortunate to have adults in their lives who are caring and concerned about them – and bother to come to a parent-teacher consultation because of this. The parents and guardians of children who have potential but who consistently under-achieve in class tend to avoid Parents’ Days and steer clear when it is they whom the teachers need desperately to meet!
The next day we went into town and bought two Christmas trees from a small shop run by a Chinese man: a small white one which we decorated with blue baubles and blue & silver tinsel and a tall green one which we decorated with silver baubles and blue & silver tinsel. The blue décor was to match the large blue batik painting that we inherited with the house – and of course because we were going to have a blue Christmas this year without our family and friends in Sri Lanka. We played Christmas carols as we decorated the trees and strung up the fairy lights – and also played some Christmas oldies from the sixties: Jim Reeves with his 12 days of Christmas & Elvis Presley’s ‘Blue Christmas’…..!
We went Christmas shopping over the weekend and bought presents from the very basic choice of cosmetics available along the main street called Kairaba Avenue. Only one shop was playing Boney M Christmas songs! We did buy some seasonal goodies in the form of cakes and biscuits imported from the UK mainly because of the British tourists who flood the beach areas to escape the winter in the Gambia’s eternal sunshine. We did see some turkeys for sale in a Lebanese supermarket but they were too big for us so we decided on roast pork instead for Christmas lunch. We were also thrilled to see a black man dressed in a red Santa suit handing out lollipops at Right Choice, the local Indian supermarket!
However, the main Christmas present we got for the four of us was an embarrassingly large TV (with a 50-inch screen!) The head of the High School, William, drove Paul all the way to the capital city, Banjul, to buy it through a Ghanaian contact of his who sold it to us for a very reasonable price. We also got a really good deal on the satellite dish and an internet connection with a ridiculously low monthly charge. The main point about the telly though is not that it was such a good bargain – but that it was a symbol of the fact that we have now made a firm decision to stay on in the Gambia and see the school year out in July 2019.
The TV has made our living room look much better and provided a focus for the household. It has finally turned the ‘Wacky Warehouse’ into a home!
My expat teaching colleagues from Sierra Leone and Nigeria had forewarned me about how boring Christmas could be in the Gambia because it is more than 95% Muslim and so we were well-prepared for it. We actually had a quiet but lovely Christmas Day at home with a big but bizarre breakfast spread made by me (an English breakfast with toast, bacon & eggs; American pancakes with maple syrup and fried rice with chicken curry!) and a delicious Christmas lunch made by Paul with roast pork, mash & veggies.
We played loud Christmas music all day, called family and friends on Whatsapp in the evening and watched ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogies back to back on the telly until late at night. It was brilliant.
We had cooked so much that we were able to eat leftovers for the next two days – hooray! All we did was sleep in, eat, read (the school librarian took pity on me and let Rai and me borrow as many books as we wanted for the 2 week Christmas break – I borrowed 10 African novels!) – and watch Christmas movies on TV. It was heavenly!
While Christmas is a quiet season in the Gambia where the most amount of excitement one is likely to find is in watching a black man in a red Santa suit riding a donkey cart along the beach, it is apparently very different in the rest of West Africa.
In countries like Ghana which has a majority Christian population of 71% (what a novel concept that is – coming from Sri Lanka where we have always been a very small minority!) as well as Nigeria & Liberia in which more than 50% of the population is Christian (which amounts to a whopping 80 million Christians in Nigeria alone!), Christmas is celebrated through December and well into January with Christmas Eve featuring dancing and drumming all night and Christmas Day marked with overflowing church services followed by special family meals including beef stew, fish soup and grilled chicken accompanying the ubiquitous ‘fufu’ – small balls of rice flour dipped in soup!
Even in West African countries where Christians are a minority such as Sierra Leone where they make up only 20% of the population, Christmas is celebrated with much energy and excitement with loud Christmas music blaring over loud speakers and boom boxes at every street corner in the run up to Christmas, Midnight Mass & Watch Night Services held in churches throughout the country to which people flock in their best clothes on Christmas Eve, delicious meals and gift giving among family and friends on Christmas Day and then on Boxing Day everybody piles into public transport and goes down to the beach to party!
Another really astonishing thing is how Christians and Muslims in the Gambia, Senegal and Sierra Leone enjoy peaceful co-existence. People from these countries whom I have had the pleasure of meeting here go to great lengths to explain to anyone who will care to listen that in their countries (unlike in Nigeria where these two main religions clash so violently) both Christians and Muslims have historically lived amicably and peacefully together because ‘after all, we are one family since we are all descended from Adam’!
Sierra Leoneans have described how the terrible civil war that country went through in the 1990s had absolutely nothing to do with either race or religion – it was, they say, fought entirely due to political reasons. The people – and the government – have always made certain that divisions were not created along tribal, racial or religious lines. My Sierra Leonean colleagues in the English Department tell me that this is probably due to a history of inter-marriage between people of the two faiths and that it is quite common to have Muslims praying in church before going to office in the mornings or attending church services on Sundays – so going to church is not an indication of someone being a Christian. The colleague I share an office with, who is a charismatic Christian, says that evangelistic efforts are therefore not aimed at bringing a person to church but, rather, at seeing a change in a person’s heart as he or she turns their life over to the Lord Jesus Christ.
To someone like me who comes from a nation racked by religious extremism (not as practiced by the vast majority of the Sri Lankan population of course – but by those power-hungry political parties who use racism in such violent and obscene ways), the mature perspective these West Africans have on race and religion in their countries is so refreshing. It fills me both with a wistfulness for the past when we all lived happily together in that once enchanted island that we call home – and with a longing to see those days return to Sri Lanka for the sake of our children.
It’s hard to believe that it’s exactly three months since we landed in the Gambia. The past month has definitely been a trial by fire for us. The main reason is that the water supply provided by the National Water & Electricity Company (NAWEC) of Bakau which is the suburb where we live came to a complete standstill four weeks ago and there was absolutely no water from the mains! Looking back I find it hard to imagine how on earth we managed to survive such an acute shortage of water.
We don’t think we will ever look at water in the same way again – a trickle of water from a tap became as precious as gold dust to us over the past month! We learned to save water like crazy, collecting every last drop of water in buckets, basins, bowls & bottles. We learned to have a wash with a one-litre bottle of water poured over ourselves before we went to work and school in the mornings. We were told that we could call the Fire Brigade who came last week and filled up our water tank with a huge fire hose – the sound of gushing water was absolute music to our ears! Of course we had to pay for it and we suspect that they were providing the service illegally! We also borrowed water from a neighbour who was rich enough to have dug their own borehole and passed a hose over the wall so we could fill up our tank – although they weren’t too keen to provide this service on a regular basis.
Then this morning – lo and behold! NAWEC had finally got their act together (after 4 full weeks of procrastination and mismanagement!) and we had water flowing into our pipes from the mains!! What a shock to turn on a tap and find liquid actually flowing from it!!! The lack of water was the main pressure point of frustration for us. It certainly is for me. It’s the only reason that I would consider leaving the Gambia.
It’s true that the power failures every 24 hours still continue unabated but somehow we have all got used to that – even in spite of the weird way you have to pay for electricity. This is on a pre-paid card system where you have to buy an amount of electricity beforehand and when the power cuts off (most often in the middle of the night of course – aarrggghhhh!), you then have to get your torch, pick up the pre-paid card, peer at the TWENTY digit number on it and read it out to your husband/son/daughter who should be up on a chair in front of the electricity meter to punch in the numbers in the correct order – then you wait with baited breath for the power to turn back on automatically! If it doesn’t, it means you messed up with the numbers, so you have to try again!!
It’s also true that there is a lack of transport that can be very annoying when one wishes to just go down to get some essential items from the shops. You need to stand by the road and wait until a bush taxi trundles past, then flag it down and haggle over the price before getting into one – and then you need to repeat this process after you come out of the shops with your bags of groceries!
Then there’s also the fact that there are no street names or house numbers in the Gambia – yes, you read that correctly! So when Paul and I went to open our bank accounts (in order for the school to deposit our salaries there), we filled out forms with our names and workplace etc – but for our place of residence – we had to describe where exactly we lived to the bank clerks at GT Bank and in the space where it said ‘Address’, they drew a map of where we said our house was – without a number or a street name to identify it – hahaha!!! Paul is apparently always teasing his Junior School senior management team saying that he and his wife are going to start a new fashion by going outside our house and painting a big (random) number on the boundary wall – so that everybody will follow suit – and it will start a revolution! We have no idea how on earth the post office (or courier companies) manage to deliver letters and parcels?!!!
So, as you can see, life is really quirky in Africa. It can be irritating and frustrating and downright incomprehensible at times. But then there are those moments of splendour that completely blow you away with the sheer variety of His creation on this beautiful and bizarre continent: like when you’re walking to school crossing the vast playing field and you come across a huge flock of vultures in the middle of the tall waving grass, so ugly with their bald heads and scrawny necks and yet with such majestic wingspans, they take your breath away! Or the brightly clad women in their flowing dresses and headscarves, chubby babies tied to their backs, waving cheerfully to you from across the street. Or the huge herds of white goats that trot haphazardly along sandy lanes and confidently across paved roads in the face of oncoming traffic which grinds to a halt as though there is a tacit understanding among the drivers that the goats have right-of-way! Or the big white smiles on the beautiful black faces of girls with their hair done in perfect cornrows. Or returning home after a particularly tiring day at school, you find a donkey lying down right in front of your gate and no amount of cajoling by the owner’s small son is making it move – the donkey is unmoved by the little boy’s pleas and closes its long-lashed eyes firmly – so absolutely sweet in its stubbornness!
Jordan and Rai had a bout of the ‘flu this past week but were back in school by Friday. They are both sitting for their term end exams over the next three weeks. The school term goes right upto December 20th. We are not sure what we will be doing over Christmas other than watching a black man in a red Santa suit riding a donkey cart on the beach! Because Paul (together with William, the Head of High School) was (and still is) having an ongoing tussle with the school board about the running of the school, we weren’t sure whether we would still be here at Christmas so we didn’t make any concrete plans about how we would celebrate it. Since the board has capitulated on several fronts, both Paul and William have decided to stay on at Marina International – at least for the second term. So we do need to make some definite plans now.
Over the Christmas holidays, I would like to visit Senegal the big sprawling neighbouring country that completely surrounds little Gambia – because it is a Francophone nation and very different to the Gambia apparently. Paul’s bugbear is that we have no transport which makes us too dependent on the bush taxis – so he wants to buy a secondhand car and the school is willing to give him a loan that he wants to pay back within a few months. He wants to concentrate on finding and buying a vehicle over the holidays – no mean feat since we are foreigners and wont to be played out by local car dealers. We would, of course, have loved to have come back for a Sri Lankan Christmas but the very short duration of the school holiday and the exhorbitant prices of the air tickets makes this quite impossible for us.
30th November 2018
Since I had been to the Methodist and Baptist churches in the neighbourhood as well as a charismatic one, I thought I should also go to the Anglican St Paul’s Church which is only around the corner from where we live. It was a lovely little congregation with three women priests officiating and afforded me the chance to have my first communion in The Gambia. After the service, they served breakfast snacks and juice in a small hut outside overlooking the sea.
The weather has changed quite dramatically now that the stifling heat of October has been swallowed up by much cooler mornings and evenings. We have been told that this is the beginning of the nine months of near-perfect weather in the Gambia which makes it so attractive to European tourists especially in the winter months from November to April. This is also the start of the harmattan, the cold dry wind that sweeps across all of sub-Saharan Africa during this season and I am immensely excited to be here to experience it.
That is mainly because all the African literature I have ever read never fails to mention it – and it has therefore always sounded so romantic to me! By the way, I am now reading an average of five books a month – a little more than one per week – haven’t read like this since I was in university! Reading a cross-section of novels from west African authors (Nigerian & Ghanian) and south African writers (from Zimbabwe & Botswana) have greatly enriched my understanding of the continent and it’s simply awe-inspiring to be here in the Gambia reading African literature!
Our severe difficulties with the lack of water over the past few weeks has meant that I couldn’t start my English classes for the poor kids in our neighbourhood. I am in the throes of designing, delivering & marking the end of term English exams to Forms 1, 2 & 4 over the next three weeks so I simply won’t have the time to start the neighbourhood classes until the third week of December. I am disappointed about the delay in starting these classes but have come to understand that I have to work according to GMT (otherwise known here as ‘Gambia Maybe Time’!)
We celebrated Jordan’s fifteenth birthday by taking him and William (his principal) to Sunday Brunch at the Sheraton Hotel on a lovely stretch of beach in the suburb of Brufut. Spoiled as we are by Sri Lanka’s excellent hotels and buffets, we were still very excited to be faced with an array of different western and Gambian dishes – and the kids had a lot of fun because William is a born entertainer who has rattled around the world and has many tall stories to tell! Jordan had already celebrated his birthday on the day itself (Friday) with his friends on the beach but he had posted a video on Instagram of the Sheraton lounge and pool area with the caption ‘Best birthday present ever!’ so Paul and I were happy that we had made the right choice in taking him there for his birthday treat!
However, morning, noon and night the one thing that has occupied my heart and mind over the past month has been the series of political crises in our beloved land. I have been repeatedly shocked by the events that have unfolded over the preceding days and weeks in our tortured nation and greatly saddened by the vileness & complete unworthiness of human beings against the mesmerizing beauty of a land that I always think of as ‘God’s own country’. I pray every hour for His divine and merciful intervention in our homeland!
It’s already our long awaited mid-term break and we booked Lamin and his jeep to take us to Bijilo to book a beach hotel for three days before going off the beaten track into the African bush to see the famous wall art in a village called Bukuneh.
We were happy with Lemon Creek Resort and booked two double rooms in their laid back Spanish style hotel, then headed off to south east Gambia along rutted jungle tracks – thank goodness we had Lamin to drive us in his four wheel vehicle! The recent rains had gouged out the sandy paths and the jeep tilted quite alarmingly in places so we had a hair raising ride much to Jordan’s delight (he was riding ‘shotgun’ in the front passenger seat!) before we finally made it to Galwoya and Bukuneh.
Wall art is a very urban phenomenon worldwide but in The Gambia these amazing paintings by renowned wall artists from Europe and the USA have been done on the mud walls of village huts in the bush a few years ago and have quickly become a tourist attraction.
Sitting by the swimming pool of Lemon Creek Hotel in the Bijilo district of The Gambia enjoying a three day holiday from our television-free, power cut prone & running water challenged house (the Wacky Warehouse) in Bakau during Marina International School’s week-long Mid-Term Break. In this beautiful oasis of creature comforts, standby generators kick in within seconds of the power going off, water gushes giddily out of taps & showers, there is air conditioning in the bedrooms and cable TV with a family movie channel – so the kids are in heaven!
Can’t believe we have already been here for two whole months. It’s been a truly out-of-body experience! We are continually amazed by the daily challenges that Africans have to face and yet their smiles are genuine, their handshakes warm and they are always only a heartbeat away from breaking into song or moving to the music.
I greatly admire their resilience and their love of life in the face of grinding poverty, untold hardship and insurmountable obstacles such as the criminal lack of public transport, the terrible condition of their roads, the unhygienic condition of their food outlets (even in urban areas), the poor selection of products in their shops and supermarkets, the horrendous state of their government schools, private schools and even their premier international school (Marina!), their university which is out of reach for the majority of young people because it charges such high fees, the widespread corruption that seems to be endemic in this part of the world…..
Yet the Gambia (being the smallest country in mainland Africa) has a population of only 1.5 million – and I recall how it didn’t take that long for President Premadasa to build 1 million houses for our people back in the late 1970s – so how hard can it be for the government here to build 500,000 houses – one for each family living here and to provide each of these wretched bush villages with electricity – just as Premadasa did! It’s not rocket science, is it?
Sometimes I get so incensed thinking about it, I feel like seeking an audience with the new President of the Gambia – Adama Barrow (who is a kind, peaceful man who was voted into power when Gambians finally rose up against their former Prez Yahya Jammeh who was a greedy, cruel and power-hungry dictator (sound familiar?) who ruled this lovely country with an iron fist for 23 years) – and telling him how to obtain the foreign aid he needs to feed, clothe, house and educate such a handful of people.
Is it because I’m 60 now (and have seen my own country develop so well – even with such a comparatively huge population AND in the aftermath of such a long drawn out & debilitating civil war) that I see it as something that is not that hard to do…?!!
My heart goes out to the little children (we thought Chinese little ‘uns were the cutest kids ever when we lived in Tianjin 12 years ago – but are now convinced that African children are the most beautiful in the whole wide world!) and young people in this country – to be denied the right to education seems so criminal to me, born and raised as I was in a country that provided me with free education right the way through to university! I mean, how much would it cost to give the few Gambian young people aged 18 – 25 years old, free university education? They are such a small population group, it wouldn’t cost much at all!
Marina School has provided us with a house which is only 5 minutes’ walk away (which is actually the best thing about the Wacky Warehouse!) We do remind Jordan and Rai about the immense privilege they have of being one of the few kids worldwide who can walk to school every day within the space of a few minutes!
Right outside our boundary wall though are a bunch of very young kids who play in the sandy lane there (only a handful of main roads are tarred here) and I have a burning desire to teach them English. I bought some Ladybird First Readers from Timbooktoo Bookshop with my first salary and hope to kickstart my first lessons next Monday after we return from school at 4:00 pm.
I know this is only like fixing a band aid over the huge ulcer of extremely poor educational facilities here – but I have to do something to help these kids in the face of such a massive lack of education and opportunity in their lives!
However, Paul is not very happy at work in Marina Junior School. The school board has run the place in a very inefficient way for years and years and are reluctant to change things around for the betterment of the school. The staff is paid really low salaries – and (as they used to say in Sri Lankan international schools) it’s obvious that if you pay peanuts, you will only get monkeys! The grounds are huge and the school buildings are very well situated but the facilities are in desperate need of an upgrade! The board (consisting mainly of parents) seems to have frozen the school fees as well as teacher recruitment over the past year so there is a basic lack of finances to develop the school in key areas. The list goes on….
Because he isn’t very happy in school and feels that what he can achieve for the school is very limited, Paul also feels that the country itself is quite challenging to live in due to the power cuts every 24 hours (anything from 1 – 3 times during the day and/or night with the duration of each outage being a few minutes or upto 4 hours at a time!) and the lack of running water in our bathroom and kitchen whenever the power goes off – because they have fixed an electric water pump to the water tank in the backyard and there is no water in the taps or shower unless you switch the pump on…???!!! So if there is no power and you can’t therefore switch the pump on, then you don’t have any access to water in either the kitchen or the bathroom! Weird, or what??! But then, this is Africa!!!
Paul is also impatient with the lack of transport (there are no buses or trains – and we do recall trishaws with lots of nostalgia – haha!) We are dependent on flagging down bush taxis (really ancient Mercedes Benz cars painted yellow with two green stripes running across the roof and bonnet!) and negotiating prices before every trip to the bank or to buy groceries can be very disheartening! He also gets put off by the lack of available products and the limited food choices available here.
So during this school break we have been doing a lot of thinking and discussing and examining our options about whether we can and will stay in The Gambia for the duration of our two-year contract – or tell the board that we will stay for just one year – or even only wait for the six month probationary period on our contracts and then return to Sri Lanka.
Coming to Africa has been an awesome experience for us all and has enabled us to really understand and appreciate the immense privilege it is to have been born and raised in SL – what a truly blessed island we belong to! Paul talks often of how beautiful and modern and developed SL is as a country and has now begun to call it ‘home’ – a term he only used to refer to the UK before! Now he says fondly ‘I have two homes – one is England because of its meadows and sheep (!!) and the other is Sri Lanka because it has such a ‘wow’ factor (beaches, tea plantations, ancient cities, wildlife reserves – it’s got EVERYTHING!) – and because you and the kids are Sri Lankans!’ He says he really needed to come to Africa in order to get a kick up his backside to help him appreciate just how wonderful life was in SL!!
Jordan is being a typical teenager and loves wandering the streets of our neighbourhood and making friends with the local boys. He enjoys Gambian street food (‘Benachin’ which is rice cooked with fresh fish and tomatoes, ‘Domoda’ chicken or beef or mutton cooked with vegetables and peanut sauce and chocolate buttered French bread which is his favourite dessert!) and plays football on the beach every Friday and Saturday. However, when we ask him whether he likes it here, he always pulls a face and says ‘This country is crap, the life here is crap and Marina school is crap…’ etc. Funnily enough, that is exactly what he said about Sri Lanka and the British School when we were still in SL..…haha….so we’re not too unhappy with his comments and, in fact, we suspect that he will be the one who misses Gambia more than the rest of us if and when we do go back to SL!
Rai absolutely loves Marina School – she likes the new friends she has made (a Nigerian, an Indian and a Lebanese girl), her class and all her High School teachers! She also likes being in the Gambia – loves the colourful clothes the girls wear and has plans to get her hair braided like theirs – in those complicated corn rows! She turns thirteen tomorrow and is thrilled to be celebrating her birthday in this country!
I love being here too and really enjoy working at the High School teaching English to the First, Second and Fourth Formers there. However, life IS challenging with all the many hindrances to smooth daily living that we so take for granted in Sri Lanka and elsewhere in the world.
We are definitely at a crossroads right now and would appreciate your prayers for God’s wisdom and guidance to inform our decisions over the next few days and weeks as Paul and his colleague William (the Head of High School) confront the school board with what they think is wrong with the way the school is run and with their proposals to solve the many problems that it faces.
I will celebrate six decades of life on earth over the next week. It’s hard to believe that I have against all odds lived on since that dark day when I faced certain death in July 1985. My soul is overwhelmed with unspeakable joy and deep gratitude at the thought of how a mighty and merciful God stooped down from heaven to hear my feeble cry for help and lift me from the miry pit to set me on the rocky crags as sure footed as a mountain deer!
Paul gave me a voucher to buy three paintings of my choice from the African Art Gallery in Senegambia – woo hoo! I received beautiful birthday cards from Jordan and Rai. My best present was a non-material one though. It was from my firstborn son who whatsapped me with an extract from a Henry David Thoreau poem also quoted in one of my all-time favourite movies ‘Dead Poets’ Society’. He said that my approach to life and what that has taught him reminded him of the following:
‘I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner and reduce it to its lowest terms….’
Today I attended Sunday service at Glory Baptist Church in the Old Jeshwang district of the Gambia and what a glorious time of worship it was!
30th September 2018
Although I have loved teaching Junior School children all my life, I’m pleasantly surprised to find that I’m very happy in a High School environment and find it fun to work with teenagers as well.
7th October 2018
I rejoice in the amazingly adaptability of our tween (Rai) and our teenager (Jordan) who have both adjusted seemingly without so much as a hiccup to life in a totally new country on a completely unknown continent.
Jordan doesn’t want to give us the satisfaction of hearing him openly admitting that he likes living in The Gambia and complains that he has a ‘crap life’ in this ‘crap country’ and that he goes to a ‘crap school’ here. Paul and I are not too worried because these are the exact words he used to describe the British School in Colombo and his life in Sri Lanka over the past year….!
In actual fact, Jordan has made many friends on the beach, on the streets and in school and has let slip comments in unguarded moments (‘all the girls in class fancy me’!!) that show us that he really loves it here and is sucking up all the attention he gets like a vacuum cleaner!
Within three weeks of joining Marina International School, Jordan represented his house at their annual school Sports Meet taking part in a total of five races and relays – for which he was placed in second and third positions. He even very bravely opted to run the 800 metres when the Green House teacher asked for volunteers for it and no one else wanted to. Since he had not trained for long distance running, he ran the first lap too quickly and the second lap around the massive stadium nearly wiped him out – he came in 7th out of 8 competitors – but he did finish the course before collapsing in exhaustion!
Rai possesses a completely different kind of courage. While Jordan is reluctant to venture into some parts of the Wacky Warehouse after dark because it is such an old sprawling and spooky kind of building, Rai has no such problem. She is perfectly happy to stay home by herself because she has always had enough inner resources to enjoy her own company and is able to walk fearlessly into any corner of the house or garden at any time of day or night!
This huge amorphous and ancient house with its bizarre metal door and window frames fitted with glass panes and their handles which don’t fit or work properly because they are rusted with age must have been built at the turn of the last century.
The house acts like a cantankerous old aunt – withholding water from the kitchen tap (even when the water pump is switched on!) and refusing to let water flow through the bathroom tap and shower – even when the big water tank in the back yard is full to the brim! She also denies us electricity at her slightest whim – sometimes for ten minutes at a time and sometimes for several hours – but at least once every 24 hours (groan!)
The house is also very eccentric in the way she suddenly drops big stones that crash through the (board) ceilings and smash to pieces on the floor. It’s as if she gets into a temper tantrum and lets fly!
The Head of High School wrote and suggested that we meet for coffee or a light brunch at Aleildin’s (Lebanese) Restaurant mid-morning which was situated close to Marina International School and both our houses. Jordan had a cheese pizza and Rai had a chicken pizza with coke while William had a shawarma and a cappuchino.
We had a really good time catching up with each other. William had had a disastrous experience with his house very similar to ours and regaled us all with really funny tales of how he had stormed off into town to the hardware stores and bought everything he needed to fix his house including hiring the labour he needed since he had no faith in the people that the school provided. He told us that he had already spent a huge amount of dalasis on the renovations which had included paintwork, tiling, electrical wiring & carpentry and said that he was going to claim all his expenses by submitting the receipts on Monday! We laughed at the eccentricities of the Gambian way of life and how KC had been so Africanized that she had imagined that the accommodation that the school had provided us with was perfectly acceptable instead of downright horrible!
William was staying at the Senegambia Hotel which is where we had been a couple of days ago to see the paintings at the African Art Gallery! He had been hoping that the work on his house would have been completed so had checked out of the hotel at noon before he met us. He texted Paul later in the evening to say that he was spending another night at the hotel after all – so obviously the renovations were still ongoing…
Paul is a No: 4 or 5 on the Feelings Meter because he feels unsure of William and of most of the others we have met here as well including KC. I had to admit to him that I was actually a No: 9 – because it was so amazing for me to be in The Gambia!
Sunday 2ndSeptember 2018
I was very keen to attend a church service in The Gambia but it started raining quite hard early morning so I shelved the idea and wrote in my journal instead. However, the day brightened up and I decided to go after all. I called Lamin and went to the Methodist Church in Bakau first but I was an hour too early so I went to a charismatic church called ‘Calvary Community Church’ which I had read about online last night. It was situated in the midst of some slums but was housed in a low-slung building located inside a clean and shady compound. There was a serious Bible study for an hour and then a lively time of praise and worship. I left before the sermon as I had already spent an hour and a half there.
Lamin then took me back to the Bakau Methodist Church by the sea where the service had started at 10:30 am. It was a lovely little well-maintained church building with a small, well-dressed, all-African congregation and a really gifted preacher in the pulpit. You could look through the church windows at the breathtaking vista of green grass sloping down to the blue Atlantic Ocean. Absolutely beautiful!
Next week I think I will attend St Paul’s Anglican Church which is also on the beach off Atlantic Boulevard just down the road from our house although Lamin informed me that more white people go there! I would also like to check out two more charismatic fellowships: Gilead Healing Ministry and Abiding Word Ministries.
As Pastor Tissa Weerasingha used to quip: There are many kinds of hoppers – egg hoppers, milk hoppers, jaggery hoppers…and CHURCH HOPPERS!! I have now officially become a church hopper!
When I returned from my adventure of finding a church that I would like to attend in The Gambia, Paul wanted to collect our house key from the Junior School of MIS and get some clothes from our (still unpacked!) bags stored in the house that he could wear to work tomorrow. So we ordered a vegetable biriyani and a chicken butter masala from Tandoori Nights and went off to see our house. It looked so good we nearly collapsed with the shock of the transformation that had taken place since a mere week ago!
Nearly everything we had detailed in our list of 22 items to be attended to – had been fixed! The place now actually looked habitable for the very first time! Hallelujah!! God is so good to us and I feel so grateful to Him for showering us with so many of His blessings, grace upon grace….
We returned home feeling very happy. Paul went swimming in the evening while Jordan went off to play football on the beach. Rai played Minecraft while I spent the afternoon writing my journal and reading ‘The Last Lecture’ by Randy Pausch which was gifted to me by my new friend Aroshe just before I left for The Gambia.
I am a 9 again on the Feelings Meter because it was truly amazing to meet God’s people for the first time in this country and worship the Lord with my brothers and sisters in Christ in two different churches – wow! What an immense privilege that was!
Monday 3rdSeptember 2018
Paul went off to work for the first time in five years! I stayed at home with the kids and made them scrambled egg for breakfast. Kay called to say that she would pick us up from Riyan Apartments at 12:30 pm to take us to the tailors so that Jordan and Rai’s measurements could be taken for their new school uniforms. We bought the beautiful M.I.S. uniform material (blue tie & dye) and went to see a tailor in a tiny shop across from the school. He has agreed to have two sets of uniforms ready by Saturday and the others by Tuesday.
Kay also took us to the MIS Junior Section where Paul was in his office looking relaxed and happy! He had a very good day in office and met with the two Deputy Heads of the Junior School who talked him through the duty rosters for break times and how often assemblies are held (twice a week). They apparently have a very detailed management structure at the school with several levels of authority so that the school should, in theory, run very smoothly.
Paul’s anxiety over the past week has abated dramatically and he says he is now a No: 9 on the Feelings Meter – hooray!
After we had a breakfast of French bread and ham and cheese, KC returned to transport us to our new home in the suburb of Fajara. We passed Marina International School on the way and popped into the premises to have a look around. It had a lovely open plan area for the classrooms but the place looked forlorn without any students there.
We were then taken to the house that the school had found for us down the next lane, only a stone’s throw away from the school. As we walked in through the gate, the garden looked weird with large parts of the compound cemented and a huge pile of garbage in front of the house. When Paul and I climbed the front steps onto the verandah and then stepped into the cavernous living area, we were both stunned by the state it was in: it looked like an empty warehouse with three settees at one end and a table without chairs at the other. The floor was covered with cement dust and several rooms sprouted out of the main living area seemingly without any rhyme or reason. KC left us soon after showing us around promising to be back the next morning.
The four of us sat down on the settees gloomily surveying the huge amorphous living room and wondering what on earth we were doing there. We slowly discovered through that endless evening and the terrifying night that followed that the front (walk-in) gate came off on its hinges, the front (car) gate did not close easily, the front & back doors could not be locked or even secured in any way because the metal bolts had broken off, there was no running water in either the bathroom tap or the kitchen tap, mosquito mesh only covered the windows on one side of the house, many of the windows around the house could not be closed at all because the old handles had fallen off (and when it rained later that night, the rain beat in through the windows and flooded the floor), there was no light bulb in the kitchen or pantry, the cooker had no numerals on its knobs, the fridge was leaking water and the door would not close so the inside did not cool properly, there were no tables or surfaces for food preparation and no shelves or cupboards for storage in the kitchen area, the gas cylinder was not fixed outside the house as recommended, the water tank was placed on the ground in the backyard and needed a pump to draw the water into the house, there were holes in the ceiling in nearly every room in the house, there were lumps of plaster coming off the half wall in the dining room, there were building materials such as bags of cement piled up inside the house, there was no security as recommended in the form of a night watchman and to cap it all, we were left completely incommunicado because we could not purchase our Africell sim cards since the phone shops were shut on Saturdays…..
Paul declared that it was not a house at all – it was more like a warehouse! So we decided that we would name it the ‘Wacky Warehouse’.
We said to ourselves: this is Africa! And we ate biscuits and peanuts for dinner (because we could not light the cooker) and drank bottles of warm water (because the fridge was not working) and laughed hysterically every time one of us discovered yet another major fault in this unnecessarily large house with its unwieldy doors and windows and its excruciating lack of even the most basic facilities! Jordan complained bitterly about what a crap place it was and Rai nodded in agreement but Paul joked that they would never forget that experience and would someday be able to entertain their kids and stun their grandkids with tales of their first few days in Africa…
That night there was another thunderstorm with pelting rain and rolling thunder and a power cut that lasted three hours. There were three pedestal fans in each of our three bedrooms which had been charged and came on automatically when there was a power outage. However, the heat was still unbearable and I tossed and turned throughout the night checking up on both kids from hour to hour. They, however, showed great courage and extraordinary resilience in the face of what we all considered a disastrous choice of accommodation. They both opted to stay in their own rooms in that strange sprawling spider of a house and remained in their beds even through the storm and the strong winds that blew around the house in the wee hours!
Sunday 26thAugust 2018
I would have loved to go for a Sunday morning church service in this new country and had planned to start by visiting the Methodist Church on the beach in Bakau. However, the very unsatisfactory condition of the house we had been given had to be dealt with first and a course of action decided upon by Paul and me together.
So we had a conference in the morning after brushing our teeth in the thin trickle of water that came out of the kitchen tap. We decided to refuse to stay in that house until all the outstanding problems with it had been dealt with to our satisfaction. I made a list of 22 items that needed to be addressed (to be given to the school) with a copy to keep for ourselves. When KC dropped in later that morning, Paul spoke calmly but firmly to her and she agreed quite readily to move us back to our place at Riyan Apartments until they could solve all our burning issues over the next week.
We quickly threw a few belongings together and she gave us a ride back to the same two-bedroomed apartment (No:13) that we had occupied before. We were so glad to get back to our creature comforts and somehow this time it didn’t matter that there were power cuts several times a day and often through the night because they had generators that started up as soon as the electricity went off and we carried on with our lives regardless. It was so lovely to have Maroun’s Supermarket again next door to us so that we could pop into it on any pretext anytime of day or night right upto 10:00pm!
Monday 27th August 2018
We had scrambled egg, sausage and French bread for breakfast and went off on a tour of Banjul with Lamin in his four-wheel drive. He gave us a guided tour of the sights in the capital city including the court complex, the parliament, the 22 Arch, the museum and the Royal Victoria Hospital. We ended up at Albert Market which I had read about in guide books and online forums but which turned out to be a real disappointment being quite deserted during this tourist off-season period as well as empty of arts and crafts and smelly due to the recent rains. We did, however, manage to negotiate the labyrinthine rows of market stalls and wind up in a remote corner where a couple of sellers of African cotton shirts and blouses sold us three tops for a very good price entirely because of Landing’s superior bargaining powers!
Jordan went for a walk in the late afternoon and didn’t return until 8:00 pm having wandered up to the Senegambia area called ‘The Strip’ and played football on the beach with the local boys until dusk, then walked back to Riyan Apartments taking a long time to return because he had miscalculated the length of time it had taken him to get there. Both Paul and I were repeatedly assured by the local night watchman, the guesthouse receptionist and the workers at Maroun’s supermarket that he would not come to any harm because ‘This is Gambia – it is very safe here!’ Thank God that they were right and Jordan wandered into the premises without a care in the world! Although he has an inaccurate sense of time, I am grateful to the Lord that he has an excellent sense of direction and rarely loses his way ever since he was knee high to a grasshopper!
I am continually amazed by the people of this country. They are so warm and welcoming, so friendly and fun to be with. They are also very good-looking, both men and women. They are refreshingly non-racist and laid back towards foreigners and seem to have a contented ego. They take pride in the fact that they are a peaceful country in a continent marked by savage civil wars and violent terrorism and rabid racial & religious violence.
KC called me in the afternoon and offered me a position as TEFL teacher in the High School of M.I.S. I would be on a local hire so would not be paid much – when we calculated it, it amounted to Rs 35,000/= per month which is a salary that I would not have worked for in Sri Lanka because I would have thought it was just not worth my while! However, I am not so concerned with the pay as with the kind of work it would entail. From my past experience, TEFL teaching can be very boring due to it being conducted one-on-one or in very small groups of two or three students rather than in the more challenging yet much more fun context of teaching a whole class! I would also of course much prefer to work in the Junior School but am open to the Lord’s leading and will gladly do whatever job He wants me to work at. If I am to teach English as a second language, I will need to find some suitable material and resources.
Tuesday 28thAugust 2018
Paul and I woke up early and sat in the living room downstairs drinking tea and watching the sun come up over the Serekunda suburb in bright streaks of colour. Once Jordan and Rai emerged from their bedrooms upstairs, I made fried eggs which we ate with ham, brown bread and garlic bread which we bought yesterday from Maroun’s bakery right next door to us – so very convenient!
Jordan chose to stay at home and we didn’t mind because it’s so very safe here at Riyan Apartments. Paul, Rai and I hopped in a bush taxi – all very old battered cars painted yellow with green stripes running across the bonnet and roof – and went down Bertil Harding Highway turning left at the Traffic Lights junction and proceeding to Malak Pharmacy which didn’t stock the condis crystals and mosquito repellent in any form that I had wanted to purchase.
We then proceeded to the Timbooktoo bookstore which turned out to be tops – woo hoo! They have an amazing range of African literature and a great selection of world literature (including the latest books on online summer reading lists!) as well as an impressive array of non-fiction books. I was able to buy two TEFL teaching books for Beginners that I could use for my work at the High School.
Wednesday 29thAugust 2018
Rai had a bout of diarrhea and vomiting last night so we spent a very quiet day at home at No:13, Riyan Apartments. I was very worried that she was so sick and prayed earnestly to Jehovan Rapha, the Lord our Healer, for His merciful and divine intervention to heal the root cause of Rai’s sickness and return her to His divine health, supernatural strength and the energy of His Holy Spirit. I am so very thankful to Him for sending His word and healing my daughter according to Psalm 107:20. In a foreign land with no access to medical facilities since we are so new here, He stooped down from heaven to hear and heal her so swiftly and surely – may His name be forever praised!
Early morning I asked Champi if she could courier me some packets of condis crystals as the pharmacies here did not stock this item and I do need it to soak my feet in every night. She did an awesome job of buying the condis (as well as some packets of orange flavoured Jeewani!) as well as visiting Dr Senarath in Gam Sabhawa junction in Nugegoda to get a prescription for them (as the DHL office had informed her that they couldn’t accept any medication without a prescription!) and then obtaining our four yellow fever vaccination certificates that I had inadvertently left behind with Jordan & Rai’s medical record books in a transparent file on the second shelf of our wardrobe in the front room of our house.
I also called Natasha on Whatsapp and was grateful that she answered at once and I ws able to ask her to open the lock on our wardrobe and get the file out. She undid the silver chain and key ring (that Paul had locked the almirah with) in no time and Devaka scanned the yellow fever certificates and emailed them to me before she handed them over to Champi at the gate. I received the email immediately and followed Champi’s stream of Whatsapp messages as she hopped in Ariyapala’s three wheeler and raced to the DHL office opposite Keells in Nugegoda. She asked me for my mobile phone number in The Gambia and I was able to answer within seconds – then she sent me a series of photos of the yellow fever certificates (as back up to the emailed copies!) as well as of the postal address on the parcel and the tracking number – all within a few seconds of each other.
Wow! We were both stunned by the immediacy of the action and completely in awe of the amazing technology that enabled such excellent and efficient communication between us from halfway across the world! We thanked and praised God for making human beings in His own image and giving them the brains to come up with such awesome inventions!
DHL had told her that the parcel should arrive in The Gambia by Tuesday 4thSeptember – hooray! My feet feel so happy at this good news!
Rai was happy to have apple juice all day and stay in bed playing Minecraft on the laptop. Paul’s stomach was also not very settled so we relaxed at home and he felt better by afternoon and went for a swim in the evening to the lovely little pool just outside our apartment. Jordan too seemed not to want to go and play football on the beach and stayed instead by the downstairs plug point in the living room all day chatting animatedly to all his friends at the British School in Colombo which had just begun its new academic year. His peers had started Year 10 and were obviously griping about new rules and regulations such as longer school hours which Jordan seemed very happy about since he was no longer in Sri Lanka. I stayed home and had long chats with Rai all day.
Thursday 30thAugust 2018
Jordan and Rai had a breakfast of macaroni and cheese and then we went to the Senegambia Hotel to Top Shop to have a look at the paintings in the African Art Gallery as recommended by KC’s daughter who works as the Receptionist at Riyan Apartments. It is a huge amorphous building but both Paul and I were happy with the paintings – we liked the one with a family of four on one bicycle and a smaller one with a group of Gambians clad in colourful clothes – although they were all priced at a uniform D 8500/= which is very expensive! One Gambian dalasi is roughly about 3.5 times a Sri Lankan rupee!
On the way back we also dropped into a furniture shop to check out prices as we need a bigger wardrobe to hang our clothes. We then dropped by our house which we were pleasantly surprised to see had been done up well and there were workmen busily attending to the repairs we had asked for! I collected another jar of Sudocrem from our luggage there and we then went to N’gala Lodge but were disappointed that this so-called luxury resort on Atlantic Boulevard was being renovated and was therefore just a pile of rubble at the moment. We ended up with getting a takeaway from an Indian restaurant called ‘Tandoori Nights’ – biriyani and a chicken tikka masala which we devoured when we got home – it was really good!
When we got home Paul admitted that he had been only a 5 on the Feelings Meter that morning but that he was now a 9 after seeing the rapid progress that had been made on the house! He would very much like to move into it over the weekend because that meant that he could go into work on Monday morning.
We are wondering whether William Arthur got to Gambia safely after a summer of travelling the world!
Friday 31stAugust 2018
I made noodles which Jordan and Rai had with sausages and cheese for breakfast. We were informed that the carpenter who was working on our kitchen cupboards had gone AWOL so they wanted us to remain at Riyan Apartments for another two days until that was also sorted out for our house.
Jordan went off to play football on the beach with the local Gambian boys whom he now hangs out with and Rai read the book she bought from Timbooktoo and played Minecraft on the family laptop.
The new Head of the High School, William Arthur, emailed Paul to say that he had arrived in The Gambia on August 29thand spent two nights in his house but (like us) had been unhappy with the condition of it and checked into a hotel until renovations were completed. Paul replied asking whether we could meet him tomorrow morning. We both feel for him, that he is going through what we went through when we were first taken to our house.
We left for Bandaranaike International Airport on the stroke of midnight. As we climbed into the Kangaroo van with our 7 pieces of baggage and five items of hand luggage, we were quite surprised and very touched to see our neighbours (who are our extended family) all come down the garden steps to help us load our bags into the vehicle and wish us a safe journey to our unknown destination. I felt sad to say goodbye to my brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews. We sat in gloomy silence as the van sped away into the sultry August night and said our silent farewells to Sri Lanka as Colombo and its suburbs flashed by in a kaleidoscope of brightly lit condominiums and large looming shadows of closed up office buildings.
We arrived at the departure lounge and went through security and check in, then strolled through the harshly lit corridors to collapse onto the seats by the boarding gate, completely exhausted from running around jumping through bureaucratic hoops and a severe lack of sleep over the final frantic days leading upto our departure. I opened the three envelopes that friends and family had pushed into my hands just before we left, asking me to open the letters once I was on the plane.
One long and lovely epistle was from a niece who has a wonderful way with words so that her letter was a real pleasure to read. The other included a laminated copy of the Gambian flag and a photo of both our families together. The final envelope contained a beautiful letter of appreciation and the most amazing amount of money: 500 dollars tumbling out of the envelope as I stared at the notes in complete astonishment. All my friends are generous to the point of extravagance but this gift of love really knocked my socks off! Of course I handed over the notes to Paul who put them in the common family kitty for use in The Gambia should the need arise.
We were soon en route to Doha where Paul and I had both been offered jobs as Head of Primary and Class Teacher of an international school there three years ago but we declined because we felt that we couldn’t place our two tweens in the middle of the desert and expect them to thrive. We sat in the massive, glitzy airport there and watched thousands of people converge on the sweeping halls and lounges with giant floor to ceiling television screens.
After a short transit, we boarded another Qatar Airways plane on a long haul flight to Africa. We flew north of the Arabian peninsula and across the Mediterranean Sea over the Aegean Sea passing just south of Greece – Rai dreams of going there because of her love of the tales of Greek gods & goddesses she imbibed through Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series – and Sicily as we flew over the Adriatic Sea with Italy in the distance – Rai also desires to visit Rome someday as she has also read a lot on Roman gods & goddesses!
Then we were flying over north Africa and landed in Morocco disembarking finally at Mohammed V Airport in Casablanca – what an amazing way for me and the kids to enter Africa for the very first time! Paul and I were thrilled to be in Casablanca because of all its associations with the romantic movie starring Humphrey Bogart & Ingrid Bergman and I played the theme song ‘A Kiss is Not a Kiss’ from the original soundtrack over and over again on my Samsung Galaxy phone during our long transit there.
We were happy to stretch our legs and walk around the airport which we had researched online and read that it was a dump with unhygienic toilets but it turned out to be quite a pleasant place with clean washrooms and even a Starbucks where I was able to get a Cappuchino! Jordan was thrilled to have access to free wifi and spent all his time chatting online with his friends and posting pictures on Instagram. Rai curled up on a seat to read the fantasy novel she had bought from Sarasavi and munched happily on chocolate croissants.
Our flight on a unheard of airline called ‘Royal Air Moroc’ was delayed by an hour with irate passengers demanding to know the reason why and ground staff saying things like ‘The crew is here and ready to fly but the Captain has not yet arrived’. Paul and the kids were as anxious as anybody else to board the plane and finish the last leg of our very long journey but I had visions of a drunken pilot trying to become sober before take off (had read about a Sri Lankan pilot who had flown an aircraft in an inebriated state and was recently charged with criminal negligence) and was in no hurry at all preferring to remain on terra firma for however long it took to have the pilot and the plane completely fit for travel!
When we finally embarked, we were struck by the fact that our fellow passengers were a motely band comprising of mostly black men and women but quite weird in their attire (hippie outfits, dreadlocks, red leather jackets) with a smattering of stranger looking white people (older people with dyed blonde hair). Everyone just sank into slumber soon after boarding with our family, at the tail end of a very long journey crossing three continents, being more exhausted than the others. I had a window seat and kept gazing out at the pitch black night then following the flight path of our plane and praying for the Captain to be in complete control of his mind and body in order to make the best decisions as he flew the plane.
Suddenly I noticed that our flight path was taking us way out over the Atlantic Ocean instead of flying in a straight path from Morocco to The Gambia over the rest of west Africa. I wondered whether it was because there were some countries at war in that region and the plane had to avoid their airspace but still thought it was very odd that the flight path should be so far out to sea. Pressing my nose against the window I peered down and saw the ocean far below illuminated by the flashes of sheet lightning that lit up the sky from time to time. Watching the flight path with much trepidation, and praying with my heart in my mouth, I saw the plane perform a wide arc as it dipped south of The Gambia and came in over the coast of Guinea Bissau before the pilot’s announcement crackled over the speakers ‘Cabin crew, prepare for landing.’ As the plane began its descent, I could see pelting rain and more flashes of lightning but could hear no thunder. We landed in Yumdum Airport in Banjul, the capital of the country at 3:00 am.
Friday 24thAugust 2018
As we staggered off the small plane with our hand luggage and stumbled through the steady rain that was falling from a pitch black sky to a waiting bus to be taken to the small airport terminal, we had reached the limits of our physical endurance. Jordan gamely carried his own backpack as well as the family laptop bag. Rai was asleep on her feet but didn’t complain at all. When we approached Immigration, an official filled in the forms for me and the kids because we were on SL passports with a month’s visit visa obtained for us by the school. Paul had no problems with his British passport. We moved on groggily to collect our baggage and found that all seven pieces had arrived with us against all odds and in answer to fervent prayer – glory to God! Jordan was very helpful being quick to identify and lug off our heavy bags when they came around on the conveyor belt. He also got us the trolleys we needed to put our bags on.
However, when they were being screened, one of our bags was marked and taken to a small closed room and Paul was asked to go and see the official there. When he went in, the officer had greeted him with a big smile and welcomed him to The Gambia.
Officer: I will not open this bag to check it – if you give me some money to enjoy – to buy something to eat and drink.
Paul: (staring at him blankly) What?
Officer: (still smiling broadly) Sir, give me something for me to enjoy and I will let you take the bag.
Paul: (growing increasingly irritated) What do you mean?
Officer: Sir, give me something for me to enjoy.
Paul: (so exhausted that he was not thinking straight & losing his temper) So you want me to bribe you?
Officer: No, Sir, just something for me to buy food and drink.
Paul: (very loudly) You want me to give you a bribe, do you?
Officer: No, Sir, no bribe! It’s okay – you can take your bag and leave now.
Paul told me afterwards that he was getting ready to give the fellow some small amount of money thinking that it was inevitable in the end, but the man was apparently embarrassed by Paul’s accusation and got rid of him hurriedly.
Meanwhile I waited by the rest of our bulky baggage with the kids. Two porters sidled up and began to chat to us obviously looking for a tip. We were met by a driver called Lamin who brought the original copy of our SL visit visa and sorted things out with the Immigration officials in an inner room.
We walked out into the drizzle and crossed the rain slicked tarmac of the car park to his battered Pajero jeep. He drove us through a silent Banjul and across the lively and crowded suburb of Senegambia where people who had partied all night celebrating Haj that week were just returning home at 4 o’ clock in the morning. We drove into Serekunda and Lamin stopped in front of a dimly lit building bearing the name ‘Riyan Apartments’. A tall young Gambian strode out of the main entrance and helped Lamin carry our many pieces of luggage through the foyer with its beautiful African oil paintings and through a small wet garden into a cosy and comfortable two-bedroomed apartment in a row of townhouses. We dumped our bags in the living room and ran upstairs to shower and dry ourselves on clean white towels. Falling gratefully into beds with soft white sheets and fluffy pillows, we sank into a peaceful and prolonged slumber that lasted most of the next morning. It was sheer bliss to come out of the muggy night and sleep in A/C comfort with a ceiling fan that spun the cool air in circles around us!
The next morning we drew back the curtains and were thrilled to see a lovely little swimming pool right outside our building with bright tropical flowers growing in the garden and the blue skies of Gambia arching over us.
We were also delighted to walk out of our building and find that Maroun’s, the best supermarket in the country, was located right next door to our guesthouse! Paul was so excited to see British products like Fray Bentos steak and kidney pies on the shelves. Since The Gambia became a tourist destination for Brits in recent times, the Lebanese supermarket chain imports goods from the UK according to British tourist demand. The bakery had the most delicious French and garlic bread as well as packets of fresh naan. There were different kinds of cheese, ham and sausages and a fresh meat section with chicken, beef and lamb for sale. There were also treats such as crisps and cola cans and chocolates that Jordan and Rai enjoyed snacking on through the next few days.
We had fresh bread and delicious butter and two different kinds of cheese and ham for brunch washed down with Tetley’s tea (ahem!) for Paul and me and with apple juice for Jordan and Rai. The Head of Admin at the school, KC, came to visit us in the afternoon and told us how she had been sleepless the night before as she watched the flight path of the plane we were on, knowing that a terrible thunderstorm over west Africa was the reason why the pilot had been compelled to steer the plane away from the African mainland and in a wide arc over the Atlantic Ocean going as far south as Guinea Bissau in order to avoid the adverse weather conditions and approach Gambia from the south west.
We were dumbstruck to hear this news which later drove me to my knees in thanksgiving to God for His divine intervention at that point in time when we might so easily have been driven off course by the storm or been forced to make an emergency landing. He had worked through the Captain of the plane (whom the passengers had maligned so badly and blamed so much for the flight delay) to land us safely at Banjul airport! I recalled with deep gratitude the Lord’s reima word to me from Psalm 100 before we departed from Sri Lanka: ‘I will protect you from all harm. I will watch over your life. I will watch over your coming in and your going out from this time forth and even forever more’.