Christmas in West Africa

Friday 28thDecember 2018

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.

Form 2 buddies in the playing field

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.

End of Term – Mufti Day & Party Time with my First Formers!

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! 

Our first Gambian Father Christmas!

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!  

The big screen TV that the four of us gifted ourselves with for Christmas 2018

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!

Maimuna who makes the most delicious pepper chicken and crab kebabs in the world!

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.             

We Survived Three Months

24thNovember 2018

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!

Henry Caring’s brother gave Paul his first haircut in The Gambia!

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!   

Bringing Christmas memories of another donkey trudging to Jerusalem with its precious load

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 choristers leaving the church after communion service – the singing was beautiful!

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!  

Birthday Boy with his Special Guest

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!