High and Dry

26th February 2019

Life has been quite challenging over the past few days with the water supply in our Bakau area becoming erratic and then completely non-existent since about three days ago. So it’s back to filling up buckets and hauling water through to the bathroom and kitchen, washing dishes with a limited amount of water and rationing the water available for baths.

Paul and I find it very demoralising during the course of the week but weekends are much better because we don’t have to get into work at a particular time and life is that much more relaxed.

Rai checking out our mains tap for the nth time!

As I have mentioned in my posts written in November, the lack of water is the only reason that we might re-consider our decision to remain in The Gambia. So I guess it’s a good thing that Paul’s sister and her husband have decided to seize the day and visit us here at the beginning of March. We may very well not be here much longer if the water situation spirals out of control as it did in November when our area had no water from the mains for a whole month (due apparently to what locals here call ‘vandalism’ – although we have no idea what exactly they mean by that since we have not seen any evidence of people having dug up pipelines for the sheer heck of it!

Although Paul and William have had to deal with Board members and the management as well as parents, for me the only thing that ever gets me down is the lack of running water in the house. So I’m not very happy right now and am hoping against hope that the water supply from NAWEC will be re-established soon.

William has been simply brilliant being ever so supportive and sharing excellent advice about how to ensure a steady water supply by obtaining another water tank and two much more powerful water pumps (since our water pump broke about two weeks ago). We were thrilled when the pumps filled up our water tank within minutes the last time we had water from the mains! That was a few days ago but since then we have not got any water from the mains so the two water tanks stand absolutely empty now.

Two empty 1000 litre tanks in our backyard – all dressed up but nowhere to go!

They actually remind us of seeing parents coming to drop off and pick up their children from school because they’re all dressed to the nines. Paul and I laugh about it saying ‘All dressed up and nowhere to go!’ (which is a reference to the fact that The Gambia has very little in the form of entertainment – i.e. – no cinemas, theatres, museums or art exhibitions etc).

However, this bunch of happy high schoolers keep me going when life gets me down with the severe lack of water.

These are some of my Form 4 students who are taking English as a Second Language for their IGCSEs. They are mostly Gambian with the exception of one west African (Nigerian) and one Lebanese student.

Jordan Unplugged

22nd February 2019

Beach Bumsters

When we first arrived in The Gambia in the last week of August 2018, we stayed in a serviced two-bedroom townhouse at Riyan Apartments in the Senegambia district.

No sooner had the jet lag brought on by an exhausting 30 hour journey flying halfway across the world (Colombo – Doha – Casablanca – Banjul) worn off than Jordan, our home grown Indiana Jones, started exploring the Atlantic beach front of our immediate neighbourhood in this new country on this hitherto unknown continent.

Happy go lucky beach boys play drums and chill on the beaches of The Gambia

Within hours he had made friends with the beach boys who roamed the Senegambia strip and after that spent every afternoon and evening of the next two weeks in their company. They are called ‘beach bumsters’ in The Gambia and frowned upon by society here – an attitude that is not unlike our Sri Lankan disapproval of the beach boys in our southern coastal towns.

However, this is The Gambia where even the ‘no good’ boys who try to eke out a living by selling things (including their bodies) to foreign tourists are actually a harmless and good-natured bunch of young men. I recall becoming frantic once when Jordan didn’t return to Riyan Apartments by nightfall and I became convinced that he had been kidnapped (or even worse) by one of the beach bumsters none of whom we had ever met. He turned up at nine o’ clock at night munching on a tapalapa (French bread stuffed with corned beef, egg & onion) saying that he was sorry he was late but that he had been invited to a beach party by them and had waited until his bumster friend Musa was able to walk him back home to us down the dark lane leading up to the main road from the beach.

Even after we finally moved into our place (the Wacky Warehouse) in Bakau which is quite a distance away from Senegambia, Jordan still insisted on visiting his bumster friends to play football on the beach with them during the weekends. Whenever I called him on the phone to check if he was okay, I would always hear loud reggae music in the background. He also developed a love for Gambian street food by hanging out with them and was able to introduce us to the delights of traditional dishes such as ‘Benachin’ and ‘Domoda.’

Musa was the leader of the gang and was the self-appointed ‘carer’ of our Jordan who we found out used to sometimes go in the sea with them. I freaked out when I first heard of it because I just didn’t trust the Atlantic ocean the way I did the Indian ocean but realised that that was completely illogical so I took a deep breath and trusted in God to take care of our son instead. He was certainly keeping his guardian angels busy in those days.

Our friend William once walked down the beach with Jordan to meet the beach boys and reported that they were all much older than him (being in their twenties) and that they were all smoking cigarettes (which are obscenely inexpensive in The Gambia!) as well as weed.

We became very anxious at that and spoke to Jordan about our concerns. He admitted to us that he was often offered ganja by them but he assured us that he was aware of the risks of taking drugs and would not harm his own health by using them.

To their lasting credit, Jordan’s bumster friends never laid a hand on him throughout the time he spent in their company and we gave him extra money on his birthday in November (which fell on a Friday) so that he could treat them to some dinner at a beach restaurant.

By the end of November, however, Jordan met one of our immediate neighbours, Kenny, who became a very good friend of his and, much to our relief, by December he had completely stopped going to Senegambia beach to meet his bumster friends.

Best Buddies

Kenny is the son of a Swedish father and a Sierra Leonean mother which probably accounts for his good looks. He turned seventeen in January. He lives three doors away from us and grew up in The Gambia so is able to speak the local language Wolof as fluently as he does English. He had dropped out of school by the time we met him and was waiting to go abroad to seek his fortune in Sweden or elsewhere.

Jordan and Kenny got on like a house on fire and we were glad that JJ had finally found a friend who was also a neighbour – something both Paul and I remember from growing up in the 60s & 70s when our neighbours were our childhood and teen friends and we were in and out of each other’s houses. This is an experience that Jordan and Rai have not really had either in Brunei or Sri Lanka. So we were happy that Jordan and Kenny developed this neighbourhood friendship with Kenny dropping in daily at our place and Jordan sleeping over at his during the weekends.

However, Kenny’s longtime dream of seeing his mother again came true when he flew off to meet her in Germany last week where she has been for the past eight years since she and his father split up. He is also hoping to pursue further studies to get a diploma while he is there.

Jordan really misses his best buddy but doesn’t seem to miss a beat when it comes to making friends. He is now hanging out with a Marina schoolmate and is spending the mid-term break at his house in the Sukuta suburb of Gambia.

Junior is an intelligent, well-mannered student & a good friend to Jordan

He also recently made two new friends from another international school here and has fun playing football with them in the afternoons in the open grassy fields that you find here (like it used to be in SL when we were young!) as well as playing pool at a nearby restaurant in the evenings.

Jordan the eternal extrovert with new friends James and Alhagie…
Kim, Charley, Jordan (J-Boy) and Alhagie (Ala-Boy) on a Saturday night

So although he wouldn’t dream of giving us the satisfaction of admitting that his social life has blossomed after coming here, he is obviously in his element in The Gambia.

This is the only country we know where teenagers seem to have the freedom to walk around at night feeling completely safe and sit in a restaurant all night for the price of a D300 pizza using their high speed internet to play computer games and return home in the early hours!

On New Year’s Eve Jordan and Kenny and their friends went to Senegambia beach to watch the fireworks and party – and returned home at 6 o’ clock in the morning. I has taken the precaution of asking him to stay overnight at Kenny’s place – but had no idea that they would stay out all night. They apparently walked around the area soaking in the cool vibes and then began walking home at 4:00 am taking two hours to get back to Bakau where we live.

I was taken aback by the fact that they had been out all night and put it down to Jordan’s ‘party animal’ outlook on life (he wants to go from one event to another and cannot bear the thought of calling it a night as long as there are others still around him!) albeit thankful that I had not waited up for him!

So imagine my surprise when we returned to school at the beginning of January and I asked my Form 4 students to write me a letter about how they spent their Christmas break. They (both boys and girls) all wrote detailed descriptions about the fun they had had on New Year’s Eve walking the streets of Senegambia and returning home only in the morning!!! When questioned about whether it was safe to do that, they all looked at me wide-eyed and assured me that it most definitely was because the area was patrolled by the police.

In fact, expat colleagues (from Nigeria and Sierra Leone) who work with me at the High School have told me that a few years ago, you could leave your front door open and walk to the market and nobody would ever dream of entering your house. According to them, things have changed since then and you cannot be that indiscreet! The tourist guide books still say that The Gambia has no burglaries and the only way you may have money stolen from you is only if you insist on returning home dead drunk at 3 o’ clock in the morning along a lonely beach with your purse hanging from your finger tips! Utopia – or what???!!!

Jordan’s newest friends Seedy & Fathar in their abayas visiting him after Friday prayers

Mid-Term Break

13th February 2019

It was Mufti day at the High School and Rai chose to pay D 10/= and wear jeans & T-shirt with trainers to school today. The ten dalasis went towards Operation Touch a Life Club which was collecting money for charity. They also sold flowers and sweets to raise money during the two break times and Rai had fun stuffing herself with brownies and candy floss!

In the lane outside our house about to set off to school

14th February 2019

Paul gave me the most beautiful Valentine’s Day card with a cup of tea this morning. What a wonderful way to start our five-day half-term holiday!

He later gave me two slabs of my favourite Swiss chocolate: one white and one dark – very symbolic – hehe……

15th February 2019

We had the property we rent sprayed to keep out bugs and had to vacate the premises due to the pungent smell and being advised not to breathe in the unhealthy fumes. So we had a quick breakfast and left the house with Francis our Night Watchman supervising Christopher the Maintenance man from Marina School as he sprayed the verandah and garden. 

Chris – getting ready to spray our compound with an evil-smelling anti-bug concoction that he says should last for the next six months

We went to the Junior School and I backed the pieces of work that my Form 2 class had done over the past several weeks including leaflet & newspaper report writing. Then Paul and Rai helped me mount their work on two display boards in one of the High School classrooms that I use. The result was quite amazing against the rather sterile and often quite bleak environment created by the old school buildings with damaged bits to them and graffiti from a previous era scrawled across the walls. 

Rai and I went to our favourite family restaurant – Mama’s – and she ordered chicken domoda while I had butter fish and chips. I am sitting on a cane chair at one of their outdoor tables balancing my Mac on my lap and writing this while waiting for the waitress/ chef Aisha to produce her masterpieces for lunch.

We walked back home along the gloriously empty sandy stretches of country lanes that criss cross our Fajara neighbourhood. The perennial sunshine of the Gambia and the cool breezes typical of this time of year make us feel so blessed to be here. 

Yet a couple of hours after we returned home, the daily power cut kicked in and lasted for more than an hour which is unusual and a few minutes after the electricity was restored, there was another power outage much to Rai’s annoyance who has shown a lot of patience all day waiting to watch her allotted 5 hours of TV (on weekends and holidays – and 3 hours on school nights) and had just settled down to watch a movie on Fox. 

So the joys of living here are inextricably mixed with bitter disappointments – just like in life itself – so Paul and I are not unhappy that our kids are getting to experience a slice of reality in Africa – especially because they are part of a generation of millenials who have grown up with a strong feeling of entitlement – during a time of their lives (in their early teens) in which they still sometimes act as if they are God’s gift to humankind.

A delicious coolness pervaded the country in the early mornings and at night during the middle of January (making it feel like being in Nuwara Eliya except without the gloomy grey clouds and incessant rain – in the Gambia the crisp cold is always accompanied by cloudless blue skies and brilliant sunshine!) That short spell of beautiful weather has, however, been overtaken by warm days that people tell us is really unusual for this season. Last year the near perfect weather had lasted from December/ January up until the month of May!

Although the local yokels complain, the four of us are not affected at all since we are used to Sri Lankan heat and the temperatures these days are lower than in SL.

And anyway there’s always imported ice cream (in the supermarkets) and local frozen yogurt (sold by a parent after school) as a delicious means of beating the heat!

A surprisingly clean and shiny bush taxi…….

Jordan hopping a bush taxi from the bottom of our lane to go to the gym where he trains every afternoon!

16th February 2019

We spent a quiet day at home doing decadent things like watching telly in our pyjamas and munching on unhealthy snacks all day long instead of eating proper meals. It was fun!

Jordan had spent the night at the home of one of his Marina School classmates staying up all night gaming at his place and sleeping until afternoon. He came home with a bunch of 15 year olds from another international school here (SBEC), did a quick change and left with them to play pool in a restaurant nearby. His life is one big round of socialising with a motley assortment of teenagers and Paul says he only views us as an ATM where he can get money to fund his social life!

Fortunately local life is basic here so that you can get to anywhere in the city and suburbs in a bush taxi that charges only 8 dalasi for the ride. Food is also very reasonable and you can buy a large pizza for D300; rice and chicken/ fish dish or a beef shawarma for D100 while street food is very cheap indeed: a sweet bun is D10 and a fish patty or a foot long French bread stuffed with omelette or corned beef or chocolate spread (Jordan’s favourite!) will only cost you D20-30/=

A turn at playing pool costs D50 and restaurants with high speed internet let you stay all night if you buy a D300 pizza! So our Jordan is a happy bunny having fun on Friday and Saturday nights with his friends in The Gambia.

School nights he is of course not allowed to go out with friends so he makes the most of the weekends! We are glad that the cost of living allows us to give him D300 for a week’s pocket money and he is able to manage with that amount although it doesn’t stop him from trying it on and, like Oliver Twist, asking for more.

17th February 2019

Paul and I woke up late this morning and had our usual cuppa sitting on the doorstep of the back verandah. It was a picture perfect day – all brilliant blue skies and the sun shining through the green bamboo trees. Really gorgeous weather here this time of year – cold and crisp – just like in Nuwara Eliya although without its grey skies and constant drizzle – thank goodness!

Paul cleared the back garden and set up two flower beds where he hopes to plant some vegetables. However, it all depends on the water supply!

I washed, dressed and went off to church – this time to the Nigerian charismatic fellowship called ‘Redeemed Christian Church of God’ which a couple of (Nigerian) colleagues in the English Dept attend. They attend the main church in town but I didn’t want to ride in a taxi so I went to the local branch which is just down the road from us.

On the way there I met two delightful boys – Samba (‘call me Messi because I’m going to become a footballer like Lionel Messi’) and Kemu who were yapping at a dog by the wayside and I joined them. It was fun!

Samba & Kemu who dream of becoming football stars

The notice board outside the small building that housed the church declared that the service started at 9:00 am and although I was a full hour late (thanks to my dog impersonations with my two young friends in the street), worship was still in full swing for a good 30 minutes afterwards! The singing and dancing was simply breathtaking as always.

I was the only newcomer today – and with an embarrassingly lighter skin tone than everyone else gathered there – I think I now know what Paul feels like when he says he feels like a white dot on a black domino when he walks around Nugegoda town! They sang me a welcome song and after the first verse, they all filed down the aisle and came up to me and shook my hand – even the little kids – it was so heartwarming!

Afterwards we hopped a bush taxi and went to Luigi’s Italian restaurant famous for its pizza. Rai and I shared a full English breakfast and got a ‘Gambian Feast’ pizza as a takeaway. It was the first time we had gone there and found the food to be delicious.

Luigi’s – An up market restaurant by Gambian standards

A full English breakfast
They had some entertaining captions hung around the restaurant

It was a glorious Sunday morning and afternoon but when we came home in the evening we found that our water tank was still empty (we hadn’t heard the water from the mains filling it last night) and the water we had collected in our emergency containers was running pretty low. Aaaarrrggghhh!

This is Africa – always brilliantly colourful but sometimes catastrophic!

18th February 2019

Today disaster has struck again – we woke up to find no water in the taps! We had been expecting the tank to fill up with water from the mains through the night. On closer inspection Paul realised that there was still water trickling in from the road tap but this time it is our water pump that is not working! We have running water in our kitchen and bathroom taps only when we switch the water pump on but since the pump seems to have packed up, we haven’t had any water in the taps for two days now.

Paul filled up our buckets of water from the garden tap and carried them into the bathroom and kitchen. I washed the dishes and cleaned the kitchen surfaces. We have to contact a plumber to have a look at the whole system in this house which has gone to rack and ruin since it hadn’t been inhabited for many years before the school rented it for us.

The scarcity of water is the only thing that really brings me down here in the Gambia. I’m feeling cheerful though as I look forward to tomorrow when school starts again after the mid-term break.

Technology in a Time Warp

17th February 2019

The Gambia has a bizarre and really fascinating mix of old-fashioned practices and modern technology in its day to day life.

So we were stunned by cutting edge customer service like banks producing ATM cards with all your personal details within ten minutes of you applying for one and routers that you can buy over the counter from any service provider that fit snugly into the palm of your hand or a woman’s small purse.

Router on exercise book next to my glasses to give a sense of proportion
Up Close & Personal: The Pocket Sized Gamcell Router

On the other hand, most shops and supermarkets here do not accept debit or credit cards so you have to pay for most things with hard cash and are therefore forced to walk around with bulky wads of 100 or 200 dalasi notes since denominations greater than that do not exist!

Also you are compelled to wait until your internet package completely runs out before you can pay the next monthly instalment which means that even though the service provider is open 24/7 (they have to be – with a daft regulation like that!) – if you can’t make it to the service provider on the exact date that your internet finishes, then you have to do without wifi until you can find a convenient time to drop by their office and pay for the package. How archaic!

However, you do have the immense convenience of paying for your TV connection by dialling up a number on your phone – so the minute your television stops working at home, you merely punch the required numbers on it and put in credit from your phone’s mobile data – and voila! Your TV is back on again – how cool is that?!It’s really, really cheap too.

It is incredible to see the strange and wondrous ways in which this tiniest of countries in this huge continent of Africa has been transformed from what it was just twenty years ago: no more than a cluster of small fishing villages on the Atlantic coast – into a modern nation and a fully fledged democracy adopting new technological innovations with dizzying speed! The Gambia has broken through the straitjacket of its age-old tribal traditions and oppressive colonial past to claw its way into the twenty first century with tremendous energy and determination.

Extra Curricular Activities

16th February 2019

Marina School now offers a wide variety of extra curricular activities after school and I do Drama Club on Wednesdays with some energetic and enthusiastic First, Second & Third Formers.

Paul and I cuddling Leroy who is the adorable grandson of one of my English Department colleagues and meeting two more lovely offspring of another colleague while attending the High School Cross Country event in early February.

Three of my English Department colleagues from Sierra Leone and Nigeria moving to the beat. On the far left is Leroy’s glamorous grandma!

Form 3 sitting for a maths test all togged up in resplendent reds and pulsating pinks on Valentine’s Day which was also declared to be a Mufti Day because Operation Touch a Life Club wanted to collect D10 from every student who chose to wear coloured clothes in order to fund their social service project.

Fun times in Fajara

9th February 2019

We live in a suburb of Banjul, the capital city of The Gambia, in a district called Fajara. It’s a beautiful neighbourhood of blue skies and white sandy lanes that criss cross each other under towering flamboyant trees.

The sandy lane alongside our house (behind grey gate on left) leads to the Atlantic Ocean

There is very little traffic here so the silence that lies over the area is only broken in the mornings by the plaintive bleating of a flock of goats passing by or the crowing of a rooster in the distance. In the evenings the mullah’s call to prayer sometimes echoes from a mosque in the neighbourhood and you occasionally hear drums beating at night if there is a party or a wedding celebration.

Early morning view from our front verandah: The heavens pour forth speech………

Jordan and his friend Kenny strolling along the sandy lanes of Fajara bringing back memories of a childhood and adolescence spent walking the gravel lanes of suburbia growing up with my brothers and cousins in Nugegoda in the sixties and seventies.

Sauntering through adolescence…..

These bright orange flowers have blossomed overnight to smother the entrance to Marina International Junior School which is only a five-minute walk away from where we live.

View of the Junior School from Paul’s office

Paul, Rai and I often spend time at the Junior School during the weekends brightening it up with lots of displays. This is one of our efforts!

This is Mama’s Restaurant – a hippie hang out in our neighbourhood & a family favourite

We drop in at Mama’s at least once a week. It is an open-air cafe and bar set in a big garden with spreading trees and has a lovely laid back atmosphere by day and night.

Paul and his friend William have a beer here and Rai and I drop in for fish and chips

In the neighbourhood is also this run-down place on the verge of collapse……

Obviously once a backpackers’ paradise – this caption over their doorway makes us laugh

Haves and Have Nots

2nd February 2019

Gambians are a warm and friendly people who go out of their way to welcome strangers into their hearts and homes. Our friends and colleagues at school were therefore genuinely shocked to learn that we have not yet been met by the landlady of the house we live in (a.k.a. the Wacky Warehouse) which the school rented for us before we arrived here. They informed us that she was obviously very “un-Gambian”!!

The Walled Fortress: huge gates behind which our landlady lives in solitary splendour
Typical African Compound: housing several bungalows where middle class families live
Bottom of the Food Chain: corrugated tin huts where the poor huddle together
Little kids from nearby slum dwellings live and play on the sandy lanes outside