Good Friday

19th April 2019

I spent a lovely day remembering Amma on her tenth death anniversary today – can’t believe it’s been a whole decade since she left us to go home to the Lord. I listened to her favourite hymn by Hillsong: ‘Above All’ which was also sung at her funeral – it’s a really beautiful song.

I was also keen to attend a Good Friday service at a Catholic Church since I have never really done the Stations of the Cross in a church in Sri Lanka. I took a bus to Bakau and wandered into the poetically named ‘Star of the Sea’ church but found that they didn’t have a service there. So I walked back and decided to catch a bus in the opposite direction to Serrekunda where I thought I might find another Catholic Church.

However, St Therese Catholic Church was in Westfield which I had to walk to – but it was well worth the effort!

A basic structure but crowds flocked to it in the blazing sun at high noon
The masses do come to their Masses – they came in their hundreds!

A Sierra Leonean colleague called Sombo had told me that in her church (Methodist) they all wore green on Good Friday – not black or white as in the Anglican Church – so not having the requisite coloured clothes to wear, I approached St Therese Catholic Church with some trepidation. I was therefore greatly relieved to see that people had come dressed in a variety of colourful clothes: men in long trousers & shirts mostly but women in long Africana dresses with matching head ties, long skirts & blouses, western style dresses with Muslim style head scarves and of course jeans & T shirts.

Communion was served while the choir sang haunting Wolof hymns

They did not do the Stations of the Cross but the service was beautiful in spite of me not being able to understand a word: the congregation was made up of a wide cross-section of rich and poor as well as young and old; the worship was uplifting and communion was served in such an orderly almost elegant manner, it was a real blessing to be there.

I simply couldn’t resist taking a photo of this devoted Catholic sporting a T shirt with these words…..

The Price of Progress

16th April 2019

These are photos of peaceful country lanes and sandy shortcuts that lead from our house to Marina school. They are now being dug up by huge excavators under a recent government road construction project.

Once a quiet lane with a ‘bantaba’ we passed on our walk to and from school

A ‘bantaba’ is a place under a spreading tree where local people sit on battered chairs or benches and sip their ‘attaya’ (plain tea with lots of sugar boiled on small open fires and poured from one tiny glass to another repeatedly until frothy and then sipped slowly with a glazed look of bliss on the face!) while catching up with the neighbourhood gossip, the latest football scores and Gambian politics.

Both Paul and I loved the Wolof name ‘bantaba’ from the moment we heard it because it relates so closely to the English spelling ‘banter bar’ – which is actually what a Gambian ‘bantaba’ is….!

When we first got here, Paul would laugh and say ‘There seems to be a lot of sitting around under trees and doing nothing here…’ It is delightful to see people doing that actually – such a relaxed way of life! When I mentioned that to my (mainly Sierra Leonean, Ghanaian and Nigerian) colleagues, they all chuckled and said that there was one thing for sure: no Gambian was ever going to die of high blood pressure!

Marina Junior School has a lovely ‘bantaba’ too (right in front of Paul’s office) with colourful picnic benches under a huge shady tree in front of the canteen where the kids sit and chat while having their snacks and drinks.

A sandy lane along which school kids dawdled on their way to school – now dug up!

Being an incurable romantic, I am sad that the atmosphere of a serene neighbourhood of sandy lanes will change with the introduction of tarred roads. Although there is still very little motor traffic here and the tarred roads will only have cars on them bringing kids to Marina in the morning and picking them up in the afternoons, it is still the end of an era and I am already nostalgic for the peaceful past.

The new tarred road will also pass in front of Marina International School…..

I have been teasing Paul that he and William would get (undeserved) recognition for having got the road in front of the school tarred after more than fifty years of it being in existence. Neither of them of course had anything to do with it – it was simply a coincidence that the government decided to tar these particular roads – but nevertheless they will both get the kudos for the new road construction.

In fact, a couple of parents came in to see Paul a few days ago to thank him for getting the road done – and in spite of his protests that it wasn’t actually he who had got it done, they still thanked him profusely and went on their way!

So you see, ‘greatness has been thrust upon him’!!

A Timely Trade Fair

15th April 2019

The annual Gambian Trade Fair is held at the Independence Stadium in Bakau just a stone’s throw away from our house and lasts all day and night over the space of three weeks. It has provided endless hours of entertainment for our whole family over this short Easter break.

Women – like Fatima – form the vast majority of stall holders
They often leave their stalls unattended – and no one steals anything!
The Predictable: Clothes and footwear at very reasonable prices!
And the Unpredictable: Quacks selling magic potions to gullible customers made us laugh!

The entrance ticket costs only 25 dalasi each (i.e. – Rs 85/=) and once you enter there are rows of white tents stretching into the distance on both sides of you housing stalls selling everything from T-shirts to batik cloth, gardening tools to costume jewellery, electrical goods to bamboo craftwork, woven rugs to herbal remedies – you name it, they’ve got it!

Jordan has of course been there since day one and knows the place like the back of his hand now. He goes with a different gang of friends every day and stays there until the wee hours of the morning! I was frantic for his safety on the first couple of nights but have since learned to trust his excellent social skills and his assessment of risk in a given cultural context.

The Gambia really is an almost insanely crime-free country and our neighbourhood is a very safe one which people (even young teenagers) can walk through without fear any time of day or night. I feel so grateful that Jordan and Rai can experience a way of life like this which gives young people such freedom to grow up in.

Rai and I strolled through the trade fair about a week after it started and enjoyed exchanging small talk and having a laugh with the vendors who have come from all parts of the country to sell their wares here. I was thrilled to see some African clothing that I hadn’t seen before even in the more touristy areas and was happy to buy a few gifts for our nearest and dearest. Rai was ecstatic to find a pair of shoes that she’s been gagging to buy for over a year now but couldn’t find until now.

Paul was also overjoyed to find some gardening tools there that he has been wanting to buy for several weeks now – ever since he decided to dig up a corner of our backyard to make a vegetable patch.

Although we did toy with the idea of visiting neighbouring Senegal over this holiday, we gave it up after we had to dip into our savings to buy our air tickets to return to the UK (Paul) and SL (the kids and me) in the summer.

The trade fair was perfectly timed and has given us the chance to have lots of fun over our two-week holiday.

Bits & Bobs

Friday 12th April 2019

I have spent the first few days of my Easter break eating, reading and sleeping – somehow I felt exhausted when we closed for the holidays.

Thank goodness for the Marina High School library which has a great selection of African literature! I finished all the African classics on the shelves by January this year and am now reading a section of less well-known and much younger writers from across the continent.

Saturday 13th April 2019

I miss the ‘nonagatha’ period of the old year being celebrated in Sri Lanka right now and the great sense of anticipation that is felt in the country as the new year approaches. I also miss my colleagues at Marina High School but feel too lethargic to go into town so am mooching around the house reading my novel and surfing the net instead.

Palm Sunday 14th April 2019

I woke up feeling lazy but was determined to attend a Palm Sunday service. I decided against going to the charismatic Redeemed Christian Church of God that I usually attend and walked instead to the small church by the sea called St Paul’s Anglican Church and was not disappointed when they gave us each a palm branch to wave and the choir sang beautifully plus they also served communion. So I was right in thinking that nobody does Palm Sunday better than the Anglicans!

Now I have to decide which fellowship of believers I will join on Good Friday and then on Easter Sunday: Bakau Methodist Church, Glory Baptist Church or the Catholic Church evocatively called the ‘Star of the Sea’ – all within walking distance of where we live – how convenient is that?!! I consider it an immense privilege to have such a range of venues and congregations from which to choose to worship God here in The Gambia even though it has a predominantly Muslim population ( nearly 95% are Islamic!)


End of Term Blues

8th April 2019

The Across the Board Tests and the Mid Year Examinations are all done and dusted – finally! It’s nearly the end of the second term at Marina International and the children are on Cloud Nine now that exams are over and they are able to let off steam after a hectic three months of hard work.

And who can blame him? Sometimes exam questions can be SO confusing!

This school is quite old-fashioned to the extent that it gives such extreme priority to exams and doing well academically with teaching practice based on archaic principles like employing ‘setting’ to group students according to their level of ability – something I can’t even recall ever experiencing in my childhood back in the sixties in Ceylon, let alone in the years and decades that followed after I became a teacher. I have always taught mixed-ability classes and consider that to be the most realistic as well as the most effective categorisation of pupils in order to maximise their learning.

However, it has been an uphill struggle to convince other teaching colleagues who do agree with me on principle but are reluctant to change the methods they’ve been using for years and years at Marina.

Anyway, end-of-term deadlines have been met and all those (oh so important!) marks and grades have been entered online and reports emailed to the parents. The term ends with the usual Parent-Teacher Consultation Day on Thursday April 11th.

After that there will be a two-week break and school resumes for the third and final term soon after Easter.

It amazes me that we are about to complete two academic terms here! It’s hard to imagine how we survived these past seven months in The Gambia.

Paul and I were toying with the idea of going over the border to Senegal for a short holiday but gave up the idea after we had to dip into our savings to buy our air tickets back to the UK (Paul) and to Sri Lanka (the kids and I) over the upcoming summer holiday.

So it’ll be another quiet stay-at-home break and I will miss the company of my English Department colleagues! I have, however, decided to use the time to edit my manuscript over those two weeks – something I had planned to do during the Christmas break but failed due to sheer lack of self-discipline!

Fire Brigade to the Rescue!

7th April 2019

Serrekunda Fire Engine roars down the sandy lanes of our sleepy neighbourhood……..

No, there was no raging fire and no cats stuck in tall tree branches. They only came to fill up the two water tanks in our backyard because one of the giant diggers preparing the road near Marina School for tarring had accidentally ripped up the pipeline thereby rendering us without water from the mains for the last several days.

A band of firefighters use the fire hose to fill up the empty 1000 litre tanks

Penda poses proudly as one of a hundred new recruits to the Fire Department and representing the Gambian government’s recent attempt to provide equal opportunities for women in previously male-dominated spheres of work.

A Sharp Learning Curve

6th April 2019

Jordan lost his mobile phone exactly two weeks ago. He was out with his friends on a Saturday night in Senegambia where they usually hang out in one of the many restaurants on the Strip until the wee hours of the morning. Gambia is unusually peaceful and safe for young people at night. It was maybe too safe really – lulling him into a false sense of security even when among strangers.

Anyway what happened was that a (17-year-old) ‘friend of a friend’ of his was involved in a case of under-age driving and had a minor accident close to where they were. So they went over to see how he was and support him when the police arrived and towed the car away. This friend had claimed that he didn’t have enough credit on his own iPhone and had asked to borrow Jordan’s Samsung with which he made several calls to his family and friends.

So far so good. After all the red tape, they had all gone back to the restaurant and had some shawarma to eat. While they were there, however, the 17 year old youth had told them that he was just nipping around the corner to buy some mobile data but as he was stepping out, he had asked Jordan if he could lend him his phone to make a quick call. Jordan let him take his cell phone and leave the restaurant. He and his friends waited for the youth to return but when he didn’t, it gradually dawned on them that he had done a runner.

He had indeed returned – about two hours later – with a cock-and-bull story about having been beaten up and robbed by a band of thieves and, however naive Jordan and his friends were, they still didn’t fall for that one – because everyone here knows that The Gambia is amazingly free of robbers and even pickpockets….

Of course there was no way that they could prove that the youth was lying to them and Jordan came home suffering from the withdrawal symptoms of not being in close proximity to and constant contact with his mobile phone. After venting his anger at the thief and – more excruciatingly – acknowledging his own foolishness in letting a perfect stranger walk away with his phone on such a flimsy pretext, Jordan recovered his balance within a day and in fact seemed to enjoy and flourish in his new-found freedom of not being incessantly hooked up to his device.

He did borrow my phone at night to listen to music and WhatsApp his friends abroad. Other than that, he has remained phone-free until today.

He was in the process of selling his Samsung phone to buy another one – a spare iPhone that William had and which he wanted to gift him with but was dissuaded from doing so by Paul and me since we had bought the Samsung for Jordan’s 14th birthday and he had used it for the past year and a half. So we had asked him to sell it and put that money towards buying the more expensive iPhone from William. He was in the process of showing it to buyers, when the theft occurred.

Yesterday, we gave him the money he had received for his birthday and for Christmas from his grandma and aunt together with a contribution from us towards it, and he went off triumphantly to buy the phone from William.

I am actually very thankful for the theft of his mobile phone because it served to teach him some very important life lessons that he would not have been able to learn effectively in any other way.

Form 2 – Full of Fun & Frolic

5th April 2019

Today was another Mufti Day in school and the kids were all of course as high as kites! In the end I gave up trying to teach and held a talent contest instead.

This, by the way, is my favourite class: intelligent, confident, funny and articulate. There is never a dull moment with them around.

Front Row: (seated) – Muhammad, Lily, Harriet & Penda
(standing) – Mansour, Ramatoulie, Kodou, Fatima, Mamkumba, Abie, Aminata & Fatou.
Back Row: Mohammed, Momodou, Baboucarr, Benita & Umang.

Rai and Her Buddies

3rd April 2019

Walking home with Christiana and Fatoumatta…….

I am grateful for whatever friendships Rai has formed both here and in Sri Lanka although she is often bewildered by the transient nature of her relationships with her classmates. Although this is perfectly normal in the early teens due to the hormones rampaging through their bloodstream, Rai is finding adolescence quite challenging at the moment in relation to her peer group.

According to Howard Gardner’s ‘Multiple Intelligences Theory’, kids are born with several different kinds of intelligences – he identified 8 of them – but subsequently they have added one more. So according to his theory, Jordan and Rai have completely different intelligences. He possesses kinesthetic, extroverted, musical & naturalistic intelligences while she has an introverted, visual/spatial (artistic) intelligence. However, they both seem to share a verbal/linguistic intelligence (thank goodness!) that helps them in their academic work because of their natural ability in language learning.

Due to their different kinds of intelligences, Jordan is really adept at socialising and can basically go out anywhere and make friends with anyone. However, because he gets energy by being with other people, he is not good at solitary pursuits like studying for exams.

Rai, on the other hand, has excellent inner resources and enjoys her own company, entertaining herself for hours on end reading, writing, drawing, painting and, needless to say, has developed good study habits. She, however, finds it hard to form and maintain friendships with peers.

Drama Queens

22nd March 2019

I offered a Drama Club for the Marina after school extra curricular activity programme this term and the diffident young teenagers of the first few weeks have blossomed into full-fledged actresses capable of turning in stellar performances every Wednesday afternoon.

Aisha in full flow starring as the heroine of her own play

They have in fact brought in their own original play scripts and are in the throes of producing a serious play written by Eunice Oni and a side-splitting comedy penned by Aisha Yateh.

Perusing the play script during a break in the performance

Marina School doesn’t have a tradition of staging weekly class assemblies so these teenagers don’t get an opportunity to showcase their dramatic and musical talents in front of their peers. I am hoping that this will change over the next year and that regular class assemblies will be held and maybe even the ‘Evening of Performing Arts’ that we have been so accustomed to at other international schools we have worked in where both High School and Junior School students sing, dance, play a variety of musical instruments and stage outstanding dramatic performances in front of a large audience which includes their peers, teachers and parents.