A Sene-French breakfast at La Villa Blanche of bread, spread, omelette and tea to kick off last Wednesday. It was a nice hotel that one and I got to know my room rather well in my stay there. I also managed to do a load of laundry so I had 80% clean clothes, which was also nice. I packed my bag, paid up and started my trek down to The Gambia for my last few days in West Africa. I’m getting good at packing – I have bought bits and bobs but somehow managed to make my bag lighter and smaller this time round.
A taxi to the place to get a bush taxi and at 11am off we went. I had to pay extra for my heavy bag, regardless of me thinking it a new and lighter packing job. I was on my way to Halahin Lodge in Kartong, a place set up and owned by Bouba whose contact I got from Charlie. It was an 8 seater car down to the border and comfortably cramped sat at the back. The journey is 4 and a bit hours but was mooted to take 6 hours because drivers don’t like to put their foot down in the sunlight as it burns the petrol quicker, apparently.
I got chatting in the car to Lamin, a Gambian who was returing from a morning in Dakar for an English speaking and listening examination. He got married last month to a girl that lives in, of all places, Croydon. I resisted telling him about burning rioted furniture shops, a nightclub called Reflex, Whitgift Centres and Nestle. He is going over to England before Christmas and in order to get his Visa for a prolonged stay, he needed to pass that test. It’s done by City and Guild and is one of the cassette tape jobs some of us did for languages in school. They also teach manners in these tests; you have to wait to be offered a seat before sitting, say ‘you are welcome’ after a thank you, that sort of thing. I suppose it’s nice to learn these customs of a country before going but it looks more like they are just making it difficult. I had my own speaking lesson – I got Lamin to teach me ‘thank you’ in Mandinka, the most commonly spoken language in The Gambia, and it’s ‘abaraka’. It’s another example of words being musical in West Africa. That word fits perfectly to a certain Piero Umiliani tune for a start.
The Gambia had an election last week and President Yahya A.J.J Jammeh, who had been in charge for 22 years, was dethroned by the coalition led by Adama Barrow. Jammeh conceded before all votes were counted, which is quite something. Due to 60% illiteracy here, voters use a marble and pop it in a tube next to a picture of who they are voting for. A bell dings so you know the marble has gone in to the box successfully. Lamin told me that the Gambian people are incredibly relieved and excited for change. Jammeh had become a maniac. He held weekly addresses on television claiming he’d found a cure for HIV and asthma, and regularly had people who opposed him killed, with many others missing. His last election victory in 2011 was drowned in corruption, and he only came in to power through a military coup d’etat in 1994 in the first place. To the majority of people here, Adama Barrow provides hope of doing all the things the complacent Jammeh hadn’t. Terms were always 5 years but they have been reduced to 3 and you can now only serve a maximum of 2 terms, hoping to avoid long dictatorships.
After 5 and a bit hours, we got to the Gambian border at Karang. Lamin really helped me out. I tried to phone Bouba to let him know my whereabouts but my Senegalese SIM didn’t really work now that we were in another country. It’s mad – in the space of a parked car, the whole feeling changes from Senegal to The Gambia. I know which one I preferred – hands down The Gambia. Lamin took the number and made the call. He also helped hugely with the taxi from Karang to the ferry port at Barra, and I told him about Barra in Salvador with its shared name. I wonder. He introduced me to a delicious Senegalese coffee too called Caffe Touba. Part of the process is pouring it about a foot in length from one cup to another, over and again, like you’re making a cocktail or something. They tried to overcharge us for the taxi and charged for my bag again. I’d only changed over a little bit of money – it’s CFA in Senegal and Dalasi in The Gambia – and I changed it at the border with a woman holding Dalasi notes. I wouldn’t have had enough if he hadn’t have been there, using his mouth as his weapon; and I was very grateful for his help.
The ferry wasn’t there yet so he said we should go over the other way and take a boat instead. These are longboats, a little Viking in look, and you can only climb aboard by somebody carrying you on their shoulders in to waist deep seawater and climbing in off their shoulders. But they tried to overcharge us again so after 45 minutes of faffing we went and got the ferry that was pulling in.
The sun was setting and the views were gorgeous as we pootled over the Atlantic as light became dark. We landed in Banjul at 19.30 and Lamin phoned Bouba, who had been waiting some time now, to ask where he was. As soon as they clapped eyes on each other they realised – they are actually cousins! You couldn’t make it up. They’d spoken on the phone 3 times as we navigated ourselves and hadn’t realised. I meet a guy at random in a bush taxi to another country and he really helps me out, completely unaware that another guy I’ve never met that I’m meeting the other side is a relative of his. Some would say that’s the Universe helping out.
We hopped in the car and made our way down The Gambia from Banjul to Kartong. Banjul was really quiet and dark and most places were closed. Bouba said ‘this is our thriving capital… all shut’. I suppose it’s a bit like being around Cannon Street and Bank on a Sunday. All shut and back to madness during working hours. It took about an hour and a half to get to Kartong, going through different towns and villages, including Serekunda and Brikama. Bouba’s great and really friendly and we picked up Foday on the way, who was looking after me for my stay there. He’s brilliant too. He knows everybody and everybody knows him. He’s incredibly popular and it is very easy to see why. He was such a fun person to be around. Halahin Lodge, named after the nearby Halahin River that acts as a border between The Gambia and Casamance in south Senegal, was right next to the beach. The place was soundtracked by waves, birds, insects and animals. There was a family of cats around too. They were stroked silly and given most of my food. A community of ants lived in my bathroom too, rolling up and down the wall. Even they seemed happy about political change. ‘Jubilating’, as the Gambians call it.
My first full day in The Gambia was a treat. After bread and omelette and tea for breakfast, Foday and I made our way to Kartong village. He wanted to cycle it, and as I’d just about learnt in the summer, I thought ‘great’. That was aborted. I was all over the place and nearly fell off twice before we’d even got to the road. Foday said ‘maybe it’s best we walk it, it isn’t far’. I felt such a pillock.
Kartong is lovely; a gorgeous small African village where everybody knows each other. There’s a market there, a school, some shops and an Art Gallery. There are Wolof, Mandinka and Mauritanians co-habiting and speaking Mandinka and English. Much like when my company in Lagos spoke Yoruba to each other, there are snatches of English in the conversations at the beginning, middle or ends of sentences. The sun was absolutely boiling so we went for regular intervals to sit in the shade – although I think sitting down may be a bit of a Gambian custom.
Kartong has a pool called Kartong pool that is home to some crocodiles, although they wouldn’t come out for us. The water in the pool is believed to help female fertility, much like the Osun River in Nigeria. It’s small – think large garden pond – and we took our shoes off to go and stand next to it. On Mondays the women of the village gather poolside and you give them some money for water and a prayer.
I asked Foday if there is a Gambian religion, or some old African customs here. He said there isn’t – it’s all Muslim or Christian, which highlights the influences from the Arabic and European world that each colonised The Gambia over the last few hundred years. In the village, the Muslim population live by the road one side and the Christians live behind the compounds by the road the other side. But they lived, or it seemed to me, in harmony with each other.
We headed back to the lodge via Bouba’s family home where his mother and sisters were all hanging out, wearing beautiful Gambian fabrics. They offered us this dish of rice and oysters called Benachin and it was delicious.
Next to their house is the Lemonfish Art Gallery. It’s great in there and also acts as a lodge. It’s a small and perfectly formed selection of art from all Gambian artists and there were some beautiful paintings on the walls. West African art and fabrics are so beautiful. I’ve seen Nigerian, Togolese, Senegalese and Gambian art and fabrics now and all have their own identity and all are beautiful.
Gambia gained full independence from Britain in February 1965, when it changed to ‘The Gambia’. The late 50s and early 60s saw a huge wave of African independence sweeping round from country to country. There is a big celebration here on independence day, which comes shortly after Kartong Festival – where for 3 days in February the village is consumed by music of all kinds and it sounds absolutely brilliant. One to come back for.
That evening I had a Djembe lesson from Mohamed, who is a local musician. He taught me two 4 part rhythms that both have 1 repeated break each to divide between the 4 parts. The 1st four part thing he taught me was a rhythm from Guinea, his home country, and he played the last break slightly differently every time. I hope I didn’t seem rude when I asked him to please play it the same way so I could learn it! He looked baffled when I said ‘you did this first but then the next time you did it this way so which one is it?’ Having learnt music in the West, my music brain is very mathematical. Also, having learnt so many different rhythms over the years I have a bank of all sorts of music up there so things overlap. When I’m on a drum I’m not familiar with and learning a rhythm that to me sounds like Bhangra, that also doesn’t have any discernible pulse, my brain goes aaagh! I apologised just in case and he said ‘no I can see you have a music brain, it’s good’. It’s always a necessary challenge to do these things that are different to what you know and my brain got there eventually. It was brilliant and we ended up doing rounds and overlapping the rhythms on top of each other. I loved it.
The day ended with a bit of grub and a cat stroke and a night time trip to stare at the sea. That beach is amazing. I like The Gambia a lot. They’ve really embraced ‘relaxing’ here so as long as you’re prepared for a slow pace, it has everything you need. It’s too hot to rush around doing anything anyway.
Day 2 and we had a sweltering day in Brikama as we popped in to get some money. Some nonsense followed with debit cards and Gambian SIM cards but it kept us busy for the afternoon. We had lunch in the compound that Foday lived in for a couple of years in his early 20s. We all ate out if the same dish, common in most of Africa, and sat amongst all these banana trees tucked away at the back of the compound.
That evening there was a bit of a carnival in Kartong village to celebrate Barrow’s victory. It felt like the whole village was out, dancing and singing and following the 3 drums that played non stop for 5 hours. As we arrived and followed the crowd, we popped in to a shop to get some water. Just as we came out the crowd were right outside and we stood and watched as chaos unfolded. This shop is owned by a councillor of Jammeh’s and all these people celebrating Barrow’s victory had gone to sing about him losing and wind him up. People were slapped, chairs were broken and tables were thrown at each other. Then they all started singing again, the shop closed and everyone started to head back! But it was an amazing time to be in the country, post election, and seeing so many happy people around.
There were a Welsh father and son in the village as well, both called Steve, which made it easy. They were nice lads, very well travelled and could talk for Great Britain. We went to see them again the day after at their lodge, Stala, which lies next to the Halahin River and very close to the border crossing. One trip over the river and you’re in Casamance in Senegal. I asked Bouba about that place and he said that many locals in Casamance want to break away from Senegal and gain independence, but it won’t happen because the north of the country relies too much on the food produced there.
Steve Snr went back to Wales and Steve Jr still had a few days left. He got talking and didn’t stop for 2 hours. One of things he spoke about was a book called ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’. He mentioned the processes of list keeping and a way of doing that – 4 categories, the first is Urgent and Important, the second Important not Urgent, the third Urgent not Important and the last not Important or Urgent. I have 3 notepads full of the 7 project ideas I’m working on and adding to as I travel, one of which is a Junk Percussion project called Take The Bins Out, a group playing songs with a percussion section of bins. I hadn’t mentioned any of this to Steve, although I had been tapping a table so he knew I played drums. He spoke of a list being 20 things and how we’d do the 10 easy things first, so categorising like this means we can better manage ourselves. He then said ‘say for example two things on your list are ‘take the bins out’ and the other is ‘create drumming group’, we’re more likely to do the easy thing first’. How odd is that! Of all the things he could have mentioned. I laughed and told him about my drumming group idea of that name and he went off on one again for 10 minutes. I’ll check out that book though. It sounds suitably up my street and the sort of thing I love to read and keep at arms length at the same time. Balance, you know.
Also at Stala were two old English women who owned lodges in The Gambia. One of them looked, sounded and spoke EXACTLY like Philomena Cunk. I couldn’t take her seriously.
I had my 2nd djembe lesson with Mohamed who taught me 1 more rhythm to go with the other two. Jankadi, Sofa and Triba is how I think they are spelled. They’re well cool and probably go back hundreds of years in Guinea. Guinea Bissau and Angola, I think, are the two remaining countries in Africa that still speak Portuguese.
We went out that night to Senegambia, the tourist district. And by tourists, I mean dozens and dozens of northern English or north Welsh people and 2 Germans. There were so many northerners. Flights from the U.K. to Banjul are regular and cheap and now people haven’t gone to English seaside resorts for years, some come here. The average age must have been 50 odd. Honestly, imagine Blackpool – specifically if you’ve ever been to Ma Kelly’s – and chuck in reggae music and a load of Gambian Rastas dancing with old British women. Scenes, I tell you. I expected there to be loads of older, white British single men with young Gambian women and there was a few dotted around but I think they either go to a bar we didn’t go to or keep it secretive. The majority in Ali Baba’s, the club we went to, was older white British single women gyrating with a young Gambian man, who nearly always was a Rasta. For a people watcher it’s the best thing ever but I didn’t want to stare so I distracted myself by dancing for 3 hours. I loved it. It’s an eye opener but such good fun. It seemed that British tourism is a big thing – menus were all British food, there were old man blues bands amongst the Reggae groups and basically everybody who wasn’t Gambian was British. I’ve never been to Magaluf or Benidorm or anything but I was told it was similar.
Reggae is absolutely everywhere here, as is the influence of Jamaica in the way people talk and dress. I mentioned it in Senegal but here is what I was looking for – this is definitely where shared ethnic groups between Jamaica and The Gambia that I thought I’d spotted in Senegal are. Given that another of my ideas is a Reggae project, I was well happy, jotting down tunes that piqued my interest. Cos I was looking at the old women and their young male company so much, every time I wrote a song down it must have looked like I was writing about them.
On Friday, Yahya Jammeh, who had conceded the election last week, came out and said the opposite. There were Military personnel everywhere and stop points of both Police and Military every 2 or 3 miles travelling around. Barrow’s supporters are remaining calm and the Senegalese military will intervene if any nonsense happens. For so many years, young Gambian men and women have fled the country to risk their lives travelling across Africa to Europe. Many don’t make it, but those that did will most likely come home if Barrow starts his Presidency on January the 2nd.
A mooch around Kartong on Sunday and then it was time to head back to Dakar. I’ve had the most incredible 2 months in West Africa. The Gambia was much more like how I expected Africa to be. There were the sounds of drums everywhere and art galleries and tourists and incredibly friendly locals, with kids following me round a lot asking ‘any minty?’ Hopefully Barrow’s administration can begin without trouble on January the 2nd and the Gambian people can have a leader they deserve. I loved my time there and seriously, if anybody reading this wants a weeks holiday next year, go to The Gambia. It’s got everything.
To save paying for a hostel or staying at a random house, I travelled back up to Dakar overnight Sunday. My flight to Ethiopia was 8am Monday morning so it seemed logical. Staying up all night in a car means that you can sleep all day on a flight and it whizzes by. It was perfectly safe; the killer is all the waiting around you have to do. An hour for the ferry, 2 hours for the Taxi, 3 hours for the flight, wait wait wait.
I slept the whole flight – Dakar to Bamako to Addis – save for 3 fifteen minute spells to eat. I woke up just as we were descending in to the airport and Addis Ababa looked like it was covered in fairy lights. I was picked up by the car arranged by Georges, my friend Cleo’s Dad who lives here, and we went to Top One Bar and Restaurant. I sat drinking with a multi-lingual Englishman with a French name whose daughter Cleo I lived with for 2 years at University, a Ugandan Economics lecturer who has lived and taught at Univerisities all over the U.K, a newly converted Rwandan Sheikh all dressed in white and a Sudanese Muslim, who looks Ethiopian, with a real twinkle in his eye. They were like the International Inbetweeners had reunited 30 years on and were all ribbing each other, talking about the meaning of the word ‘utterances’ and why George the Ugandan believes in accountability but hates keeping receipts. It was a great first night in Addis, completely bizarre, and so good to finally be in Ethiopia.
Social Media is banned here, as is Youtube, so my communications will have to be emails and I can’t post song links to this. Pictures won’t upload either. Never mind, I’ll work a way around it. Now for day 1 in Ethiopia.