Monday, January 19, 2009

Out in the rice fields with the ladies

The Gambian women planted their rice crops last July and with good rains they have grown very well. It is now harvest time and the women are working very hard to collect the rice for consumption. I was keen to be part of the harvest process with my Gambian friend's wife, sisters and extended family who live in a village called Sanqwia. I have met these women on a number of occasions and knew they would look after me and show me what to do.

I met them at the rice fields, following a teacher workshop I assisted with in the morning. The rice fields are close to the Gambian river, which is about 2-3km away from their homes. We then walked through mud and water up to our thighs and weaved through harvested crops to our destination. Ladies were carrying buckets on their head holding food, drink and utensils for the day.

The rice crops we were harvesting belonged to a village mid wife who freely assists ladies of the village with baby deliveries. As a thankyou for her services the village women help her with planting and harvesting. On arrival, already covered in mud, we had sour milk, sugar and dry cous cous, which has the same texture, colour and consistency as sand. I've eaten it a lot in local villages and have grown to like the taste. We got out our knives, I used my swiss army knife, arranged the 30 of us in a line and began to cut the rice, cutting the rice head and a 15cm stem. The outer stem also needed to be removed to cut down on work when it is at the pounding stage.

With my knife, I began to look for rice heads and with one hand slice the stem, remove excess growth and bundle it in my left hand. We moved forward together, ladies supporting each other to ensure all rice heads were harvested. During the harvest, the ladies sang songs together in a harmonic rhythm, I was spellbound. One lady begins and proceeds to sing a song of thanks for each of the women working, they respond with 'Abaracka, abaracka” which means thankyou. They were excited that i was helping and my Gambian name 'Aja Jawneh' was used in their song many times, I responded with 'Abaracka, abaracka'. Other songs were about Soma and their village Sanqwia.

Being out there with the ladies was truly a magical moment for me. Surrounded by huge rice fields, blue skies, palm trees, working alongside colourful dressed ladies singing in unison as they harvested rice. I really felt part of the team and was treated as such. Further afield, women in groups were also busy singing and harvesting.

The ladies look after each other, always sharing and working together. One lady walks along with a tray of cordial like drinks, whilst another shares more sour milk and cous. The rice harvested is bundled, transported to the edge of the rice fields and covered by plastic for collection. When the women have enough harvested, a donkey cart managed by children, comes along and transports the rice to the village compound. Here the rice is pounded with a large millet (like a mortar and pestle) to firstly remove the rice heads. The rice heads are then pounded to remove the outer shell. The rice is then ready to eat.

The following day when I went to visit Sanqwia and the ladies greeted me, making actions with their arms of cutting rice. Despite the language barrier, I have a strong connection with these women. Our hearts are in the right place. I look forward to a whole day in the rice fields with the ladies next weekend, 'Enshallah'. (god willing).

Tying the marriage

I was fortunate to attend the 'tying of the marriage' ceremony of my very good friend Omar Keita. I have worked closely with Omar all year, he is 33 years old and has yet to be married. This is unusual for a man of his age. Omar is such a kind and gentle man and I am very excited that he has finally found himself a wife.

I will outline the events leading up to the ceremony. Omar met his wife, Huray, whilst she was living with a friend of his over a year ago.. She worked as an Unqualified teacher for a period in our region. Omar informed his two close friends who were respected community members of his interest and his uncle who lived in his home village 200km away. It was then up to the 3 men to begin the discussions with Huray's family. They visited her family over a period of months to talk about Omar's good character and his suitability as a husband for Huray. Huray's family then discussed the proposal with Huray to see if she is willing to marry Omar. The marriage is not a forced one as Huray has a say as to whom she marries.

Omar is from the Mandinka tribe, Huray from the Fula tribe. It is common for Gambians to inter marry, although cultural traditions on either side need to be respected.

Huray's and her family agree that Omar is a worthy suitor and a day for the 'tying of the marriage' is arranged. At this stage, it is unlikely that Omar and Huray have spent time alone. On the day, our work vehicle is loaded with 5 work colleagues, Omar, his friends and uncle. All up 14 of us travel to the Fula community 3 hours away. On arrival we are greeted by the host family, as we are unable to go to Huray's family compound before the marriage is validated. At the host family we sit inside and the customary greetings and introductions are made. I am the only female, with around 12 men, but I am warmly welcomed. After the greetings and introductions we share a food bowl of sour milk and dried cous cous, this is part of the cultural ceremony.

Two religious teachers, Omar's uncle and friends representing him then walk to Huray's compound to meet with the men in her family and village, to begin the negotiations. I am unable to attend this as I am a women, but my Gambian friend goes between compounds and informs Omar and I of the proceedings. The 3 women from our village and I also make a nosy visit to see Huray, she is a lovely girl, about 19 years old. During this time period of nearly 7 hours, I sit with Omar, other women and men awaiting the outcome. Huray is able to join us towards the end, she is very excited.

The men negotiating follow the customs of greetings, introductions, discussion of Omar's character, prayers and the amount of money Omar needs to pay to the brides family to have her hand in marriage and what dowry (materials) Huray will bring with her to live with Omar. They also discuss what day Huray is able to join Omar in Soma, (4 weeks time). Once this has been agreed the exchange of Kola nuts is made as a symbol of 'tying the marriage', these are distributed to the brides friends and family. The men then return to the hosts compound and together we share two meals. One shared food bowl of rice and fish, the other of rice and goats meat. We use our right hand to eat and squish the rice together from our portion of the food bowl. Once again, I am the only female able to eat with the men.

Omar then meets Huray's family for the first time. It is well after midnight and our group says our goodbyes ,ready to make the 3 hour journey back to Soma.

From here, Omar and Huray will have wedding celebration towards the end of the year, but they are now traditionally married.

I feel extremely happy for Omar, as he is such a kind man, his wife, Huray, although much younger is a feisty and strong character, I think she will be the boss lady in their marriage, bless Omar!!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Gambia - The GOOD, The BAD, The UGLY

Reflecting on my time here... these are my opinions based on observations and experiences. Photos are just a beatiful mix of Gambia.

  • Sharing food and materials with others.

  • Children growing up in a large, extended famiily full of love and support.

  • Children having the freedom to actively explore their surroundings, seek adventure and wander round their village knowing they are safe.

  • Children playing an important role in the functioning of the family. eg chores.

  • Stress free attitude - it will happen when it happens.

  • Welcoming family, friends and visitors and feeding/housing them for weeks on end with no fuss.

  • Being calm and relaxed when things go wrong eg. broken down bush taxi. No point in complaining if things are beyond your control.

  • Greeting people as equals on taxis, gelis, work, on the street regardless of gender, religion, ethnicity or status.

  • Honesty between peopl and acceptance of critical feedback.

  • Effective and cheap transport system.

  • Being able to buy all sorts of items through the window while waiting for a bush taxi to leave. eg. water, bananas, torches, underwear, toothpaste, DVD's, hard bolied eggs, cooked sweet potato.

  • Islmamic culture of people praying togther each day, including school children and teachers.

  • Half day Fridays due to Friday being a holy day and men go to te mosque.

  • Looking out for each other and willingness to pitch in.

  • Subsistant farming - eating what you grow.

  • Strong focus on family and not things.

  • Beautiful sunsets over the water.

  • Clear night sky with stars, moon and quiet surroundings.


  • Lack of planning and organisation.

  • Females expected to farm, cook, clean and raise children.

  • Skyrocketing prices of rice, resulting in families living day to day.

  • Inability for Gambia to manufacture raw materials due to standards, equipment and international monopoly of goods.

  • Bumsters annoying and hassling white coloured people.

  • Low income for workers and the inability to explore the world and get ahead, despite having a good job.

  • Limited job opportunities and further education.

  • Men sitting around and watching their wife/wives busy doing domestic chores.

  • Hot weather inland.

  • Poor roads and infrastructure.

  • Crazy bush tazi drivers on terrible roads.

  • Continual shouting of toubab by children anywhere in The Gambia.

  • Lack of water pumps in villages.

  • Electricity supply stopped in some regions due to political differences.

  • Road blocked for hours as the President travels through with motorcade.


  • Female Genital Mutilation and the support of it from mothers.

  • Young mariage and pregnancy.

  • Old Western women travelling here to abuse their power of wealth and hook up with a young Gambian man.

  • Inability to speak your own mind publically.

  • Government control of media.

  • Tobaski Celebrations

    Tobaski can be described as the Islamic Christmas, it is the biggest celebration in The Gambia. A time for families to come together and feast on mutton.
    Tobaski is based on the bible story of Abraham being asked by God to sacrifice his only son. Abraham spoke to his wife and son and all agreed his son should be sacrificed if it is God's wish. On the morning of the sacrifice, Abraham sharpened his knife to ensure the slitting of his son's throat would be swift. As he was about to kill his son, angel Gabrielle came down with a ram to kill instead. Araham and his family proved their faith in God and were rewarded with the saving of their son.

    I felt it was important that I was involved in Tobaski with my Gambian friends. Transport was difficult from the coast and I managed to get a ride on an open truck with 100 people and a few rams which were by my feet. We spent 7 hours standing going through the dry, dusty and bumpy road to Soma. I thought it was brilliant, as the people on the truck were friendly and made sure I was fine. I arrived covered in dust and had to wash my hair in a bucket a few times, but grateful I managed to get a ride back due to the friendliness of some Gambians.

    The day before Tobaski I visited families in Soma and surrounding villages, I then travelled across on the ferry and rode my motorbike to another colleagues house. Here i spent 2 nights with his family. The day of Tobaski included morning prayers where men and children go to the mosque, ladies of course are prohibited from this. I helped peel vegetables with his wife and eldest daughter.

    The family and I then spent the next hour slitting the rams throat, skinnng it, taking out its insides and cutting it up. It was a great experience and the kids loved it. What I find so beautiful is that around a fifth of the ram is given to the 'poor people'. A conversation I had with another guy at work explained that the ram meat is shared with the 'poor people' who can not afford a ram or goat, this practice is part of the islamic faith. What I found so humbling is that my work buddy is only paid $40.00 US a month, and yet what little they have they share with others less fortunate.

    I then travelled around the village with my colleague greeting people in their homes, all were involved in cooking mutton meat. I did this again in the evening with his wife. People we met spoke either Mandinka, French (as near Senegal border and Senegalese are french speaking), Wolof(another west african language) and English (to my relief).

    The rest of the day was spent sitting and watching the family grill and eat meat and conversation. Dinner consisted of shared food bowl with rams head, small intestines, meat and this dry cous cous soaked in ram meat juices. Luckily my colleague knew I don't eat red meat so I had some of the cous and potato.

    Later in the evening I rode my motorbike 5 km to meet an american friend, he was with a family too. We just hung out in a tin shed bar. As always I have another lost story...around 11.15pm, on the way back to my Gambian friend's house, which is only 2km from the seneagalise border, i got very confused. I had the right turn off but once inside all dirt streets and houses looked the same. I wasn't scared as knew I would get there eventually and asked lots of people and directions ranged from.. turn left at the mango tree, next junction right, then left etc.. Finally had to give my phone to a Gambian man who spoke to my colleague and he walked with me for 30 minutes as i putted on my motorbike. But once again, everyone very friendly and willing to help the lost 'toubab' (white person).

    Next day I rode to another gambian friends place, and sat around outside and drank more attyre while the kids all dressed up and walked around the village saying “selloboo”, this is a bit like trick or treat, the kids are given a couple of coins and they love it. Most are wearing brand new outfits and look gorgeous. All the kids around my friends house know me and call out 'Aja' (my gambian name) and some young girls just sit and hold my hand, so cute.

    'Toubab give me mintie'

    After travelling with my Gambian colleague throughout our region over the past 10 months he has finally realised that being called 'TOUBAB' can be annoying.

    To paraphrase....
    “Julie, I was thinking about how the children scream TOUBAB at you every village we travel through. Its like me be shouted 'black man' wherever I walked in Birmingham. It's not right.”

    (NO SHIT!! I thought)

    Its about time he has seen how tiring living can be in the country if you have white skin. The kids scream out toubab incessantly, it is because they are excited and generally there is no malice in it, but it feels like you are a queen , freak or an exotic zoo creature.

    To make matters worse, I have heard stories of tourists travelling in air conditioned comfort throwing sweets out the window. I blame these stupid tourists for the crap I have to put up with daily. Gambian adults find it amusing and encourage the practice.

    Which leaves me finding it a hassle to walk in any village, even my town of Soma, which is large and I don't know all the kids. My journey on foot, car or motorbike are always to the sounds of :-

    'TOUBAB give me 10 dalasi.'

    'TOUBABA give me mintie'.

    'TOUBAB, how are you?'

    or even worse..


    A long, loud whine... ahhhh!!

    Suprisingly,I have never lost my temper and either ignore, say hello or speak in Mandinka.

    It's nice to be nice

    Bumsters are basically men aged around 17 to 35 who annoy the crap out of all white females (sometimes men too). They have their usual lines and generally make life hard because a short walk on the beach, a walk to the market, actually anywhere near the coastal area is the bumsters playground.

    Bumsters annoy all women, all ages and some try and pick up white females in the hope of getting money or a VISA. The sad and disconcerting thing is the number of older and unattractive ladies that visit The Gambia solely to have relations with a bumster. Many give the bumsters a lot of money and get caught up in this wicked love, power and money struggle. I see it daily on the coast and is uncomfortable to see a lady of 55 plus, with African beads, short skirt and sunburn walking hand in hand with a 25 year old buff fit bumster.

    In the past week on the coast I have been bumstered at least 50 times.
    Just a 30 minute walk to the bush taxi to go to work in Banjul this week has me hearing the same bumster crap.

    Some common lines, all of which I have heard this week..
    NUMBER ONE – its nice to be nice.
    Welcome to the smiling coast of Africa.
    Hey boss lady, I love you.
    Hey boss lady, where are you from?
    Excuse me, just one minute.
    Hey sister, I like the way you walk.
    Hey darling, may I walk with you.?
    Hey, you are gambian now, do you have a Gambian husband?
    Hey darling, I want to marry you, can I walk with you?
    Does your husand satsify you?
    Hey boss ladies, you are very strong/fit, can I join you? (while my friends and I go for a run we hear this at least 15 times)
    Ahh.. Australia, nice country, can you take me with you?
    How do you like the Gambia? Do you have a black husband?
    Hey boss lady, I like the way you look.
    Hey sister do you remember me? I'm Lamin from the hotel..a con used to scam money.

    Thursday, December 4, 2008

    My friends in Soma

    The pictures here are my work colleagues and their families. They are brilliant people and I love working with them. I only work with men but we have a mutual respoect for each other and enjoy having a laugh and chatting about world issues and both Australian and Gambian Culture. I do however find it difficult communicating with their wives as my Mandinka is limited and they speak little English. So my social life is mainly chatting to my work colleagues while we are at work. (which is way too many hours!!)

    Photo of lots of kids who love to greeet me when I visit my friends compound.