Time and Vellum

12th and 13th century Iceland produced a large amount of writing and literary historians refer to the “time and vellum” effect: there was plenty of time in the long winter nights (nightclubs and television hadn’t been invented) and there was plenty of animal skin to write on as many goats, sheep, deer etc. had to be culled for the winter or just popped their clogs in the cold. It is from this period that many of the sagas and other Icelandic tales derive.

Life here is a bit the same: evenings are certainly not cold, but they are long (and dark when the power goes out),  so I use my trusty laptop to blog on and the keyboard is back-lit.

It is difficult to judge by appearances out here – maybe it is everywhere – but illiterate-looking old men shuffling along like date-expired Scrooges turn out to be fluent speakers of English, college lecturers, skilled and revered farmers, recently-retired Commonwealth officials etc. I had a long and easy conversation in Gunjur with an elderly man who said hello on his way back from prayers. He wanted to know why a toubab was accompanying a large group of young Gambians, where I came from etc. We discussed – perhaps not in depth, but not superficially either – the challenges facing farmers in The Gambia, the changes he had witnessed, his desire to see the country develop and need less foreign aid as well as his gratitude for the help his country currently got.

People whose very presence might deter you from going down an alley in Inverness are here smiling, wanting to tell you about their “brother” in Glasgow and to bend your ear about football. Of course there are plenty of chancers, bumsters, scroungers, beggars and thieves but the vast majority will just try it on because you expect it of them. I was roundly scolded the other day by a woman who wanted to sell me peanuts. Her objection was not that I wouldn’t buy, but that I hadn’t stopped to pass the time-of-day, ask about her family and listen to her sales-pitch: instead I kept walking just shaking my head. “It’s nice to be nice!” she called after me and for a moment I almost went back to apologise.

Female hair styles out here are very wide and varied: Cecilia the cook altrnates, by the hour, between the sort of wig-based hairstyle that would grace “Health Lottery” adverts and relatively banal braids. There are corn-row designs by the score that would make crop circle enthusiasts hyperventilate, there are great bouffant structures, quiffs, feathery confections topped with ribbons, pony tails, tufts, spikes… and I’ll not even start on the streaks and dyes. Males by contrast tend to be conservatively short-haired, although there are some Rasta wannabees.  (Amusingly, my spell-checker didn’t like that word and wanted to change it to “cannabis”!)

Clothing is much more colourful than in the UK. Elderly men on their way to the mosque for Friday prayers are often dressed in snow-white, burgundy-red, mustard-yellow, gentian-violet, rose-pink or cobalt-blue shiny satin-like robes over matching trousers with coordinating pointy shoes so sharp they should be classed as offensive weapons. Contrast that with your average Wee Free or even CofS church-goer in a racy mix of greys and a daring navy-blue tie!

Gambian women are also colourfully, one might say eccentrically, dressed. My uncorroborated impression is “the bigger the mama the louder the clothes”, possibly on the basis that if you’ve got it, you may as well flaunt it. Patterns are large – the sort of pattern repeat that would suit hotel function room wallpaper. Particularly striking are the rig-outs that declare allegiance to a political party – invariably the APRC, President Jammeh’s party. These wraps are a mass of folds and tucks, with matching top and headscarf, all in bold patterns of shades of green and decorated with the President’s face, the APRC logo and political slogans. I can’t envisage the ladies of Tonbridge Wells dressed in such a way to support David Cameron, let alone John Major!

Politics here is very much a one-horse race. True, there are other horses but they are spavined nags compared to President Jammeh. Everywhere there are posters proclaiming his greatness and wishing him luck. His beaming face shines down on drivers at traffic lights or at the side of the road. He is rarely out of the TV news. The standard image of him is in white African robes, prayer beads and traditional mace in hand, either looking benign or thoughtfully into the future. Young people wear t-shirts exhorting you to vote for him in last November’s election or proclaiming his success after the event. “99% of Gambians want rapid social and economic development, which is why President Jammeh won the 2011 Presidential Election” goes one snappy slogan. Other posters or t-shirts include mottos like “Gambian women LOVE President Jammeh and will rally behind him forever” or the subtler “It is time to stop hating yourself – vote for President Jammeh”. A number of nationalised industries have used some of their advertising budget to support the campaign to re-elect the President: “Gamtel says Vote for President Jammeh” or “Gamcel says ‘Congratulations Mr President, we look forward to another period of rapid economic development’”. I can’t remember that happening in the UK, but maybe we’ve no nationalised industry left?

Lest I sound snide or cynical, I have seen a lot of changes over the last few years. There has certainly been massive investment in infrastructure: I’m told there’s a good road all the way along the North bank of the river (but watch this space, as I hope to go deep into the hinterland in a week or two). An item on tonight’s news showed President Jammeh at the official laying of the foundation stone of a “multi-million dollar” college in Ndembe.  When I first came here there was one set of traffic lights in the country: now you can’t move for them – though the place where the originals are is still endearingly called “the traffic lights”. There are more tourist hotels on the coast, there is increased access to clean water inland and a program of rolling out mains electricity. A chap who works here at the Bakau centre stopped me today and reminded me that two years ago I had helped him by providing a power inverter so he could run some low wattage mains equipment such as a light bulb and laptop off a car battery in his home for studying: he tells me that the infrastructure is currently being installed so that his district will at last have mains power. There is a long way to go and a lot to do: inland is still pretty backward, there is still a problem with female genital mutilation and AIDS (though neither is swept under the carpet and the former is thankfully much less common) but the local people seem to have no doubt that they have President Jammeh to thank for the progress there has been.

No animals have been harmed in the making of this blog.


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