The Gambia is predominantly a Muslim country, of course, but there are a significant number of Christians as well – I think about 15% – along with a smattering of other religions.
From about 5:00am, if you’re a light sleeper, you will hear the call to prayer booming from loudspeakers at each mosque: in some parts you’d need to be drugged to the eyeballs with Nightnurse (or something stronger) in order to sleep through it although it’s much quieter in the tourist areas. I think there are 5 prayer calls during the day and it is quite common to turn a corner and see two or three gathered together, facing Mecca, and praying. This is always preceded by ritual washing of feet and hands: where a suitable tap is not available, you will generally see stripy tea-pots which hold water for the ablutions.
Sunday, of course, is the Christian day of worship and it is then that the churches come alive, with singing, dancing and prayer. Not being a church-goer myself, I can only go on second-hand descriptions. However, the services seem to be both packed and long: a previous IRA pupil who comes from a staunchly Presbyterian family described the service she went to as “not like a church service at all, more like a rave with prayers”. I gather these large congregations are policed by locals to stop anyone from dozing. There is a large church just up the road from the PIA. It has been being built for the last few years, but now seems as near finished as it’s likely to get, with huge electric signs with Christian messages on the top.
What is clear is that religion plays a more central part in Gambian society than it does in the UK: everyone has a religion and identifies with it. My personal feeling is that this derives from the greater poverty in The Gambia: religion is seen as giving some hope for the future and a way of making sense of life around you. One of the commonest expressions here is “Insh’Allah”, the Arabic for “with God’s grace” or “if Allah permits”. This is often appended to arrangements such as “I will be here tomorrow Insh’Allah”, similar to the Catholic “Deo Volente” – please excuse any mistakes in my Latin or Arabic.
The calls to prayer are not the only source of noise in The Gambia – far from it. Last night as I went to sleep under my mosquito net, there was a rowdy party of some sort in the Stadium across the road from the RPI where I am. The party was too far away behind a high wall for me to observe, but there was loud music, drumming and lots of singing, accompanied by occasional klaxons and car horns. Behind my room is the PIA hall, which had been rented out for the day to a Nigerian ex-patriots group: they looked like wealthy professionals in colourful local costume and, on the women’s part, amazing hats each made of a kilt’s worth of garish fabric. The local Nigerian community had turned out in force and a disco was playing afro-pop. I looked in before bedding down for the night, hoping to see some dancing and lively action, but most were just standing chatting, canted over a glass of orange juice. To add to these two events the car mechanics apprentices, who have a rota of sleeping on site to stop the theft of car-tools, had their radio blaring.
When the local humans aren’t drowning them out, the birds here keep up a constant cacophony. As I write this on Sunday morning, I can hear several different species all giving it welly: pigeons cooing, lots of unidentifiable chirping, something that sounds like – but won’t be – a peacock, cackling, screeching and cawing are all evident. It’s actually quite charming but something of a tease as the birds hide in the foliage. Even the dowdiest of Gambian birds beat the British ones hands down in the colour stakes. I hope to spend some time today with my binoculars.
I am glad today is Sunday – a non-teaching day – as I have a touch of Banjul belly. Without wanting to put you off your dinner I can say that I am sure the good bacteria will win over the bad guys, but I do wish they would choose somewhere other than my innards for their battleground. I am generally pretty careful about hygiene and what I eat: I resisted the invitation the other day to try steamed river oysters from a road side stall, for instance, and I do recommend the use of alcohol-based hand gel on a regular basis, especially after holding hands with local children, dealing with money and prior to eating.
Back for a moment to my moan about rubbish. Sitting on the balcony here, and without moving, I can see 77 black or blue plastic bags lying on the other side of the road and flapping in the breeze. This doesn’t include at least as many of the little “water pillows”, scrap paper, cardboard, the odd tin can etc. Mousa tells me there are plans to improve the situation by encouraging the selling of rubbish. I have no idea how this would work, but any attempt to decrease littering and its effects must be worth trying.
There is an elderly Gambian staying in one of the downstairs rooms here, Dr Johnston by name, back from London visiting relatives etc. He is an interesting chap, clearly well-educated and equally well-travelled. I think he has held positions in the UN etc. He tells me that Rangers have “gone bankrupt” and been fined 10 points in the league as a result. British football is followed here as religiously (yes, this the third religion of the title) as it is at home. Grotty looking little shops and cafes advertise which games they will be showing and British teams feature strongly, as well as Real Madrid, Barcelona etc. One year, at Kerewan, two or three Gambians who had been clustered round a small transistor radio came across to tell us the result of the latest Inverness Caledonian Thistle match.
In an attempt to get to the bottom of the water system here, I asked Mousa about it: I was puzzled about why sometimes, even when the pump is on, there is no water, yet lots at times when the pump is off. I thought there might be a holding tank in the roofspace, but apparently not. Mousa’s advice is the Gambian equivalent of “carpe diem” – loosely translated as “grab it when you can: when it’s gone, it’s gone”. There was a complicated explanation as well: I was wearing my sunglasses, so I don’t think he saw my eyes glazing over.
Yesterday a reporter from the local rag covering the Nigerian shindig started bending my ear about sponsorship to study IT. I fear he will turn up today: assuming none of my readers wishes to step in, I think I’ll have to politely tell him to shove off. My nearest vernacular is “Atcha!” (shoo!) so I’ll need to use English to avoid offence.