Weather or knot

Apologies, dear reader, for missing a blog. Wednesday was busy and by the time I got round to thinking about a blog it was bedtime.

I have been involved in all sorts of discussions and the odd meeting, the business of which would be of no interest to the general reader, but I think some of the problems are caused by the fact no-one here works officially in their own language. Meetings, management discussions, official letters and so on are all written in English which means they are open to misunderstanding at least twice. The writer often has a limited grasp of the language and even when the grammar and word choice are exemplary, he has no control over the reader’s level of understanding. As well as that, the English used is stilted, very much out of date and the writers generally want to impress by using big words to show how well-educated they are (I may be guilty of that at times, I suppose). The newspapers here are in English for the most part and a funny sort of English it is: often full of obscure words, ungrammatical structures and figures of speech from a bygone era. Unfortunately I can’t give you any examples, as none come to mind.

I am happy to allow for the fact English is a lingua franca and that there is no one fixed version: after all our American cousins have a different version from us Brits, then there’s the Canadians, the Indians and, of course, the Australians in as far as they can be described as English-speaking. However, in all of these countries there is a standard which may differ slightly from state to state or territory to territory but which all can understand. Here – and probably in all of Africa – the situation is different. Small as The Gambia is – it often reminds me on the map of a section of lower intestine – there are four main vernacular languages, shared across boundaries with the Senegalese, Malians and beyond. These were arbitrarily split into countries by the invading Europeans and subjected to linguistic colonialism: English in the little Gambian enclave, and French in surrounding Senegal for instance. A French chap I met last year compared British colonialism favourably with the French version, saying that the British were more tolerant of local customs and languages than the French. That seems likely to me, and probably a good thing, but it hasn’t helped good governance when a significant proportion of the population can’t use the official language at all or only at a basic level.

Some of the Gambian Englishisms are quaint: “Morning morning” is the local equivalent of “Good Morning” and “How is the day?” is a standard greeting. Not exactly not English (I think Gambian English is getting to me too), but something out of a parallel universe, something that could be “real” English if only things had been slightly different.

I frequently complain about adverts etc. in British magazines, produced on expensive paper in high definition colour by overpaid advertising executives, but with misplaced apostrophes and other such abominations, but here it’s often rather amusing. I saw a van recently on which the owner had written with a shaky paintbrush “In God we Thrust” and across the road from the PIA is a wee stall that sells fruit, fags and the like. It bears another paint-brushed sign: “Welcome to Amie Badjie’s Breakfast Coner”. These amusing notices pop up everywhere and remind me of a conversation in a Malcolm Bradbury(?) novel – possibly “Eating People is Wrong” where an African newly arrived in London says “I arrived at Tollbury Dicks”. Some slightly less incompetent foreigner laughs and says “Tillbury Docks”.  “Yes, yes, “Tollbury Dicks” is the irritated reply.

Two new girls joined my class today and I asked them, if having no English counted as zero and my English was five, what number did they think they were at. They both answered “Four”, though the second may just have copied the first. For a brief moment I was optimistic.

Dictation is a standard method of teaching English here and I am expected to do some myself. Yesterday I knocked up a quick paragraph on the traditional “Belling the Cat” story, though I called it “Cat and Mouse”. I chose this as the story is short, simple, deals with the familiar – there are both cats and mice in the country (probably even bells) – and it would allow a bit of talk about fables and perhaps getting them to tell me some of their traditional stories. I read the passage once at slow normal speed, then laboriously phrase by phrase as the young ladies wrote, then at least twice more at slow normal. Some of the efforts I marked could have been Martian – indeed they may have been for all I know. To be fair, a couple were very good but the majority would have been indecipherable had I not composed the tale myself.

When I asked if there were any fables they knew from their culture, there was a pause and one girl said “Yes, but I only know it in Wolof”. Fair enough, I suppose.

One common problem is that The Gambians don’t seem to be able to differentiate between “s” and “sh” or between “t” and “th”: I assume the vernacular languages don’t make this distinction. “t” and “d” are often confused as well. In fact “t” often disappears altogether: a combination of these meant that “the cat chased the mice” in my story ended up as “the cat kiss the mouse” in one version. “He” and “she” are also invariably confused.

But then the English can’t say “loch”, can they!

If you’re coming here soon, don’t bring a waterproof: it won’t rain until June or July. Therefore everything is dusty: though the pupils sweep out the classrooms every day, each morning there is a thin coating of sand everywhere. A fine layer of dust covers books, desks, chairs, computers (even when hooded in tie-dyed covers overnight) and everything else. Classrooms often don’t have glass in the windows, so there is nothing to bar the entry of the sand. Even when there is glass, it may be of the louvre door variety, slanting slats of glass that almost over lap, but not quite, and which are frequently jammed in one position as the sand has got into the mechanism. The pupils and staff also bring dust in on their shoes.  Even the least houseproud of British women (or men) will feel their home is a paragon of cleanliness compared with out here.

I have never been here in the rainy season, but photos and conversation suggest that soon after the first rains everywhere is green, with nature leaping into action, galvanised by the arrival of water. At the moment, the predominant colour of the landscape is dusty brown, though a leaky tap provides a toe-hold for life and little splashes of green erupt around the drips. Birds and lizards will assemble to use the water or to catch the insects which are also looking for moisture. You too will be looking for water – I drink about 3 litres a day, gulping down great belliesful of the liquid between classes and throughout the day.

Sweet drinks are also popular: Coke, Fanta, Vimto etc. vie with Wonjo juice, Baobab juice and (non-alcoholic) palm wine amongst others. Banjul breweries also produce a range of local alternatives to the well-known brands. As I’ve said before, Gambians seem to have a very sweet tooth. The brewery also has the local Guinness concession, though I’ve only ever seen the bottles and not the stout itself.

The sky is not always blue even at this time of year: today there is a high, light haze which might make you expect a little drizzle if you didn’t know better. Even so, it is hot and bright. Sometimes the haze is in fact dust blowing in from the Sahara farther North. It is difficult to comprehend the size of the Sahara: flying over it, it goes on for hours. Hours of sandy coloured ground, visible even from aeroplane altitude.

With the crossing of the Atlas Mountains in North Africa, occasional splashes of snow glinting on their tops, the Sahara starts and is still having an impact when you arrive at Yumdum airport (Banjul): in the early morning or evening, you may get the best view, with the low sun casting shadows that highlight every irregularity in the ground. I find it quite awe-inspiring.

Try to get a window seat: ideally on the left (port) on the way South and right (starboard) on the way home. If you get it the wrong way round, you may still be rewarded with high-altitude views of Atlantic breakers rolling onto the shore as the pilot follows the coastline. Even from inside the temperature-controlled plane and at this freezing altitude you can almost feel the heat as you look down on where land and sea meet, the odd clump of palm trees like wisps of weed way below.

Must stop: I’m getting carried away.

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