I am a graduate student in ethnomusicology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I am specializing in West Africa, specifically The Gambia, and plan on expanding my research to Brazil in the next few years.
The street pulses with sound. Drums of all sizes ring in tandem with massive cowbells and earthen jars whacked with sponges. Songs in more than a dozen languages vie with one another to be heard by spectators. The sweat of a myriad of masquerade dancers soaks the pavement, dripping from cloth, tree bark, papier-mache, leaves, and plastic. All of this bedlam, this jubilation, put on for a group of special tourists, themselves decked out in what they have been told is the traditional garb of their ancestors, themselves sweating and smiling under a pavilion. They are here to recapture their "roots" at the tenth edition of the International Roots Festival in Banjul, The Gambia.
There is something very primal about that idea--the pilgrimage back to the land of one's ancestors, to recapture the significance of our past. But how often does it mean anything? When third or fourth generation Americans of certain European ancestry go back to their "motherlands," what really links them to these people in foreign countries? Maybe there is something intangible, something deep. I, myself, am mostly German, but the only thing German my family ever does is eat egg noodles at holidays, thanks to the efforts of my Grandma Max. I know only the German I have learned through studying music and through popular culture. Oh, and I like German beer, but I tend to think that has more to do with its quality than my genes. For me, I don't feel that revisiting the land of my ancestors would have that much meaning, as I am now thoroughly American. At least European Americans, however, have a distinct path to follow; family trees, genealogies, and even DNA tests can tell us the paths our families took on their way to the New World.
For African Americans, this is rarely, if ever, true. It is a matter of public knowledge that the Africans captured by Arab and African slavers and sold to Europeans were treated as livestock, with little importance being given to their names, backgrounds, and families. All we have are slave logs to go on, but what assurance do we have that the slavers wrote the right names, and how do we know who these people are related to? KuntaKinte, the now legendary Mandinka whose life Alex Haley documented in his novel Roots, could have come from a number of Kinte families, all up and down the Gambia river. Even if we are to trust that Alex Haley was faultless in his research, which a lot of evidence indicates is not true*, the people of Juffureh, where KuntaKinte was supposedly born, had strong incentive to supply him with a story. Most of the Gambians I know, especially those in rural villages, consider America and Europe to be places of inexhaustible wealth, and therefore will try to get patronage from any Americans or Europeans they meet. In the case of Juffereh, they received the money to build a new mosque from Haley, so they were certainly rewarded for their stories, regardless of how accurate they were.
I should clarify that I have nothing against Roots if it is taken as what it is--a work of historical fiction. There are inaccuracies, and the core of it is probably not true, but most of it could have happened, and I don't think that Haley had sinister motives. I do feel, however, that he, like many of those who have followed in his footsteps to "Mother Africa," let emotion and a longing for an ancestral home get in the way of reason and logic. While I have nothing against seeking one's beginnings, I am very wary of the mutual exploitation that goes on between African Americans and Africans. The opening ceremony of the Roots Festival that I described above is a prime example. While the cultural groups were spectacular, they added up to a mishmash of West African culture, where there are actually many distinct, complex ethnic groups with their own cultures and traditions. One dance was performed by Igbo from Nigeria. Another was from the Susu of Guinea. Yet another from the Mende, from Sierra Leone. It would be as if I, as a European American, traveled to a random country in Western Europe and was presented with Flamenco Dancing, Celtic folk music, a performance of a Brahms sonata, and served BoeufBourgingon, while being welcomed back to my "European Homeland."
I am a fan of African unity in an economic and political sense, but this type of cultural Pan-Africanism only serves to muddle African cultures and diminish the richness and complexity of the African continent in the minds of outsiders. It becomes even more questionable to me when this smorgasbord of Africana is served up in the interest of attracting these "Roots" pilgrims, who are often unaware of the specifics of their African heritage and are seeking to fill that void with a generic "African homecoming."
So how would I remedy these problems? For one, I would encourage anyone who is seriously interested in their own heritage to do more research. I myself, as a white-bread whitey-white toubab, am continuously amazed at the depth and complexity of the cultures of Africa, and I have only spent time in a small pocket of the West. Anyone who actually has African heritage would be better served, in my opinion, to do some research and find out specifics rather than to opt for a pre-packaged, "Mother Africa." Even if you are not sure exactly where your ancestors come from, some research into the sub region-almost all American slaves came from West Africa- should give some ideas about what their lives were like.
As to what the Gambia should do, I think the main thing is to be honest. The Gambia has an enormous wealth of culture and beauty, and it is my opinion that this does not need to be augmented with historical rewrites (such as the claim I have heard made that West Africans were the most technologically advanced societies in the world before the Europeans came) and additional performances from cultures that are not native to this region. Providing more cultural education, encouraging traditional performers by organizing festivals, and providing a vivid, accurate picture of Gambian cultures to the outside world is the path I would recommend. This would encourage tourism, foster cultural pride, and honor the ancestors that so many in the diaspora seek to find.
Picture 1: Fula girls dancing -- from Wulli, The Gambia Picture 2: Susa dance and drum group, from Guinea Conakry Picture 3: Mandinka secret society -- from Jarra, The Gambia
*Haley was accused of plagiarism in copying parts of Harold Courlander's work, The African. Also, investigations by genealogist Elizabeth Mills and historian Gary B. Mills, as well as journalist Mark Ottaway, found historical inaccuracies in the novel and threw Haley's sources into considerable doubt.
As a counterpart to the batch of photos and videos that I just uploaded to facebook, I am going to share a few stories I read while recopying Gambian histories and genealogies into the National Center for Arts and Culture computer database. I finished typing a history of KomboBrikama and the surrounding area yesterday. This music, history, and culture is what the Gambian Music Preservation Project is all about. Unfortunately, we are still coming up short on funds, and my time frame for finishing the project is getting shorter and shorter. Donations of any size are much appreciated, and the donation process is quite easy. The link can be found on the left hand side of my blog in a box titled "important links."
As I said, I have been doing some typing for the National Center for Arts and Culture while I am waiting for the funds for the project to accrue. In the past, NCAC researchers frequently trekked into the field to record history and music straight from its keepers- the elders and traditional historians of each region and village. In recent years, because of lack of funding and experience, this work has rarely happened. This project is an attempt to revive the documentation of important cultural heritage in The Gambia. Here are a few stories that I read and re translated this week. I have paraphrased them from the original Mandinka testimonies given by Brikama village elders more than twenty years ago.
Brikama is the oldest seat of government in the Kombo districts of Western Gambia. It was one of the largest cities in the Gambia before the British set up their colonial government in Bathurst (now Banjul). The traditional rulership of Brikama and it's surrounding area, which once stretched all the way to the coastal areas of Banjul and Sifoo, has always been passed down between members of the Bojang family, who have three compounds in Brikama - SummaKunda, MansaringKunda, and HawlaKunda. Some of these rulers were queens, which hearkens back to a time before Islam was such a dominant cultural force and women were allowed more privileges in Gambian society. As Brikama grew in the pre-colonial days, however, groups from within Brikama began to break off and go in search of their own lands, as overpopulation made finding food and resources more difficult. Here are two stories of the manner in which nearby settlements were founded and named.
The village of Kitii was founded by a prince of Brikama. Having come from the Bojang lineage, he had expected to become the king after his father. He was unaware that his step father, also a Bojang, was to be crowned instead. The very day that the rival was to be crowned, the prince went to the bush to tap palm trees for their wine. While he was working, his younger sister came to the tree and called out to him.
"Brother, why are you in this tree?"She asked. "Do you not hear the djundjun drums?" He said, "No, I had not heard. What do they signify?" "Your step father is being crowned right now, as we speak." She yelled to him.
Upon hearing this, he cried out in anger and lost his concentration. Wobbling at the top of a high palm tree, he lost his footing and fell to the ground, going into a coma. And that is the meaning of the word, "Kitii." In Mandinka, it means to fall unconscious, or to go into a coma. It is unclear whether the residents who settled there were lead by the prince once he recovered, or by someone else. Regardless, they saw fit to name their village after this incident.
The village of Sifoo also takes its name from the exploits of a prince of Brikama. This prince, who was not in line for the kingship, requested from the village elders that he be given land in the territory of Brikama to settle. They told him that it would be granted, and he would know where his settlement would be soon. Time passed, and he did not receive land. More time passed. Finally, in frustration, he chose a spot that appealed to him and told the elders he would build a compound there in which to stay while he waited for their decision. That temporary waiting spot came to be his permanent settlement. Thus the name, "Sifoo," which means in Mandinka, "Wait until..."
The Atlantic road by bike is a pain in the (insert body part). It has little to no shoulder as a result of erosion during the rainy season, and the ground to either side is a mix of foot-deep sand, gravel, and scrub brush. When you compound this with Gambian driving habits--no followed speed limit, cars skimming bikes and pedestrians by inches, loud honking at white people and women, among other delights--it completely obliterates the desire to bike this accursed stretch of road in any sane person. It is also forbidden for Peace Corps volunteers to ride alongside it. It is, however, the shortest, most straightforward route between my workplace in Fajara and my home, in Brusubi. The land on either side of it is an unknown maze of side streets twisting through tourists areas, trash dumps, and small hamlets.
Finding a decent bike path through this obscurity would save me a decent amount in daily cab fare. So, with this in mind, I set out on Saturday to find the best route possible. There is a small bottleneck where the Atlantic road meets Kairaba, the street I work on, so I had to ride a stretch on what shoulder I could find before I made the first left turn onto a side street. It was a nerve wracking experience, with cars zooming by at what had to but over 70 mph speeds, barely edging to the left to avoid me. After running this short gauntlet and ducking onto the side road, I ended up in an industrial park with the Kotu power plant to my left, spewing black fumes and a loud churning drone into the air. Outside the gates was a small, crumbling shop and restaurant, assumedly built there to cater to power plant workers. Two small children stared sullenly at me from inside the door as I passed, as hung laundry on a line flapped in the breeze nearby.
Continuing further from the main road, I ended up in a village built entirely around a massive trash dump. The houses were built mainly on hills surrounding a big pit in the earth, likely dug to make clay bricks for construction, filled with old tires, scrap metal, and debris. The road twisted and wound through compounds, with small dust devils springing up here and there, throwing up potato chip wrappers and empty water packets. In a dusty field set aside, a group of small boys were playing soccer with a tattered old ball and make-shift goals comprised of two stones placed a few feet apart. Passing the field and rounding the corner, I headed up a steep incline, shifting to low gear and pumping the pedals hard. When I reached the top, I saw a large, three-storey, white compound. There were two suvs parked in the driveway, and a number of satellite dishes hanging off the roof. I switched to a higher gear while passing the locked gates and the guard sitting in front of them.
I continued until I came to a paved, two-lane road and a sign that announced my arrival at Manjai Kunda. My wandering had brought me further away from the Atlantic road than I intended, as MK is a suburb of Serrekunda, the largest city in the Gambia, which is several kilometers from where I want to be. I turned right onto the paved road, once again getting skimmed and honked at by agressive taxi drivers. I passed a number of mid-range apartment complexes, tailor shops, and stores selling Chinese knockoffs of Adidas and Puma shoes and clothes until I reached a gravel and tar road I knew to be the main highway of Kotu.
I took another side road, which once again led me to the main Atlantic road, near Maroun's supermarket. I had never been to this store, but had heard it was pretty upmarket, so I decided to take a break and see what was inside. Walking in, I noticed that the clientele was almost entirely white. I passed a chubby mustachioed man and his wife speaking in some Scandinavian-sounding language, and continued to the deli counter. They had cured meats from Spain, German sausages, dozens of types of cheese, and vats of olives, any of which a hundred grams would cost enough to feed an average Gambian family for a couple of days. My curiosity thus satisfied, I passed by a couple of young europeans men picking up a thirty pack of Heineken, greeted the cashier, and walked out the door.
Outside I hung a left down a sandy back street to distance myself once again from the Atlantic road. I found myself surrounded by little bar/restaurants catering mostly to tourists. One, called Mango Table, had a large mural that was obviously of a bumster and and older woman. Truth in advertising, at least. Continuing into Kololi, another step closer to Brusubi, the landscape changed to small hotels and nicely manicured compounds overflowing with bouganvillea. The road also became increasingly sandy, and I started having to walk stretches until I found patches of more solid ground. After slogging away for a mile or so, I came back out onto the Atlantic road at the Senegambia junction. Here, once again, I was surrounded by toubabs, overly tatooed, underly clothed, just shining examples of the high class and culture of the western world. I had to bike on the main road for a quarter mile or so, and then I plunged back into the uncertain tangle of sidestreets.
The next town to work my through was Bijilo, which is comprised of massive tourist hotels to the right of the road on the coast, and a fairly traditional, if well-to-do, Gambian town on the left side of the road. I worked my way through the increasingly sandy streets, avoiding gangs of boys playing enthusiastic games of soccer with improvised equipment literally every hundred meters or so. Sometimes they stopped to smile and brazenly ask for money or my bike in what little English they knew. I was polite to those who didn't beg. I ignored those who did. As I kept taking turns, I started to doubt if I was on the right track. I stopped to ask directions from a man sitting brewing attaya outside his compound, and got the standard suprised/amused reaction at request being made in Mandinka. He put me on the right track, but his manner, so frequent among people I meet in Kombo, was a bit grating to me. In village I could just have a conversation with friends without them having to make constant comments or give me advice on my language. Here, a toubab speaking Mandinka is still very much a novelty, and it makes me feel like a sideshow sometimes.
Finally, after dragging my bike through another mile or so of sand, I arrived at the roundabout known to locals as "the turntable." My house was just another few hundred meters away, and on paved roads, no less. I started my trip at around 3 PM. I looked at my phone, and it said 5:45. Almost three hours, which in a taxi takes about 15 minutes. Gambians don't really see time as money. Not yet, anyway. I am an American--I do. The ten dalasis be damned, I am taking a taxi.
I wish that there were some effective method to prepare oneself emotionally for drastic change. Graduations, big moves, the loss of friends or families--these things are all foreseeable intellectually, but when it comes to our emotions, there is just no way to avoid feeling lost. I have known that my date of departure from the Gambia was not too far away on the horizon for the past year. It was something that I thought I had prepared for, and yet, now that is unavoidably close and there are so many major decisions to be made and good-byes to be said, I feel blindsided all the same.
My first week in The Gambia I felt adrift. The shoots of what would become good friendships with my fellow volunteers had sprouted, but there was no one close to confide in, and home seemed a long way away. We all sucked it up and dealt with it, throwing ourselves into language learning and technical skills, and by the end of training I felt comfortable in my skin and ready to get things started. Since then, The Gambia has been home, and I only occasionally felt short pangs of homesickness. I had friends in the Peace Corps, friends in my village, and good friends and family at home who sent e-mails, cards, and packages.
Now things are unravelling a bit. Many of my friends in the Peace Corps have already gone home to be with their families for the holidays. Several of my close colleagues in village have been transferred, and I don't really have as close a connection with their replacements. And, while I am looking forward to seeing everyone at home, it still seems like an abstract future that is hard to really imagine, despite how near at hand it is. Feeling lost at sea, it's hard to feel close to people who are here, let alone people thousands of miles away across the ocean.
What is keeping me strong is the music project that I have started, and plans for grad school. Although I have been living in Africa for a couple years, it's evident that I am still very American, as I feel alert and focused only when I am hard on a task that I deem worthwhile. I am extending until the early spring to raise funds and finish the recording project, and, while this is a big undertaking, I find comfort in the motivation it gives me to keep striving and doing something meaningful. Once it's successfully completed, I know that it will be a difficult transition back to life in America, but with the research done and a lot of talking and presentations to give, I think the motivation driving me should continue over the Atlantic.
First of all, I want to apologize for such a long lack of new posts on this blog. With grad school applications, planning out the next few months, and less than stellar telecommunications capabilities, my mind has been on other things. I am happy to say, however, that one of the things that has kept me busy and away from blogging has finally come to a successful head -- my Peace Corps Partnership Proposal for the Gambian Music Preservation Project has been approved, and the website is up and ready to accept donations.
In case you have not been fully informed about the project, let me fill you in on what the project is all about. About a year ago, I had the idea to record Gambian music to make a lasting record of some of the traditions that are vital to traditional Gambian society. Initially, the plan was to record music from all of the major ethnic groups in the country, and to combine all of this music into a computer database for easy access to anyone interested. After speaking to the leadership of the National Centre for Arts and Culture (NCAC) in Banjul, I found that there is already a national archive filled with recordings of stories and songs, but that these records are incomplete and kept entirely on dilapidated reel-to-reel and cassette tapes. Revising my original idea, I decided to make an effort to help revitalize the work and mission of the NCAC. Working with Bala Saho, the director general of the NCAC, we decided to get some better recording equipment and focus on recording the musical traditions of some of the lesser known ethnic groups in The Gambia--the Serahule, the Manswanka, and the Bainounka. Our plan is to make treks into the interior of the country to communities of these ethnic groups, and to conduct recording sessions and community forums. The recording sessions will capture these vibrant traditions for current and future generations to see, and the forums will help to raise awareness of the importance of music in Gambian society.
After a few months of revisions and meetings with Peace Corps and NCAC staff, I completed the final draft of the project proposal and submitted it. The proposal was approved by Peace Corps Washington last week, and now is ready to move forward, once funding is acquired. This is where all of you in the states can help. On this blog is a link to the Peace Corps Partnership fund raisings site. To donate to the Gambian Music Preservation Project, simply follow this link and search for my project by keyword (Gambian Music Preservation), by my home state (Iowa), or by my country of service (The Gambia). When my project comes up in the search, simply click on it to donate using a credit card.
I am really excited to get this project started, and will be writing a lot about it in my blog when things really get underway. I am including some photos of Mandinka and Jola music and dance traditions with this entry. While these are not the traditions that the project is aiming to preserve--the ones specific to the project have yet to be documented--they will give you an idea about the vibrancy of Gambian culture and why it is something worth time and money to save. Thanks for your time and support, and look forward to more exciting posts in the future-
Hundreds of things I would like to say to the young Western European man on the ferry flashed through my head like a holodeck of exasperation. "Put a shirt on, for chrissakes! Are you blind? Can you not see that everyone around you is completely covered? Do you really think be sweaty and half-naked is acceptable in public anywhere, let alone a muslim country? How do you not know this is Ramadan, the month of pious fasting and self-denial? What the hell do you think your conduct says about not only you, but Westerners in general?"
That last question really sums up the way I feel about the behavior of most of the tourists I see in The Gambia. It is hard for me to fathom the idea of someone spending all of the time and money to come to Africa, and yet to be so willfully ignorant of the culture. I think most people in America feel that being shirtless, as a man in a public place, is somewhat provocative, but in The Gambia it is downright inappropriate. I try to maintain a certain level of good conduct in this country, both to be respectful to Gambians and to be a good representative of the United States. My ideas about conduct abroad seem to be drastically opposed to those of many international tourists, however. I have come into contact with many people whose opinion seems to be that "If I am on vacation, then I can do whatever I want, because it's MY time."
Trying to avoid this type of thinking was one of my top priorities for my parents' trip to Senegal and The Gambia. Obviously comfort and entertainment were also important, but I was determined in planning the trip to never sacrifice being respectful and appropriate. Of course, my parents, being seasoned travellers, were not likely to be crass and disrespectful in the first place. Still, as with any cross-cultural experience, it can be easy to say and do things that are wrong or offensive without knowing any better. Shaking with your left hand, for instance, or asking loudly for a "PHOTO," which, in Mandinka, translates to a certain part of the male anatomy. With my loving guidance, and their own common sense, my parents managed to avoid this pitfalls, for the most part.
One of the highlights of the trip were the cultural programs that my village organized to welcome and honor my folks, the most dramatic of which was the daytime Kankurang program. It started with just an ordinary dance by the women, during which individual dancers will jump out and stomp their feet with a fierce intensity while flapping their arms in the air. This went on for about an hour with my parents and I awkwardly participating at intervals, to the cheers and delight of those gathered. Finally, a cry goes up and children scatter as the kankurang makes his appearance. There are many types of masked kangkurang dancers in the Senegambia region, but the most common for daytime performances in my village is the jambokangkurang--the leaf forest spirit. His costume is made up of the red bark of the camel foot or "farra" tree and green leaves from another type of tree--often neem. His dance is characterized by a somewhat calm, slow entrance into the dancing arena, after which he throws himself into a frenzy of ducking, charging, stomping, and leaf shaking. In many villages the kangkurang is unpredictable, potentially violent force that is best avoided, especially be women. He is summoned for occasions during which malevolent forces such as witches and demons are prone to attack, especially circumcision ceremonies. In my village, however, the deep and mysterious powers inherent in the dance have faded in favor of its pageantry. Women dance and sing next to the kangkurang and children are afraid in the same quasi-humorous way that children are afraid of halloween monsters.
Besides dances and pageantry, the other primary component of village programs is speech-making. On the occasion of my parents' visit, the speeches were even more numerous and verbose. Old men came out of the woodwork to praise my parents for raising me, for letting me come, for giving some money and books to the school library, for giving some seeds to the women's group. They were declared honorary alkalos (mayors, basically) of the village. To make sure that everyone heard their glowing words, the village people appointed LaminDanjo, the shopkeeper, as the town crier, and he would bellow the mumblings of toothless village elders. I did my best to translate the proceedings for my folks, but occasionally would miss a detail or try to gloss over a thinly veiled request for money or to help young people go to America or Europe. Karamo, the VDC chairman would quickly fill my parents in on these details.
After four short days in and around my site, we headed to the River Gambia National Park in the Central River Region of the Gambia, where the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Projects is located. One of my shortfalls as a host was that I am used to a fairly low standard of travel comfort after living in Africa for nearly two years. As a result my parents were subjected to a long wait in the car park, a less than pleasant bush two hour bush taxi ride, and a two mile walk with heavy packs over a pretty rough road before we were picked up by the CRP staff and taken to the camp. Upon arrival, however, all of my dad's doubts about this part of the trip were put to rest, as the lodge and facilities were beautiful, and the tilapia and fried rice lunch waiting for us was delicious. Our host, and intern named Karen, made sure we were comfortable and told us that the boat tour would start around four. While living in the Gambia I have come to know that you should never expect to see wildlife, as animals, except for birds, are elusive, few in number, and easily frightened. As such, I was thrilled at how many large mammals we saw in the two hour boat ride, including eight or more hippos, several communities of Chimpanzees, Baboons, and other monkeys. In addition to this we saw countless waterbirds nesting around the island.
The next day, after a pleasant but less eventful boat ride, we caught a car with some other Peace Corps volunteers on their way to Kombo and arrived in the late mid-afternoon. We had done a little bit of research looking at hotels during our previous stay in Kombo before going to my village, but my friend Mike highly recommended the Coco Ocean hotel, so we decided to check it out before making a final decision. It was much more than we expected--well-appointed suites, numerous swimming pools, excellent service, beautiful grounds, and a great beach. My parents decided that, for the money, this was their best option. For my part, I agreed that is was beautiful and that they deserved a little luxury after being tossed about by West Africa for a couple of weeks. I was glad, however, that this hotel was not their introduction to The Gambia. This is, after all, the world of the shirtless man on the ferry. It is the walled-in world where rich foreigners get massages, spend a Gambian's month salary on a bottle of wine, and learn little to nothing about the diversity, the culture, the poverty, the frustration, the beauty and, above all, the people, that are just outside the walls.
In Africa, I have had many the awakening met by confusion and disorientation. In the first year or so, in my own home, I often awoke with no idea where I was, and no idea what the noises around me meant or where they were coming from. This rarely happens to me now--donkeys, roosters, rice being pounded in mortars--the myriad of morning sounds washes over me with a sense of familiarity. This morning is one of those old disoriented mornings, but in an unfamiliar bed, in a small dark space. The sound that meets me, however, is one I have known since I was very young, and could not be mistaken for anything else; it is the sea.
Saint Louis is in the north of Dakar, on the Atlantic coast, and is something of a hybrid African/European city founded 350 years ago. It consists of three sections--the mainland, an island a few hundred meters off the mainland in the middle of the Senegal river, and a Peninsula that extends a protecting arm to the east, as if to save the small island from the savagery of the open sea. It is the location of an annual jazz festival that attracts musicians from West Africa, Europe, America, and the rest of the world. Seeing as I had a few extra vacation days lying around, and Whitney and I had not yet taken a trip together, we decided to make the journey.
We left Gambia on the 20th of May, and, after an unexpected but not atypical delay that stranded us in Dakar for the night, we arrived in Saint Louis on the afternoon of the 21st. There were four of us. Whitney and myself and Danielle, a newer volunteer, all speak Mandinka. Jasmin, also in my training group, is a Fula speaker. None of us speak French or Wolof, which unfortunately left us at something of a disadvantage in terms of communicating in northern Senegal. I have picked up some French vocabulary words, but little to no grammar, making me sound like a stuttering French caveman.
These language skills, in addition to a lot of flailing and some phone calls to local PC volunteers, got us to a section of beach hotels on the peninsula, the Langue d'Barbarie. We were told to try the Auberge du Pelicain. Which turned out to be a beautiful hotel with a rooftop bar and restaurant. It also turned out to be completely full. The management told us to try the inn next door. The polite matron showed me a reservation list and asked me which was my name. Upon clarification, she pointed down the beach and said to ask for the Auberge Mermoz. Half an hour of searching along the beach later, we gave up on that idea and decided to just ask about the only other hotel we saw nearby- the Hotel Dior. It looked unlikely, as it was a fairly upper-class looking establishment, but there turned out to be a small camping section called "Camping Ocean," which not only had a vacancy right on the beach, but was the cheapest option we had yet found while still being comfortable.
After settling in at the hotel, we headed to town to explore a bit and look for some dinner. We saw a variety of nice European, Asian, and African options, all far too rich for our thin wallets. Finally we stumbled on a small cafe adjacent to an African art gallery. From the place's appearance we all assumed it would be too expensive, but we were surprised to be able to sit down to some wonderful chicken yassa for about five American dollars. What made the place better was the extremely friendly and helpful waitress--an educated young woman who tried her best to speak to us in English. She gave us her e-mail address and invited us to a fashion show at the gallery the next day before we thanked her and went back out into the town. We found a small pastry shop and tried a few of their offerings, including a cup of espresso for me. Every time I go to a French country I am continuously surprised at how intermixed the African culture is with French culture. This isn't true nearly as often with British culture in The Gambia. Whether it is positive or negative that the Senegalese had French culture more effectively thrust on them, however, is a topic open for much heated discussion.
After the coffee and pastries we headed to the mainland looking for a party at a Peace Corps Volunteer's apartment. Once again our lack of any really useful language skill threw us off the beaten path and we had to continuously ask for directions, which just made us more confused, walking down dark and foreign colonial streets. Finally Jasmin called on or her friend in the area and got us back on the right path, after considerable back-tracking. The party was in a location that seemed ridiculously opulent to we humble Gambian volunteers: an apartment at the top of a 5 or 6 story building, half inside, half on terraced-in patios with beautiful views of the river, island, and sea. We socialized with the volunteers in attendance and drank some pretty potent jungle juice, easily losing track of time. When we finally managed to break away it was past one a.m., and we went in search of live music.
While Jasmin, Danielle, and a few of the Senegalese volunteers headed to a danceclub-type venue with a DJ, Whitney and I looked for some music that was a bit more authentically live. We finally found a club by the river that had a band of Africans playing with a white--presumably French--drummer and keyboardist sitting in. They played lively jazz with some African percussion and singing mixed in, and the mood frequently changed as new people sat in, including a Senegalese keyboardist and a stylishly dressed, female, African albino bass player. She seemed to totally get lost in the music--swooning, thrashing her head back and forth, opening her mouth wide while deeply bending a note. The band finally began to pack things up around 3, after which people seemed to be ready to leave, when all of a sudden a new type of music burst spontaneously from four men sitting near the bar. They were apparently part of a gospel choir and began singing Christian songs such as "Go Down Moses" and "This Little Light of Mine" in four-part harmony, accompanied by the intermittent "whoop" of one of them blowing on a half-empty beer bottle. Despite the late hour and the mixed-religion crowd, everyone was re-energized and excited by this sudden outburst of music, so characteristic of West Africa.
I woke up at 2 the next afternoon with the call to prayer from the nearby mosque. My head throbbed softly and my mouth was sticky. I heard the ocean and I wanted to dive into it--clear my head and wash off the sweat, dried in places, pungent in others. Trunks on and I hit the beach, where impatience pushed me to run. I thrashed into the surf and was shocked into something closer to a lucid state of mind. I practiced my usual oceanic ritual of swimming just past where my feet can touch before returning to shore. Back at the hut I changed into a slightly wrinkled off-white shirt, a maroon tie with yellow stripes, and khaki dockers. Whitney finished off the outfit by putting her fedora on me. Not quite haute couture, but at least not ragged.
In town we walked the streets of old colonial buildings while Mauritanians called out deals on silver jewelry and drumming from gatherings in compounds throbbed through concrete and plaster walls. Crudely painted portraits of local cheikhs stared forebodingly from cracking cement walls, surrounded by tattered posters of past music events and glossy newer ones of an upcoming dance gala. We turned a street and run smack into a parade consisting of dancers, singers, stilt walkers, and various other incarnations of the cultural life of Senegambia. I took Whitney's camera and started shooting, trying to capture just a taste the strange and wonderful stimuli this city keeps throwing at us. That evening we met up with some other Peace Corps friends and head for a bar where the albino bassist's band is playing. Our progress was interrupted, however, when one of out number was pick pocketed. She ran after a man she suspected to be the thief and confronts him, but he empties his pockets willingly, removing only his own cell phone. After some consoling she went back to her hotel to get some money to bring to the club, and the rest of us continued on, feeling a little more sober. It's easy to forget sometimes that anything that outwardly implies you have money can make you a target. Unfortunately, in many developing countries, being white is one such attribute.
We all made it to the concert ready for some cheering up, and we were in no way disappointed. The act, "Jac et le Takeifa," was a hyper mix of Senegalese mbalax dance music, American rock and punk, traditional West African music styles, and whatever else they feel like at the moment. We uninitiated toubabs were energized, but we seemed catatonic in comparison with the frenzy of the Senegalese. Ten or more men jumped up and down on a long, groaning wooden table, chanting the words to each song between hits of fanta or flag beer, depending on religious affiliation. Some of the performers from the mainstage jazz festival sat in on a few songs, including a German guitarist with a stunning mullet. All the while the Afro sporting front man and the bassist traded energy back and forth, headbanging, shaking, and throwing themselves into the music. When we left at three in the morning, others at the bar were calling friends, looking for another party to hop to.
The next day I managed to rise before noon. It's easier than before; I suppose that after its initial protests my body resigned itself to a temporary nocturnal state. After another dip in the Atlantic we headed in for our last day in the city. Whitney and I found an art gallery hosting an African art exhibition run by a British man who splits his time between London and Cape Town. It was full of photographs, abstract paintings, and historical information about the cultural connections between African nations and their former colonizers. This, along with the festival and the general atmosphere of Saint Louis made me keenly aware of the lack of such cultural displays in the Gambia. I feel that this should change, that Gambians should value their culture more and display it more proudly. But what they value is not up to me, or to the U.S., Britain, or anyone else. All we can do is give suggestions, and it is up to the Gambians to decide what is best for themselves.
Since it is our last night in town, we decided to splurge a little bit and pay the ticket price to get into the mainstage show. The first act was The African Roots Quartet, comprised of a kora player, a Fula flutist, a sabar drummer, and a French percussionist on a drum set. They played a charged and highly improvisational brand of music, displaying a lot of virtuosity on their respective instruments. They were followed by an ensemble led by Puerto Rican Trumpet player/percussionist Jerry Gonzales. What initially seemed to be a standard latin jazz and salsa outfit quickly became more interesting, as a Senegalese drummer, a Spanish trumpeter, and a Flamenco vocalist all added different elements to the mix. It was interesting to see the entire interaction between Africa, Europe, and Latin America represented on one stage, and the music was exciting and danceable. The closer for the performance was the American saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders. Despite being in his seventies and playing a set that started at one in morning, he can still wail away. He threw a lot of avant-garde elements into his music, including singing while playing, overtones, atonal passages, and a very free, open structure to each piece. He was a lot of fun to watch, but our group is fading fast, and after about an hour we file out and head for the street to catch a cab.
Before dawn the next morning we were up, dressed, and almost conscious as we took a cab to the car park on the mainland. As I groggily leaned my head against the taxi's window pane, I glimpsed the sea from between the scruffy whistling pine trees poking out of the beige sand in the weak light of the coming day. I could just hear the faint sound of the surf as we crossed the bridge onto the island, before it faded completely. Then we were back into the hustle of the car parks, the cries of the hawkers and beggars, chickens and asses--the sounds that would wake us in the days to come.
This blog is my own personal publication and in no way reflects the opinions or policies of the Peace Corps as an organization. It is comprised of my experiences in a foreign country and subsequent reactions, and I take full responsibility for everything contained therein.