A Balaba Christmas Party

Even though The Gambia is mainly a Muslim country, the Christians here celebrate Christmas. The Muslims working in essential services like the police, the army and health care, stay on duty so their Christian colleagues can celebrate, (The Christians then return the favour at Tobaski, a big Muslim feast). This arrangement works well for everyone!

We usually have family visiting over Christmas itself, but our Christmas usually begins on 8th December, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. This feast is mainly celebrated in the Roman Catholic church, and acknowledges the conception of Mary, mother of Jesus. For Christians in The Gambia, this is an important pilgrimage day, when thousands converge on the shrine at Kunkujang (near Brikama), for Mass. The family then come back here to spend the rest of the day together celebrating.

This year was no different!

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Easter at Balaba

It seems we’ve been very busy lately, with several friends and family visiting, and despite my best plans I’ve got a bit behind with blog posts. Thus means I’ve got several I want to put up, which I’m hoping to get done over the next few days. And here’s the first one – how we spent Easter at Balaba.

Although Gambia is mainly a Muslim country, Easter is recognised as a celebration, so Good Friday and Easter Monday are public holidays. Of course, many Muslims carry on as usual, but government offices, banks etc. are all closed. However, one thing that’s very good is that in the essential services, (e.g. hospitals, police, army), the Muslims cover for their Christian colleagues, who then return the favour at Tobaski.

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And a Happy Balaba New Year

In my last post I told you all about our Christmas, which was rather a laid-back affair. In contrast, our New Year celebrations were a much more lively affair. A few weeks before Christmas, one of the local youth groups asked Lamin if they could have a party at Balaba, as there was plenty of space here for people to dance and enjoy themselves. We know the young people in this youth group quite well; they helped us with planting our rice fields and they also came along one Saturday morning voluntarily to cut back the vegetation each side of the our road from the camp after the rainy season. So we were happy to let them come to Balaba for a party, but I must admit I hadn’t quite expected it to be so lively!

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Easter celebrations

Easter lunch Gambia
Easter in the Gambia is a much bigger celebration than in the UK, although it is a Muslim country. On Good Friday it’s traditional to make ‘nanimburo’, a special drink made from milk, sugar, condensed milk, baobab powder, dried fruit and chopped apples and bananas. Apples are a real delicacy here, as they have to be imported, so people don’t have them very often. The drink is delicious, and everyone makes as much as possible so it can be shared with family and friends. We gave some out to our neighbours, and Numo cycled to Lamin’s mum in Marakissa to take some to her. When people visited, they often brought their own nanimburo in plastic bags, so we got through quite a lot over the weekend!

One Day, Five Languages: New Year’s Day

Languages have never been my strong point, but I felt that if I am going to be spending a lot of time in the Gambia, I really should make an effort to learn the language. However, this is not as straightforward as it might seem! Because the Gambia used to be a British colony, the official language is English, but on the whole, people can only speak English if they have been to school; as school is not compulsory here, there are many people who don’t speak English, especially in the rural areas. The Gambia has lots of tribal languages, but Mandinka and Wollof are the two most widely spoken, and many people can speak several tribal languages, as well as English, and often French as well. Lamin speaks at least six languages quite fluently, which puts my halting attempts at French very firmly in the shade. You might think that living here would make it easier to learn one of the languages, but in practice, everyone here tends to mix the languages – I have often heard them start a sentence in one language and end it in another! As a further complication, most of Lamin’s family on his mother’s side speak Karoninka, which as far as I know is purely an oral language.

Boxing Day 2012

Following on from my previous post about our Christmas here at Balaba, I though I would try to give you an idea of how others might celebrate Christmas in the Gambia. I talked to a few people from the nearby village of Berending about what they do for Christmas. Firstly, if possible, everyone in the family tries to get home, even if they work somewhere else in the country. This made much easier because the majority of people here are Muslim, and so they don’t celebrate Christmas – in fact, it’s a normal working day here, and only the Catholic schools are closed for the holiday – Muslim schools are still in session. Lamin explained that the essential services, such as the hospitals, fire service and the military have a reciprocal arrangement, whereby the Muslims are on duty during Christian festivals, and then the Christians take their turn during Muslim festivals such as Tobaski.
In Berending, there is definitely a community feel amongst the Christians living there. They mostly live in the same areas of the village, and on Christmas Day most of them will go to the Catholic Church for Midnight Mass, and again on Christmas morning. After that, the whole (Christian) community gets together. Of course, the weather is sunny and dry, which means everything can happen outside, so a huge communal meal is cooked, of pork, rice and vegetables, washed down with palm wine naturally! Before Christmas everyone makes a donation towards the food, but if someone is especially hard up and can’t pay, they can still go and eat with everyone else – I was explaining to Lamin about how our church makes up food parcels for those who are having difficulty, but in some ways this communal approach seems even better.
After the meal, people will either sit around in one area together, or visit each other’s compounds, and their Muslim neighbours may drop in as well. My Gambian friends found it hard to understand how we may go to church on Christmas morning, but then generally go home with just our families for the rest of the day, as Christmas is very much a communal event here.
Later in the day, there are other communal events – an eating competition, a singing competition etc, followed by drumming and dancing which could go on all night. In fact, the whole week between Christmas and New Year is seen as part of the holiday, and I’ve heard music and drumming floating from Berending every night since Christmas Eve! Presents don’t feature as part of the culture here, probably because most people have very little, if any, spare cash.
Anyway, as promised, here is what we did on Boxing Day!
Quite early in the morning, Lamin set off to Kartong to get fish. Kartong is the last village before the river Allahein, which is the border with Senegal, and you have to go through border control and customs to get to the fishing area (although in reality this is just a small checkpoint in the road). Sometimes you need to wait for the fishing boats to return, which can take a while, but this time Lamin didn’t need to wait long, and he soon returned with some lovely fish, including an enormous black grouper. 
 
Tackling the black grouper with a cutlass! 
Ara and Saffie preparing the other fish.
 
Everyone tends to help preparing fish when there is a large lot to be gutted, so Lamin took responsibility for the grouper, using his ‘cutlass’ (machete), and Saffie and Ara took care of the other fish. Some was taken to be grilled, and the rest was cooked with the usual addition of black pepper, garlic, chilli, onions and stock cubes. Naturally it tasted absolutely delicious!
 
Delicious!
 
As on Christmas Day, we settled ourselves under the cashew trees, along with several visitors, including two cousins who had heard I was visiting, and came specially to see me (this is considered the polite thing to do in Gambian society). I first met them when I went to the Bakassouck Youth Meeting, and it was good to catch up on news about their Congre (Congress), their annual meeting and party, which sadly took place just after `i left earlier this year, and also t hear more about the Bee project.
After a while we decided to go down to the river at Sala, where the palm wine tappers work, partly to have a change of scenery, and partly to get more palm wine. This is a truly beautiful spot, and I have spent several very relaxing afternoons there enjoying the company and lovely surroundings. The tappers build little shelters from palm leaves, in the shade of the trees, surrounded by rice fields; at this time of year the rice has been harvested, but the foliage is still quite high. The river is nearby, and you can go out onto the flood plain, which is encrusted with salt, where there are lots of birds to be seen. It’s very remote, and we have to do some serious off-road driving to get there; we need to keep the car windows done up so the surrounding vegetation doesn’t crash in!
 
The flood plain next to the Allahein River.
 
Bakary hadn’t been there before, so was keen to take a look at the river, and I also went along. However, I hadn’t accounted for his intrepid spirit, which meant that rather than following the small tracks between the fields, he simply took off through the vegetation (which is about head height), hunting for wildlife. Since I only had my flip flops on, I wasn’t really best equipped for ploughing through rice furrows and hedges, but I persevered, and we were rewarded with the sight of lots of birds, including oxpeckers which sit on the local cows and remove parasites.
 
Oxpeckers hitching a ride!
 
He tried his owl call trick again, which attracted quite a few birds, and he kindly agreed that I could record it on my phone, so I could use it when I go out on my own. Sadly I found out afterwards it hadn’t recorded properly, but maybe we can try again when he comes back in January.
We then relaxed under the palm trees, watching the wildlife and chatting – I even saw a pair of Red-Billed Hornbills rooting through old weavers’ nests (small birds), throwing out debris such as feathers and leaves. I can only assume they were trying to find insects to eat.
Finally, as the light began to fade, it was time to pack up and go home for dinner – yet more of the lovely fish. Once it gets dark, we tend to sit around and talk, and often someone will be brewing ataya, so it’s all very sociable. But we all felt quite tired, so opted for an early night after a busy couple of days.

Christmas Day 2012 in the Gambia

 
My very own Christmas tree!
I was looking forward to my first Christmas in The Gambia (well actually, my first Christmas outside the UK!), although a little worried about how much I would miss my family. My friend Sue had given me a small stained glass Christmas tree to bring with me, so that I would have a Christmas tree here, which I hung on the wall, but it would have been completely impossible to fit any other decorations in my suitcase! Still, we were expecting lots of visitors, and planning special food, so we still needed to do some preparation.
Christmas Day
Our Christmas breakfast was the same as always – bread and peanut butter and tea. Our stepson Dodou was visiting, and we also had various family members, including another little girl staying too, so they also enjoyed the breakfast.
 
All ready for Breakfast.
I went to help the women in the kitchen, whilst Lamin went to kill the pig for lunch – because we are on solar power here, there is no fridge or freezer, so food has to be bought or provided fresh. 
A double burner!
Delicious pork in sauce.
When a pig is killed, Gambians traditionally cook some in sauce with block pepper, onion, garlic, chill, onions, mustard and flavourings, and also barbeque some with onions. Numo had managed to borrow a small barbeque from some Europeans up the road, although it’s usually done on the inner rim of a car wheel!
Adding flavour to the barbeque.
Numo as King of the Grilling!
Some of our visitors were muslim, so we also prepared fish for them, whilst the men went off into the ‘jungle’ to buy palm wine – as I’ve said before, this takes time because of course, they need to drink quite a lot before deciding whether or not to buy(!). Meanwhile Lamin’s sister Maji arrived, after a long journey from further north – she is muslim but wanted to come and greet us on Christmas day.
Lamin and his sister Maji
One of our visiting friends, Bakary, works as a professional bird guide, and he offered to take me out to look at birds – it certainly felt strange to be out on Christmas morning, wondering whether or not to put sun cream on! He is extremely knowledgeable, and had the most amazing trick of mimicking an owl call; within a few minutes, the nearby tree was alive with birds who had come to check the call out!
It took quite a long time for the lunch to be ready, with the women working on the rice and pork with sauce, whilst the men drank palm wine and supervised the ‘grilling’.

Just to prove I do some work occasionally!
But Saffie is the expert of course….

Meals are served in one large bowl, and everyone either eats with their hands or uses a spoon. Man usually eat separately from the women and children – at Balaba we normally eat together unless there are lots of people, but today we had so many that even the children ate on their own. Mealtimes are not really a social occasion here; firstly, people often have to crouch, and although they are used to it, it’s probably not that comfortable, so no-one spends any linger than necessary, and as soon as they have finished they get up and walk away. It’s taken me quite a long time to get used to this – it somehow felt rude to walk away when others are still eating. Also, someone once explained that if food is limited, eating is very important, so they like to concentrate on the food rather than become distracted by talking – children are encouraged to eat in silence!

 
The children are enjoying their Christmas dinner.
And so are the adults…
Grilled pork with onions anyone?
So Christmas lunch was eaten in the shade of the cashew trees, where we also relaxed after eating. One of our visitors, Almamo, kept up a constant supply of ‘ataya’ – green tea; this traditional drink is made all over the Gambia, and there is a complete ritual to making it, which I love to watch, and will try to share some time. It is minty, tooth-achingly sweet, and very refreshing.
 
A perfect shady spot to while away Christmas afternoon.
Almamo in charge of the ataya.
Later, Maji was moving on to help her niece who had just had a baby, so we drove her to Gunjur and met Fatou (also Lamin’s niece of course), the baby, and two delightful little girls, who were over the moon at having a toubab with a camera in their home. 
 
Lamin’s niece Fatou and two-week old Lamin (it’s the traditional Gambian name for a first-born son!)
Big sisters – aren’t they lovely?
Soon after we got back, Ara (another of Lamin’s sisters) arrived with her small son, who is named after Lamin. She is also muslim, but again, wanted to come and wish us Happy Christmas.
We spent the evening chatting, drinking palm wine and ‘wanjo’ – a delicious drink made with hibiscus flowers, sugar and flavouring. 
 
The children are enjoying their wanjo.
I’m not quite sure where everybody slept, but it seems that everyone managed to find a ‘spot’ somewhere – it’s quite common for women and children to be squeezed in together several to a bed!
I did manage to Skype with the family during the day, accompanied by the local children! They are fascinated by the laptop, and when I get it out I feel like the Pied Piper, because they follow me everywhere, and crowd round to watch what I’m doing. They were completely amazed by Skype, and the fact that someone could talk to them through the computer, but it did make communication a bit complicated, as they got terribly excited and noisy!
So my first Christmas in the Gambia came to an end. I can honestly say I had a lovely day, although in some ways it didn’t feel too much like Christmas. For most Gambians it’s a normal working day, and there was very little build-up to it – in stark contrast to the frenzy we see in the UK. It really made me think about how we celebrate Christmas there, and whether we have the right balance between making it special, whilst not allowing it to get out of hand. I wonder whether some of the things we do, and the pressure to get it all done, can get in the way of our enjoyment? Sometimes we seem to reach Christmas Day frazzled and exhausted, rather than ready to have a lovely time. Food for thought maybe?
Next post I will share all about Boxing Day. I hope everyone enjoyed their Christmas celebrations, and had a great day. Merry Christmas everyone!