We are sitting on the balcony of a friend’s apartment overlooking the ocean and watching the sun dissolve into the darkening sky. The water is calm, its surface troubled only by a slight wind which rustles the thick fibrous leaves of the palm trees. Faint voices float up from the beach as people leave the ocean and walk up the sandy paths back to their compounds for evening prayers and dinner.
We are looking after the apartment while its usual occupiers are on a trip back the UK. The rest of the flats are occupied mostly by ex-pats employed in the international agency, NGO and diplomatic sectors. We feel a little like imposters, or the poor relations. Still, it is nice to be in such plush surroundings with air conditioning, a generator and swimming pool. We must make the most of it as we will soon be back in our usual accommodation with its dank smell, dampness and unreliable power supply.
I take a sip of a cold beer: JulBrew Export, locally brewed and very drinkable. I heave a sigh of contentment, sit back in my chair and enjoy the view.
Later on, I am in the living room doing some work. I hear a commotion outside. I walk out onto the balcony and look down to see some of the security guards clustered round the swimming pool. They seem to be arguing about something. I think the pool has been out of action for some months now. Its pump needs to be repaired or something. The water level is down and the bottom is caked with thick green algae. All the residents use the one at the neighbouring apartment block.
The guards continue to argue with each other. One of them is waving his arms. I smile to myself. “Typically Gambian”, I think. “Lots of talk and not much action.”
They are lovely guys. They always greet us with a smile and a friendly “How are you?” when we come back from work. They sit outside all day and all night whatever the weather. For some reason, the owner has failed to provide them with any shelter so they get drenched when the rains come. They never complain.
I go back inside.
Still later, we are sitting on the balcony again waiting for dinner to cook. Spaghetti bolognaise. We have a guest and have opened a bottle of wine, a rare and expensive treat. The sky is totally dark now. The gentle whisper of the ocean is the only hint that it is there.
Suddenly the calm is broken by the jarring arrival of flashing blue lights. It is a fire engine. No siren. The vehicle drives in slowly through the narrow entrance and edges to a stop. Firemen clamber out. They look nonchalant.
Eventually, they manage to get a ladder out of the vehicle and make their way towards the swimming pool. Now lit by the headlights, we can see that there are still people standing there, but no longer arguing. We watch as the firemen mill about. They put the ladder down on the grass and do nothing.
Why are there firemen? Is someone trapped in the swimming pool? Did they slip and get their foot stuck in the steps coming out of the water? We crane to see but can’t make anything out in the dim light. There is no sense of danger or anxiety about the men standing by the pool.
We turn our attention away from the cluster of firemen and guards and continue our conversation.
Some time later, more cars arrive. This time, I stand up and walk through the flat, out of the front door and round the back of the building towards the swimming pool. The fire engine is still there, its blue lights now dim and lifeless.
As I approach the pool, a young man is being led away by a fireman. He seems agitated. I can’t hear everything he says, but as he passes I catch the words, “…what are you going to do, leave him there to…to rust?” He speaks with a Lebanese accent. I later learn that it is the landlord’s son.
One of the firemen walks past me as I approach. I reach out to stop him and shake his hand in the customary Gambian greeting.
“What’s going on?” I ask.
“A man is in the pool,” he replies.
“One of the guards tried to take a bath and he drowned. Come and see.”
One of the guards. I wonder which one it is. We’ve only been here a couple of nights, I haven’t learned their names yet.
He takes me to the edge of the pool. The fireman points towards the water. I look down and see a dark shadow on the bottom. He is lying face down, his arms stretched out by his sides, his feet slightly apart. He seems so close, I feel like I could reach down and pick him up.
I imagine him walking towards the pool earlier in the evening, at the end of a long shift sitting out in the sun. He is hot and sweaty and the pool is closer than the beach. He can’t swim, but he’ll stick to the shallow end. He takes off his uniform and lowers himself in to the pool. The water is cool and refreshing. He smiles to himself.
He allows himself to move away from the side he is holding on to. He is standing free in the water which now reaches to his waist. He submerges himself and rises again, enjoying the sensation of the cool water running down his back. He still feels safe, so he submerges himself again. He rises, but this time the water is to his chest. He has inadvertently slipped further into the deep end. He begins to feel worried and tries to walk back up the gentle incline to the shallow end, but it is slippery with the algae and he can’t get purchase. He slips and loses his footing and slides further into the deep water. He tries to stand but is up to his eyes. He tries to leap clear to take a breath, but slips again. He starts to panic.
I take my eyes off the dark shadow in the water, leaving him lying there alone on the bottom. I look back at the fireman. “Why don’t we get him out?” I ask.
“The police need to get here.”
I look round at all the people standing at the edge and staring into the water. It doesn’t look much like a crime scene. I thank the fireman and make my way back up to the balcony.
The man stays on the bottom of the pool for the next hour. Eventually, they lift him out and lay him on the grass of the lawn. He lies there as the men stand around him for another hour or so. The firemen get back in their fire engine and drive away. As they leave, they gently drive their vehicle into a wall.
They finally pick up the man’s body and put him in the back of a pick-up truck and drive him away. His name was Mustafa.
The police never came.
The Guardian newspaper is running a series of anonymous columns by a Premier League footballer at the moment in which the player spills the beans about what it is like to play the sport at the highest level. It’s called The Secret Footballer.
On Thursday, the paper’s website hosted an online question and answer session. Here is an excerpt:
iwouldprefernotto asks about pre-match preparation: “Like all sportsmen, footballers are prone to superstitions and strange pre-match (or, in the case of David Luiz, in-match) rituals. What’s the strangest one you’ve personally witnessed?”
A lot of the African players have some interesting rituals. One African player I played with had two tiny pieces of cardboard wrapped with tape that he would slide down his shinpads. It was something to do with warding off bad luck.
I like the idea of the African players bringing their jujus across from their homelands and indulging in occult practices in the dressing rooms of Premiership clubs up and down and country.
It is interesting to note that by virtue of this happening in the UK context, it is reinterpreted and normalised as ‘superstition’ or ‘pre-match rituals’, rather than as ‘magic’ or ‘juju’.
I wonder if the African players feel that the magic is as strong in the UK as it is back home. I wonder whether their belief alone is enough, or whether they miss the accumulated power of the belief of the rest of the players and the crowds watching the game.
We’ve spent the last few weeks looking after a friend’s house. She has an actual job, with a shipping company no less, so she can afford real luxury. Swimming pool, three bedrooms, a pool table, a generator, a massive telly – the works. Needless to say, we were delighted to temporarily upgrade from our dank, sweaty, powerless hovel in return for looking after her animals for a few weeks.
She has two cats and a dog. I’ve not been brought up with pets, and so I lack a certain affinity for our fellow creatures. It’s not to say that I don’t like animals, it’s just that I’m not the type who responds with great coos of delight when confronted by a small, furry creature. Unlike Mrs Boss Lady who I suspect prefers animals to me. (If a small, yappy dog could make cups of tea, I would be replaced immediately. Thank goodness for opposable thumbs.)
One of the cats is a kitten. He was rather upset at his mistress leaving him and being replaced by two strangers. He expressed this on the first evening by staging a dirty protest all over the white curtains in the living room and then rolling about in it. We discovered the crime the next morning, just as Mrs Boss Lady was off to work, leaving me to clean the foul smelling mess.
Obviously already a hardened activist, the next evening the kitten struck again, this time leaving a pile of particularly runny excrement under one of the kitchen cabinets. He chose his place with great astuteness, it being in a particularly difficult to reach location. This time, it was Mrs Boss Lady’s turn. After watching her gently dab at the offending pile with some kitchen roll in between retching into a bin, I asserted my masculinity and took over, making short work of it with the minimum fuss. Mrs Boss Lady stood and watched my manly display in not inconsiderable awe.
After that, the kitten settled down a little and desisted from its campaign. It instead transferred its attention to the other cat, an adult ginger male with a perpetually stoned demeanour. All it wanted to do was to lie on a chair. Instead, it was tormented by the kitten which seemed to take great pleasure in attempting to provoke its companion into a murderous rage by repeatedly bashing it in the face.
When not disturbing the ginger, the kitten was outside murdering animals. On a number of occasions, a torn lizard would be left under my chair having been relieved of its head, leg or tail. I began to suspect that the kitten was attempting some sort of occult working through the ritual sacrifice of cold blooded creatures, but I have been assured it was just a sign of affection.
All this time, the dog (a large one with a bit of Labrador in it) was minding its own business and being very well behaved. She had a lovely temperament and was very obedient and never barked (except for once when she had cornered a rat the size of a small child in the garden). However, after about a week she started to lose a bit of her spark. She didn’t seem so keen on walks, didn’t rush to eat her food, she didn’t seem herself.
Then, one morning, she refused to get up. Even I, with my limited husbandry skills, could see that all was not well. So off we went to the vet for what I expected would be a quick diagnosis and a few pills. How wrong I was.
The vet weighed her, felt around a bit and then declared she had two abscesses caused by a mango fly infestation. Ah yes, mango flies. These delightful creatures have a very interesting lifecycle which involves a fly laying its eggs in sand or excrement, the resultant larvae burrowing their way into an animal host inside of which they grow into plump little maggots which then burrow their way out again, drop to the ground and pupate into adult flies which then repeat the glorious process.
So up the dog went onto the operating table. She stood there obediently as the vet began to squeeze the animal’s flank. There was an audible ‘plop’ and something flew out of the animal and hit me on the chest and fell to the floor. I peered down to see a fat little worm, slowly squirming in dismay from having been so mercilessly expelled from the warm wetness of the dog’s flesh.
“That’s how they’re supposed to look,” said the vet.
“You mean totally disgusting?” I replied.
He then put the dog to sleep (literally to sleep, not ‘to sleep’ in a child-protecting metaphorical way), took a scalpel and stabbed the poor animal in the leg. Out gushed a torrent of pus and blood. I stared in grim fascination. This wasn’t what I had expected to be looking at when I got out of bed that morning.
“It’s infected,” said the vet. “Someone has tried to squeeze out a worm, but killed it.”
By this time I was feeling a bit ill. I stood and watched as the vet stabbed another abscess and then squeezed out the remaining mango worms. I even had a go. Once I had got over quite how repulsive the whole affair was, I began to enjoy it. It was rather satisfying in an adolescent kind of way: finding the little lump in the skin, getting under it with your fingers and then squeezing the thing out until it lay blood stained and softly wriggling on the table top.
(Although, I imagine it isn’t so much fun when it’s your own flesh you’re squeezing. Humans get them too.)
We left with some pills and instructions to return in a few days for a check-up. I am happy to report the dog is fine, although I am a little traumatised. We have now returned the house and stewardship of the animals to their owner. Although I did grow somewhat fond of her pets, I can’t say that I am a total convert to the joys of animals. There were a few too many indoor poos and a dab too much visceral horror for my liking.
The battle drums are deafening. The mad, skittering rhythms roll out over the crowd which claps and cheers in anticipation. Three ladies stand in a row next to the speaker stacks, swaying and passing the mic between them as they sing a strange, lilting refrain. My opponent is standing before me in the sand arena, his numerous juju pulled around him like spiritual armour. I look forlornly down at the sad, solitary talisman strapped around my sagging bicep. The referee raises his arm, nods at each of us and then lets it fall. We crouch and circle one another warily. The fight has begun…
It is a few hours earlier. Today is my first competitive wrestling match and I am feeling a little nervous. The tournament has been organised by my team and is being held in a local compound. I arrive early and walk through the entrance to be warmly welcomed by the man we call Master. He seems pleased that I have come.
After the registration and weigh-in, I sit in the shade of a nearby tree and wait for the other fighters to arrive. In the middle of the compound, there is a large sand circle surrounded by hundreds of vacant plastic chairs, near melting point in the afternoon sun. In the corner I see a small marquee beneath which there is a huddle of unattended drums and a large sound system, currently silent. The air is still thick with the heat of the day. Somewhere in the distance, a dog barks.
I sit for a few hours, chatting to a couple of the locals who seem intrigued at the prospect of me competing. Eventually, it is time for me to start getting ready. I retire behind a nearby wall and wind two metres of brightly coloured material around my groin. This is the traditional garb for wrestlers, a sort of loincloth which protects modesty and provides opponents with something to grip onto. I am inexpert and so by the time I have finished, I look as though I am wearing a large, colourful nappy.
I reach into my bag and pull out a small juju. I have been warned it would be foolish for me to fight without taking the proper magical precautions. Yesterday, I visited a local market and found a marabout willing to fashion one for me. There were a range of items I could have chosen to have incorporated, such as shells, beads and bits of fur. I chose a sawn-off goat or sheep’s horn as I was assured it would provide the maximum protection and give me added strength. I watched as the marabout filled the horn with melted wax and sewed it into camel skin. He attached it to some twine which I now use to tie it around my right bicep. I whisper the magic words the marabout taught me as I tie it on.
Often, wrestlers I have spoken with emphasise that the juju they wear, while sometimes quite elaborate and attractive to look at, should not be confused with jewellery. They may be fashioned using some of the same techniques and materials, but one is art and the other is something of a different order entirely.
I wonder whether their words give something away about the relationship between magic and art? Can art be seen as magic divorced from its overtly mystical aspect? Or is art still magical, but we no longer see it as such? Is being ‘moved’ by a work of art the same as being cast under a spell or an enchantment? Is this how juju works?
As I tie the juju on, I find myself wondering if it will actually work. I think this is what an ethnographer would call adopting an emic perspective. Perhaps if I win it will be because I had good juju. Or if I lose, it will be because the marabout wasn’t really a marabout at all, but a jewellery maker, or a fraud just going through the motions without the necessary mystical knowledge to transmute art into magic. Come to think of it, he did look rather young. I hope I haven’t purchased the magical equivalent of an Addidas t-shirt, or a Reedbock trainer. I push the thought aside and put my shorts on over my loincloth and a t-shirt over my juju and return to my seat.
There is a sudden commotion at the entrance. A young man rushes in followed by an entourage of whooping teenagers. He is clenching a large, black goat’s horn between his teeth. It is about ten times the size of the one on my arm. He charges towards the sand circle where he kneels and writes something in the sand. Then he stands to full height, his eyes glaring fiercely. He raises his arms and shouts something to the sky. I gulp.
More and more fighters arrive, all of them already in a heightened state. Their entourages run amok around the circle, the fighters weaving between them. All of them clutch various bottles of mysterious liquids which they douse themselves with. Their skins glisten. It is chaos.
A huddle congregates around the entrance and I walk over to see what is going on. I watch as they dig a hole by the sill and bury a wooden staff, painted in bright colours. Anyone who enters the compound must step over it. I imagine this will have some fearsome effect on their performance in the ring. I am glad I am already inside.
The seats are filling with spectators who are enjoying the build-up. As I sit quietly in a corner, I am approached by Master. He tells me that I cannot sit and watch, that I must join in the display if I want to fight. The ritual of preparation is integral to West African wrestling and without it, I will not be strong enough to compete. By now there is quite a crowd. Somewhat reluctantly, I step among the fighters and entourages and start slowly jogging up and down among them, an unfamiliar figure in the melee. The drummers are beating strange rhythms. The fighters jerk and lunge in time to the alien beat.
I am alone. I do not have my own entourage, although Mrs Boss Lady has come to watch. She is sitting on one of the chairs wearing an unreadable expression. Spotting this, Master has a word with someone who promptly starts running beside me and shouting at the spectators, whipping up support for the toubab. People look by turns bemused and amused at the sight of me. My companion has come equipped with many plastic bottles filled with various liquids. He pours and splashes them onto me, drenching my t-shirt to my skin.
The clear liquid is clean water which he says will cleanse and purify me. He also pours a brown liquid over me which he says will protect me from malicious words from my opponents, so their verbal magic will have no power. I lick my lips. It tastes like tea.
Strangely, after a few minutes of charging in front of the crowds, dodging other fighters and being drenched in potions as the drumming pounds my eardrums, I feel a change come over me. I begin to focus. My pulse quickens, my skin tingles and I feel a surge of power, a confidence which I could put down to atmosphere, the adrenaline of performance or to magic.
There is an MC on the mic now. He announces the fighters. As each name is called, they run towards the drummers who beat a special rhythm as they do a war dance. The other fighters look suitably fierce when they do it. I pretend not to hear when my name is called. Sadly, the organisers are having none of it. My name is called again and my corner man runs with me to the drummers where I do a little dance as the crowd watches. My flip flop half falls off and I am reduced to hopping around as it dangles off my foot. I am not sure my inept display has struck dread into my opponents.
The opening ritual complete, the tournament starts. There are two weight categories – Junior (65kg – 75kg) and Senior (75kg – 85kg). I am smack in the middle of the Senior category and so I should be at neither a particular advantage nor disadvantage. I take a seat as the first fight is called. The Junior category fighters will be the first to compete.
The initial fights pass me by as my head swims with adrenaline and nerves. Suddenly, my name is called. I am surprised. It is far too early. We are still in the first few fights of the Junior category. My opponent makes his way to the sand circle. It is ‘Chat’ from my wrestling club. He is technically excellent, but about half my size. Surely some mistake? I suspect that Master has had a hand in this, preventing me from fighting someone my own size in an attempt to save me from total humiliation. It is too late to correct it.
I stand up and remove my t-shirt and shorts to reveal pale skin and loincloth. There is the unmistakable sound of female laughter as I make my way towards the arena, my white skin a magnet for feminine mirth.
The battle drums are deafening…
We are in a clinch now. I dwarf my opponent, enveloping him. I use my superior weight to force him to the boundary to the sound of whooping from the crowd. The fight is restarted in the centre. He crouches like a cat, whipping back and forth along the ground. He is so low I can barely reach him. I grab hold of him again, but cannot shift him, his centre of gravity is roughly shin height. I try to trip him and almost succeed, but he manages to right himself and we are back to square one.
We reengage. I force him back to the boundary again and try to flip him over my hip and nearly succeed but he rights himself. I push and push. Suddenly the fight is stopped. The referee shouts something at me and raises the arm of my opponent, conferring victory. I am not sure why he has won. I was not turfed to the ground. The referee shouts that I did not stop when commanded to. I hadn’t heard him. I was locked in a gladiatorial struggle of Herculean proportions. I shrug and start to walk off.
Then one of the organisers rushes into the arena, scolds the referee, relieves him of his whistle and pulls another man from the crowd and commands him to continue the fight. It’s back on, with a new ref.
Bemused, Chat and I meet again in the centre of the arena. Again we go into a clinch. Neither of us can tip the other. I am too heavy, he is too low and quick. We are in deadlock. With rising frustration, I try to drag him across to unbalance him before tripping him over but I lose my footing and slip. I am in the sand. I have lost.
Chat’s entourage invades the arena and lifts the victor. I get up and dust the sand off. The crowd is cheering. The fight lasted longer than they had expected. I feel exhilarated. My eyes are staring and my heart is keeping time with the drum beat. I walk back to my seat where I am clapped on the back. “Well done toubab,” they say. “You tried.”
Maybe next time.
The below is a recording of the drummers and female singers at the tournament.
The following is a longer version of a piece that was published in this month’s edition of The Cricketer magazine.
The outfield may be littered with stones and play might occasionally be interrupted by enormous vultures, but cricket is alive and well in The Gambia. I am watching the Gambian national side play a touring team from Sussex on a scorching Saturday afternoon in Banjul, the capital of this tiny West African country. There is a small crowd of spectators huddled under the shade of the stand, a mix of local boys and sun burned ex-pats sipping Pimm’s. The atmosphere is lively.
The visiting side are the Sussex Seniors. They arrived at the Banjul oval by minibus a few hours ago, carried hundreds of miles from home by their love of the game. Despite their average age being about 65, they are putting on a strong batting display against the much younger Gambian side. It is the second time they have been on tour here. They last visited in 2008 when they won the series 3 – 2. Victory may not be a sure thing today though. Gambian cricket has come a long way since then.
The Gambia Cricket Association (GCA) has its headquarters in a small room at the rear of the stand at the Banjul oval. It is from here that Johnny Gomez, the President of the GCA masterminds the expansion of the sport in his home country. A taciturn man, he takes cricket very seriously and has played it in The Gambia for over 25 years. It is his passion.
Once a British colony, The Gambia was at one time a cricketing nation. However, following the declaration of independence in 1965, the country was keen to shrug off its colonial influences. This, combined with a lack of passionate cricketing leadership in the country meant that cricket gradually went in to decline. According to Gomez: “The sport was kind of let go, and things didn’t work out”.
Gomez and the Gambia Cricket Association are now working hard to revive cricket in The Gambia. It is not an easy task in a country with an estimated population of only 1.7 million with an average life expectancy at birth of just 58 (less than the average age of the Sussex Seniors). The World Bank estimates that in 2010, 48% of the population was living at the national poverty line, and the UN Human Development Report 2011 ranks The Gambia as one of the twenty least developed countries in the world.
The country is facing enormous challenges. But cricket’s fortunes in The Gambia are slowly changing, thanks to the tenacity of Gomez and his team. Gomez says: “My dream and aim is to take cricket further, to try to build up a strong foundation and get the structures in place.” Slowly but surely, this dream is being realised.
The vast majority of the country’s economic activity is concentrated around the west coast of the country near to the capital. Consequently, cricket was until recently barely played outside Banjul and its environs. In an attempt to decentralise the sport and introduce it to more young people, the Gambia Cricket Association has introduced a Primary and Secondary schools league as well as a girls’ team in the western region. It uses part of its annual grant funding of US$23,000 from the ICC to finance seminars to train teachers how to play so they can pass these skills onto their pupils. It is the GCA’s ambition next year to be able to introduce a pan-Gambian schools league incorporating kids from the more rural eastern part of the country.
David Prince Johnson, The Gambia captain, has played cricket in The Gambia for eleven years. He is supportive of the role that Gomez has played since his election as President of the GCA in 2008. He says: “There have been tremendous changes since Mr Gomez took over. Before, there were not many kids playing this game. But …there are lots and lots of kids playing now, especially at school level. This was not here before.”
However, while it is to some extent able to address grass roots development of the sport, the funding the GCA receives is not enough to enable it to employ a full time coach for the national side. This is something it desperately needs. Fortunately, today the team has the support of Andrew Ifill, a gregarious Barbadian and sometime national team coach. He is an imposing presence on the boundary, bellowing instructions to his team who are doing all they can to limit the number of runs scored by the Sussex side. “Move them rocks off the field!” he shouts to his man at Deep Fine Leg. The fielder duly lifts up the two enormous stones lying next to him and deposits them over the boundary.
Ifill, however, is based in the UK and the team therefore only benefits from his expertise once or twice a year for a few weeks at a time. Ifill works with the Gambian team for the love of the game alone. He has grown fond of the players and would love to see cricket grow and flourish in The Gambia. He says: “It’s not a popular sport here, but it’s growing. It’s encouraging to see the kids all out here every evening, it shows me that they like the game. The more kids we can get it to, then the bigger it will become and, who knows, it could become just as popular as football.”
As well as the schools league, there is a small domestic adults league. It is from this small pool of players and the senior schools teams that the national team is picked. The Gambia is currently in the Third Division of the World Cricket League Africa Region, along with Cameroon, St. Helena, Seychelles, Rwanda, Lesotho, Malawi, Mali and Morocco.
The Banjul cricket oval where the two teams are meeting today is the best cricketing facility in the country. Even so, its wicket has a concrete base and is riven in cracks. But the lack of proper facilities does not discourage the players, who are just glad to have somewhere to practise. As Ifill says “The outfield here is not the best, but the guys do the best with what they have. If they can field on this outfield, they can field anywhere in the world.”
The Gambia is in bat now. A cheer goes up as Melvin Williams, their star batsman, hits a six. The ball lands in a nearby tree where it gets stuck and play is interrupted while a young boy climbs up to retrieve it. The Gambian side are chasing 105 for 5 in this limited over match and are making short work of it, despite losing one of their opening batsmen to a Duck. The Sussex Seniors are perhaps not quite as nimble as they once were. After a decisive if not overly technical batting display, it is all over. The Gambia has won with 117 for 3.
Adrian Harlant, the scorer for Sussex is impressed. “We came four years ago in 2008, we were more successful … but they have learnt a lot since then, they don’t bowl wides anymore.” Last time they came, the Sussex Seniors donated some training equipment and it seems as though they are now suffering the consequences of their generosity. Harlant is also complimentary about Ifill’s role: “It seems to have paid dividends” he notes ruefully.
Gomez would like to see more teams come on tour to The Gambia. Tourism already plays a major part in the Gambian economy with visitors typically coming to enjoy the beautiful climate, sandy beaches and laid-back lifestyle. Gomez would like to add Gambian cricket to that list. He says: “We would like to introduce cricket tourism…They can come for a week or two and have a beautiful time here…Any team from lower basic school up to senior teams – they are welcome to come.”
The Sussex Seniors has again generously shipped two containers full of cricket equipment to Banjul thanks to donations from the players and the clubs they play for as well as funding from the Cricket Society and the MCC Foundation. Later on during their 14 day tour, they will run some training seminars for the Gambian youth teams. This will complement Gomez and the GCA’s continuing efforts on behalf of Gambian cricket. But to continue to develop the sport sustainably in this country, it needs more funding and it needs a full time national coach.
If you are interested in getting involved with Gambian cricket in any capacity or if you would like to organise a cricket tour to The Gambia please contact Johnny Gomez at jon_gomez(at)hotmail.com.
It’s about six in the evening and I’m sitting under a tree on the corner of our street chatting to ‘M’, the 19 year old son of one of our neighbours. I have just been for an evening bike ride along the sandy tracks linking the villages that network the Kombos. I often go for a cycle as dusk falls, bumping along the uneven ground while the sun dips lower in the sky and the smoke from cooking fires draws a veil across the auburn landscape.
As I perspire quietly next to him, I notice ‘M’ staring intently at the building over the road. It is a ‘lodge’, a three story hotel built in the local style. I ask him whether he thinks it would be a good place for my parents to stay if they come to visit. He laughs.
“No Lamin. It rents rooms by the hour.”
“We are sitting here watching the old ladies come to have sex with their boyfriends,” he chuckles. “Look, here comes one now.”
A yellow taxi crawls past us and stops outside the lodge. A woman of about forty gets out and scurries inside.
“Look how old she is!” chortles ‘M’. “She is coming to hide from her husband!”
I am surprised. The Gambia is a religious country, predominately Muslim. I had assumed extra-marital sex was strictly frowned upon and therefore rare. I ask ‘M’ about this. He tells me that it is quite common, but that it must be kept out of sight. Communal compound living makes this tricky, especially if you are married. Hence these sorts of lodges.
“Lots of people come here because it is quiet and away from the main road. Even religious leaders come here to have sex with their girlfriends. They tell us not to do things, but they are doing these same things in secret,” says ‘M’.
He tells me a story of how his brother once caught one of his teachers going into the lodge. He ran up to greet him, a mischievous glint in his eye.
“Oh!” said the teacher, aghast. “You live here?”
“Yes, I live here,” replied the brother, innocently.
The teacher pulled nervously at his collar and dabbed his brow with a handkerchief. “Well, I just met this girl who was not feeling well, so I brought her here to get a glass of water and make sure she is alright,” he said lamely, before scuttling inside.
From that day on, the brother would regularly go up to the teacher at school and complain that he didn’t have enough money to get transport home. Strangely, the teacher would always be happy to give him enough for the ride.
I ask ‘M’ whether the local residents mind there being a house of ill repute in their neighbourhood.
“No, they do not mind,” he replies. It does look very discreet. A steady stream of visitors is the only clue. I’ve been living here for four months now, and I’ve never noticed. As we watch, another taxi pulls up and another woman gets out. One of our companions cruelly whistles at her. She looks across at us sheepishly before disappearing into the building.
“It is not just old ladies,” says ‘M’. “Old men come here with their girlfriends, to get away from their wives. Some come with really young girls.”
I blanch. “How young?” I ask, nervously.
“Like, 16, 17, 18 years old? They have their Sugar Daddies. You know what a Sugar Daddy is?”
Just to make sure I understand, ‘M’ explains: “They phone up their Sugar Daddy and say ‘I want this new dress’ or ‘I want these new shoes’. And the Sugar Daddy will give them the money next time they have sex.”
Although the thought of this is repellent, I am slightly relieved. I had thought for a horrible moment that he was going to tell me that old men were bringing young children here. Although the Sugar Daddy scenario represents a crass commodification of women’s bodies and is fraught with all sorts of very troubling power relations, at least the women involved are to some extent able to give their informed consent.
I ask at what age Gambians usually start having sex.
“It depends,” replies ‘M’. He gestures towards the next village through which I have just cycled. It is noticeably poorer than our neighbourhood. It is a huddle of ramshackle single story grey buildings surrounded by sprawling fields of rubbish: plastic bottles, torn clothing and rotting scraps of food.
“Over there, you see children carrying their own babies on their backs,” says ‘M’.
“They are not married. An old man will say: ‘Here is 50 delasis if you will come with me.’ And then they have his baby, but he will deny it. The baby will be a bastard. 50 delasis, it is not much.”
No. It is not much. It is about £1.
“It is the poverty,” says ‘M’. “It is fucked up,” he adds, shaking his head. I rarely hear Gambians swear.
We sit there in silence for a long moment. I wonder about a world in which the price of a child’s innocence in one country is the same as a lottery ticket in another.
Some people are luckier than others.
It is fair to say that childless women in The Gambia can be somewhat stigmatised. As one display in a museum here mildly puts it, “Women who cannot bear children or whose children die at an early age live lonely and miserable lives.” Possibly in an attempt to make their lives less lonely and miserable, childless women in more rural areas may form themselves into associations called Kanyeleng Kafo.
As far as I understand it, the Kanyeleng are akin to masquerade troupes. They perform songs and dances for the community in which they are able to lampoon or caricature social norms without censure. They may often dress as men, with some even going so far as to wear rather alarming false beards.
This is an interesting (perhaps the only?) example of socially sanctioned cross-dressing in The Gambia, where gender roles are clearly delineated and generally strictly enforced. Perhaps by being childless, these women are perceived by society as not quite being women and are therefore permitted, or expected to assume ‘mannish’ qualities, at least in appearance?
It also reminds me a bit of the way that jesters in medieval courts were afforded the special privilege of lampooning persons of importance by virtue of being perceived as removed from normal court society and therefore to some extent exempt from the usual rules.
For the Kanyeleng, it is almost as if by not being able to fulfil what is perceived as being the most important function of womanhood, these childless women exert an unacceptable pressure on society’s normative taxonomical structure which must be relieved by imagining a kind of parallel branch of society which is able to accommodate them. In this way, a mental space is created for them in which to exist, a space which is within mainstream society but is at the same time partly excluded from it.
I am at my friend ‘T’s compound, preparing for a fight. There is a wrestling tournament later today, and he has asked me round to his place so that we can get ready together. I am sitting on the only chair in his small room watching wrestling DVDs on an old television. There is a mattress on the floor in the corner and a mirror on the wall and not much else in the way of furnishings. ‘T’ is sitting and brewing attaya. On the rug next to the brazier, there are a number of strange looking objects which he has brought back with him from his last visit to Senegal. These are jujus for the fight.
Having been hooked since I first watched it back in March, I have been training West African wrestling for the past six weeks here in The Gambia. I have joined a local team which meets every evening on a nearby beach. We engage in arduous fitness exercises on the sand and then spar with each other under the watchful eye of a small, quiet man we call Master. There are about twenty of us. The other guys are all Senegalese or Gambian and much fitter than I am. They are also much better at wrestling. But I am improving.
‘T’ is one of the senior members of the team, with roots in wrestling in Senegal. At about 6’5” at his full height, he is wiry and long limbed and therefore very difficult to fight against for a relatively squat little chap like myself. He encloses his opponents like a spider trapping a fly, his limbs seemingly everywhere. Despite his oppressive fighting style, he is gregarious and open and appears to take great pleasure in my interest in his sport. It is largely thanks to his friendliness that I have been welcomed by the rest of the team who are also competing later today.
He now crouches by the attaya, watching wrestling on his television and pointing out the techniques to me. There are many, despite wrestling appearing to simply be about brute force in the eyes of the uninitiated.
“Tu vois?” he says. “Je t’ai montré cette technique!” he adds gleefully, a broad grin spreading across his lean face as a fighter tips another hapless opponent into the sand.
We sit and watch for several hours, drinking attaya. I glance nervously at my watch. The weigh-in was supposed to be at 15:00. It is now 16:00. I suggest to ‘T’ that perhaps we should be going. He tells me not to worry and that it’s running on ‘African time’.
Ah yes. African time: where the whole day can melt into a single syrupy moment. It reminds me of something Humpty Dumpty once said. To misquote: “‘When I say a time…it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.’” Time can therefore assume Alice in Wonderland qualities here, where it is stretched or shrunk without warning. My heart begins to palpitate as I start to doubt we will ever leave. I feel like the White Rabbit: “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!”
Perhaps sensing my anxiety, ‘T’ eventually shows signs of getting ready. He leaves the room to wash himself and then returns to arrange his jujus and engage in a ritual of preparation. He starts by breaking off bits of kola nut and sewing them into some white material along with some papaya berries and then crushing them together so that the juice and the nut mingles, staining the material into a string of reddish-brown parcels. These are a protective juju. He hangs them on the wall to dry.
Next, he takes out a little bag of greyish powder and shows it to me. It looks rough and gritty, like ground seeds or rock salt. He crouches over the lit brazier and throws a blanket over himself. I hear a crackle as he sprinkles some of the powder onto the hot coals. A thin grey smoke starts to crawl from under the blanket which heaves as he takes deep breaths. “Lamin,” he calls. “Come!”
He is keen for me to take part in the preparations as, despite my whiteness, I must still protect myself from the magic of the opposing teams. I crawl under the blanket to join him as he sprinkles more of the powder onto the brazier. Sparks fly and warm smoke fills my nostrils. It smells soft, not acrid. I breathe it in and it heats my lungs, but I don’t feel any sharpness as with tobacco. I ask ‘T’ what the powder is for and he tells me it is to make us strong. Rather to my relief, I can feel no physical effect from the smoke.
‘T’ stands up and throws aside the blanket and then wraps up the remainder of the powder. Now he takes out a small package of crushed green leaves and stalks. I peer closely at it and smell it, but there is no strong odour. He invites me to crouch with him by the brazier as he sprinkles some of the leaves onto the coals. They crackle as they burn. He washes his hands in the thick smoke, interlocking his fingers and rubbing his palms together like a surgeon scrubbing up before an operation. I do the same, the smoke crawling over my hands in reverse waterfall. ‘T’ explains it is to stop your opponent from getting a strong grip on you. Perhaps the magical logic here as that one will be as smoke in the hands of the opposition?
Our ablutions complete, ‘T’ puts away the packets of leaves and powder and packs the rest into a bag that he will take with him to the tournament. The items he is bringing with him include three bottles of liquid which he will pour over himself in the build-up to the fight. He has purchased them from a marabout. As far as I have been able to find out, these variously contain water mixed with sand from the grounds of a mosque and water in which paper with Qur’anic scripts written in reverse have been dissolved.
This is an interesting example of the kind of synthesis of Islam and traditional West African beliefs which can be accommodated in the region. Later, when I ask another wrestler friend why magic is used in wrestling, he acknowledges Allah’s superiority and greatness, but also indicates that there are other forces at work and it is to combat these that the wrestlers engage the services of marabouts and wear protective juju.
The use and manipulation of written script in this magic is also interesting. It seems that by creating a magic potion from dissolved words, there is a belief that the written word as an object is capable of holding magical power. To be capable of manipulating words is to be capable of working magic. This is why the marabouts are also scholars of Islam. As the notes alongside an exhibit in one of the museums here says:
“With the coming of Islam, writing was introduced to Senegambia …In traditional animist beliefs, words have a power of their own. How much more powerful then is the written word which could almost be viewed as magical?”
Before we leave, ‘T’ puts on his personal jujus. Most wrestlers have these. They are leather bands worn round the waist into which are sewn shells or other items. There are various kinds with various properties. Some will increase the strength of the wearer, some will sap the strength of an opponent. Others protect the wearer from the power of the opponent’s magic, whatever form it takes. Some wrestlers never take theirs off, as they believe that they are always at risk from magical attack.
Finally, ‘T’ takes the now dry protective jujus of his own manufacture and puts them carefully in his bag. We are ready to leave. We walk together to the entrance gate of his compound. I am about to step over the mantle, but he puts out his arm to stop me. He takes out a bottle of plain water and carefully pours it in a line over the sand in front of us, right to left. Then he leans out of the doorway into the street outside and marks nine dashes in the sand, again right to left. We step over them and walk down the street. I ask what they are for and the only answer I get is: “Everything is ten. When we come back from the competition, we draw a line through the nine to make ten. Everything is good.”