Thursday, December 3, 2009

Sometimes Things Get Surrealistic

Sometimes things get surrealistic. One of the difficult things here is the lack of information; how to find resources. There is no telephone book; no yellow pages. Don’t expect to find it on the internet. One simply has to ask. Answers are often inaccurate and conflicting.
If you need, for instance, an automobile part there is a strip along both sides of the highway in Old Jeshwan where, for half a mile, there is store after shop after store selling automotive items. You might be lucky and find what you need there. It might take looking in a dozen shops. Then, not finding it, you might ask around and eventually be told there are more auto parts shops on the Brickama Highway in Latrikunda. So, you go to Latrikunda. After finding and then exhausting those shops and inquiring even further you might, if you are fortunate, be told about the used parts shops in another place called Paka. You then seek directions to Paka and are misled with vague directions and a lot of pointing and then finally find the narrow, oil-saturated alley where cars are dismantled and the parts sold.
If you are a toubab the prices will be inflated astronomically since, by Gambian reckoning, if you are white you must be rich. Thus, some weeks ago, after 4 hours trying to find some simple retaining springs for the brake shoes I was replacing I was offered three sets for 900 dalasis, about $30. These are the same springs that if you walk into a brake shop in the US they’ll give you a handful for free. I told the man he could keep his parts and I would keep my dalasis. I ended up reusing the almost-rusted-out ones I’d taken off. No way was I going to get jacked up. Nosiree.
Stupid pride? I admit it.
Today I was motoring around on the bike, looking for plastic bags in which to start some cashew trees. I’ve bought a chunk of land and I plan to plant cashew trees. They are a valuable crop. Besides, I love cashews. Caramel cashew ice cream is the closest thing to heaven I can imagine. They had it in Michigan when I was in med school and I’d never tasted anything like it before nor have I since.
So, my good friend, Edward Gomez, attorney extraordinaire and aspiring agriculturalist, gave me a container of seed cashews from Brazil for starting. Much bigger than the ordinary cashews grown here, they should fetch a good price. Here, cashew trees begin bearing two years after planting.
Cashews are not nuts. (This author may be, but cashews are not.) They are the pistil of a flower. A fruit that looks much like a delicious apple forms after fertilization and the “nut” sticks out the end of it. The “nut” is surrounded by a very hard shell and the meat is inside. The “apple” is edible. The juice is slightly sweet and has an astringent taste I’m not crazy about. I’m told though, that the juice is used for making a potent alcoholic drink that is very popular among non-Muslims. The left-over fruit pulp, squeezed out and dried, is valuable fodder for cattle, sheep and goats.
So, why are things surrealistic? you ask. As I said, I am putting around on Timpa Marong, my F650 BMW motorbike, (Blackest of motorcycles in The Gambia and envy of all who look upon him!), stopping hither and yon and asking puzzled Gambians if they know where the garden shop is. “I was told it is in New Jeshwan”, I tell them, and so all whom I ask send me in the direction of Old Jeshwan. I ask a policeman directing traffic at Jimpex Junction. He knows me and gives me a big welcome and smile and sends me in the opposite direction to ask his fellow officer, Jobe, who sends me back the way I came with detailed directions which prove to be generally – but not specifically – correct. Cruising past the crossroads he had directed me to and not seeing anything resembling a garden shop, I stop near another officer who is sitting on a guard rail in the median, eating groundnuts.
I pull the bike up on the median near him, shut off the motor, take off my goggles and look at him. He looks back at me, takes another peanut, cracks it and eats it. Then he stands up slowly and approaches. “What do you want?” he says. This is very abrupt for a Gambian. The norm is a greeting: how are you, how is the evening, how is your family, They are there, How are you, I am fine, Thank God, etc. Only then does one get down to the business at hand. So important is this, I might add, that being warned of a charging rhino would only come after a polite series of greetings and a handshake or two.
“Good evening”, I said.
He looked at me for a moment and said, “Good evening.” He was a nice-looking, young man in navy blue trousers, light blue shirt and the natty, black military beret the National Police wear. He had a newspaper cone of peanuts in his hand and an oddly flat expression.
“How is the evening?” I asked, trying not to be too hasty. He considered this. At length he replied, “It is fine.”
“There is supposed to be a garden shop near here. You know, a place that sells things for farming, agriculture and gardens. Do you know where it is?”
He looked at me. He looked away into the distance.
“You are looking for someone,” he stated, quite missing the mark.
“No,” I replied, puzzled, “I am looking for the garden shop,”.
He seemed to ponder this conundrum. He took a moment or two to consider. I thought we were getting somewhere but nothing happened. “You know, agriculture,” I finally suggested. “Do you know what agriculture is?”
“Yes. I know what agriculture is.” He turned to me and asked, “What is your name?”
I hesitated. Usually when the police ask you for your name it is not a good sign. “Dawda”, I told him. He looked at me, waiting for me to add a surname. I waited him out.
“My name is Famara,” he said. “And how long have you lived in The Gambia?”
“What,” I thought, “does this have to do with the garden shop?”
“How long have you lived in The Gambia?” he repeated.
“Off and on for more than three and a half years.”
“You have lived here almost four years.” It was a statement, almost triumphant; the closest he had gotten to any emotion. I was wondering where we were going with this. There was something oddly disconnected about his manner, like his thoughts had gone on vacation but might come jogging back for a visit if I was patient. He kept looking at me, then looking away distractedly over the mangroves. I was waiting for Rod Serling to step out from behind a billboard.
“Do you know where the garden shop is?” I asked again, trying to bring him back on task.
“My job is to look after this 25-kilometer-per-hour speed zone,” he began, waving his hand vaguely in the direction of the other side of the divided highway, the one he had been sitting, facing away from. “I am in charge of this.” I kept waiting for him to tell me I had somehow violated some obscure statute, or one he had just invented in order to hit me for a bribe, but this man was not operating true-to-form. He had some other constellation whirling in his cosmos.
I cut in and asked him again about the garden shop.
He pondered this. I waited on his pronouncement. “No.” he finally said, “I don’t know where it is, but give me your number. I will call you when I discover it.”
Before Rod Serling could return control of my TV set to me I thanked him heartily, not quite sure what planet we were on, cranked up the bike and took off in a cloud of dust and a hearty “Hi Yo, Silver!”
Some days I think I’m out of my cashews.
My land is flat, sandy and measures 60 by 90 meters. There are some scattered oil palms on it but over all the cover is grass and low brush. I bought it from the Alkalo (chief) of Busumbala through his younger son, Musa Jatta. He and his older brother and Kinteh, who provides security over the land, along with myself, my friend, Lamin Kuyate and his neighbor, Ebrima Jawara, all gathered there to measure the borders of the property. I had my handheld GPS along to record the coordinates of the corners. As well, I brought a lensatic compass to double-check the GPS bearings, and pen and paper for notes. I also brought a surveyor who works for the Physical Planning Department.
The surveyor and I had been there two days before, trying to measure the land, but I couldn’t find the first corner we had established a few days before that. At the south end there is a 60 by 30 piece walled in waist-high with concrete blocks. It turns out there are two such compounds, which I didn’t realize, and we were trying to measure from the wrong one.
Surveying in the West African bush isn’t quite the same as the surveying I’m accustomed to. The surveyor had naught but paper, pen, and a 60-meter measuring tape in a round, flat, green plastic reel. No transit. No alidade. No theodolite. We found the stake at the southwest corner of the property, which I then assumed would be the index corner. I took a bearing on the next corner while everyone headed somewhat north toward the northwest corner.
It was hot and the sun slammed me in the head from a clear sky. Hundreds of butterflies danced among salmon-colored flowers. The air smelled of dust and wild mint. I followed the men through the bush. Pausing by a clump of shrubbery, I looked down to see the greenish-purple tail of a meter-long Nile monitor lizard a bare inch from my boot. The tail was as thick as my forearm and powerful. I froze, delighted to see this creature, or at least its tail. The rest was hidden under the bush. With a quick rustle it slipped under the overhanging leaves and disappeared.
Ninety meters was measured and a stake placed. I recorded the position then took a ninety-degree bearing and directed the gang toward the leftmost of two tall palm trees. They measured out sixty meters. I realized I’d neglected to get the position of the northwest stake, so I went back and recorded it. When I returned to the position we had measured for the northeast stake everybody was about ten meters south and further east near a fence line. That was where they had decided the corner was. Hold on a second, guys! You’ve gone too far.
No, no, they declared. This is the corner.
But it’s not where we measured. It’s more than sixty meters and it makes the northwest corner less than ninety degrees. Is the land a rectangle? They assured me it was. And they insisted this was the correct corner. I pointed out that if that was the correct corner then 1. The land was not a rectangle, and 2. They were going to give me more land than I was paying for.
No, no. I could not be correct.
Yes, yes. I know what I’m talking about.
It went back and forth like this until I began to realize they didn’t know what a ninety-degree angle is. I asked Musa’s older brother. He thought I was referring to meters.
It seemed also, the definition of a rectangle was a bit beyond their Euclidian knowledge. OK. I called everyone over and smoothed a patch of sand with my hand. I drew out a rough map of the land, including the fence line (it is a very rough fence of rusted barbed wire and squiggly wooden posts). I drew a picture of a rectangular piece of land. I then drew out what the land would look like if we used their northeast corner: roughly a parallelogram. “Oh, no mattah!” Musa said, “We will give you the extra land. You are our brother.” (I get a bit nervous whenever someone I’ve known for a scant three days starts calling me brother.)
Fine. They all set off for the southeast corner. I asked what they were doing. We are going to measure from that corner to this one.
Hold on! I said. You should measure from this corner to that one. The idea of measuring from a known point to an unknown point just didn’t compute. It took a lot of convincing, but they finally agreed to measure from the northeast to southeast and then back to our index corner in the southwest.
So, it looks like I will own a sort of parallelogram-shaped property, slightly over 90 meters at the north end. I’ve got the GPS coordinates of the corners and the surveyor knows the surrounding pieces of land. I have to get used to the fact that land here has never been measured and bounded precisely. Here, in The Gambia, instruments for establishing boundaries are not lasers or optical devices, they are fences and negotiation,.
I went riding with David Beardsley Sunday before last. We met at the Tanji River Bridge at 9:30; the sun sharing sky room with cumulus banks. The point of the exercise was 1. To have a good time riding, 2. Get to know each other a bit, and 3. For me to learn some off-road riding skills, especially how to get through deep sand.
David was leery of my relatively smooth “dual sport” tires (Metzeler Tourance), which are designed for relatively firm surfaces: asphalt, gravel roads, light sand. “Let’s,” he suggested, “follow a track down here that’s reasonably well-packed. There are sections of deep stuff, but they don’t last long. Are you up for it?” I certainly was. I was also reasonably nervous about the deep stuff. Same sort of anxiety I would feel standing at the top of a steep ski slope with waist-deep powder. Not something I’m used to and afraid of consequences.
David rides a Honda XR-650; a dual-sport closer to a pure dirt machine than my BMW. It is old technology, with a bullet-proof, carbureted engine from the ‘80s, traditional tank layout, and a suspension he has tweaked a bit. He rode trials, ndure and moto-cross for many years as a member of the British Army racing team. He knows his machine. He knows how to ride it. And he is essentially fearless. Not my traits at all!
With a twist of the throttle and a scatter of dirt and pebbles from his knobbies, he skidded the back end around 180 degrees and was off with me in teeth-gritting pursuit. Onto the asphalt of the coastal road, down a kilometer, then abruptly off the pavement onto a dirt road into the bush. Mourning doves and ring-necked doves exploded from the road before David’s tires. I watched him cross a deep patch of rutted sand with a sudden blast of throttle. I tried to stay in the tire tracks left by automobiles that had passed before us, while trying to follow David’s line and emulate his throttle technique. Nonetheless, my rear tire was fishtailing and occasionally the front tire would start weaving back and forth in the sand. My heart was in my nose by now and twice I almost lost control of the front wheel. I was sitting back on the “step” of the passenger seat, trying to keep my shoulders relaxed, wondering if my death-grip on the handlebars would leave dents. I was also wondering when the seemingly inevitable dump would happen and wondering if I would have any dents of my own.
The deep sand was just a bitch. I was scared every moment I was in it and was right at the edge of control. After a few kilometers I finally told David it wasn’t working for me. He agreed. He’d noticed I’d almost lost it a few times and suggested we go back and ride some packed roads to a beachside restaurant he knew and go have a cuppa tea. So we did. We made it back to the coast road without me making a fool or a cripple of myself. After that sand the dirt road was a piece of cake. Past ladies carrying buckets or baskets on their heads, sheep wandering the road, and men driving donkey carts.
We settled down to cups of good English tea at an al fresco bar overlooking the beach. One doesn’t converse with David. One attends. He told me stories about his days with the British Army Racing Team, racing in the UK and on the Continent. Well worth listening too they were, as well. He talked about arriving, for example, at a track in the mountains in Germany. The team would get there a couple of hours early for the race and spend their time running the bikes (BSA 350 and 500 singles) and experimenting with the jetting of the carburetors and suspension setup. He had a notebook in which he’d enter the parameters for that specific track with the particular atmospheric conditions and, armed with this notebook, he could return years later to the same track and know how to jet his carb, what tires to use, etc. Sort of like the rutters kept by ancient navigators.
We talked about tires and about suspension setup. I asked him if he’d take a ride on my bike to get an impression of what needed to be done. He declined. “With those tyres I won’t like it. Get your tyres first,” he said. “Then I’ll ride the bike and we can start setting up the suspension.”
“in the sand,” he said, “you’ve got to use the throttle and ride fast!” He got off his chair and squatted down on the sand. “Here’s what happens when you’re riding slow.” He took the knife-edge of his hand and pushed it through the sand. I watched a bow wave of sand form and flow away from the sides of his advancing hand. “See, you’re pushing the sand out of the way. Now, hit the sand with your fist.” He punched the sand. I punched the sand. It hurt! It’s behavior was different when struck than when pushed.
“If you hit the sand hard with your tire you don’t give it a chance to flow away,” he said. “It acts like a solid.”
It hit me suddenly, the analogy with boating physics. Sand, like water, is a fluid when pushed slowly. It is solid when it’s punched.
The motorcycle tire moving slowly through sand is like a boat with a displacement hull. The sand parts and flows along the sides. Speed isn’t going to happen. Once you start moving faster a different physics goes into play. The tires become planning hulls. They ride up on top of the sand and, as in a boat, the captain has to keep the power on or the hull/tires settle back down, become displacement hulls and the sand becomes a fluid again. Ride fast enough to turn the sand to a solid and things become more predictable.
“It’s the transition that’s tricky,” he said. “It’s while you’re getting from riding slow to where you’re up to speed that’ll get you in trouble.” He was, of course, right, but I found that giving it power, just like in street riding, settles the machine down and gets you through.
So, how is changing direction accomplished? A boat, planing at high speed and trying to change direction will drift sideways unless prevented by some lateral force. In the case of the boat it is the keel or skeg or centerboard. In the case of my motorcycle it is the side ridges on the tire treads. On David’s bike it was the sides of the knobs on his tires. On mine, I had very little of this lateral resistance and I tended to drift out.
There are various techniques for turning but the one David explained to me and the one I used was contrary to all my street training. You stay upright and lean the bike under you. Weight on the outside peg forces the tire straight down into the sand. With the bike leaned over and weight pushing down the centrifugal force of the tire pushes sand to the outside of the turn and, at speed, this wall of displaced sand becomes an instant berm, pushing back against the tire. Force and counterforce. Pure Third-Law Newton.
We finished our tea and David proposed we ride the beach back home. Fine with me. I’m up for a nice, leisurely ride to settle my still-frazzled nerves. We mushed through the deep stuff and got out to the firm sand at water’s edge. There were gulls and fairy terns overhead, broken shell and cuttlebone in the sand and David set off like he had a hot date waiting at home. (Perhaps he did!) 60, 70, 80, 90 kilometers per hour. I kept trying to relax my shoulders and grip and gradually it worked. I experimented with leaning the bike, sensing the counter-push of the sand against the tires.
David would get well ahead of me and then noodle off into the deep sand up the beach, wasting time until I caught up. He did this twice and then I figured, “Sod it!”, turned up the wick and raced him all the way to Brufut Village. I kept thinking of the book A Twist of the Wrist, II, and the constant admonishment to fight one’s normal survival instinct to back off the throttle. Crank it on! Apply power. Power is what settles the machine; what gets you through.
We parted in Brufut, both with many things to do with the rest of our day. It has been nine days since that ride and my confidence in the sand has leaped exponentially. Thanks for the great mentoring, David.

All in one day our golden rooster disappeared and the feral orange and white tom cat that lives in the mango tree ate one of our chicks. I turned the generator shed behind the house into a chicken coop with nesting boxes and a perch. There are three hens: a speckled grey, a golden-brown mama with (now) two chicks, and a white one with a crest like a rooster. Despite her assertive crest she is at the bottom of the pecking order and spends a great deal of time scuttling away from the other chickens. When I had first built the coop and was getting the chooks accustomed to it the now past-tense golden rooster pecked the top of her head into a bloody abattoir. Moose, the older of the two schoolkids in the compound and I had to nurse her back to health. She recovered well physically but now spends a half hour at a time standing by herself on one leg with her left eye shut tight. Some sort of avian Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Or perhaps she just has a headache.
A few days ago a white rooster with black speckles showed up in the compound. We don’t know who he belongs to or where he comes from. I noticed this morning that the family at the back of the compound have tethered him to the empty water tank. He certainly belongs to someone. Perhaps they are planning a surreptitious rooster stew for Tobaski.
The older son, Pa, is a friendly, helpful guy who works out daily and is built like an obsidian Adonis. He needs to buy his taxi driver’s license for D2000 so he can earn money for the family. The stepfather, Bakary, used to do field work for the Medical Research Council but that dried up and now he is unemployed like 80% of the other urban men in The Gambia. An aunt in the UK sends money for rent but otherwise it is hand-to-mouth the rest of the time. I’ve been giving the two schoolchildren money for breakfast but I’m short on that myself right now.
In spite of it all the family sits outside in the evenings –their electricity was turned off – and they talk animatedly among themselves, enjoying each other’s company. The skinny, ten-year-old daughter skips around, has a quick smile and sings to herself. Poverty and satisfaction.
Ibou Jallow, the kid with the pre-leukemia syndrome, is back in hospital again with a massive abscess on his right hip. He is stick-thin. His father, a tall, handsome man in traditional beard and caftan, attends him with pathetic dignity, hoping for some sign of hope.
For nearly two months I have been trying to send digital photos of his bone marrow microscopy to a doctor at Mass. General. I went to Banjul to Royal Victoria Teaching Hospital, where I used to work. First I was put off by the Cuban haematologist because he was too busy. Come back next week. Then he was in examinations. Then, we finally assembled myself, him and the head pathologist. The camera was locked up and the guy with the key was “in a meeting”. Then the slides of the bone marrow aspirate got lost. The haematologist was blasé. We still have the peripheral smears, I was told. We got everyone together again and the camera still wasn’t available. Most recently I found the haematologist has gone back to Cuba on leave and won’t be back until December. It’s a good thing I’m bald or I’d be tearing my hair out.
Meanwhile, the kid’s bone marrow malfunctions. His hemoglobin, which should be around 13 is between 4 and 5 and he has little ability to fight infection…or even be a kid. If the haematologist’s diagnosis is correct there is little chance he will live, even with the best of treatment.
A hospital in London wrote that they’d be happy to treat him, for £180,000, prepaid.
I donated a pint of blood for him two months ago – we are both O-positive – but they wouldn’t let me donate again last month. Only every two months, they said. In the States one can donate every month. I’m guessing the extra time here is because with poor diet people don’t regenerate their red cell mass as quickly here.
Almost daily I am approached – even by total strangers – to participate in business deals. Would I like to help import used cars? Would I bankroll a bulldozer? Would I provide the capital for a Mercedes 190D to be used as a taxi? Would I underwrite the purchase of rams from Senegal to sell for Tobaski?
Thank you. No.
The latest fillip in the land deal is that the Director of Physical Planning in Brikama produced a law that supposedly limits foreigners to 50 X 50 meters. He refused to approve my purchase. My attorney, the eminent Mr. Gomez, was indignant. “That is unconstitutional!”, he sputtered. “What about Gadaffi who owns massive tracts of land in this country?” He promised me he would straighten things out. “You will have your land!”, he said.
Is anything ever straightforward here?

Sesame Field

No, I never saw sesame flowers. I don’t even know what sort of plant they grow on. So, the farmer and I rode Timpa Marong, my F650GS, off down increasingly narrow, sandy tracks, past fields with millet growing 15 feet tall, fuzzy heads like impossibly gangly cattails. The occasional red bishop flitting out into the grass. These small birds are red like some hallucination of red. Like a red you could never have imagined.
And we arrived at a field of plants about two feet high with dull, green leaves, and every here and there one would have tubular flowers of the palest lilac. In a month, he said, you could hide in this field standing up and the flowers will cover everything. This is white sesame. Very marketable. There will soon be a plant for processing the seeds into oil. Now, do you want to see the clinic? So, off we rode to see the clinic. The second clinic I’d seen today.
I’d woken at 3AM and couldn’t get back to sleep. Eventually, I hauled my bones out of bed, packed the panniers with the few items I was taking for myself plus a dozen new scrub-shirts for the clinic at Sintet Village. By the time all was in order it was beginning to lighten in the east. Binta was up to open the compound gate and I slithered out into the deep, sandy lanes that feed the main coast road. Lots of people by the highway this time of day; going to work, going to school. Waiting for taxis or “local transport”, the (mostly) dilapidated vans that comprise the main means of transportation in this country. Cops and secretaries, and Army guys in camo, and government workers, and school kids in uniform, all trying to get someplace at some time approximating when they are supposed to show up. Employers here make allowances for the unpredictability of transport. It is also used as an excuse for many abuses.
I gave a ride to a police sergeant. Dropped him at the Yundum junction near the airport and continued south past Busum Bala (Bosom Buddy?), Brickama and along the Trans-Gambia Highway south of the River Gambia. The road east from Brickama is paved for about 35 kilometers and is delightful. Black eagles soar into the huge trees. Plantations of oil palms rise out of psychedelic green rice fields. The air is fresh and sweet, redolent of growing things and soft earth. This south bank of the river is green, green, green. There is little traffic and the bike is happy as a cat in a sunbeam. Donkeys and baby donkeys, goats and baby goats wander across the road and graze or browse the verges. I slow through villages of mud-brick houses with rusted corrugate roofs, men and women with hoes or axes on their shoulders heading for the fields. Woodcutters chopping and bundling firewood by the road. A large mosque with half its roof gone, the interior in ruins. I see no wildlife except birds.
There are police checkpoints but most aren’t manned. The ones that are wave me through with appreciative stares at the bike. The bike gets attention everywhere, whether stopped or in motion. People love it. I should say men and boys love it. Most of the women could care less. Women have more important things on their minds than hardware. If I park it somewhere there will invariably be at least one man standing near it, admiring it when I return. Often there is a crowd.
The pavement ends abruptly at a barrier and I’m shunted off to the right and down. Now the road is the ubiquitous, corrugated, dusty, red laterite that seems to be the norm in Sub-Saharan Africa. Every ten minutes or so I overtake a van or a big truck trailing a cloud of dust and before long the bike, my goggles, my helmet, my mesh gear, gloves, boots are indistinguishable red. When I finally get home at night I’ll bathe red mud off my body.
Timpa Marong handles this like a war horse, scudding along over the bumps at 80 kph without a rattle or complaint.
A gingham-shirted schoolgirl flags me down. She climbs aboard and in few moments we are passing a gaggle of her friends – or should I say a giggle? She waves to them gaily, knowing that she’ll be the talk of her class for the day. I drop her off at her school a few clicks down the road.
By now I’m both hungry and thirsty and ready to stretch my legs. As I pass through the next couple of villages I watch for a woman sitting at a table with covered bowls in front of her. This means she is selling something to eat. The village of Sibanor finally yields one such. I pull over, put the bike on its sidestand. There is the woman and four or five men sitting by in front of a bitiko, a “corner store” selling items everyone needs for everyday use. Bitikos are as alike as filling stations. Each sells the same assortment of goods and food.“As salaamu aleikum”, I greet the men. They all chorus back, “Wa aleikum salaam”. I shake hands with each of the men, then go over to the woman. We exchange greetings in Mandinka and I ask her what she has. “Bullets,” she tells me, “accara, and nyebbeh”. Bullets are fish balls. Accara are puffy, deep-fried fish fritters, and nyebbeh is beans cooked with onion and a bit of hot pepper. For five dalasis (about 18 cents) I buy half a baguette of chewy tapalapa bread which she spoons full of nyebbeh and I eat it standing by the scooter. In the bitiko two dalasis (7 cents) buys me a 16 oz. sealed plastic bag of cold, pure water.
When I ride back up the bank to the road there is a man standing with a chicken and a large, covered plastic margarine tub. I ask him where he is going and soon we are headed for Kanilai, the president’s village. En route we stop at another village where his brother lives, waaay back in the bush. His brother’s compound has residences on three sides. The entire compound is immaculate, having been swept by the women. The women do this every morning, delicately removing leaves and trash with their native brooms. We are greeted by the women of the compound who in turn shake my hand and curtsy. Toubabs don’t come here. The women are all delighted to greet the stranger and extend me a most friendly welcome in Jola. One speaks English well and when I tell her my name she exclaims, “Then you are my brother! I am also Marong (my Gambian surname) because I am married to a Marong.”
We leave the chicken and the plastic tub – I have no idea what was in it – with his brother’s wife and head back to the main road to Kanilai. On the way we stop in another compound to greet his aunt, an aging, wizened old lady with a cast in one eye. She shakes my hand and drops a very creditable curtsy for someone who looks like she can barely walk.
From the aunt’s compound the trail back is barely discernable. Almost completely overgrown, there is a gap in the vegetation as wide as my front tire, but no wider. The handlebars thrust aside overhanging branches and leaves and tall grasses. I can’t really see much of the trail ahead and just keep hoping we don’t nose into a big pothole. My passenger knows his territory, though, and we make it back to the road unscathed but with festoons of grass and seeds and leaves hanging from the bike.
“You don’t have to go all the way back to the main road,” he says. “If you follow the road through Kanilai it eventually joins the highway further down.” He volunteers to show me. We motor through the town to a gate in a great concrete wall. Several soldiers in camo, toting AK-47s are manning a checkpoint. My guide explains what we are doing and the soldiers let us pass. On the other side of the gate is a large, screened-off building on one side and on the other is an armored car with a heavy machine gun. Next to it is parked a small tank, and next to it, screened with camouflage netting, another tank. There are many soldiers about, neatly uniformed and well kitted-out. These guys look professional. One, in full kit, helmet and Kalashnikov, flags us down and wants to know what we are doing. My man tells him. They are speaking Jola and I get the gist that we are not going further. As they talk a few soldiers walk past us, heading toward the gate. The last of them is probably of the biggest, best-built man I’ve ever seen. If I were gay I would have fallen off the bike. This guy must have been six-four. He was wearing camo pants and a tight green T-shirt. The man’s shoulders must have been 5 feet wide with a torso tapering in a smooth “V” down to a slim waist. He moved like a leopard and looked like he could have stopped a tank bare-handed. I can’t think of any time I’ve seen such a perfect physical specimen.
Anyway, we weren’t permitted to go further. The area is apparently a secure zone. No problem. I dropped my rider off in the village, headed back to the main road, and before I knew it, was at Sintet Village. The nurse at the clinic greeted me with a smile and a handshake. Malang is an energetic, diminutive man with a soft voice. We talked about how things were going, about the well and the water supply and the stolen solar panels. About getting electricity back into the clinic so they could have a refrigerator for medicine and an autoclave to properly sterilize things and a suction machine. He had done three deliveries the previous week. After a difficult labor, one infant was born not breathing. The people there thought it was dead but it had a good heartbeat and Malang refused to give up. He “breathed” the baby with the only bag-mask unit they have (the wrong size) for two hours until the babe could breathe on its own. “It is doing well,” he said with a shy smile.
I delivered my scrub tops. We cataloged the various light fixtures and scant electrical equipment and talked about the water supply. I’ll need the information to come up with an estimate of the funds needed to purchase an effective solar electrical system and some idea of how to approach the water needs of the clinic. We visited with the alkalo, the village chief, to discuss planning with him.
I headed back at 1. Just before 2PM I stopped at a mosque to join the prayers. Prayers concluded, the men invited me to join them for lunch; typical African hospitality. Rice and domoda, fish cooked in a peanut sauce. It was there I met the farmer with the sesame fields. And surveyed my second clinic of the day. Their water supply is inadequate. Four people from Holland were there; from a town near Nijmegen. They had “adopted” the clinic some years ago and come back yearly to help out; rebuilding pumps, painting, fixing. Nice, nice people. Real people! I met Alex Choi, a soft-spoken Peace Corps volunteer from LA, who has been living and working there for twenty-one months. I visited with some very friendly villagers.
And eventually arrived home in the dark, tired but really happy. There’s lots to do and life can be good!

A Grand Day Out

Sunday, September 27, 2009 -- A Grand Day Out
Motorcycling alone. Concentrating. Eyes intent on the rude, rutted, red dirt track in front. On each side, high walls of grass hem me in, cutting off the breeze. The air is hot and still and muggy. There is the smell of damp and green things growing. In my ears only silence and the thumping of the big 650 under me. I stay on guard for the next patch of soft sand where I must turn on the power carefully or risk a fall, and suddenly a flock of pure white egrets rises all around me and I’m enveloped in a cloud of great wings so white they seem to have a light of their own, rising out of the green so close I can feel the air wind around me from their beating pinions. My breath catches in my chest and my heart leaps upward with them.
I motor along the beach on the flood tide. Crowds of boys play football. Scattered bathers in the surf. Small crabs scuttle out of my path and pop into their holes. Sand plovers with their down-turning beaks and dun-colored wings fish in the surf. I motor in the smooth, firm sand, then gradually venture into the softer stuff, testing the bike, feeling the tires and growing more accustomed to the slithering motion of the machine under me. A barracuda leaps in the surf, stiff as a spear, flanks like burnished alloy. There are high bluffs along the water now, with baobab trees growing, anchoring the ledges, green where grasses and trees have been able to hold; red where the land gives way to water and the pull of the earth. Vultures and kites and hooded crows perch in the baobabs or ride the updraft from the onshore breeze. 5-star resorts, rich and fanciful emerge occasionally, nestled up into the bluffs. It is off-season and there are only a few toubabs sunning and tending their toddlers.
An English expatriate is surf-casting. We chat for a few minutes. “The fishing gets worse each year,” he says. “Worse for you,” I say. “Better for the fish!” He laughs.
I ride on to where a point thrusts out toward Brazil. The beach narrows. There are native fishing boats moored just past the surf. A pair of big fishing boats are hauled up in the beach grass above the tide line. I am looking landward and a few young men see me and motion, pointing out the trail up away from the beach. It isn’t easy to see, screened by beach grass and scrub and I wave a thanks for their kindness. As I ride up onto the first flat above the beach there is a group of men fitting a plank to the keel of a new boat. I park the bike in the grass beside the trail, take off my helmet and gloves, and greet the men with “As Salaamu Aleikum” (Peace be with you.). “Wa aleikum salaam,” ( And with you, peace.) they chorus back. One or two come over to shake hands. One recognizes me. “Kololi?” he asks. (I live in Kololi Village.) “Wow,” (yes) I confirm.
So, I hang out for an hour and a half and watch the master boatbuilder fit planks to this carvel-planked boat. The keel, which is also the narrow bottom of the boat, has been carved from a single, massive piece of padouk, a red hardwood. The garboards, the first set of planks above the keel, are very narrow, only a few inches high and also of padouk. I assume they are narrow because they have to adapt to the more extreme curves established by the keel and form a smooth base for the planking that will be fitted above. There are no steam boxes here to soften the wood and allow it to adapt without splitting, so the wood must be kept narrow. The master and his assistants are fitting a massive plank of bois blanc about 16 inches wide and nearly 2 inches thick. The assistants muscle it into the complex curve it must take while the master marks off the required line using a discarded morsel of wall board for chalk. He eyeballs the end of the plank and draws a scarf joint freehand. The plank is removed to the ground and an assistant holds the plank on edge while the master builder uses a native adze to trim away the wood to his scribed lines. His work is smooth. Effortless. It looks easy.
I have tried adzing and know there is much more to it than meets the eye. The uniformity of stroke and depth. The sense of when the wood will split or tear out. These are kinesthetics learned over years. I ask one of the men how many boats this man has built. The man translates for the master. The master replies; he speaks no English. “A thousand”, the man translates.
The adzed plank is held in place on the garboards again. It fits beautifully, extending about halfway down the length of the boat on the port bow. Now the master marks the plank for drilling, about every 12 inches. The plank is removed and again held on edge, bottom up. There is a small petrol generator. It is fired up and a long drill bit made from rebar, chucked into an electric drill is used to drill holes all the way through the plank. Through these will be fitted pieces of iron rebar which will be hammered with a small sledge into corresponding holes in the garboards. This is done starting at the bow end and muscling the plank into the required curve as each rebar is hammered in in turn.
A corresponding bow plank is cut and fitted to the starboard side, then planks to complete the tier are sawn, adzed, scarfed, fitted, drilled and hammered into place. The scarf joints, drawn by eye, fit flawlessly. The result is an elegant curve from stem to stern.
It is not easy to shape boat planks. The lines change as the plank is bent into a flaring, complex curve and knowing just how to cut such a curve so the result is graceful – what boatbuilders call “fair” – is the product of long experience and a certain talent. This man has an eye for line.
I ask them what will be used to caulk the seams. One man shows me a strip of asphalt. They get it “from Europe”, he says. What did people use before they had this tar from Europe? A man tells me, “Goat manure”. I find this a bit dubious until he goes on, “You know the white stuff? The white stuff, they put it in parcels, like when you purchase electronics?” I think for a minute. “Styrofoam?” “Thank you,” he says. “Yes, they take that and some petrol and they put it in and they put it in and it goes away (dissolves) and soon there is enough. Then they mix in the goat manure and this is used to plug the holes.” I assume the gasoline evaporates leaving a mixture of plastic and goat dung. Ingenious but hardly aboriginal. Higher tech and lower intestine.
It has been a hot day and I have not brought water. Eventually I take my leave but I will try to return and perhaps photograph the project. I doubt there will be a problem getting permission. Here, if one demonstrates respect and asks permission most people don’t have a problem being photographed.
I get comments about the bike all the time. “I like your moto!” “You will give me this?” (said with a grin or said with a searching gaze, watching to see if I have sufficient sense of humor to get the joke). Men look at the speedometer which goes up to 200 km/hr. They whistle and raise their eyebrows. “This machine is very fast!” they say. I have to explain the speedometer markings have nothing to do with the top speed of this machine; that it is in no way intended for high-speed riding but is designed to be functional both on and off-road. They look skeptical.
Often I observe men discussing the bike, usually in their own language but hear the letters “BMW” enunciated clearly and with respect. People know this marque and know its quality. Mine is the only F650 in The Gambia and it arouses interest.
I have to pick my way carefully up a washed out dirt track back to the good two-lane that skirts the coast. I motor home. A grand day out.

Thursday, April 17, 2008


En route home from the market we stopped at the workshop en plein air of one of Nouhoun’s uncles, a numó, so he could fix my knife. Bambara men carry a long sheath knife with a wooden handle. Nouhoun had given me one that had belonged to his grandfather and back during Tabaski the edge had been damaged by a young man using it to chop ram bones. Nouhoun assured me it could be repaired

Out in the open, under a brush-covered arbor was the blacksmith’s workshop. There were scrap pieces of heavy iron and steel to use as anvils. The forge, a depression in the ground, was served by a bellows made of two large, fired clay pots. The pots were half- buried in the earth, with open tops. At the bottom of each, buried in the earth, was an opening attached to a tube leading to the forge. As we watched the smith attached a leather bag to the top of each of these jars and bound them tightly to the pot with a cord. A younger man was summoned who sat himself on the ground behind the bellows. By pulling up on one leather bag while pushing down on the other, a stream of air was blown into the forge.[1] A fire was started and the smith gently heated the knife blade. He then carefully hammered the metal to stretch it back into the nicked area. It took perhaps twenty minutes from start to finish and the job was done. It was impossible to tell where the nicks had been.

The numó gently heats the knife blade while his assistant pumps the bellows. A skilled blacksmith can create extremely complex rhythms with the bellows.

Back in the village, I was gifted with a rooster by Nouhoun’s

father and a hen by someone else. Later in my stay the imam and the village chief each sent me a rooster. Big honors!

People here are so eager to share their culture, especially their language. They teach constantly. Adama, Nouhoun and Braima spent two hours this morning coaching me in Bambara. I’m actually retaining some!

There are no mosquitoes at this time of year. They can’t stand the flies.

Later. Swallows wheel their evening paseo in the indigo sky. Three-quarters of a moon and a hundred villagers celebrate a wedding. Last night there was drumming and two balafons (marimbas) amplified by a PA system hooked to car batteries. The PA horns persistently screeched feedback but no one took steps to eliminate it. Perhaps they consider it a natural characteristic of PA systems; like ants at a picnic. Maybe they don’t know how to fix it. I’m not clear on why they consider they need a PA. Perhaps it makes things fancy and modern and upscale, a machine that makes one more powerful. Drums and balafons aren’t instruments that need a lot of amplification. After all, how long have folks been celebrating and done just fine without?

The music was at the groom’s house. At one point everyone went to another house in the village where the bride was. She was brought out, face covered with a shawl. She got on the back of a motorcycle and was whisked off to another house where she would spend the night. Today she will be brought to the groom’s house.

Women perfom a line dance at the wedding. A drummer is at right.

At the night-time music a horde of pre-teen boys danced frantically to the balafons. It was comical; all these dusty, skinny legs sticking out of baggy short pants. They kept moving in, encroaching on the musicians and kicking up such a cloud of dust they had to be repeatedly scolded and driven away by the grownups. Finally, a few men cut long switches from some nearby bushes and kept the madly jigging 10-year-olds at a reasonable distance by swatting at their bare feet. None of the blows connected.

Eventually some of the young men came out to show their best steps. These guys could really move and Michael Flatley from Riverdance will be in for some competition if these boys ever make it out of Mali!

This morning Nouhoun’s motorcycle got a makeover. The mechanic, Adama, from another village, installed new piston rings in less than an hour, then repaired the horn, horn switch, brake lights, turn signals and headlight in another two. All done under a shade tree and without multimeter, ratchet, end- wrenches, etc.

We went to another market; a smaller one. For the first time I saw someone drunk. We’d gone to a shop stall on the edge of the village where some sort of local beer was made. The drunk was sitting and unsuccessfully trying to play a bintan bolon.[2] When he saw me he reached up to shake hands. Then, to my shock, he threw himself at my feet with his face in the dirt and groveled! For a moment I thought he was making fun of me, but Africans aren’t big on irony and it became acutely embarrassing. I motioned to Nouhoun for us to get out of there and we did, but the man followed, singing and playing, stumbling and falling down. When we got back to our motorcycles at the market he fell again and this time he stayed down. An old man happened by carrying an axe. Suddenly the drunk lunged and tackled him. He pulled the man to the ground and started punching him, not with any great effect, though. Women screamed, people shouted, and the old man gave the drunk a few good whacks with the blunt side of the axe but it didn’t faze the drunk a bit. The crowd closed round them to intervene and we left.

Tonight Nouhoun took me for a walk to a small hill outside the village. Ex-archaeology student that I am I could tell the place was an old habitation site. The vegetation was different and there were potsherds everywhere, thicker than I’ve ever seen at any ruin. Thousands upon thousands. Plain, incised, stamped, painted, basket-impressed. Nouhoun said it was inhabited by the ancestors of the villagers but they were driven away by a great war, no one knows how long ago. Gradually the people filtered back and established the 3 villages that are now here, no one knows how long ago. One man stated with great conviction “280 years”. An old man said more than 400 years. The site of the old village is considered sacred.

There is actually a third town inhabited by Serahule tribesmen. Serahule are known as great traders. Many of the Serahule in The Gambia are extremely rich, even by Western standards. I only visited their village once and, at least superficially, it looked like the Bambara villages.

When we returned we found a small watermelon Mama, one of the chief carvers, had brought for me. It was the best watermelon I’ve ever eaten: pink and delicately crisp with a scent of earth-sweetness it had drawn into itself.

Binna and Mama Koumare. Master carvers of the village. Mama carries a trapezoidal hunter's bag of heavy leather with a wooden-handled iron knife attached. This is typical of Bamana men in the villages.

Morning brings a quiet, concerted busyness to the compound. Animal sounds fill the cool, golden light. Cocks crow. There is already the ubiquitous thonk-thonk of mortar and pestle. A bala-bala bleats hoarsely, monotonously, reminding everyone that sheep need breakfast.

Children ready themselves for school and head out with their satchels. Little girls take care of the babies. Hens shepherd their chicks scratching up small dust storms. Greetings are exchanged:

An sogoma? How is the morning?

M’ba sogoma! A good morning!

Ereh sira? Did you sleep well?

Ereh! Very well!

Ereh sira? Did you sleep well?

Ereh! Very well!

Men ready tools for work -- hoes, axes, adzes – testing edges, checking hafts.

The compound’s bad-tempered little green-and-yellow parrot, his wings clipped, goose-steps past, a self-important minor functionary, the only animal here that isn’t required to earn its keep. His step is a trifle wary though. I’ve seen the occasional hen give him a whack in passing, letting him know he is really just a very small bird and useless, to boot.

Nana, Nouhoun’s wife in Sina (his other wife, Hawa, lives in Bamako) brings a bowl of plump millet pancakes and a thermos of hot water for our morning Nescafe. We dip the pancakes in a bowl of wild honeycombs seeping honey, deep brown, pungent and complex.

Nouhoun's wife, Nana, walks past the family granaries where millet is stored.

Visiting the village school made me reflect on the enchantment of this place. It is easy for a visitor to romanticize, but at the bottom of the page of the Book of Sina is poverty. There is richness of culture, richness of society, of family, but there are also those child graves outside the village, likely as not a reflection of the complete absence of medical facilities. (The nearest is a tiny dispensary manned by a nurse, 35 kilometers away over rough tracks.) There is the poor soil. There is the fact that, each year, to draw water from the wells requires a longer rope. They survive on the edge. I expect a few of them know about global warming and it is bound to affect them. If desertification continues and the Sahara moves further south the Sina people will decamp or die. Sina will become another “habitation site”, not a village. There are no alternatives. Everything depends on forces beyond them. If there is a dry(er) year there is hunger. If there is a political twitch in West Africa and the flow of tourists dries up there is no market for their masks and chiwarras and there is hunger. Life on the edge.

Schoolroom, Sina Bamana.

Watermelon transformations.

And there is watermelon. Mama brought another last night. And I marvel at how something so dripping and succulent could emerge from the Malian dust. How such a miraculous transformation could take place.

That’s the wonder of transformations. Tribal people accept them for the mystery and miracle that they are, for the change of inanimate to animate and back again, insensate to sensate, inchoate to known, ordinary to miraculous. Their rituals, masks, dances, celebrate transformation. We in the West seek to quantify such processes and some, in doing so, believe that they truly freeze –objectify – describe the truth of such miracles. Some believe such quantification sucks the life out. Some believe that is a good thing. Einstein understood that such quantification no more mummifies the described than writing down the notes of a song can rob the emotion from music. The description simply accomplishes yet another miracle of transformation.

I heard a balafon playing and went to investigate. The young man motioned for me to bring another balafon that was leaning against the wall of a house nearby. When I’d brought it and set it down he handed me a pair of sticks and showed me a simple pattern. Et viola! I was instantly 2nd balafon in the the Sina-Bamana Balafon Duo!

The Sina Philharmonic.

As always, it quickly drew a crowd of kids who started dancing their skinny little legs off and raising a cloud of dust. Balafons are right down there on the ground and a little bit of dust goes a long way. It made me think. Tendonitis is common among professional musicians but I’d never realized silicosis must be an industrial hazard for balafon players!

One of the old women came to the compound and scolded Nouhoun for hitting one of the children. I’ve seen children scolded, and not much of that, but never hit. If a child survives the health problems this must be a wonderful place to grow up. Infants are always with their mothers or another woman. When they are hungry the breast is always available. There are other children to play with. Gaggles of kids chase around the village unattended well after dark. They are loved and doted on and raised by the whole village.

Toys: motorcycle and auto tires and bicycle rims without the spokes are rolled around like 19th Century American kids in knickers used to roll hoops. There isn’t nearly the intensity of football play I’ve seen in the city and less remote villages. Older boys have catapults (slingshots) with which they hunt birds.

Saturday, 3 Feb.

The village chief sent a gift of a chicken to us this morning and a bit later a man went around the village blowing an antelope horn to announce a festival to be held in my honor. They will dance the chiwarras I was gifted as well as other masks.

Village herald sounding his antelope horn.

Meanwhile, I was called to attend un malade. Nouhoun had explained to the man and his family that I had no equipment, not even a stethoscope, but they wanted me to consult anyway. It turned out to be a “gimme” diagnosis. He had a huge goiter, had obviously lost weight and had a fast rest-pulse and a tremor. Thyrotoxicosis. Goiter seems to be common here. I saw two people at one of the markets with large goiters. Perhaps there is no dietary source of iodine. Anyway, the man is supposed to go to Bamako with us on Monday and we’ll try to get him hooked up with a doctor there.

Last night Musa Coulibally came by with a mask for Binta and a carved catapult for me. I’d bought two very lovely chiwarras from him and I guess he appreciates the business.

[1] Throughout the Mande world (Bamana, Dogon, Bozo, Mandinka, et al.) numó pump the bellows in incredibly complex rhythmical patterns. So complex, in fact, that drummers say they learn their rhythms from the blacksmiths.

[2] A stringed instrument made from a calabash, one of the predecessors of the kora.

Wins, losses.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Up until 3 last night. The moon is waxing and the natives are getting restless. My first clue was coming back to the hospital late in the evening and noticing a blood trail from A&E leading toward the major theatre. I was off-duty but figured I’d see if they needed some help.

There were three patients. bleeding One man had been attacked with a machete (they call it a cutlass here). He had one gash in his head and another, a defensive wound, in the undersurface of his forearm that severed tendons, the radial artery and key nerves. Lucky for him the bleeding had been controlled.[1] All was laid open to view. A good anatomy lesson. The Cuban orthopedist on call got that one.

The other two were another victim and his assailant. The victim had been at a mini-mart, keying some numbers on his mobile phone when a short, drunk man he didn’t know attacked him with a broken beer bottle. The attacker’s handiwork included a small, deep gash across one knuckle, a foot-long superficial cut to the victim’s left upper arm, and a deep, triangular excavation to the underside of the man’s right forearm. The victim was a well-dressed man with thick, muscular arms. A huge flap of skin lay contracted over what looked like chunks of stew meat simmering in blood.

For an hour and a half, Lamin, the “theatre” (operating room) nurse, and I stitched the guy back together with a fluorescent desk lamp for light, tucking in pieces of meat here and there, and inserting a drain to keep blood and other fluids from accumulating. In the middle of the process the hospital lights went out. A bystander unfolded his mobile phone for the light the screen provided. I directed him to fish my LED penlight out of my t-shirt. We continued the operation by electric torch. Twenty minutes later the generator kicked in (it turns out the generator man was sleeping) and the lights came back on.

Shortly, we heard a commotion in the hall outside. The still-drunk assailant had been brought in by the police to have his cut ear fixed and he’d started an argument with the victim’s friends who were waiting in the hall for me to finish my suturing. The cops had been told to keep the assailant outside so an altercation with the victim’s supporters would be avoided, but these cops were not the brightest bulbs in the marquee. They brought him in anyway.

The voices grew louder and soon we heard thumping noises. I went out into the hallway, bloody rubber gloves and all. Mr. Drunk Assailant was grappling with one of my patient’s buddies. The police were standing around looking interested but doing nothing. I waded in and separated the two men, telling the constable to do his “f…ing” job and keep the peace. He asked me what he was supposed to do. Meanwhile, Mr. Assailant, still drunk, was trying to fight everyone else there. I grabbed him and told him this was a hospital not a street brawl and he had to leave. He spat at me and said they didn’t need any white bastards telling Gambians what to do. When he started to go after me the police finally stepped in and escorted him out. Then I went back to finish the suturing.

By the time all was stitched and glued, seams straight, bandages on, etc. I looked up and it was 2AM. We had to get some antibiotics into my patient but the hospital pharmacy was closed. I went off to one of the wards where a friend had been admitted that day, borrowed two of her amoxicillin, and fed them to my patient. God knows, he’ll need it. There’s no way to maintain a sterile field with the setup at this place. Aside from any bugs introduced in the initial stabbing we certainly added plenty with our operating technique.

Christ! These people are tough! They have to be to stay alive!.....and to survive what WE do to them!

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

So I get to work this morning and before I get a chance to get oriented one of the docs notices that a woman on the second exam table is seizing (convulsing) and has bitten her tongue badly. She’s choking on her own blood and secretions and there’s blood coming out her nose and mouth. I get her over on her side and run for a suction machine but the one I find doesn’t have a plug on the end of the cord. So the nurse heads off looking for the other suction machine and somebody else shows up with an endotracheal tube and laryngoscope and this lady’s inhaling her blood like there’s no tomorrow. We can hear it gurgling and when she coughs it blows out her nose in a spray all over the place. It spatters us and the floor and walls and the nearby patients. I’ve given her IV Valium but I can’t get a laryngoscope in because her jaws are too tight from the seizures. So Dr. Conde, the wonderful Cuban head of A&E, finally gets a tube in her nose and into her trachea but then it gets pulled out while Dr. Conde is putting in a central line and we have to try to get it in her all over again except this time it won’t go in so we give her more Valium and get her mouth open enough to do an oral intubation. And I’m sure she’s inhaled so much junk her lungs will never recover. And eventually she’s wheeled off to the ICU and I never did find out what she was here for.

And for the rest of the day I’m treating people with malaria and with anemia, and a stroke, and with malaria AND anemia. And it’s not even malaria season yet. And there’s the guy who was asleep under a truck and someone drove the truck away and it ran over his leg. The leg is broken and the skin over his calf muscle has been stripped off neatly so the whole gastrocnemius muscle lies there, neatly covered in its intact fascia, pulsing and twitching like a computer-animated photo from an anatomy text. Meanwhile, the owner of the anatomy lesson lies on the gurney conscious, showing no emotion whatever.

The fruit are ripening and daily children are brought in who have fallen from mango trees. It is a yearly ritual. Mango trees grow big and full; deep green and magnificent. But the limbs are fragile. So we have a 13-year-old girl who has fallen from a mango tree. She is unresponsive, pupils fixed and dilated. We assume her neck is broken or perhaps a head injury. There is nothing to do for her. The treatments available back home are unavailable here. She will die.

And in the midst of it all a hospital courier comes in with a letter for me from the administration telling me that the lease on the house I am about to move to expires at the end of August and at that time I will be responsible for my own accommodations. I think I may have to have a discussion with the administrators. They’re getting an OK deal so far: an American doctor at the price of a room they haven’t had to pay for.

My sewing project from last night did show up this morning. He looked good and told me he really didn’t have any pain. I can’t figure that out. That forearm wound looked like hell before we got it stitched up and I figured the man would be in agony. There aren’t any pain-killers available here stronger than a weak Tylenol/codeine combination but he said he didn’t even need them. Tough people!

I’m off to Marong Kunda for food.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Shitty day! No details. The young soldier from yesterday is dead. The woman who spattered me with gore yesterday is dead. The young man who came in vomiting blood continued doing it until he died.

I wasted my kora teacher, Alhaji’s, time and pissed him off. And other petty annoyances.

Dinner with Allen and Margaret. Their trip to Senegal was lovely. We ate huge prawns and drank gin-tonics and lousy white wine and laughed a lot. Capped off the dinner with the last of their Talisker Single-Malt.

I drive them to the airport on Tuesday, and then move into their house. I hate to see them go and have reservations about moving into the house. I’ll be trading connection to my family and the Banjul aliveness for (relative) luxury and isolation. I’ll try it for awhile and see if it is worth the exchange.

I returned to Banjul in the dark to the sound of drums and singing. I followed the sound and found a crowd in one of the side streets. Darkness, drums, and people doing a slow, counter-clockwise, circular dance. I stood for a long time listening and watching. No one paid me any attention. Eventually a young man appeared from one of the houses with a tray of some sort of drink in plastic mugs. When he reached me I asked what the program was. “We are praising Allah”, he told me. The beverage was tart and complex and savory, not overly sweet like most things I’ve had here.

Perhaps the words were Arabic and Muslim but the music was pure African. Whatever the name of the god that was being praised the form and practice came from Black roots, not anything bred of Arabian sands.[2]

En route back to the hospital a small, long-haired dog decided to play with me. The dog didn’t look Gambian at all. The usual critter here is a short-haired, nondescript cur with fly-blown ears and a belly so full of worms that play is out of the question.

The hospital dogs in action.

At the main gate the security guys asked me to sit with them and wanted to know about America. What was the biggest city? What was Colorado like? Georgia? Dallas? Did they drink ataya in America? Is it cold there? It was a cool evening, but I was sitting in my Hawaiian shirt in comfort while the guards were putting on coats.

To bed. I’ve got to kill more patients in the morning. I’m out of my depth and we’ve got nothing to work with here!

[1] As clinical instructors like to say, somewhat cynically, “All bleeding stops eventually.”

[2] These celebrants are Mourides, or followers of the Sufi saint, Sheikh Amadou Bambá Mbakke, who died in 1927. The Brotherhood is centered in the Senegalese city of Touba, which the Saint founded, and the annual pilgrimage to the holy city attracts 2 million people yearly!

Music, the kora, ceremony, trash and breasts.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

“Toubab! Toubab!” Wherever I walk little children shout it gleefully. There is no onus to being a white man. It is simply what I am; like “old guy” or “baldy”. And the children are fascinated. I will frequently be surrounded by a gaggle of 9-year-olds wanting to shake hands and try out their English, or 3, 4, and 5-year-olds who come up and take my hand, or stroke the hair on my arm, or even hold my hand to their cheek and kiss it. Nothing fawning about it. Just a pure, sweet kiss. Sometimes I’ll have three or four children holding each hand as I walk, until I am far enough from their home compound, then they peel off and run home, waving goodbye. If there is time some of them will take a little pinch of skin and rub it. I am told they are checking to see if the color will come off.

A few days ago I was sitting in front of a music shop listening to some CDs they were demo-ing for me when a little girl of about ten walked over and stopped a couple of yards away. She stared at me interestedly. I put out my hand and said, “Hello. How are you?” Her face opened up in a delighted smile, eyes twinkling. She stepped up, shook my hand and said very, very precisely “I-am-fine. How-are-you?”

“I am fine. Thank you.” I replied.

She turned and as I watched her walk away I saw her throw her arms up in the air and do a little dance of pure joy. What a pleasure to make a child’s day just by being. I met a very interesting American today. His name is Grey Parrot. He comes from Maine near Bar Harbor. He plays the cora, and has been coming to The Gambia since 1990. Grey makes arrangements for people to come here and stay with families while they study music or dance, or art, or what-have-you and his wife does import/export, mainly fabric and dolls. He knows a lot about African music and culture and I learned a great deal listening to him. We met at a very lavish naming ceremony in one of the subdivisions of Serekunda. I’d gone for a cora lesson. When I got there, Alhaji said he needed to go perform at a naming ceremony and then we’d return to his place and do my lesson.

Alhaji Kuyate: have cora, will travel.

So, off we went through the deep-sandy streets with the sun shining and a nice breeze coming off the ocean. We’d stop often so Alhaji could chat and introduce me. (I think there’s a certain cachet to having a toubab doctor as one’s pupil. I also think I “show well” as I’m getting reasonably adept with the greetings in Mandinka.)

At length, we made it to the compound where the naming was being held. A large sheep was being led off to be slaughtered. Two tall towers of speakers were set up in the dust of the street with African music blaring. A crowd of jelis and jelimusos were gathered outside the gate and soon the jelimusos, all dressed in the same color green-and-white traditional outfits, started to sing and all danced into the compound. Plastic lawn chairs were stacked up by the scores and by the time things got rocking there were several hundred people. Huge cauldrons of rice, cous-cous, and the mixtures of sauce and vegetables collectively referred to as “soup” were being stirred up with spatulas the size of a little league baseball diamond. There were drummers and cora players and electric bass and jelimusos clapping bamboo sticks together and lots of singing. Big energy and smiles galore and the colors were brilliant. One of the women pulled me into the circle to do a bit of buck-and-wing. Children were everywhere. A babe-in-arms would start to snuffle and mom would flop out a breast and suckle the little one. Dogs slept in the dust and half-fledged chicks and hens dodged feet and scurried for dropped scraps. Overhead, the ever-present vultures circled or perched on nearby palms and walls, awaiting their turn and the ever-present African sun baked it all.

We did eventually get back to Alhaji’s house. He seems to be very pleased at my progress and is pressing me hard to come and “train” more often than I am really willing. We’ve already settled what I’ll be paying him weekly for my lessons, so his insistence surprises me. Maybe he really thinks I have some promise as a cora player.

The whole musician-thing here is interesting. In Mandinka culture only jelis make music. No one else played an instrument or sang. I’m not clear yet on whether it was a right reserved to them or whether others were prohibited. From Essa I understand there is a class division of “those who praise” and “those who are praised”. Aristocrats would not bow to play music; they are the ones for whom music is played. After all, Queen Elizabeth attends concerts, she doesn’t perform in them. In fact, Essa tells me it would be very bad luck for him to even touch a musical instrument. But what about the rest of society? I guess music was not something one did to entertain oneself. I have a feeling some of this division is gradually breaking down. Interesting.

Friday, Essa, Mussekebah, Essa’s brother, Ebraima and I are going up-country to his village in the Badibu District. Each year there is a village reunion to feast and pray for all the families in the village that they will have a good year. The event (or “program”, as they call it here) is Saturday. Essa tells me the family will slaughter a bull to eat and he wants to take me to see a baobab tree that looks like a pregnant woman. He’s quite emphatic about the tree.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

It is everywhere. Everyone litters. Plastic bags, orange peels, banana peels, aluminum pop cans, plastic motor oil bottles, all sorts of wrappers, solitary, worn out flip-flops,solitary, intact flip-flops, rags, bits of paper, foil and metal, unidentifiable organic somethings, more plastic bags ! especially plastic bags. As in Latin America and the Caribbean my first impulse was a self-righteous, “Why don’t these people take a little pride in their environment and keep it clean?” Until I began to think a bit. To avoid litter you have to have infrastructure to centralize and dispose of the litter. Trash cans, trash pickup, a place to put it, processes to do something with it once it’s there, etc. To do this requires money; resources.

Litter-strewn streets in Guinea.

Each year, the Third World experiences a net loss of gross domestic product. Raw materials are taken out by the First World nations, refined or turned into manufactured goods, and sold back to the Third World. A net loss to the so-called “Developing Nations”. So, the resources are not available to create the infrastructure. Let’s face it. How many of us would carry the piece of paper our sandwich was wrapped in all day until we got home and had a chance to throw it out? How many of us would do it, or would we seek a spot to surreptitiously ditch the greasy wrapper?

Then, there’s the organic vs. non-biodegradable problem. Not too long ago everything these people made, used, kept or discarded was biodegradable. The banana peel will be eaten by something pretty quickly. The plastic will not. And who is it that floods the Third World with plastic? There are no plastic factories in The Gambia, or the Bahamas, or Panama.

On the last Saturday of each month there is a government mandate that all businesses close from 9AM to 1PM for National Clean-Up. No one is even permitted to drive a vehicle without a special permit. Teams of students pick up litter from the roads. Businesses clean the street in front of them. Trucks come around to pick up the trash. Could you imagine the uproar in the US if business closed down for half a day each month?

Women and Walking
African women have this sultry, languid walk. Part of it is that few people hurry. I remember an episode from Cannery Row where Doc’s girlfriend discovers that the secret to appearing elegant is to do things slowly. The women here don’t walk fast and it is both sensuous and elegant.

I discovered part of the reason, however, when I bought a pair of flip-flops. You can’t walk fast in footwear without a heel-strap. Try to rush and you’ll immediately lose a flip; or a flop. So that’s where some of that elegance comes from. The sultry hip-swinging, though, is pure style.

They are not considered sexy here. Lots of women go bra-less under clingy or even transparent tops. Babies are nursed openly and ubiquitously, as should be. And there are a lot of babies.

(My mother would have plotzed. There was nothing in the world she loved more than babies, especially brown ones with huge eyes.) But I digress. I asked Essa what African men find attractive in women; physically speaking. First of all, he told me, they like big, fat women. He doesn’t understand why toubabs like skinny women. Fat women are strong and healthy. Secondly, he said, “The back is more important to us. We like a woman with big butt-tocks, especially when they are well organized.”