I am beginning this post just after saying goodbye to Fatou. She offered me her left hand as a handshake, a real gesture of friendship. I’ve promised to stay in touch with everyone and to try and come back to continue my work here. I’m surprised at being so sad to leave! When I first arrived I was a bit overwhelmed, but now I am not at all anxious to go.

The fellowship I was awarded to make this trip was given in the name of Delbert Highlands, a former professor of mine at Carnegie Mellon University. As I remember Debert, he was a hard character but thoughtful and filled with reflections on the past and architecture. The fellowship described Delbert in this way:

Professor Highlands emphasized the “individual,” the “particular” and the “local” in his teaching. His courses were grounded in authoritative scholarship and meticulously presented fundamentals, but always went further: asking students to think of “this time,” “this place” and this “occupancy.”

My proposal for this fellowship was entitled “Exploring Gambian Vernacular through Louisiana Creole Eyes,” and it was my intention to work in the spirit of Delbert to look at The Gambia in a particular and local way, through the eyes of a person informed of the Louisiana Creole perspective. In addition to the stories of meeting people through the Polaroids shown in this blog, I have investigated the Gambian design school system and spent time at the national archive. I’ve documented as much as I can through photography, video, and sound recording. I have a lot of work ahead of me compiling this all.

I’m grateful for this opportunity and hope to continue with future study in The Gambia. As I reflect on this experience, I feel pleasantly surprised by the consistency of my experience with the mission Delbert set. I also believe I now better understand the importance of being in “this place, time, and occupancy,” and I hope that I have experienced and recorded a particular local place and the roles of individuals who make it.

The fellas! I’ve given them this name, and although they seem to like it, they haven’t really adopted it. I’ve tried not to give people western nicknames, but in this case I can’t help it. The fellas sit directly outside my hosts compound underneath the palm tree trees on the north side of the street in the morning and afternoon. In the evening they switch to the south side of the street where the neighboring compound wall gives them shade.

It seems strange to me to have only one posting about the fellas because in actual practice they were my first resource on local information and language. They, like the plurality of Gambians, are Mandinka and speak Mandinka amongst themselves. It has been very hard for me to be in town muttering through my horrible Wolof only to return to the fellas for a greeting in Mandinka. The divide between social and market language is a hard one to navigate. These men are all educated, and they hold tightly to their cultural heritage – specifically language. They even had me practicing the Mandinka noun phrase for “person who operates machine” so that I would know that there was an indigenous term for “driver.” “Driver” is the universal term for a taxi or minibus driver in all of Gambia’s five languages, or so I had thought, with relief, until I was informed otherwise.

The group in this photo is a large one, mainly due to one of the frequent power outages, plus the work day had ended. Sometimes it might be just one or two fellas, depending on the time of day, the availability of power, and the weather. At first I was not comfortable sitting with the fellas, but that change abruptly when they asked why toubabs don’t like to sit under the tree. I realized then that I needed to sit under the tree too to help me understand the African way.

I’ve described the term “African way” already, but the ironic use or reference to marijuana does not apply here. Here the African way is about lazing in the heat having conversation, understanding what’s going on, and building relationships. All of which I did with the fellas. We discuss politics (usually of the African variety), Islam, dreams of studying in America, values, “when I get married I will’s,” and some of the neighbors who “are like that” and don’t join in on the conversation. One young man, Ansumana, (who is not in this picture) runs a small shop out of a 2’x3’x6′ caged box. The traffic the shop drives helped me to understand who lived around me and what they did. Every conversation was a valuable cultural lesson, even those that where just nods of greetings followed by an hour of relative silence.

Buba Saho, who is third from the left, is a very busy man and my host. He lives alone in his uncles compound, but his friend Keymo Saidykan (the next on the right) spends the majority of his time at our compound for Buba has a hectic job managing the service station about 1km away. Buba is a smart young man, and filled with witty irony. His family has some clout, and this helps him in many ways. Either in the African tradition or due to his own character he has a generous spirit, many people come through for meals. He has a reserved but open door to all passersby. Buba, like all of the fellas, has taken to calling me Prof, Prof Will, or Professeur Will. I have become accustomed to it, but the honorarium bothers me. Buba laughed at that saying, “Americans hate honorariums, why is that Professeur Will Wheam?”

Keymo is the political commentator of the fellas. He has opinions about local and African politics and was one of the few who started Ramadan a day late, more in protest of what he felt was an inappropriate government decree claiming the start of fasting than because he himself did not see the moon the night before. Like most Africans I’ve met, Hillary Clinton is the American Keymo sees and relate to most. The African world view is interesting, and I cannot say that there is uniform consensus on future direction, although opinions about past events seem to be consistent. America and historical American policy seems, even when I filter what I think might be pandering, to be popular here. Obama is a hero for some obvious reasons, but almost universally, Bush’s policies in Africa are held in high regard. If you want to feel good about American, I think Africa is a good place to do it.

Keymo, being the contrarian and naysayer, wants to go to Toronto, and he wants to study law. Everyone of the younger fellas wants to leave the Gambia for further study, and it is heartbreaking to know that most won’t. Education in The Gambia is expensive opportunities an the process of admission nepotistic. The chances of finding sponsored funding to leave for a foreign school are slim. Buba keeps a library at the compound, and most of the fellas seem to be reading often and studying for their comprehensive and qualifying exams. It’s hard not to take everyone’s actions with a grain of salt as I am, like any American, viewed as a potential ticket to a western start. I believe, though, the dreams of the fellas are genuine, most want to help their country, and all lack the financial and complex cultural knowledge required to navigate their way into a western setting.

Another important character of the Fellas, and Buba’s compound, is Sainey Baldeh. He is not in the Polaroid above, so I’ve loaded a picture of him here. Sainey is a Fula and an identical twin. His brother is in Brikama and named Sanna. Sanna and Sainey are common names for male twins, while if the set is female the names are the same as a boy and a girl, Adama and Awa. (I bring this up because twins are very common here). Sainey is a mainstay around Buba’s compound, and he is industrious. Sainey is always cleaning and sweeping. I can’t determine if it is out pf obligation to Buba for the shared meals in the compound or if it is just his nature, perhaps both. He is also thoughtful, and the most intellectual of the bunch. He is good at explaining the Koran – a common event during Ramadan. Of all of the fellas, Sainey is the kindest to me, and he is the one that first explained the “African way.” Sainey always has a message of perspective and reflection, somewhat Rastafarian with out the trappings.

The rest of the fellas are a mix of employed single men (one a policeman, one a bank executive, one an immigration officer) and men looking for employment. Occasionally a married man will join but only rarely.

Women do not join the fellas, but they pass by inserting instruction and commentary. The gender separation is, I am sure, ripe for study and catalog in anthropology. Although men and women socialize differently, there is a lot of interaction and permeability throughout the day. Fatou noses in on the fellas often, and Buba makes a mess of the kitchen as much as possible. Much like the color-line of toil and gentility, the western concept of femine compassion and reflection is not reserved for women. Sainey, for example, works at the local early childhood center, and all of the fellas are affectionate and, from a western perspective, maternal to all of the kids in the neighborhood. They were strangely motherly to me.

Nedy and Sohna are Fatou’s sisters. Fatou took me to Serakunda, where she makes her daily market, and we visited with her family compound there. This is where she lived before she divorced from her husband, and she seems to miss having all of her family around her. I met her uncle (or perhaps former uncle-in-law) too. He had lived in Atlanta and New York. When I told him I came from in Mississippi, he chuckled and said, “oh, like Africa.”

Most people I meet ask where in America I am from, but few have an understanding of more than New York, Atlanta, Maimi, and Detroit. Some can name the hometowns of hip-hop stars. Florida gets an “ahah,” Alabama gets the rare, “not so good?” Louisiana is just hard to say, and Mississippi is, well, fun to say! In one conversation I said Mississippi, and after a solid pause I got the reply, “Oprah is from there?” Startled by this tid bit, I replied, “yes! And Elvis Prestly!” in return I got, “Who? I have not heard of that one.”

Nedy and Sohna’s compound was walled, like most, and their was a wide concrete block compound building set back from the wall creating a small forecourt. The compound building was one room deep with a verandah at the forecourt. It was pleasant and cheerful, although it took my eyes quite a while to adjust to the dark room and yellow walls.

Sohna was the most cheerful of the two, and she looked as if she’d dressed for the town in her white floral outfit. Nedy in contrast seemed tired. Her sons behind her, the boy Pamoudou and the baby Muso, where in a mix of spirit. Pamoudou was cheerful, but Muso was ill. It seemed a great point of concern for everyone, he was small and not walking yet and already 15 months. Later Fatou would explain, in a surprisingly (to my western ear) candid discussion about breast feeding, motherly health, and the value of being fat sometimes, that all of Nedy’s children start slow like that. She assured me that he would be fine, but we agreed that he did not seem very well at all that day.

 

Zena is about three, and I met her, her mother, a family friend, their maid, and their yardman at her family's home in Brusubi. Brusubi is not far from Banjul, perhaps 20 minutes directly by car without traffic, and it is a dramatic physical departure from the rest of The Gambia. About half of the roads are paved and the land has been parceled out by the government to civil servants and for purchase. Many Gambians living abroad will build homes here that are easily 5000+ square feet for the equivalent of $60,000 to $70,000. They bring with them western tastes and often western lifestyles. Zena was the only child I met at the home, and her mother was working with the family friend to put the finishing touches on their home.

Zena's mother declined to be photographed stating that she was not ready for a photograph. This was the first time anyone declined to be photographed, and her attitude was noticeably western in this way. She was a beautiful women, nicely attired in a patterned day dress. Picture perfect as I told her, but she still declined.

One room, which was to be the kitchen, was being used as a side parlor. It had a stack of Philipe Stark Ghost Chairs in the corner. I was able to access a few homes under construction in Brusubi (much thanks to Fatou), and often the last piece to be completed was the kitchen. These houses had additional, more traditional compound buildings adjacent to them within walled in compounds. It is strange how some tower over these walls without the lower part of their porticoes or rusticated bases showing. The wealthy expatriated Gambian owners typically will have some family members living in the compound, but not in the house. Typically the cooking is still being done outside in the traditional fashion by these relatives. Along the roadside, near and in Brusubi, you see LG and Samsung appliance stores and billboards advertising “European Kitchens,” but the unfinished kitchens I found had limited if any of such things. Kitchens which are not yet fitted out will even have floor to ceiling tile arranged in patterns that would never accommodate a typical western countertop.

The imbalance of wealth represented by these houses and compounds is in visceral visual contradiction with the rest of The Gambia. The area is built, on the whole for and by Gambians, and it rises in contrast out of a landscape of traditional farming and living. You will see farm animals roaming about and traditional palm thatch roof lean-tos attached to half built mansions of concrete block. Gambians build when they have the funds, and stop when they do not.

Interspersed amongst these rising suburban edifices that would be comfortable in L.A. or Miami are subsistence farm plots of peanuts, corn, okra, and other produce. This seems natural to Gambians, and after a few weeks of being here, It seems logical and appropriate to me too. I have recently been reflecting on this in the context of the theoretical “whitewashing” of the American south during the nineteenth century where wealthy planters expended great efforts to seperate toil and work from genteel living (and some would say black and white). Here in Brusubi they reside together without contradiction. Many people familiar with West Africa will comment on the difference in the African approach to race (white and black) when compared to America. My subconscious racist even said to myself, “it is as if they do not know that they are black.” Although I have learned that “black” is an American construct, it never struck as deeply as when I understood the sameness of both rows of hand tilled corn and the half built mansion they were pushed up against. You cannot have the distinctions of toil and gentility, dirty and clean, or black and white if you do not seperate them initially.

There is also a familiarity in West Africa with New Orleans and Louisiana that is palpable. The bright colors of clothing and decoration speckled in the dirt covered street scapes, a general blatant lazing amid symbols of power and wealth, and the cultural permission to allow things to deteriorate from apparent usefullness if there is still some practical use. This sameness, I think, is a result of both places deemphasizing the polar oppositional construction of black/white and toil/genteel. Most historians would probably suggest that in New Orleans the line was more permeable than in other American places, but in West African, I think, the line was never constructed.

 

 

Fatou is sitting, flanked by her two daughters, on the front steps of the house where I am staying. She is from the neighboring compound and has befriended me, helping me to be more comfortable in my odd new surroundings. Fatou's littlest daughter is precocious while Awa is a little, but just a bit, more reserved. Awa is a twin and her brother's name is Adama, Adam and Eve. Fatou explained that it is common to name twins Awa and Adama and there was another set just a few doors down.

Fatou holds rank in the neighborhood, and everyone knows her well. She used to sell juice in the market, but will not be now that it is the rainy season and Ramadan. A few days before Ramadan, she came over and made me benechin, a traditional West African rice dish. I got the spicy red benechin with fish, a barracuda. all three of these ladies showed me how it was made, I hope I can replicate it at home. Fatou will often stop in and have a chat with me in the mornings, now that it is Ramadan, she stops in at the end of the day with a pot of food leaving it on the kitchen counter. No one expects me to fast, but I make a point of not eating in front of anyone. Also, you need to limit your intake during the day because the meals at night are large.

Fatou likes to talk about family. Some people familiar with West African culture will tell singletons like myself to just lie and say you are married and that you hope for children soon. I realize now that that might have been a good strategy, but not because people look down on you. Gambians know that general social pressures are lower for Americans to marry, but they sincerely worry about you. It seems everyone here is married by 30, and most much earlier. Children follow soon. Fatou is divorced, which is more common that I would have thought, but she is content that she has been married and has children. Fatou's concern for me is not about my lack of marital and familial bliss rather the paramount need here to have children.

Fatou is a little precocious herself, and everyone in the neighborhood seems to know that. I was surprised how much goes on when the men go to the mosque to pray on Fridays. Fatou has been great at getting access io neighbors homes to do photography. She is the “boss lady,” as one man who showed us his place said.

 

 

Tanji is a fishing village I have visited twice. Once with my camera and once without. Many Gambians go to the village to buy fish and to resell in the markets of Serekunda. The beaches are crowded with people wading out to fishing canoes and others buying those fish for resale. The mahogany canoes are large and seagoing, painted colorfully so that you can recognize them individually from a distance. The entire beachside is a frenzy of commercial fishing with many specific trades at work and some villagers who mill about hoping to catch scraps of pay for odd jobs. There are many drying racks and cutting and cleaning tables with everything organized in a fluid and specialized but confused way. If you just let yourself move with the crowd, you feel as if you are being bumped along a Rube Goldberg assembly line around the beach.

One of the destination point along this “assembly line” are a series of smoke house. These concrete block structures are long rectangles, dark except for the light penetrating through clerestories of patterned punctured blocks. The smell of the beach is a mixture of fresh and souring fish, but the smoke houses have a rich aroma of burning paper, saw dust, and fish. Upon entering, those monitoring the smoke houses were happy to let me taste the fish. The yaboye fish I had has was delicious. The range of fish included a few I recognized like tapia and barracuda, and others I did not.

These gentlemen, named above left to right, all monitor a fish house. It is a slow job, and they enjoyed the slow African way here. The fishing village was a dynamic mix of diligent, arduous work and nonchalant beach lazing.

 

 

Malik, the tall gentleman here alongside one of his apprentices, is a metalworker. He produces gates and railings and any other typical architectural metal work. He showed me a gate in Brusubi that he made for the brother of the president. It was ornate and and complex with a similar set of rococo motifs that one sees in the furniture in the markets. I can't say if the house was the actual brother of the president's; the president's family and land ownerships is a source of much hyperbole amongst Gambians.

Practicing for over 15 years, Malik was proud of work. He shared is photographs with me, and showed me the work for sale at the site. Included in his wrought work were some cast pieces from Senegal. I'd have to look at the photographs I took more closely, but I did see a French colonial similarity to the iron work of New Orleans. Most of Malik's materials come form Senegal, and he complained that the cost of materials is what kept him from having more completed work in inventory for sale. Commissioned work, he reported, can cost as much as $1,000, the presidents brothers house was in that range.

Malik said that he loved his work and enjoyed the design of each piece. This passion for the work is something I hear repeatedly from the craftsmen I meet. It is hard for me to know if that was what they wanted me to hear, but I've been left with sense we of genuine artistic passion. Malik said that most of his work was of his own design and that clients follow his lead. The shop was active with nine apprentices, and everyone seemed very engaged. Malik said he hoped each would find their way to their own shops in the future.