Monday, 21 April 2014

When thinking of Holland...

‘Good morning teacher, good morning friend’, is how the pupils of grade 3 at Malhada Lower Basic greet one of the teachers and me. Most of the classes at this school are doing an end-of-the-semester-test. But grade 3 and 5 have already done the national test, so they have time to invite me into the classrooms. Grade 3 is especially happy to see me, because their teacher did not feel well enough to attend school.. And with lack of a ‘teacher substitute pool’ some of the other teachers walk from their own class to this grade 3. The pupils are pleased that I will keep them busy the coming hour.

Many clothes
‘When thinking of Holland what do you see?’, I ask. ‘Big country, forest, European, cold.’ ‘What else?’  One of the pupils raises his hand. ‘Madam Jessica, I want to add they have many clothes.’ Many clothes? I think of my closet with winter clothes, summer clothes, clothes for fall and spring. Is this boy thinking of that? ‘Okay, I write it down. Can you explain yourself a bit more?’ I ask. ‘They have many clothes. They have many things. They park many things in containers and ship it.’ I see what he’s getting at, and I understand where it’s coming from. Also in our house in Bijilo some boxes from the Netherlands filled with clothes, caps and pens are waiting to be distributed to people who need it here in The Gambia.

Most Gambians are happy with Dutch people sending materials to help out. As soon as they find out here I’m Dutch, they respond: ‘Oh you are from Holland? Allès ggoed? Holland is nice. Hollandisch people are good. They build schools, give money, send containers with secondhand clothing, schoolbooks, furniture. That’s ggoed.  Allèmaal ggoed.’ Most Gambians are very grateful for the things done here. The other day I joined some Dutch couples to a grand happening of a continuation of a water project. ‘Abarraka - thank you - was one of the Mandinka words I recognized a lot in the many speeches and in the singing of the women.’ Driving back with the Dutch couples one of the ladies shows her concern. ‘It’s good that those projects are here. But will they continue? Sorry to say, but we are all a bit older. Like many of the other Dutch helping out here. What if we cannot come here anymore, because we have become too old? Will younger people take over and play their part in the world?’

Thoughts and actions
Though I’m not sure if I’m still young enough to be part of the ‘younger people’, I respond: I don’t know. I know money and basic materials are a necessity and needed for development. I try to play my part and I hope others will too. But I also see I might do it in a different way.  Is it good to ship second hand school banks? Or is it better to support the local carpenter around the corner to build the furniture for the school? And what does it do to our thoughts of the other? What does it say that these children in grade 3 want me to write that Holland has many cars, big airplanes, many good jobs, banks, beautiful (yes, only beautiful) people and many clothes?

I don’t know what the opinion of the boy was about the many things the Dutch send to the 
Gambia. No time to ask, because the next thought about Holland was presented. ‘Rabbits, madam Jessica. They have rabbits.’ ‘And coconut.’ I write it all down. Let’s see how the correspondence will influence the actions and thoughts of these children in the Gambia and in the Netherlands.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

After 4,5 months

Looking out of the car I see high buildings, many asphalted lanes, cars without bursts in their windows or side mirrors. Most of all I see no sand alongside the road. I’m back in the Netherlands.

African souvenirs
Balloons, post cards, flowers and a chocolate cake await me at my house in Amsterdam West. So nice to have my friends and family near again. I show my mother and brother the pictures and film clips I made in the Gambia. I tell them as much as I can about the last few days. Show them the presents I got from so many people. From my colleagues at Gambia College, from the nursery school, from my neighbors, from my friends. You brought that in your suitcase? My mom asks when she sees the peanut sauce for the domoda. My brother and mom choose a present from some of the woodwork I brought. I must admit that most of it was a last minute gift from my friend after he saw how little souvenirs I bought. ‘You were in Africa for almost 5 months. Your people expect some real African souvenirs’, he explains. And he was right. My brother is already playing his Cora, a snare instrument, and searching YouTube for some Cora instructions. They leave and I fall asleep.

A couple of hours later I wake up and find this silence in my house and on the streets. I was used to having people around, all the time: children walking in and out my rooms, sometimes hiding under my bed trying to scare me, or watching over my shoulder when I was working on my laptop. Outside at the compound grounds I could find my neighbor women: cooking, cleaning, relaxing in the shade, talking about men, plating some girls hair, drinking ataya. And when I did not see them outside I joined them inside: watching wrestling on TV or dancing in the living room on Assane Ndiaye.

But here in my place in Amsterdam there are not many people around. And probably because it’s raining there are also not many people outside. They are inside their houses and the doors are locked. I decide to walk over to my friends place just a few streets away. I’m happy to find her and her family home and welcoming me back with a hug.

Probably I will get used to Dutch life again in no time. Jazzy and bluesy sounds will replace the djembes and douns. And work will  continue without the need of a fan in the office and without sounds of goats or cows walking on the iPabo grounds. But a longing to work and life in the Gambia again will not easily disappear. 

Monday, 3 June 2013

Images of the other

‘Toubab, toubabo, how are you?’ Faces of children with sand and a very big smile. Hands waving me hello when I pass by in my street. The children here look fascinated by white people, toubabs. – toubabo in Madinka. They greet them with great enthusiasm, they ask for their names, they ask how they are, they ask for mints and footballs. And although my skin is a bit more cappuccino I am just as toubab for them.  Although after a visit to the nursery in my neighborhood most of the children call me now by my Gambian or European name, or something close to that. ‘Adja! Hello!’ ‘Jellika, Jemmica, Jessica! I’m fine.’

But this morning Baba, the two year old of my compound, greeted me with some new words ‘Jessia, touao. Bye bye.’ No matter how you turn it, I fit in their image of a toubab. And four months over here won't change that.

I know it’s just a word. A word which goes together with specific images, perspectives and prejudices. We all have them, children, grown ups, Gambians, Dutch, you, me.

Laundry Gambian style
For example some of the grown up don’t believe toubabs do or can do their laundry by hand. But every weekend I do my laundry Gambian style: four buckets with cold water, some Omo for a nice odor, a piece of soap to clean and a brush if something is really dirty. And it does take me a while, in the sun. Working hard and trying to make the sound they all find that important – it’s the only proper way to clean your clothes.

Last weekend one of the neighbor women walked in at our compound ground to get some water from the tap. She sees me doing the laundry. ‘Eehhee?! Toubabo curo.’ There was a whole fraise, but these were the words I understood. ‘What? White person doing the laundry.’ And I understood the surprised tone in her voice. And she wasn’t the only person. Cause a bit later another neighbor walked in. ‘Ah, Jessica, you are washing your clothes. I see you can do it?’ Laughing he stepped closer. ‘You are not making the sound. You have to do like ptssjj ptssjj. White persons cannot do that.’

Exchanging stories
Well maybe they are right about this image…even after four months it is a bit difficult. I will be happy to use my washing machine again. I am curious what other kind of images there are about Dutch here in the Gambia and about Gambians in the Netherlands. Two schools, one in Brikama and one in Amsterdam will find out more about each other by writing letters to each other. More about this soon!

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Diversity within Islam

A sad face enters our office. ‘They do not like me to date their daughter, because I am a Muslim and they are Christian.’ The student sits down searching for some advice.
‘I cannot convert to Christianity, but I will also not keep her from being a Christian. When it’s Sunday I encourage her to go to church. When it’s time for prayer she tells me to pray. Our children? We’ll raise them in both religions. Let them choose when they are old enough what they prefer to believe.’

Her parents, living in multicultural Dutch society, probably want best for their daughter. Maybe they are scared for the unknown, scared to lose her, scared for this image of Islam which the media presents. His parents, living in a 90% Muslim society, probably want best for their son. Maybe they are common to the idea of an interreligious marriage. Something which is not rare here in the Gambia. Sometimes the woman does convert to the religion of the husband. But Christian and Muslim relatives still live in the same room.

Pragmatically tolerance
Some Gambians don’t notice a big difference between the two religions, some even say they are one. ‘Christians and Muslims at our school. You won’t see the difference.’ ‘Christians and Muslims we both believe in one God. We are the same’ ‘Christians and Muslims we have our differences, but we are linked.’ ‘Christians and Muslims, we see things in other perspectives, but we are both human beings. Therefor we should not harass each other. We don’t disturb the other. We let each other be.’

It almost seems like there is a pragmatical tolerance. The Gambia is seen as a peaceful country. By Gambians and also by others, like Christian Nigerians, who fly their own country. And they like to keep it peaceful. So the majority in this country is Sunni – a Muslim denomination – and there is freedom of religion and a tolerance towards different Islamic, Christian and other religious denominations…to a certain extend. Cause if there is a group spreading hate speech and intolerance towards others – Christian, Muslim, or other – they are pulled back by the counsels or government.

‘That terrorist? Some people they say themselves are Muslim (or Christians for that sake). But they are not a good Muslim. Cause the prophet says don’t do bad things. So if there are only good Muslims there won’t be terrorist.’


Diversity within Islam
I see women on the street: Many with colorful veils matching the outfit,  a lot without veil and a very nice hair style, a lot with a dark veil and a bit of bling and a couple with a completely covered veil.

I meet many people who will never drink alcohol, I meet some who don’t mind if the local Julbrew is vaporized in the food. I notice some who had  bit too much to drink. I hear about a few who won’t even allow a beer in their fridge.

I know men with three wives and proposing to a fourth. I meet men who don’t want to think about a second wife. ‘One wife, one problem, four wives many problems’,  they joke.

Small things which examples the diversity in daily life of Muslims in the Gambia. There are very liberal Muslims and very fundamental Muslims and everything in between.

Multiple characteristics
To which of those does the son-in-law-to-be belongs too? What does it mean for him to be Muslim? I hope in the end the parents will take some time to talk to him, to ask questions, to meet him. And not only about how he sees his religion and how he shares believe with their daughter. Cause besides being a Muslim he is also a Gambian, he is a College student, he is a mathematician, he is this fanatic soccer fan, he is the one who joins the dance floor for some Fulla moves, he is the one in love.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Consulting traditional religion

 A trip to Makasutu Cultural Forest

The local taxi driver hardly new the place, but in the end we reached the Forest close to Brikama. After a welcome in a fairy tale like hang-out our guide took us through the Forest. He taught us a lot. How to make a rope from parts of the baobab tree, which fruits will protect you from malaria, which fruits to eat or not to eat (‘If it’s good for a baboon it’s good for human’), to use Mahoney wood for the matrimonial bed, how to climb a palm tree and more.

The marabout
After a walk of an hour we reached a place where an old man was sitting in a hut. ‘Do you want to consult the marabout?’ asked our guide. ‘Jessica, you know, I believe in these things. If I go for a long tour, first I go see a marabout. So I will be save on my travels. And you know, once a marabout told me I would work with white men. And see, I’m working with white men for quite a while already.’

A marabout working here in Makasutu Cultural (theme) Forest, where probably mainly tourist come…is that worthwhile? But what do people hear if they consult one? How does it work? I gave it a try.

So I sat down next to the old man. The guide sitting down as well to translate. The marabout took my right hand in his. Then he attached a mirror to my fingers. It took a couple of seconds before I noticed this was not for him to look at my hand but for me to look at his face. Right away he started talking softly. ‘You will live a long and happy life’, translated my guide. Well something everyone likes to hear. ‘You have to do charity. You have to buy two banana’s, make a wish and give the banana’s to a man. Within a year you will get a husband and a son. Your son will be beneficial to you. Many people will know about him.’ ‘Wear a bracelet from mixed material to protect you from people talking bad about you.’ The old man made spitting sounds in my hand.  ‘Now put your hands like this, over your face.  Did you understand everything he said?’ asked my guide. Well he was very clear in his direction. Will two banana’s help? Or is it about doing good and receiving good? What goes around comes around?

It was my friends turn, but she changed her mind. ‘No, I don’t believe in it. But still I will get stressed and worried if I don’t do what he tells me to do.’

We continued our walk through the Forest. ‘Really, Jessica, you have to do this. I did not tell him you were not married yet (Our guide knew, cause as many others in the Gambia he asked me in the first 10 minutes). I will show you how the bracelet looks like. But don’t buy it here in the Forest. It’s less expensive at the market. I’ve got many juju’s.’ Indeed he had. We noticed as he showed us the three around his waist and almost took of his shirt to show as the one on his arm. ‘…and the one around my arm is made from Quran verses. Oh let me show you this giant termite hill’, the guide continued with his daily job. Teaching us more about Gambian nature and assuring us that the baboons walking around would not hurt us.

I see a lot of juju’s around me. Men, women and children. Muslims and Christians. Wearing them for protection or to help them get well. Not all Gambians though. One of the persons I interviewed: ‘These charms are cultural believe for protection. But why not trust in God? Some of them think without these things they are not protected. But who will give them protection? Something what a man has made?’

Two bananas
Well and what did I do? I did not buy the bracelet. But – just in case – I did buy two banana’s at Serrekunda market. It was hard to buy two, cause the lady was selling them three at a time. A coupIe of days later i made my whish and added the two banana’s while I gave some money to a blind man ánd an old woman begging. The marabout just might have meant woman instead of man. Because many Gambians use the words man and woman, he and she in an incorrect way. So hopefully the blind man and old woman enjoyed the bananas and maybe…who knows...i'll have something to celebrate within a year... 

Friday, 5 April 2013

Celebrating Gamo at the mosque

Inviation for Gamo celebration
‘What is Gamo?’ I asked while reading a letter from Lamin Pahne and Abdoulie Camara to their Dutch friend, Yoeri. Yoeri visited Njawarra in the Gambia with his family in December. Yoeri left a good impression playing soccer with the boys at Pa Pahnes compound in Njawarra. As soon as they heard I know him they asked me about him. ‘You can write him a letter’, I suggested. And so they did. ‘When are you come here? Are you come for our Gamo?

Lamin saying hi to his friend Yoeri
Family gathering
Well Yoeri couldn’t make it for Gamo, but I could. So on Saturday February 30 a friend and I were carried to the boat to cross the Gambia River from Banjul to Barra. A local taxi ride and a bumpy ride in the back of a 4wheel drive later we arrived in the village up north. This second time in Pa Pahnes compound it was packed. ‘Welcome, welcome. Meet my family, almost 67% of them are living in Kombo, in the cities. They are all here now to celebrate Gamo, the birth of the prophet Mohammed.’ 

Like birthdays, Christmas and other celebrations it was a meeting of relatives, far away friends, neighbors and new friends. Like people told me in the interviews everyone was welcome to celebrate together. Although mainly Muslims live in this part of the Gambia. We chatted, drank ataja and baobab juice, shared roasted corn and a bowl of couscous with meat.

Couscous in Njawarra
Around 11 pm the program would start. We waited outside with the others on a mat – inside was too hot – and time past. Ten o’clock, eleven o’clock, twelve o’clock. I rested my head on one of the ladies laps to sleep a bit. I heard the women chat, one of the phones played some music and meanwhile my hair was plated. And then I distinguished a repetitive chant, different then the call for prayer, but with the same meaning. ‘Are you awake? Come it’s time to go to the mosque.’ Everyone fixed their clothes, the ladies put on their kala’s (head covers) and dressed me up in an African dress.

Ode to mothers
And so on a night where others passed on the light in church, I celebrated the birth of the prophet Mohammed in front of the mosque. Many woman – dressed in white or colorful dresses – on one side and many man – in smart suits – on the other side. The marabouts, imams and important men sitting in the middle. Three men were singing religious songs. Some ladies were singing along and others rhythmically snapped their fingers. Singing and swinging at the mosque! Frequently some ladies gave the singers some money. The organizer, imams and marabout spoke to the crowed. ‘We changed the directions of the chairs of the singers to face the women. Because you women are important. The mother of the prophet Mohammed (PBUH) gave birth to a strong man. All women can bring forth strong men’, spoke one of the marabouts. An ode to mothers! Another stated that men and women had different roles. ‘Women cannot become imam or pray together with men in the mosque.’ I did not hear the great marabout from Senegal speak about the life of the prophet, cause at half past four in the morning I could not keep my eyes open and could not stand any longer on my feet.

Religious singers and woman rhythmically snapping their fingers

At seven I woke up from people walking around. Pa Pahne greeted me a good morning. Was he already awake after organizing this event, welcoming everyone and being active at the mosque all night? ‘The program just ended I just came from the mosque. The bush-taxi is here to take you back. Many people already left.’ So we waved everyone goodbye. I think Pa Pahne was glad everyone left early. It was time for him to retreat to his room for the rest of the day!  

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Observation in my neighborhood

It’s still quiet when I open my door this morning. I see Aida with a large bucket of water on her head to water the garden. Buba is sitting still half asleep in a corner. Nanchou, his youngest brother is playing. Whenever I see him I notice this necklace with stones on his neck. The other day I asked about the stones. ‘Juju’, was the answer. Juju? It’s an amulet from the maribu. The juju helps if you have an injury or pain and protects small children. When I look closer I notice more stones: in the hair of Bintu, on the arm of my landlord. And how about that yellow stone in my own bag? A gift from my friend, to protect me on my travels.

The juju is part of ancestor religion of the different tribes here in the Gambia. You can see more of this, if you look closely and recognize it.

Believe in the neighborhood
Two of my Arkade colleagues invite students to look closely in their neighborhood for aspects of religion. It’s part of this great new digital class material for grade 7 and 8 in primary schools in the Netherlands: Geloof in de Buurt (Believe in the neighborhood). It emphasize on Critical Citizenship and Religion. I think the material inspires youngsters to dialogue with each other about religion and philosophy of life. Watch the promo film to get an idea about the material and to hear the enthusiasm of lecturer Monique Leygraaf and the principal of the Bavinck school in Hilversum about Geloof in de Buurt!

Aspects of religious Gambia
What else is there to be seen about religion in my neighborhood? Let’s take a morning going from my compound to Gambia College in Brikama.

Starting very early in the morning - if the power is running – I hear a call for prayer. At the compound  I see colorful watering cans for the washing before praying. Greetings between me and the sales man in the little shop where I buy my bread: ‘As salaam alaikum. Alaikum salaam.’ An Islamic aspect when I hear my Gambian name while I’m walking towards the high way: ‘Hello Hajja Camara, how is the morning?’Hajja refers to a woman who has been on pilgrimage to Mecca. Stickers with the name of Allah and prayers beads in front of the bush-taxi.  Sitting next to a woman with a small cross around her neck. A mosque near the road in Busumbala, the mosque near the road in Farrato. A sign along the road of one of the Methodist schools. A phone call to Lamin (revering to prophet Mohammed) - before the phone connects I hear 'bismi-llāhi r-raḥmāni r-raḥīm' on the other line. And although it’s a bit further then the College, I know the big church is next to the big mosque in Brikama center.

So many aspects of Islam. And some Christian aspects here in this Combo area. Pretty obvious while 95% of the Gambian population is Muslim. And the other 5 % is mostly Christian. 

What about aspects of religion in your neighborhood?