Thursday, August 12, 2010

Snapshots of Gambian life

Banjo asked about one of my first posts this summer, What’s the difference between seeing these things in person vs. on TV? Here are some snapshots from daily life in The Gambia that will, I hope, give some sense of what falls between the cracks of mass media coverage. Every time I go to the developing world, I'm reminded that Americans just have no idea how the majority of the world’s population lives. We’ve seen the charity appeals and the documentaries and the travel shows on TV, maybe read the horror stories in the newspaper and grim statistics in the almanac, so we think we get it, but we don’t. You have to go to a developing country and let the poverty get under your own skin a bit before you can really begin to understand it.

Three weeks into the trip, my clothes have gotten dirty in a way from which they won’t recover, because my only recourse is to clean them in the bathroom sink with cold water and bath soap. I could almost certainly find a woman to pay for laundry service, but that would consist of her standing over two basins of water on the ground, one with detergent, and scrubbing and wringing the life out of the clothes. This would probably get the dirt out, but it pains me to watch these women bent over double, wrestling the clothes as if to death. It taxes me just to keep up with my own laundry; the average woman has to tend to her own clothes as well as her husband’s and children’s—including diapers and all the vomit- and snot- and food-infested clothes babies and toddlers generate. The prospect almost constitutes contraception by itself.

Yesterday I set off for the bank, forgetting it had rained earlier. The main street itself, being tarmac, was fine, but the shoulders, where pedestrians must go, had become a series of rivers and lakes with little precarious islands of grass, dirt, and concrete. I hadn’t had to jump this carefully from dry spot to dry spot since my last wilderness excursion. I was concerned about getting my sandals dirty, yet many locals wear gorgeous, perfectly polished dress shoes.

Over the last three weeks the electricity has been off almost as much as it’s been on, so that you must do a perpetual dance of plugging and unplugging anything that needs charging, lest the surge of the power coming back on fry the circuits. For this reason you can never leave anything plugged in overnight. There’s only one outlet in my hotel room, so it takes some real juggling to keep computer, phone, and Ipod all charged (another forgotten advantage of film cameras--they never need charging). Most of the time when there’s a power outage the staff fires up the generator, but sometimes it too fails, or they need to conserve fuel and so refuse to run it. Last night the power went out just after we’d ordered dinner, and the generator failed, which meant the kitchen staff had to prepare our food in the dark. Somehow they managed it. Even in the capital, many Gambians still have no electricity at all, and would probably love to have these problems.

A woman was crouched in the sand beside the street grilling stunted ears of corn over a tiny charcoal brazier which required constant, laborious machinations—including lots of blowing, which would probably include enough smoke inhalation to lead to asthma. The cooker was much too small, and she had barely any fuel. She would have hauled the corn in on her back from some distance, and had to spend most of the day tending it, all to make a few cents per ear, of which she might only sell a handful.

Almost any woman of childbearing age is liable to be carrying a baby on her back—so casually you don’t even notice from the front. Sometimes she has two babies swaddled up—both in back, or one in front. Chances are she’s also got a huge bowl or bundle or pile of firewood or water jug on her head. This is all very picturesque, but it turns out to be murder on your back to carry heavy loads on your head. The cleaning lady at my hotel walked around one morning with two babies swaddled on; she might well have cleaned the rooms without removing them. Babies often develop asthma, apparently, while their mothers are bent over cooking fires—the mothers position their own faces away from the smoke, but inadvertently plunge the babies right into it.

Pretty much anything that comes in a package is imported—including MinuteMaid orange juice, and pineapple, passionfruit, and other tropical flavors, derived from fruits that only grow in places like The Gambia, imported from the UK. It's sobering to note that while things produced locally, like raw fruit and veg., or handwoven clothing, hand-wrought metalwork, woodwork, etc., is usually vastly cheaper than in the US, anything imported--which is almost everything--is as expensive or more so than it would be in the US. Yet the locals, of course, have far, far less money to spend than Americans.


  1. Impressive. I suppose they don't complain? How are we to imagine being born into a place (planet?) other than our own? Isn't that the only way to think of these details as routine? And how are they supposed to imagine our wondrous devices, much less to envy them? Which should they envy? What should they be glad to be without?


  2. Yes, there's nothing like spending time in countries where plumbing is the exception, not the rule, to bring home the absurdity of people fortunate enough to live in countries where safe drinking water is free and ubiquitous overpaying several hundredfold to drink bottled water--which is often just bottled tap water or less safe than tap water--instead. It wasn't so long ago in this country that public drinking fountains were considered so precious that only people of a certain color were allowed to use them. Is the current, otherwise inexplicable disuse of them in favor of overpriced bottled water a recurrence of that same racism in another guise? I've heard otherwise intelligent people say they pay for bottled water instead of drinking from water fountains because they're afraid of catching a disease. From whom, I wonder? Wasn't that the rationale for segregating water fountains in the first place?

  3. These must be the people who are afraid of drinking out of returnable bottles--the old thick Coke ones that I love so much I refuse a glass whenever they're available. I watched a British lady turn down nearly every drink available until the waiter found one that came in a carton!?