Entomology, chemical ecology, evidence-based environmentalism and science in general. I like big bugs and I cannot lie.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Tailors and tall tales

I can't upload pictures and even if I could you'd probably be more
interested in seeing a shot of me climbing the wall to escape a giant
millipede I've mistaken for a snake than a photo of a mesh fly cage,
so take my word for it that these cages can be converted into fly
traps by a skilled tailor, or even by a moderately competent one.

One of the lab workers here, lets call him Bud, assured me on Monday
that he knew of such a tailor who had made these things before so that
evening we took eight cages round to Bud's house for him to take for
modification. Unfortunately on Tuesday Bud remembered that he didn't
have a car and so couldn't take the cages to the tailor after all, and
as Lamin was at that point halfway across the country driving The
Runner to a conference there wasn't a lot I could do about this. By
the time Lamin returned on Wednesday Bud had disappeared.

On Thursday Samuel L took charge, wheedling the name of the tailor out
of Bud. We drove to Bud's house to pick up the cages from his rather
startled wife then took them to the tailor's shop in Brikama Ba where
Bud had told him this man worked. There we were told that he'd moved
to another tailor's shop – turn right at the mosque and drive to the
next village. We drove for quite some time, found a tailor's shop
that had never heard of him, drove a bit further and found another
shop that had never heard of our man, let's call him Mohammed Mbye.
They had, however, heard of a tailor called Mohammed Njie and directed
us to a fourth tailor's shop (it should have been left at the mosque)
where we found the man himself, dozing on the porch.

We explained that he had been recommended by Bud and he beamed. "Yes,
yes, that man is my brother!" he said, surprising me as Bud had been
rather uncertain not only about where he worked but about his name.
He said that he could do the work overnight, but asked for extra money
as he had a lot of other jobs to do which he would postpone especially
for us. Samuel L seemed to think that paying this was a good idea so
I did. I felt rather guilty if his other clients wouldn't be getting
their clothes on time, but given the lack of activity he had been
displaying when we arrived I couldn't help suspecting that this was
the standard patter that all of his customers got. "Thank you, thank
you, I shall start work straight away and I shall work through the
night!" Satisfied we returned to Walikunda for lunch.

Twenty minutes after we had sat down the tailor, rather startlingly,
roared into the site on his motorbike and pulled up a few feet from
the picnic table. He had just remembered that he wouldn't be able to
complete the job without sellotape, and had no money to buy sellotape.
I still don't quite understand why sellotape was necessary for the
job but handed over the money anyway. After this transaction the
tailor decided that his workload was not in fact so excessive that it
would prevent him from having a drink with us and trying to hit on
Shivonne for fifteen minutes until she eventually went indoors.

We decided that after this rather frustrating morning we deserved an
afternoon being tourists, and so took the car ferry to the confusingly
named Janjanbureh/Georgetown/MacCarthy island. Local folklore tells
that when the British first arrived they asked two palmwine tappers
the name of the island and they, having possibly sampled too much of
their own product, gave their names – Janjan and Bureh. Why they
bothered asking I'm not sure as the British promptly renamed the place
Georgetown, and after independence the island was renamed MacCarthy,
but the three names are now used interchangeably. The island was used
by the British colonial administrators as a slave trading post as the
crocodile-infested waters around it discouraged escape attempts. They
still serve the same purpose – someone with either a keen sense of
irony or an acute lack of historical sensitivity has situated a hard
labour camp for maximum security prisoners on the island.

The town itself feels shabby and neglected. Driving in we passed its
most prominent building; the slave house, or rather its remaining
three walls. What remained was two storeys high and effectively
windowless, strongly reminiscent of the industrial barns factory
chickens are bred in. The roof was long gone but when intact it must
have been horrific, a dark, airless prison. And this was where the
more cooperative slaves were kept.

Worse was to come though. We paid a local guide a quite frankly
extortionate price to take us into the underground cellar where the
most rebellious slaves were kept, which we reached via a low, dark
tunnel that must truly have felt like the mouthway of hell itself to
those who were led down here in chains. Inside the ceiling had fallen
in, making it less claustrophobic than it would have been when in use,
but the supporting beams remained. I cracked my head on these several
times; they couldn't have been more than five foot off the ground, and
this was where the tallest, strongest men, the ones judged most
dangerous, would have been kept stooping in the darkness. The cellar
was built below the water table and in the rainy season water would
have come up to their knees, mingling with their own waste and the
scraps of food thrown down through four tiny chutes at the top of the
walls. By the time we were shown the tiny cells where the most
rebellious slaves were chained up to starve within earshot of those
who may have been considering following their example, I was feeling
rather unimpressed with humanity in general.

While obviously to a rather lesser extent, I was also feeling rather
disenchanted with our guide, who had asked for a perfectly reasonable
100D for the upkeep of the place but then demanded nearly four times
that sum for himself. He wasn't worth it – Samuel L had already
filled us in on the most important points and the buildings spoke for
themselves, but we learned from our guide that when the Europeans
first came the Gambians had been living in tin-roofed houses, and that
the slaves were transported to Brixton in the UK. He then discovered
that Shivonne was a doctor, and tried to convince her to sponsor his
brother to go to medical school.

He also told us that the buildings had been in his family's care for
generations, but I couldn't help feeling that they could have made a
slightly better job of it. Granted restoring the crumbling structures
would probably take more investment than a poverty-stricken West
African state could muster, but I felt that they could at least have
done something to prevent the graffiti. While some of it was at least
a heartfelt condemnation of slavery, most was the usual scrawled
stream of conciousness – names, mobile numbers, football teams.

Our guide then took us out into the yard where slaves had been weighed
and sold. The gravity of the place was rather spoiled by the presence
of a pair of heavily soiled underpants next to the spot where we were
standing, and by the fact that our guide proceeded to give exactly the
same talk as he had given underground, punctuated by aggressive
demands to know whether we understood whenever out attention seemed to
wander. Behind the yard, now walled into a separate compound, stood
the Freedom Tree. The original was long dead but a replacement had
been planted by Peace Corps volunteers. Any slave able to run the
twenty or so metres from the cellar door to the tree was granted his
or her freedom, which sounds like a sporting chance until you realise
that the British considered it great sport to shoot at them as they
passed. Needless to say very few made it.

At this point our guide left us so we headed for the famous Wooden
House, built by the first freed slaves to return to the island after
abolition. I knew this because it said so on a sign next to the
house, and this was confirmed by Samuel L. I would not, however, have
known this if I had listened to the young man who sidled up to us
offering a breathless commentary on how the first British people to
come to the island had built this house to keep a vicious dog which
they set on Black people. What made this fabrication so bizarre was
the fact that he was standing next to the explanatory sign when he
told it.

Our new self-appointed guide proved impossible to shake off, which was
particularly annoying when we returned to the barn-like slave house
where I would have appreciated a little space for quiet reflection and
found his incessant patter about slaves being fed to crocodiles rather
distracting (for all I know this may well have been true, but it was
hard to know what to take seriously when everyone just seemed to be
trying to find the story that would shock the most money out of you).

I know that it's monumentally arrogant and insensitive of me to be
disappointed by the way this place seems to be preserved with only the
minimum amount of care necessary to ensure that it continues to
function as a cash cow. As a white British woman I have no claim on
the ruins here, they should belong to the people who were taken, the
people who were left behind and the people who returned and if they
choose to let them crumble and tell fairytales about the remains then
who am I to have an opinion? But then a part of me says no, this is
part of my heritage too – the university I went to, many of my
employers, the wealth of my country that has allowed me to enjoy a far
more comfortable life than Samuel L could dream of – all of this was
built on the profits of slavery. Britain has benefited from slavery,
and I have benefited, and that debt should not be forgotten. Nor
should the suffering of those wrenched from their loved ones and
transplanted to an alien land be forgotten; out here I feel I could
empathise with the homesickness and dislocation but can't even begin
to imagine how people could have coped with a displacement that was
not of their own choice and from which there would be no return. Mine
should not be the last generation to see this; monuments to their
suffering should not be allowed to slide into the silt or be obscured
by the names of today's petty idols – Beyonce, Paul Gascoigne.

Lost in thought I bought a warm, sticky Fanta and we headed back. We
reached the dock to discover that the ferry had broken down, and for
once I was glad of traditional Gambian gender roles as Shivonne and I
sat in the Landrover while Lamin and Samuel L joined the other men at
the ferry railing, pulling on a heavy steel rope to haul us across.
At the other bank I asked Lamin whether we still had to pay full price
for the ferry crossing. "Of course!" he laughed "This is The Gambia!"

The next day we returned to discover that the tailor had made a
complete pig's ear of the fly traps (these were unlikely to trap
anything smaller than a gerbil, and even then only if it wanted to be
caught). Samuel L was furious, I was actually unsurprised and had to
leave the shop at one point in case the fit of the giggles I felt
coming on undermined what he was saying. The tailor was once again
shown what it was that we needed, and promised to have it done for the
next day, when we returned to find he'd cocked it up in a slightly
different way. I gave up at this point (if we'd given him back the
traps he'd probably have turned them into a wedding dress or
something), paid reluctantly and took them back to sew myself, which
at least I could do sitting by the river.

One of the senior entomologists on site saw what I was doing and asked
why I was making them myself. I explained the whole sorry saga. "I'm
not surprised" he said "there are no tailors good enough up here, we
get ours done in Farafenni."
"But Bud said this was the man you always went to!" I protested.
"Of course, that man is his brother" he said then seeing my
expression (PMT + prickly heat + access to machetes) and surmising
Bud's likely fate added with a sympathetic shrug "these things happen
And I had to laugh.

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