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

Monday, 27 July 2009

Naming ceremony

So we drove back up to Walikunda, pausing briefly in Farafenni for
Jeff to buy a boiled egg "tapa-lapa" sandwich and visit a public
toilet that I think has given him PTSD. I spent most of the journey
seething with envy - unlike me Jeff is able to sleep in landrovers,
even bouncing down roads that make your head bob about like a nodding

Distressingly underprovisioned in the clean water and air conditioning
departments as Walikunda may be, one thing it doesn't lack is fresh
fish from the river. Siaka, the machete-wielding nightwatchman, has
taken it upon himself to be my gourmet personal shopper bringing me
plump, juicy kossou and delicious but spiney joto and once but never
again the revoltingly muddy, soapy tilapia. These I was taught to fin,
scale and gut by Sainey, Walikunda's inscrutable, baby-backed cleaner.
Throughout the lesson she looked at me with much the same expression
as I would have reserved for someone asking me how to open a can of

With Jeff here to feed too Siaka excelled himself, knocking on the lab
door one day with a cement tub from which he decanted a little brown
tortoise. He explained how to prepare it - apparently you hold the
back end over a fire (or as he rather more evocatively expressed it
"You put a flame to his anus"), then when the tortoise sticks its head
out you chop it off (he demonstrated the motion with the machete).
After that you just treat it like a particularly crunchy Cornish
Pastie. He left me standing on the lab step, watching the little
creature stumble ponderously towards the wall where it put its head
and forelegs into a hole in a mud brick and rested, apparently
concluding that it was now invisible. Call me sentimental but it
seemed rather unsporting to eat an animal whose idea of hiding left
half of its body exposed, particularly as this was the half to which a
flame would be put. I am therefore pleased to report that the
tortoise "got away", possibly at a rather higher velocity than it was
accustomed to.

Following Samuel L's reassignment I have been given a new fieldworker.
I had just about gotten used to the local concept of GMT (Gambian
Maybe Time) and was by now used to asking people to turn up half an
hour before I actually needed them. This new chap rather threw me
though by turning up early as often as he arrived late. I established
the limits of the variability of this phenomenon to be eighty minutes
either way, so for the purposes of this blog will christen him +/-80.
I'm still not entirely sure how to deal with this, but suppose it
ensures that I'm always up and ready to go early in the morning.

Jeff has been rather a hit with the local staff, one of whom invited
us to his nephew's naming ceremony. This prompted a wardrobe crisis -
I had been slopping round The Gambia in my baggy trousers and
workshirts and didn't have anything smarter, but wasn't sure if this
would really cut it when surrounded by relatives decked out in African
finery. Would wheat i was wearing, I asked hesitantly, be acceptable?

"You must wear African dress" he said.
"But I don't have any!"
"No problem, my daughter will lend you some".

So the next morning we drove to his compound where his teenage
daughter (who I'm going to call Cher for reasons that may become
apparent) was waiting to help me into one of her outfits and make me
presentable. She had just come back from the coast, where she was
staying with relatives to attend what is apparently the best school in
the Gambia, and I got the distinct impression she wasn't very happy to
loan one of her outfits. She brightened on discovering that I was
English though. Did I know Daniel Radcliffe? she wanted to know, and
I disappointed by not only not knowing him and not knowing who he was
but by having seen only two of the Harry Potter films. She helped me
into a wrap skirt, surprisingly complicated to tie, then looked on
with interest as I removed my headscarf to don the shirt. Did I
always wear my hair this short? she asked. I explained that I didn't,
but that it was easier to have it that way when I was working. "Ah,
you are very simple!" she exclaimed, which I chose to take as a

I was then ushered into the living room where Jeff was being presented
to at least a hundred relatives. Very few of them spoke English, and
Jeff spoke now Gambian languages, but they still seemed to be managing
to sustain quite a lively conversation. We were offered guava juice,
little sweet fritters and a greenish, watery porridge. I declined the
last two items, unsure of their gluten status, and Jeff declined the
porridge because frankly it looked like primordial ooze. I have
trouble explaining my coeliac disease here, not because people don't
understand the word allergy but because they don't understand the
concept; I guess the diet is so restricted here that people who can't
tolerate a common foodstuff just starve. But I never seem to be able
to explain that it's not that I don't want or don't like their food,
it's that I simply can't eat it. I did worry that we were coming
across as very rude and fussy, and felt particularly bad when Cher was
dispatched to the kitchen to prepare some "European food" and returned
with a large bowl of chips. They were excellent chips though, and we
certainly didn't have to feign appreciation eating them.

After eating we went for a walk around the compound and our host
showed us the new house he was building fr his children. We wandered
back to the central courtyard where people sat chatting, brewing tea,
feeding babies; the scene reminded me of the stage at British weddings
between ceremony and food when no one quite knows what to do with
themselves. I assumed the role of official photographer, snapping
guests, the kids who mobbed us to get into the photo and Cher who
rather enjoyed having her picture taken.

We eventually sat down next to a Griot. These traditional musicians
are the custodians of a tow's oral history, and over the melody he
plucked out on his 21-stringed kora he sang the names of passers by
and recounted their family history. Noticing our rapt attention he
asked our names and proceeded to sing a song for us. The music was
beautiful but hampered by his lack of knowledge of our stories his
lyrics were rather surreal; "Julie and Jeff, MRC Walikunda" repeated
over and over.

It was at this point that we met the guest of honour, a lively,
grinning baby boy, as yet nameless. He was apparently a little older
than was usual at a naming ceremony, but the celebrations had had to
be postponed following a death in the family. His motor skills were
therefore rather better developed than they should have been, which
made passing him amongst the guests rather more entertaining than it
would otherwise have been. I think mine was the first white nose he
had ever seen, and he made a very thorough investigation of how firmly
this strange object was attached. He also managed to poke Jeff
directly in the eye, which is probably an honour or something.

Then it was time for more food, which I once again declined. Jeff on
the other hand gamely munched his was through approximately two tonnes
of highly seasoned rice and most of the leg of the luckless sheep that
had started the morning tethered in the compound, doubtless wondering
what all the fuss was about. As he was eating traditional drummers
struck up a beat in the courtyard. We hurried out to see everyone
clustered around them but no dancing as yet. Suddenly one of the
sinewy elderly women who seem to form the backbone of the labour force
here stepped into the circle to dance and seemed to be encouraging her
cowardly younger relatives to join in. As any shocked outsider who
has attended a family wedding will tell you, my folks aren't exactly
shy on the dancefloor, and it didn't seem right to leave her to
shoulder the responsibility of starting the dancing alone. So I
hopped into the circle and joined in, trying to copy what she was

I think particularly the kids found the toubab and the grandma the
most entertaining thing they'd seen for days. We danced until the
drummers stopped, she acknowledged my efforts with a nod and a smile
and I realised I had to get back to set up my overnight experiments.
as we were leaving a donkey cart pulled up carrying speakers the size
of a refrigerator. I have no idea how they planned to power them,
maybe a treadmill for the donkey? By this stage of the evening we
were both exhausted and one of us was at least 50% sheep by weight,
but we both felt very privileged to have had an experience I doubt
you'd get visiting a country as a tourist.

Yup, do a PhD, travel the world, meet interesting people and dance
with their grannies.

Sacred gators - 27/6/09

So it's been a while, thanks in part to the arrival of my bloke and in
part to what happens to my laptop in two posts time, but here we go:

The drive down to Fajara had been hard, and I'd been looking forward
to a shower and a decent night's sleep. On all of my previous visits
to Fajara I had been put up in the accommodation reserved for visiting
scientists, and very nice it had been too, but on this occasion it
looked as though someone had finally worked out my true status - I had
been assigned to the student accommodation.

My heart sank as I stepped through the door. There was no mosquito
net, and the air was so thick with permethrin it made me cough. The
penultimate straw was either the lack of air conditioning, which has
been the only thing that lets me get a decent night's sleep here, or
the shower which yielded a grudging trickle of brown water than ran
dry a few seconds later. The final straw though was that after all
the effort I'd gone to to tell everyone that Jeff was my husband we'd
been given a single bed. Don't get me wrong, I've had some of the
best nights of my life in single beds but in this climate you do not
want to be sleeping in close proximity to a source of radiant heat, no
matter how much you may adore said source of radiant heat. I checked
the envelope the keys had come in - surely some mistake - but no, this
was indeed the room intended for "Judy Bristol and Joseph Jeffries".
So I flounced out, like a diva who'd been left white roses in her
dressing room instead of ivory, and booked us into a hotel.

A quick note about Jeff; I did consider giving him a nickname to give
the poor lad a bit of privacy, but decided not to bother as just about
everyone reading this blog will already know my bloke's name (except
Bug Girl, hi if you're still reading!). He would in fact have had a
ready-made nickname - in Wolof the word Jeff means "reward" but if I
started referring to him as "My Reward" you'd all be vomiting on your
keyboards by the end of the sentence and I wouldn't want to be liable
for the repair bill.

Anyway I waited in the cafe at Banjul airport for his delayed flight,
committing further crimes against dentistry with the aid of the Coca
Cola Corporation, then steered him through the bewildering throng of
people who wanted to carry his bag and summon him a taxi and be his
friend and all for whatever gift he wanted to give them, after which
experience the hotel room felt like a sanctuary. He had brought me
presents; new books and movies, toiletries and clothes and wonderfully
soothing AfterBite. This last I applied liberally and frequently
until I realised it was 3% ammonia and was making me smell like the
alley behind The Tyneside on a Sunday morning.

I realised how much I'd missed him, and not just for the presents and
conversation and the reasons I won't go into because I suspect my Dad
and his Mum may be reading. Somehow just having him here, even when
we were napping or reading in separate rooms or even bickering made
all the thousand tiny frustrations every day working in Africa brings
that much easier to bear. It was nice too to have someone else to
share all of Fajara's attractions with - we negotiated the filthy
gutters of Bakau market to buy fragrant incense from a Senegalese
herbalist, swung in hammocks at Leybato's beach bar as the sun set
over the Atlantic and, umm, bought baked beans and mayonnaise from
Kairaba Avenue's luxury European supermarket. Well I wanted to give
him the unedited Gambian experience didn't I?

We also visited the Katichikali Sacred Crocodile Pool, which would be
well worth a trip even without the crocodiles. There's a fascinating
little museum of Gambian culture and our guide was the first Gambian
I'd met with a wonderful dry sense of humour, solemnly informing us
that the crocodiles' diet was 80% fish and 20% tourist (at least I
assume it was a joke!). The pool is located in a beautiful garden,
like a lush rainforest with well-tended paths. the place was clearly
ancient, the vast trees testifying to the fact. I took a photograph
of Jeff standing between the buttresses of a majestic silk-cotton tree
to show the scale, but unfortunately realised when reviewing the
pictures that the way it was cropped made it look as though he was
standing in an enormous wooden vagina.

The pool at the heart of the garden is almost perfectly circular, with
a bloom of vivid green algae on the surface worthy of a St Patrick's
Day display. Crumbling stone steps lead down to the stagnant water;
women bathe here to cure fertility problems and I could well believe
that these waters could promote the growth of at least some form of
new life. But I'd imagine that of far more concern to pilgrims than
the foetid water would be the crocodiles themselves, several dozen of
which lurked beneath the water's surface with only their nostrils
breaking the algal bloom or sunned themselves on the steps and path.

As sacred crocodiles these creatures are stuffed so full of fish that
they apparently have no desire to attack humans. Indeed the ones we
saw seemed to have no desire to move at all, but it was still some
time before I could be persuaded to touch one. It felt surprisingly
soft, I don't know what I was expecting but it was probably rock-hard
muscle and pure, compacted, primordial evil. Jeff of course knew no
fear, stroking them and shaking their hands and pretty much doing
everything short of picking them up by the forelegs and dancing a
tango with them. Amazingly we made it out with all appendages
attached. Maybe we were just too profane to be eaten by sacred
crocodiles, or maybe human marinaded in Afterbite held no appeal next
to a fish supper.