Gambia: Life in an African Compound


In late 1979 I arrived in the West African country of Gambia, broke as the day is long.  Having a poor understanding of the country’s infrastructure, I assumed that having money wired  from abroad would be a relatively easy task and was not overly concerned.

I was misinformed.

I had come to this sliver of a nation, located on the Gambia River sandwiched in the middle of Senegal, expecting to find an old friend, Suzanne, whom I heard was living there doing batik work.  She had married a Gambian, had a small child, and I imagined she was now part of a society that would welcome me.  These assumptions, at least, were mostly correct.

While the details of my locating Suzanne have been recounted elsewhere, the short version is that I met the Chief of Police of the capital city of Banjul, and with his aid was able to find Suzanne within a matter of a couple days.  Turned out she was living in the coastal village of Bakau, an easy bus ride from Banjul.

1) Fort in Banjul.  Difficult to say who was supposed to be intimidated: slaves or competing Europeans

Within an hour of arrival in that town I had found the compound where she stayed.  It seemed she was away, but the Africans made us feel completely at home, offering us a room in their compound, a walled-off complex  that didn’t show much from the street.

But that did no solve my financial difficulties.  No matter.  The old lady who ran the compound extended credit to us  in the tiny grocery store she owned, the room was free, and we shared the compound with 20 or so adults and children, all of whom marveled at our sudden arrival.

2) Our neighbors and friends in the compound

We stayed there until Suzanne returned from a trip upriver to see her in-laws, and were quickly informed we could stay as long as we liked.  Our quarters were simple – a tiny room shared by about 6 people and a million mosquitos.  As I discovered later, Gambia is a center for malaria research.  Fortunately I never contracted the malady.

3) The view from the semi-private outhouse

Our meals were served communally, and since I had no money, there was no expectation of payment. Most of the fare consisted of rice, served with dried, half-decomposed fish, and peanut sauce.  I have had an adversion to such dishes ever since, and have always marveled at why the Gambians eschewed fresh fish – which they caught plentifully – in order to salt and dry it to a state of near putrification.

One one occasion I made the terrible mistake of digging into the communal pot of food with my left hand.  Now, I had lived in Muslim countries for many years and certainly knew better.  The other diners rose in horror at my faux pas.  I apologized profusely, and believe me, that was the last time I made that particular error.

Otherwise,  we made do with canned beans, matches, cigarettes, candles, and other essentials . We cooked with our South American kerosene stove. Palm beer was cheap and in plentiful supply, too.

4) Dinner brewing in our simple room.  It’s a wonder our clothes never caught fire

Meanwhile, our new African friends were masters at batik work, and we spent many an afternoon watching them produce their wares.  Sam, the head of the project, was also an accomplished percussionist, whose performances were sometimes enhanced by his consumption of datura.

5) Sam doing batik work

Kids were everywhere in the compound, always ready to have their picture taken.

6)  All the Gambian children were cute as could be

The poverty of our new friends was striking, but they unflinchingly shared with us what little we had, until such time as we could pay back the credit they had extended to us.  A truly amazing place.

I even heard a Neil Young tune, “Four Strong Winds,” once in a local bank.

For New Year’s Eve 1979, a Gambian who worked at the local Club Med invited me to join him in his assignment, which was to put a dinghy in the swimming pool, full to the brim with champagne bottles, and pass it freely to the guests.  We, of course, were allowed to drink our own share gratis.  So that’s how the 1970s came to a close.

A few lost souls lived in Bakau. My favorite was a French woman, Valerie.  She had forgotten why she was there, but could ring the neck of a chicken with the best of them on the rare occasion we could afford to put one into the cooking pot.

7) Valerie

8) As for me, I spent a lot of time on the beach, working on serenity, a quality that always seemed elusive.  My marriage was on the rocks, and to tell the truth, this was a difficult time in my life

9) Gambian women, probably with the day’s catch, ready for salting


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