Birthdays, witchcraft and traffic-rage

Trip Start Sep 08, 2006
Trip End ??? ??, 2007

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Flag of Gambia  ,
Thursday, February 15, 2007

Good day all, wherever you are and whatever mischief you are up to.

I write to respond to those of you who emailed expressing surprise that I had made it to yet another anniversary of my glorious entrance to this world.

My 26th Birthday was a memorable one - spent with other volunteers on a deserted beach under the stars, dancing around a campfire with the musical backdrop of West African drumming. It sounds idyllic and it was although in truth our fire-building skills drew hysterical laughter from the drummers until they decided to take pity on us and turn our miserable embers in to a blaze of glory.

There nearly was no fire at all as we'd forgotten to buy any timber and by the time we rocked up at the roadside woodseller's pitch, he'd long departed, leaving his bundles of twigs neatly stacked up ready for the next day's trading. Having decided to take some and leave him the cash, I suddenly hesitated as it struck me that there was something distinctly odd in the vendor's apparent faith in human nature - what was there to stop anyone rocking up and swiping the lot without paying? Then I saw it. Tied to a stick poking out of the woodpile was a small bottle filled with red liquid, attached to a feather: A JuJu.

Gambians are by nature very superstitious (I can remember reading pre-departure an extensive list of things considered bad luck which included "whistling" "calling a baby beautiful" and "seeing bare buttocks in the morning") and JuJus are charms or talismans that protect the bearer from the harm that can arise from such hidden dangers. The majority of Gambians are to be found wearing JuJus in the forms of bracelets or belly chains but special JuJus can also be commissioned for specific purposes by a marabou (traditional healer) e.g. guarding your wares from unscrupulous thieves, to make you bullet-proof, or even to form the basis of a love potion. A fellow volunteer gained first-hand experience of the latter when she had a lock of her blonde hair cut off in the market by a bold stranger. She solved the situation by pointing at the hair and shouting "bad JuJu". Said offender dropped it like a stone and scarpered, scared out of his wits.

In the interest of learning from other cultures, I have decided I am going to commission myself a JuJu against the evil that is Gambian traffic. Before I left the UK, I can remember one of my friends telling me a well-loved fact about the country - it possesses only one set of traffic lights, making them somewhat of a novelty value, even a photo-opportunity for the easily amused tourist. This anecdote is no longer strictly accurate as there are now other traffic light sets around (if rarely switched on) but the founding set of lights still remain fondly in local people's affections and have acquired almost cult status. I now live right beside this national treasure and have come to hate and fear it, mainly for the frequent attempts it makes upon my life each and every day.

This precarious situation arises only when I make the reckless decision to attempt to cross the road. No matter how hard I try to do otherwise, I am repeatedly lulled into a false sense of security by the onset of the green man and high-pitched beeping, which years of conditioning leads me to assume a cessation of traffic and step boldly into the road. Once again just in time I will remember exactly where I am and dive back to the relative safety of the roadside and narrowly miss the onslaught of thundering vehicles that have been lingering for this very moment to hit their accelerators.

The problem of road safety arises as the lights were erected long after the majority of today's Gambians acquired their licenses (available through either passing a test, or alternatively by simply buying one) and so how exactly to react to this odd looking contraption is a matter of great debate and appears to eventually rest on personal preference. The problem was compounded by the "sensitization" exercise carried out when the lights were first built, which involved a very terrified-looking policeman in white gloves standing in the middle of the junction and directing traffic. Due to a small oversight, no one actually first explained to him how the lights were supposed to work and so applying his initiative, he used the flashing green chap as his cue to beckon on the excited vehicles. To this day a generation of residents will insist the "Official" procedure is for all 4 lines of traffic to patiently wait and then charge forward at the same time. Thinking about it, maybe I'd better get a couple of JuJus.

Here I must lay off as preparations are calling for the impending visit of Mater and Pater Hart to see their favourite offspring. If you thought one Hart could cause chaos in Africa, wait and see what three Harts can do....
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