Monday, 14 May 2007
No.73: The Gambia
The Smile of Africa
Owen Powell – 14th May 2007
Jainaea is the closest we’ve got yet to breaking the rules. Just to remind you, this project, whilst pretty shambolic in execution, is trying to prove something quite important under a self-imposed framework of dos and don’ts. One of our first decisions was that we only wanted to find people that were living and working in London broadly because they had planned to, not because they had been told to – so we ruled out (as the relevant page of our website says) “anyone who was an employee of a country's government (for example, no ambassadors, Kings or Queens)”. Jainaea herself is none of these things, but her first trip to London, at the age of two months, came about because her father was the Gambian ambassador here. A fairly cosmopolitan childhood followed – stints in Saudi Arabia and Belgium, with every summer spent back on the west coast of Africa. Finally, when a military coup in 1994 made things difficult for her father, the family settled permanently in the UK, and Jai, at the age of 14, ended up in a boarding school in Brighton.
When I ask her how she defines herself, after this fairly mobile and nomadic start to her life, she immediately replies that she “feels very Gambian. I have family there, I spent a part of every year of my life in the Gambia. For such a small country, we have quite big egos – we are a proud people. It’s never just ‘Gambia’, always ‘The Gambia’ – you must get that right. We call our country ‘The Smile of Africa’, if you look on a map, you’ll see why.”
I get my map book out. It’s true. The Gambia is a tiny, thin country, following the path of the river Gambia to the sea, but otherwise entirely surrounded by Senegal (which becomes, in the “Smile” analogy, the Cheeks and Jaws of Africa). “There were plans, a while ago,” Jai goes on, “to combine with Senegal into a new country called Senegambia, but we’re too proud of our history. It’s a bit like with the Welsh and English.”
With The Gambia being Wales, I suggest. “No! We are England!” Jai laughs, “Do you mind if I smoke? Oh! They’re playing my song!” We’re sitting in Coffee Republic on Soho Square, and the opening bars of ‘Mr Bojangles’ float over the early evening caffeine addicts. “Bojang is my surname,” Jai explains, lighting up. “I’m from a mixed background, my father is a Mandinka, my mother a Wolof. It’s not that unusual – The Gambia isn’t a massively traditional country. It was one of the earliest to get independence in West Africa – back in the early 60s – and until this recent coup it was doing quite well. I met a guy with the same surname while I was at University in Bournemouth, one of the professors there, and we formed a kind of Gambian support group.”
Jai studied Television Production at Bournemouth, which rang a bell for me. It turns out she was in the year below Nicky Horne – no relation to Alex – who I went on holiday with every summer between the ages of 5 and 15. (Our families were there as well, it wasn’t some precocious private arrangement.) In a week when I’m due to meet eight different nationalities, it’s nice to reminded that it literally is a small world.
Despite having plans in her late teens to be a lawyer, she decided that she wanted her working life to be a bit more fun, so the degree led on, appropriately enough, to a job in television production. She has been a Production Manager at Tiger Aspect for two and a half years, working mainly in the factual department. “I go on a few shoots, but I’m always the most hated person there as I’m in charge of the money, and everyone making the programmes always wants more. But I don’t like it when people complain about having stressful jobs in the media – a mine or a call centre are stressful places to work, not in a TV company.”
Jai says it’s difficult to get started in London. “I have two cousins who have stayed, but lots of other people I know have gone back now. Others get stuck – they can’t afford to go back, or to stay. Even once you’re in a job like mine, you can get trapped on the treadmill a bit. With my media experience, I could probably move on and get a job in the States, but actually that’s the last place I want to go. I can’t see myself working back in The Gambia either, but I would like to live in another country.”
Jai’s sister is working in International Development, and is currently based in Burundi. “There’s a real problem at the moment, and that’s the job drain on Africa. Nurses, teachers, IT staff – they’re all coming to the West for work, and there’s no-one left to do these jobs in Africa.” She smiles ruefully. “Of course, you could say I’m doing the same thing. It’s hard, it’s a real personal sacrifice to be the first person to go back.” It’s sort of a modern-day version of slavery, I suggest. “Exactly! The Gambia was at the centre of the British involvement in the slave trade – ok, now they’re not forcibly taking people, but still, the west is taking our resources – our oil, our cocoa. Fort James, on James Island where the slave trade was based, is now a museum, and people are very aware of the history. I think in some ways it’s easier for Africans, because we know that our ancestors weren’t traded. But people from the Caribbean, sometimes they feel almost ashamed, and angry, about their family history. But they shouldn’t! They should be proud their ancestors survived!”
I mention Alex Haley, the African-American whose massively popular book ‘Roots’ traced his family’s history back to the mid-eighteenth century, and a village in The Gambia. “Hmm,” Jai notes, unimpressed, “He is a bit of a hate figure in The Gambia. He did all these interviews, got all these stories off the people he found, made a lot of money and didn’t give any of it to the people who made his book!”
After this, my usual “Do you miss the food” question comes as a bit of a let-down, although Jai remembers her surprise at seeing a Gambian food stall at Glastonbury some years ago – surprised as it was being run by men, who don’t generally cook too much in Gambian culture. “I shouldn’t say too much, though,” she smiles, “After all, my father and brothers are Gambian men.” Gambian men seem rather popular in other contexts, though, as Jai gleefully explains. “Oh my god! We have loads of Dutch women, Scandinavian women, German women – all these tourists who look like sausage meat has been piped into them – and they come to the coast and the beaches and pay for sex with Gambian men!” Jai covers her mouth and her eyes widen – we both agree that it is a very funny thought, although if it was the opposite (rich middle-aged European men going on holiday for sex with young non-European girls) it would seem rather less funny. Still, with the sausage-meat image in our heads, we wander out into Soho Square, still giggling a bit – Jai heads off home, and I make my way to Bar Italia to meet Paola and Silvana ...