I Was a Cash Cow in Gambia

In the preceding entry I gave a list of good stuff about a Gambian vacation. Here’s the flip side.

My first trip to Africa, a week in Agadir, Morocco in the mid-1990s, was marred (but not ruined) by the locals’ constant begging and aggressive attempts to sell me stuff. I recently relived this experience in Gambia’s coastal resort district. The Gambians don’t beg. But everybody tries to sell you goods and services all the time, often making you feel quite besieged.

The room cleaner tried to sell my wife apples in the bathroom. The hotel’s tailor nagged us daily about arranging an outing for us. I’ve already told you about “Do you need a fish” dude. You soon learn to dread meeting any young guy in the street because he will invariably try to become your local guide and buddy.

One trick I read about in the excellent Lonely Planet guide for Gambia & Senegal and soon encountered in the street was “Hey, don’t you recognise me? I work at your hotel!” It is difficult at times to recognise all these brief acquaintances, and you may feel a twinge of post-colonial bad conscience at not being able to tell one young black guy in a rasta hat from another. But when I was asked this question (on day four) I replied, “My hotel? Really? What hotel is that?” And the guy guessed wrong.

Another time though I ignored my driver for several minutes despite his calls because he had removed his rasta hat and I thought he was just another random street hustler trying to get my attention.

But the encounter that really brought home the huge economic gap between myself and the locals was when I ran into, lets call her Liz. She worked at my hotel, a shapely and pretty young single mother with an outgoing manner and good English. Many Gambian women don’t get much schooling and are neither Anglophone nor even literate. But Liz has a good job and I guess she must be quite a successful Gambian despite being sole provider for a child.

The second time we met, Liz flirted shamelessly. The third time she cheerfully offered to become my mistress, perhaps in Sweden, proclaiming that she didn’t mind my being married. I replied that though I was flattered by the offer, my wife would most likely mind quite a lot, and that my wife is a very dangerous woman. Thus spurned, how did this young lady move on with the conversation? She asked me for a t-shirt “to remember you by”. I knew from other conversations that a used t-shirt represents a considerable value in Gambia.

I must emphasise that of all the Gambian ladies I talked to, Liz was the only one who made any lewd hints, and I don’t think she sells herself in the usual sense of the term. She probably quite liked me. But as a Westerner in Gambia, I was clearly seen by men and women alike mainly as a source of cash and possibly a ticket to Europe. And since I was constantly reminded of this, I sometimes wished we had gone somewhere else for our vacation. If we had, the Gambians would have been even poorer.

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Joys of a Gambian Vacation

Gambia is Africa’s smallest country, with 15 million people living on a flat stretch of river plain carved out of central Senegal. Besides peanut cultivation, tourism is an important source of revenue, and indeed coastal Gambia is one of the most Westernised parts of sub-Saharan Africa in this respect. I recently spent a week there with my wife and kids. Here are some of the high points of our stay.

  • Sunshine, heat, beach, hotel swimming pool. These were the main reasons for us to leave Sweden at all.
  • The locals are friendly, sociable, and not in the least deferential to tourists. Most speak good English (while in Senegal, for the same reasons of colonial history, people speak French). No apartheid at the pool side: people mix freely, not least because Gambian expats come there on vacation, stay at hotels and entertain their family and friends there.
  • Humble residential areas and grocery markets are just across the coastal highway for anyone who wants to learn a bit about life beyond the hotel walls.
  • Small nature reserves full of wildlife are just a short cab ride away. Monkeys, lizards, termite hills!
  • Birds are particularly abundant and various wherever there’s a spot of greenery. Bring binoculars!
  • Pop music sounds nothing like at home, being an eclectic mix of local polyrhythms, Jamaican reggae and US styles. Bring a small radio!
  • Amazing drum-dance-singing acts: we saw the Kucha Kassem Cultural Dance Troupe one night and were completely floored. And invited onto the floor, all four of us! Contact troupe leader Abubacarr Colley to find out about gigs or book drumming and dance classes: abukolley887@yahoo.com, +220 771 27 87.
  • Everything’s cheap once you’ve learned to haggle. An ample dinner dish and a bottle of soda at a decent restaurant is like $12.

A beach vacation in Gambia offers a lot of good stuff that you will never see in the Canaries or Morocco or Spain.

Still, there were times when I really wanted to go home to Sweden. It wasn’t just that poor Junior got the shits and took to his bed for two days with a high fever, nor that my back mysteriously seized up and kept me awake nights. In my next entry I’ll tell you about the main drawback to a Gambian vacation. Can you guess?

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Swedish Skeptics in Transformation

Excellent Swedish feature-journalism magazine Filter has a 17-page piece about the skeptical movement in its current issue (#17). Magnus Västerbro’s take on the movement in general and the Swedish Skeptics Association in particular is supportive yet not uncritical. I’ve been a board member of the Swedish Skeptics (VoF) since 2004, and I think the article is excellent advertising for us. Västerbro’s main message is that the Swedish skeptical movement has long been academic, small and low-profile, and is now becoming more youthful, more inclusive, more active and louder. I think he’s pretty much right. But there are a couple of important errors in the piece that I’d like to respond to.

Västerbro says that VoF is a small organisation that does not grow much (p. 92), and he quotes a member who wishes that the Swedish movement were “as active and important” as the American one (p. 97).

VoF has 2600 members and gains new ones at a rate of roughly one a day. Then, when the time comes to pay the following year’s membership fee, a large chunk of each year’s gain is lost. This means that the organisation grows by about 100 people a year, or 4%, and it’s been doing so since we put a “join” button on our web site a decade ago. I think this is a pretty healthy annual growth rate.

As for being active and important, note that while the US has 307 million citizens, Sweden has only 9 million. 2600 members out of the Swedish population works out at 0.02%, which makes VoF comparable in relative size from a US perspective to the staff of Microsoft, the membership of AmeriCorps, the United States Equestrian Federation, the Apple Federal Credit Union or the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. These are not unimportant organisations, and they’re way bigger than any US skeptical organisation I’m aware of. Is there in fact any national skeptical organisation in the world that is bigger than VoF relative to its country’s population?

But that’s not to say that VoF couldn’t or shouldn’t be orientated more towards activism and outreach. I found it hugely instructive when the excellent independent podcast Skeptikerpodden interviewed skeptical activist Garvarn. He taught me that some people see us on the VoF executive board as an aloof academic elite that packs a serious scientific punch but does not engage much with popular debates. Come to think of it, that’s probably true. Our meetings are so informal that I’ve never reflected much on the fact that most of us have PhDs (or are working towards them) and that several members over the years have been professors.

The organisation’s 1982 roots were with a small group of academics at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. But now we’re sprouting regional chapters all over Sweden’s population centres, and their board members are younger and hungrier. And for several years I have personally made sure that we have had a younger and less male-dominated nomination committee. Although I myself am not much of a skeptical activist and do not have any great need for social events within the context of the movement, I think that these are things VoF should prioritise. There’s plenty of room to grow and there’s plenty of media bandwidth to conquer.

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What The…? Hey Death, That Was My Friend

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I’m angry and confused. Death has never hit this close to home with me before. Anders was one of my best friends, a frequent guest at my table. I knew him for over 20 years. And now he’s dead at 45, apparently of a heart attack. I’m stunned and full of disbelief.

By profession an engineer and a programmer, Anders was also a prodigious traveller, a perennial student, an avid reader and a music lover. “Heart attack at 45” conjures the image of some hard-partying coke fiend. But Anders lead a quiet, even prim, bachelor’s life and liked to play badminton.

I knew this guy from my mid teens on! We met through late-80s on-line forums and the Tolkien Society, we had a band during my undergrad years, we used to meet and jam on our guitars and perform at my parties, and in recent years he was one of the most dependable names on my list for gaming night. How can he just be gone without warning?

A buddy of ours once likened Anders to a public-school educated administrator in the British colonies. Tall, slim, blond and blue-eyed, always neat and clean-shaven, balding early, a little reserved, not a loud guy. His demeanour was boyish and asexual, cozy and down-to-earth; like tea and toast and your favourite slippers.

He had this funny combination of naïveté and much knowledge gathered by study and travels. Just recently, at a Dungen gig, he said with this priceless absence of irony, “You know, I’m starting to think that I’m not a Christian after all”. Well, duh, Anders – is there a single line of one or the more common Creeds that you’ve ever believed in? I think he’d never actually asked himself the question before.

And now he’s been taken from us by some faceless mindless happenstance of cardiovascular plumbing – from his parents and sibs and his sister’s kids, and from his many friends. Just gone, gone away to nowhere, one-way ticket, no goodbyes. I can’t get my head around it. I miss him.

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“Do You Need A Fish?”

A Gambian moment.

We’re in an extremely dilapidated taxi that has stalled at the roadside, just a stone’s throw from Tanji village’s main taxi hub. Before getting into the car, my wife and I had to haggle for ten minutes with the drivers assembled there under the dull gaze of the village idiot. And then we were accused of rich white chauvinism by an angry man whose whole family the assembled drivers forced to change cars because of us. But now the car has stalled, and no amount of joining the two wires dangling under the wheel will get it to go.

All the windows are open in the afternoon heat. The driver is filling gas into the vehicle from a battered plastic container. There is a smell of fish and gasoline.

Tanji is a fishing harbour where the catch is smoked, dried and packed. While we wait for the car to possibly get going again, a white-bearded fellow in a pill-box hat comes up to my window, dignified and in no hurry, and asks me, “Do you need a fish?”.

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Pond of the Plywood Vikings

Re-run from 25 December 2005 (no, Swedes pay no attention to Christmas Day, preferring to get worked up about Christmas Eve).


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In Skive, Denmark, there’s a pond dug to accommodate a plywood Viking ship that was never set afloat.

My friend Rud Kjems tells the story in local-history annual Skiveegnens jul 2005. Skive museum was incorporated in 1910, but only in 1942 did it get premises of its own. When the museum building was finally becoming a reality, the organisation received some unusual corporate sponsorship.

Danish brewery Tuborg financed a film set in the Viking Period for the universal exhibition of 1937 in Paris. The brewery ended up with a warehouse full of props, costumes and set decorations, including a 19 metre Viking ship replica. It offered all this, along with a sizeable sum of money, to the thrilled trustees of Skive museum. They envisioned a Viking re-enactment centre in the town park, with a re-constructed Iron Age house, people in period costumes, and a pond with a boat house and a proud Viking ship. For a time, Skive was the envy of neighbouring town councils. Plans were laid out for the park, and the pond was dug.

But when the gear arrived from Tuborg, it turned out that the latter-day Vikings of the Danish film industry weren’t quite up to the standards of their ancestors.

“Using cardboard, plaster and paint, they have created an illusion of thick oak boards, but it is all hollow. Only a few pieces may be massive. The general impression of the materials is not good, even if there may be a few things … you might have hopes for, but otherwise it looks like a pile of firewood.”

Skive museum has much to offer the visitor, but no re-enactment centre from the 1930s, and no Viking ship. It turned out to be made of plywood. But the pond is still there, the imprint of a dream of a beer-sodden replica of a golden past.

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Viking Silver in Arctic Norway

Re-run from 22 December 2005.


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The Viking Period was a funny time, only three centuries long, leaving a huge footprint in terms of ideas and archaeology. Speakers of Scandinavian languages lived mainly in the fertile southern third of Scandinavia, most of them being subsistence farmers. The endless pine woods and ground-down mountain ranges of the north were home mainly to Saami and Finnish hunters and freshwater fishers. But along the Norwegian coast, deep-sea fishing and sea mammal hunting supported Scandinavian settlements all the way up to the edge of the Arctic ice. Here’s where the warming effect of the Gulf stream is really important. And these people weren’t poor or cut off from the world, even though they had to stand far more cold and dark than pretty much anyone on Earth except the hardiest Inuit. They thrived, they travelled, they held their own against the elements.

One of the more charming habits of the day was silver hoarding. Let’s not get into how they got the silver. But Scandinavians at the time clearly felt that for some reason a lot of it should be hidden and left. And so, in some parts of Scandinavia, silver hoards of the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries keep popping out of the ground. On Gotland, the verdant limestone slab in the middle of the Baltic, people are so jaded about this that the local paper will simply say “this year’s hoard has been found, call off the search”.

In northern Norway, though, hoards are extremely rare. So it came as a surprise to everyone last August when two boys in Tromsø found one in a rock cleft under their club house.

Tromsø is unbelievably far north, a small island town with a university and a museum, both of them employing archaeologists. I was there for a few days two years ago to study brooches, and everybody was very friendly.

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The new hoard consists of jewellery collected over generations. The round brooch is decorated in the late Borre style of the mid-10th century. The youngest piece is a pendant crucifix reliquary hung on a necklace of braided silver wire, ending in late Urnes style animal heads, the entire set dating from about AD 1100. A cool thing about the animal heads is that they are rare round-sculpture versions of the ones shown in line-drawn profile on hundreds of rune stones mainly in Uppland, Sweden. The Tromsø heads even have little pretty ears. This is Scandinavian animal art with roots way back in the Migration Period, although the Urnes style occurs almost exclusively in early Christian contexts. The crucifix reliquary is decorated in a clunky Continental Romanesque style embellished with a few Scandinavian curlicues.

i-eeffb9d46cb6a44c4ea640738d04c887-kors-det.jpgNo coins were found, making it hard to nail the hoard’s date down to a single decade. But a reasonable guess is that the silver was hidden in the first quarter of the 12th century AD. (This is after the Viking Period proper.) The church of Tromsø isn’t historically documented before the 13th century, but the crucifix reliquary makes it highly likely that there was a Christian magnate’s farm with a small wooden church on the island already around AD 1100. Unfortunately the new God proved equally unwilling as the old ones had been to improve climatic conditions in Tromsø.

Sources: Tromsø university, article 1, article 2.

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Burnt Daub and the Ghost of Wattle

It’s re-run week! I’ve gone back to my first month of blogging and found some good stuff. Here’s a piece from 20 December 2005.


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Lately I’ve been washing a lot of ruined building materials, debris from a house fire 2000 years ago.

Me, my friend Howard and his students excavated a Viking Period boat burial in Östergötland last summer. It dated from the 9th century AD and was sitting on the remains of a settlement from the 1st century BC. We weren’t there to study that period, but we ended up with a shitload of burnt daub. Thousands of pieces of fired clay with imprints of twigs and straw.

Wattle and daub is a cheap and sturdy technique for building house walls. The roof of your 1st century BC house has its own supporting posts. Between the eaves and the ground, you fix slim stakes where you want the wall, and then you weave thin withes between the stakes making a basketwork screen: wattle. You then mix clay with straw and dung and daub the wattle from both sides. Stays wind-proof for decades. Then, when your house burns down, as it is likely to do when you have no chimney and warlike neighbours, the daub turns into coarse ceramic chunks. Which archaeologists will collect, wash, dry, weigh and photograph.

This is boring and pointless. We collect the stuff because it’s clearly artificial and has a funny shape. It occurs in humongous quantities, 100s of kilograms from one site in some cases. But we have yet to see any interesting information about life in the past come out of burnt daub. At excavations, we look at it and say, “There’s been a wattle-and-daub structure here, and it’s burnt down”. And this is as far as burnt daub takes us.

There’s an on-going discussion about this issue in contract archaeology. A few years from now the standard procedure will probably be to document where the daub was and how much it weighed, then collect, say, ten of the largest and most intricate pieces from each context, and dump the rest. But I didn’t feel I had enough clout to try to set a precedent with last summer’s dig. So I’m doing the washing up.

Addendum 4 January: a shitload is here defined as roughly 18.1 kilogrammes.

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Days On A Roof

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My dad is building a guest house and an octagonal two-story sauna on the steep scarp from his house down to the sea. Things suddenly got very hurried, and I was called in as a building hand to help get the roof onto the sauna before winter. So in addition to a lot of travel, lately I have learned a few things about how to put an octagonal roof onto a two-story building. Crazy scaffolding…

I’m filled with respect for the builders of the past, like the ones behind the Medieval churches that dot the Swedish countryside. We have power tools, spirit levels, boards in exact dimensions… They had plumb lines and axes and hand saws. When I was a boy my dad nailed houses together at our summer place, but now it’s all electrical screwdrivers and screws that drill their own holes. You can hold a board in one hand and fasten it to another just by pointing this gun-like thing at it, leaning on it and and pressing the trigger.

Anyway, with that view, it’s going to be a pretty amazing pair of houses.

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