17 September 2010


BBC Journalist shares Gunjur Experience

Anna Quarendon is a BBC Journalist who visited Gunjur Village in the Gambia.She is among hundreds of people from the United Kingdom to visit the Coastal Village which has had a long-standing link with Marlborough since 1982.Below is her account of the trip to the place known as the "Smiling coast of Africa".

Anna Quarendon in The Gambia
BBC Anna Quarendon and friends in The Gambia

Over the 11 years that I've worked as a programme producer for BBC Wiltshire, we have regularly reported the work of the Marlborough Brandt Group linking Marlborough with the Gambian village of Gunjur, since 1982.

As a result of this exchange programme, thousands of visitors have travelled between the two countries, we have welcomed Gambian visitors to our studios and found out more about life in The Gambia.

So it was enormously exciting when, in early January, I received an unexpected invitation to visit Gunjur myself.

The purpose of the visit was to honour two founder members of the Marlborough Brandt Group, MBG - Dr Nick Maurice who helped found it in 1981, and Anita Bew who became involved soon after.

Both were to receive honorary citizenship of a place which Dr Nick has visited more than 40 times, and where Anita has now made a second home.

This was my first visit, not just to The Gambia but to Africa and, as is customary on these exchange visits, I would spend the week living with a local family.

Anna Quarendon in The Gambia
Fishing is one of the key industries in Gunjur

After a six-hour flight across the vast sandscape of the Sahara, we landed in the capital, Banjul, where we were welcomed and taken back to Gunjur to meet our Muslim hosts.

And welcomed is what we were.

As I was dropped at my 'compound', I was surrounded by women and children, singing, smiling and clapping as they led me to the room which was to be my home.

Others had moved out to make it mine and would sleep many to a bed during my stay.

Their hospitality was spontaneous, warm and generous and extended to giving me the household's only oil lamp to ease my introduction to a world without electricity. Or running water.

My water was drawn from a nearby well by young girls who balanced on their heads huge quantities in bright plastic buckets to provide enough for keeping clean and for doing the weekly wash.

All these chores, like the daily sweeping of the sandy ground, were undertaken by the women, and girls as young as seven who start work early each morning before heading off to school, if their families can afford to send them.

The girls in my family were able to go to school thanks to the industry of 'Mama' who worked in the vegetable garden funded and supported by MBG, and her eldest daughter.

Anna Quarendon in The Gambia
Water is carried from a well on women's heads in a bucket

Thirty-year-old Mbanding not only washed, cooked and looked after her parents, brothers, sisters and twin daughters, but also ran a small shop, worked in the local bank and helped run adult literacy classes for the village elders.

Her father was a local driver. Other men worked in the fishing port or repaired some of the village's many rickety bicycles or sat on benches and passed the time of day.

Mbanding's 20-year-old brother, Suleyman, is bright and ambitious. He wants to be an accountant but has had to drop out of school because his family don't have the money for the fees. He needs £40 for the year.

To help raise the money, the women work. And through working not only help to support their families, but also gain in confidence thanks to some of the projects supported by MBG which empower them to earn a livelihood.

In spite of all the hard work there is time for laughter and leisure. The girls need little excuse to put on their best clothes to celebrate anything from a baby-naming ceremony, a Cora Band or, my mother's 80th birthday.

With life expectancy around 65, age is reverenced, elders greatly respected and, as an adopted member of the family, my mother was their mother. The day was marked with special food and a fruit drink to toast her health.

We drank from a yellow plastic dustbin brimming with a concoction of vanilla sugar, condensed milk, bananas and apples, while mysteriously out of the darkness, plastic chairs appeared from nowhere, along with a borrowed ghetto blaster, balloons, and a neighbour, brought in to make a speech. It was fantastic.

But the biggest party of all was the reason for our being in Gunjur; the honouring of 'Dr Nick' and Anita.

It began early on the Sunday with the arrival of a group of women, flamboyant in their colourful costumes and led by their elected elder, the Nansimba.

They were there to make sure that all of the 'Toubabs' (white people) were properly decked out in the African clothes which local tailors had made for the occasion.

Then, like children following the Pied Piper, we were led in procession along the sandy streets, joined by increasing numbers of women banging drums, singing, dancing and wearing the different costumes of the town's eight kafos, or clans.

A thousand women, two thousand. Speeches were made, songs sung, tears shed - mine amongst them.

And again, a week later, when it was time to say goodbye.

They say that Africa gets to you. I think 'they' could be right.

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