Step outside at this time of year and you’ll see people casting anxious glances at the sky.
It’s the pre-rainy season period, when the local micro-climate is a battleground between the Atlantic/Saharan weather systems in the north and west fighting a losing battle against the advancing summer storms from central-east Africa.
We’ve only had a handful of token showers so far, but that’s enough to make some roads temporarily impassable without 4WD vehicles, and going shopping in the local markets involves leaping from rocky outcrop to rocky outcrop to reach the sellers with their rickety stalls precariously balanced on tiny islets amid mud and pothole pools of water.
Push-push boys are busily carting wheelbarrow-loads of rocks and throwing them into the mini lakes to make stepping stones and more tiny islands, but of course displacing water with rocks just raises the level of the water overall. And splashes muddy water everywhere – notably over the legs and shoes of careless shoppers like me.
And yes, some probably did it on purpose. As one of the few “white” faces to be seen around at this time of year (the tourist season runs roughly November until April) I make an easy target, standing out like a cueball in Harlem, to quote that memorable line from Live & Let Die.
On the other hand there’s the Cheers factor. For those unfamiliar Cheers was an American sitcom of yesteryear, set in a bar “where everybody knows your name.”
It feels like that here sometimes, where everybody seems to know my name but I’m still struggling, after all these years, to make sense of many local names which defy my westernised brain’s ability to process.
While there are many common Muslim and Judaeo-Christian names here – it seems every other girl is called Mariama or Fatou or Fatimah or Isatou or Awa and every other boy is a Lamin or a Modou or a Mohammed or a Musa – other names simply don’t easily roll off the western tongue.
Among my neighbouring girls is an Incha, an Abyss, an Ndey (you might have guessed from the indefinite article there that the N in Ndey is pronounced like the n in gun), a Binta, a Jainaba, a Ramatoulie, an Oumie, a Sainabou, a Haddy, a Halimatou, a Kumba, a Hassatou and an Aja, while boys go under names guaranteed to give tourists a headache like Ablai and Bopaya and Kebbeh, and even such improbable monikers as Doodoo Boy, Daddy Boy and Couple.
And to complicate matters further many children take on a given name and their mother’s first name (for boys) and a given name and their father’s first name (for girls), so we have a Modou-Aye and a Momadou-Hawa, for example.
And then there are the utterly confusing compound first-last names. Mbaye is a common surname here and Hoja a common first name for girls, but a Hoja Mbaye is known as (my best guess at spelling as it’s only spoken, never written) Hu’llumbaye, while a Fadi Mbaye is a Fa’llambaye.
Needless to say the local people find our western appellations just as strange, and monosyllabic western names we might expect to be easy for any “foreigner” to get their tongue around, like John, or Mick, or Mark or Kate or Jo, are met with blank expressions, as if we’d just said our name is “Ug” or “”Blurble.”
But back to the weather.
At the best of times walking around The Gambia means paying attention to where you put your feet. Shifting sand roads and deep dry-sand potholes are bad enough in the long and lovely winter months.
I rarely go out after dark here, and advise tourists to stay in the tourist areas of an evening. Not because there’s any danger of violent crime – countries don’t get much safer than The Gambia – but because walking local roads is a demanding experience in daylight, and potentially crippling by night. Even if the area has street-lights the chances they will stay on for several consecutive hours is remote.
Power-cuts are a part of everyday life here, and while local people have night vision to die for, our westernised eyes jaded by decades of 24/7 artificial light, will find being plunged into darkness while out and about of an evening no fun at all. All the moreso because while we struggle to adjust to the new conditions those around us are carrying on as if nothing happened.
Combining potholed, rutted roads with sudden darkness is a recipe for injury. A sprained ankle will put a downer on anyone’s holiday in the sun, and something more serious like a broken leg and a stay in a Gambian hospital is really not something any sane person wants to risk.
In the winter months the skies are usually clear and even when there’s no Moon (or for pedants amongst us a “new” Moon) the stars can throw enough light to make a power-cut bearable once our eyes adjust.
Up-country, well away from the tourist zone, and away from the bigger towns that have electric, the night skies are spectacular, and of course a different view from what we are used to “back home” in Europe.
This close to the equator the Pole Star is out of sight, Orion’s belt is on the horizon, and we begin to see the constellations of the southern hemisphere.
And because the Moon is almost overhead it seems much smaller than we see it from more northern climes, where atmospheric conditions often magnify our view of the Moon, making it appear much closer than it is.
This is a land where few are educated beyond the most basic levels, and science is largely unknown. The Moon and stars are lights in the sky, put there by God to shine down upon us. The idea that man has been to the Moon – or even that it is big enough for man to stand on should he be able to climb that high – is regarded as western fable.
During my village trips, when the complete lack of electricity means I have to abandon my evening work schedule and be sociable instead, we will often sit around a charcoal burner brewing attaya (African mint tea) regaled by West African folk tales involving talking hyenas, crocodiles, witchcraft and magic (I’ll be putting some out as ebooks later this year).
And in return I will regale the villagers with equally improbable stories of western life that they are never quite sure whether to believe or not. Driverless cars? 3-D printers? Hand-transplants? Shopping malls the size of small towns?
In a country where there is no railway system, a handful of blacktop roads and most of the population have no access to clean tap water or electricity, almost every adult has a mobile phone and potential internet access, if only they knew what it was all about.
But at this time of year trips to the villages are not undertaken lightly, and I shan‘t be going anywhere far until the perma-sun of winter arrives in October.
Right now in July we’re still in the pre-rains rainy season period, where sand roads become sand-mud roads with puddles that may or may not be a lot deeper than you expect.
Standing water takes a few days to disappear, but between rains the sun can chase the clouds away, turn the wet sand to powder and leave only the most obstinate pools of water to remind us the real rains are imminent.
And imminent they are.
Yesterday there was a big storm system hurtling towards us. I’d been tracking its progress across the Sahel from as far away as Nigeria. Last night it had reached Mali, a vast land-locked desert country to the east of here, no doubt replenishing the ever-fascinating River Niger and dousing the rebel anger that has reduced the once noble and fabled city of Timbuktu to a no-go area (on which more another time).
Overnight the approaching storm split into two and the southern half made off south-west across the Highlands of Guinea Conakry, but the northern half maintained a steady course across the Mali border into eastern Senegal and then crossed into eastern Gambia, soaking much of the country before thoughtfully breaking up as it approached the Atlantic coast. Here where I am we got little more than a typical British summer shower and somehow the lights stayed on.
Not that the Gambian power supply needs a storm as an excuse to falter. Five years ago two or three power-cuts a day were not unusual. Nowadays things have improved and while we still get far too many days where the power is on and off every five minutes we also get long periods of continuous electric. Six days without a power-cut is the record.
That makes life here irritating at times, but the compensations more than make up for the inconveniences. Besides, all things are relative.
When I’m plunged into darkness in mid-typed sentence I can rush to hook-up the emergency back-up system – 12V car batteries and an inverter – and squeeze out a couple of hours more light, word-processing and internet browsing.
Some of my neighbours have neither electricity nor running water, let alone the internet and television, and when the power is off and the back-up running down I remind myself of what I’m lucky enough to have rather than fret pointlessly about the inconveniences of Third World life and what I haven’t.
Here in the Kombos (the developed area of the country) everyone has mobile phones, even if they don’t know how to use the internet, and many have television with limited freeview satellite access to accompany the offerings from the Gambia broadcasters – the ideal remedy for insomnia.
It’s a strange sight here to see ramshackle shanty-town huts of mudbrick and rusting corrugated iron roofs with small satellite dishes on the walls. But like mobile phones, satellite TV can be acquired cheaply as a one-off expense with no significant running costs, and provide long-term entertainment and a window on the wider world.
What’s lacking here is any sort of educational programme for local people to become familiar with the many benefits internet access on their mobile phones can bring. For most people here the internet is a novelty, not a tool they can use to improve their lives.
For example, many here think I’m some kind of savant that can tell them days in advance to prepare for rain, but of course I’m just watching the internet weather satellite sites.
This morning was a beautiful African dawn unfolding blue skies and warm sunshine, and nothing could have seemed less likely than rain. But in the past hour or so the clouds are mustering and radio reports tell of minor flooding inland.
No surprise to me. As per image attached to this post, I’ve been watching the latest rain system approach. The arrow points to where I am, right on the coast (well, a few miles inland) of that little finger of a country, while the rain system is over southern Mali, so safe to say Timbuktu was getting drenched at 5am this morning.
Hopefully by the time it reaches here on the Atlantic coast it will have spent most of its force, but we can still expect minor flooding and of course the inevitable power outage.
This particular satellite site shows rain rather than wind, but this past month wind had been noticeable for its absence.
Obviously in the higher atmosphere winds are pushing these clouds along at a thunderous rate, but at ground level there’s been barely breeze. Perfect umbrella weather.
Rain without wind is quite enjoyable here. Not least for showering in. It sure beats lugging a bucket of water across the yard to the outdoor shower and pouring it over one’s head.
But the real rainy season, with tempestuous storms (are there any other kind?), will render the idyllic pre-rainy season rains nothing more than a fond memory.
By next month it will be positively treacherous for the unwary to venture out, as some roads can at a few minutes notice become rivers, the market islands disappear, and innocuous-looking puddles invite unwary vehicles to stay for a few weeks.
Taking a shower or using the outdoor toilet will become a gamble. Sitting on the throne in bright winter sunshine is an interesting experience. Being caught short during a serious storm is reckless in the extreme.
But right now the rainy season is still in first gear and it’s all about sky-watching.
At this time of year the sky alternates with alarming frequency between picture-postcard blue and fifty shades of hysterical gray.
Much of the cloud is high and un-threatening, but out of nowhere will suddenly appear menacing black clouds on the horizon, and everyone’s mood changes.
At home in the compound we have an early warning system – the goats – who sense the approaching rain several minutes before we do, and make for cover.
Out and about it’s the sudden urgency of the shoppers and passers-by that tells you all is not well. This is West Africa where for most of the time there are two speeds to life. Slow and ridiculously slow.
Dark clouds looming on the horizon are one of the few times when people move faster than a tortoise swimming in treacle.
We don’t have hurricanes, tornadoes or typhoons here, but when many buildings are little more than mud-brick huts, sometimes blended with some cheap cement, it doesn’t take hurricane-strength storms to cause serious damage to property, and of course flooding can undermine buildings from below.
But if the sub-tropical storms (this close to the Atlantic coast, at least) lack the brute force of a hurricane or tornado, they make up for it – especially inland – with majestically spectacular sound and visuals as deafening thunder rolls and fiery lightning illuminates the skies.
Even before the thunder arrives conversation will have been made impossible, and TV and radio pointless even if by some miracle the electric stays on, as the rain pounding on the rusting corrugated iron roof will mean literally you cannot hear yourself shout.
On the bright side the rain will bring the temperatures down a little. But it will also drive the local wildlife indoors looking for shelter.
Of a night I’ll be tucked safely behind my mosquito net, but the light from my e-reader will have insects swarming, trying to get through, and after lights out there will be scurrying mice everywhere, including clambering up, and sometimes getting toes caught in, the netting.
The net also keeps at bay spiders, lizards and snakes. Not that I mind the lizards, but African spiders and snakes are best not cosied up to.
Spiders have been in short supply these past two years. The post-rainy season period when the big spiders come out to play is not the best time to be a cowering arachnophobe like me, but for some reason we’ve had two consecutive years when the big, shiny blue spiders, that make webs that literally span the street, have for some reason not put in an appearance. At least not in this locale.
No complaints from me. I‘m a scientist by default, and creepy crawlies mostly fascinate me. A colony of small beetles have taken up residence inside my mosquito net for some reason, and while they can be irritating at night I don’t have a problem sharing my bed with them. Were they spiders I would have had to move house.
Yeah, phobias are funny things, but often to be respected, not laughed at. Most phobias are evolutionary safeguards. Phobias originate in entirely rational responses to potential danger.
Many spiders are extremely dangerous, just as many snakes and sharks are. Being afraid of them isn’t necessarily silly, just common-sense.
But here as in so many countries, natural fears easily become irrational phobias. Most local people here are indifferent to spiders but will run a mile from any snake and stay a respectable distance from lizards.
Being wary of snakes here is entirely rational. Some, like boa contactors, are not venomous and while they could easily swallow a small child whole it just doesn’t happen in real life
But we also have some of the most deadly snakes on the planet here in The Gambia. Black mambas, cobras and puff adders among them.
But the smaller lizards that frequent our compounds are entirely harmless (the big monitor lizards not so much). Lizards live in close proximity to but stay well away from people, and when they are scurrying up outside walls no-one is to bothered by them. But should one venture into the home it’s pandemonium.
Where I can I step in and capture the little critters and release them safely outside again, but even the bigger teen boys will keep their distance and look on in shock that I’ve a lizard in my hands.
Elsewhere in the world lizards are kept as pets or will make a tasty meal, but here they are regarded as at best a necessary nuisance, needed to keep the insect population down.
With the first rains ending six-eight months of drought, the ground is springing into life, plants sprouting, dormant insects emerging and preparing to breed.
Barren sandy ground is suddenly green with shoots and by the time the rains dissipate in late September /early October the landscape will have been transformed from arid desert to subtropical paradise for a month or two, with beautiful flowers, fresh fruit and vegetables, and dazzling butterflies to look forward to.
The rainy season has its compensations.