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Lilac-breasted-Roller 2I was thinking about birds and the meaning they give to our lives. The British are bonkers about birds! And then I remembered the incredible birds that inhabit the Gambia in West Africa. I remember being shown round an ecological centre, and then rowed down a tributary of the River Gambia called the Lamin Stream. Twists of woody lianas trailing from the banks of lush mangroves were forming an unbelievably green corridor. The sun was a fiery beacon beating down directly overhead and bouncing off the water. And there, I was told something about myself that I could not fully comprehend at the time.

Everything was present in that moment and my heartbeat was rapid in the midday heat. My guide pulled on the oars and I faced him in a heightened state. “You will write two books,” he said. I can hardly believe him when I doubt that I will even make it out of his boat. But we arrived back at the lodge intact, and in the incomparable natural scenery, I resent the Gambian government’s policy of not allowing cameras into the country.


little bee-eaterThe hotel's high walled garden is alive with birds, brighter and smaller versions of our garden varieties. African Rollers of differing hues, greens and blues, and one with a lilac chest and yellow pectorals (Coracias caudata) stands out. Sunbirds and Little Bee Eaters with curved beaks to eat insects dart about. The people of the Gambia are like sunbirds waiting for change, to my mind cambio, the word for change, encapsulates the Gambia. Hooded vultures that pick over the mountainous rubbish dumps and eye up hotel balconies from the ubiquitous palm trees seem to be baleful omens. So I exercise hard on my balcony making brisk movements to scare them away, and after smoking a cigarette struggle to breathe.

After days of adjustment and fear a guide took a little party of travellers to a village to see how the locals live. The sand roads are carnelian red and children gather around stand-pipes at intersections laughing and playing with the sparkling water. The better-off live in rows of high-gated compounds set in lush gardens, barking dogs restlessly patrol inside the barbed wire perimeters. We are invited in to a compound for a cup of refreshing local tea. The men smoke home-grown grass sold rolled up in a fat cardboard tube costing just a few dalasi, the currency of the Gambia.

When the sun became too hot I withdrew to a shady day bed in a hut and chat with an erstwhile lover. We had travelled with a few other friends from London to Gambia's capital Banjul, but drifted apart after a couple of  days. Me to my hotel, and he to one of the compounds. His forehead, feet and ankles are covered in mosquito bites. I worry for him, he hasn’t taken any anti-malarial pills. But it becomes harder to breathe when he tells me he slept with a ‘prostitute’ in the intervening time. Some poor girl desperate for money, desperate for change. I never sleep with him again.

Serekunda-MarketI meet another English man. The build-up before his arrival in Banjul is palpable whilst I ignore the attention of other potential suitors. And when he arrives, we are bonded by a steel core of denial. We visit Serekunda, a sprawling market town, squeezing into a communal taxi going there. Tall, slender Gambians glide in colourful costumes, graceful and lithe as if in meditation. These calm, angelic presences with helping hands contrast with the red-faced ex-pats gripping endless pints of beers in street cafes and sea front bars on the Atlantic.

He buys a knife, which simultaneously frightens and thrills me. I buy a small wooden drum, the base of its skin entwined with red and yellow ribbons. I choose it carefully, after proficiently patting a dozen or so to the amusement of the stallholders. He carried my drum tethered to his own all the way back to London. On the coach to Banjul Airport the British tourists are twittering like birds. They are relaxed and happy despite the terrible poverty outside the windows. I feel uncomfortable and hungover from palm wine.



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