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Reporter Pens Picture Of A Complex Gambia, With Its Smiling Beaches

I had been in The Gambian capital, Banjul, less than an hour and here I was, car pulled over, explaining my business to a group of men in uniform.
A thrillingly sinister start to a week-long holiday? Not quite.
I had fallen into the clutches of the tourist police, identity badges to the fore, courteous to a fault. "Are you lost?" they asked.
They had guessed right.
A 12-hour journey from neighboring Senegal had taken its toll and I had lost patience with my taxi driver's wearing "Welcome to Africa" banter and general cluelessness.
Sheepishly, I agreed to a police escort. The commander jumped in next to the somewhat nonplussed man at the wheel and me, the slightly fake out-of-season tourist.
We tracked down the pre-booked hotel. I checked in, but not before a semi-stern warning from my new friend: "Only ride in the green taxis designated for tourists; watch yourself, there are lots of cheats and chancers about."
Yes, the con artists, hard-luck stories and fake friends are out there.
Open your heart and your wallet if you must, but show some discrimination. And be mindful that ordinary Gambians have considerably more to fear than you do, never more so than now.
The man they are on the run from, sometimes literally, is President Yahya Jammeh.
He was less than 30 when he took power in 1994, ousting his predecessor, the much older Dawda Jawara. The president is now 51, but middle age has not mellowed him.
Gambian friends told me not to make the common outsider's mistake of treating their leader as a maverick or eccentric - "tyrant" was nearer the mark, they said.
"Every day we think about the President's health... and hope it is getting worse," a Gambian back from long stints abroad remarked.
Diplomats, both western and African, see The Gambia in freefall.
The torture testimonies and accounts of citizens gone missing are too widespread and well-documented to be ignored. Huge numbers of Gambians are discreetly leaving, which has become known as "taking the back way".
The last time I had been in Banjul, Gambian journalists had talked openly to me about rough rebukes from the President. They had tried to work out when the threats were serious, and when they were just scare tactics.
This time, I proceeded more cautiously.
A young reporter at an independent paper agreed to an office rendezvous. He steered me into a side room and talked shyly but candidly about the state of the nation and the fear which truth-tellers had to put up with.
For sure, he said, his phone was tapped. His friends often urged each other to soften messages on social media as the security forces are reading, and they do not take kindly to jokes about the leader.
Opposition activists, once loyal to Mr. Jammeh, were more bullish.
They told me of the President's petty jealousy, his willingness to turn friends into foes.
They said the people would get rid of him, maybe at the elections in December. But I could not share their confidence.
But how did all this play out in the enclaves patrolled by my friends from the tourist police?
The smallest country on mainland Africa has prided itself on the welcome it extends to visitors. Revenues from tourism account for close to 20% of GDP.
The same package has worked for a long time: Sun-baked beaches, mangrove forests for the more intrepid, the drumming and exotic birdlife.
It is a cut-price paradise; a newly declared Islamic Republic where beer is cheap and sex is openly available to both male and female tourists.
Same-sex relationships, though, are not part of the scene. President Jammeh has volunteered to slit the throats of homosexuals.
On earlier visits, I snobbishly wrote off the tourist belt as toy-town Africa, dispiritingly subservient and banal, geared towards clients who are uncurious about the country they were staying in.
This time I tried harder.
Resisting the freelance blandishments of chancers promising a glimpse of the real Africa, I signed up for a day tour with the official tourism authorities.
My guides knew their country. Patient, good humored and informative, they stayed off politics but were no starry-eyed propagandists.
The tour took us from ancient artefacts and historic photographs, to friendly crocodiles and hard-up wood carvers, to an impoverished primary school and an upmarket beach bar.

The sky had more grey than blue and it all felt a little like hard work, as if The Gambia was clinging on to an image everyone knows to be an illusion, while a darker, meaner reality now intrudes.  

Much Ado about the Meaning of a Name among Africans

Following their recent walloping by Nigeria's Super Eagles soccer team at the African Nations Championship, the South African national football team is once again considering changing its name from Bafana Bafana, which means "the lads".

They reckon that the name may have something to do with their fortunes, that it is time their team started playing like men.

A few years ago, troubled South African footballer, Jabu Mahlangu, also changed his surname from Pule, saying that the former name was jinxed.

Names are important in Africa.

In some societies, ceremonies are organized for the specific purpose of naming a new child.

During the naming ceremony for my sister's twins, printed sheets with the children's English and traditional names - and their different meanings - were handed out to the dozens of guests.

Many African children are given at least three names. Each is carefully selected to reflect the circumstances of the child's birth, the family history, the parents' status or the expectations for the child's future.

The general belief is that a person's name can influence his behavior and circumstances.

I have heard a number of people associate the paparazzi hunt that inadvertently led to Princess Diana's death, with her being named after Diana, the goddess of hunting.

In my church, on the second Sunday of each month parents wishing to dedicate their new babies to God line up on the pulpit with their children.

The mother or father then announces each child's names and the meanings. Sometimes, the congregation bursts into spontaneous cheering and applause when a particularly promising meaning is announced.

A young Nigerian man I know changed his surname from Ihimoyan to Moyan; "Ihi" was a deity that his family worshipped generations ago.

He no longer wanted to bear the name of a god he did not know, especially since his family is now Christian.

My friend, Iyabo, also changed her name to Busola; Iyabo means "mother has come back" and she no longer wanted to be seen as a carry-over of someone else.

These are just two out of the growing number of today's Nigerians, who, dissatisfied with their given names, are altering them to reflect a new outlook.

You are now likely to see a Mr. Alex who used to be a Mr. Agwu or Nkiruka who was Azuka.

Some of the names may sound very similar to the ones they have replaced, but their meanings are radically different.

Nkiruka, for example, means "what lies ahead is greater" while Azuka means "the past is greater". Agwu is the Igbo deity of divination, thought to be a malignant and ruthless force.

Whole communities are also changing their names.

In 1992, the people of my ancestral village in the south-eastern state of Abia voted to change our name from Umuojameze, which means "children of Ojam, the king".

Ojam was a deity the people used to worship. The villagers attributed the spate of sudden deaths in the community to Ojam's yearning for a long-overdue sacrifice, and wanted to make it clear that we no longer wanted anything to do with him.

Umujieze, the new name, sounds similar to the old one, but means "children who hold the kingship".

The late Reverend Father Stephen Uche Njoku, author of the book Challenge and Deal with Your Evil Foundations, believed there was a strong case for people and communities to change their names if they have disagreeable connotations.

"In doing this, you are making a choice to initiate a process of transformation for yourself, your family or your community," he said.

According to him, the Nkerehi people in Orumba improved their circumstances by changing their name.

The old name evoked a brutish past that included human sacrifices to their various deities and shrines; the Nkerehi now call themselves the Umuchukwu, or "children of God".

"The community now has a missionary hospital, an international secondary school and a civic centre," Rev Fr Njoku said.

The village of Ehi in Ikeduru has also changed its name to Amaudo, meaning "land of peace".

Ehi means "cow". This name, people believe, was the reason they were constantly being dominated by the Agu, a neighboring community.

Agu means "tiger", and a tiger is always likely to exert its strength over a cow.

One of the most spectacular reinforcements of the idea that names have power has been Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan, who enjoyed a series of "lucky" outcomes that thrust him into the highest position in the land.

The removal of those above him - through no act of his own - led to his dramatic rise from a deputy state governor to president.

However, the potency of his name is currently facing its greatest test, as a result of aggressive opposition to his perceived ambition to seek re-election in 2015.

It should be interesting to see whether Mr. Jonathan's famed "good luck" will ultimately prevail.

It should also be interesting to see what alternative names the South Africans may consider for their lads.

Whatever they eventually select, you can be sure that the rest of Africa will be watching to see what - if any - difference it will make.

One Hundred And Seventy Years Removed, Cuban Ganga Finds Roots In Sierra Leonean Village

For decades the Ganga-Longoba of Perico have been singing the same chants, a tradition passed down the generations.

But until recently this Afro-Cuban community knew little of the origin of the songs, or of their own ancestors.

Now, thanks to the work of an Australian academic, Cuba's Ganga believe their roots lie in a remote village in Sierra Leone from where it is thought their relatives were sold into slavery more than 170 years ago.

"When I first filmed the Ganga-Longoba, I believed their ceremonies were a mixture of many different ethnic groups," says historian Emma Christopher, of Sydney University.

"I had no idea that a large number of Ganga songs would come from just one village. I think that's extremely unusual," she says.

The initial breakthrough came when a group in Liberia saw her footage of a Cuban ceremony and recognized part of a local ritual.

Spurred on to seek the songs' exact origins, the academic spent two years showing the film across the region until she confirmed that the Cubans were singing in the almost extinct language of an ethnic group decimated by the slave trade.

Her enquiries finally led her to Mokpangumba, where villagers not only identified the Banta language but recognized songs and dances from the initiation ceremony for their own secret society, devoted to healing.

"That's the moment when they said: 'They are we'," Dr Christopher recalls, describing how the incredulous Africans began singing and dancing along with the Cubans on screen.

They identified nine of the songs in total, despite lyrics twisted over the decades and distance. For the villagers it was compelling proof that the people of Perico were family.

During more than three centuries of transatlantic trade, just short of a million slaves were shipped to Cuba. The vast majority were trafficked in the 19th Century as forced labor for the island's vast sugar plantations.

Dr Christopher has singled out a woman known by her slave-name "Josefa" as the likely link between Perico and Sierra Leone. It's thought she arrived in the 1830s when the Gallinas slaving port was most active.

The local plantation owner includes a Josefa Ganga amongst the property in his will: below his real estate, and just above livestock.

Remarkably, Josefa survived to see the 1886 abolition of slavery in Cuba - far exceeding the average seven-year life expectancy for slaves here, where conditions were brutal - and she managed to safeguard the songs and traditions of home.

"Someone once said we originated from the Congo, but I always had doubts," says Alfredo Duquesne, an artist whose work has long been inspired by African themes but who has never known where his own roots lay.

"It bothered me. I wanted to know where I came from," he explains in his single-storey home crowded with woodcarvings, near where his ancestors would once have labored in the cane fields.

The Santa Elena plantation has long gone. But many descendants of its former slaves still remain in the small town of Perico, including the group labeled "Ganga" by those who trafficked them.

Every December they meet to pray to Yebbe, as the Ganga call San Lazaro (St Lazarus), in a night-long ceremony of dance, drumming and song that has remained intact through the decades.

San Lazaro is a saint known for curing the sick, and is revered by Roman Catholic and syncretic faiths in Cuba.

It was Florinda Diago, thought to be Josefa's great-granddaughter, who preserved their heritage in Cuba; she then entrusted that task to the current "grande dame" of the Ganga community, a frail but feisty woman in her 80s known as Piyuya.

The healing secrets have been lost, but Piyuya can still sing every chant: songs of lament and joy for the dead and in celebration. In the 1980s she wrote out their lyrics for the first time, alongside hand-drawn flowers in a now yellowed and tattered notebook.

Organizing a reunion for the divided "family" wasn't easy given restrictions on travelling from Cuba at the time, and limited resources. But eventually, four Cubans did make their ancestors' voyage in reverse - to Sierra Leone.

The incredible safeguarding of traditions has allowed Afro-Cuban descendants to discover their roots at last

"When I opened my mouth to sing, they just stood there staring," Elvira Fumero recalls of her arrival in Mokpangumba.

"Then it was like an explosion. They started to sing the responses, and dance with me. And I knew then that this was where the Ganga came from," she says, smiling.

The Cubans' journey - to Africa, and uncovering their own roots - is captured in a documentary by the Australian academic that shows the two groups singing and celebrating together as well as sharing more modern traditions like baseball.

It's still a rare experience for most Afro-Cubans.

"Cuba was cut off at a time when other nations in the Americas were going through black pride and fighting for some justice for what happened to their ancestors," says Dr Christopher, who points out that the island's 1959 revolution declared racism "solved".

"That left a lot of Afro-Cubans adrift, not knowing how to celebrate where they came from and be proud of it," she says.

Whilst many Cubans of Spanish descent have rushed to seek out their ancestry - and passports - Afro-Cubans have been far less anxious to do the same.

But for Alfredo Duquesne, visiting Sierra Leone changed everything.

"It was as if I'd just left the previous weekend. I touched the soil and thought: 'This is it. I've come back,'" he says, describing himself now as "at peace".

"At last I know where I come from," Alfredo says. "I'm not a stranger any more."


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