We’d been surprised and a little hurt by the local’s reactions to our presence at Banjul Market. As soon as we took our cameras out, vendors shook their heads or waved their hands in disapproval. I was trying to take a photo of the market scene; the colours, the fruits I did not recognise, and even though no one was in my photos, people were not happy. After a lady we had been speaking to about her fish gave permission for us to photograph them, she pulled a sheet up and over her head so that no part of her would accidentally be in frame. I wondered if it was a religious or superstitious belief which prompted her avoidance of the shot? “They think you will exploit them,” said the guide.”They think you will sell the pictures back home and they will see none of the profits.” Trying to explain this was not the case to every vendor would have been a very long process, so we put our cameras away and focused on shopping instead.
At the start of Ida’s cookery class she takes her students to the market to buy the fresh ingredients we will need to make lunch with. She has a novel approach to helping us visitors engage and blend better with the locals – she makes us dress as one! Her sister is a Gambian fashion designer and when we arrive to Ida’s home there is a rack of rainbow coloured robes hanging in the sun-lit courtyard. She sizes us up in turn and ponders the items on the rail. To me she hands what I fear is a garish green concoction, but Ida seems confident I can pull it off.
She knocks on the bedroom door, “You girls ok in there?” We’re baffled by the skirt mechanism and have no idea what to do with these extra strips of fabric. Thankfully Ida comes in to wrap us up in the skirts and decorate our heads with the scarfs. My outfit feels comfortable and I, somewhat relieved, rather like my new look.
At Tanji Fish Market all eyes are on us. The locals are not hostile this time, but smiling, laughing, calling us over to find out what brings us here and in such strange dress. They want to pose with us in photos as they admire our vibrant outfits. The fish market itself is one of the most vibrant places I have ever been. Men haul overflowing baskets of fish from the distressed looking boats to the women waiting on the beach. Birds swoop in a bid to steal the morning’s catch. Boys fill wheelbarrows to the brim with fish and I have no idea why. Fruit and vegetables are spread out on sheets in the sand, unwanted items getting squished underfoot. Ida is busy haggling for prices, filling up our baskets with the ingredients for lunch. I’m distracted by a boy decorating a vendor’s hand with henna, when I stop to admire it he begins to draw on me too. Jai from Savoir There, who is taking Ida’s class with me, is down in the sand, kneeling in a bid to get a better shot of the boats. She has gained the attraction of a inquisitive young girl. The girl bends over, head upside down, confused by what Jai is supposedly looking at, and for some time Jai is completely unaware of her miniature shadow.
Shopping complete the group transfers back to Ida’s courtyard to begin the next step of the process. We are making a fish curry, a traditional Gambian dish called Domoda, with a smooth peanut and tomato flavoured sauce. Keeping my head low when the peeling duties are divided up, I bag the best job of pummeling the paste with a giant pestle and mortar.
As the curry bubbles on the outdoor stove Ida tells us more about the inspiration behind her business, namely her Mum, to whom the cookery school is a tribute. We learn that Ida’s connections and education in the tourism and marketing industry are what have made this class possible, and that it is the only one of its kind in the Gambia. We also learn that to excel at the game of Wuri, which Ida tries to teach us, one must be better at mental arithmetic than myself and Jai.
In time, the fish is ready and Ida serves the curry on a giant bed of rice. Grabbing a spoon each we dig in, enjoying a different vegetable in every bite, all the while undeservedly praising ourselves for a dish well done. Over tea Ida tries one last time to teach us how to tie our own headscarves but it is clear we need a little more practise. I’d love to practise it all – the clothes, shopping and cooking parts – with Ida again some day.