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Monday, 18 December, 2000, 00:39 GMT
George W's African adventure
The whirling haystacks in action
The whirling haystacks in action
By Elizabeth Blunt

Gambia, the smallest country in West Africa, is an arid sliver of land tucked into the middle of Senegal, on the West African coast.

But it does have the distinction of having received George W Bush on the only overseas official visit he has ever made.

In fact the Gambian President, Yahya Jammeh, was so excited by the prospect of Mr Bush becoming US President, that he was the first head of state to send congratulations - long before Bush had finally been declared the winner.

Mr Jammeh's haste was understandable - it is an enticing prospect for Gambia to have a special call on the affections of George W Bush, soon to be the world's most powerful man.

It all happened in 1990, when the then Gambian President, Sir Dawda Jawara, decided to have a special celebration to mark the country's 25 years of independence.

He invited Gambia's three most powerful allies: President Babangida of Nigeria, who accepted and came with his wife, Maryam; Queen Elizabeth of Britain, who sent her daughter, Princess Anne to represent her; And President Bush, who sent his son, George W.

This caused a certain amount of understandable confusion at first among those people, myself included, who had only ever heard of one George Bush.

Hosts confused

In Gambia, they didn't understand the significance of the W, and people thought for a moment that, unlikely as it seemed, the US President was coming himself.

The visit wasn't very demanding. All the guests of honour really had to do was to watch the festivities and look pleasant. But I do have one very vivid memory.

Yahya Jammeh
President Jammeh is keen to maintain good relations with Gambia's old friend
Everyone was in a dusty field somewhere around the capital, Banjul, enjoying traditional drumming and dancing.

The main guests were sitting on a low, wooden platform, watching two masquerades or masked dancers.

One was an elongated, faceless figure in brown Hessian, the other a kind of raffia haystack.

Now these haystack masquerades are common throughout West Africa, and it sometimes needs quite a suspension of disbelief to accept their supernatural qualities and overlook the all-too-human feet sticking out from underneath the straw.

But this one was amazing.

Human haystack

There must have been a human dancer somewhere inside, but as it twirled, it spun itself into vortex of whirling raffia, with nothing solid visible at the core.

Princess Anne
Fellow guest of honour Princess Anne
It danced and whirled and made little rushes to and fro.

And then, as the dance moved to its climax, the masquerade gathered its forces and hurled itself, still spinning, towards the platform.

The two presidents, well used to this kind of thing, smiled appreciatively.

Princess Anne gave it a stern look, as if it was a slightly ill-disciplined horse, but she held her ground.

But the reaction of the Americans was extraordinary.

Security alert

The US security men, who had been lurking discreetly in the background, leaped forward and threw themselves in front of the platform, making a human shield between the whirling haystack and George W, the president's son.

It's the only time I've seen a masquerade look embarrassed.

As for the onlookers, everyone knows that masquerades represent powerful supernatural forces.

You have to treat them with respect, and if you offend them they can cause you serious harm, but it's not the sort of harm from which even American Presidential Security can protect you.

Apart from this little hiccup, the celebrations went well.

Homegrown entertainment

There was a regatta down at the quayside, with races and processions of brightly painted wooden long boats, and in the evening, a carnival parade and fireworks.

This took place in the centre of Banjul, which even today is more like an overgrown village than a capital city.

The British laid it out around a kind of village green, where they could play cricket, and the little tin-roofed church, which is Banjul cathedral.

Colin Powell and George W Bush
Both the new President and Secretary of State will have ample opportunity to travel

The parade wound its way in and out of the president's garden and round and round the square, carrying elaborate paper lanterns in the shape of boats, known as Fanal, with particularly fine galleons dedicated to George W Bush and each of his fellow guests.

At the end the fireworks seemed to go on for ever.

They weren't the grand, set-piece, state occasion sort of fireworks, they were ordinary kind of rockets and roman candles, but there were lots and lots of them and the children loved them.

All in all it was a very nice occasion, in a homely sort of way, rather like a successful village fete, and I hope Mr Bush remembers it with as much pleasure as I do.

The variety of Africa

But I also hope he realises where Gambia stands in the African scheme of things.

He hasn't seen the glinting skyscrapers round the Abidjan Lagoon, or the snaking expressways of Lagos.

He hasn't seen Zimbabwe's rolling farmland, the huge copper mines in Zambia and the Congo, or the bustling financial hub of Johannesburg.

Banjul is no more representative of Africa than Concord, New Hampshire is of the USA.

But it does have a very special link with the next American president.


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17 Dec 00 | Americas
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