This old man fills the longest chapter in my Gambia book (chapter 5.1) because – also in The Gambia – he belongs to an almost extinct race in all aspects. All kinds of modern inventions do not mean anything to him and he firmly refuses to believe that you can stay in contact via the computer! Since he cannot read or write, it is very difficult to convince him of the opposite. That it is possible to make a long-distance call on a mobile phone is something he does accept, because he can actually witness that!
Because of his respectful age, we call our elderly friend ‘Opa’ (the Dutch word for grandfather, pronounced like ‘Oprah’, but without the -r-) and along the way he has come to consider this word as a sort of honorary title. We first came into contact with him when one of the umbrellas on the beach was blown down in December 1995, and we helped him putting it upright again. His real name is Essa Jarra, but his real age is unknown; we estimate him to be about 70. He has a mentally handicapped wife, Marie, whom he married out of pity, since she was rejected and laughed at by her family and neighbours. Meanwhile, he has six children, whom he all regards as a gift from Allah; the first one was born in 1996 and the (hopefully) last one was born in 2010.
When we first met him, he was living on the concrete stage on the beach belonging to the Beach Bar of Badala Park Hotel, with some rusty corrugated iron as a roof and walls constructed from palm leaves he had found in the hotel garden. Later on, he was allowed to stay with his wife and his children in one of the hotel rooms of Palm Beach Hotel, which was under construction at the time.
When his family had found another temporary home (since the hotel was ready and its rooms were taken by tourists) Opa – who was employed by the hotel 24/7 – had to spend the night on his prayer mat on the concrete floor of the generator shed, right next to the roaring and stinking hotel diesel generator! Officially, Opa was a night watchman, but in actual fact he was a jack-of-all-trades. Opa is not a Gambian by birth, but hails from Mali, where he was herding goats and he belongs to the Bambara tribe. He came to The Gambia on foot in the sixties and he had to work for the hotel 7 days a week, 24 hours a day for about 25 pounds a month at that time.
Our help to Opa
Opa’s villa in May 1998
Because he is getting rather old and there is no such thing as a pension in The Gambia, we arranged a pension for him thanks to regular donations from people in The Netherlands. By means of other gifts we also took care of supplying him step by step with materials for building his own compound in the village of Old Yundum, close to Banjul International Airport.
The donkey cart for the building materials.
The Jarra home is entirely made of concrete (and not of the traditional and much cheaper ‘mudstones’, i.e. lumps of clay which are moulded into stones and dried in the sun), including a kitchen, a toilet, steel doors and windows, his own private water well and a high stone fence!
Because of our assistance, Opa managed to make the American Dream come true and he changed from some underprivileged old man who was doomed to keep on working until his last breath into a family man with a good pension and his very own home without any mortgage!!
Opa’s compound in mei 2011.
Opa is always extremely hospitable, prepared to share the little that he has with everyone, always highly ready to help and besides he is gentleness in the flesh. That is why he is held in high esteem by everybody and does not have any enemies at all. He is a substitute father for many of the beach boys [see ‘Bubba’ below], because – contrary to Europe – elderly people are respected in a country like The Gambia for their experience of life and their wisdom; fortunately, the common European principle that only being young is great and entitles you to a place in society, does not hold water in The Gambia…