How the 80th birthday of Anna Quarendon’s mother was celebrated in Africa.

Written by Tony Millett on .

Anna Quarendon, the new chair of the Marlborough Brandt Group (MBG), visited Gunjur in The Gambia last year – and was captivated by its friendly people.  Gunjur has been linked with Marlborough for twenty-five years.

With a population of about 17,500, Gunjur is still called a village. It’s  where MBG have concentrated their help and to which they’ve sent many volunteers. And next week, after a gap of four years, a group of six Gunjurians will be here  – return hospitality for all those who have gone to stay in Gunjur from Marlborough.

Anna, who works for BBC Wiltshire, travelled in January last year with the group which went to witness the granting of honorary citizenship to Dr Nick Maurice, one of MBG’s founders and now its president, and to Anita Bew, MBG’s secretary the organiser of its Link Committee.

As Anna puts it, the Gambians “were thanking two people who live many thousands of miles away for making a difference to their world. Through the work of MBG.”

Her hosts for the week-long visit were the family of Mbanding Darboe (on Anna’s left in the photo) and her mother. Anna had been a bit undecided about joining the group as their visit coincided with her mother, Pauline’s 80th birthday.

When, in passing, she mentioned this to her hosts, they arranged a birthday party in their compound on the simple grounds that “Your mother is as important as our mother.”  And they cooked all day to provide a suitable spread for the party.

Then, when Anna went to a local radio station to be interviewed about her visit and her work in England, most of the station’s staff came into the studio and sang “Happy birthday, dear Pauline”.  This went out live to listeners in the Gambia, Senegal and Guinea Bissau.  They then presented Anna with a recording of her interview and the birthday greeting to her mother.

The day Anna got back home, she held a family birthday party for her mother – and the recording was a wonderful surprise birthday present from her new family in Africa.

It’s difficult to resist that sort of friendship, almost impossible not to be captivated.

Anna has been at BBC Wiltshire since 1999.  She’s reported, presented and produced radio programmes for them, and now produces and manages the daily, nine till noon Morning Show presented by Mark O’Donnell.

She started with BBC television 1978, spending five years as a researcher on a variety of programmes – from serious documentaries to quiz shows. She then became a full-time mother for her two children.

Anna enjoys mixing hard work and fun.  Once her children were at school, she set up a home-based mail order company designing and making crackers – the Christmas sort of crackers.

The name of her company must have lightened the tax man's bureaucratic days: "Completely Crackers".

During her time in Gunjur, Anna prepared a number of radio features about the village, the work MBG has been able to do there – like the pre-school and the women’s garden, the importance to villagers of the link with Marlborough and about the lively and lengthy ceremony – attended by thousands of people, mostly women – during which honorary citizenship was conferred on the two MBG stalwarts.

When she’d just arrived  in Gunjur she’d felt disoriented: “Sitting on the side of my bed on that first night, I fought back a huge desire to cry at the strangeness of it all and rather wanted to go home.”  Meeting and getting to know Gunjurians, with their friendliness and enthusiasms, quickly won her over. 

On the plane on the way back home – back to cook for her mother’s other birthday party – Anna wrote a poem which gives a wonderful glimpse of mornings in Gunjur. 

The day begins with cockerel call
And in the morning half light answer comes
The back and forward of the cockerel cry
Loud outside the compound wall
Taken up in answering strain.

The broken throated cry upon the air
The prelude to a different song
The ritual call of faithful men to prayer
Insistent note, repeated, long.

And as the overture goes on
Comes in the bass note of the drum,
Rhythmic pounding of the corn
As well worn wood beats down on grain
Lifts and falls back down again.

Then timpani of brush on sand
As bundled sticks are used to sweep
Join in the orchestrated song
Which is the waking call from sleep
(copyright Anna Quarendon 2010. Photo below courtesy Andrew Williamson.)