West Africa, India and Southeast Asia might be a long way from each other, but there is one cultural aspect that transcends geographical boundaries. I'm talking about the One Pen Brigade.
I first met the One Pen Brigade in Indonesia. As a white person wandering through Indonesia there's no way you can blend into the background, and the local children swarm round you like baby birds at feeding time. The chorus kicks in with 'Hello mister, hello mister!' and once you acknowledge them with a 'Hello' back, it's time for the kiddies' mantra. 'Satu stylo, gula-gula, rupiah,' they chant; 'One pen, sweets, money.' It's the same all over Indonesia, the result of tourists handing out pens, sweets and money in a vain attempt to redress world poverty (though if you really want to help, it's better to give your donation directly to the local school, rather than the kids themselves).
In India the story is the same. 'One pen, sweets, rupees,' they chant after the initial 'Hellos', though it's so quick it comes out as 'Wunpensweerupees'. I have a vivid memory of a crowd of boys running on top of a wall alongside our boat as it sailed the Keralan backwaters; they continued to shout 'Wunpen, wunpen, rupee, rupee' as they ran out of wall and fell into the water, laughing and spluttering.
Similarly Senegal was home to lots of children chanting «Un stylo, bonbons, seefa,» but in the Gambia the One Pen Brigade shows a level of sophistication that's impressive. Children come up to me, introduce themselves with the usual census questions of 'What your name, where you from, how long in Gambia, is first time here, where you stay?' and then move on to their own version of the One Pen conversation.
'I am a student,' they say.
'Ah, that's nice,' I reply.
'I do lots of writing,' they say.
'That's very good,' I reply.
'Do you have a pen you can give me?' they venture.
'I'm sorry, I don't have one on me,' I reply.
'Then give me five dalasi to buy a pen,' they say.
'Sorry, I can't,' I say. 'If I give you five dalasi I'd have to give five dalasi to everyone, and I can't do that.'
'Then please give me a pen and five dalasi,' they try.
'No,' I say. 'I'm afraid I don't have a pen to give you.'
'Then please help me buy a football for my school,' they say.
'Blimey, that's a new one,' I say, and dissolve into good-natured back-slapping, making it quite clear that I'm happy to chat to them, but I'm not going to hand over any pens, any money, any footballs, or indeed anything else.
But good for the Gambians. I like people who add a local twist to an international game like One Pen, especially one as bizarre as asking for footballs...