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so as not to pass unnoticed

The Gambia: 1991 - 1992

I had come to the end of a path. I had lived a good life, travelled around the world many times, loved, been loved, been rich, been poor, had written, been published, had painted, been purchased; had lived and worked in one of the world's great cities; had lived and worked in the grand and glorious wilderness. Known the joy, and the heartache, of raising children. I had gone as far as Icould go and there was only unknown darkness before me. For the first time in my life Icould no longer avoid the ultimate truth. It is written. We are all going to die.

January 1991.

I thought I was already dead. What was to transpire in the subsequent twelve months was to prove both the truth, and the folly, of who I was and what I believed.

I Arrive In Africa

Food: rich, tasty

People:friendly, proud, handsome, quick to smile but not to toady.

Radio: soft, soulful sounds, clear, little talking.

Weather: hot and close.

Night: dripping hot; a little salt breeze off the Atlantic provides only slight relief.

Humour:Gambian Waiter to a fat tourist who would not exchange his plate at the buffet for a clean one:- Would you like to eat the plate also?


The Sennagambia

I spent a comfortable night. Nevertheless, I awaken with a heavy head. I can hear the birds, twitter; twitter; whoop; whoop. Breakfast is a cup of coffee that would eat a hole in an iron pot and only now the images of my arrival leak back into my brain.

Yundum Airport

There was so much to take in; the airport, baggage collection in a dusty compound, all by hand, not a conveyor belt in sight; customs inspection on two lines of rickety, wooden tables, probably issued by the colonial office before independence; faces pressed against the wire fence; a riot of African voices offer transport, service and pleasure; they call out in sing-song English, the official language of Co -mun- i - kay - shaun

Dalasai For The Baggage Boy

The boy is a half blind man of fifty with a voice that pleads as black hands with pink palms reach out to assist. White hands hold tight and drawn mouths grunt over their possessions.

A rugged, paved road and Allu Bah, a another man whose friends call him 'boy', in his mid-twenties, drives us to the hotel in a battered minibus, road tax paid, windshield cracked, indicators missing. Every car we pass is dented. There are no traffic lights. Policemen at each intersection with pristine white gloves make sure the tourists get the right of way.


Children run and wave eagerly. Their mothers squat beside displays of fruit, showing no interest in anyone but themselves. A barber shaves a boy's head with a naked razor and the men wait patiently at the abattoir for their life's work to be slaughtered.

The White-Backed Vultures hang like forbidden fruit in leafless trees.

Back To The Present

A golden festooned girl has come to change my towels. She wants me to 'do nothing' I shall oblige. I am looking forward to tomorrow.

A Conversation On The Beach

Young Boy:'You are an artist?'

Me:'No I am a painter.'

'Artist, Painter, What is the difference?'

'An artist is good enough to sell his work.'

'You do not sell your pictures?'

'No, I only paint them.'

'Paint, then to sell them, you sell?'

'I do not sell them.'

'You only paint them?'


'Why do you not sell them?'

'Can a donkey sell his burden?'

'Are you a donkey?'

Friday On The Beach

Young Boy:'What is your name?'

Me:'Gray, what is yours?'

'Allu, do you have money?'

'What are you selling?'


I gave him ten Dalasai and he tucked it away before settling at my side to watch me paint. He sat very quietly and said nothing as others tried their luck.

The Yellow Weavers

Grey and yellow, they appear on the balcony at the sound of a cracking peanut, their beady red eyes imploring, their friendly confidence makes me feel like Snow White.

Bakary And Madam

He is stocky, with well defined muscles and eyes that squint to nothing when he smiles. She is too thin to believe that she will not snap in a strong wind. They are both educated. They can both read and write in English. They have a good grasp of international affairs. Yet, they cook and clean and serve the indulgences of the fat and fleshy tourists who treat them with suspicion, patronising politeness and barely disguised contempt. In time these young Africans forget how to read anything but a menu and how to write anything but a total of figures. The tedium of repeating the same simple phrases over and over again in English, French and German drives them back to their tribal tongue. They listen to their elders. They forget what they once aspired to achieve. Their marriage arranged, they have no say. Bakary's second, if he can afford it, will be of his own choice. Madam’s eyes are bright with future prospects. Bakary has lost all hope. They stand like the palms, their enthusiasms shooting up like new leaves only to die away and drop off.

3 FEBRUARY, 1992

Painting At The Market

'Do I have a wife?' the women ask.

'Yes,' is my answer.

They do not seem particularly disappointed, but as I am not buying anything they are very curious as to what I’m really after, sex...drugs...what? When I explain to them that I want to get to know them and I find painting them one of the best ways to do that, they nod and seem to accept. I can see that they are still sceptical but they show me how to buy a coke for 3 Dalasai, if I buy a few and share them around. The same coke costs 8 Dalasai in the hotel.

I stay quiet and paint a young girl that they have volunteered as my first model.

Her name was Bette and she scowled at me for three hours. She was supposed to get her hair plaited but after bargaining over a price for her time and patience, she ended up posing for me.

Her brother Martin made her do it. They are a family of seven sisters and two brothers. They sell tie dye clothes and carvings in the market. They watch. They drift away, come back and drift away.

I feel strange after a small pizza in the hotel costs the same as I paid Bette for three hours of tedious sitting.

Martin wants my shoes when I leave. The request surprises me. Perhaps I should have expected it.

Later At Bakau Stadium

The vultures circling in the sky above the stadium were a premonition of a 7 nil loss by the Gambians against a good Swiss side in what turned out to be an entertaining but bizarre football match.

I sat among the Gambian fans. I was nervous. The game was delayed because someone had forgotten to mark the field.

'Why do you sit here?' a gap toothed Mandinka wanted to know. 'Why not sit among the Swiss supporters?'

'I'm from the Commonwealth,' I returned.

He grunted, and seemed content for me to stay.

Later he laughed when I paid 3 Dalasai for three oranges. He whacked the boy and made him give me nine. I passed them around and said, 'Tourist price'. Suddenly I had too many new friends.

Soaring Above It All

That night. Went to the bar. Saw my first rat. It was big and grey with pink, naked feet and a pink naked tail.

Met my first whore. She was Senegalese and spoke only French, except, 'Are you married?' 'Where is your wife?' 'Do you want a girlfriend?'

Ali Baba, a very friendly wood carver and general hustler from the market, thought she was very good and that I should enjoy her. I thought she was wearing the worst wig I had ever seen. I am grateful to Bette. She might have been bad tempered, but at least her hair was credible.

4 FEBRUARY, 1991


I met Ramata today. A yellow-skinned woman, wrapped in metres of light cotton splashed with royal purple. She poked me hard with a stiff finger and said:-'You paint black people that look like black people, but not like black people would paint them. Maybe you are a black man who thinks he is white?'

Rubbing the spot where her boney finger left a small bruise, I answered:-'No, I am a white man who thinks he is black.'

'Not so,' she laughs, 'Being black is not a thinking thing.'

Ramata wants me to paint her, but she thinks I should pay her more than I paid Bette. Perhaps I shall.

We have decided to call me G. Graham was problematic for the Wolof tongue that they all speak. They take great pleasure in calling out G as I pass. It comes out hard and fast like a grunt.


Martin is Bette's brother. He is a carver. I brought Bette's finished portrait to the market today. The family were very pleased with it. Bette was able to have her hair completed today. She was much happier.

They have decided that I must have some Wolof. We started:-

Naga def: 'How are you?'

Mag ge fe rek:'I am fine&.'

Then we counted 'Benna, Knarr, Netta, Neynyte,Jerome;then..Jerome,Benna,Jerome Knarr,Jerome,Netta,Jerome Neynyte, Fuka, Fuka Benna' and so on;'


Bette wanted to read what I had written about her. She saw her name in the text. She read very well. I had, of course, spelled her name wrong. Betty not Bette,and she was not happy with my explanation of the meaning of scowl. Martin is proud of our acquaintance. He would like a full length portrait of himself in his Jellaba, a traditional outfit that consists of a long cotton outer garment like a night-shirt and a pair of drawstring trousers.

I said OK but he would have to let me do it from a photo. OK he said.

Anna wants the fishing umbrella that I brought for shade, very badly. Anna wants things done now. I tell her to wait. Big business is slow business. Martin laughs at the joke and sticks his thumb up. Later I find out Anna bullies Martin a bit.

'Naga def' to the gardener produced a large bouquet of flowers on my balcony. He is proud of his work.

5 FEBRUARY, 1991

A Portrait Of Ramata

Ramata is quite the most perplexing woman I have met in some time. She insisted on being the next to pose, and insisted on seventy Dalasai with the implied threat that if I did not co-operate she would discourage others.

OK said I, but it was too hot and crowded at the market. (I've become something of a tourist attraction in reverse) and I could not concentrate. We would do the picture on the balcony at the hotel. She agreed.

She turned up, beautiful, then proceeded to insist that I paint her eyes black and her lips - not purple (but they were purple). Then she fidgetted and fidgetted, and as I tried to be stern with her she sat and glared at me. It went on. I would insist she sit still. As soon as I looked down, she would move. I started grinding my teeth. She put her finger up her nose and would not remove it. We broke down in gales of laughter. She did not want her portrait. She wanted the money.

I paid her against my own best judgement, not knowing what was appropriate action under the circumstances.

Anyway, it was very brave of her to come to the hotel. The 'boys' have used it against her. There are some uncomfortable rumblings at the market. But Anna still wants my umbrella.

LaterNjie, the hotel PR man, wanted to see what I was doing in the market. I showed him my book. He found the stories most humorous.

'Are you going to sell these?' he asked.

'No, I do not think they are worth anything to anyone else.'

'Then why do you do this?'

'Nothing else to do. If I wanted to fry like a European in the sun I would have gone to Florida.'

He laughed, then paused, then said, 'I should like you to paint the Fulani. They are the most beautiful people in the Gambia and I know a princess who will dress in all the tribal costume.'

'Pleasure,' I replied.

A Knock At My Door:Jonqura who cleans rooms at the hotel arrived at my door with flowers. She was too nervous to speak directly to me. She brought a friend to ask me if I would paint her. I agreed. She will come Thursday, but I do not think she will sit still either.

6 FEBRUARY, 1991:

Sunrise At Abuko:I went to the bush. It was a welcome change. A game warden made friends. He liked my drawing of the bird. He wants my shooting stick.

A Jalo tree twists up into the canopy of the forest with limbs like lepers, twisted and gnarled. This tree is prized, for it floats well and makes fine canoes.

BUSH NOISE: Twit, twit, twit,; coo-coo;coooo, Reep,Reep,Reep; PEeeeeer

Pied-Kingfisher: Sharp twerp call, accompanied by a jerk of the body.

Lions have long thick lashes on their upper lids, but none on their lower.

About ten in the morning a party of tourists arrived at the nature reserve. The women were dressed in high heeled sandals and the men each carried a camcorder. They walked quickly, moping their sweating foreheads and cracking lame jokes in loud voices. I left. The reality of the situation no longer corresponded to my fantasy of what it ought to be.

At The Market:The novelty has worn off at the market. Ramata has her money and knows she will get no more and now looks down her nose at me and telling everyone that I have nothing to interest them.

But Anna still wants the umbrella. Perhaps she can make me a jellaba or a caftan, loose fitting cotton clothes, in trade. She certainly doesn’t appear to be able to afford the cash.

Martin is tired. Business is slow. Selling to tourists seems an unworthy profession for a man who speaks five languages.

Later:I may have misjudged Ramata. I have made a deal with Anna for the jellaba and when Ramata saw me in the shop she came over all sweetness and shy. Anna is the real power here not Ramata.

Ramata is very charming. I cannot help but like her, but I am wary of her. It helped that the market people admired her portrait. Vanity is always a woman's weakness.

A Conversation With A Waiter

'You do not look happy this morning'

'I miss my wife.'

'I do not need a wife.'

'Who takes care of you?'

'I have a mother and a sister.'

I learn later that a woman has little value in this society but quickly finds one with the birth of her first son.

A Joke: Why does it take seven Gambians to tell one joke?

Answer: One to tell it in English, one in French, one in Wolof, one in Mandinka, one in Fula....

7 FEBRUARY, 1991

At Dinner In The Hotel:The market women are at each other's throats today and I sought refuge in the hotel. Dinner was a most curious affair. I sat with Giovanni, who didn't speak English, his wife who spoke German and Italian, and Monica her sister who spoke German and English. Giovanni spoke to his wife, who then translated to her sister Monica, who then translated to me. Good fun.

Tomorrow I'm going to the bush with Clive Barlow an ornithologist of some international reputation who runs bird-watching tours.

Earlier, I met the Chief Ecological Adviser to the government who is taking me away next week. Away, away, I go.

The Baobab Tree

The upside down tree, God planted it that way. Water gets trapped in the trunk and can be tapped. The Baobab comes into leaf in May, just before the onset of the rainy season. It bears monkey fruit which is inedible but can be cut in half to serve as a dish and the seeds can be sucked to stave off thirst.

Hovering over the edge of the bush, Bee-eaters flitted in the canopy, snatching the bees and knocking out the sting with a flick of the head before swallowing them whole.

Glimpses of Sulphur Breasted Bush Wag, Fire Finch and Red-Cheeked Cordon Bleus as they hopped and shuddered among the thorns.

High above, on an Acacia perch, a Palm Nut Vulture appears to have crossed the genetic gulf between Eagles and their horrible scavenging cousins; the vultures. Nearby, fig juice dribbled onto the chin of a Bearded Barbet.

More Words


Nyata: how much

8 FEBRUARY, 1991

Even Waiting Has Its Rewards

Pa Njie says the Fulanis are ill. I must wait until next week so I have gone back to the market until Clive comes to pick me up.

Fate rewards me. It is a wedding day. Each face is made up differently. Elizabeth is covered in sparkles. Anna has red eyebrows and a black line along her lower lip. Lipstick is applied to the bottom lip only.

Bad Teeth, Bad Breath

I am upset. Elizabeth looked at my teeth and then starting yelling at Ramata. Ramata sheepishly brought me some tooth sticks, implements torn from roots or twigs of local bushes and trees. I must use them she said. Many times each day. Their teeth are perfect. I guess I will use them.

The incident changes things. The people in the market will not take any more money from me for drawing them. I can draw what I want, where I want and everybody co-operates. I can yell at people in the market and they yell back. They like my joke about the Gambians and have been telling it to each other all morning. They keep wanting me to eat with them. I have to refuse; the stomach thing.

Later:At sunset Clive arrived with the Landrover and we went hurtling into the dark in search of a camp upriver called Tendaba.

Lost my sunglasses. They were plucked from around my neck, strap and all when the Landrover stopped for supplies and we were surrounded by children. I hardly felt a thing. I hope the kid appreciates quality. They were expensive.

Clive and his two cockney friends, Len and Fred, drunk, sing for sixty or more kilometres. They knew all the verses to Hungarian Rhapsody.

Charlie and Bridget, a farming couple from Yorkshire who Clive has persuaded to join us for the extra petrol money held on for dear life at the very back of the vehicle as it rattled along the rutted bush road. Even in the dark their faces looked ashen.

Bloody Marys:Stopped to relieve swollen bladders brought to the edge of bursting by the constant shaking of the vehicle as it banged and rattled over the washboard road. Clive and friends mixed another jug of Bloody Marys in the watering can that they are using as a giant cocktail shaker. Testing the potency of the mixture by guzzling it straight from the long green spout under the light cast by the headlamps of the Landrover. Out of the pitch black night, children appeared like something imagined. They stared and laughed. Allyson, our driver, spoke to them gently.

Back On The Road:Round huts and open fires flash by and we only stop for check points where the police wear no uniforms but accept a small 'gift' to buy some drinks. Made Tendaba in three hours. Clive and the boys drank more. In the total darkness of the starless night Fred stepped off the raised wooden walkway that led to to the jetty above the river. We heard the thud as he dropped eight feet down and landed in a boat that so happened to have been tied up below. We strained our eyes to find him, but saw nothing until a voice from below said 'Ouch&'. When finally the beam of a torch found him sprawled in the bottom of the boat, he simply sat up and said, 'Ahoy matey...cast off...I say good sir...where are we going?'

His broken ribs were the source of a great deal of humour and, I suspect, much pain over the next two days.

9 FEBRUARY, 1991

Day One At Tendaba: Dawn over the river. Pied-Kingfishers play in the golden light and the river slogs slowly, slowly by, while the Longtailed Glossy Starlings argue over the seeds of a leafless tree.

The Bush And The Heat:The monkeys watch from the tree tops and there is no possibility of surprise. The heat builds and the dry grass crackles under the intensity of the sun until it seems to be on the very edge of bursting into flame. The Yorkies are shell shocked. They do not know what has happened to them. Both are hungover. Charlie could not force down his breakfast of boiled egg and bread. It stayed untouched on his plate. Bridget could not speak at all. They stayed on water all day.

Not so Clive, Fred and Len. After checking the bar tab that documented the consumption of twenty three whiskeys and ten vodkas they night before, they were up and at it for another twelve hours. Ida keeps the Campari and soda coming.

The night is hot. Stars choke the sky. We are going to look for crocodiles on the river tomorrow. Allyson, the driver, found my sunglasses in the back of the truck. My mistake. My prejudice. I apologise.

10 FEBRUARY, 1991

An Early Morning:Monkeys and a Malachite Kingfisher, a boat up the backwaters and a trek across a piece of land so parched that even the insects have given up trying to survive in it. Of the crocodiles, there was but one 10 incher sunning himself on the gluey, black mangrove mud.

Lamin, our guide, is a boy of fifteen. His hair is wooly patches of red tufts on an otherwise bald, blue-black skull. He is tall and walks with stooped shoulders and indicates what he wishes us to do with vague gestures of his knobbly, battered fingers. His only words are the names of birds we see posing along the bank of the overgrown creek. The bush is so big and though different in each of its parts, each of its parts are so much the same. Our total accomplishment for the afternoon was one phone call at a place called Soma. It's 30 kilometres from Tendaba and that was the closest callbox. We had a cold drink at a bar in town. That took two hours in itself.

A long stalk of grass can be turned into a superb tickling stick sending the kiddies into fits of giggles. On the way back we picked up a ninety year old man who was the chief(Alcola) of the village Kundong, Mansa Sansung, four or five grass thatched huts and a water well. It had been the home of kings and queens. His name was Numo Yabu and he had the amulets and symbols to back-up his claim.

One Piece Of Bush Wisdom:Do you want to know how to guarantee yourself a good time?

Lower your standards.

Dancing Under The Stars:The girls of Tendaba village came to see us that evening and danced seductive dances just in case we might be eligible and just to show us how beautiful they were. They were beautiful. They were seductive. But we were not eligible.

Conrad's Marlow was right. It is the common occupations of a man that keep him from going mad in a place as overwhelming as West Africa.

11 FEBRUARY, 1991

The Next Morning:We are on the river for hours. We see fifty Grey Herons, if we see one. Senegal Thick Knees are common place. Each rice field has its Great Egret, white as a Summer cloud on a carpet of green.

This Country, There Is Nothing So Useless As A White Man Without Money:Michelle, a Belgian, lives aboard a small sailboat with his Senegalese, Wolof, wife. He is painter of superb quality stranded here trying to organise enough food to get him across the Atlantic to the Caribbean. He is just beginning to sell his work to the hotels and a few tourists. His needs are small, as are his prices. He is moored off the dock of the fishing village of Tanji, and the villagers make sure that his family is fed, but he spends most of his time hanging off the end of the tourist bars bumming drinks off the two week patrons with wild tales of his travels.

I envy the idea but not the life style.

A Conversation:

'Don't go to Serekunda alone.


'It's dangerous.'

'There are only two kinds of people who go to dangerous places.'

'Two kinds of people?'

'Those who don't know it's dangerous.'


'Those who don't care.'

'Where are you going?'


Talon to topknot sat above the last pool in the dried up flood plain patiently waiting to swoop down upon the last small fish stranded in the tiny puddle of water. I saw the parallel with myself watching for the last few thrills left in a life that was fast shrinking under the glaring sun of experience.

Back At The Camp:Clive, Len and Fred have opened the bar. The bill is settled on equitable terms and departure is imminent. There is a sense of not wanting to go back to the coast. Charlie and Bridget sit silent. Allyson smokes cigarette after cigarette. The boys order another round of drinks. I cannot stand it any longer. I suggest we leave. It appears to be the catalyst required.

The trip back to Sennegambia Beach is uneventful except for a short stop to mix more Bloody Marys and to distribute some pencils and papers to some waifs who tip toe through the brush to find out what we are doing. They take their loot and run down the road into the compound crying with glee. Soon the young girls venture out to see what we have for them. My tooth stick helps them overcome their shyness of me. They seem to trust a white man who uses such a familiar implement in such a common manner.

Beautiful But Expensive:As we sit in the shade of the Mango tree. Allyson is married to a Fula, but he has a Serehule father and Jola mother. The Serehule and the Jola are people of the coast.

'Why do most people speak Wolof even if they are Jola or Mandinka?'

'The Wolof come from North of the river. It is the language of civilization,' says Allyson.

'The Mandinka come from South of the river and the East provinces, the Lorobos Mandinka come from very far East. The Manjaro are from Guinea Bissau and the South.'

'Wolof women are beautiful, but they are expensive,' says Allyson.

'They are conservative people governed by family and friends. If you are too proud, your family will have to become more humble. If you do not share, they must share more. If you are happy, they are happy.'

I feel my own shame.

12 FEBRUARY, 1991

Back on the Coast:Bakary's Little JokeBakary put a pillow length-wise on the bed when he made it up. Smiled and called it my wife.

He seemed very pleased that I have been to Tendaba without the protection of a tourist excursion.

'Why?' I ask.

'Because you do not think our people will do you harm,'says he.

'It seems to me it has always been the other way around,' says I.

He only laughs in reply. I move the pillow to its proper place.

Peanuts left open and the table top comes alive with ants. This is the tropics.

13 FEBRUARY 1991

Kartong:They come to the crocodile pool to pray. The men for prosperity, the women for children and I, to find my place in this world.

As I watched the Squacco Heron tread lightly across the Water Nut that covers the pool I am forced to come to terms with the reality that I must return to England the day after tomorrow. I do not belong here. I have a life elsewhere.

The Heron catches a frog; he steps off the platform of plants and into the bush at the side of the pool tossing the creature in his beak until he has a firm grip on it; then returns to the water and dunks his frog into the water like a cake into a cup of coffee until it is slippery enough to swallow, wriggling and alive.

The crocodiles lay motionless in the sun. The children watching me draw have closed around me in an ever tightening circle.

'Space!' I cried, breaking the meditative silence.

'Space!' they cried back. 'Space!' they laughed out loud. 'Space!' they shouted before they all stepped back.

The women tittered and nodded. They offered me a drink from the pool. I could not take it. It was an honour, but the water,stagnant, contained death. I do not belong here.

14 FEBRUARY, 1991

It's Over: The veil fell and the illusions melted away like the birds when a twig is snapped underfoot. Reality was hard. Hunger, sickness, ennui, deception, corruption. The Fula princess turned out to be the housekeeper. The bride to be already had a husband.

Ideas come and go. The only hope is the hope of escape. Da Naiyam means to eat in Fula. Naiyam is to eat in Jamaica. Yet thesre is starvation in black Africa. Eyes once glistening with promise now plead.

A hustler asks me, 'You don't smoke. Don't drink. Don't fuck. What do you do?'

'I write. I paint. I pay my way. Do I have to do any more?'

The last official adviser left over from the colonial administration deplores the lack of altruism in the people.

'They never do anything without expecting payment,'says he.

'Like a banker,' says I, 'Or a bureaucrat.'

The looks are cold. The silence deafening.

The night sings with magic. The rythym of the surf. The melody of the insects. The wind stirs the palm leaves as Mozart's hand might have raised the strings of an orchestra into a crescendo.

Fourteen of the market people are injured today. The bus-taxi turned over. Bodies spilled out on the road. There are bones and back broken. The market is sober. There is nothing to be done. Families will be hungry. The war in the Gulf has held the tourists back. This rainy season will kill many. And the birds still sing.

The Money Is Gone:The clothes lay in a filthy heap in the corner. If I could close the door on England, I would not return. But I have a past. I have roots. I have no future. For these brief weeks I was alive once more, not buried by obligation. Not a performing bear, but a traveller. A new face in a new land. I brought money, education, friendship, humour an open mind and an open heart. I take away a few trinkets, many regrets and much confusion. I leave behind something of myself. I hope among the debris on the floor is my naviety, for my simple beliefs have been sorely tested in this land of terrifying beauty and gentle destruction.

Africa is Mother:Africa has given me a new birth. This is not possible. I feel that I was always here, but I remember feeling that way about Mexico, about Thailand, about London, about Scotland. But this is stronger. This is more desparate. This is more painful. This is more confusing.

God is Great.



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