Seventy-two Hours in Si Kunda

Originally sent March 7, 2011

 Greetings all,
I came into Si Kunda by way of Peace Corps transport, a crowded Toyota Land Cruiser that simply flew over the dusty rutted roads of central Gambia; I left, three days later, via donkey cart. What transpired over those three days will stay with me forever, for in those memories lie my fist impressions of the village that would be home.

The Si Kunda that I will share with you today will, undoubtedly, bear no resemblance to the village I will have to say good bye to two years from now, not because it will have changed drastically--change comes slowly, if at all, in The Gambia--but because I will have changed. I have, no doubt, already changed, though I do not feel particularly different. What does feel different, however, are my surroundings. The Gambia is unlike any place I have been before, and, most likely, unlike anyplace you've been either, yet I am comfortable here (well, as comfortable as one can be in a poverty-stricken, sub-tropical African nation). And now there is a dot on the map to call my own, so come with me and I will share my first 72 hours in a new home.
Monday, February 28

The dry, flat landscape slipped away outside the window of the Land Cruiser as Sam, our large and jolly driver, stepped on the pedal and tested the vehicle's limits on the bumpy dirt road east of Brikama. The land was parched, brown being the predominant color, yet striking, and I couldn't help but imagine the beauty that was coming once the rains came and flooded the bush in varying hues of green. Inside, we were five Peace Corps trainees heading to "Site Visit," wherein we would spend three full days at our permanent sites for the first time.  We were to be dropped off in an eastward succession, placing me in fourth, but we had a ways yet to travel till we reached the first site, so I settled into my seat and watched The Gambia slip by.

The journey direct from Kombo--the urban center along the western coast--to Si Kunda is not particularly far, less than 150 km on the South Bank Road, but on this given day we had to venture in Kiang West to drop off the first two trainees, lengthening the trip considerably. There is but one road into Kiang--"The worst road in the Gambia," remarked Sam--and we had the pleasure of traveling 50 km in and 50 km back out. So despite leaving before 9 a.m., we did not reach the turnoff to Si Kunda until after 5:30 p.m.

The road to my village leaves the highway about two kilometers before the town of Soma, where a small tributary of the River Gambia cuts across the landscape, leaving a wide, flat, watery depression--proof that the river is king in these parts. "This will all be under water come the rainy season," said Sam. "I, honestly, don't know how the people get to Soma when it is." I smiled at the thought of it, and then the car turned back to the west, where the sun was already low on the horizon.

As we approached Si Kunda from the east, I scanned my surroundings as quickly as I could, taking in as much as I could. The village consisted of one main street, upon which the cracked mud brick walls of dilapidated compounds crowded in, narrowing it.  We passed two small bidiks--the Gambian equivalent of a convenience store--and a mosque, its two green towers supporting megaphones.  The dark green leaves of the Mango tree could be seen everywhere, as could the poverty made famous by National Geographic. After circling around the village, we spotted the bright, clean corrugated metal fencing my backyard. I was home.

If there was any part of me that was afraid, I buried it deep within me and stepped out of the car and into a sea of dark-skinned faces.  I greeted them in Mandinka, grabbed my belongings, and stepped through the metal gate into my compound.  It consisted of two long parallel buildings, one made of cement and one of mud, beyond which were three more, very decrepit looking, buildings.  One of these, I could see, housed the cooking fires, while another held firewood and other supplies. My abode, which like before consists of two small rooms and backyard, was in the cement building on the left, into which the words "White House" had been inscribed.  It was painted a light shade of blue. 

Soon after I left the compound with my host father, Sidak Drammeh, and did a quick tour of the village. We visited several compounds, and I was instantly pleased with my ability to speak Mandinka. While by no means fluent, I was able to hold conversations with scores of people without uttering, or hearing, a word of English.  My father then led me to the mosque, where he asked me to wait outside while he went in and prayed.  After some time he remerged from the darkness and led me around to the far side of the building, where a sizeable crowd of men--20 to 30 strong--were gathered sitting on large mats. I took a seat and the men began mumbling prayers in unison. When they were finished, my father stood and addressed the crowd in Mandinka.  I didn't exactly know what was going on, but I understood enough to realize that he was talking about me--I was being introduced to the men of the village.  When he finished, the men all got up and I walked home with Baa Sidak; I was in my bed, asleep, not long after.
Tuesday, March 1

I woke to the sound of Prayer. It was 5 in the morning, still dark, and the air was filled with praise to Allah. The loud speaker fixed to the mosque’s tower, in the center of town, was calling the village to morning prayer. For half an hour in continued, until finally silence replaced it and sleep again took me. But then, to my utter consternation, it started again at 6 and continued for another half hour, loudly praising Allah while I silently cursed him. Was this to be my life for the next two years, I wondered, before slipping back into my dreams. 

I woke again about an hour later and, after a visit to my pit latrine, threw on some clothing and stepped out into my compound.  I was met with little pomp and no circumstance. I said good morning to the few that were around and waited for my host mother, conveniently named Mama, to bring me my breakfast, rice porridge. After eating I collected my bidong and set off to get some water. Instantly I realized how spoiled I had been in my training village, where there was a solar powered tap practically right outside my door. No such luck at the Drammeh Kunda; the closest water was several minutes away and had to be pumped out of the ground by hand. 

I spend much of the rest of the day sitting around my compound, trying to get to know my host family. During the day I met a British woman who had founded a charitable organization named “Friends of Si Kunda,” which had helped build the village’s women’s garden. That evening we traveled together to see the garden.

Set amidst the rigid organization of row upon row of vegetables was what, at first, appeared to be chaos—chaos dressed in bright, vibrant colors. Similar to what I imagine an ant colony looks like, scores of women moved to and fro, from the well to their beds and back. Five large cement wells laid scattered about the garden, the pumping hearts of the colorful chaos, around which the women swarmed.  Like a well-oiled machine, they filled their buckets with water, placed them atop their heads, and went to their respective beds to splash the water on the otherwise parched ground, chatting loudly all the while. And all around the benefits of their hard work were visible; whole beds devoted to onion or cabbage or hot pepper or bitter tomato. Many of the plants were not much more than seedlings, but in a month this pace would be a sea of lush, eatable green. 

There were aspects of the garden that could be improved—pest control, plant spacing, composting—and I thought of these as I walked through the garden, but it was hard to keep my mind focused.  As soon as they noticed me, the women would rush over and greet me, and I them.  My still fledgling grasp of Mandinka was apparently far greater than most tubabs they met and I could easily see their excitement that I was speaking in their native tongue. I, meanwhile, was thrilled at the prospect of spending my time in the garden, working with these women  While I still have very little idea of what I hope to accomplish here in Si Kunda, seeing that garden and the zeal with which the women worked it erased my anxiety and warmed my heart.  
Wednesday, March 2

The next day I was visited by my “site mates,” a married couple serving in a village about five kilometers away.  Together we sat on the floor of my house—I haven’t had a chance to buy furniture yet—and played a board game, namely Settlers of Catan.  It was great to spend time with Americans, and I felt fortunate they live so close.  

Later that evening, I was brewing attaya in my compound when I noticed a plume of black smoke rising up in the fields behind the compound.  At first I didn’t think much of it—someone burning trash, I thought—but then my father went out toward it, saying something about “dimba” and there was a noticeable wave of excitement through the compound.  It was a bush fire, not more than a football field’s length from my house, so I grabbed my camera and made for the flames. 

As I made my way across the field I noticed I was a part of slow migration of men, like moths to the flame.  When I arrived, I saw many were already there, working slowly, if at all, to stop the fire’s march. The flames spread out in a long line that curved outward—bright, yellow grass waiting to combust on one side, the charred remains on the other. The smoke billowed up, meeting the naked branches of several baobab trees in so doing, which was quite beautiful. But fire is, nevertheless, hugely destructive and frightenly powerful, and when it reached a clumping of thick, tall grass, the flames would explode upward, letting off significant heat.  

The men, absent any notion of a fire department, fought the blaze by hitting it with branches and pouring water, pulled from the garden wells, on it.  I tried my hand at swatting the flames for a short time, and watched the excitement for about an hour before returning to my compound.  When I went into my house, several hours later, the flames could still be seen in the dark.  I called some fellow trainees to tell them, just in case my house burned down in the night, and went to sleep.  
I left the next day, as I said above, on a donkey cart, headed toward Soma.  There I caught a bus back to Kombo, where I am staying presently, at the Peace Corps transit house.  I swear-in as a volunteer on Friday and will return to Si Kunda the following Tuesday, this time for good. I am both excited and anxious about it.  

I hope you have enjoyed the trip to Si Kunda. I will have lots more to say about it in the future.  I hope everything is well back at home; as always, I would love to hear from you about it.