A Year in the Life

Originally sent January 24, 2012


Today is January. That means if yesterday were the day I arrived in this strange land, then the marrow will rise on 2013 and a plane ride home. Of course, much has changed since yesterday, myself included, and much will change tomorrow. But at present, I stand where I started, conscious of where I’ve been and where I’m going.

Even now, as I sit under my favorite mango tree, I am reminded of the sweep of the seasons. The tree itself tells the story; it, like so many of its brothers, is feeling flirtatious, its branches bursting with thousands of Christmas-tree-shaped bundles, each carrying hundreds of tiny flowers. There must be a million little orange flowers in each tree. Come April, Si Kunda will have more mangoes than it can eat.  In The Gambia, it’s either feast or famine..

My tree sits in the middle of a wide, flat field which has been bleached brown and dead by the sun. But not long ago, three or four months perhaps, this field was a sea of green; an army of millet stocks battling the natural grasses and other weeds for what few nutrients lay buried in the sandy soil.  After the harvest and the end of the rains, the grasses died away and the field was overrun by a battalion of small, shrubby orchids, each boasting a fine display of vibrant yellow flowers. But then, just when the field was looking its finest, a bush fire came and burned the field black, harkening memories of my first days in Si Kunda, when I helped battle a blaze in this very same field.

That was March.  This is January.  Cool nights and a brisk breeze make January pleasant. But the inexorable pull of the seasons dictates that soon it will be March. Then April. Then May.  When nothing but the heat remains.  Temperatures will rise to 115 degrees and stay there, baking the earth till its bone dry.  Then, as June arrives, and the humidity descends like a soupy broth, people will begin to look skyward.  Where is the rain? Will it be enough? 

Here in Si Kunda, it is not uncommon for it to rain between 15 and 20 days in July. This past July, however, we saw just three days of rain. For months I had looked forward to the rainy season, thinking it would offer a reprieve from the oppressive heat. But a rainy season with no rain proved worse.  The added humidity transformed The Gambia from a sauna to a steam room, from which there was no escape.  Often I would wake at 7 am with my body already drenched in sweat, my beleaguered skin coated in a heavy blanket of itchy, painful heat rash.

My personal discomfort, while lamentable, is ultimately unimportant. But for a society that relies on rain to irrigate its crops, and thus provide it a livelihood, a dry rainy season spells hunger and destitution.  Of the rice that was planted in upland nursery beds, only 30 percent survived to be transferred to the swamps.  And with the price of imported rice already well outside the boundaries of affordability for most families, and still rising, the particularly poor harvest means many families will eventually run out of food come July or August and suffer a several month “hungry season” where they may not eat at all.

Even a lackluster rainy season is enough to transform The Gambia into a lush wonderland, with grasses that grow well over your head. But that pull of the seasons cannot be escaped.  October brought some of the hottest weather of the year, and by mid-November the grasses started to brown.  By December, any thoughts of green were but a lost memory.

 

***

 

Today is January, and the world around me is bleached brown and dead.  But that doesn’t matter, because today I spent my afternoon in the sand counties of Wisconsin, exploring the North Woods with Leopold. Last month, I suffered through the bitter cold of a Russian winter, with the Emperors Alexandr and Napoleon as company. In September, I hunted the White Whale with the megalomaniacal Ahab and in June I traveled to Dublin to share a stout ale with Joyce. (Later, I returned to share one with McCourt.) I have rallied behind a small girl with a dragon tattoo, and have watched the rise and fall of the incestuous Buendia family. I know the meaning of the universe is 42. And I know who John Galt is.  

But I also know that Alasan Ceesay is deadly with his left foot, Ansuman Manneh will work harder than anyone I know, and Fatou Sonko is determined not to let her gender put her at a disadvantage—four days a week she walks seven kilometers to take classes on how to install electrical wiring, so when power finally arrives in Si Kunda, she will be ready to profit from it.  I know which villagers are mandinka and which are fula, and possess enough language skills to talk to either.  I know that in Si Kunda, Jammeh’s are village royalty, anda woman bearing that name can be found in almost every compound. (In mine, there are two.)   And I know that when gathered together, Gambians, like Americans, love to eat.  Only, Gambians eat the same thing every time.

And I know that people die, and that others are born.  Just last Thursday, Mama’s mother, my grandmother Jambai Ceesay, passed away.  But that same day, a baby was born in Saidy Kunda.  When it came time to name it, the decision was easy: her name was to be Jambai.   No one in the compound was directly related to the late Jambai, but that doesn’t matter—here the idea of family transcends the rigid lines of a family tree.  In Si Kunda, everyone really is their brother’s keeper.

It is this unshakeable belief in the shared experience—or the shared burden, perhaps—that I find so remarkable. So even when everything else around me seems to make absolutely no sense, when the bonds between my American heritage and my African reality are stretched to their limit, I can always take a stroll down the sandy byways of my little village and appreciate the one thing our cultures share wholeheartedly: our humanity.

 
 

Today is January.  Tomorrow the sun will rise on 2013 and I will leave these shores.  I will return to the land of mild climates and central air conditioning.  I will forget my heat rash and never eat a dry salted fish again.  No longer will I be lost in translation and never will I dread the onset of summer with such vehemence.  But I also realize I will have to leave all my friends and family behind, for the second time in as many years. 

In Si Kunda, as in all of The Gambia, the bonds of family transcend culture, heritage, and the lines on a map.  It is a lesson I am starting to learn, and one we all could benefit from.

I wish you all a Happy New Year.  May you live in the present and make the most of what 2012 has to offer. Because tomorrow, it will be gone.

 

With love,

 

Travis