The Drammeh Family
Originally sent July 16, 2011
The story behind the Drammeh family, behind my family, goes something like this:
Several generations back, when The Gambia was still young, my great-great-great grandfather was the proud caretaker of a lush, prosperous sorghum field. So plentiful was the harvest of basoo, as sorghum is known in Mandinka, that the elder Drammeh was able to feed not only his own family, but much of the village as well. “Drammeh Kanji Santa Farra” the villagers would say out of respect—a tradition still alive today, though the meaning has been lost among the passages of time—and never was an ill word bespoken of the wise, old man, not even in jest.
This gushing spring of adulation would not flow forever, though. The will of God would see to that.
One day, while the sun was still waking and the earth still cool, the elder Drammeh was in his field, tending to his plants, when out of the western sky approached a colorful parrot. “Good morning, parrot,” the old man said as the bird sailed in on the morning breeze and landed among the tall, virulent stocks of sorghum. The parrot, despite its capacity for language, did not return the greeting but instead took hold of a nearby stock with its beak and ripped the plant, roots and all, out of the ground and then took to the air.
This incised the old Drammeh beyond measure. “If he had just asked,” he told himself, “surely I would have given him some. But to take the entire plant, without asking! No, that is not alright.” Grabbing his machete, he made to follow the bird, whose bright plumage glistened in the morning light even as it grew small on the horizon. The wise, old man mimicked the parrot’s flight through the bush until he came to a large, hollowed-out tree: the thief’s den. “Give me back my basoo, you mischievous bird!” Drammeh bellowed, but the parrot did not answer him. Instead, he heard the parrot talking to others inside the tree—two baby parrots eagerly awaiting their breakfast.
Normally, the elder Drammeh would have sympathized with the parrot, would have provided a whole bushel of sorghum to the young family, but unfortunately he was lost in his anger. Driven by rage, he swung his machete again and again at the hollowed-out tree, each blow taking a small bite out of the grain, until, with one last mighty blow, it fell to the ground. He then reached inside the fallen log and pulled out the three parrots and the half-eaten sorghum. “Let this be a lesson to you,” he said and then, taking the basoo in his hand, turned and walked back to the village.
The villagers, having learned of his deeds from another parrot, were dismayed. Soon after they stopped accepting Drammeh’s nutritious gifts, and the old man was left with great stores of basoo. Not wanting to waste it, the old man instructed his wives, of which he had many, to cook it all, and soon the family was plump and healthy. The villagers still addressed him with his honorable title, for his generosity was still well-known, but now the praise was mixed with jest: “Drammeh nkolu lafita domoroo la bake,” they would say.
Those Drammeh’s sure like to eat.
So while I may be about the most unlikely descendant imaginable, I bear the name Drammeh with honor and uphold tradition as best I can. This means, of course, that I like to eat, though it seriously depends on what it is I’m eating. Some dishes I don’t take too kindly to—fish Durango, kucha (sorrel)—while others I will eat till I’m about ready to explode: anything with chicken and/or vegetables in it, Mama’s benechin. My love of the latter is well known throughout my village (and beyond), and is often a topic of conversation and the punch line of jokes. But even when I let down the Drammeh name and barely touch my food, my hosts never admonish me or disown me. In their eyes, I am a member of the family—a Drammeh, then, now, and forever more. And since you all already know me, allow me to introduce you to the rest of the Drammeh’s:
The patriarch, my father, the man who would sit at the head of the dinner table if only they had one (which, of course, they do not): Baa Sidat. He is an anomaly among his people—a man that looks younger than he is. The chairman of the Village Development Committee and proprietor of a sizeable cashew orchard, Baa Sidat is relatively well off, by Gambian standards, and moves through his world, which doesn’t extend much past Soma, with the subtle hint of importance. His stomach is more round than flat and his clothing is usually clean, crisp, and rarely torn. But there is a seriousness in his demeanor that has, thus far, kept our relationship more formal than I would like. Every once in a while, though, I will say something that penetrates his calcified shell and he will let escape a quick smile brimming with boyish exuberance, and it is like the sun bursting through a thick layer of clouds.
The role of the matriarch is split among Baa Sidat’s two wives, fellow soldiers crouching in the domestic trenches of Drammeh Kunda. And make no mistake; marriage in The Gambia is a war of attrition, especially for the women. They are expected to do all the work—including growing rice, the epitome of back-breaking labor—but receive almost nothing in return. There is little respect for women among Gambian men, on whom they are dependent, and an utter lack of intimacy. I rarely see Baa Sidat even interacting with his wives, let alone expressing anything verging on love. It is like watching two people (or three) on the brink of divorce, except that there is no animosity or sense of longing. In this culture, men and women, husbands and wives, lead separate lives, meeting occasionally in the bedroom. (Or, judging from the hordes and hordes of children running around, more than just occasionally!)
Baa Sidat’s first wife, Binta, is a large woman who carries a slight air of entitlement around with her, and she can often be found lying down when others in the compound are working. As the Gambians say, she is “a man baraka” and our relationship is not particularly strong.
So when people ask who my mother is, I don’t hesitate to bestow the title to Baa Sidat’s second wife, conveniently named Mama. Of the all people living in Drammeh Kunda, she is easily my favorite. Loud and imposing, but never bellicose, Mama is a bull of a woman with a radiant, smiling heart. Starting from the very moment I arrived in Si Kunda, she has been my friend, my protector, my mother. When I walk out of my house in the morning, she is the first to greet me, shouting my name from across the compound, and when I leave Si Kunda for a couple days, she takes care of my house and vegetable garden with more care than I normally do. And if that was not enough, she has taken the love I feel for my cat—Eric is his name—and made it her own. (Gambians generally don’t like cats.) So when Eric showed up with a wound one day, Mama was quick to offer me a tablet of ibuprofen, a valuable commodity for Gambians, to ease his pain…Some women are just born to be mothers, especially ones named Mama.
From this root stock branch the many limbs of the Drammeh family tree. In total, about twenty people live in Drammeh Kunda, more than half of them under the age of 14. Some of Baa Sidat’s progeny have flown the nest, but many still remain. The oldest is Fatou, a 26-year-old mother of two. Closer to my age than any other in the compound (I’m 23, in case you forgot or just didn’t know), I feel a certain kinship toward her. But I can’t help but look at her life and compare it to mine. I am thousands of miles from home, experiencing something utterly new and exciting, while she is already shackled into the day-to-day of domestic life, living practically the same life as her mother. There is nothing new or different awaiting her, just more kids. But my thirst for adventure exists because it can, because I was raised in a culture where anything is possible; that mentality does not exist here, and I believe that ignorance really is bliss. Despite the many hardships, most Gambians appear to be content, and Fatou is no exception.
The army of children quartered in Drammeh Kunda is boldly led by Mariama Sonko, the 13-year-old niece of Baa Sidat, whose parents live in Kombo. Old enough that she is above petty childishness but still young enough to be a kid, Sibo, as she is also known, is among my favorites in the compound. With a deep, husky voice and a fearless disposition, she likes to dish out trouble, which I happily toss back in her face. I often accompany her to the garden in the evenings and have spent many an hour sitting and chatting with her in Mandinka. One day, several months back, when I was still relatively new to the family, another kid asked me what her name was, as if to test me, and while I knew it (she was among the first people whose name I actually remembered) I jokingly called her Fatou Darboe, a common name in The Gambia. Ever since that day, I have called her by that name and have gotten most of Drammeh Kunda, and a decent portion of the village as well, to join in with me, much to Mariama’s consternation.
The lower ranks of the Children’s Army are filled with many snot-nosed ruffians, many of whom I like and some that I don’t. The principal actor in the latter group is Buba, a three-year-old punk with an inclination to cause trouble and an unwavering propensity to cry. But for every Buba there is a Ñaro, my unbearably cute three-year-old sister. While at first very shy, Ñaro has since become more than comfortable with the strange white man living in her compound, and loves it when I pick her up, sling her over my shoulder and tickle her little exposed belly. Her laughter is enough to brighten even my darkest of moods. Then there’s Ansuman, who always wears a big smile on his 6-year-old face and who will quietly follow me almost anywhere I go, and Mo-Lamin, who is also about 6 and is prone to break-out in infectious laughter.
There are many others in the compound whose names and stories I won’t bore you with, and many, many more relatives scattered about Si Kunda. Given that, one, there are only a handful of families present and, two, that Gambians don’t really have a problem marrying their cousins, I am pretty much related to every person in the village. It is quite common for some random villager to come up and tell me he is my brother or sister or aunt or uncle, to which I always reply, “Si Kunda mu dimbayaa kiling warata bake.” Si Kunda is one big family.
Within that family, the Si Kunda family, I am known by all, but when I travel outside my village and must introduce myself, I am inevitably met with the same refrain: “Drammeh nkolu lafita domoroo la bake.”
Those Drammeh’s sure like to eat.
I hope all is well back at home. Those of you in Arizona, watch out for the fires! Those of you in California, take a moment and really appreciate how nice the weather is. And know that you’re all in my thoughts and in my heart.
Sincerely, and with love,