The Sun, the Moon & a Cow
Originally sent March 14, 2011
Life here in West Africa marches on, and as summer settles upon the landscape like a heavy woolen blanket, so too have I begun to settle down. Things that once seemed extraordinary are now ordinary--it feels only natural to bargain over the price of an eggplant while carrousing the laberinyth of narrow alleyways that is the Soma Market--while once simple tasks have become anything but. Just washing my hands is remarkably difficult in the absence of running water; washing my clothes in another matter entirely. Bent over a pair of large buckets (the wash cycle and the rinse cylce), with a bar of "donkey soap" is my hand, I work myself into a full sweat scrubbing clothes that will, inevitably, become dirty the moment I put them back on. Now I could just ask one of my host mothers (yes, mothers--my host father has two wives) to do it for me, but how then would I learn to appreciate the miracle that is a washer and dryer?
In my journey to make this strange land home, there are certain constants that can not be mitigated. Principle among these is that the sun is hot. Tiloo kanditaa. As the afternoon heat descends on Si Kunda--it was 111 degrees yesterday--life here stops and everyone flees to the relative comfort of shade, with an emphasis on relative. Even in the shade, the heat is near unbearable (this, coming from a native Tucsonian), but at least you won't get heat stroke. And with all the roofs made of corrugated tin, when it comes to shade a tree is your best bet because going inside is like walking into an oven.
Just as the day is ruled by that most mighty of celestial bodies, so, too, is the night. Or, more precisely, the lack thereof. In her novel Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand describes people living without electricity as being "reduced to the life of those ages when artificial light was an exorbitant luxary, and a sunset put an end to human activity." The people of Si Kunda have never known electricity and, thus, are living in an age long since forgotten in the First World. But where there is no artificial light, there is something eveon more special: the unabridged glory of the cosmos. Oh, how the stars shine in rural Africa, with only the brightness of the moon to dim them.
It was when the moon was last at its fullest, as I stood in the center of my compound looking up at it, that my host mother let slip one of those truly remarkable questions (Paris, London anyone?). "Karo warita bake," I was saying, and after replying that, yes, the moon was very big, she asked, with all sincerity, if we have the moon in America. I laughed and told her we did, and then set my mind to contemplation. Was now the moment to tell her that we, Americans, had been to the moon? No, I thought, better wait till my language skills are a bit more refined before I go start talking about rocket ships and no gravity.
Unfortunately, not everything here is as reliable as the various phases of the moon. In fact, I would go so far as to say that reliability is in short supply here in Africa's smallest nation. I know, shocking, isn't it? To illustrate my point, allow me to share just a few of my experiences with the public transportation "system" here in The Gambia.
My first foray into the wild world of African transport came about a month ago when I left Si Kunda for the first time. My choosen mode of transportation that morning: donkey cart. Driven always by a small boy, a donkey cart should never be your first choice. It is so slow that you could walk faster--literally, several people walking to Soma that morning passed us on their way--and watching that small boy beat just a little more speed out of that stubborn donkey can really darken your mood.
Later that day I found myself riding in a large, yet surprisingly cramped, green bus, heading west toward Kombo. Yet while the motive power by its internal combustion engine made the bus a more attractive option than the donkey, it was only just so. Seated just above the rear axel, it felt (and sounded) as if I were under mortor fire everytime the bus hit a bump. And considering the quality of the road outside Soma, it might as well have been the siege of Stalingrad. What's more, everytime we hit an especially severe bump, the floor boards beneath my feet would separate slightly and a large plume of fine dust would waft up from below. By the time we reached Brikama, which took even longer than usual thanks to an hour-long pit stop outside a mosque, I was utterly and completely filthy.
As ridiculous as that trip on the not-so-magic bus was, it was nothing compared tot he absurdity of my most recent journey back from Kombo. This last week, I traveled to the coast with three men from my village to partake in a three-day training course on bee keeping. While at BeeCause (clever, ain't it), I lived through the adrenaline rush of opening a hive, only to find a wall of angry bees rushing up toward me ("God, please let this bee suit hold") and discovered how mouth-watering delicious fresh honey can be, but before I knew it, it was time to go back again.
I left the Peace Corps transit house early the next morning and made the quick trip to Brikama, where I met my langauge teacher from training for a couple of games of Scrabble--ne'er did I expect to find such a worthy opponent among the Gambia populace; I left having taken one and lost another. I made it to the Brikama Car Park, a sprawling, chaotic parking lot surrounded by an even larger, more chaotic marketplace, at 2 p.m. and quickly found the gelli-gelli headed toward Soma.
(By far the most common form of transportation in The Gambia, a gelli-gelli is a full-size van that seats, rather uncomfortably, upwards of 20 to 25 people (babies not included, and there is always at least one baby aboard). Usually run-down and almost always "pimped out" in one way or another, often to the
I was fortunate to get a seat in the front, by far the most comfortable spot in the gelli, but had only the car park to look at for the next two hours while we waited for every last seat to fill before embarking. Finally, with the stench of too many sweaty humans tickling my nostrils, we left the car park and headed east. After hours of sitting still, the feel of air rushing by my face was liberating, but the feeling would not last.
About an hour outside Brikama, the gelli broke down, slowly rolling to a stop in the village of Somita. An hour and half, and two mechanics, later the problem was diagnosed--there was a leak in an air hose leading to the engine. Someone took a spare piece of cloth, tied it around the hose, and off we went. It would take much more than a piece of cloth, however, to overcome the next road blcok awaiting us.
We were less than a half hour outside of Somita when our gelli met its end. Coming up behind a lumbering tractor, our driver drifted over to the left and made to pass the four-wheeled giant. Just as we pulled even with the tractor, a cow stepped out into the middle of the road; the driver attempted to swerve, but there was nowhere to swerve to. We smashed into the oblivious bovine with a resounding thud, and the poor creature rolled up the hood toward the windshield before pitching to the right and flying, legs rigid, into the brush beside the road. There was no question as to its fate: it was dead, and so was our gelli.
The sun was mere minutes from setting when we gathered around the hood and surveyed the damage. With a cow-sized dent jutting into the engine cavity, it was clear that this gelli would not be taking us to Soma. How was I going to get home, I wondered. Did I know another volunteer in the area? Another gelli was heading toward u; we stuck out our hands but it did not stop. Five minutes later another appeared on the horizon and this one had room. "Are you going to Soma?" "No, but we'll take you to the next police check point where you'll be safe." Safe, I though; safe from what?
Night had descended completely when we reached the checkpoint and I got out with the three or four other cast aways who had stowed aboard with me. Again, I thought, "Now what?" But, as chance would have it, another gelli was just pulling up. "Are you going to Soma?...Yes? Great." Two hours later we reached the cut off to Si Kunda and I yelled for the driver to let me of. A thin crescent moon hung low in the western sky as I walked the two kilometers to Si Kunda; it was just slipping below the horizon when I finally reached home, and following suit, I, too, quickly found myself on the far side of consciousness.
There is no telling what my next trip will bring, but you can bet on it being an adventure. Life here is one great, sweaty adventure, and I'm just along for the ride. Let's hope the price of admission doesn't cost me my sanity!
As always, I hope all is well back at home. Thanks to all who have sent letters and emails, I love reading them. And now I'm off to see a man about a cold coke and a bean sandwich.
Sincerely, and with love,