The Village Life

Originally sent May 6, 2011


Pandemonium burst through the gate and into my compound, laying waste to the peace and quiet that had, until then, permeated the afternoon. Horror-laced screams filled the hazy air as a horde of small boys ran for their lives, their flight hampered by the baggy, sagging clothing that clung to their small, malnutritioned bodies. Once inside the gate, the army of terror-stricken children made for the relative safety of the stoop, whereupon the adult sat, and searched out all the corners and dark places they could find, like gas expanding to fill a room.  Behind them, from whence they had come, the ominous sound of metal striking metal could be heard above the din, its pitch an octave higher than even the shrillest scream. The Konkoran was coming.

Faceless and largely formless, with "skin" made from strips of shredded plastic, the Kondoran looks like some African Yeti born from a trash heap and would most likely illicit laughter before fear but for one, nay two, key attributes: namely, a machete in each hand. With what can only be described as reckless abandonment, the Konkoran whips the machetes to and fro, their mildly rusted blades still lustrous in the afternoon sun, and, in so doing, whips the small boys into a fearful frenzy. They fly from him like prey from a mighty hunter, pouring into the sanctuary of whichever compound is closest. And so it was, that following on the heels of a the aforementioned deluge, I found myself face to face with the faceless.

I stood up from my roost on the stoop and walked forward to meet the menacing foe, confident--but not certain--that I had nothing to fear. My confidence was shaken, however, when the twin cutlasses flew in my direction; a moment later I looked down and say that the machetes were now lodged in my waste pockets. "Kodoo," my host mother was saying, "a lafita kodoo la." He wants money. Well what could I do? I reached into my shirt pocket, pulled out a 10 dalasi note--worth about 35 cents--and handed it to the Konkoran, at which point he calmly removed the machetes from my pockets, turned, and exited the compound. I then turned, picked up my book from the dusty, cracked cement and returned to my chair, behind which a small boy in a Barack Obama t-shirt stood quivering.

It was, I thought, just another day in the village.


"Suwo kononkolu lee?"

This simple question, which roughly translates to "Where are the home people," is as common a phrase as you'll hear in The Gambia, and the answer is always the same: "I be jee." They are there.  And while the question is not asked in search of an answer, but is instead just one of a whole host of generic greetings, the answer is, nevertheless, very telling. For the people of Si Kunda are just that: they are there (or rather, here), living their lives just like those that came before them, content with what they have and never complaining about what they don't.

So when it comes to building their homes, the people of Si Kunda rely on the one thing they have plenty of: the distinctive red-tinged earth of mother Africa. The same soil that grows their food, when formed into bricks, shields them from the unforgiving equatorial sun and life-giving rains. But mud bricks, believe it or not, are not the sturdiest of building materials, and structures made from them are apt to slowly crumble back into the earth from which they sprang. When a house, or bono, becomes especially abject, however, Gambians will simply knock it down and start fresh. Such was the fate of one such building in Sonko Kunda, a compound not far from my own.

It was mid-morning and I was out for a stroll when I wandered into Sonko Kunda. I had seen them slowly dismantling the building over the previous week, removing first the roof and doors before going at the walls with sheer brute force, and had pondered the reasons behind this methodical destruction. The answer came when I happened upon several men laying the recycled mud bricks that were to serve as the foundation for a new structure. Seeing as how I had nothing else to do, I walked over, picked up a shovel, and devoted myself to building a house, my first.

The sun marched steadily up its arc toward the height of noon while we worked, one Peace Corps volunteer and four grown men with nothing else to do on a Monday at 10 a.m. One man stood on the mountain of dirt piled up in the center of the no yet realized structure, mixing the "mortar," which was nothing more than mud, while two men carried the mortar by the shovel load to two others laying bricks along the perpendicular lines that would eventually become the buildings perimeter.  After three hours of work, all four walls stood at a height of three bricks, and it had become too hot to work. So the men retreated to the stoop and their principal occupation: brewing attaya.

Attaya, or Chinese gunpowder green tea, is to The Gambia what Starbucks coffee is to America, except whereas Americans demand expediency when ordering coffee, Gambians revel in the utter lack thereof when brewing attaya.  Each day, hours upon hours are devoted to brewing attaya, a process considerably more involved than simply boiling water and leaving it to steep. First the water is placed in a small ceramic kettle, called a borrada, and brought to a boil over a charcoal stove, known as a forne. Once boiling, the tea is added, followed by an absurd amount of sugar (Gambian's love of sugar cannot be overstated). A portion of the tea is then poured into one of two small glasses, each just slightly larger than a shot glass, and from there is emptied back and forth between the two, sometimes dozens of times, until the sugar is mixed and a large head of foam resides in each glass.  It is in this intercourse between the two glasses that one's skill in brewing is exhibited, and a true artist achieves his or her light, frothy foam by cascading the dark, sugar-saturated tea from a great height, all the while taking care not to spill any.  Once satisfied, the brewer will serve up the attaya, each person getting just half of a small glass, so that what took a half hour to brew is consumed in thirty seconds or less.  Once the barrada has been exhausted, it is refilled and the process is started over; a total of three batches is normal, each brew slightly weaker but no less sweet than its predecessor.

In an enviornment free of coffee shops and bars, attaya serves as the social lubricant in Gambian society.  It is the common denominator that links one village to another, one tribe to all the others.  But it is hardly the only occasion that brings people together, and every once and awhile there is an event that will bring the whole village together. One example is a maanoobitoo, or marriage ceremony (as opposed to an actual wedding, which is something completely different),  and last Wednesday my friend Sankung Jammeh hosted one such event.

Jammeh Kunda is a sprawling compound packed so tightly with houses that it is a wonder they fit them all in, and I've been told that it houses more than 200 people. I arrived there in the early afternoon, and after going through the formality of greeting every single person that crossed my path--a substantial undertaking considering that much of the village was in attendance--I searched out Mama, my host mother, who was in the rear of the compound cooking food with several of the other Si Kunda matriarchs. The day's menu had but one dish, benechin, a type of fried rice that is always served on special occasions and is unequivocally my favorite Gambian meal. Given the number of mouths to feed, the women were busy cooking ludicrous amounts of benechin.  I wondered up to one of the three massive pots, each big enough to fit several small children in, and offered my help, taking up the large wooden paddle used to stir.  Another pot had just finished and, using a spoon fit for a giant, the cook ladled the steaming rice into a large plastic bucket--once filled, it took two women to hoist the bounty. It was then distributed into smaller bowls, and I was beckoned to eat. I dug my hand into the pipinghot rice and shoveled it into my mouth. It was delicious.

Later that evening I ran home and retrieved my tan tan--an African hand drum, or jembe, that I hadbought in the city of Bakau--which instantly mademe the life of the party. I sat down on a stool and started beating the drum to the basic Mandinkan rhythm I had been taught a few days prior and within seconds found myself drowning in a sea of small children, who jockeyed for position and subsequently crowded in as close as possible. Among them was a teenage girl and I motioned for her to play the drum, to which she happily acquiesced. Then, after beating the drum a short time, she beckoned for me to join in, and together we coaxed a relatively simply, yet authentic, African rhythm out of the drum, while children--and some adult women--danced in front of us. For thirty minutes we slapped the leather skin of the tan tan until my hands were sore and my clothing drenched in sweat.

I would have precious few minutes to cooldown, however, because soon a full fledged (adult) drum/dance circle had formed, and I was herded into the heart of it, much to the delight of the women. As the beat rose to a climax, I threw myself into the center and danced with every ounce of my being, certain that I looked utterly ridiculous. But thenagain, I am a tubab and everything I do is ridiculous and crazy in the eyes of my hosts.

As I walked home with my family afterwards, I couldn't help but smile and shake my head. This was my life now, the village life, and it was not nearly as threatening as I imagined it would be .  Even the Konkoran, whose sole purpose is to protect the young boys undergoing the transition to manhood (a process that culminates with their circumcision) from witches and other evil spirits, is considerably less frightening once you understand why he's there.

So later this evening, when I return home and am asked Where are the home people, I will answer as I always do, happy that I, too, am there.


Best Wishes,