Posts Tagged ‘Gambia’

First published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, April 3, 1977

POSTMARK: The Gambia


While attending Indiana University in 1975-76 we became close friends with an African named Ebou Camara. After studying for seven years in America, Ebou returned to his homeland, Gambia, at the same time we left for South America. Our departing words to Ebou were, “See you in Africa’ — and now, months later, as promised, here we are.

Ebou welcomed us into his family’s home where he lives with some of his 10 brothers and sisters and his widowed mother. But at any given time it is impossible to determine the precise number of people under the Camara roof. Like a motel, relatives filter in and out, staying a week or a month or indefinitely. No matter how distant the relative is, his visit is always accepted, for this sort of hospitality is reciprocal.

At one time the Mandinka was essentially a rural tribe. Ebou’s father, like many Mandinka peasants, left his countryside village in an exodus to the capital city area where today’s Mandinka generation now rivals the indigenous Wolof tribe. Even though many Mandinka are now urbanized, most still retain their rural cultural roots.

The Camaras live in a spacious cement house with a big sandy front yard full of mango trees and squawking chickens. Unlike most families, they have running water, a refrigerator (displayed in the living room), a toilet and other luxuries normally considered Western comforts. Despite these Western appliances, the Camaras are truly Mandinka in culture.

The domineering force at the Camaras’ is Ebou’s mother, Fanta Darba. Like many African women, she did not adopt her husband’s last name at marriage. Everyone calls her Ma (the M is heavily emphasized) and she graces her home with all the majestic grandeur of motherhood. Her children range in age from 14 to 37, yet she also attends to her flock of grandchildren.

Fanta Darba decorated her arms heavily with thin silver bracelets that clang musically whenever she walks. She also dyes her palms and feet with fudano.  At first we asked Ebou if Ma had accidentally burnt her hands cooking or something. But no, she often wraps her hands and feet in plastic with red dye taken from the leaves of the fudano tree to darken her skin. This is considered a beauty trait as well as a natural softener against dry winds.

Maternal duties for Gambian women extend even to grandmothers. Ebou’s grandmother, affectionately called Musukeba (old woman) is equally active in child care. She’s a sprite old woman of about 90, and it’s not unusual to see her pacing around with an infant tied in a cloth to her back or thrashing a naughty youngster with a bundle of twigs.

Many of the women help with the cooking, but Ma is the undisputed queen of the kitchen. The Camaras could easily afford a stove, but Ma doesn’t want such a complicated contraption in her outdoor kitchen. She prefers to stick with her traditional log fire because she knows precisely how to regulate the burning flames to simmer or boil a dish to perfection. Breakfast is routine. Each previous evening, rice and peanuts are pulverized with a pestle as large as a baseball bat in a mortar as big as an urn. The crushed millet is called tiachulo and resembles lumpy oatmeal. The family giggled at our awkward attempts to pound the grains. We were astonished at the amount of energy entailed in preparing a simple breakfast and pondered on how Quaker Oats has made mornings easy for many Americans.

One of the most fascinating aspects of living with a typical, African family is watching them pray. The Camaras are Muslim in faith and very devout at that. Each day the adults congregate outside to pray five times at separate intervals. The intriguing ritual is begun by taking a pot of water and carefully washing the hands, mouth, nose, head, eyes and feet.

Once they are cleansed, they move to their prayer mats and face east toward Mecca. Even old Musukeba and Fatou, who’s eight months pregnant, perform the sequence of standing, kneeling and bowing while reciting cryptic Arabic verses from the Koran, the Muslim bible. When the normal five-minute prayer session is over, we can resume conversation with the family.

However, for some of the elder and more devoted Muslims, the homage is not complete. They lapse into additional Arabic verses while lingering a tasabayo. This is a rosary with 100 beads entailing 100 extra recitals to their god, Allah. These devout men have a more comprehensive knowledge of Arabic than the average African Muslim, who simply parrots the language in the same way many Catholics used to chant Latin at mass without understanding it.

One of the obligations of the Islamic religion is to make a “haj” at least once in a Muslim’s lifetime. A haj is a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Ebou’s mother recently had the thrill of her life when she and a group of Gambian Muslims chartered a jet to Mecca.

One night after the evening prayers, Ma presented Colleen with a ring she had brought back as a souvenir from the holy city. Inscribed on the ring was an Arabic passage. We had to wait for the Tetsabayo prayers to end before an elderly uncle could decipher the message. His erudite interpretation hinted at pleasure in life.

The Camaras lead a simple, tranquil traditional life. We share many relaxing evenings with them lounging on straw mats in their front yard. Often they question us about our American lifestyle and we in turn are so curious about the countless unusual facets of their culture. In living with the Camaras, we are receiving an authentic taste of black Africa, and this experience is fantastically delicious.

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First published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, 1977

POSTMARK: The Gambia


The advantages of staying with an African family range from sheer enjoyment of the experience to the profound educational opportunities involved, such as the Saturday when the Camara clan invited me to a Moslem ceremony that was the equivalent of a Christian child’s baptism.

To attend the ceremony, we drove 112 miles into the hot African countryside to Mansakonko, where Fanta Camara’s eldest daughter, Ramatou, lived with her husband and five children, plus her husband’s second wife. Ramatou’s latest child was a week old, the age when a child is named.

When we arrived, there was a huge crowd on the lawn and beautiful music in the air, Ramatou’s husband is a high official so his family resides in a huge British colonial house.

I found it ludicrous that past British residents installed a fireplace in the house, probably to remind them of England, but totally useless in tropical Gambia.

All the women were found inside, lounging on beds in the bedroom, dressed up in beautiful African gowns and adorned in their finest jewelry. However, I couldn’t understand the women’s Mandika conversation and felt claustrophobic inside with so many eyes on me.

Even though it is traditional at weddings and funerals for all the women to congregate inside and the men outside, I preferred to be outdoors in the fresh air, and close to the vibrant music.

Nobody invited the musicians to the ceremony. They are known as griots, and show up at special occasions on their own, in the hopes people will bestow money on them.

They sang in raspy voices songs of the past that told a story about their ancestors. The two male griots were strumming koras, instruments similar to the guitar except the base is made of a huge round gourd larger than a basketball. The female griots rhythmically tapped metal tubes on the sides of the kora and seemingly tried to outchant their male partners.

From childhood African women wear earrings of solid gold that weigh heavily on their lobes.  The griot women had the biggest gold earrings 1 had ever seen and the holes in their ear lobes seemed large enough to slide a pencil through. The griots wanted money from me, but all I had was a grapefruit in my hand. They accepted it, and they probably would accept just about anything that was free.

Soon, Ramatou stepped outside, cradling her newborn baby. A bit of the child’s hair was cut for the mother to save and the little girl was named Aja Dalbo after a friend. (The friend has been to Mecca and women who complete the Moslem obligation of visiting the Holy City are given the title “Aja”).

After the hair was cut, all the men lapsed into a monotone chanting of verses from the Koran. They were praying that the child would endure a long life. The next thing I knew, everyone was getting up to go home. On their way, many slipped Ramatou’s husband some money. Others presented him with live chickens.  At a child naming rite, the family is obligated to slaughter some sort of animal, depending on the family’s wealth. Poor people might kill a chicken, while rich people would offer an entire cow.

At this ceremony I witnessed a ram’s throat being slit — a thoroughly gruesome sight. I was the only person grimacing, as everyone else seemed to enjoy it.

Later Ramatou served dinner to the 30 or so guests. About five or six large bowls were filled with benechin, a spicy dish composed of rice and the freshly slaughtered meat. People broke up into groups of five or six, and each group had its own bowl. Some groups ate on the porch, others in the kitchen, and others in the bedroom.

All of them sat on the floor and scooped up the rice with their hands. I was the only person given a spoon, but I refused it when 1 saw I would be the oddball.

Eating their way was fun and a novel experience for me, but due to my inexpertise in molding rice in the hand, I ended up with a pretty messy mouth. The important thing was that my stomach was full and content.

Soon after dinner, the Camaras and I went through endless handshakes and Mandika farewell greetings. Finally we departed.

On the way home we stopped at Worokang to visit other Camara relatives, and as we entered the family compound, I realized that I was probably the first white person to visit this family. All the children came running up to me, yelling “toubob” and forming a circle around me as if I were on exhibit in a circus. Some of them boldly touched me, then yanked their hands back rapidly, as if they had been given an electric shock.

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First published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, May 15, 1977

POSTMARK: The Gambia


“Roots” has raised the small West African Republic of The Gambia out of obscurity to become a household word in America.

While visiting friends here, we knew we had to see the now famous ancestral village of Alex Haley, the author of “Roots,” who painstakingly traced his geneology back to slavery days to the Kunte Kinte clan of Jeffure.

We rented a dilapidated taxi and traveled to the remote village via a bumpy, dusty, narrow road. At each small settlement we passed throngs of children came running up to the car, shouting “toubob, toubob,” the native word for white man. The excitement we aroused as toubob in the African bush was a prelude to the elaborate fanfare awaiting us at Jeffure.

When we finally arrived in Jeffure, a Mandinka village with no stores, running water or electricity, our
presence shattered the midday tranquility. A crowd of children was ready to greet us with huge smiles and outstretched arms as we stepped from the cab. They surrounded us, eagerly competing for the thrill of our handshakes.

Suddenly an old Muslim wearing a flowing gown and a red fez broke through the cordon with a ledger held reverently in his hands as if it were the holy Koran. He indicated for us to register as guests. There still weren’t many entries in the book, but among the signatures we spotted were the American ambassador to Gambia as well as reporters from Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times. We signed in proudly, as Journal & Courier correspondents.

After these initial amenities we found ourselves being escorted straight to Kunte Kinte’s compound. As we approached his home, like magnets we attracted more and more villagers until our enormous contingent overflowed into Kunte Kinte’s compound The Kintes welcomed us as if we were two long-lost relatives!

We were given seats on old wooden benches and introduced to all the Kinte clan. The sea of black bodies drowned us with smiling faces that glowed at us as if we were celebrity superstars.

Kinte was a tall man dressed in colorful native apparel. He didn’t speak English, but his glistening eyes communicated efficiently with us. He had a good set of reddish teeth that lined his mouth as firm as kernels on a cob of autumn Indian corn — the stain due to years of chewing the bitter kola nuts.
Momentarily the crowd parted to allow the “Akalo” to enter. This chief of Jeffure was an ancient man with crooked fingers and a body shaped like a question mark. He requested our autographs, then recopied our names in Arabic script.

Kinte and the chief next showed us various newspaper clippings, calling cards and photographs donated by previous guests. We had nothing to add to the collection, but decided to share a package of cookies with the group. At first only a few bold bands reached out for the rare treat, but with increasing speed more and more hands plunged into the package like attacking pitchforks. This frantic outburst subsided only after the cookies had been crushed to crumbs. The human explosion left us thoroughly dumbfounded and even a little frightened.

Like calm after an unexpected storm, the people regained their mellow composure and the incident was ignored. Before we could analyze the incredibly scene, Kinte asked us through a translator if we would enjoy native dancing.

Immediately the natives formed an orderly circle and a hollow calabash gourd was upturned in a
tub of water to serve as a drum. As soon as the baritone tempo struck the air, the women (men don’t dance to drums) began their unique ho-down. Like stationary birds in air, they fluttered their arms back and forth while stomping up and down as if the ground were on fire.

When they invited Colleen to join them, she was reluctant at first to compete with such impeccable performers. But at their insistence she was thrust into the center of the circle. As the audience cheered jubilantly and clapped enthusiastically, she released ail inhibitions and lapsed into the wild dancing as if she had been born a Mandinka.

After the dance ended, the women hugged Colleen and one of the Kintes presented her with a safo, a square leather locket containing verses from the Koran.

The festivities continued until someone advised us that transportation was scarce and we should head back to the road before dark. After a lengthy series of goodbyes and blistering handshakes, the Kintes remained at home while the other villagers accompanied us back with all the zeal of ants converging on two sugar cubes.

One woman gave us two wild fowl’s eggs, because toubobs are “supposed” to like eggs, just as the Mandinka believe that twins are “supposed” to like black-eyed peas.

On the way home we reflected on the lavish attention devoted to us as visitors. Undoubtedly, due to the “Roots” phenomenon, more and more toubobs will flock to Jeffure, making us wonder if the villagers will continue to receive all tourists as enthusiastically as they greeted us. We chuckled at their naive assumption that as Americans we were naturally good friends with Alex Haley.

But looking at it from their perspective, it’s not really so naive. Gambia is a very small country with population of less than 500,000. Coming from a county much smaller than Indiana, they probably can’t fathom the masses of people inhabiting our colossal nation. Perhaps in their limited view, Haley lives only several villages from our native village.

Less than a week after our excursion to Jeffure, Alex Haley popped up in Gambia. Accompanied by his brother, an architect, his prime mission was to present the Jeffure people with a mosque.
Another feature of Haley’s visit was a public screening of “Roots” in McCarthy Square, an outdoor grassy stadium. The movie was free, but hardly worth attending. Besides frequent film breakdowns, it was impossible to see or hear “Roots” in the same private comfort that most Americans enjoyed.
It is absurd that the human roots of “Roots” are denied a proper viewing of the film, especially since the book is still not available in Gambia.

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