Practicing a New Language

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Mary (Mariama) studying Mankinda


From: Tubob: Two Years in West Africa with the Peace Corps

Although it was supposed to be the rainy season, it didn’t last. We’d had a few “frog stranglers” as Bruce called them, but not nearly enough to get many of the local crops toward healthy growth.

After work one afternoon, as I made my way home I came across a man, also walking toward his village. We exchanged greetings and walked together.

The dirt path wound through a field of thin, withering millet. Although this staple grain towered above our heads, it wouldn’t produce much this year.

“This field is dry,” I commented in Mandinka. My walking companion nodded, his black face glistening with sweat. “Yes, we need more rain.”

Although the nights had been cool, daytime temperatures were again climbing. I tried not to think about the heat, now soaring close to 100 degrees. My dress stuck to my back, the long skirt caught at my legs. “It’s too bad we can’t get … water …” I groped for the correct word.

He prompted the Mandinka word for irrigation. “It is too far from the river to irrigate, Mariama.”

We stopped at a snake’s twisting track, its thick impression in the sandy soil still fresh. The Gambian held out his arm, holding me back until he determined we were out of harm’s way.

We resumed our trek. The trail narrowed and I automatically stepped behind my companion. “Couldn’t water from the river be piped in?”

“But how? Irrigation systems need motors and fuel and they are expensive.”

We reached a fork in the footpath. From the village to the right, pungent smoke from cooking fires greeted us. Voices and laughter drifted from behind woven fences.

My new friend gestured to the right. “I will go this way now.”

“Yes. Thank you for walking with me.”

“Mariama,” he called over his shoulder. “Your Mandinka is very good.”

Highly complimented, it was only then I realized my entire conversation had been in Mandinka; his had been in English. Without my realizing it, we had been practicing each other’s language.



An Unwanted Guest

Puff Adder 1From: Tubob: Two Years in West Africa with the Peace Corps

While Bruce fixed breakfast, I swept the hut. As usual, I swept the bed. Even though we had stretched a cloth over the bed as a canopy, droppings from the grass-thatched roof still landed on the bed sheet. As I stooped my way around the room with my short broom, I picked up the laundry bag and stopped, broom suspended. There, tightly coiled, a small eight-inch snake glared at me.

“Ah, Bruce?” I called.


“Would you come here?”

He could tell from my tone that something was up. He bounded over to the hut. I held up my hand in caution, and then pointed to our unwanted guest.

“Oh, boy. I’ll be right back.”

“Bring a jar.”

He came back with a jar and his machete. Setting the jar a distance away from either of us, he carefully slid the flat side of the machete under the snake and slipped it into the jar, then quick as a flash reached over and screwed on the lid. After poking holes in the lid, we admired our catch.

Our neighbor Mosalif stopped by and viewed the snake from a distance.

“Can you get word to Peter Moore to come here?” Peter was a good friend of ours who worked in The Gambia for the British Medical Research Council. “We don’t know what kind of snake this is, do you?”

Mosalif shook his head and hurried off to get someone to tell Peter Moore we wanted him. I couldn’t believe how quickly Peter arrived. Within minutes he pulled up in his Land Cruiser.

He studied our snake. “This is a puff adder. Very deadly. Even though this one is quite young, his bite could kill. What I’m wondering,” he said in his dead-pan British clip, “is where are the other dozen or so? This one is too young to be far from its mother and siblings.”

Gulp! Several of us scoured the compound’s huts and grounds. To our dismay, ours was the only one found.

Peter asked permission to take the snake home to test it for malaria, as part of his research. He brought it back in a neat little specimen jar, pickled for eternity.

News spreads quickly in Africa. For the next several days we had a steady stream of people coming to our door asking to see our pickled puff adder.


Market Day in The Gambia

Ch-26-RGB 2From: Two Years in West Africa with the Peace Corps


Waves of 100-degree heat shimmered off the rice fields as I walked the two miles to market. Carrying my small back pack, a few recycled plastic bags, a quart-size porcelain bowl, and a small glass jar, I slowly passed a tired donkey plodding along, his head hung low, as he pulled a heavy cart loaded with sacks of millet. With each step I took, puffs of red dust settled on my legs and sandaled feet.

Market day in West Africa is a far cry from a quick run to Safeway in Seattle. It’s an adventure.

As Peace Corps volunteers serving in The Gambia, a small West African country, my husband Bruce and I lived as our hosts lived. We hauled our own water from the well, swept our mud-brick hut with a short locally-made straw broom, cooked our own meals, and bought our supplies at the open market and small stores. We didn’t have personal transportation, so we did as the local people and walked every place we went.

I heard my name called as I trudged along.

“Mariama! Salaam Malekum!” The name, Mariama, is the African version of my real name, Mary. The traditional Arabic greeting, Salaam Malekum, is heard throughout West Africa. It means “May peace be with you.”

“Malekum Salaam, Naba,” I answered the friendly African woman. She fell in step with me and we conversed in Mandinka, one of five local languages and the one Bruce and I learned during Peace Corps training.

I found Gambian women to be extraordinary. Their lives were not easy–they worked hard under very difficult conditions. Their strong bodies and graceful bearing impressed me. Typically, Naba carried a baby straddled across her back. Her wide-awake little son observed his world while held close to his mother’s warm body. When he became hungry, the woman simply switched him around to her breast. At the market, Naba and I parted, each to her own errands.

I’ll go to the meat market first, I decided with dread. The butcher’s shop, a small mud-brick building with a corrugated tin roof, was somewhat removed from the regular market. A large concrete counter separated the butcher from his customers. Goat, sheep, and beef carcasses hung from the ceiling. I tried to ignore the dead-animal smell.

The meat market crowd pushed their way to the counter. I, too, elbowed my way through the crowd. Whack! A hunk of beef fell off the carcass, severed with a mighty machete blow. Splat! Bits of meat and bone splattered on my dress and neck. Cringing, I held fast to my hard-fought place. Several flies left the main event, the beef carcass, and landed on me.

The butcher spoke a little English. “What you want?”

“Biff stek, please,” I answered. In The Gambia, previously a British-held colony, many words sound English but are pronounced with a local dialect. Whacking off a piece of meat for me, he placed it in my porcelain bowl. Then, as a treat, he dropped in a little pile of wrinkled tripe (cow’s stomach). Trying to show gratitude, I smiled, but knew I wouldn’t eat it, but I’d give it to our neighbor. As I left the meat market, my personal flies came too. I considered the benefits of becoming a vegetarian.

Fragrances bombarded me as I entered the main market, a large open-sided structure. Spices, sold by the bulk, were lined up in little bins. Large flat baskets displayed fresh roasted peanuts. The peanut vendor tore a scrap of paper–any type of paper–and folded a little package to hold the peanuts, still warm from an earthen oven. We briefly haggled over the price, an expected exchange, and I dropped the equivalent of a dime into his hand.

A baker sold piles of fresh baguettes. The earthy aroma of yeast permeated the air. Pankettas, flat yeast dough deep-fried in palm oil, quickly disappeared, breakfast for many shoppers.

I skirted around unpleasant smelling, fly-covered dried fish. We never bought it, though we’d eaten it in Gambian cooking and found it tasted as bad as it smelled. The fresh fish was lovely though and the catfish appeared to still be breathing. Anything that’s still breathing must be fresh. I bought a catfish, slipping it into one of my plastic bags.

Chickens roamed freely, pecking at the ground. Some weren’t so lucky and hung upside down, feet tied to a rod. They never seemed to struggle, awaiting their fate. As I shopped, I saw many women carrying live chickens in the crook of their arms as they conducted their shopping business.

Noise rose to an astonishing level when a bush taxi’s horn beeped as riders were dropped off. Donkeys brayed as they arrived with their heavy loads. Gambians often talked in a loud boisterous manner and now they shouted to be heard. Children darted about, squealing with their games.

Treadle sewing machines click-clacked in the background. There were no ready-made clothing shops in the village where we lived. When the need arose for a new dress or shirt, one bought the material and described to the tailor the style desired. Because of the heat, clothing was generally loose-fitting so exact measurements weren’t required, but these skillful tailors created an amazing variety of garments on their treadle machines.

I eagerly learned what vegetables were available that day. With no cold storage, the availability of most vegetables depended on the season. Tomatoes were available five months of the year, lettuce only about two months. One of our favorite vegetables, okra, was sold about nine months of the year. All year long squash was available as well as imported onions and potatoes.

Friendly women called my name, urging me to come to their attractive displays and buy the vegetables they had grown. Some men sold items too, usually businessmen who bought imported food to sell at the market.

Approaching one of my regular vendors, I admired her tomato display. Most fruits and vegetables sold by the pile, not by the pound. Each pile of five tomatoes displayed a similar assortment, perhaps one large, two medium, and two small tomatoes, in various stages of ripeness. One selects an entire pile, not one from this pile, one from that. I purchased two piles and a piece of squash.

A large rat streaked by my sandaled feet with a cat hot on its trail. Cats fend for themselves so catching that rat was serious business.

I spotted oranges, also arranged in piles of five. Although ripe, the oranges were green. Their tough skins required a sharp knife to peel. Once I counted fifty-two seeds in a single orange.

I remembered I needed rice and crossed to the other side of the market where a vendor sat next to a burlap bag. The man measured rice into my plastic bag, using a tomato paste can as his measuring device. Rice was grown locally, thanks to the Chinese who taught Gambians to cultivate this essential product. It was good rice but didn’t keep well. After a week or so it turned wormy and then it became chicken fodder. Our chickens loved it.

I needed flour. A warning stenciled on the side of the 50-pound flour sack read, “This is a gift from the United States of America. Not to be sold.” I purchased two scoops and moved on.

I had the feeling of being watched. Now I looked around quickly and sure enough, there she was, peeking out from behind a post. It was a game we played, the peanut-butter lady and I. Either she would sneak up on me, or I tried to come up behind her. We giggled like little girls at our joke. This delightful, tiny woman, beamed a huge smile showing beautiful white teeth. Her family grew peanuts and stored them for use during the year. Before going to market, she pressed fresh-roasted peanuts into a paste.

There was nothing more delicious than this fresh peanut butter, which they called peanut paste. Gambians prepare a sauce with it, called domoda, adding tomato paste and perhaps a bit of meat, spiced with hot peppers, and served on rice. Scrumptious! They couldn’t believe we spread peanut paste on bread, nor could they believe how much we bought! I held out my jar into which she plopped five two-inch balls, plus one more as a gift.

The market loomed bigger than life. The smells, noise, heat, and activity, seemed
to be the essence of these people. I considered the market to be The Gambia boiled down to the essentials. One struggled to conduct business, haggling over prices, jostling crowds, suffering with the heat and flies, but this ritual highlighted my week. While buying provisions, I’d visited with friends and shared with them their ancient marketing tradition.


Building a Mud-Brick Stove

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Mud-brick stove under construction

From: Tubob: Two Years in West Africa with the Peace Corps

The Sahara Desert encroaches closer to The Gambia each year. The need for firewood for cooking, plus drought conditions have created a scarcity of trees. Women and children often walk great distances to gather enough wood for fires.

My husband Bruce longed for projects where he could feel more productive. In reading about alternative energy at the Peace Corps library, he learned about building a stove which would use less fuel than an open fire.

Along the meandering path we used to go into Basse, we passed a place where men made mud bricks. The soil had to be the right mixture of clay and sand to make usable bricks. We watched as they dug up the clay mixture and patted it into molds, then left them to dry in the sun. The mud bricks were used to build huts and smaller structures for grain and peanut storage. The bricks would eventually melt or crack, but their lives could be extended if covered with a thin layer of concrete.

Bruce bought a supply of the mud-bricks and they were delivered by a donkey-pulled cart. He had talked to Binta and her husband Mosalif about his project and discussed where in the compound a good place would be to build the stove. The firebox was about three feet long, eighteen inches wide. Bruce borrowed Binta’s two cooking pots so that he could make openings in the top to exactly fit her pots.

It was our hope that this idea would catch on and others would make this simple stove. The firebox, closed on three sides and sealed on top with the cooking pots, required far less fuel than an open fire. A small chimney directed smoke away from the cook’s eyes.

Days went by, but Binta didn’t use her new stove. Finally, Bruce asked Mosalif why.

“I must build a building around it,” Mosalif replied. Traditionally, the Fula don’t cook in the open. We were aware that there were covered cooking areas, but we had also seen many Mandinka and Wolof cooking in the open, though not the Fula. Binta’s current cooking area was the space between walls of her hut. In our hut, that space was where we took our bucket baths.

Many times I had called on Binta and sat in that space while she cooked. It was unbelievably hot and the smoke made my eyes burn. The next weekend Mosalif gathered the materials, grass for thatched roofing, and krinting, such as used for fencing, for the walls. A couple of his friends helped him build the cook hut around the new stove.

Finally, the day came when Binta cooked her first meal on the stove. They were impressed with how much less fuel it took and by how much faster she could fix a meal. Although a few village people did come to look at it, unfortunately the idea didn’t catch on.

Not a Pretty Sight

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Basse Health Center


From Tubob: Two Years in West Africa with the Peace Corps


A mother and her daughter, perhaps ten years old, came into the hospital led by the dresser dispenser (pharmacist). He spoke with Sister Roberts, the head nurse who had been educated in England. The four of them went into the treatment room and the dresser dispenser left.

I heard a piercing scream and, much to my amazement, saw Sister Roberts, still screaming, run out of the room, hands flapping by her head. I left my work station and rushed in, just in time to see whitish pink roundworms pouring out of the girl’s mouth and nose. The girl continually gagged while the mother held her daughter’s head, steadying her.

Apparently, this wasn’t the first episode and was the reason the mother brought her daughter to the health center. The girl, crying, stopped gagging for the moment. About the time I entered the room, a nurse mid-wife also came in. I admired her calmness; it was a terrible sight. She asked me to stay while she talked to the dresser dispenser. I gingerly patted the girl’s back, murmmering words of comfort, but all the while terrified that she would have another episode. The nurse soon returned with piperazine tablets that the dresser dispenser had folded into a scrap of paper. The nurse gave the girl six tablets, together with water. Only this one treatment would be necessary.

The nurse explained to the mother that worms could be prevented by washing hands often, especially after using the latrine. Although this sounds pretty basic, it’s a challenge when there is no running water.

When I returned to my work station, Sister came back into the room and apologized to me. “I’m sorry, Mariama, that was terrible of me. It was just so awful. I’m already queasy with my pregnancy and….” Her voice trailed off.

I tried acting nonchalant. “I’ve never seen anything like that. Just one treatment will take care of the worms? That’s impressive.”

“Yes, just one treatment. I hope my child never does that. But if she does, I will not scream and run away. Not again.”

Working in Sub-Saharan Africa


From: Tubob: Two Years in West Africa with the Peace Corps


The heat in The Gambia, in Sub-Saharan Africa, made life difficult.

When my husband Bruce and I first arrived in our village of Mansajang, where we lived for two years, women often asked me where my “hat” was, meaning head-scarf. I couldn’t imagine wearing one more thing in that heat. The African women artfully wrapped a length of cloth around their heads. Binta, a woman in our compound, tried to put one on me. With my slippery hair, a scarf wouldn’t stay on, but the effort gave us a good laugh. I had a scrap of material left over from having a dress made and I fashioned a triangular piece of cloth into a scarf that I could tie in the back. I couldn’t believe how much cooler I felt not to have the sun beating down on my head. On extremely hot days, I sometimes soaked the scarf in water before wearing it and that cooled me even more, though it quickly evaporated.

I understood why so much didn’t get done. It was difficult to work in that heat. If it wasn’t the heat, we still couldn’t do what we wanted to accomplish due to lack of supplies. At the UN shop where Bruce worked, shortages prevented projects from completion. At the Health Centre, I often couldn’t visit villages because they only had enough fuel to go on scheduled clinic treks.

At times I felt overwhelmed with the little I could do. I expressed my discouragement to Bruce. His job was actually far more frustrating than mine. Between the heat and lack of supplies, our tasks sometimes seemed overwhelming. Talking about it helped and each time we came to the same conclusion: all we could do was give it our best. We both knew our best wasn’t enough.

A Picture for Tombong

Ch-22-RGB 2From:  TUBOB: Two Years in West Africa with the Peace Corps

In the many huts I entered, if there were pictures at all, they were portraits of people, never scenery or artwork. Many huts had no pictures. In a poor country, pictures are a luxury.

My husband’s parents frequently sent us several developed prints made from Bruce’s slides. We didn’t see the slides ourselves, since we had them sent from Kodak directly to the folks. It was always wonderful to see our pictures. Normally those prints his parents sent were some of the best ones that they thought we should see. In some cases, we’d asked them to send us extra copies so we could give them to our Gambian friends.

The folks sent us an exceptionally good portrait of our good friend Tombong, shirtless and muscular. Taken in the evening light, the picture had an unusual golden glow. We decided to have it framed.

We found the Gambian method of picture framing unique. They cut pieces of glass somewhat larger than the picture. In this case, we mounted Tombong’s picture on a piece of blank paper. The framer encased the mounted picture between two pieces of glass and then skillfully taped the glass together with red electrical tape. Then, the framer hand painted flowers in each corner, giving the appearance of a frame. As he did this, a crowd gathered to see what the tubobs were doing.

“Tombong,” I heard many people murmur. Probably two dozen people had gathered to watch the picture framer at work.

That was at the end of a day. We wondered how long it would be before word got to Tombong.

The next morning I saw him coming our way, his steps very quick. He rarely walked that fast. As we greeted one another, I could see his eyes dart to our walls.

“We have something for you, Tombong.”

“Yes.” Though old by African standards, Tombong showed the anticipation of a child at Christmas.

Bruce handed him the picture, wrapped in brown paper. I was surprised to see tears spring to Tombong’s eyes when he opened the package. “Oh, my. Oh, this is fine. Now I will have something to give to my son. He looked at each of us in turn. “Thank you, thank you.”

Desperate for Rain

umbrellaFrom: TUBOB: Two Years in West Africa with the Peace Corps


The Gambia was desperate for rain. Flashes of heat lightning and thunderclaps teased us with promises, but other than a few scattered raindrops, no real rain. Even Africans complained of the heat and the thirsty crop’s need for rain.

Our Peace Corps friend Nathaniel invited his colleague Norman to Basse for a work related meeting and invited us to join them for dinner afterward at Jobot’s All Necessary Foods. The walk into Basse was especially humid, hot and sticky. I could almost feel rain in the air.

I grumbled to Bruce. “I couldn’t feel any wetter if it actually rained.”

He agreed. “I’ll bet before the end of this evening, we’ll have rain.”

It couldn’t be too soon for us. We had our usual great dinner at Jobot’s, making a big effort to ignore the heat. We headed over to Pa Peacock’s White House Fuladu East Bar for a cold drink. We’d been there for only a few minutes when it finally came, a few tentative drops, and then a deluge.

Bruce and I stepped outside and stood in the rain, laughing and getting soaked to the skin.

Most Gambians don’t like to get wet and will take great steps to avoid it. Nathaniel and Norman stood in the doorway watching us, amused. An African fellow watched with them and said to Nathaniel, “What’s wrong with those people?”

“They’re from Seattle,” Nathaniel replied.

Dodging Longhorns in The Gambia

From: TUBOB: Two Years in West Africa with the Peace Corps

After work one day I walked to the farmers’ market with a long list of items we needed. Heading home, I tried not to think about the heat and the heavy pack on my back. Instead I planned our Easter dinner. Absorbed in my thoughts, I trudged along the winding path. Suddenly I stopped in my tracks. A large herd, maybe fifty head or so of longhorn cattle, grazed on the scrub grass, completely blocking the path.

To turn around and go back to take the road home would add at least a mile to my walk, not appealing in that heat. I looked around for a Fula herdsman, but didn’t see him, though I was sure a herd this size wouldn’t be here on its own. Most cattle, especially this many, were owned by the Serahule tribe, but herded by a Fula tribesman. Well, I’d just take my chances. I walked down the dusty path, talking softly so I wouldn’t startle them.

“Hi, guys,” I murmured. “I’m just going to slide right by you here.” I kept watching out for those long horns, hoping one wouldn’t stick me. Almost as worrisome was being swished by a shitty tail.

“Okay, here I am, just step aside.” I kept my voice low key, almost a whisper. A few of the cows mooed at me, some sort of grunted. None were alarmed, though they rolled their huge eyes at me. A few stepped out of my way; others let me step around them. Flies from the cattle landed on me, but I concentrated on not waving them off, trying not to make sudden moves. Churned-up dust settled on my shoulders and hair. I walked perhaps a quarter of a mile through the scattered herd before reaching the other side of them.

At one point along the path, a small hill rose on one side. From the hill I heard, “Abete ata bake, Mariama!” Well done, Mariama!

I looked up and saw the herdsman sitting in the shade. He waved. I waved back. The poor guy probably had held his breath the whole time I wove my way through the cattle, expecting to have to pry me off one of those long horns.

For weeks afterward, I heard about that incident. Word spread like locusts in a maize field. Woman couldn’t imagine why I would do such a thing. Men thought I was probably just ignorant of what could have happened to me. I kept telling everyone who questioned me that it was just too hot to turn around and go home the long way.

What Did That Drum Just Say?

From: Tubob: Two Years in West Africa with the Peace Corps

Woman at traditional well

The UN well in front of our compound was a popular watering hole for all of Mansajang. Although the village proper did have a water spigot, it often didn’t work and when it did, people complained of the water’s taste. All day long, women and girls came to the UN well to fill their tubs and pails of water, carrying the heavy loads on their heads as they returned to their compounds.

Because washing clothes has such a high demand for water, many women washed clothes right there at the well, then carried their clean wet clothes home to hang on their compound fencing. They used the local soap, OMA, made from peanut by-products. My husband Bruce became concerned about soap residue filtering through the soil into the well water.

He made a circle of rocks around the well a safe distance away and asked the women to wash clothes outside the circle and explained that this would keep the well water clean. It made more work for them, having to haul their heavy tubs farther from the water source, but they obliged him when he was there, and promptly went back to their former habits when he wasn’t. Bruce patiently reminded them with good natured banter. The problem, of course, was that the women didn’t understand they were jeopardizing their own water supply.

One evening a man from Mansajang called on us and asked Bruce to talk to the village about safe water. Probably, this particular man was sent because he could speak English. Apparently the village elders had gotten wind of a problem with the well and wanted everyone to understand. Delighted, Bruce accepted his invitation.

“What time should we be there?” I asked.

Surprised with the question, the fellow answered, “After evening prayers. You’ll hear the drum.” Gambians had a different sense of time than we did. Watches or even clocks were rare. Activities centered around Muslim call of prayers five times a day. When it was time, people, mostly men, stopped what they were doing, brought out their prayer mats, faced Mecca to the east, and prayed.

A word about the drums. Three basic types of drums are common in The Gambia: the rhythm drum, used for dancing; the ceremonial drum, used for more serious things such as funerals or other somber events; and the talking drum. The talking drum has a sort of “boink, boink” sound to it with varying pitches. People understand the talking drum, as they understand their language, whether it be Mandinka, Wolof, or any of the tribal languages. The talking drums provide tremendously efficient communication, especially in areas where there are no telephones

Knowing that we would hear the drum, we agreed to be at the village meeting place.
Sure enough, we heard the drum soon after we’d finished our dinner. We walked to the center of Mansajang, perhaps a half mile away. The meeting place, a raised platform under a giant baobob tree, was devoid of people. One lone person walked by. In Mandinka, I greeted the man, then said, “Where are the people?”

“The people aren’t here.” Such a typical response. I never got used to it. The man resumed his walk.

“But we heard the drum. We are here for the meeting,” I called after him.

He turned to look at me, shook his head and tsked. “The drum said there was no meeting.”

Apparently one of the village’s important people couldn’t attend so the meeting had been postponed.

Gambians found it hard to believe that we could understand, or “hear,” Mandinka, but we couldn’t “hear” the drums. I’m sure in their eyes we were so hopeless.