The Gambia: The Art of Carrying Water on Your Head

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

I marveled that people in The Gambia always looked so clean. Although they might get dirty digging wells or working in the rice fields, or performing any number of physical chores, they bathed and changed clothes frequently. Men often wore spotless, long white kaftans when they went to mosque or on business. Impressive, since all washing was done by hand.

Traditionally, women and girls hauled the water. To pump water at our UN well, one climbed steps to a platform above the well that stood perhaps three feet from the ground. When I arrived at the pump with my two buckets, they often urged me to go ahead of them. I usually refused, saying I would wait my turn. One day I watched two girls, perhaps sisters, chatting while they filled their containers with water. The older girl, probably about twelve, filled a laundry tub; the other, maybe eight years old, a large bucket. After the older girl filled her tub, she slid it aside to the edge of the platform while the younger girl filled her bucket.

With both containers full, the girls returned to the ground and together lifted the large tub onto the older girl’s head which had a circle of cloth on it to cushion the load. Then, with that heavy load on her head, the older one helped the younger girl heft the pail of water onto her head, never spilling a drop. Throughout the whole procedure they carried on a normal conversation, pausing only briefly to heft the containers, then walked back to their compound, still chatting, the heavy containers balanced on their heads, with perhaps one arm raised to steady it.

When Gambian girls are quite young, their mothers train them to carry basins of water. We watched the young girl in our compound, Jariettu, carry water in a shallow basin from the well to their hut. At first, she spilled much of the water, but after a few months, she was able to carry her load with confidence and without spilling a drop.

No wonder Gambians have such wonderful posture.

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