"The body is the harp of the soul. It is yours to bring forth from it sweet music or confused sounds" Kahlil Gibran

Monday, January 31, 2011

Dress me up in pink and call me Momodu

It has been ages since I have been to the internet.  I have written up a few posts, I have edited them, and left what was most complete and pressing.  After this one, there is one that follows, that is of course a few weeks older.
Where will I live for the next two years? 
I just found out.  They took all of us into a room with a giant map of the Gambia with arrows to all the places we would go, and then announced things about us like a game show until we guessed who it was. We were then called up and had our pictures put next to our site for the next two years.  I will give you the extremes, of which I am one of them.  I am either the only volunteer to end up in the city or I am the most remote volunteer they have ever had, residing in the Jonkoro swamp some 15 hours away from civilization.
My mom already knows the answer to this question if you really want to find out, but I would like to leave you hanging. 
Anyhow I would much rather share with you now the story of why my name is now Momodu.  I will tell you soon where I end up.
Dress me in pink, call me Momodu, and make me dance!
If I ever write a book, I think it will have this title.  For I have in fact now been named Momodu by fate and some semblance of choice.  It has only been a few weeks in the village and I was informed that I would be given a Gambian name to assist with my integration into society and culture here. 
I am a baby here, only a few weeks old, and for a true rebirth, Gambian children are not named till some time after they are born.  At these ceremonies the whole village attends and pays homage, the baby is named, his head is shaved, and then the whole village dances for some time.  So, I was given a small amount of choice in this matter, but I would have to be named after someone in the immediate family.  All Peace Corps volunteers get named after someone in their host family, and in my case I live with a small family and was left with only three choices.  Amat – my host father who is nice, but speaks not a word of English and mumbles Wolof in a rough slang at hundreds of words a minute (needless to say I have not had many meaningful interactions with him), Malik- my younger host brother, he is about 8 and is adorable.  I have taught him to give me high fives, telling him “Jox ma Jerome” which literally means “give me five” which prompts him to follow me around giving me endless hand slaps.  Finally we have Momodu, he is 20 and is finishing senior secondary school, the equivalent of our senior in high school.   Despite incredible adversity is 2nd in his class of over 50 students, this is made even more impressive by the fact that ever year a large percentage of students are cut from school if they cannot make a high enough grade on a standardized test, which means that he is the cream of the crop.  He speaks incredible English, probably the best in the village aside from our teachers, and wants to be a meteorologist if he can get enough money for university.  I love this kid.  He spends every night helping me with Wolof, and he is always asking me American life is like. 
            So when Haddy told me I had to pick from these three names, I chose Momodu to honor him and our friendship.  I had to make Haddy assure me that I was being named after Momodu, because I understandably had misgivings about being named after the Wolof equivalent/pronunciation of Mohammad.  I told her that I was was generally uncomfortable because I didn’t want to represent a religion of which I have no part in.  Anyway, I attending a naming ceremony where most of the women of the village and some of the men came to watch the peace core trainees of the village, of which there were 8, be given their new identity in the village under their new name.  This of course included authentic African dance.
 In our case, the village was too poor to afford a real drum, so women talently played on empty water jugs called bidongs.  After sitting in a chair and having a man pretend to shave our heads clean, as if we were new babes in the village.  We sat and watched some incredible dancers make their moves in the circle.  Eventually, we were asked to come up one by one and dance in the circle.  This was terrifying to most of us.  Mike was perhaps the most awkward, as 6 ft 5 inch mammoth of 250 pounds, he thundered about and did the slow un-rhythmic tubob stomp. 
As for myself, I had been eagerly awaiting this moment for a year.  After a semester of African dance, a summer of practicing African dance, and another 6 months dreaming of what dancing in West Africa must be like waited till last.  And then when my time came, I went about as crazy as I possibly could go in the middle of the circle.  I danced every move I had ever practiced and gave every bit of myself to that circle.  This was shocking to everyone there, I am certain that the expectation was that another thundering Toubobasourus rex was going to go stamp stamp boom and then sit down.  Everyone went wild, I was quickly mobbed by children and was asked to go up and dance 3 more times with other dancers from the village.  I was nowhere near as good as many of them who had been dancing their whole lives, but I am quite sure that my spectacle was more a function of them never seeing a tall white American man dance African before. This was also enhanced because on the day of my naming ceremony, I was given a bright pink ceremonial dress called a Kaftan, and when this all came together, it made for perhaps the single most incredible cultural experience I have ever had, and certainly the most cultural exchange I could ever hope to deliver.  I am finding that the form of communication that is universal is music and dance. Despite the fact that I cannot communicate in words, I can however dance.
My fellow PCVs have mentioned that their families will constantly talk about my dance spectacle, and I am now followed by kids everywhere who yell “fechal fechal fechal” which is dance dance dance in wolof.  There is endless detail and joy in that day of dancing, very little can be remembered and transcribed in the short time that I get to knock this out on my laptop with a tiny battery life and no electricity, but I hope I gave some life to an experience that truly touched my life.

What I once thought was foreign
“Look, a pack of feral dogs” I commented to Blaine.  Feral dogs in the Gambia seem to be everywhere; they are mangy, covered in fleas, have bent tails and are so sick and malnourished that they are more pitiful than threatening.   Blaine and I were walking to our morning language lesson with our dedicated language teacher Haddy.   As we were walking, I thought how weird it would have sounded to make off hand comments about feral dogs just a few weeks ago.  Now it is already starting to take on a very common, even home like feel.   The rusted tin roofs and sandy front yards, the man hauling logs on a donkey kart, the herds of children everywhere, some with bellies protruding from various deficiencies, the bucket bath of well water, and even the pit latrine do not seem like the horror story I once feared and rather seem only like a different way of life.  The only burden I am feeling is that of expectation in trying to help these kind and generous people.  The task is of such enormity that it is already a little discouraging.  I feel like I have only a few buckets to add to the ocean of service needed to fill The Gambia full.  Health, education, environment, all have so many areas where one could dedicate years in one village to planting trees, improving hygiene practices, educating people, everything.  It is strange to say, but these people paradoxically need very little.  They already have happiness and a kind spirit, so in this way I feel it is more important that we learn from them. Disease, environmental degradation, and education are all areas in desperate need of assistance; however the people are already happy with their way of life, and with making do with what they have.  I was asking what to do with my trash to a long time volunteer and she told me to give it to the kids.  A ball of trash becomes a soccer ball and a bottle with a string tied to it will be drug through the street with laughter for hours.  Here exists a community that has bonds.  “Forget facebook, come to my compound and drink atiea (a strong and sugary green tea brew) with me.” Said Haddy, as me and Blaine described the differences of American and Gambian culture. There is a family and community unit here that is very sacred, everyone gathers outside in the front yard at all times of the day, and everyone is always greeting everyone.  
It fact greetings are the most important thing in The Gambia, if you want to get something done, you must first greet.  How are you?  How is the afternoon?   How is your family?  Is anyone sick?  How are the kids?  Does your body have peace?  There are so many greetings and they are so important that we are taking days to learning all the different ways to greet people. I am only 5 days in, but already I have started to have relatively coherent exchanges in wolof where I pick out the few words I know and then counter it with the few words I know mixed with hand gestures.  I was so excited that I was able to tell my host family that I went to the city and had a wolof lesson today, and that I was about to go run and then take a bucket bath and that then I would sit down.  It was a proud moment.
  As for the run, I have already achieved a yeti status in my village, white people are quite rare, and kids will run with me for entire miles before they get tired yelling toubob toubob (which means both outsider and white skin).  I will dedicate an entire blog post to it soon, but being called toubob all the time everyday is a little taxing.  Peace Corps volunteers who have been here a while, come up with elaborate ways of saying “I am not a tubob, I am a person, my name is ,,,  so scram kid unless you want to be polite to me” all this is of course said in a native tongue.  
          My running does allow me to greet everyone in the village and practice my wolof.  I also have kids constantly gesturing for me to come play football (soccer as I hope you know) with them.  I so far have refused because if I play soccer with kids who can somehow still play with balls of trash and tennis balls, I am certain I will lose badly.
The nights are still a bit restless; I had a nightmare about the gecko.  Mr. 15 minutes of sleep is all I can have you save on your ceiling insurance was at it again, and has taken to a loud munching sound after squeaking for a while.  This is enough to have me hallucinate in my dreams that after slamming the ceiling he came down half crazed and started chewing away at my mosquito net trying to bite me.  The nightmare lasted a good 10 minutes and included a struggle where I tried to smother it with my pillow when it finally got through.  After waking up, I went outside to empty the bladder.  At 4 in the morning, it is eerie to go outside in a West African village, it is almost deafening.  The sound of animals, feral dogs howling and snarling, goats baying, and most distinctly the donkeys. Almost every family has one, and they create a symphony in the night that was described by ET, a long time volunteer who visited us as. the tuskan raiders.  To my surprise, this is exactly what it sounds like, a whole tribe of tuskan raiders eeeehhhrrrrr hrrrrrrrrrr hrrrrrr hrrrrr hrrrr.  This gave me a good chuckle as I went back to my 15 minutes of sleep, followed by my ceiling slamming Geico commercial
Mangee Janga Olof bi, dnuka dnuka.
I am learning the Wolof language slowly slowly.

This is my after note. A few things, I am finally sleeping after finally being habituated to the gecko and I would like to say that I really want to make my next post about what village life is like here and with my family.  Also, I am hoping that I can get pictures up soon of all that I am experiencing.  I love you all and would love to hear from you in the form of letter or email, though I will say that internet is an oasis that rarely appears in this desert.

1 comment:

  1. That is so awesome that you were able to dance African Dance in West AFrica! I miss African Dance. I hope you have awesome, life changing experiences in Africa.