Mmang daalo kumbo nga mira na taala nña le la. I don’t cry because we are so familiar with one another, but I think about how our separation will be.-Mandinka Proverb
If you would have told me initially that leaving village at the end of service would have been the hardest part of Peace Corps, I doubt I would have believed you. Especially in the beginning, especially on the more demanding days and the homesick ones. I never could have imagined that the driving away from village would be infinitely harder than driving towards it for the first time. I remember getting dropped off in the beginning in the middle of the night, wondering what I had gotten myself into, the early weeks of finding contentment and comfort. Those seem painless now.
The past few weeks have passed by in an indistinguishable blur, studded only by milestones and events that have defined by life here: Seeing my friend Kikingking’s new baby girl Safiatou for the first time, impetigo in both ears and all over my face, watching Bubakary sit up for the first time, the night it felt as though cold season had finally come, some friends coming to visit, lunches in the market with the women whose produce I frequent, seeing downtown Basse completely underwater, sleepovers in my hut with my kids, and a few naming ceremonies and funerals. There was the day Nano plaited my hair to make sure I looked beautiful when I arrived in America (and those braids were taken out the second I got to Kombo). And the evening I spent sitting under a mosquito net until the middle of the night while my friend Ntou taped and covered my feet with West African Henna. There was the afternoon Bubakary projectile pooped all over my already-packed bags (A sign of a safe journey with no troubles, I’m told.)
Otherwise, I felt only a strange melancholy. My thoughts were only on leaving and envisioning the inevitably awful goodbyes. I tried to enjoy every minute, to relish the long-awaited victory of speaking a common language, knowing names and understanding rituals and habits. And I tried to soak in the moments that have made me the happiest here: holding my babies and watching the sun rise in the bush every dawn and set over the soccer field every evening. But I had a sensation of just wanting to leave, to rip off the band-aid and get home and process my service. For me, anticipation is often the worst emotion and when my time in village dipped below one month, much of my enjoyment was replaced by the anticipation of leaving and chats about how lonely everyone will be.
While I was processing my emotions, my friends and family in Taibatou were processing their own and I noticed hints of melancholy in routines and conversation. Hawa started to push me away, and a somewhat distant alter ego replaced her warm demeanor. Molamin kept on telling me, “Mariama ning I tata, m be kamfala.” Mariama, when you leave, I will be angry. Or even worse, “Mariama ning I tata, m be kumboo la.” Mariama when you leave, I will cry. Edrisa pulled me aside to tell me how much he was going to miss me. Lawo desperately tried to have me configure email on the phone he doesn’t know how to work. Fanta sent the girls from Basse to see me. Karimoo kept on staring at me, shaking his head, and saying “No no no no no.” A little less than a week before I was picked up, I bought Kola Nuts, the ceremonial nut that is distributed when men ask a Father for her daughter’s hand and a stranger is announced in the village. In this case, I wanted them to be distributed to the elders as a symbol of my gratitude and to tell the village I was going to depart. From that Friday, at those 2 o’clock prayers, my leaving became inevitable. Throughout the week, people would come to visit, to give me their hand, and issue prayers. In the few evenings before my departure, older women who have been my best friends came to sit and chat as yellow light bathed their beautifully weathered faces. What shocked me the most was what they had said. Almost no one mentioned my work. They remembered the day I was pooped on by one of the babies in their compound, the day I cooked lunch with them, the day I fell in the mud and we laughed together. They remembered the days I didn’t speak Mandinka and mixed up words like “Cold” and “Pee” or “Cat” and “Crazy Person” and the evenings we walked the bush together. The last week brought back memories I had forgotten about but people in village still cherished and I could barely believe that my habits like stopping to greet Junduba when I go to the road or going around with Mafanta to bathe newborns, like putting Bubakary on my back to go into village or carrying water for a woman at the tap were the things I spoke about during last conversations. It was a beautiful, heartfelt way to reflect on my service and seemed so fitting as I ended my time.
I don’t know how many times I have cried the past few weeks. I bawled while I translated a letter from my friend who left 7 months ago to her family. I cried saying goodbye to each compound I have come to love, where the women would comfort me by saying “Mariama, don’t cry. Crying is not good!” right before they burst into tears. I cried while I laid next to my little ones in my hut my last night, their deep melodic breaths in slumber and my own gasping ones in hysteria. My family was husking corn the day before I left while I laid on a mat, tears streaming down my face, Fanta laying next to me saying “Mariama you’re making me crazy!” All the while I was thinking, I will never have this again, I will never speak Mandinka in this way, I am saying goodbye to this life and these people and it seems somewhat permanent. But the worst was the morning I left.
Peter, my driver, called me at 6 to let me know he was on the road. He was driving a bush road because the ferry to Basse was closed and I knew my hours in village were short. I woke with the stars and I woke my sleepy children to go out to pray and heard Hawa in the smoky kitchen shack crying. I tried to embrace her and found, as I have over the past few weeks, that Gambian women will pull away, instead of leaning in to be comforted. Hawa handed me the baby, who giggled when he saw me and I kissed him over and over while I watched the sun rise over the bush. We ate hot millet porridge, and sat in silence. I finished packing. I ran into the village for last goodbyes and cried the whole time, when the Alikalo’s mother took my hands to deliver powerful prayer and when the elders of the old compound prayer for me in unison, when my favorite kids ran to me for one last time and when women told me how they miss me already. And when the vehicle finally pulled up, the women and their children from around the area ran to my compound, stood in my doorway and stared at me. We cried and we embraced and I held their babies and said Abaraka bake!!! Over and over, knowing that Thank you was an understatement for the gratitude I feel for my time in Taibatou. The women swarmed the car, and I panicked because Karimoo had gone to the bush, Yusupha and Haja were still at school, and I hadn’t said goodbye to everyone. Peter took my things as I walked around in what seemed like circles for what seemed like hours. I took Molamin in my arms and he wrapped his around my neck and I kissed his head and whispered, “I love you.” I found Lawo hiding on the other side of my hut and my Mothers sitting together, their faces wet with tears, their eyes unable to meet mine. I kissed them and I hugged Lawo and issued a Fo Waati Do, Until next time, to the crowd of four dozen that had gathered as I got in the front seat, deciding that I could stand there all day but it was time to go. We pulled away as some more women were arriving, and I blew them kisses as they burst into tears. We ran into Yusupha on the way to the road and I kissed his head and he ducked his head to allow tears to stream. Peter told me I could stop where I wanted, but I told him to keep going, because I knew that I could cry and say goodbye all day long. We continued to the bush road to take us towards Basse, and I cried the entire way to the city I’ve come to know best. Peter held my hand and told me that he was dreading coming to get me because he knew how my goodbye would be. I sit here writing, crying again, mending a broken heart from leaving so many people I love, but also knowing that leaving with any other emotion would mean my service wasn’t as meaningful as it could have been for me.
And here I am in Kombo, a place that was once so comforting because it was the closest thing I, we all, have to America. But the air conditioner whirs and I wonder whether the hot days in village were really so bad and I drink my water with ice with nostalgia for the clay jar which cooled my water. The silence here seems too quiet, and I miss the donkeys that cried outside of my door and the babies that did the same, the call to prayer and Mandinka chatter. The comforts here are not as nice as they once were and now that America is at the tips of my fingers, a concept I longed to grasp during difficult days, I don’t necessarily feel the same urgency to get there as I once did. It’s not to say I’m not ready to see my loved ones, to celebrate the holidays and catch up with those I have missed for two years. It’s just that I don’t think I ever realized how much this place could have seeped into my soul and leaving is something that I underestimated.
I could and I do intend to return. But it likely won’t be for years, and much will have changed. My Mandinka will leave me, my body will forget the warmth, and I will revert to old habits and ways and the mindset where the urine of a newborn makes me cringe and greeting dozens of people stresses me. I will lose the rhythm my body has adapted to of fetching water and releasing my mosquito net over my bed, of swinging a baby into position to wrap him on my back and folding rice between my fingers into circular form.
It’s funny how my service started and ended with what seem like bookends. I laid on a bantaba with the kids in my training compound, looking at the stars, exactly what I did with Hawa Dingding and Molamin on my last nights. We took the same, unpaved and wretched but simultaneously beautiful and peaceful road to my village for the first time and back away for the last. I distributed Kola nuts to announce my arrival and then, two years later, my departure. The women who came to greet me, the people who eased me out of village, were the same who welcomed me. I will always remember those early days of overwhelming emotion. Only the beginning was filled with hesitation and the end with the absolute certainty that I was where I needed to be for the past two years. Nothing could have prepared me for my service, and for what has turned out to be nothing less than a perfect two years.
Gratitude is an understatement for how I feel, to the people in Taibatou who loved me as one of their own, to my host family for welcoming me as a daughter and sister, to my family and friends in America who supported me along the way. I am in awe of the kindness of humanity, I am mending a broken heart, I am excited to see those I have left behind and am forever indebted to The Gambia for changing me.
With love, with appreciation
P.S. I will continue to post the last few blogs I never was able to get to during my service. Until then, Fo Waati Do.