dispatches aperture poste restante etcetera

By Evelyn - 6 Jul, 1999

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Our plans to meet Lisa in Dakar consisted of just that—meeting in Dakar. Gregg and I didn't have a guidebook of the region yet (Lisa was bringing us an advanced copy of the new LP West Africa), and the three of us hadn't had a chance to discuss how we wanted to spend our time in Senegal. So we welcomed Ebrima's proposition to stay in his village, Dampha Kunda, in eastern Gambia a few days. Ebrima is a guide whom Lisa met upon her traumatic arrival at Dakar airport. He seemed friendly and knowledgeable and we'd had enough of the "sophisticated" Dakar city-life. A chance to visit rural village life would be welcome.

On Time

The Gambia is a country inside a country; with the exception of its' tiny Atlantic coastline, it is completely surrounded by Senegal—legacy of the colonial power carve-up. Point being that though we were barely crossing into another country, in travelling from city to village it actually felt like we had transitioned time zones. Time was like a rubber-banding.

From 20,000 feet, the "African village experience" sounded ideal. There we would see how people lived and interacted with each other and their environment. And maybe, as Ebrima assured us, we would see traditional African drumming and dance. From ground-level, the experience was some of that, but more about recognizing the way we live.

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Four days gave us a taste of the endless routine that defines life for most of the villagers. The sunrise soundtrack features roosters, donkeys, goats, and people. Women begin the day of chores with the pounding of grain. Four or five women each hold a large grinding stick and alternate raising and thrusting it into a large wooden urn, producing muffled thuds. The effect is very rhythmic and well, grounding.

Other women are stirring big pots of millet porridge and scooping the viscous substance into big kalibash bowls. Men are generally heading out into the fields before the sun gets too high, and the older ones stay behind to smoke and chat. Children crawl out slowly and help with minor chores, like shelling groundnuts (peanuts). In the heat of the day, everyone takes a rest and has tea before resuming with afternoon chores. A lot of napping goes on, as the heat can leave you with little energy to do much else.

As guests to Dampha Kunda, there was always this sense that we needed to be entertained, which loosely translated into being peripherally accompanied. Someone always led us someplace to sit, but it was limiting and awkward for them to join us. As guests, it was not their custom to let us help with chores. We were constantly in somebody's space—often, we felt, in somebody's way.

Frequently, we had an audience of children to keep us company. Nothing wrong with that, except you do tire of being watched. Because they're excitement is infectious, they close their huddle around you and soon you're too hot to move. We made little origami frogs and cranes. We played paddy-cake with the girls. At least they let us help shell groundnuts.

There is a surprising lot you can learn about yourself in this state. What it revealed was how unaccustomed we are to revoking our autonomy and control in a given situation. We are used to living over-stimulated lives and are seldom, if ever, just sitting doing nothing. The closest we get to that is watching TV. We travel to experience that which is totally different from what we're used to. Here we were, with a bounty of time in a place where we did not know how to fill it.

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We chanced upon a traditional wedding ceremony on the evening of our arrival. After a village welcome in the dark of night, we were led to the Sisei family compound to sleep. The compound was large and filled with family and friends awaiting the bride and groom. By 3am the couple still had not appeared and was questionable whether they ever would. We fell asleep to blaring Senegalese rap coming from a low-battery boombox.

The next day, we met the groom. He was happy to have visitors and led us to "see" the new bride—his third wife. She was holed up in a concrete room with nothing more than a bed and walkman. There behind her pink curtain she would stay for a 7-day week. Certain people were allowed in to visit her and relatives tended to her needs. She looked no more than 15 years of age—a little scared and a lot bored. Any time I felt time was standing still, I thought about her. What would she, and all the other young village brides, have to say about the passing of time?





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