Thursday, November 23, 2006


A space in the fields under a mango tree had been cleared; a full twenty-eight days of fasting had past; and the moon was spotted the night before. Koriteh, the huge Muslim celebration that follows Ramadan, was upon us. Just after 9:30am the village alikalo led a procession of villagers from his house to the clearing in the field. Leading the procession were the old men, followed by the young men, then the old women and children. Somewhere near the back were two small boys lugging the village drum that was being beaten by 2 slightly larger boys. The thick rope twapping on the 2-foot deep dome were staccato accents to the low mumble of Quranic recitation. It’s an ominous sound when recited en masse. Wearing my sisters bright yellow complet (a matching skirt, blouse and head wrap) and donning my camera and extra rolls of film, I grabbed the hand of my neighbor’s child and made my way to the clearing. I was the only women there of reproductive age; I have bright white skin which was partially covered by a bright yellow outfit and a massive camera hanging from my shoulder; and I am not a Muslim. Had I not received the blessing of the Imam ahead of time, I would have been too embarrassed to go. I tiptoed through the greetings with my male friends, conscious not to cross any religo-social boundaries. Islam has a huge gray area when it comes to male-female relationships. (This is due to the discrepancy between what the Quran says and the example set by the Prophet Mohammed, which is very practical and what the West would consider liberal, and what the institution of Islam requires, which is very conservative). I stuck to the back with the women and children, didn’t smile too big or make prolonged eye contact with the men, and only shook hands with those who gave their hand first. I was most highly welcomed by the people as the purely curious visitor that I was and almost every man shook my hand.
The Alikalo and his people were the first in the procession. They were followed by another influential clan, and another influential clan, and another… Each of the important clans started a procession and Quranic recitation from their homes (but only the Alkali’s clan had a drum). The Imam’s clan was the concluding clan to make an entrance. The people from the section of the village where the slave caste lives straggled in behind the procession of influential clans. Everyone was seated in rows on prayer rugs and mats under the shade of the mango tree. The Imam sat front and center, ahead of everyone else. The first row of people behind him was reserved for the prestigious old men of the community. In the middle of that row, directly behind the Imam, sat the Alikalo. The members of the council of elders and the leaders from the small surrounding “suburban” villages sat beside him to complete the row. The remaining of the men were seated more-or-less oldest to youngest, leaving the 8 year olds on the edge of the shade nearest to the scorching late morning sun. A little ways behind them, under the shade of a second mango tree sat the small contingent of old women. The young girls sat behind the old women at the pack of the prayer ground. All heads were covered. Once everyone was seated and those with cameras took their snapshots, the ceremony began. As with all gatherings, it was started with a general blessing. After the opening blessing everyone rose for the main prayer. They stood. They bowed. They stood. They kneeled to press their foreheads to the ground. They sat. They pressed their foreheads to the ground. They stood. They repeated this several times in perfect unison on the orchestration of the Imam.
After the prayer the children were excused and the adults readjusted themselves and chatted a bit. As the children laughed and played their way home, six of the men from the front row stood up and formed a circle. They began to drape big white cloths over each other. When they were finished it looked like a circle of kids at a sleepover who put a sheet over their heads to tell ghost stories. Once the men were shrouded, everyone took their seats and the mummer died down. The next fifteen minuets proceeded like a call-and-respond song. The shrouded men orated a long chant which was intermittently interrupted by a responding chant orated in perfect unison by the masses. It was beautiful, but all in Arabic so I didn’t understand the content. The men were deshrouded and another wave of people started home, greeting everyone, asking for forgiveness, granting others forgiveness and giving charity on the way. “Will you forgive me?” “Your heart is clean. Will you forgive me?” “Your heart is clean.” What was left was an informal gathering of the leadership of Sanunding. Some of the old women also stuck around and moved under the shade of the first mango tree, though far enough back to not participate in the discussion. The rows turned into more of a circle and the Alikalo took over from the Imam and the language switched from Arabic to Jahanka, signifying a distinct transition from the religious to the political. The Alikalo gave a long speech and prayed for everyone, including a very long prayer for me specifically, and gave praise to the history and tradition of each of the founding families. The Alikali’s speech was followed by a lively political debate, mostly about the construction of the new clinic. Village politics is always decided by consensus, never by voting. Therefore, once an idea is presented, only the dissenters speak and are responded to until there are no more dissenters. The women were welcome to listen in to the entire debate, but were not welcome to participate. (Women often participate at a latter time when one man comes to represent the ideas discussed at a meeting to the entire women’s group. They ask their questions and have their own debate at that time). The meeting concluded with a blessing and the homeward bound procession began. This time the procession was lead by the Imam instead of the Alikalo and it exited the prayer grounds on the southern path (which leads straight into the Imam’s compound) instead of the northern path (which leads straight to the Alikali’s compound). After we walked the Imam home and prayed for him at his door, we walked the Alikalo home. Much to my surprise, the next and final person we walked home was my father. After we prayed for him, little candies that had been bought with the charity money were passed out. Everyone dispersed and went home just in time for a big, delicious Koriteh feast - a feast that had been prepared by all those reproductive aged women who weren’t welcomed to attend the group prayer. Three and a half hours, 97 degrees, half a dozen prayers and three rolls of film later, I was back in my hut and exhausted. This was indubitably better than Christmas.


My New Baby Sister, Roxi Jabbie

Everyday it was something. She was tired, or sick, or her legs hurt, or stomach pain. She had been lectured by the doctor at the monthly clinic about her sever anemia. "Eat more nutritious foods and make sure you deliver at a health center, not at home", the doctor told her every month. She ate very little, if at all, and when she did, it was a few handfuls of rice (which is not high in nutrients). She farms peanuts and sells potato leaves. I buy beans every week. These are the three best locally available foods to eat during pregnancy. She had the information and the resources to make her hard life better, and didn't. This particular morning she was complaining of a headache. She hadn't been sleeping for weeks and didn't take the medicine I had biked 10km to get her. I asked if she had gone into labor. She said no and I believed her. After all this was her 13th pregnancy. I told her to lay down and drink some water, then went back to my hut.
Later that morning my sister came into my room to tell me that she wouldn't be able to wash my clothes that day because she had to cook lunch. Mom was too sick. I asked my sister if mom was ready to have a baby. She gave an ambiguous grunt. I had a feeling if mom wasn't already in labor, she would be soon. I let my sister go and cook lunch and took out my Where There Is No Doctor. I reviewed the sections on delivering babies just in case I got the opportunity to be there for the actual birth. Not knowing how long until delivery time, I cancelled my plans to visit a neighboring village in the afternoon. I didn't, however, cancel my plans to have lunch in the neighboring compound. Before leaving I told my sister to shout for me if the baby was ready. My mother and sister both assured me the baby wasn't going to come that soon.
Upon my return from a hour long lunch next door, I met my father at the front gate. He looked stressed and flustered as he headed to afternoon prayer at the mosque. "Did you hear?" he greeted me. "Hear what?" I replied. "Ndo gave birth. It's a girl!" As I rushed into the room to see my new baby sister a million things ran through my head. This is not the way a normal birth happens. Something isn't right. How could the village birth attendant been summonsed that quickly. I was only gone an hour. My fathers face was sweaty and worried and he spoke quickly with secrecy. Was I going to walk in on a dead baby or horrible disaster scene? Was I about to see the amazing miracle of a natural birth? I expected to walk into the room and find a little naked baby nursing on fresh breast milk while my mother gazed at the little miracle in nothing but a thin wrap skirt. The village birth attendant would be packing up her little box of supplies and lecturing my mom on post-birthing care.
I pushed the curtain aside and walked into the room. My mother was sitting alone on a bunched up piece of fabric on the floor as blood pooled beside her. Last nights storm had blown a thick layer of dirt onto the floor where she sat. Next to her was a bloody skirt that covered the baby. A long white cord connected that bloody bundle to another bloodier bundle containing the placenta. She stared up at me like a dear in headlights. She was frightened and, quite frankly, so was I. The baby was still alive and bigger than I would have imagined for the unhealthy pregnancy she endured. First the cord needed to be cut so the baby could begin breastfeeding. I summonsed my sister, but she was too scared to help. My grandmother was nowhere to be found. She had fled out of fear a long time ago. I spent a small boy to buy a new razor to cut the cord, but all the bidiks were closed for afternoon prayer. My mother said they had one; it was in my father's room. My father had also gone to afternoon prayer and locked his door. One of my little brothers was sent to find the village birth attendant, but she was in the rice fields. Because of my lack of equipment I just sat and did nothing. The well-wishers began to come see the baby and eventually the assistant birth attendant showed up, but without the box of supplies. Two hours and a dozen of well-wishers later, the box with clean ties and a fresh razor showed up and the cord was cut. The baby was a healthy 3.5 kgs. My mother wasn't doing as well. She hadn't stopped bleeding. I was worried, but nobody else was. She went to shower and the women brought dirt in to soak up the blood and sweep it away.
My mother stumbled into the room and fell onto the bed. The loss of blood was taking its toll. I had never watched someone die. I didn't know if I was watching somebody die. How long can a person bleed before they die? How do you save someone bleeding to death? The women quickly propped her up like a doll sitting on the bed leaning against the wall. They refused to let her lay down because laying down is for dead people. Her eyes rolled back into her head and she flopped around unable to hold herself up. Then came the vomiting. It was mostly liquid. She hadn't eaten in the last 24 hours. Women continued to come in to greet her. The bleeding hadn't stopped; her eyes were rolled back and paper white; her skin was pale; she was quivering with chills and vomiting. Is she dying? They tied her head scarf (if your hair is showing when you die the angels can't see you) and draped a nice piece of fabric over her face. I couldn't tell if she was already dead or they were just preparing her. At this point many people had left. They had come to celebrate a new baby, not watch a woman die. With the masses gone, I took the lead. I laid her down, propped her feet up on pillows and massaged deep into her stomach to stop the bleeding. Peace Corps had warned us about actually treating anyone because if they die, people might blame you for killing them. But how do you just stand there and watch someone die. I went back and forth in my head between humanity and liability. I made her some hot water and got her to drink a little. Meanwhile, the baby had been taken by the marabou to get a juju made for spiritual protection. He gave the newborn abolition, washing her eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. I decided that since she hadn’t died yet and wasn’t getting any better I would try to take her to the nearest health facility. Finding transport was not easy. There is an ambulance at the Basse Health Center, which is only an hour or so away. I tried calling for it, but you can only call it from a Gamcel mobile phone. I have Africell. I had to find someone in my village with a Gamcel phone that was charged and then go looking for reception. Once I was able to call, the answering machine hung up on me 3 times. So I called a friend of mine who works at the health center and he told me that the ambulance had gone to Bansang (a city 2 hours in the other direction). So I called the driver of the van in the next village over. He was already in Basse and all of the gasoline in Basse was sold out so he couldn’t even buy gas to come pick us up. That is the only vehicle in my area. Many people have motorbikes, but my mother wouldn’t be able to sit up on one. I thought about hitching the donkey cart, but a vomiting woman bleeding to death probably couldn’t tolerate that ride. Besides, by donkey cart Basse is over 2.5 hours away. My brother and I spent the next hour calling everyone we knew in Basse and asking them to flag down a taxi and tell them to come pick us up. Finally we got one. He would come from Basse to our small village to pick us up and take us back to Basse. It would cost 500Dalasi (almost as much as a bag of rice that would feed my family for a month). I paid it. While we waited the hour and a half for the taxi to show up the women fought about who would accompany my mom to the hospital. I was a given so there were two seats available. They choose and old women that knew my mother well and the women who cut the cord. I vetoed the second choice because I knew she would need blood and a relative is the most likely match. My brother came.
We made it to the health center 8 hours after the birth and my mother was almost unconscious. Unfortunately, the health center was no savior. I wheeled my mother into the dimly lit room called the maternity ward in a stressful panic. There were a few metal frame beds in the ‘recovery room’ where women sat with their families fanning themselves from the air, which was thick with heat and mosquitoes. No amenities in this hospital. The nurse greeted me with an arrogant rolling of the eyes and a lecture on how my mother was foolish and should have come earlier. She was right. My mother should have done the whole delivery here, but I had spent the last 4 hours trying to find a way to get here, my mother was ever closer to death, and the baby had still not eaten anything. I didn’t want to hear it. The only thing the educated people in this country use their education for is to look down on everyone else. They took my mother into the back room and let her lay there for another hour before coming to help her. There were 2 nurses and one woman in labor, but somehow, they were too busy to help my mother. My mother used this time to confide in me that her time had come. She was ready to die. I was to tell her younger kids that she loved them and my sister to take care of everyone. There was no mention of the baby. As she recalled to me later, she didn’t even know she had a baby at that point. I held her hand and told her she was going to live. The electricity went out. A wind tore through the room. Rain began to fall. I was scared. We tried to light candles but they kept blowing out. Death was in the air. The baby began to cry so I tried to rock her to sleep again. The nurse finally came in and without saying a word jammed her hand up my mother’s vagina and pulled out handfuls of blood clots. My mother shrieked in pain and squeezed my hand with all the energy she had left. The bleeding didn’t stop. The nurse said they wanted to take her to Bansang where they had blood to give her. We both knew she wasn’t going to live to see Bansang. I insisted that they check her son for a match and they obliged. He was a match and they took his pint of blood. The blood dripped slowly into her arm all night and didn’t improve her condition, but kept her alive. I sat with the hungry baby in my arms and prayed for daylight.
Everything looks better in the morning. At sunrise I was able to get the infant to suck on my mom’s breast. My mother wasn’t fully conscious yet and there was no milk, but it was the first step to recovery. We were able to move her to the recovery room and she even drank a little bit. The morning was in full swing when a few people, including her husband and brother, came to see her. One of the villagers was a blood match so he donated a second pint. Things looked good. Her spirits were high, she was eating a bit, she put fresh clothes on (that the old women had washed at day break), and she held her baby for the first time. We spent the next 4 days in that recovery room waiting for her blood to replenish itself. I slept on the floor packed like sardines between the other patients’ family members and the mosquitoes. I didn’t do much sleeping in those four days. People came to greet her from my village including the assistant birth attendant and my sister’s husband. I spent a fortune buying nutritious food like eggs, meat, beans, and veggies. I spent the days chatting with the other patients about how to keep a newborn healthy and other health topics. I watched people come and go. Some went in a car, others on a donkey cart, and some in a coffin. One night we all sat in our beds while a pregnant woman died of malaria. Gasp, gasp, die. A few minuets later, gasp, gasp, die. We just sat and listened. Nobody could talk. We just listened, watched and waited for her to die. She did. They took her out of the room and a woman with triplets replaced her. No Gambian had ever seen triplets. All three lived at least the 2 days I saw them for. It was an incredibly joyous occasion.
An immense amount of bonding went on in those days at the hospital. I was so emotionally drained by the time we were released from the hospital that I slept for an entire day at home. My mother made a great recovery and my baby sister is alive and well. The naming ceremony was one week after the birth. My father named the baby after my birth mother in America. It used to frustrate me to listen to people give up there autonomy and throw everything into the hands of god. If god wants, he will save me. If god wants, he will take me. There is nothing I can do. Every time you say that you are going to do something in Mandinka, you have to follow it with inshalah, or god willing. After that experience, there is nothing that can save you, but god. There was no reason my mother should have lived through that and there was no reason my baby sister should have lived through that, but they did. In places where you can see microorganisms and internal organs, there may be reasons for life and death. But here, there is no reason but Allah.

Fatou Jabbi

January 2006 was a time for good-byes. I quite a wonderful job with amazing people, kissed my friends and family good-bye and left for the Peace Corps. I touched down in The Gambia, West Africa on 2 February with 16 other wide-eyed, eagar idealists and began training. Enduring the 10 weeks of horribly boring lectures and overwhelming language classes paid off with a beautiful swearing-in ceremony at the Ambassador's residence overlooking the ocean and catered with amazing food on 13 April. Since then, I have been living in a small rural village up-country and off the main road. The whole village chased the big, white, Peace Corps vehicle I pulled up in and greeted me with a huge dancing program and special porriage. After unloading my belongings, the vehicle left me all alone, a million miles from anywhere. I knew I was home.

My local name is Fatou Jabbi and I live in a mud hut with a straw roof in a compound with my host family in Sanunding. By Gambian standards my family is tiny. My father only has one wife with 4 kids (5 including my newborn baby sister). My mother's mother also lives in our compound. I eat at the food bowl with my mother (whom is somewhere in her late 30's or 40's), my 18 year old pregnant sister, and really old grandma. My father and his 3 sons (20, 11, and 9) eat at a seperate food bowl. I fetch water from the pump and can charge my cell phone at one of 2 compounds with a generator. A few people have motorbikes, many have bicycles, and nobody has a car.

I am a Health and Community Development volunteer. Everyday I ask myself what exactly that means. The work I am usually engaged in is farming, gardening, and cracking peanuts with my family. There are enough domestic chores to keep anyone busy from sunup to sundown: fetching water, pounding millet, cooking, watching the children, washing clothes, sweeping. I participate as much as possible in all of it. This is the basis for the stories you will read about my experiences here.


Welcome to my first posting on my first blog. Welcome to my eyes, my ears, my voice, my thoughts, my dreams, my passions, my spirit, myself. Take what you can use and leave the rest. Find yourself and be your best. Peace.