Sara Kunda: A Gambian Homecoming Part I

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The pre-dawn sky is as star-shiny night-black as it was when we crawled under our mosquito net a few hours ago, at the end of our party, after the last of the goat had been consumed. Now we are up, in the candle-lit darkness, packing our bags while the Imam calls Sara Kunda to the first prayer of the day.

“Allaaaaaaaaaaah hu-akbar!”

The refrain that has sounded for centuries is only one layer of sound in the waking village as crickets, cocks, goats, songbirds, and other creatures make themselves heard, all amid the tinny declaration of God’s greatness. “Allaaaaaaaaaaah hu-akbar!” The speakers from the village’s two mosques are just far enough away that their song is soft and scenic and strange.

Tay and I take turns squatting next to a bucket of well water in her old patio, bathing under fading stars, preparing for a long day of travel back to Banjul. As the night sweat rinses deliciously from our necks and backs, we sleepily wrap our heads around all that has happened during our three days in this back-country Gambian village, in Sutay’s old home.

Of course Tay’s head-wrappage is different from mine; hers has to do with rivers of nostalgia and friendship, of being back in this house which she occupied for two of the most extraordinary and powerful years of her life. For me, it is all alarmingly new and each moment of newness and excitement leads into the next so that, even though we spend most of our time just sitting around and drinking glasses of sweet ataya tea, it is a constant flow of remarkable stimuli which does not cease on this morning of our departure.

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We had intended on slipping out of Sara Kunda as unexpectedly as our arrival, marching into the incredible swirl of shouts and screams of “Sutay! Sutay! Sutay Sabally!” We do manage to rise before most of the Sabally family compound. Still, we must go to Baba, Tay’s adopted Gambian father and alkallo, or chief, of the village. Baba is a serious looking, 68-year-old Mandinka man of few words and many folds in his wise face. When he does speak, his words are weighty. When he smiles, his lanky figure lightens.

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On the first day, after we greeted him and he delivered us to Tay’s old house, where Baba’s son, Konko, lives (Konko, Tay’s scrawny 14-year-old sidekick of old who is now a young man with his own house and peanut field to tend), Baba said to me in Mandinka, “Sutay Sabally is my daughter. Now you are married to her, so I give you the name ‘Lamin Sabally.'” Lamin is the Mandinka name given to most firstborn sons.

Lowering my head, I responded, “It is an honor to call you ‘Baba’.” He took my hands in his and pressed them.

Because Baba has five wives, there are several other sons named “Lamin Sabally” in the compound. Each one is my “Toma,” or namesake, and we now had a special bond, so that when I was introduced we would revel in both my new name and our new relation as not only brothers of the same household, but Toma.

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