Sara Kunda: A Gambian Homecoming Part II

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Tay’s Toma is little Sutay, the child she helped pull from her friend and sister, Fatou, 10 years ago on a fateful moonlit night. Tay, Fatou, and their mother, who was also the village midwife, rode12 kilometers in a donkey cart to the nearest clinic, to the sound of crickets and howling hyenas. When they arrived, finding neither the electricity nor the nurse they were expecting, they lit candles, and out came little Sutay. It was the first childbirth in which my Tay had ever participated, and they’d ridden back under a velvet sky, bathed in the magic of new life (Tay would later become an OB nurse, so her Toma’s birth was a life-changing event for them both).

There are other children Tay meets whom she helped guide into this life, but it is with her Toma that she bonds the most, especially when Fatou falls ill with malaria the day after we arrive, and little Sutay takes up the burden of caring for her brothers and sisters, and her bed-ridden mother; she carries water, pounds rice, cooks, etc. She is a strong child who, in pure African tradition, already wears her womanhood.

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It is just light when we are finally ready to leave the house. We walk with Konko to Baba’s house where we exchange morning greetings. Baba did not show up to the party last night; apparently, after slitting the goat’s neck, his role was finished, and he retired to his quarters from where he heard the shouts and the drumming and the singing. He heard his new son, Lamin’s voice, “bringing joy to his people,” he tells us, referring to the moment in the drumming circle when I tried to sing their song and made up the words, since I didn’t know Mandinka. The real words, “Sutay bendoli-do-lah, Lamin bendoli-do-lah,” mean, “Because Sutay is here we are dancing, we are dancing because Sutay and Lamin are here!” (I added a verse about Sutay’s dog, Danjung, who we were amazed to find still alive, and living the royal wuolo’s life in Baba’s house. “Because Danjung is here we are dancing, we are dancing because Danjung is here!”)

On this morning, getting ready to depart the village, there is some light-hearted talk about how delicious the goat was. I have a memory flash of the ram we bought during our trek in Pakistan, a year ago; about how, just like last night, the goat’s liver was brought to me before anyone else was served, and I ate it with relish, even though I don’t consume much meat these days. Tay is telling Baba that when we have our own ding-dingos (“Inshallah!” we all pray) we will bring them to Sara Kunda. Baba says he will give our children a Mandinka naming ceremony, then offers a blessing that we may have a strong son, and Tay and I answer, “Amen.”

Then Baba grows serious in the soft morning light that is coming through the window and open door, and his newest wife, Miriama (inherited by Baba after her husband, his brother, died last year), joins him at his side. Baba rises and gestures that we approach him. We are standing very close, the four of us. He takes my hands in his, opens them upwards, then bends over them and lets forth a quiet stream of prayer which ends with a puff of air blown into my palms. He does the same for Sutay. The air feels like light in my hands as they fall to my sides.

Miriama points to Sutay, says her name, then squeezes her own breast, a gesture that says, “I am Sutay’s mother.” She points to me, “Lamin,” she says, then squeezes her breast. She points to both of us, then sweeps her hand toward Baba, indicating our relationship with him.

“Beh keelin,” she says, and repeats it, “beh keelin.”

We are all one.

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Baba, Miriama, Konko, Toumbong and a few others accompany us out of the compound and through the village, our bags considerably lighter than when we arrived. Before we reach the giant traveler’s tree at the crossroads, Mom, Dad, Bro, and Sis take their leave and say goodbye. Tay and I continue to the tree on our own, to begin a long, long day of waiting and transport back to Kombo, a journey via the north bank and Barra ferry that will take some 15 hours and cost me one of my cameras (lost in some crammed bush taxi, I suspect).

Back to Banjul. And, soon, out of Africa.

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