Chapter Thirty-two: Sara Kunda homecoming
Sara Kunda is a north bank village, located not quite halfway up the Gambia River. Sutay had been taken in by an extended family there for two years. During her Peace Corps service there, Farefenni, a crossroads town on the north bank was the closest place where she could get a cold drink (or at least a warm beer), news from the outside world (or at least from the Peace Corps office in Banjul), fax a letter to her mother, and maybe converse in English with a fellow toubab if any international volunteers also happened to be in town.
We arrived in Farefenni via a precarious river ferry in a long, canoe-like boat. In the market, we fended off flies as we picked up a few last gifts and supplies, then walked to the corner where the leaning, broken moto to Sara Kunda was parked.
For me, an Africa travel rookie, everything in The Gambia was new—every moment a raw, exciting discovery. For Sutay, it was complicated. Ten years before, when she moved into her mud-and-stick hut in the Sabally family compound, she was dubbed “Sutay Sabally,” the adopted daughter and personal guest of Sarjo Njara Sabally, whom she called “Baba.” Baba gave her the name in a traditional Mandinka naming ceremony, or kulio. It had actually been a double kulio, to name both the foreign volunteer and the baby who had been born the day she arrived. Everyone in the compound dressed in his or her finest, brightest outfits. Food was prepared, music arranged.
Baba whispered to her, “Sutay Sabally.” And so she was. The name means “recognize.” Sutay was the only foreigner to ever have lived in Sara Kunda—she was easy to recognize. Baba then shaved a piece of hair from the baby’s head and cut a piece off of Sutay’s braid. He and other elders made pronouncements and read from the Koran. Baba poured a few drops of water on the girls’ foreheads and asked the village oral history keepers if they’d heard what these two new children would be called. They answered, “Yes, and our lips are sealed.”
As we climbed onto the last vehicle, I watched Sutay retreat further behind her tiko and shades, her thoughts spiraling as we drew even closer to Sara Kunda. So much had changed in her life since she’d left. But what had changed in Sara Kunda? Had it been modernized? Had it gotten worse? Baba could be gone, she feared, the family moved; her dog, Danjung, surely hadn’t survived … They had no idea we were coming, and Sutay had had no way to communicate with them. If nobody recognized her, where would we sleep?
Two months after her kulio, Sutay’s initiation to the village continued when, on one clear, warm night, Baba’s daughter, Fatou, went into labor in the hut next to hers. Sutay was still a new, doe-eyed volunteer who barely understood the language. But she understood that Fatou’s mother, Nkombe, the village midwife, wanted to play the role of mother for this birth. Sutay, the knowledgeable toubab, would be the midwife, they decided. They didn’t know, nor did they care, that Sutay had zero training or experience in delivering babies—or that her participation in a birth totally violated Peace Corps policy.
Sutay’s first instinct was to take Fatou to Ngen, the nearest village where there was a clinic with electricity and a nurse. Baba summoned a donkey cart, and the three women—Fatou, Nkombe, and Sutay—climbed aboard to ride eight miles or so, in the light of a full moon, to cricket chirps and hyena howls, bouncing over the rutted path as Fatou’s contractions grew closer.
When they arrived, finding neither electricity nor nurse, they entered the dark clinic and Sutay positioned Fatou on the concrete birthing slab on her back, as she’d seen on television, her only reference. She lit two candles to place between Fatou’s knees, and after some pushing, out came the baby—both Fatou’s and Sutay’s first. Sutay continued with her TV nursing; she held the baby upside down and spanked her bottom before tying and cutting the cord with a razor from her med kit, then placing the baby on her mother’s chest. After a while, they rode back to Sara Kunda with the magic of new life bundled between them as the sun came up.
At her old Sara Kunda bus stop she recognized so well, we got down, shouldered our bags, and walked from the traveling tree on the edge of the village. Children saw us and arrived first, helping with our bags even though they had no idea who we were; our group grew as we rounded each corner. Both our hearts quickened as we got nearer the compound. Finally, with about twenty or thirty people in tow, Sutay and I marched unannounced and unexpected into the Sabally compound.
They hopped up and down and hugged her as chaos reigned and more people appeared.
The shouts were as much exclamations of disbelief as they were of affection. At home, in the United States, her name was anything but convenient, drawing puzzled stares, uncomfortable silences, and mispronunciations. But here in Sara Kunda, “Sutay” was who she was. And seeing her in a place where people knew her name, how to pronounce it, what it meant, where it came from, was like watching a mysterious piece of my partner click into place.
She responded with rapid Mandinka greetings, surprising herself as forgotten responses bubbled up from her past while dozens of women grasped her and held her and continued crying her name.
I stood to the side, filming and snapping until Sutay yanked me into the knot of people and introduced me by interlocking her index fingers together, declaring our matrimony. New cheers erupted along with claps on my back and smiles! Tears streaming from behind Sutay’s sunglasses and from the eyes of those clutching her mixed with the dirt at our feet.
Someone led her to Danjung. Her old, white wuolo dog was living the royal life on Baba’s porch. In a society that mistreats animals as a national pastime, people were boasting to Sutay that they had fed her dog while she was gone and allowed him to sleep on their porch. Seeing Danjung always made them think of her, they said (because he’d belonged to her, but also because he was white).
Baba appeared and the crowd parted. He greeted Sutay formally as he held her hand and the family watched. Baba was a serious, 68-year-old Mandinka man of few words and innumerable folds carved into his masklike face.
“Asalaam aleikum,” she said.
“Aleikum salaam,” said Baba. They both touched their own chests.
“Kaira-be,” she said. Peace be upon you.
“Kaira-dorong,” said Baba. Peace only.
“Kori tenante?” asked Sutay.
“Tenante.” I am fine, he said.
“Sumolu ley?” asked Sutay. Where is the family?
“Abije,” said Baba. They are there.
“And your wife?”
“Abije.” She is there.
The exchange continued and then was repeated as they reversed roles, so that Baba now asked Sutay, “Sumolu ley?” and she told him everyone was back home in America. They were there and they were fine.
With a click of his tongue, Baba ended the greeting and said, “Famo-kettah!” Long time!
Sutay answered with her own exclamatory click. “B’lai.” It’s true.
Baba had watched over Sutay, ensuring her shelter, food, protection, and honor. He had saved her life once, arranging transport to the clinic in Farefenni after Konko, Sutay’s adopted brother, had found her deathly ill, sprawled unconscious behind her hut, in vomit and diarrhea and raging with fever.
Baba turned to me and spoke in Mandinka with Sutay translating, “Sutay Sabally is my daughter. Now you are her husband, so I give you the name ‘Lamin Sabally.’”
Baba never stopped looking me in the eyes as he took my hands in his and pressed them. Lamin was the name given to all firstborn Mandinka sons. And so it was.
Excerpt from CROCODILE LOVE: Travel Tales from an Extended Honeymoon, by Joshua Berman.