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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Thoughts on “Our Grandmothers’ Drums” by Mark Hudson

A Painful First Reading

Before departing for The Gambia to begin my Peace Corps adventures in June 2008, I ordered and read “Our Grandmothers’ Drums” by Mark Hudson. Peace Corps/The Gambia had listed it as recommended reading. Since I had my wisdom teeth removed shortly before my departure, the book offered a welcome distraction from the pain I was experiencing. I remember that Hudson portrayed The Gambia as a hot, dry place that was full of talkative, hard-working women and lazy men. This book provided my first encounters with the words “Ataya tea” and “toubob.” I do not remember if the book left me feeling discouraged or encouraged about the next two years of my life, but I do remember being struck by Hudson’s beautiful descriptions of the landscape, the people, and the customs of The Gambia.

The Facts

The full title of the book is; “Our Grandmothers’ Drums: A Portrait of Rural African Life and Culture.” It was first published in 1989 and is the first book that Mark Hudson wrote. It won The Thomas Cook Travel Book Award and The Somerset Maugham Award. Mark Hudson has now written three other books: “Coming Back Brockens” (1994), “The Music in my Head” (1998), and “Titian, the Last Days” (2009). In “Our Grandmothers’ Drums,” Hudson reflects on the thoughts and experiences he had while spending 14 months in Dulaba, a Mandinka village in the West Coast Region of The Gambia, in the mid-1980s. He stays at an MRC facility and integrates into the community, forming close bonds with a women’s kafo (group). He describes in-depth the daily routines of Gambian people, their customs (particularly a women’s circumcision ceremony), their work, their relationships, and their music.

Thoughts Upon Re-Reading

Late in April 2011, with three years of Peace Corps service in The Gambia under my belt and my departure looming, I decided to pick up “Our Grandmothers’ Drums” again. There are few books that I have ever re-read, but I felt I would appreciate Hudson’s work more after having lived in The Gambia myself. I was not disappointed. Hudson does an excellent job of recounting the world around him and I enjoyed his descriptions of the customs, people, animals, and weather of The Gambia. He portrays well the frustrations and joys that many foreigners experience when integrating into Gambia culture.

With more than ten years stretching between Hudson’s time in The Gambia and mine, it was interesting to see what had changed and what had stayed the same. Hudson describes a village of depravity, where even oil and tomato sauce were hard to get. I spent two years living much farther up-country than Hudson did and my host-family had no difficulty with buying bread, oil, tomato sauce, and other staples from the local shops. The value of the Dalasi has also gone down over time, since many of the prices that Hudson lists seem very cheap to me. In The Gambia I lived in, everyone had cell phones (even my host-father, who was a farmer). Other than these few things, The Gambia Hudson describes sounds remarkably similar to the one I experienced. Foreigners are still called “toubob.” The women continue to toil in the fields while the men lie on bantabas (beds) and sleep away the day. The heat is still oppressive and the bush is still magnificent, green, and full of life. Beautiful birds still call and swoop among the tall baobab trees that often stand within or just outside the villages. The women still sing their songs and drum and dance, even after working in the fields all day. There is a beauty in The Gambia, and it’s people and their customs, that few visitors get to see and Mark Hudson has captured it well in this book.

Chapter Titles

A Woman Has No Place To Stay

A Woman Of Substance

The Golden Chain

The Season Of Generation

Mind Your Business, Save Your Life

The Big People Of God

The Language Of The Griots

Days Of The Harvest

A Sealed Place

The Crocodile


The Elephant Head

The World Of Glass

The Bush Of Men

Night Arrows

Ndeysan, The Moon And Stars!

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