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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Year in Tanjeh, West Coast Region: 2010 – 2011

Leaving Sarre Alfa

On June 16th, 2010, I moved from Sarre Alfa in Upper River Region to Tanjeh in West Coast Region. The Peace Corps car arrived to load up my things in the late afternoon. I had expected the loading of the vehicle to take hours, but with all my host-brothers and host-sisters helping it took only a few minutes. I bid an emotional farewell to my host-family and drove away from the village where I had spent two years of my life. The driver, a Christian Gambian, blared gospel music on the radio all the way to the coast and sang along at the top of his lungs.

A Bridge I Could Not Cross

At one point we came to the newly built bridge connecting the south bank road to Janjanbury Island. Though the bridge was finished, a man in military uniform stopped us. He explained that no one was allowed to cross the bridge until His Excellency The President had crossed it at an upcoming opening ceremony. He told us to use the small ferry that rested on the other bank. This ferry was essentially a slab of metal, capable of fitting two cars, with a cable running through it that was secured on either bank. You pulled the ferry across by hauling on the cable. So we walked across the bridge, pulled the empty ferry to our side, loaded the Peace Corps car on, then pulled the ferry back to the Janjanbury bank. The soldier watched us from the bridge with a bored expression. This whole process took almost an hour. Right as we off-loaded the Peace Corps car from the ferry, a government vehicle with tinted windows went flying over the bridge, cruising from one bank to the other in five minutes. The soldier simply saluted.


I went from living in a small, Fula village located 200 miles from the coast to living in a huge, Mandinka town located right on the coast AND I went from living in a small, thatch-roofed hut to living in a two-room corrugate-roofed house. Though I still had no running water or electricity, I had a well right next to my house and a tap that was periodically turned on right outside my compound; no more crowded village pumps for me! There were also many shops selling everything I needed and a large market right up the road; no more 30km bike rides to Basse to get oatmeal for me!

My host-family in Tanjeh was almost the exact opposite of my host-family in Sarre Alfa. Mamasamba Cham, my host-father in Sarre Alfa, was a subsistence farmer with two wives and 12 children. He sometimes worked as a mason, but was otherwise uneducated and had no regular income. Almami Jammeh, my host-father in Tanjeh, was the Village Development Committee chairman. He had one wife, Bintou, and no children. He was well educated, spoke English, and had a regular income. Bintou, his wife, was also educated and had a regular income from her work at a Credit Union in the Tanjeh fish market. Almami Jammeh was a talkative man, who loved listening to the radio and was determined to one-day travel to America. Bintou Jammeh was a large, strong woman who was almost always laughing and working. She had a radiant smile and spoke very good English.

The Jammehs of Tanjeh

Almami and Bintou lived together in a long, corrugate-roofed compound; one end of which was my house. Bintou raised sheep and maintained a large, walled-in garden that she shared with other village women. The compound was surrounded by an incomplete concrete wall, which primarily served as a perch for birds and prowling cats. Covering the space between the wall and the house were hundreds of concrete bricks, lined up perfectly to dry in the sun. Bintou explained that she had been accumulating the bricks in order to build a second house. Judging by the tall grass that was growing from some of the bricks, I guessed they had been there for a long time. Other than the garden, the only greenery that existed in the compound was several mango trees and palm trees. One of the mango trees leaned directly over the wall of my backyard, near my pit latrine. During the rainy season I would often go out in my yard and find several mangos resting on the ground. I did not sleep outside for fear that one of these falling mangos would hit me.

Though Almami and Bintou had no children of their own, they housed several children who were distantly related to them. Almami shared his compound with his parents, who would often sit outside under the covered front of the compound and play with or berate the children. Almami and Bintou also hosted a teenage girl named Fatou Fatty, who helped Bintou with all the cooking and cleaning and also worked in the Tanjeh fish market. Fatou and Bintou were like sisters and would always banter and laugh together: much of the time about me. Needless to say, it was rarely quiet in the compound.

A Large School in a Large Town

If I was not in the Jammeh’s compound or working at the Peace Corps office in Kombo, then I was usually working at the Tanjeh Lower Basic School, which was located further into the town. Like the Jammeh’s compound, it was surrounded by an incomplete wall that encompassed eight classroom blocks containing 22 classrooms, a tap, a medical building, and a teacher’s building. Two enormous mango trees stood in the Northeast corner of the campus and loomed over the nearby classrooms. Otherwise the school grounds were composed of a soft, deep sand that was difficult to walk on, much less ride a bike on. During the one year that I spent at the school, I put together a school library. When I first arrived, I was shown three store rooms: the first was a large classroom filled with broken desks and other furniture, the second was filled with old boxes of donated books, and the third contained more boxes of donated books buried below many donated school desks. I enlisted the 5th grade class to help me clear out the first room of all the broken desks and furniture. We disturbed the homes of many large geckos, which went darting out of the long-unopened windows. The room had a panelled ceiling and a solid floor so I decided to use it as the library. I dug through the pile of old furniture and salvaged whatever good wood and shelving I could find. I used a hammer and nails to repair the shelves and even built a new shelf out of an old, wooden beehive frame.

The Secrets Held in Donated Books

Over a two-month period, I slowly moved the old boxes of donated books to the library, unpacked them, arranged them, and shelved them. I found entertainment in the secrets the books held. Many of them had old dedications penned on the inside covers: “happy birthday Jimmy, 1974,” and so on. Written across the top of a particularly old book, I found a catchy rhyme; “if this book should come to roam, box it’s ears and send it home.” I found many other things while sifting through the pages of different books; a shopping list, a love note, several playing cards, and flattened insects from strange lands. Unfortunately, many of the books had been eaten through by termites or ruined by moisture. I found that termites could consume the entire inside of a book while leaving the covers intact. It was interesting to see what books they ate (Catherine Cookson, Danielle Steel) and what books they spared (Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck). The best book I found while sifting through the boxes was a 1944 encyclopaedia, with hand-drawn illustrations of rivers, mountains, birds, and insects.

Riding With Sand and Fish

On days when I needed to do work at the Peace Corps office in Kombo, I would leave the Jammeh’s compound and bike along the main road to the fish market. This road was smoothly paved and conducted a lot of traffic, much different from the almost impassable road that I travelled on near Sarre Alfa. While riding to the Tanjeh fish market, I would frequently be passed by large trucks carrying sand from the Kartong sand quarry to construction sites in Kombo. On top of the sand these trucks carried sat several men with shovels, whose job it was to load and unload the sand. I would sometimes see a single digger on the side of the road, leaning on his shovel and waiting for a passing sand truck to pick him up for a days work.

The Tanjeh fish market was always bustling with men and women hawking, bartering, and selling everything from fish to music cassettes. The fisherman, who were all Senegalese, would beach their boats near the market and get mobbed by men wading through the waves to help unload the fish. The fish would either be bought by women who would then transport them into the city to sell at a higher price or frozen on ice in a Taiwanese built ice-factory and stored to be sold later. Cats, dogs, and birds roamed everywhere and the stench was unlike anything I have ever smelled before. I would chain my bike to a post in the market and board one of the geles (public vans) leaving for Kombo. Unfortunately, these were the same geles taken by all the women who loaded up fish to sell in the Serekunda market. Many a time I sat next to a woman holding a basket of fish or had fish juice drip down on me from the baskets of fish piled on the roof of the gele. Invariably I would arrive in Kombo reeking of fish, which would subsequently cause many of the Peace Corps office staff to give me funny looks when I arrived for work.

Running in Paradise

Living near the beach did have its advantages, especially for a runner like me. After a long day at the Peace Corps office or at the Tanjeh school, I would come home, throw on my running shows, and make for the coast along a sandy trail that cut through the farm fields between the main road and the ocean. After descending a short cliff and glimpsing a spectacular view of the wide, blue ocean over palm trees, I would find myself running near the waves. I would round a few bends in the coast and then make my way along miles and miles of flat, empty beach. Aside from the occasional tourist bar, cattle herder, or fisherman, I would be the only one around. With the sun set painting the sky orange, the waves crashing next to me, the birds hovering above me, and the wind in my face, I could not imagine being anywhere better.

These are the memories of my life in Tanjeh that I will cherish. Eating and laughing with Bintou and Fatou, while trying not to sniffle too much from the spicy food. Listening to the cacophony of frogs at night during the rainy season. Waking to the smell of the sea and listening to the wind as it crackled through the leaves of the palm trees. Though I was only there for a short time, I will never forget it.

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