Friday, 15 March 2013

My Jonga Family

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This is my story of how the Jonga family generously welcomed me into their home in the tiny village of Fass on the border of Gambia where I stayed for two weeks and became part of their family.
I must start this post by thanking them.  I will be forever grateful for their time which they gave so willingly, for their kindness, hospitality, and love.
Most importantly I must mention Penda.  A 22 year old woman who spoke English very well as she has managed to finish school.  She helped me with everything; from talking to other people, to washing my clothes.  She shared her bed with me every night and before sleeping we would talk about everything in our lives.  By being so open about her thoughts and feelings, she taught me so much about life as an African woman.  I am completely in awe at how incredible she is; how strong and independent in some aspects, yet so weak in others.  She became my best friend and somebody who I will love forever.


My first full day was when I realised how different their lives were.  All the women packed into one room; there was a huge bucket of nuts to be cracked open.  They had this clever technique of smashing the small end of the shell on the floor and, as if by magic, both nuts would fall out easily.  I joined in; found it impossible.  It's a skill that comes naturally in your family genes, I told myself... like rolling your tongue... as I smashed and picked until I had a pile of nuts small enough to be embarrassed about the huge blister which had developed on my middle finger.

Penda didn't have time to crack nuts; there was some ironing to be done.  The metal structure resembled something that I would guess even my own Grandmother hadn't seen as a child.  A small coal fire inside heated the base of the rusted iron, but the lack of a protective handle gave burns to her hand if she held it for too long.

Ida, a "sister" of everyone (in Africa, a sister or brother is somebody who you have been close with for your whole life), also didn't have time to crack peanuts.  She was making hair extensions from black woollen thread, spinning them together by hand then sealing the ends on hot coal, before twisting each one into her friends hair.  After hours of work, her friend had a huge, stylish hair-do to be proud of.

Lunch was served every day at precisely 3pm.  We split into two groups of around six adults and eight children and each groups sat around a huge basin of food.  Everybody dug their hands in the basins; squeezing the juice from the rice into a block solid enough to throw into a mouth in one piece, chunks of fish were broken from the bone and flicked in front of those incapable of doing it themselves (the children... and me), and after one basin was finished a second came out.  The food was very basic due to the limited ingredients available in the village; there were maybe three or four different meals we had, every day of the week.  Most importantly though, the rice filled stomachs and it was all naturally grown, healthy and nutritious.

When the children returned home from school every afternoon, chaos would brake out as they debated which games to play that day.  They had no toys or anything that kids in the West have, yet there were hundreds of games which satisfied their bodies and minds.  I loved watching or playing with them.  My favourite was throw-the-sandal-tag.  The funniest was when they gathered sticks and erected a high-jump hurdle; when the younger kids got tired of failing to clear the jump they built their own smaller one, then when they got tired of jumping they tried forward rolls over the bar.  Their simple, innovative games entertained them for hours.

I was renamed by most, taking the name of my new "mum" Awa.  She was loud, excitable, always in the middle of games and conversation, always making people laugh, always got her breasts out for some reason or other.  I gave the family some of my clothes which I no longer needed; Awa took my pink polka-dot pyjama trousers and used them for everyday life like hanging out in the compound or walking to the market.  She was the loud, crazy auntie who everybody has at home, who all people love and want to be around.  It was a nice feeling to be reminded very day of my auntie Julie at home!!

That was the only aspect that was similar to home for me; that everybody has a crazy auntie.  Everything I saw made me repeat the same phrase in my mind; "Everything is different here".  I've left it quite late in this post to state that there is no electricity anywhere in the vicinity of the village.  That makes a huge impact on the difference of our lives.  Obviously, the main impact is the fact that this is Africa and the poverty level is dramatically different than in the West.  All things considered, it was mind-blowing to me that literally everything was different.  The iron is heated with coal.  There is only one tap for the entire village.  Water for washing is fetched from the nearby well.  The cold water bath from a bucket.  Games played by the kids, in comparison to the internet generation in our kids in the West.  The preparation of food taking hours, as bad pieces of rice are individually picked out by hand, whilst spices and flavourings are smashed with a wooden log.  Eating food together as a family for every meal, sitting on tiny blocks of wood around the basins, chatting and laughing throughout the meal.  Having time to sit down with each other, spend time with family members instead of huddling around a TV for hours every evening as we do at home.  This was the main difference I found so precious; having time for each other.

A family friend visited the compound on day; she asked if I could take her to England... she would fetch the water for me.  I giggled at her innocence.
"We don't need to fetch water in England."
"What? Why not?!"
"Everybody has taps in their houses."
Shock hit everybody's faces in disbelief at what I had just said.  Their shock made me even more shocked.
I realised that it might not be such a good idea to divulge and further information about our material life in the West.  If they were impressed about taps, imagine how mind-blowing everything else would be.
Is having showers, washing machines, computers, and electricity better than not having them?

The people of the village asked for electricity when they elected their current president in Gambia.  I told them it would be a bad idea.  What good does electricity bring? Bills, debt, distraction from TV's, and light pollution that ruins the night sky.  Oh wow, what an incredible night sky they had.  It was like the universe was bigger here than it is anywhere else, like somebody had places a huge telescope above us so that we could see all the stars that were ever in existence.

The most wonderful part of this family was their happiness.  There were always jokes going on and people were always, always laughing.  They held their laughter back at nothing; even when the 60-something year old grandma fell through the fence with a baby on her back.

My ukulele shaped bag was very intriguing for all, so I lasted just one night before I was first asked to play.  A day when everybody was at home, I played Hallelujah (by Leonard Cohen) and asked them all to join in on the chorus.  The kids especially loved it; singing at the top of their voices, their huge brown eyes smiling up at me.  This was a very surreal moment; a song that means so much to me and one which was so fitting for this family to be singing.  I honestly don't know if I've ever smiled so much before.
This sparked some musical inspiration; as soon as I had finished there were buckets brought out for drums, and people were clapping and taking turns to sing and dance.  Everybody had to dance.  Even kids just old enough to stand alone were put in the middle of the circle and told to move.  I was in tears of laughter through most of it.  We played for hours and hours.

When walking through the village, I always got a lot of attention.  Everybody would want to be introduced to me and know why I was there.  If one child saw me they would scream "toubob!" and run towards me to shake my hand.  The word was almost like a calling to other kids within the area, as they would pop up from all corners and as soon as they spotted me they would start shouting and running too.  Within less than one minute there would be a chorus all around me which I eventually named the Toubob Song.  There was, however, a particular age range of kids, maybe 1-2 years old, who must have just gotten the ability to really recognise faces and difference in them.  They were terrified of me.  A person with white skin and blue eyes WHAT THE?!  They would take one look at me and completely freak out, shaking in hysterical teas, running towards anybody else they knew.  Funny that it was only that age range; younger and they saw no difference in me, older and they were intrigued by me.

One afternoon though, I got the attention of a man who followed me and Penda all the way home.  He had only seen me once before, could speak no English at all, yet proclaimed to love me and that he would like to marry me.  The day after he came to visit me at the family compound and, for a reason which I never found out, had a pigeon in a plastic bag.  Everybody looked at him with suspicious eyes but remained polite for a very long time.  Eventually, I was sent "to the market" with Ida.  When I returned he was gone and everybody was in excitable conversation about how they had got together to tell him to leave because the Toubob is here for her own business and doesn't need to be bothered.

This was one instance which showed what they felt towards me.  They wanted to protect me from him, like it was their responsibility to do that.  There were many other instances too...
They repeatedly asked me to stay longer: "Stay til the end of your 21 day visa".  As soon as they found out it is possible to extend my visa:  "Stay til the end of your visa then you can extend it and stay another 21 days".
The sweetest thing I've ever heard... they were asking what my freckles on my arms were.  I don't actually know the full reason so I said something about the sun.  Later Penda said that some people are worried about them:  "I hope it's not where the insects have touched you?"
Ami, my sister, was heavily pregnant.  They said when the baby is born they will name it Kimmie.
What struck me the most was that everything they did for me was for no gain on their own part - no financial gain or nothing egotistical to be proud of their village or to promote their country - they genuinely just wanted me to be happy.  These people loved me and weren't afraid of showing it.

I wanted to stay forever.  I could have stayed forever.  But I knew that I must go on with the rest of my planned trip through Africa.  They didn't understand that.  I was part of their family now, why would I leave? It felt like a lifetime that I stayed with the Jonga family but in fact it was just two short weeks.  Some of the kids cried as we said our goodbyes.  All the adults cried.
"Togal, togal!" (Sit down, stay!) cried Fatoub with tears streaming down her face.  I'll never ever forget that.  My Gambian family gave me so much more than an insight into African life; they showed me another type of happiness, they accepted me into their family so easily, and loved me so innocently.
I can't end this post.  I have too much to say about my time there.  I've missed so much out.
Pffff...  Inspiring.  Humbling.  Life changing.

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