Babies are adorned in a web of jujus (animist charms). Little Lisa wears four necklaces: one for healthy teeth, one to ward of sickness, one to prevent vomiting, and one to provide fragrance. On each ankle she wears an anklette: one to protect her from genes and one for good fortune. Other babies wear their jujus on their waist, five to eight small charms tied to a black synthetic rope. All charms come from the Maribous, the traditional/animist healer. Some charms are Arabic writings from a Maribou that provide protection from any ills, good fortune, or the ability to not be harmed by a bullet or knife (for adults usually), wrapped in leather. Others are a piece of a root or plant, while a few are special beads, cowry shells, or coins.
Aja’s Baamutar wears a single leather charm around his waist. The only time I noticed it was when she was putting a cloth diaper on. He glistened from freshly applied baby oil, smooth and untangled from the lack of jujus. I asked where his others where. She looked at me with her hard caring eyes and chuckled, “Mothers put these on their babies to keep them from getting sick and dying, but they still get sick, they still die.” She paused, perhaps to think about her lost child, Jaa, who died at the age of three (most likely from Malaria). Aja pointed her finger towards the hazed sky, pierced her face to clarity, “Allah dorong. God only.” Baamutar wiggled spastically as she tied that last of diaper. She picked him up, pushed his face to hers, stood him on her tired and stretched stomach, and let out a smile meant only for those moments for mothers and their newborns. Her eyes are the most hopeful when she plays with Baamutar.
The week leading up to our last moments in Kerewan involved many tears, prayers from Allah, and traveling gifts. Like a baby in its first year, we were tangled in the Gambian ceremonial goodbyes. The Saaba and Kerewan nursery schools gave both Carson and I full outfits. All the Kerewan nursery school staff cried and cried as they were thanking us for our work. Carson and I looked at each other shocked at the site of Gambian men and women crying. Grown men bawling, like my counterpart Bruama. I have always been told not to cry from Gambians and now I have seen enough tears to last another year.
In between the emotional send offs and from community members along the road, were the granting of Allah’s prayers. May God grant you a long and healthy life. May God allow you to arrive home in safety and good health. May God grant you a healthy family. God will repay you for all that have done and will do. God will protect you. Every prayer sung to us wove the fabric of our community for these past two years, a keepsake of their majestic acceptance.
Two words capture how one will miss you. The frequently used famo means I miss seeing you. But we heard a new one as we were saying goodbye. “Moo kidoota!” they kept saying, “People in loneliness.” It was quite ironic response when we told them we were leaving in a couple of days. Kerewan, like The Gambia, is full of people, too many people. I have never felt physically alone here, never truly able to be alone. But they meant loneliness in the emotional sense. The first I have heard of this notion here. They will miss us; they will miss the emotional connection however small or big. Or perhaps it is like the rehearsed prayers, the habitual response to some leaving for a long time. When Aja said it, I knew she referred to the former.
At midday the white Peace Corps SUV pulled out of the compound and I kept crying. That was it, we were going home. The whole neighborhood was in our house as we loaded up our bags and metal trunks. Aja just stood there against the wall and started cry. I tried not to look at anyone around me. I was about to loose it. When the car was all packed up, it was time. After two long years, it was time. I hugged everyone around me, my toma, Dabo, all the kids, Fatou who was bawling, and then lastly Aja. We looked at each other, crying too much to say a word. I gave her a hug and could only say, “M bee kumandi ning m bi taa fly la. I’ll call you before I leave on the plane.” I held her hand tight and Carson pulled me on the car.
My stomached dropped. I cried for Aja. She’s my person. Carson whispered to me, “We’ll be back, you’ll see her again.” As we drove over the bridge and further and further away, my readiness to go home came over me. But I kept going back to Aja’s pointed finger upward and her determined face to look through all of the jargon and superstition around her, seeing only God. To trust only what she has seen and done in her thirty years of back breaking living. She pointed to what keeps her living.