STORIES FROM OUR YEARS IN WEST AFRICA (1999 – 2005)
A WEEK IN THE GAMBIA by Petra Laila (This is fictional account of what it would be like to visit our compound in The Gambia for a week.)
As the wheels of the plane touched the runway and the airplane eventually lurched to a stop, I thanked God that I had made it in one piece. Closing my eyes, I sighed with relief at the realization that I was on bona fide African soil. People around me began to stand up, gather their belongings, and get in line to disembark. There was an air of friendliness everywhere and every time I glanced at someone, I would catch his or her smile. Beads of sweat begin collecting on my forehead as the warm night air permeated the cabin. Quickly, I stood up, grabbed my carry-on bags, and joined the line of people slowly making their way to the exit. Elation, excitement, and curiosity welled up in the pit of my stomach when I reached the door and peered out into the tropical night. I had read many guidebooks about the Gambia in the months preceding this trip but reading about Africa was nothing compared to being here!
Soon, I was on the bus that would take us to the main building. The crazy wind swirled in through the open windows of the bus, evaporating the sweat in my hair. I felt so free and alive. I knew that I had landed in a strange, yet special place, and I could not wait to learn everything that I could about it.
“Ca va?” asked a clean-cut youth standing next to me.
“Ca va bien,” I smiled and nodded, thanking God that I knew some basic French.
After getting off the bus, I promptly found the immigrations check and got through without any problems. I rushed to the baggage claim wondering if my suitcases had made it, praying that no one would run off with any of them. I knew that the chance of this happening was great because the baggage claim system was not so organized, and everyone was just grabbing his or her own luggage off of the belt. Thankfully, both suitcases appeared on the belt and I hauled them off
All of a sudden, from out of nowhere, a cheerful fellow appeared and approached me. He was wearing a short sleeve plaid shirt, faded jeans, and worn tennis shoes. His eyes had a special twinkle in them that reached into my soul. The warm smile on his face gave him a youthful appearance, yet the wisdom that I saw in his eyes betrayed his age.
Extending his arms, he exclaimed, “Welcome to Senegal, this is your first stop to paradise!”
“It’s great being here,” I answered, grateful to be with someone familiar.
Richard, the chief director of Family Care Gambia was well know with the customs staff, so he got all my luggage through quickly. Soon, we were on our way to the home of some missionary friends. We stayed there for a few days relaxing and making new acquaintances. After this much needed rest, I excitedly prepare for the last leg of our journey. We bade everyone farewell, and get on with our journey. Finally, we boarded the bus that would take us to our final destination: the Gambia.
On the way to the Gambia, I curiously studied the dry and dusty scenery, the colorful local modes of dress, the old dusty vehicles, as well as an occasional shiny new Benz. I mused that in general, Africans seemed cheerful in spite of the miserable surroundings they lived in. Whenever the bus stopped, children, old ladies, and young people would climb on to sell their snacks: peanuts, cashews, cold drinks, minties (hard candies), cold water in plastic bags, and even cooked meat! The bus rumbled and bounced on as I drifted between semi-consciousness and this strange new world around me. As much as I tried to keep my eyes open and “see the sights”, the hot air dulled my senses and caressed me to sleep.
Off and on during the whole trip, (when I was awake) Richard provided me with plenty of exciting stories (all amazing true accounts) and a running narration on everything that I saw. This helped make the long, hot, and dusty trip extra special.
Soon, I reached the border. The immigrations check was quick and before I knew it, I was succumbing to sleep again. When Richard and I stepped off in Barra (the place to catch the ferry that crossed the bay to Banjul port), I found myself surrounded by a throng of youths who were calling out, “tubab, tubab!” (The Wolof word meaning “white person”.) They all tried to give us a hand with the luggage, hoping that we would give them good money for their help. Richard, who had experience handling these guys, made a deal with a young lanky fellow who began to load our suitcases on the trolley.
Richard pointed to a big ferry stuffed with people. “We’ll get on that ferry, cross the bay, and when we get to the other side, we’ll look for a taxi to get us home. How are you doing? Would you like a ‘Gambian Popsicle’?”
I accepted his offer, more out of curiosity than desire, and stood by as he talked to a young girl with a platter of odd rectangular plastic bags filled with orange and red stuff. Could it be that those were the popsicles? Richard grabbed two of them and handed me one. I gingerly took the cold wet bag, simultaneously imagining monster germs crawling all over the outside of the bag. If I had know that these same germs had already been crawling all over my hands and body for quite some time and that my body’s defenses were adjusting accordingly, I could’ve have saved myself from being so concerned about it.
I looked over the package in my hand, and finally figured out that I was supposed to cut off the corner and suck out the stuff inside. JUMMM. It was messy, but fun; primitive, yet very refreshing. On that very hot day, I thanked God for the ‘Gambian Popsicle’!
On the ferry, Richard and I enjoyed a breathtaking view of the bay and breathed in the crisp ocean air. The ferry was so crowded that I could barely move and besides that, everyone eyed us curiously the whole time. Finally, we were off the ferry and searching for a taxi. Bargaining was standard procedure in the Gambia, and was especially useful to us, being “tubabs”. After some bargaining, Richard found a driver who was willing to take us for a decent price. Richard explained that the car was in the shop getting fixed, hence the taxi ride.
“No problem,” I said as I tried to wipe off the sweat that was pouring down my temples. “It’s more of a cultural experience this way!”
“This is about as hot as it will get and there’s a nice cool breeze continuously blowing on the coastal areas. This makes Gambian climate the most pleasant of all West African climates.” Richard looked at me reassuringly. “In this taxi, it’s hot like an oven, but once you get out, you’ll be refreshed by the breeze.”
“I bet it’s hot up country,” I exclaimed.
You bet it is!” laughed Richard, “Sintet is a whole other story. You’ll find out soon enough. We’re taking a trip there in two days.”
Richard pointed out hotels, touristic spots, and other points of interest, as we drove. The taxi turned into a dirt back road and he said, “This is our road! We’re here!”
Wide-eyed barefoot kids were playing on the pot-holed street as their “boss-lady” mamas look on. I took note of the impoverished conditions the people lived in as I saw door-less and window-less compounds with rusty tin roofs. Richard pointed out the compound next to our home and said, “see how it is nicely painted with brown enamel paint? We donated the paint to them and helped them to paint their compound.”
As the taxi slowed to a stop in front of the big brown gate of Richard’s compound, kids with big smiles surround it. They waved and started to sing “boogie-boogie-boogie and a cha-cha-cha!” when they saw Richard. Richard explained that this song was their favorite from the repertoire of songs that his family sung during the weekly porch program they held for the neighborhood kids. (During this program, the kids were taught basic school and a Bible story. They also sang songs, got their hands washed and their nails clipped, and received any first-aid care that was needed.)
I walked into the compound and felt like I was in an oasis in the middle of a desert. It’s not that the terrain outside of the compound was so dry and bare, but it was the contrast between the lush greenery in the yard and the dusty vegetation outside, that made it seem so. Several varieties of tropical shrubs, plants, and trees lined the walls surrounded the house. There were a few banana tees planted in strategic places and there was a great big avocado tree in the middle of the front yard. To the far right, I spied what appeared to be a small wading pool. There was a barbecue pit (I later found out that it was hand made by Richard) close to the avocado tree. I also noticed that the yard was teeming with life. I knew that if I were to look closely, I would find a great variety of small creatures. The brightly colored birds that flied to and fro and the chirping sparrows attracted my attention.
My thoughts were broken by the pitter-patter of kids feet and cheerful giggles. Before I knew it, the kids and adults in the home surrounded me. They ushered me into the house, gave me a grand tour, and asked me every question imaginable about my trip and loved ones back home. After a bite to eat, some chitchat, and a cool refreshing shower, I settled into a deep sleep.
During my first few days in the Gambia, I got used to the daily power cuts, I rested and recuperated, and I visited the local beach, which was just a ten-minute walk from the house. There, I got to know the stray dogs, the jellyfish, the bare-foot football (soccer) players, the ladies selling fruit and peanuts, the bumpsters, (A “bumptster” is exactly what the name implies: someone who “bumps” into you and tries to befriend you, most often with ulterior motives. Bumpsters have become professional here in the Gambia. They know just what to say to unsuspecting tourists to attract their sympathy. “Bumpsterism” –no, you won’t find the word in the dictionary!–has become one of few career choices in this country.) the sand and sun, and the rejuvenating Gambian sea breeze. I made sure to lather on the sun block after hearing horror stories about what the sun could do to me in this country. After an afternoon of fun in the sun, I returned home to find out that the long awaited trip to Sintet village would take place the next day! Excitedly, I packed a small bag and was ready to go!
On the day of my adventure, I woke up with the cheerful chirping birds. The sun was just dawning so I decided to eat my breakfast outside and enjoy the fresh morning air. A few hours later, after the jeep had been packed with supplies (gardening tools, bags of cement, guitars, sleeping bags, etc.) Richard, some of the young people, and I piled into the jeep to commence the journey. We prayed for protection and direction, and were on our way! There was something unique about the feeling I got as we drove through the Gambian countryside. Maybe it was the hot air blowing on my face and turning my hair into a wild melee, the palm trees and termite hills dotting the horizon, or the unpredictable crisp clear blue African sky, that made the experience a romantic and adventurous one! And I was told that when the sun set, I would thrill in the vibrant red, orange, and yellow hues!
After a few hours of driving through the bush (which was a luscious, jungle-like green because of the monsoon season) we arrived at the village of Sintet. The village kids came out to greet us with their arms waving gladly, singing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands…He’s Got the Sintet High School in His Hands…” After hearing “what is your name” one hundred times, and shaking an equal amount of hands, we were all ushered to a clearing where the villagers were gathering for some dancing. I watched the dancing and concluded that the steps were easy enough and I felt brave enough to try it out. With cheers, I (the new tubab) was pulled into the center to wiggle. Boom Boom Boom. Tap Tap Tap. Wiggle Wiggle Wiggle. Shake Shake Shake. The drums went on as I shook my bottom and hopped around, lifting my knees, and shuffling my feet back and forth. The festivities went on for some time and the villagers exuded such a welcoming joy that I felt right at home. When the crowd dispersed and the festivities died down, I noticed that I was hungry and very wet from my perspiration. Just as those thoughts crossed my mind, one of the village women presented me with a plate of delightfully prepared chicken. In this case, hunger was the best spice and I thoroughly enjoyed this culinary delight!
My next concern was where to wash up and when I inquired about it, I was taken to meet Mr. Casey, one of the teachers in Sintet. He helped me to get settled and introduced me to the “African shower”. This shower, consisted of a circular cement area, a big bucket full of water with a cup to pour, and an adjustable wall woven out of natural fibers (leaves, straw, etc.) for privacy. The wall reached up to my neck, just below my chin, so as I stood there in my birthday suit, I was well aware of the village children curiously watching me. Only then did I notice that there were plenty of peep holes in this wall. So much for privacy!
Later, I went to the school site where Family Care Gambia was overseeing the construction. The scenery around the school was breathtaking, looking very much like a scene out of “National Geographic”. Some of the villagers were there learning how to make mud bricks out of a mixture of mud and cement. I joined in with them and gave them a hand. I spent the rest of the day working on the school building. Soon, the sun disappeared and shadows fell over the village. I decided to go to sleep early and wake with the morning sun, forgetting that I had not even eaten dinner yet. That night, as I lay on my sleeping bag inside the tent, I reviewed the day’s events. There was a wonderful sense of accomplishment in my heart as I recalled the multitude of smiles that had come my way on this wonderful day. Gently, I started to slip away to the land of dreams. The sounds of the night creatures combined to form exotic tunes that played over and over in my dreams, giving me the impression that I was in the midst of a dense, mysterious jungle…
I pushed through the inky darkness and moist vegetation that surrounded me on all sides. I couldn’t remember how I had gotten there but I knew that I was in a jungle. I knew that its nocturnal inhabitants surrounded me on all sides. I knew that somehow I had to make it back to my tent.
Then I heard it! It was just a trace of a growl over to my left that caused a shiver to go up my spine. I stopped in my tracks and swerved towards the sound as my eyes strained to find some intelligible form in the shadows before me. Nothing. But the growling sound was getting unmistakably louder and I dared not move. I groped around with my hands until I felt something solid and rough. A tree. Slowly, I crouched down beside it and began to pray, as the growling grew louder & louder.
Suddenly, my body jerked up as I opened my eyes and found myself back in the tent being nudged by something alive on the outside of it. “Only a dream,” I mumbled, still incoherent but very apprehensive. Whatever it was that I was leaning against was growling fiercely. Then reality hit. I laughed. My heart was still racing faster than you can imagine and my body was drenched in sweat. Yet, here I was sitting in my tent at 3 a.m. laughing until my sides ached. I zipped open the tent door and stuck my head out to find two big round hound dog eyes staring back at me.
“Hey you!” I shouted, “Let me sleep! I thought you were a lion for a minute there!” I chuckled at my last thought. Hundreds of years ago, lions roamed the Gambian bush country, but these days the only lions you’d find would be the ones at the national zoo, and they looked like they couldn’t hurt a gnat! Casey’s dog stared me down for a few seconds and then decided that he had better things to do. He sauntered back towards his master’s house just a few meters away. I sighed with relief, zipped the door shut, and settled down to finish what was left of my night’s sleep.
It seemed as if I had just closed my eyes when I was again staring up at the roof of my tent. I checked my watch. Only one hour had passed since my encounter with the dog. Now, it was a host of birds, parrots, wild creatures, and a few stray goats here and there, that had roused me from comfortable slumber. Soon, the sun would be making its glorious debut for the day. I had planned to wake with the morning sun, yet nature had insisted that I wake with the morning animal population. I was still sleepy, but didn’t dare go back to sleep and face another interruption. That morning, I walked out by the river and watched the sun rise in all of its colorful majesty and glory. The air began to warm up and the villagers began to stir. Soon, a group of village kids were following me around everywhere. Since I was new to the village, they took me on a tour of the village and surrounding country. We explored the river, visited the monkeys, rode horses, rested under the shade of a large mango tree and ate fruit from the same, and then went to the school site to continue construction work. I stayed in Sintet one more day and night during which our team (the FCG team) taught the village kids basic school and bible stories, sang with the villagers, and worked on building the school.
On our departure day, thick threatening clouds covered our hitherto clear African sky. We braced ourselves for the fierce tropical storm that was brewing. Streaks of lightning lit up the sky, and then deep rumbling thunder echoed through the countryside. Drops as thick as small pebbles fell from the sky, pelting us as we ran for shelter. Within seconds, torrents of water poured from the sky. The dark gray clouds seemed to extend their wispy fingers towards the ground, as if they wanted to grab a hold of it and shake it in their fury. It is an awesome sight indeed! Also, I experienced a most exhilarating feeling finding myself in the midst of this storm and seeing the lightning strike so close that the electricity in the air around me made the hairs on the back of my neck stand straight up. Not only that, but the ground shook so much that I almost toppled over! This was my first experience with an electrical storm at such close range; one that I would never forget.
After the storm ended, we said our goodbyes, packed up our stuff, and headed home. The sun came out and began its job of drying up the countryside, giving the roadside foliage a steamy look. The ride home passed quickly as we talked about our adventures, cracked jokes, and enjoyed the ride.
That evening, I stretched out on the cool beach sand as I reflected on my visit to the Gambia. This was my last night here, tomorrow I’d be on my way up to Dakar, where I would get on an airplane bound for home. The power was out at the house so a few of us had decided to come out to the beach and enjoy its nighttime delights. I dug my toes into the refreshing sand and inhaled the crisp cool ocean air that was swirling all around me. I looked down the shore and saw that most everyone was funning on the sand and splashing in the water. I was alone with the rhythmic waves that broke on the shore, separating into clusters of delightful fluorescent white droplets.
The Gambian experience: one I would never forget and would carry around in my heart always.
Would you like to know about a parenting activity, which is exciting, educational, thrilling, unique, captivating, and fulfilling?
Recently, I was able to find out when my 5 year-old son Chris and I went on a trip to the village of Sintet, where we are helping to build a school. The joy that he and I shared together as we saw things we had never seen before, and experienced the adventurous sensation of living in the African bush, will be embedded in my heart forever.
Up until this trip, I had enjoyed the thrill of visiting the village vicariously through the hair-splitting and gut-rocking tales that were told by teams returning from the village. Since my twin babies were old enough to eat and drink bottles, and a team needed to make a short one and a half day trip to the village, I grabbed the chance to go. I talked it over with my husband and others on the team, and committed the idea to prayer. Soon we all agreed that I should take Chris on his first village mission!
We packed a small suitcase with our bare essentials and got a good night’s sleep. The next day we were ready for anything the day would bring. Soon we were on the road ready for adventure. Chris sat in a cozy spot in the jeep that Grandpa had prepared for this special occasion. For most of the trip, all I could hear was his excited voice saying, “What’s this? Oh mommy, look! Grandpa, can you take a photo of me on the termite hill?” I could understand his emotion as I too could feel it welling up within me as I took in my surroundings. The rainy season was just barely starting and was beginning to transform the dry “bush” to a gorgeous green color. We saw mosques along the way, elephant trees (huge Baobab trees whose trunks are bigger than a car in most cases), and a lot of termite hills! Once-in-a-while we’d pass by some overwhelmingly beautiful spots, which I called, “enchanted spots”, because that was the feeling they evoked in me. These spots were a mixture of low rolling hills, rice-patties, coconut trees, ponds, and farmers (often children) peacefully tilling the land.
Half way through the trip, we stopped at the office of one of our charitable organization’s trustees. He immediately had someone bring us a large bowl of Benechin and a few spoons. We dug into one of the most typical and delicious Gambian dishes available. The local way to eat Benechin is by taking it in your right hand (never the left!), squeezing all the oil out of it, and popping it in your mouth. As you can imagine, that can become a messy procedure, so I was relieved to be able to use the spoons!
Once again, we were on the road to Sintet with our bellies full and with happy hearts. An hour or two before we would arrive in Sintet, Dad (my father-in-law) decided to take a detour off the main road. He wanted to check out this riverside camping area that was announced on a roadside sign. The sign stated that the place was only five minutes away, so we adventure seekers decided to check it out! We turned down the rugged country lane and began our exploration. We drove and drove and drove some more until we realized that five minutes had long passed and there was still no sign of the campsite or the river! In spite of this delay in seeing our hoped for destination, we enjoyed the interesting sights along the way: a swamp full of twisted trees that seemed to be struggling against thick domineering vines, farmers tilling the land with hand ploughs, stray chickens, goats, and dogs, white towering termite hills, and wild vegetation on all sides of us.
Eventually, we reached what looked like the camping area and found out it was actually a village called Bitang-Bolong, that used to run a camping site in its more prosperous times. We spent time talking to the villagers, looking around and taking photos. Chris and I learned how to pound millet, or at least tried to! We couldn’t’t master it like the locals do! We also took a photo with some of the village kids in front of a giant Baobab tree. One interesting thing about the Baobab tree is that each village has one that the villagers reverence deeply. These trees live to be hundreds of years old, so it’s no wonder that they have a spiritual, almost superstitious impact on the villagers!
We spent about 45 minutes at this village and then we were on our way to Sintet again. The next two hours passed quickly and soon we were driving up the dirt road that led up to Sintet village. The countryside was gorgeous and I just couldn’t’t keep my eyes from darting everywhere as we drove up a cashew tree lined dirt lane. The school site was up ahead and we could see a large crowd gathered there. Joe and teen Richard were at work directing the construction. As we drove up, the village children crowded around our jeep flashing gorgeous white smiles. As soon as Chris got out of the jeep, the village kids surrounded him and helped him to get better acquainted with everything.
The kids were pushing around these cars made out of cut up plastic bottles, the rubber base of a flip-flop, and long sticks. I thought this was really cool! Soon Chris had his very own village-crafted push car and was running around pushing it over anthills and through puddles with the crowd of boys running after him!
We had only been there for 10 minutes when Chris came running up to me with an anxious expression on his face.
“Mommy, I need to go to the bathroom!”
I looked at him and asked, “#1 or #2?”
“Just pee mom.”
“Ok”, I said, “let’s go find a spot!”
I looked off in the distance and saw a grove of trees that looked promising. I proceeded to pull Chris towards the trees. The crowd started to follow us and I told them to just wait by the school. We reached the grove and picked a large tree with a fat trunk to hide behind. I could see that some of the village kids were chuckling at our predicament. Then I noticed that Chris had a strange look on his face and was looking at me with wide round eyes.
“Mommy,” he whispered.
“What is it?” I asked a little worried at what he would answer.
“I have to go doo doo.”
“Oh my,” I mumbled under my breath as I began to frantically search for a stick. I found one and began to dig a hole. Anyone who has tried to dig a hole with a skinny stick under desperate circumstances can testify that it is no easy feat! Every time I looked towards the group of boys waiting by the school, I could see them laughing and enjoying our “performance” very much. Chris and I laughed about it ourselves, and after covering up the hole with dirt and cleaning up, we talked about how funny a tale it would be to tell daddy when we got home! I was thankful I had brought a small pouch with toilet paper, a small bottle of disinfectant, and other essential toiletries in it.
Soon Chris was back with the boys running all over the place. I tagged along after him, trying my best to keep up. Eventually, we arrived at Mr. Casey’s house (he’s a sweet dedicated man from Ghana that teaches at the Sintet School. He lets us stay in his small 2-room house and we also set up a tent in his back yard) to unpack our stuff and prepare for the fast-approaching evening. There is no electricity in the village, so by the time darkness falls, most people go to bed. It was fun to get Chris ready for bed because he had to wash up in an African style shower. The shower was a round cement area with an adjustable wall made out of dry grass, leaves, and other natural fibers. There was a bucket of water (taken from the well) inside with a small cup for pouring. Chris got a kick out of washing up and brushing his teeth in there!
On the way back to our tent, we stopped to admire the sky that was chuck full of stars. I pointed out some constellations and a planet. We marveled at how clearly we could see everything. We got back to the tent and Chris laid down to listen to a “tailored for the occasion” story from Mommy! We said a prayer together and talked about the night creatures we could hear. Chris fell asleep with their exotic sounds resounding all around him and a smug smile on his face.
I woke up early the next morning to wash up, pray, and prepare for the day. When I got back to the tent, Chris was stretching his two arms up above his head and with a well-rested voice said, “Mommy, this is going to be a fun day!” I knew it was true so I heartily agreed. A few of Chris’ new village friends were standing a far off, waiting for us to come out of the tent. They kept calling for him to come and play. I told them that Chris had to eat breakfast and have some devotional reading first. We did all this within the space of an hour and then I got my teaching materials together for the morning class I would be giving to the village kids. The kids, knowing what I was up to, eagerly followed us around while I made the necessary preparations. Chris took out his picture dictionary and some storybooks and began reading to the kids who were crowded around him. Dad helped me to find a nice quiet spot in front of a Baobab tree to give the class. We sang some action songs first. Then I told the story of the creation of the world using flannel graphs. Finally, I reviewed some basic scholastic themes: colors, common animals, following directions, sight words, counting to ten, etc. Chris was my assistant teacher and he did a great job!
The boys really wanted us to see the monkeys, so we were soon on our way through the fields to the “monkey playground”, as they called it. As we approached the spot, I could see several large monkeys playing in the tall grass by some trees but we were too far away to see them in detail. I knew that as soon as the monkeys caught sight of us, they would disappear so I told the boys at the head of the procession to creep up slowly so as to not scare the monkeys away. But no sooner had I said that, the boys (including Chris) all broke into a run towards the field of monkeys. Instantly, the monkeys were on to us and darted away in all directions. By the time we reached the spot, not one was to be found. We searched around for a little while but didn’t see or hear any. We were about to leave, when one of the boys motioned for us to be quiet and slowly pointed up to a large tree. Our eyes followed his finger and beheld a long snake about one foot thick hanging off a branch high above us. I thought it looked very much like an Anaconda, but then I remembered that Anacondas were water snakes and they lived in S. America. I mentioned the name to the boys and they just shrugged their shoulders and told me the name in their native language. Whatever it was, it was massive and had Chris mesmerized! It sort of reminded me of the snake scene in the “Jungle Book”, especially when I saw it let one of its huge coils hand off the branch. After some time, it slithered out of sight on to some higher branches and I heaved a sigh of relief!
One of the boys let Chris taste this fruit that I had never seen before called “tao”. It had a yellow-red moon shaped shell (somewhat like that of a passion fruit) and when you cracked it open, it had six to eight red square shaped one-inch seeds that you chewed on. If you ask me to liken its taste to a common fruit, I’d say it tastes like banana. Chris like the fruit so much. I asked the boys where we could get more and they pointed off into the distance to a very large tree.
“We take you there!” they all said enthusiastically.
The hot morning sun was almost directly above us and I was starting to feel fatigued. I sipped some once-cold-now-warm water from my water jug and felt somewhat renewed. Chris was as energetic as ever and didn’t’t seem to be bothered by the sun. We started off across the fields and reached the Tao tree in five minutes. The tree was a large one with thick branches that spread out at least 21 feet on all sides. The shade it offered was a pleasant relief after our midday trek across the fields. I looked up into the tree and noticed that although it had low-reaching branches, most of the fruit was way up high. I couldn’t figure out how the boys would collect the fruit. I didn’t have to wonder long because they all started climbing up the tree until it was full of clinging and swinging boys. I started to protest but stopped when I realized that these kids knew what they were doing! Chris and I looked up in wonder and amusement as they moved from branch to branch like monkeys. As they began to throw the fruit down, I felt a tug on my sleeve. I turned to see who it was. One of the boys who had stayed earthbound said, “mom, we must go! The fruit will hit us!” He was so right! Fruit was raining down on all sides of us and we got out of that spot real quick! Amazingly, there was only one casualty among those of us who had remained in the “safety” of the ground. Chris comforted the little boy who had gotten hit on the head until his crying subsided. (Note: A few of the kids stuck with Chris and me through thick and thin, until the very end. These kids grew quite close to us and began to call me “mom”. It was their own special way to say that they appreciated the love and attention we were giving them; so sweet!)
In general, African children are quite tough because of the hardships that they face every day. I’ve seen African kids bear incredible pain without shedding a tear and when they do cry, it doesn’t last very long. Inside their tough exterior, there is a tender heart like a sponge waiting to soak up all the love it can! Chris and I befriended these kids and gave them as much attention as we could. This was just as fulfilling, if not more, than seeing the construction of the school progressing each day. I’m glad I had the chance to get to know these kids in a more personal way.Soon there were piles of fruit everywhere. I called up to the boys and told them that we had plenty. I wondered how we would carry it all back. Of course, they knew the way to do it. They just used their shirts like pouches and we all headed back to the school site so we could store the fruit in the jeep.
On our way to the school, we met up with Dad and Joe in the jeep and they asked us if we wanted to go to the place where they were digging up red dirt for the road in front of the school. We got to the digging site where Chris readily joined the workers as they shoveled piles of red dirt into the back of the jeep.
Soon, we’d be packing up to go home again and I would be reunited with the twins, my two year-old son, and my wonderful husband. Most of the boys were now busy working so I quietly took Chris’ hand and stole away towards the school. There was one place we hadn’t explored yet and I didn’t want to leave without seeing it. Beyond the school, I could see the Sintet River (part of the Bitang Bolong River which is an offshoot of the River Gambia) stretching out far and wide. It looked a little bit like a swamp with dead tree stumps rising out of its waters. The river is brackish and can’t sustain plant-life well. One interesting thing to note is that the villagers have to use well water to irrigate their crops because the river water is no good.
Chris and I both wanted to see the river so we started for it but this boy kept telling us that the river was dangerous, haunted, and full of devils. I told him, “listen, we have God on our side to protect us and whether it’s haunted or not, we’re going!”
I asked Chris what he thought we should do and he answered, “let’s pray and find out.” We stopped and prayed, and then both felt we should go. Two of the village boys who had proclaimed themselves to be Chris’ best friends and my “sons”, accompanied us as we set off towards the river. We had lots of fun studying the termite hills along the way and inspecting all kinds of plant life. When we reached the river, we immediately noticed schools of fish darting about just underneath the water’s surface. The bottom of the river was full of mud and silt. I cringed at the thought of ever stepping in. I’d been told that there were crocodiles and piranhas in the river. I kept my eyes open for any telltale signs of those infamous creatures. We had a rather uneventful yet pleasing time as we walked up the river towards Casey’s house. Eventually, we ended up at his house and started packing up our stuff to go.
Dark clouds were gathering so we were hoping to beat the rain. Before we left Sintet Village, one of Chris’ dearest prayers was answered. Ever since arriving at the village, he wanted to have a photo taken of himself with a baby goat in his arms. During our stay in the village, we saw many goats grazing here and there but they were much too big and lively for Chris to hold. I told him that he would have to pray for it to happen and trust God for Him to make a way. He prayed so earnestly with all the faith of a five year-old (that’s strong faith!) and I sincerely prayed along with him. Sure enough, the time came when one of the village kids stopped at his house so that we could meet his family. He also showed us a baby goat that had been born a few days earlier. Chris tenderly held it in his arms and was so endearing to it. I could see how thankful he was that God had answered his prayer. Isn’t that cute? God is so good to us and always makes a way when something is His Will. I captured the moment by taking the photo that Chris wanted.
A few hours later, after a pleasant ride, we were approaching civilization again. “Civilization” in this case meant that we were now in a place that had electricity (some of the time), hotels, pharmacies, restaurants, normal bathrooms, and semi-paved roads. When compared to what most of us have been used to for our whole lives, this wouldn’t be considered to be modern enough. But we’ve gotten used to this level of civilization after living here for a while. If we were to visit a place like New York City or Sao Paulo, or even Kingston, R.I., we would experience a good dose of culture shock!
We made it home and had a candle-lit dinner (there was no power as usual). It was nice to be home again and I was happily reunited with my husband, twin babies, and two year-old son. Chris surprised me with all the energy he still had in him in spite of the constant activities he had at the village.
My visit to Sintet Village with Chris was an extraordinary experience. It was a cultural experience like no other that I’ve had. —And this is coming from someone who has traveled through every S. American country (save four) as well as all over the U.S.A.! Ultimately, what made it so special and unique is that I shared the experience with my son. We learned a lot together and literally “lived” what many people only read about in schoolbooks or see on TV. As my kids grow up, I’d like to give each of them the chance to experience the thrill of partaking of a foreign culture and helping those in need.
In reality, you don’t have to visit a village our in the “bush” to have a bona fide cultural experience. Everywhere in the world there is a cultural experience waiting to be found. Many nations are multi-national and are a melting pot of various races. All it takes is for us to have the initiative to step out of our cozy circles and reach out to others.
P.S. Recipe for Benechin : 3.5 lbs. (1.5kg) of fish cut in steaks (or beef), 4 oz. (125 g) tomato paste, 12 oz (400 g) cooking oil, 2 hot red peppers, 4 oz (125 g) dried fish (optional), 8 oz (250g) carrots, 1 small cabbage quartered, 10 oz (300g) cassava root (or potato) peeled and cut into pieces, 10 oz (300g) sweet potatoes peeled and cut in 1/2 , 6 oz (200g) pumpkin (or squash) peeled and cut in chunks, 10 oz (300g) of aubergines (eggplant) unpeeled and cut in ½ , 6 oz (200g) turnips peeled and cut in chunks, 3 large onions, 2 cloves of garlic, parsley, salt, black pepper, bay leaf, 3.5 lbs., (1.5kg) rice (pref. small grain)
Chop ½ the red pepper, onions, garlic, and parsley. Pound it together (or blend) with a pinch of salt to make a paste. Stuff a small amount into a slit made in each fish steak. Slice onions and fry gently in oil, add dried fish, then the stuffed fish steaks. Slice onions and fry gently in oil, add dried fish, then the stuffed fish steaks, and fry until golden. Remove fish, add the tomato paste diluted in 3 liters water, and bring to a boil. Simmer, covered for 20 minutes. Remove the fish pieces, then the vegetables as they become cooked. Place in a dish, pour some of the sauce over them and keep warm until all have been cooked. When everything has been removed from the sauce, put aside a little of the sauce, then pour the rice into the remaining liquid. (There should be about twice the amount of liquid to rice.) Cook until absorbed. No liquid should remain. Turn the rice on to a large platter or into a big bowl with the fish and vegetables arranged on top. Serve with lemon quarters and extra juice in a jug.
To Senegal and Back
Pls. click on the photos to enlarge them! 😉
Our son Chris had to get some paperwork sorted out, which meant a trip to Senegal…and I was required to be with him at the Embassy! Wow, I looked at little two month-old Kyle wondering if he was up to it, wondering if I was up to it, wondering if it was God’s Will. A nice airline flight? Out of the question: too expensive for our small missionary budget. I kept thinking that maybe Simon could go with him and sort it out so I could just stay back home, comfortable as ever. But when we prayed and sought counsel from everyone, it seemed sure that I should go. Ok, so then I got excited. If God wanted us to go, of course we could handle it, and it would be fun! Now that I look back, it was fun to travel cross-country in the African bush. But we did pass through our share of discomforts, and you know what? Both Chris and Kyle were mega-shiners through it all! I’m so proud of them!
We had an excellent guide, Laurent, my French/Syrian brother-in-law, who had been across the Senegalese border plenty of times. He knew how to handle the people and get the deals. God bless him! Jayne, my sister-in-law came along too so we were an interesting little group of travelers. We set off bright and late, at around 12:30 pm. When we got to the port to catch the ferry across, we found out that the ferry was broken. After waiting for some time under the hot sun, we decided that maybe we should return early the next morning to catch the first ferry of the day. It didn’t seem like this ferry was going to be going anywhere anytime soon. So, we walked out and waited for a way to get back home. Then someone ran out telling us that the ferry was leaving! What?? We ran back into the port, bags, baby, and all, and got on the ferry just as it pulled out. Phew! We climbed up the top to sit down and enjoy the expanse of ocean (the bay) on our left and the distant outline of land ahead of us. Halfway across the bay, something was wrong. The ferry’s engine was spluttering and the ferry was swaying more than normal. We started talking about the sharks that were swimming around underneath us…then the engine went dead. We started drifting to our left…out to sea. We began to imagine it and Jayne began to feel it. This suspense and thrilling fear only lasted a minute until the engine started up again and we were going back on course. Thank God for His solutions!
Our trip to Dakar consisted of about seven hours of cramming ourselves in and out of hot, sweaty bush taxis. I couldn’t stop the car whenever I wanted to for Kyle’s diaper-change, so he had to “endure hardness (and wetness) as a good little soldier of Jesus Christ”. I wasn’t able to take in any landmarks on the way up because I was concentrated on keeping Kyle happy; thankfully he slept a lot. We arrived in Dakar at about 9:30 p.m. As always, we got a wonderful welcome from the missionary home there and they really set us up comfortably. God bless them!
Dakar felt like being back in civilization, the “big city” again. I love living in The Gambia for its simplicity and calm atmosphere. But nothing beats visiting Dakar with endless choices of places to go. Of course, you have to remember that I’m comparing Gambia and Senegal, the only African countries I’ve been in so far! Oh yes, one of the things I love about Dakar is being able to hear French and practice the little bit that I know. I had a good chance to practice one day when we were in town getting photos made. It was lunch time and of course, we were a little bit hungry. We decided to see if we could get some food donated to us. We found this cute little schwarma place. A schwarma is a Lebanese sandwich made from pita bread rolled around roasted lamb, tahini sauce, tomato, fries, onions, and spices. I walked in with Simon and Chris at my side and Kyle in my arms and smiled at the man in charge. The typical intro I use when it seems like I’ll have to venture out of my English-speaking world into a French-speaking world is: “Parlez vous Anglais?” And, of course, the French-speaker will look at me like I’m crazy. How dare you imply that I speak English; it’s such an inferior language! Hey, maybe I’m exaggerating a little bit but that’s the general response I get! So he didn’t speak English, and I believed him. I plunged right in with my broken sentences, showing him my album, hoping that this time the photos of our mission work would indeed speak a thousand words!
He cracked a small smile and chuckled a bit at my trying, and then started to say something that I didn’t understand. So I started all over again, asking the girl next to me to translate (I found out she spoke English) and then she told me that he had already agreed to help! We sat down and waited and a few minutes later, voila! We had three pipin’ hot schwarmas in our hands! We gave him a “What Everyone Needs is Love” poster in French and thanked him.
Another opportunity to practice our foreign languages was at the Brazilian Embassy. We were attended by a very helpful girl from Capo Verde (an island off the coast of Senegal) who made sure we had plenty of Portuguese conversation! Everything went smoothly at the Embassy so two days after arriving in Dakar, we were ready to go home. This time we would travel back on our own without Laurent to guide us. This is where the real adventure began!
We had been told that there was a bus that would take us all the way to the ferry so that we wouldn’t have to keep switching from car to car with our luggage. By this time we had two very big duffle bags full of donated food from the Dakar mission home. They told us that the bus left at four a.m. but that we would have to arrive at one a.m. in order to insure a place on the bus.
Believe it or not, when we arrived at one a.m. there were already 33 people in line before us! We got our tickets and then sat on the hard benches to wait out the rest of the night. Chris made himself as comfortable as he could on one of the benches and quickly fell asleep. Simon and I took turns holding Kyle as the hours slowly crawled by. One hour before the bus was supposed to arrive we heard that the bus had broken down. What to do? We weren’t sure. We thought of going back to the mission home but that meant that we would have to do it all over again the next day. We had made it this far and we just wanted to get home. The only problem we had was that we didn’t know how to find the taxis that drove to the border.
Then a friendly Senegalese lady who we had been talking to and had given a poster to, told us that she would take us to the taxis and travel to Gambia with us. As crazy as it seemed we decided to go with her by faith, not really knowing what was ahead of us. We got to the taxi depot and soon were crammed into the taxi with 6 other people. Soon our journey back began. The taxi driver drove like crazy down the streets of Dakar at five in the morning. All I could do was pray and imagine the angels that were flying alongside us! There was no way to lie back and sleep yet it was almost impossible to keep our eyes open.
Darkness began to gradually give way to morning light and I began to notice the landscape we were driving through. It had its own unique beauty: the dry brush and twisted Baobab trees caught the sun’s early morning rays in a breathtaking manner. I wished I had a filming camera to record it! Another Senegalese treat for the eyes was the picturesque scenes that passed before us as we traveled: villages with crowds of smiling children, mango trees laden with fruit, mud homes with straw roofs typical of those parts, herdsmen with their cattle wandering across the road, and sunny clear blue skies.
Early in the trip we came to the outskirts of a small city. Our taxi stopped at a service station where I hoped to find a decent washroom. But when I stepped out of the car, the putrid smell of garbage drove me back. We waited for some time for the driver to finish whatever he was doing (I think he was having car trouble). By the time we got out of that place, our nostrils were eager for anything fresh and clean. What a relief when we were on the road again breathing in the fresh country air again!
All of a sudden, we hit something on the road and the car began to wobble and shake violently! We pulled over and found out that we had a flat tire. Though it was frustrating to have to stop our trip when we were dying to get home, the stop was a blessing. We were able to stretch out our legs and have a bathroom break behind the Baobab trees. We also stopped and took some photos in a very typical African setting! Kyle was happy to get out of the car and have open air all around him for a change. Eventually the driver changed the tire and we were on our way again.
It wasn’t very long before we had another breakdown though. This time the engine died on us while we were passing through a small village. Soon we were surrounded by a crowd of children with big white grins, eager to shake our hands. We stayed there for some time waiting for the driver to fix the engine. We took some photos, talked to the kids, and made the best of the situation, all the while hoping that we wouldn’t miss the ferry. Finally, the tire was fixed. Back into the stuffy car we went until we reached the border where we were to switch taxis. Immigrations was a breeze; everyone there loved Kyle who was talking and gurgling away to anyone who gave him attention.
While at the border, the comfortable (take this description with a grain of salt for though it is more comfortable than the bush taxi, it still leaves a lot to be desired) bus we were supposed to have taken arrived and left, leaving us wondering whether we should’ve just waited longer when we had heard it had broken down. Anyway, somehow we ended up in the kind of van that I had always seen and dreaded. We just couldn’t find any taxis and had to take what was available. We’ve all heard the expression “packed like sardines”. This was the epitome of that expression. I just couldn’t see how they could even think of putting anyone else into the van. But they pushed and shoved until they were satisfied that another hair couldn’t possibly fit in. It was hot. Sweat was pouring down our bodies. Kyle was drenched. Flies were buzzing all around us and an array of smells wafted beneath our noses. Thankfully, the flies were avoiding Kyle. Maybe he was too clean compared to everyone else.
Our bags were all piled on top of the van tied on by ropes that seemed microscopic compared to the bundle they were supposed to hold down. What a relief it was when we started down the bumpy road toward the river and waiting ferry! The air flowed in through the windows, cleansed our lungs, and dried up all the sweat! But, as often happens in Africa, there was still trouble in the air. The drivers had crammed so many people into the van that a huge argument had erupted. One particular man kept telling a lady to move over and she wouldn’t listen to him. People were yelling back and forth and Kyle would whimper with every yell. Finally, when he started crying, Simon pulled out some “What Everyone Needs is Love” posters and passed them out. All of a sudden, everything was so quiet that I couldn’t help but look around. People were reading the posters and we finally had peace around us. Thank God!
When we were nearing the river we saw that the ferry was there! Someone had told us that the van would take us straight to the ferry but it ended up leaving us quite a ways away. When the van stopped, we jumped out and waited impatiently for our bags to be untied and thrown down off the top of the van. One minute too slow and we would miss the ferry! I could see by the look on Simon’s face that he was wondering how in the world he was going to muster the strength to run and catch the ferry with the heavy bags! As soon as I saw Simon grab hold of the bags, I grabbed hold of Kyle and my bags, gave Chris the smaller suitcase to pull, and started running like my life depended on it with Chris running by my side. It was quite possible that if we missed the ferry we would have to wait for a few more hours under the hot sun…and Kyle was starting to tell me, as nicely as he could, that he was tired of traveling.
I must’ve been a funny sight for anyone watching me as I ran towards the ferry. I saw it in slow motion. The people on the ferry were excitedly calling to me, beckoning with their hands…then faces changed, smiles turned to frowns, heads shook back and forth, and hands began to wave goodbye, as I watched the ferry pull away from the dock. Too late! I looked back to see Simon right behind me carrying the bags, undoubtedly straining every sinew in his body! There wasn’t anything we could do now but wait. So we settled down on top of our bags to catch our breath. Chris was eyeing the fishing boat on the side and I was tempted to consider it. But I knew it was way too risky to try with a baby. By then I was praying for the other ferry to miraculously come. Nobody had much hope that it would come quickly but I was desperately praying for Kyle’s sake.
Then an amazing thing happened: I saw a ferry coming across the bay towards us! Only half an hour had passed. In fifteen minutes we would be able to board the ferry. I thanked God for his faithfulness and assured both Kyle and Chris that we were almost home! Thirteen hours after we set out from the mission home in Dakar, Senegal, we were sitting on the ferry, crossing the bay towards the port of Banjul. I could barely keep my eyes open and every muscle in my body cried for rest. Chris promptly fell asleep against a local lady’s back, proof of how tiring the trip had been. He never falls asleep during the day! When we were finally home, we were so thankful to be back! But we were also thankful that we’d had the opportunity to be part of yet another African adventure!
By Laila Enarson