Written on December 29th, 2011
Last week, on Friday December 23rd, I got into a Peace Corps car and left Kerr Jarga Jobe for the last time. I left behind my family, friends and the happy life I had built there over the past two years and now I'm here, facing the future and (of course) reflecting.
Goodbyes are always difficult. Goodbyes in The Gambia (for me) are made much more difficult by the fact that people very very rarely cry here. I on the other hand have crying as my default setting in most emotionally overwhelming situations so I knew that this fact alone would make the goodbyes here even more challenging. But really, in the weeks leading up to my departure I had very little idea of what to expect and this made the whole time very challenging and overwhelming.
Peace Corps talked to us a lot about planning our goodbyes. So I of course had a list of people to call, a list of people to visit, a list of compounds where I wanted to go and drink attaya one last time and a list of final lunch spots in Kerr Jarga to visit. But of course, when the time came my lists were only nominally helpful, because I found for me that the best course of action was to wake up every morning and ask myself, "What can I do today to find closure?" So I walked around a lot, spent hours lying on my toma's bed, played with the kids, and helped my host moms cook lunch. Some days I didn't feel like I wasn't doing anything or I would worry that I wasn't doing enough to say goodbye and have closure, that I would have regrets about the way I left Kerr Jarga; but I realized that I couldn't let doubts and "what ifs" paralyze my last days in village so I needed to just live in the moment and focus on the present.
My perfectly planned and orchestrated goodbye was completely destroyed (in an amazing way) on the morning of Friday, December 16th. It was like any other morning really, I was puttering around my house, making my bed, drinking tea, listening to the BBC, when suddenly my host fathers face appears in my window.
Baay Waly: "Ramatoulie, Ramatoulie, Ramatoulie" (urgently)
Me: "What?!!? What's going on?"
BW: "Yaay Sarjo (my second host mom who I have known is pregnant since August) had a baby."
Me: "WHAT?!?!? When?"
BW: "Just now."
Me: "BOY OR GIRL, BOY OR GIRL???"
Me: "AHHHHH HOLD ON I'M COMING OUT."
BW: "Ok, may Allah grant her long life."
I busted out of my house only to be met by my first host mom, Yaay Amie, with a mischievous grin on her face. "Ramatoulie, Yaay Sarjo had a baby....its a boy." To which I replied, "Yaay Amie do you not know the difference between men and women?"
To explain my level of excitement and my families level of teasing when I found out Yaay Sarjo was pregnant I really wanted her to have a girl so I could finally have a toma (namesake). I joked with her about eating good food and staying healthy for my toma and in my last weeks in village had been telling her to hurry up and have the baby before I left village. So she had done it, right down to the wire, but she gave birth to my toma exactly a week before I was to leave Kerr Jarga. This was incredibly convenient timing because here the tradition is to wait a week after the child's birth before you give them a name. Meaning that my toma, Ramatoulie, would be given her name on the day that I left Kerr Jarga for good.
I couldn't think of a more beautiful way to end things here, by leaving behind a Ramatoulie Joof to continue to be a part of the family and community. What perfect symmetry, to leave behind the ultimate reminder of my love for this family and village; I hope as Ramatoulie grows up she feels the same love and support that I have felt in my compound and community. Of course the coming of my toma made saying goodbye all the more difficult. What an honor that my host father and mothers love and respect me enough to give one of their children my name. And, as I made the joke often, now the compound will never be missing Ramatoulie because even when I'm gone my toma will always be there.
My last few days in village were a whirlwind. Many programs and meetings held in my honor to thank me. Many gifts given, many of which will not make it back to America because of their sheer ugliness. Many tears (on my part), prayers and thank yous. On my last night I spent one final time lying out on a mat under the stars, looking up at the sky and contemplating the beauty of a world where I can be Lindsey Green and Ramatoulie Joof at the same time and feel completely comfortable, loved and accepted as both people. I couldn't bear the thought of being away from my family for even a minute so my two teenage host sisters, Menghe and Mberry, slept over in my house on the final night. We slept in a sweaty pile of sisterly love.
Friday morning brought the naming ceremony. The men of the village came to sit in our compound and pray while one man shaved the hair off the babies head, prayed for the baby and gave it a name. Her name, of course, was Ramatoulie. The whole compound had the same mood, equally ecstatic and sad because as we celebrated my toma's entrance into the world we all kept listening for the sound of the Peace Corps car pulling up. I did pretty well as far as crying in front of everyone was concerned but there were many quick trips to my back yard pit latrine to shed a few tears in private. Yet, when the car finally came, it was like a whirlwind, people stormed into my house, grabbed all my stuff, and within five minutes the car was packed and I was standing, staring at the dirt wondering how I got to this place and how I could possibly get in the car. Of course, the Lindsey reaction to this moment of decision was to start balling. My host father looked at me, looked at my host moms and siblings who at this point were all crying and yelled, "STOP CRYING." Which just made me and everyone else cry more. But it was time to just take that leap and leave, so I did the very un-Gambian thing of hugging my moms. Squeezing my little buddy Alieu. And then I remembered my cultural sensitivity so I said goodbye to Mam Goor, my two year old who I've known basically since he was born, by picking him up, licking his right palm and blowing in his right eye. (All strategies told to me by old ladies to prevent his grief over my leaving from making him sick). So even at my most intense and emotional there is always some weird cultural experience to be had.
And that was it, I was in the car and I was gone. It was incredibly strange but I felt liberated and ready to move on to the next thing. I feel sad when I remember saying goodbye but ultimately I feel complete satisfaction with my time in Kerr Jarga and I know I will take those people and memories with me no matter where my next steps take me. Hopefully my time spent in Kerr Jarga has made me more honest, compassionate, thoughtful and connected to the world and my place in it and I only hope I can make all of them proud. Especially my namesake, "small" Ramatoulie.