The above picture is of my host brother Sering and a whole lot of millet. It encapsulates the two biggest parts of my life in The Gambia -the Njie family who took me in with such warmth and care, and millet, so much millet.
As I reflect on my time in The Gambia the part Sering plays in my recollections is huge. He was such a help to me in so many ways. Sering was the only person in the compound I was deposited in that spoke a scrap of English when I first arrived, and by the time I left I am ashamed to say his English had far outpaced my Wolof, even though he always valiantly attempted to teach me more and continually chastised me for not studying or practicing enough. He was always looking out for me, whether it be teaching me how to weed properly, telling me when there was fresh bread at the bitik, or scolding any other children who were bugging me.
In Gambian English ‘small boy’ is a verb, as in “you can can small boy him to get the milk”. I small boyed Sering on numerous occasions. I fear this makes me sound like I treated Sering like a colonial ‘house boy’. I really hope I didn’t.
I like to think the relationship we had was reciprocal. I dearly miss helping Sering study by candlelight in my hut and witnessing the progress he made and his fascination with all the strange and delightful pictures in the magazines my family sent me in care packages.
I was recently reading my diary from my time in The Gambia and came across this experience:
Sering came back from plowing the field looking dazed and clutching his right arm. The sun was still high in the sky and he was back earlier than usual. Something was definitely wrong.
He looked in shock and near inaudibly uttered that a donkey had fallen on his arm. It definitely looked like a donkey had fallen on his arm. A slight bend near his right wrist made me queasy. I sat him down in the shade and went to fetch his mother, Fatou.
Fatou came over and took one look at Sering and burst out laughing. I dearly love this women, I’ve never known someone who works so hard. She is constantly looking out for her kids (she has seven) but her nonchalance at what I judged to be serious situation confused me. She went to get one of the older ladies in the compound who, when she saw Sering, also had a good laugh at his demonstrations of pain. The older lady, Incha Sekkah, brought over some hot coals and some vaseline, whilst Fatou asked if she could get a branch from a Neem tree in my back yard.
Incha rubbed some vaseline into Sering’s arm, the pain was evidently excruciating. She also rubbed vaseline into the neem branch and put it over the hot coals. She asked me to hold Sering and keep his left arm still. She then proceeded to grasp the singed Neem branch and press it into Sering’s right arm. He let out curdling screams as Incha violently massage his arm with the hot leaves. I held him tight as his tears flowed onto my chest. I told him it was alright and made soothing sounds, whilst feeling completely bewildered by the situation. Some more ladies from the compound were watching all the commotion and laughing.
Sering continued screaming “Doy na. Doy na. Doy na” meaning “Enough. Enough. Enough.”
Incha stopped and we let Sering slip back into a weeping heap. The ladies across the compound continued to find all this hilarious. Their hilarity elicited a a slight smirk and a shrug out of me.
The next morning Abdou, Sering’s father, asked me to ride Sering on my bike to a village 12km away where there was supposedly a Mandinka man who was adept at healing broken bones. I proposed that I take Sering to the nearest hospital, but Abdou insisted that the hospital was no good with broken bones and that the Mandinka man was much better. I didn’t want to ride my bike with a boy with a broken arm to a man who I didn’t know. I gave Abdou some money to take a vehicle to the Mandinka village. Abdou and Sering walked to the road to wait for a vehicle, Abdou as stoic as ever, Sering looking understandably apprehensive of what lay ahead.