A glossary of Gambian terms [fiction]

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Coat of Arms of the Gambia above the national flag - two lions holding an axe and hoe, supporting a shield with hoe and axe, crossed, atop the shield is the heraldic helmet and an oil palm as a crest, at the bottom is the national motto: Progress - Peace - Prosperity - photo by M.Torres
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By Amran Gaye

Ida: a common first name, in Gambia. (After I met Ida, I began to notice other Idas in my life. I have counted six, in total, since then – always I have stopped to speak with them. And it strikes me now that I have never seen an Ida whose smile was not beautiful).

Allarba: Olof for Wednesday, a corruption of the Arabic. Allarba lies at the middle of the week, and the days turn about it, as if it were a fulcrum – the worst is over, the weekend is visible over the horizon. Everything is not so bad after all, Wednesday announces. (I met Ida on a Wednesday evening. I received the call on a Wednesday night, an almost-Thursday).

Hong-ha: red, in Olof. The color of Ida’s favorite kaba, that she wore as much as she could, when she went out. (Ida’s skin was a beautiful shade of brown, a rarity for one of her tribe. When she sat with her family she stood out like a white bean in a pot full of black ones). (see also: Deret)

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Deret: blood, in Olof. We are of the same deret, we say, to mean we are related to someone. The same deret runs in our veins. Deret is traditionally heavy, despite its liquidness – it is a weight that hangs over us. (I saw Ida bleed only twice. The first time from an errant knife, as she sliced onions. A short sharp exclamation, and I rubbed and kissed it away. The second time was night, and I never saw her bleed again after that).

Ragal: to be afraid, in Olof. Raglu is the adjectival form, used to describe that which we fear. The things we fear, that cannot harm us. (Ida had these: her nightmares, the creatures that hid behind her closed eyes and made her unable to sleep. I held her, and told her they did not exist. I told her to ignore them, that she was safe with me). Then there are the things we should fear but do not, because we do not know any better. Drunk drivers, and meaningless fights that you do not know are the last fights. The world, and time, and the hard ground, that opens to receive us. (Yaaga bawule dara, my old mother used to say. An Olof proverb: Time leaves nothing. She meant it as encouragement, at the time.)

Baken: Olof for life. literally means ‘nose’. Did the old Olof know something we did not, about life and its origins in the nose? Hariti Behna-Baken we say in Olof: a friend with whom you share life itself.
(When Ida had a cold her nose became bigger, and I made fun of her. At night she could breath only through her mouth, a rattling wheeze that kept me awake. And I would sit and watch her, mouth half open as she negotiated with the stuffy night air in the bedroom. At the death-house her nose was enlarged, too, in the same way. But her mouth was closed.)

Sutura: discretion, in Olof. Inside a Gambian home there may be poverty, the father may be unemployed, there may only be enough food for two meals a day. The woman of the house takes these things and deftly weaves around them a spell of sutura – what is seen by people outside is a happy home, with healthy children and a father who is not bad-tempered, and enough food, and clothes that are neatly laundered and ironed, so their threadbareness does not show. (At the beginning of my marriage to Ida I lost my job, to a younger man from Europe with newer certificates. We had almost nothing in savings.)

Fan-wehr: thirty, in Olof. literally ‘month days’. Two tens and a nine, the Olof say when they count. and then after that they say ‘fan-wehr’, rather than ‘three tens’. I wonder sometimes which came first – the number, or the length of the month. And if the month then when was the length set, and by whom, that it could be used as the standard by which to count. (“Fan-wehr days”, the nurse matron had told us, only three days before, “he will be born just in time for Juli”. Ida had looked at me then, and smiled, and for the first time I was not scared of her huge belly, that had so taken up space in our bed and increased the awkwardness between us).

Jaai-dorm: in Olof a swinging of the child on one’s shoulders, lifting it, as it giggles. (Ida was not such a big woman. Sometimes as I sat in our bed she would come up behind me, draping her arms about my neck and rising on her knees, as if I lifted her. I saw her in the mirror smiling, when she did this. And in those times I would wonder: did I enjoy being jaai-dormed, as a kid? It may sound foolish now, but I felt then that if the answer to that question were yes it would make me proud, in the sharing of something in our childhoods, however tenuous a connection that might be).

Maaget: to be old, in Olof. Dafa maaget, we will say. She is old. He is advanced in years. We say it as an excuse, for anything: the forgetting of facts. The rising garulousness. The inability to sit in chairs without much groaning. The refusal, of knees to bend, and feet to tread. (Ida told me once, in her quiet way, that she would not live to be old. I do not know why she said it – we had not been speking of anything at the time. We were eating lunch, and I lost my appetite then – though I said nothing I ended my eating and got up. She said nothing either, after that, not even when we were in bed).

Faateh, Olof for forgetting. It is a verb, that is not limited in the scope of things it can act upon – we forget everything, we will remember nothing. Faateh Naa!, we exclaim; dama Faateh worn, we explain. (Back then, unlike now, I always used to forget things. Sometimes it would annoy Ida. Her brow would furrow up, she would develop a little frown. Faateh-kat bileh!, she would castigate. But I felt I could not help it – the more I tried to remember things (where I had put the keys, what the number on the bill had been) the more they evaded me until, exhasperated, she asked that I begin to write them down. I suppose that is how I started writing).

Deh: Death, in Olof. I have always been fascinated by how the Olof word seems to shorten the English, to further reassert its finality. The Olof’s a noun and a verb both – the end, to become ended. (I had heard of it, in the families of others, and it had affected people I was related to, too. But Ida’s death seemed of a completely different order. You see I had thought of it before as a distant thing, but now I suddenly understood, how it lay in front of me too. I suppose that is what it made me realize).

Jaaleh: The rituals that others go through, in order to moan with you, even for a little while. Sigil kore, they say, as they walk past in file. (The Jaaleh for Ida was not a big one – I am not much for ceremonies. I deliberately did not hire chairs – people stood around for a while and then left. By the end of the day the house was empty and I was alone).