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Monday, December 4, 2023

My Jollof: Chasing stories and catching reflections

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By Jama Jack

My work allows me to discover many places across The Gambia, where I experience varying degrees of emotion ranging from admiration to sympathy, encouragement to empathy. I go to the biggest towns, then through dusty paths and thorny bushes, right into the smallest and most remote villages.
A part of me relishes every opportunity I have, to go on ‘trek’, as field visits to rural Gambia are commonly called. For me, this is more than just a call to duty; it is a retracing of the steps my Mother has taken, in these same communities, rendering service to people from all walks of life, for more than three decades. It is more than just another requirement of the job.

My job description includes storytelling, even when the stories are sometimes ones that I would rather not tell. That is an internal conflict that I choose to dwell on at another time. However, these trips are almost always unique adventures that open me up to a world beyond the one I’m used to, as I go in search of these stories. I meet and engage with people, each with a unique experience, even where the source of these experiences is the same. For me, too.

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Quite often, this contact has pushed me to hop out of my naturally introverted character, to build trust and open a space for confidence and sharing that may otherwise not be possible in a different environment. This can be challenging, sometimes, but I’m always reminded of the value of the stories I encounter and what they mean to me, away from the demands of the job.

Naturally, I’m drawn to the girls and women. The reasons are obvious for those who know me and have followed my work over the years. It is in the stories of their resilience that remind me of my grandmother and how she worked hard to provide a comfortable life for her children. It is the narrative of their lives that they have taken control of, choosing what to reveal and what to keep to themselves. It is the hospitality and the generosity with which they receive and welcome strangers into their space, with smiles and open hearts. It is the strength in their eyes – always the eyes – that keep me curious about what they have seen and how it informs their daily living.

Mine is not the storytelling that paints the usual pictures of poverty, desperation, and hopelessness that rely on external support and handouts to survive. My encounters teach me different. Survival will happen, with or without … until without becomes an eternity, and its consequences are unavoidable. It is also not storytelling that forces resilience and strength beyond what truly exists, ignoring vulnerability, struggle and strife. It is storytelling that seeks out the nuances in these experiences, narrating absolutes, but also being careful to not keep singing familiar tunes, and ignoring the diverse experiences of the many bearers of these stories. It is a lesson for those who choose to learn.

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An opportunity for introspection; not in the very patronizing manner that places me as a savior above the people I interact with, but from the angle of deep appreciation for the diversity of the stories and experiences that make up The Gambia, and our identity as Gambians. More than that, for me, are the personal encounters with the very issues I raise my voice for, as they relate to the well being and progress of women and girls.

Today, I walked into a home in the Central River Region, right on the heels of the main protagonist for the story we were chasing. Questions asked, notes taken, we proceeded to interact with the family, paying particular attention to the children. Among them, a shy 8-year-old girl, who would only look at us from the corner of the raffia bed she sat on. When asked what school grade she was in, we were told she wasn’t going to school. What followed our question for the reason, depicted the familiar family attempts to cover up real reasons with others that may be deemed more acceptable, even in a judgment-free space. One went on to tell us about how she is the oldest daughter and was, therefore, obligated to stay at home and become her mother’s assistant. This was soon thrown away for the more interesting reason that she had problems with her eyes, and was withdrawn from school. She was in Grade 2.

My inner voice popped up as a guide on how to respond to this situation, and encourage the family to get her back into school. Through this chat with them, including her father, I could sense a new willingness to get her back into school, supported especially by the women present. It was an opportunity to discuss the benefits of girls’ education and how she may be of even greater support to the family, with an education and access to better opportunities. It was also important to state that it should never be the responsibility of a child to carry the burden of supporting the family. What we got, was a promise that she will be sent back to school in September. This is something I hope to follow up on. She deserves a seat in school.

So did the 20-year-old mother I met yesterday, too. From our first interaction, I could tell that she was brilliant, but she was forced to drop out of school after her father died and the family could no longer afford to keep her in school. At 15, she was married off, and is currently nursing her first baby. There doesn’t seem to be any hope of going back to school. She was in Grade 8.

In her own home, lives another young woman. She has never been to school, and is also nursing her first child, with the support and guidance of her mother-in-law and the other women in the family. Today, she is 19 years old. She was married off at 16.

Reconciling these experiences with the demonstration of strength and resilience I observed was quite a task. Perhaps, because I understand what child marriage means for the girls who experience it. Perhaps, because I have seen what education has done for me and the opportunities it has brought to my door. Yet, I couldn’t discount the satisfaction on the face of the young mother watching her baby suckle her breast, his eyes looking into hers. Nor could I disregard the genuine smiles on their faces. I can’t forget the brief chat with one of the women who told me about learning of the dangers of child marriage, and how they are moving towards abandonment. We can hope.

These are just three stories. There are many more where they came from, and even more that I will never hear or encounter. What’s certain is that I do not take any of these encounters for granted. I also believe that it is no coincidence that I am placed in this position today, and I get to enjoy the intersections of my interests between my day job and my heart work, centered on complete service.

A few years ago, I wrote about being at a Crossroads, and having to make some tough decisions for my life. I feel that way again, and my feet itch to take me on new adventures. I have a strong pull to these stories, absent the structures that get me to them, and I believe it is a call unto the path that I have imagined for myself, with Linguere as a vehicle for fulfillment. I am always reminded of the greater service that lies beyond job security, monthly checks and bank alerts.

As I move closer to my mission of standing on my own two feet and fulfilling what I believe to be my purpose in life, I remain rooted in the stories of the women and girls around me. My heart is rooted in my own story and how it intertwines with all of these other stories. In the end, each will form a line of stitches on the tapestry that shows our individual and collective journeys. And when that time comes, I hope mine will be the thread that holds it all together.

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