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Sunday, May 9, 2021

“The Baku, and The Furrnoe”: Portrait of a Gambian housewife

with Amran Gaye

The baku, and the furrnoe, the old man advises you at your wedding, – these are your domains in the house. Everything else leave to his command. In this way your marriage to him will endure, your children will be blessed, and you will earn Allah’s favor.

After that they bear you to his house, making a great clamor, and jokes about your bride price. When they are done they all go home, and leave you with him, your first night spent outside of your father’s house.

And so you begin.

Time passes, a proliferation of days that are so similar to each other it is like the same day on repeat. You have your rituals, signposts you return to every day, as if to reaffirm your existence.

You are the most hardworking person in the house, and yet somehow also the poorest. All you own are the clothes on your back and the ones in your closet, a jewelry box containing a few trinkets you’ve been gifted or bought over the years. No bank account, no suitcase of cash under the bed. You have your marriage, and the promise of your children’s futures. You have Allah.

Over time the things you each own grow in different ways. His pile of possessions grow upward: new clothes, a new house, a new car. Yours grow outward: more offspring, more mouths to feed, more clothes to wash.

Evenings, when you’re done with the work of the day and the timis is yet to descend, Ya Astou or Aji Mai will visit, for a chat after their own day of labor. These are your times of respite, when you take a deep breath as the Sun sets and you get ready for the timis, and then the geh and sleep and the next day, and all the days after it, perfect facsimiles of each other, carbon copies that differ only in weather…

More years pass, flittering by one season after another, nawett into norr into nawett…

The kids grow older, start going to school. Your base schedule is still the same: dawn wakings, maarseh and the anj, foat and paaseh. The furrnoe, and the baku. You are used to it now – your body goes through the motions mechanically; as your mind does through the calculations of how best to stretch the always-not-quite-enough depaas.

You make it work, and complain to no one. In your father’s house you were taught the value of sutura, of tucking neatly away all the things that could cause shame, to yourself but especially to him.

You think, as you waas the fish for anj, of what could’ve been.

Once, on CNN, you saw a toubab woman in khaki slacks, carrying a net. She had gone to university, she explained to the reporter, to study butterflies, and now she flew the world photographing them. You think what it must be like, to be born in a time and place where you could decide to dedicate your life to butterflies.

What would you have done, if you had been born in such a place? Perhaps study to be a detective – you’ve always taken pleasure in figuring things out; or maybe go to the moon, not out of any particular affinity to Space, but just because it seems such a wild thing to want and achieve.

Waas done, you rinse the fish; then trace deep horizontal grooves in its sides with the knife, applying just enough pressure on the handle so the flesh yields and opens up, a bloody pink lip in the frozen silver.

You salt and season the wounds, and test the oil with a lump of flesh; you get a *chiss* of readiness back… then you throw in the whole fish and the oil jumps out in protest before settling back into the pan. And then you sit back and wait, for that side of the fish to brown.

How many chus have you cooked, you wonder, how many plates of domoda and benachin and supah and mbahal, in the years you have been in his house? How many danka of maalo – of all the people who have ever eaten at your bowl – has your labor produced? Easily in the thousands, you think, perhaps tens of thousands. And that’s just the anj.

And, while you stay home contending with the monotony of your days, the ones you feed go out into the world, and use the energy your labors have given them to do many things. You listen to their stories, when they return to the house with them, all the things they have achieved. You dream, and are silent.

You use no timers or measuring bowls in the kitchen. Your body has memorized all the movements and all the amounts. The oil has become tamer, its original sterilized yellow within the bidong a rusty, dead brown now. You turn the fish over, with a single deft movement, flipping it just high enough to clear the pan, so it doesn’t thump back into the oil and cause it to spill. Your movements are economic, efficient. Ingrained.

And what power you have, you think with a wry smile as you wait for the other side, if you all exercised it at once. Imagine if all the housewives in Gambia chose an issue and decided one day not to cook anj, or do any house chores, until it was resolved. Imagine the chaos that would ensue, and the eventual capitulation to all the demands made, as the country ground to a halt…

You laugh as you visualize an army of housewives seated each in their own compound holding a baku, an empty chinn and an unlit furrnoe before them, tight-lipped before an army of increasingly irate men, demanding explanation and threatening consequences, until they became reduced to begging…

With the other housewives you have established a system of what a future Gambian anthropologist will one day call “localized socialism” in a paper.

But to you it is merely a way of making ends meet.

Sometimes, when you’re out of jahatu and the depaas for the day is done, you will send a child to a neighbor to ask for some; some other day when she is in need of horom the transaction will be reversed. You gather all the food ndesit during the day and send it to another neighbor even less well off than you, every evening.

When your children grow out of their tatty clothes you give them to the children next door, orphans living in great poverty with their grandmother. At Tobaski, the meat you send out equals the meat you receive: in this way the whole gohh is included in the feast. When it is Ramadan you all naafila together. When anyone has a ngayntay, or a daij, the whole gohh converges on their house, bringing money and food and comfort, as a family names new members or says goodbye to ones who’ve passed on.

The neighborhood is a network, our anthropologist will explain, and you are one node in it: your arms extended, reaching out to all the other nodes reaching out to you… In this way you keep each other afloat. As if to say defiantly to history: we were here, for a brief fleeting instance, alive in one of the poorest countries in the world but making it work.

Hand in hand, making it work.

His moods are like the moon, the feeling in the house the tides. On days he is stressed or angry the house is silent, expectant, awaiting the next outburst over nothing; and the heat and humidity seem to hang heavier in the air. On days he is happy the house is filled with jokes and its rooms ring with gales of laughter, as he entertains and puts on a show.

Then one nawett day his mother dies. You watch him deformed with grief, drawn in on himself; not knowing what to do or say to help him through it.

You think: if he only let it all out, wept until his chest was empty of pain, he’d feel better. You have lived with him two decades, and seen him cry twice: heaving, reluctant sobs that he let out like a miser giving away their last dalasi.

But the system that holds you in such a rigid position – wife, mother, unpaid caregiver – also holds him fixed in place, and limits what he is allowed to express, how he is allowed to be.

Real men don’t cry, is what he has been taught since childhood. Real men stay strong: anger is good, tears are bad. They don’t go to maarseh, or help out in the kitchen. They don’t express “feminine” emotions. They exchange their labor for coin, to pay for the things their families need – and that is enough. They don’t lift a banta out of place in the house. They rule over their compounds like kings, the final authority in everything, even when they’re not sure, even when they’re just winging it like everyone else. Even when they’re flat out wrong, and know it.

And so beyond the act of congress no other expressed romance lies between you. He is not one for hugs, and certainly not I love yous. Never any public displays of affection. You come together briefly, in the night; and then apart again, the picture of propriety the rest of the time. You have gotten used to this.

You pray, five times a day and all the naafila. You fast, not just the Ramadan and its feye, but all the days prescribed by Sunna.

In your father’s house Islam was a roof, there since before you were born, to be lived under, in obedient gratitude for its comfort.

In his house the deen has changed its form, now a saangu drawn up close about you, a constant companion; and a rock and marker in time you return to daily, monthly, yearly… until all your memories are defined in relation to religious observances.

And you remind yourself, over and over again, that the days you spend here in his house, and the sacrifices you make, are half of your deen. Some days it is the only thing that keeps you going…

But where the deen gives comfort it also binds, sometimes in uncomfortable ways.

One evening you get a visit from a band of local elders: the Imam and his men. They come bearing a message from your husband, the man of the house who, it turns out, has decided to add another house to his retinue: he has taken another wife.

Your wuja but also your sister, the men inform you as you sit perfectly still, maintaining your composure, your breathing even, your face half-obscured by your kaala. As a practising Muslim, they remind you, this is part of your religion, and one of his Allah-given rights as your borom keur. When they are done you thank them for coming, you offer them water. You walk them out. All while still perfectly composed, not betraying a single emotion.

And then you are alone in your room and the hot tears burst out of you, uncontrollable and gasping sobs that surprise you, and leave you with a migraine and runny nose the rest of the evening.

After that the new schedule begins – the ayeh, as if you each only owned part of him, while he owned you both whole. Three nights with you, three nights with her.

At first, on the days when he is gone you are filled with ambivalence: a certain freedom, a return to a privacy you haven’t enjoyed since you got married; but also the thought of _her_, occupying the same night but in another bedroom, another bed, another intimacy… and a jealous rage that you learn quickly to bundle up and place away, before it destroys you. These are the times when you are alone, and he is gone.

And then there are the forced niceties: the calls you have to make to check on her, at his behest. The coming together at feasts, visiting each others’ houses. A whole new bag of lives, children of your husband but not of you, people you would never have known or met, now attached to you through him and his attachment to her.

The years continue to pass, slowly at first and then all in a rush as they pile up behind you…

The two of you are all that remain in the house now – the kids are no longer kids, and they’re all gone, moved out to marriages and schools. His temper has worsened with age – you always have to walk on eggshells around him.

But you have learnt to navigate him, as you navigate your day, efficient from experience, almost second nature now, taking escape and relief where you can. And it is not all terrible – sometimes there are days that recall the early days, when your union was filled with possibility, and he was filled with ambition and promise…

The day he dies dawns like any other day. A heart attack, in the middle of the day; a rush to RVTH, your heart pounding as he grips your hand tight in the ambulance, his eyes closed, his breathing labored. By timis he is unconscious; by geh he is gone.

You go through the daij, and the tainja, nursing your grief and weeping for him, accepting condolences from the people who knew him.

And then you wake one day without him, after a long night of thinking, and for the first time since he died you don’t have a headache. He is gone, and there are many things you will miss about him. And many things you won’t.

And for the first time since he died, you think you are okay with that.

You will remember him, often with fondness. You will pray for him every single day, and give out sarahh in his name. You will comfort his children, and try to instill his best qualities in them. You will keep the memory of his best self alive, say only good things about him in public and in private.

And that will be enough – your life unspools before you, a thread you only have to pick up and follow… and for the first time since you were a little girl you are person alone, with no expectations foisted on your shoulders by everyone around you, friend and family and stranger.

You have passed all the tests that Gambian society sets for women: the many years of education in how to keep a house; the preservation of your “ndaww”; the finding of a man whose house to keep; the bearing of his children. All of it gone now, like a weight dropped off your shoulders, you realize in amazed contentment.

You feel like a newborn babe, gifted a fresh start. From now on, you decide, you will live only for you.

You rise from the bed, and parting the curtains let light into the room. You watch as the robins out in the yard fight over grains of rice; beyond them you can hear the ruckus of the schoolchildren, released from school and daara, noisy in their sudden freedom after hours of receiving instruction.

You smile.

Then you go to the bathroom to wash your face.

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