The Fellas – Brusubi, Kombu West

The fellas! I’ve given them this name, and although they seem to like it, they haven’t really adopted it. I’ve tried not to give people western nicknames, but in this case I can’t help it. The fellas sit directly outside my hosts compound underneath the palm tree trees on the north side of the street in the morning and afternoon. In the evening they switch to the south side of the street where the neighboring compound wall gives them shade.

It seems strange to me to have only one posting about the fellas because in actual practice they were my first resource on local information and language. They, like the plurality of Gambians, are Mandinka and speak Mandinka amongst themselves. It has been very hard for me to be in town muttering through my horrible Wolof only to return to the fellas for a greeting in Mandinka. The divide between social and market language is a hard one to navigate. These men are all educated, and they hold tightly to their cultural heritage – specifically language. They even had me practicing the Mandinka noun phrase for “person who operates machine” so that I would know that there was an indigenous term for “driver.” “Driver” is the universal term for a taxi or minibus driver in all of Gambia’s five languages, or so I had thought, with relief, until I was informed otherwise.

The group in this photo is a large one, mainly due to one of the frequent power outages, plus the work day had ended. Sometimes it might be just one or two fellas, depending on the time of day, the availability of power, and the weather. At first I was not comfortable sitting with the fellas, but that change abruptly when they asked why toubabs don’t like to sit under the tree. I realized then that I needed to sit under the tree too to help me understand the African way.

I’ve described the term “African way” already, but the ironic use or reference to marijuana does not apply here. Here the African way is about lazing in the heat having conversation, understanding what’s going on, and building relationships. All of which I did with the fellas. We discuss politics (usually of the African variety), Islam, dreams of studying in America, values, “when I get married I will’s,” and some of the neighbors who “are like that” and don’t join in on the conversation. One young man, Ansumana, (who is not in this picture) runs a small shop out of a 2’x3’x6′ caged box. The traffic the shop drives helped me to understand who lived around me and what they did. Every conversation was a valuable cultural lesson, even those that where just nods of greetings followed by an hour of relative silence.

Buba Saho, who is third from the left, is a very busy man and my host. He lives alone in his uncles compound, but his friend Keymo Saidykan (the next on the right) spends the majority of his time at our compound for Buba has a hectic job managing the service station about 1km away. Buba is a smart young man, and filled with witty irony. His family has some clout, and this helps him in many ways. Either in the African tradition or due to his own character he has a generous spirit, many people come through for meals. He has a reserved but open door to all passersby. Buba, like all of the fellas, has taken to calling me Prof, Prof Will, or Professeur Will. I have become accustomed to it, but the honorarium bothers me. Buba laughed at that saying, “Americans hate honorariums, why is that Professeur Will Wheam?”

Keymo is the political commentator of the fellas. He has opinions about local and African politics and was one of the few who started Ramadan a day late, more in protest of what he felt was an inappropriate government decree claiming the start of fasting than because he himself did not see the moon the night before. Like most Africans I’ve met, Hillary Clinton is the American Keymo sees and relate to most. The African world view is interesting, and I cannot say that there is uniform consensus on future direction, although opinions about past events seem to be consistent. America and historical American policy seems, even when I filter what I think might be pandering, to be popular here. Obama is a hero for some obvious reasons, but almost universally, Bush’s policies in Africa are held in high regard. If you want to feel good about American, I think Africa is a good place to do it.

Keymo, being the contrarian and naysayer, wants to go to Toronto, and he wants to study law. Everyone of the younger fellas wants to leave the Gambia for further study, and it is heartbreaking to know that most won’t. Education in The Gambia is expensive opportunities an the process of admission nepotistic. The chances of finding sponsored funding to leave for a foreign school are slim. Buba keeps a library at the compound, and most of the fellas seem to be reading often and studying for their comprehensive and qualifying exams. It’s hard not to take everyone’s actions with a grain of salt as I am, like any American, viewed as a potential ticket to a western start. I believe, though, the dreams of the fellas are genuine, most want to help their country, and all lack the financial and complex cultural knowledge required to navigate their way into a western setting.

Another important character of the Fellas, and Buba’s compound, is Sainey Baldeh. He is not in the Polaroid above, so I’ve loaded a picture of him here. Sainey is a Fula and an identical twin. His brother is in Brikama and named Sanna. Sanna and Sainey are common names for male twins, while if the set is female the names are the same as a boy and a girl, Adama and Awa. (I bring this up because twins are very common here). Sainey is a mainstay around Buba’s compound, and he is industrious. Sainey is always cleaning and sweeping. I can’t determine if it is out pf obligation to Buba for the shared meals in the compound or if it is just his nature, perhaps both. He is also thoughtful, and the most intellectual of the bunch. He is good at explaining the Koran – a common event during Ramadan. Of all of the fellas, Sainey is the kindest to me, and he is the one that first explained the “African way.” Sainey always has a message of perspective and reflection, somewhat Rastafarian with out the trappings.

The rest of the fellas are a mix of employed single men (one a policeman, one a bank executive, one an immigration officer) and men looking for employment. Occasionally a married man will join but only rarely.

Women do not join the fellas, but they pass by inserting instruction and commentary. The gender separation is, I am sure, ripe for study and catalog in anthropology. Although men and women socialize differently, there is a lot of interaction and permeability throughout the day. Fatou noses in on the fellas often, and Buba makes a mess of the kitchen as much as possible. Much like the color-line of toil and gentility, the western concept of femine compassion and reflection is not reserved for women. Sainey, for example, works at the local early childhood center, and all of the fellas are affectionate and, from a western perspective, maternal to all of the kids in the neighborhood. They were strangely motherly to me.

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