A Day in the Life: Kartong, Gambia

The following is a story of death, birth, and some of the things that happen in between. It is the story of a day in the life of the
village of Kartong, in southwestern Gambia.

We begin at the house of shy-smiling M'Bassy, whose baby has just died. We bring a traditional offering of kola nuts and money, but we don't give them to M'Bassy. Instead we give them to her uncle, the highest-ranking male in the house.

We are invited to sit down on the cushioned chairs arranged on one side of the room; a bed with mosquito net is on the other side. It is difficult to tell how many people live here, and how many people sleep in the bed. It must be several, given the number of faces now gathered in the room.

We chew the fat with Uncle, about how the baby's illness was a terrible thing, but how M'Bassy is lucky to have her 7-year-old daughter Niumi and a good job at a hotel. M'Bassy stands by her uncle, looks down, and doesn't say a word. She is near 22 years old.

Next we walk to the village's crocodile pool, a pond so green and slimy you can barely see the 20 beasts floating at the top. Crocodiles are a sacred animal here, prayed to mostly for fertility, but for other things too, like a good job. Beside the pool is a circle of stones, where the village elders meet on Mondays and Fridays. You tell them what you need, and they pray to the crocodiles on your behalf. Beyond the pool, in the woods, is where the female circumcisions take place.

From the pool we walk to the village outskirts, where immigrants from Guinea Bissau live. They are the palm tree climbers, who strap their body to the trees with a rope, and then shimmy up to collect palm tree nuts. These are heated and pressed to make orange-colored palm oil, the staple of West African cooking (and possibly the reason why lifespan here is only 50 years, since palm oil has the highest saturated fat content of the world's shortenings).

We pass by houses made of mud bricks and thatched roofs, adjoining bush-pig pens, and neat rows of rice fields and corn fields, each sectioned off by dried-palm-frond fences. Mango trees dot the yards, and girls stand underneath pounding rice with a mortar and pestle.

It is Friday, so the Muslim half of the village is dressed in their finest clothes. The men wear skullcaps and loose-fitting tunics in silky shades like peach and lime; the women wear bright print dresses and white headscarves. Their Koran readings carry through the air, powered by a battery-operated microphone. It will be a similar dress-up scene on Sunday, when the Christians have their day at the church across the street.

At the far end of the village the road splits. To the left is the border with
Senegal, from which Kartong is separated by the narrow Allahein River. To cross over you step to the water's edge and whistle. A man in a small dug-out canoe rows over to fetch you. You may not see him right away, but he is around. When he's not rowing he is drying out over a smoky fire the fish he and his friends have caught.

To the right of where the road splits is the
Atlantic Ocean, lined with pirogues and fishing huts. This is where the serious catches occur. The men run the wooden pirogues over the crashing surf and cast their nets. By the end of the day their ice chests are filled with hundreds of silvery fish.

It is getting toward evening, so we head back into town. As usual, people have begun to gather in the market square to discuss the day's events. In the middle of the square stands a baobab tree, whose giant roots thrust up from the ground and provide seats for everyone.

A truck pulls up and a man leaps out. Where is the midwife? he asks. The word goes out; minutes later a thick-waisted woman in a blue flowing scarf hobbles over. The man needs her to come to Gunjur, a village a few kilometers away. The midwife climbs in the front seat; about 20 villagers climb in the truck bed. (Hey- it's a free ride to Gunjur's market, and from the look of the anxious man, it will be a quick ride.)

For sunset we return to the sea. It has become cooler and windier. Waves lash at the shore, and palm trees creak and groan overhead. The sun drops like a ripe mango, pink-red and yellow, and another day in Kartong comes to an end.

Aug 1, 2003

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