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Reasons for Joy

Victoria Derr
The Gambia

My first memory of Amenata is one of my first memories of life in Kani Kunda. It was a sunny, soaking-wet day at the end of the rainy season. Still unconfident about communicating in Mandinka, I was blundering through a conversation with our landlady, Bakoto, when Amenata came for a visit. After exchanging a few greetings with her, it became abundantly clear that Amenata was ten going on thirty-five and wanted that fact known to her new neighbor.

"Why didn't you come to our compound at night?" Amenata asked and, without pausing for a response, went on to tell me that Mr. Njie, the infallible former Volunteer in Kani Kuna, had gone to their compound every night to tutor the school children.

"Mr. Njie could speak perfect Mandinka," she added. "You can't speak Mandinka at all.

"Mr. Njie spent every waking hour in the village. Mr. Njie never stayed in his house. Mr. Njie went to discos with us. Mr. Njie gave us pencils."

Mr. Njie. Mr. Njie. Mr. Njie.

This kind of criticism would become very familiar to me in my two years. Many Gambians wanted to decide what every Peace Corps Volunteer should do, not willing to recognize that, just like themselves, we were individuals. But Amenata's content with Mr. Njie and contempt for me was the first of such blatant criticisms, and it stung.

As time went on, though, Amenata and I became good friends. I was an ally in a male-dominated world and, more than that, a release from her work. Amenata Darboe was the oldest girl in a family of seven children. As her two mothers were often busy with the garden and rice fields, Amenata was left with raising her five younger siblings. She carried water, sometimes six or seven large buckets in the morning and again at night, pounded rice, swept, washed clothes, cleaned, and cooked.

Amenata had a wonderful work ethic. She took her work seriously, took pride in doing it well. But every now and then she would dash over to my house, seeking refuge from pounding or cooking dinner. Her mothers, Anna and Neema, would call her. With mischievous eyes and smile, Amenata would shrug, telling me to let it go. And, being an old softy, I did.

One of Amenata's tricks, and she was full of them, was to sneak up to the house and scare the living daylights out of me. In the late afternoons, I often read outside in the back yard, which was separated from Amenata's compound only by a shoulder-high woven-reed fence. It was peaceful out back. With its eastern exposure, I was shaded from the hot afternoon sun and could sit in my sling-back chair, waiting for the evening breezes to cool me off. And somehow, despite the sounds of cows, donkeys, chickens, children, and pounding -- that steady thump of wood hitting wood -- I escaped into the world of my book.

"NEEMA BIYAAY!!!" Amenata would shriek my Gambian name, bringing me back with near heart failure into the world of Kani Kunda. It would take me a good long minute to recover; then I would start to look for Amenata. It didn't take me long, though, for she had gotten just the reaction she was looking for and would be lying on the opposite side of the fence, rolling in laughter and delight. At times like this, I would remember the true goals of Volunteers: Goal number one was to entertain Gambians, goal number two was to teach, and the second was a lot harder than the first.

"M foo alimetoo," she would slyly demand.

"What?" I would ask. There were some words I could never remember, no matter how often I heard them, and alimetoo (match) was one of those.

"Matchoo. Matchoo." Amenata would say with contempt. "I'm going to cook." She didn't hide her dismay at the fact that I wasn't a Mandinka genius, but she tolerated it. After all, she did want a match.

Shaking my head and laughing, I'd go into the kitchen to get a few matches. Why did I give her matches when she scared me nearly to death? Why did I give her matches when they were only twenty-five bututs (quite affordable for a family with electricity and a motorbike -- more than I had)? And why did I give her matches when she demanded them so adamantly? The only reason I could ever conceive was that her delight was infectious: She made me laugh, even if at my own expense. And after a long day of two hundred Form 1 students, that laughter was worth a whole lot more than twenty-five bututs.

During my two years in the Gambia I watched Amenata grow and change; Amenata was transforming into a woman before my eyes. She experienced incredible growth spurts, becoming embarrassed as she outgrew more and more of her clothes.

One starlit night on my back porch, as I shared my dinner with friends Botto and Bakary, we heard Amenata's family talking about me. Anna and Amenata were explaining to Neema why, at age twenty-three, I was not married. Things are different in America, they said. Our conversation out back shifted to the same. I said I felt sorry for Amenata's husband, whoever he would be, because Amenata would be the most stubborn wife imaginable.

Botto commented that soon, very soon, Amenata would be married: Her time had come. Married!? I couldn't believe it! Not Amenata! Not now!

"But Amenata is still afraid of men," I replied, picturing her shy face. Just that evening she had hid behind my skirt at the well as I greeted some student-aged village men.

"Yes, Tori," Botto explained, "but that's exactly what her family is hoping for, to marry her while she is still young and afraid of men, so that she may bring her family honor."

It broke my heart to think of it. Amenata was wild. Her spirit and her laughter, her childhood, gave her tremendous freedom, tremendous joy. She liked to play house and took on its responsibilities most of the time, but it was not her compound. If she did not cook the food, no husband would blame her. She could still sneak to my front yard for a ten-minute respite from her chores. Marriage would change all that. I wasn't ready for that change. I couldn't imagine how Amenata must feel, knowing that each day as her body blossomed and changed, she was one day closer to marriage. I pictured tired women, striding home from the rice fields, bent over dinner in smoky cooking huts, resting on mats under the mango. Amenata would become this. The images didn't settle well with me. She was too vital to be burdened with life.

The next morning, as I was sipping my first cup of bitter Nescafe, Amenata gracefully appeared at my door, with a neighbor's baby tied to her back. She was beaming, and I realized that Amenata was always beaming when she had a child in her arms.

"Do you want to have children, Amenata?" Dumb question, I thought, since this was not really a conscious decision in Gambian women's lives, but her response was just what I was looking for. As she assuredly nodded her head yes, she pulled the baby to her lap, his hand grasping her finger, and the longing, the love, in her face told me that it would be all right. That though Amenata was ten years my junior, she was far more ready to assume the roles of motherhood than I. She would be ready to relinquish childhood.

I smiled that she would soon have her own child to hold, her own house to run. Perhaps soon Amenata would no longer roll on the ground in laughter at the crazy white lady next door, but I knew that she would have different reasons for joy, and that those reasons created the beauty, not the burden, of life.

Victoria Derr (The Gambia)

Victoria taught high school science, math and English in Mansakonko, The Gambia. Derr is currently working toward an M.A. at Yale University, School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and is editor of TRI News, the journal of the Tropical Resources Institute. She received a B.A. in biology and writing from Hope College, in her home state of Michigan.

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