Filed under: Village Life
The last time I went to Ndendory, I spent the entire trip trying to swallow the hard marble of suppressed tears after Jeynaba’s death. And here I find myself again, to greet her brother on his first trip home from Angola to see his family since it happened.
Ndendory looks so much different now. The rains have brought vivid colors to the landscape. A cool breeze blows across the spaces between the bright green new grass and the deep blue sky and it reminds me of my brother’s paintings. I imagine all the changes that have happened since the last time Jeynaba walked this same dirt path. There’s a new house along the way and I wonder if it was there when she was, if she had gotten to see it.
Jeynaba’s family has also changed. Her mother seems to be in much better spirits. It is still shocking to look into her eyes and see her daughter there. This is what Jeynaba would have looked like. We all sit in a semi-circle under a tree. Jeynaba’s mom and sister, Fatimata, are sitting on a rusted bed frame back to back and swiveled toward my sisters and I in chairs. A cup of water is passed around for everyone to drink, customary to welcome visitors. Jeynaba’s brother arrives dressed all in white. I notice that he sits outside of our circle so that I have to turn my back to see his face. Maybe he doesn’t want us to see his expressions, since we’re well outside of the acceptable time limit for grieving. My sister patiently asks about every member of the family and their health, while I sit and calculate the time it must have taken him to save for his plane ticket from Angola. On February 7th he started saving, and now here we all are only a week away from August.
As much as she tries to stop it, tears fall from my sister’s eyes as she’s talking about perfectly ordinary things. She wipes them discretely with her headscarf and everyone successfully pretends that everything is fine. In my mind, I am thinking about my own recent loss: My aunt, my mom’s older sister. I can’t sit with my family now under a tree somewhere and share their grief. I’ll miss their first steps in healing. Suddenly there’s so much sadness that it pushes down on my shoulders like the humidity in the air and I hear a voice saying distinctly: ”This is horrible.” I feel like I’m only seconds away from crumbling right there in front of everyone, crumbling like the roads after a heavy rain, crumbling like Jeynaba’s family’s expectations after she so quickly slipped out of their lives. The marble returns and I try so hard to swallow it down. I picture myself as a cartoon with an Adam’s apple like protrusion.
Then there’s the sound of someone peeing. Through my panic, the scene has continued, the absent-minded conversation is still going on, I’m still here, and I’ve managed to retain some semblance of composure. But where is that sound coming from? I literally expect to see a child squatting nearby, or a sheep. I finally see the water cup sitting in between Jeynaba’s mom and sister. It had tilted on the wired cage-like surface of the bed frame and now is slowly spilling out into a little pool in the grass. Fatimata is staring into space. The other women are talking quietly. No one even glances at the cup.
Another woman approaches with a baby boy in her arms, Fatimata’s son Thierno. There’s a little unspoken game that people like to play here when I’m around. I call it: ”Will the child cry at the sight of a white person?” Or perhaps they’ll scream? Maybe they’ll giggle? If the result is positive they say things like “See?! He isn’t afraid!” accompanied by a big grin. If negative, they sit around and laugh until they complain of stomach pains and tease the child relentlessly (“How are you ever going to go to America if you’re afraid of white people?” or “If you do anything bad, we’re calling the white person over!”). It is great fun.
This round of “Will the child cry at the sight of a white person” provides a necessary distraction. Thierno is immediately passed to me and I sit him in my lap, doing the bouncy knee thing and humming ”Yummaa yehii jabbe,” a favorite with the kids in my family. He just looks at me, one little eyebrow raised, mouth wide open, perfectly round droplet of drool poised on the edge of his lip, ready to take the dive on to my blue pagne. Memories flash through my mind like a movie and I don’t see him anymore. I see Jeynaba in her new red complète, excited about the birth of her nephew. I see Jeynaba fanning herself on my bed and talking about home. I see Fatimata sobbing with her new infant in her lap, only days after the death of her sister. He was only a month old when Jeynaba died and this is how far we’ve come since then. He can hold his head up and make little cooing noises. He’s seen rain for the first time, and all of the changes that it brings, even if he can’t understand them. Time has marched on without Jeynaba, but we still have her in some ways. We still have her fingerprint on our lives. We still have the knowledge that we’re better for having known her.
Thierno doesn’t cry. He looks up at me with his little gummy grin. It fills me with incredible optimism.
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