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Mara Coyle

© 2005


Peace Corps Volunteer, The Gambia, West Africa 1980-1982

The idea was hatched over a few bottles of Joyful Julbrew, the only beer available in the tiny West African country of The Gambia. A half-dozen, flip-flop-wearing Peace Corps Volunteers leaned their chairs against the rust-striped corrugated tin fence that enclosed the dirt floor garden of Pa Jobot’s bar. They passed the time looking at the stars and dreaming up ways to entertain themselves in the town of Basse, where the volunteers were gathered. 

Basse was the main town in the Upper River Division about 250 miles upriver from the Gambian capitol Banjul. While Basse had running water and intermittent electricity, it did not offer the amenities so commonplace in the States. The one movie theater was outdoors and equipped with unforgiving backless cement benches. The movies were either musicals from India that involved kidnapping and many changes of saris or Chinese kung-fu movies with lots of acrobatics and shouting that did not match the movements of the actors’ mouths. During the rainy season when the malaria-bearing mosquitoes were at their most ferocious, there were few complaints when the film inevitably broke, at least among the toubabs, which was the word Gambians used for white people or strangers.

Tim Keegan, a Peace Corps Volunteer posted in Basse, was at the bar that night as were several volunteers from the more remote villages, the ones not on the bush taxi line. Those volunteers frequently stayed with Tim on their way to and from their assignments. Tim, or Yaya as he was called, did not really mind. He had a two-room place in a family compound. He enjoyed getting the mail and books the visitors brought back from their trips to the Peace Corps office in the capitol.

Tim usually suggested to his visitors that they all go out to eat for some grilled beefsteak and onions, which was a greasy but welcome change from the volunteers’ usual faire of rice, rice and rice. That way Tim did not deplete his meager stash of canned fish and Ovaltine. After eating their steaks at the local chop shop, the volunteers usually wound up sitting with a bottle of cold or not so cold (depending on the electric situation) Julbrew.

Having discussed the latest edition of the free Newsweek magazine that all volunteers read from cover to cover, no matter how old the issue, talk turned to what they would have been doing if they had been home. Fiona O’Reilly, a health volunteer from North Carolina, who was always up for a party, talked about the big St. Patrick’s Day party that she would be missing in a few weeks.

“Why not have a party here?” someone suggested. The volunteers sat in silence, bottle caps loosely covering their open beers to prevent flies from diving into their drinks, wondering where they could find a space big enough to hold a party. Tim’s suggestion of a campout on the Gambia River was met with cheers, clinking of bottles and toasts. The area decided on was on the river just east of town. It was a perfect place – open and flat with a few obese baobab trees for shade. Plans were made, and assignments were given out. Each volunteer promised to spread the word to any of the 80 plus volunteers posted in the country. Some being close to the border promised to invite the Senegalese Peace Corps Volunteers. All were welcome.

The days leading up to the party were occupied with arranging for permission to camp on the riverbank and finding someone willing to slaughter and cook on-site a couple of goats. Gambian women were hired to provide washtub-size platters of rice cooked with vegetables such as okra, yams, cassava, onions and plenty of red peppers, since most volunteers had acclimatized to the spicy Gambian food.

Without the use of cell phones or the Internet, the word spread, and any volunteer who could get away from his or her post traveled to the party site. Some came on the riverboat that carried hippo-viewing tourists up the Gambia River. Those volunteers slept on the deck and ate spicy street food sold by vendors at the port towns, instead of the more expensive meals served on fine china to the higher paying cabin dwellers. Other volunteers endured long dusty rides in bush taxis – pickups outfitted with three benches in the beds of trucks. The volunteers sardined in with Gambians ranging in age from kola nut-chewing grandfathers to runny-nosed babies sucking on their tired mothers’ stretched out breasts. Chickens and goat were not unusual companions on these rides.

In some ways, the volunteers from the most remote villages had the best transportation with their 70 cc motorcycles. Of course, their backsides had to endure many bone-jarring miles of pot-holed, corduroy roads in the rainy season. In the dry season, the red road dust coated their sun-baked skin leaving them looking like cinnamon covered doughnuts. The party was in the middle of the dry season guaranteeing the biker volunteers would wear dust not mud when they arrived at the bash.

So they came from their villages, towns or cities. They came in their tie-dyed sundresses and machine embroidered open-sided shirts. They came speaking Mandinka, Wolof and Fula. They came with their stories of small triumphs - the woman who agreed to have her child immunized, the fishpond that did not leak, the student who decided to attend after school tutoring. The volunteers came with feelings of restlessness and inadequacies. They brought with them their frustrations over the slowness of change and their anger over the corruptness of some of their civil service counterparts. They came with their need to speak English, though their speech was peppered with British words like lorry instead of truck and Mandinka words like sei-sei instead of smartass. 

They carried the scars of their often secret love affairs with locals and the often gossiped over relationships with each other. Some came to find new bonds that would distract from or add to their miseries. Others came to catch up with close-knit members of their training group, the ones who had helped them through their initial culture shock. They brought with them guitars and boom boxes with lots of quickly worn-out batteries and well-played tapes. They came to talk and eat. They carried their cravings for pizza and other foods they could not have. Some came to drink too much.

And they came to dance. They came to dance by the river with each other, together or alone. They danced to all of it, Bob Marley and the Wailers singing “No woman, no cry.” They moved their hips in suggestive slow grinds learned from watching Gambians dance to N’dagaa music at the local nightclubs. They increased the speed of their hip movements in poor imitation of the way they had seen Gambian women shimmy at village drummings. The volunteers found themselves dancing up a cloud of dust to the disco tunes they had scoffed at back in the States. But the group that brought everyone to their feet was The Talking Heads. The volunteers knew only too well that as The Talking Heads sang in their song that “This aint no party. This aint no disco. This aint no fooling around.” In their work, they saw life and death struggles that rarely occur in America. The volunteers knew that after being in the Peace Corps, life would never be “Same as it ever was.” They danced all the same, until they could barely stand.

Then they began to fade into the night. Their toubab skin still obvious in the moonlight. They drifted off in groups to pass around bottles of fermented palm wine. Some formed pairs. Familiar and tentative couples sought the outskirts of the encampment for their low murmurings and comforting caresses. Others overheated by the dancing and sun-remembered soil peeled off their sweat-soaked clothes for a reckless plunge into the river. They dove and drifted - trying not to think of the dangers. Those, who had come on the riverboat and had seen the foul-tempered hippos and inconspicuous crocodiles, rationalized that such animals would never be found this close to town. The heath volunteers had a more difficult time banishing thoughts of tiny snails snaking their way into open cuts, carrying the nasty schistosomiosis disease. Still the water was so refreshing for those accustomed to cleaning themselves with carefully channeled streams of water from small buckets. They were risk takers. Why else would they have signed on for an assignment thousands of miles from a safe drink of water?

The swimmers drifted down the river, glad of the company of the stars and each other. No wildlife intruded on their float. They stepped out of the river, not far from where they had started and let the hot Hamadan wind dry off their continentally transplanted bodies. The swimmers wandered back to the encampment. Cloths were retrieved from their bags for blankets and laid on the red dirt; shirts were balled up for pillows. They lay on their backs. Soft-voiced, midnight conversations wafted up to the night sky until the volunteers at last drifted off to sleep.