Monday, March 9, 2009
Walking Through the Millet: Peace Corps reminiscence
Woman at a village well
The dirt path wound through a field of thin, withering millet. Although this staple grain towered above our heads, it wouldn’t produce much this year.
"This field is dry," I commented in Mandinka, the primary tribal language of this tiny west African country, The Gambia.
My walking companion nodded, his black face glistening with sweat. "Yes, we need more rain."
I tried not to think about the heat, now soaring close to 100° F. My dress stuck to my back, the long skirt caught at my legs. As a Peace Corps volunteer, I worked at a 22-bed bush hospital and was walking home at the end of a tiring day. "It's too bad we can't get ... water ..." I groped for the correct Mandinka word.
“Irrigation," he prompted.
"It is too far from the river for irrigation, Mariama."
We stopped at a snake's twisting track, its thick impression in the sandy soil still fresh. The Mandingo held out his arm, holding me back until he determined we were out of harm's way.
We resumed our trek. The trail narrowed and I automatically stepped behind my companion. "Couldn't water from the river be piped in?"
"But how? Irrigation systems need motors and fuel and they are expensive."
We reached the end of the footpath which opened to the village. Pungent smoke from cooking fires greeted us. Voices and laughter drifted from behind woven fences which surrounded the compounds, each containing seven or eight round mud-brick huts capped with grass-thatched roofs.
My new friend gestured to the right. "I will go this way now."
"Yes. Thank you for walking with me."
"Mariama," he called over his shoulder. "Your Mandinka is very good."
Highly complimented, it was only then I realized my entire conversation had been in Mandinka; his had been in English. Without my even realizing it, we had been practicing each other's language.