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.

"Yes, irrigation."

"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.

7 comments:

Janet Grace Riehl said...

Oh, Mary! This is magnificent writing--from several standpoints. Just good writing from anyone's point of view in terms of craft, in terms of showing and varying dialogue and scene setting.

But, also fantastic in the 3rd goal of Peace Corps of "bringing the world back home." Chills! This is so needed...communication across cultures and communication of other cultures to our home culture.

Well done, indeed. Thanks for sharing.

Janet Riehl
www.riehlife.com

Arletta Dawdy said...

HI Mary,
I will second Janet's comments on the quality of your writing and the "bringing the world back home."

Also, I will think differently on my next visit to the feed store to get millet branches for my lovebird!
Arletta

Byron Black said...

That was awsome. You should do a series. Maybe alternate from the Gambia to sailing in your boat and the Explorer.You'll never have writers block again. I mean inspirational drought. Thank you for Deb's memorial on the 22nd.
Love Byron

Byron said...

That was awsome. You should do a series. Maybe alternate from the Gambia to sailing in your boat and the Explorer.You'll never have writers block again. I mean inspirational drought. Thank you for Deb's memorial on the 22nd.
Love Byron

Heidiwriter said...

Wonderful article, Mary. Very touching.

Heidi

Alice Trego said...

Hi, Mary!

Lovely story! With your words you painted the scene in wonderful imagery - I was right behind you, walking on the path in the sweltering heat.

Thanks for introducing me to your friend.

Alice

Anonymous said...

You led me right into that other world and I was there walking with you in the heat. I shivered at the sight of the snake's thick, twisting trail. I did so like your companion, a gentle soul protecting you. Thanks Mary for a glimpse into Your Peace Corp experiences.
Eunice "Eunie" Boeve