She says that the toys are alive, look and see. She tells the group that the toys are alive and when the people come they return to looking dead and lifeless, like toys. She tells the group to watch and see. Under the shade of a fruitless mango tree on small wooden benches sit my neighbors: three middle aged women come to fetch their evening buckets of water, five children frantically playing games before the last sunlight dies out, and my kids Buba and Amee. Kaddy and I stand behind the group and she translates the plot line to the group in Mandinka. The hodgepodge group huddles around a tiny 13” MacBook screen to watch the film Toy Story.
Kaddy has seen this film before and enjoys using her better understanding of English and storytelling to explain the events in Mandinka. I watch her explain to the group and watch the glow on her expressions, the laughter in her belly, and the broad smile on her face and know that she is truly in the moment.
I look in the background and I see Daboe sitting patiently on his own bench. I know that he might like to watch the movie but I know that his mind is on other things. I watch him as he directs the children to take their evening baths and I watch him as he performs the evening absolution, cleaning his face, ears, hands, and feet. He pulls out a small plastic yellow and tan mat decorated with a picture of a mosque woven into the middle of a crosshatch pattern. He stands on the mat, faces eastward, and begins to pray.
I look to my right and I see my host sister Maa pounding the evening rice. She is pounding rice and peanuts into a fine powder and I know that means we are eating Saatoe. I know that we are having it as a special treat tonight and I can’t help but feel as though my host family is trying to spoil me before I leave. The whole family loves the food and I know that I love it too and I feel as though I am part of the family.
I look in front of me and I see the character Woody fall onto a bed and fall lifeless. I see the children and women around me laugh and smile in delight and know that they understand what Kaddy has explained to them.
It’s the next day and it’s the afternoon with nothing in particular on the agenda. Amee and Buba are both home and they ask me if today we can build things. I remember the insightful gift that was sent by my parents and I tell them yes we can build things. I pull out a large red topped tupperware box and on my large mat I pour out a host of multicolored building blocks.
Amee tells me that I should build a chair and I tell him he can make one himself. He looks bewildered and I know he has seldom been given confidence to experiment in life. I know that this environment does not lend itself well to experiments, I think about the cost of failure in hunger, health, money, and lives, and I feel sad knowing that this is the place where the benefits of experimentation could be seen most.
I tell Amee that I will build something first but then he has to copy me. I place 4 small round pillars on the mat, then two long blocks across and Amee looks at me inspired yet confident. He copies my construction plan and makes his own less precise version of the chair. I look at his design and smile knowing that despite its rough edges he has improved since our last game. I add four more blocks perpendicularly across for a seat and add a few elongated pyramid shapes for a back rest. I tell Amee that I am finished then Amee does the same and looks up at me for approval. I tell him he’s done very well and that his chair is nicer than mine. He lowers his head to his left as if to inspect his workmanship and looks back up at me with a satisfied grin.
The weekend arrives and I know that I have few opportunities like this left in The Gambia. I know that we have been trying to go as a family to the beach and I know I want this to happen before I leave because Maa is 12 and Amee is 6 and both have never been to the beach in their life.
Amee is walking with Maa on the beach for the first time ever in their lives. Bouncing on the waves is a large group of fishermen on narrow boats coming in from the afternoon catch. A group of women sit on the beach scaling and cutting fish into large wicker baskets. To our left a group of old men silently thumb through their prayers beads and make their way to a holy prayer site farther down the beach. The waves crash a beautiful white as the sun shines blindingly on a deep but narrow diagonal strip of the Atlantic Ocean. Amee puts his hand on his mouth, his cheeks perk up and give a hint of redness, and he looks at his father and myself. There is an absorbed look to his eyes and I know that we are opening new worlds and possibilities.
Amee shifts his eyes directly to his Dad and gasps out the word, “Baa!” He yells, “Dad!” and we both wait curious for his next comment but it never comes. Amee waits a second, his mouth drops, and he looks back the ocean in bewilderment. I look at this little curious boy and I see him speechless for the first time ever in my two years knowing him.
It’s the end of my service and I hope these are the things I will remember The Gambia by.