A Lovely Parting Gift

A Lovely Parting Gift Twenty-one is a certain age, at least it was for me. I was certain that I understood how the world should work and disdainful of how people had so thoroughly messed it up. I left school certain that I was armed with the knowledge and skills to make a difference in the world. I thought I knew what lay ahead for me when I got on that plane for Peace Corps. I didn’t have a clue. Twenty-five years later I still don’t know what difference I made in that little mud-hut corner in the world. But I do know what a difference eating rice three times a day out of a common bowl with people who on the surface had nothing in common with me made in my life. I am glad that whatever plan I had for myself did not materialize. The surprises, challenges and disappointments taught me so much more than a carefully laid-out plot would have done. My gratitude at being surprised continued to the end of my stay and beyond. I watched many Peace Corps Volunteers finish their assignment and leave for home or the next adventure laden with wonderful handcrafted presents from colleagues and host families. Like an overexcited child unable to sleep on Christmas Eve, I wondered what would be showered on me when the time came…richly colored batiks, hand-woven mud-cloth, skillfully carved wood statues. Just after school ended, I was visiting my friend and fellow teacher Kebba in his room in the teacher compound. “Fanta, can you come out here?” Aliman Fatty, the Cameroonian teacher called out. I looked over at Kebba, who avoided my questioning look but could not hide the smile that was creeping across his face. He held the corrugated tin door open for me, and we entered the sun-lit yard. Under the precious shade-giving mango tree, the teachers had set up a cloth-covered table and chairs. I was ushered to a seat, and we were served plates of rice and chicken, a common but delicious dish called benechin in which everything is cooked in one pot along with plenty of onions and red peppers. The conversation was light-hearted as I was teased about how I would soon find it difficult to eat food like this in America. We piled up our plates and drew our chairs around a small charcoal hibachi, which was used to heat the curvaceous teapot of water for the ataya, a strong gunpowder tea that is served in three rounds in small shot glasses. Kebba did the honors of pouring the strong, overly sweetened tea. He held the teapot close to the glasses when he began pouring but quickly raised the pot higher and higher above the tray of cups while a steady stream of tea continued to flow, resulting in a sweet froth of bubbles to cap off each serving. As the guest of honor, Kebba offered the first glass to me, which I appreciatively slurped in the socially accepted custom that seemed so familiar to me now, despite my Miss Manners upbringing. The conversation was light and casual through the three rounds of tea. Mr.N’Jie, the assistant headmaster, came forward as the empty glasses were being collected. “Fanta, you came a long way from your home and family to help the children of this school. We will never forget what you did for them. We hope that you will remember us too. On behalf of the teachers of St. George’s Secondary Technical School, we have a little gift to thank you for your work.” He handed me a lumpy package wrapped in a print headscarf. My hands shook as I tried to undo the knot that tied the loose present together. My tear-flooded eyes made it a more difficult task, but finally the open cloth lay across my lap revealing a number of pieces of soft wood that had designed burned into each piece. Most of the pieces were a natural wood color, but one was colored green and looked like half of an oversized pickle. The pickle thing was glued into a wooden pedestal-shaped vase. I looked over the collection on my lap and noticed a small wooden sharp-beaked bird and several flat leaf-shaped pieces, but I still didn’t know what I had received. Nor did I know what to say to the smiling people waiting for my reaction. “Oh my, look at that. Wow, this is really something.” Seeing my confused look, Kebba rescued me. “It’s a sculpture, you have to put it together. Here let me show you.” He put the vase on the table and slid the leaves into the slots carved on the pickle. The leaves were angled all around the giant pickle, which turned out to be a tree trunk or the base of a plant or something. To complete the piece, the short-necked, pointy-beaked bird was perched on two little peg legs on the top of the pickle er trunk. The whole thing looked like nothing I had ever seen in art or in real life. It was sort of an albino cactus. I still didn’t know what to say. “Wow, look at that. It certainly is special. Thank you so much. I will think of you whenever I look at this. They sure don’t have anything like this in America. Thank you so much.” The words just flowed out of my mouth. My many years of being polite kept me from showing my disappointment, I think. On the walk home from the party, I chided myself on my childish feelings. What was the big deal? So I got a hideously ugly going away gift. Was that really why I had joined the Peace Corps – for a lovely parting gift? Wasn’t this just more of the save the world and receive their undying gratitude syndrome? Hadn’t I learned anything in my two-year stay? I admitted to myself that it had been a pretty equal exchange. I hadn’t saved anybody, and they didn’t owe me everlasting gratitude or even a lovely gift. I had come into their lives and muddled through teaching their children with mostly mediocre results. I got to learn a little about them and hopefully teach them a little about me and about my culture. After two years of trying to live in their ways, I was headed back to America to slip back into my society. While my colleagues continued on working and struggling with the lot that was theirs to live. And I was upset about a going away gift? In the end I got my amazing going away gift. I spent the last few days of my stay in the village sorting through the things I had acquired mostly in The Gambia since I had lost most of my toubab stuff in the fire. I wanted to take some of the traditional clothing to show my family and friends at home, but I did not need it all. I had fun giving away what I did not plan to take home. Joankunda was given my rattan bed, nightstand, chair and short-wave radio and M’Bafilly my tape player. My clothes were passed out to a variety of people from my compound and the surrounding compounds. I was Santa handing out the gifts, and when word got out what was happening, people who had never called me anything but toubab managed to find their way to my door. I held up my empty hands to show they were too late and hoped they wouldn’t notice the open trunk behind me. I stood with my foot wedged against my flimsy screen door to prevent their entry into my hut having learned from experience how difficult it is to stay in control when people are fingering every item I owned asking if they could have it. Tired of making the same excuses over and over, I eventually shut my tin door claiming it was time for a nap and feeling no more understood by people than I had when I first arrived. I lay down on my thin foam mattress and escaped into sleep as I had so many times before. When I woke up, I went out to sit with my family before dinner. Mansajang asked me to get a notebook for him. I returned with the notebook, and Mansajang called his oldest child over so that he could transcribe the letter that Mansajang wanted to write to my family. I shared that letter with my parents and siblings soon after I arrived home. I still have that letter. To the Coyle Family Mansajang Kunda Basse, Upper River Division 23/7/82 Dear Coyle Family, I am glad to write to you this few lines of mine and the whole family, but before I go further I want to express myself to you and the family with whom (Fanta) Mara Coyle live for the past two years. I am called Mansajang Jaiteh, about 50 years old. My wife Joankunda is about 30 years, our children are six in number three male and 3 female. The eldest is a boy about 15 year and the youngest is a baby called James named after Mara’s uncle is one year old. We live in the village of Mansajang in the Upper River Division of The Gambia about 370 km. from Banjul. This village comprised of two tribes Mandinkas and Fullas, who are living together happily. Fanta Jaiteh your daughter is really nice to us during her stay with us and will be remembered throughout our lives. Mara is a person who is dedicated to her work, I will tell you that she did her work well here in The Gambia. At home Fanta is really a Mandinka girl or woman. She sees and acts like us regardless she was brought up in a different society and place of ours. I can’t really write all or express with a letter how she is really assimilate to a Gambia. We are happy that Mara is coming to her family whom she miss for over two years but we are also unhappy because she is leaving us (my family and I). We she is not like but is a member of my family. We are praying for Fanta long life and to continue her schooling as she hopes to do. We pray to meet Fanta again once in our lifetime and will gladly like to meet any member of her family in The Gambia here. May Allah the all mighty God bless us all. Thanks from the head of Mara’s Gambian family Sign Mansajang Jaiteh Basses, Mansajang Kunda U.R.D. The Gambia Fanta will be remembered by her Jaiteh family for ever. Love and Peace Later on I joined my host family for a last dinner of domoda, my favorite peanut stew served on rice. The women and children sat around one bowl, but this time closer to where Mansajang, the grandfather, Sainey and Mansajang’s oldest sons Bangura and Sanusey squatted. No one said much beyond the usual urging to eat more as the meal ended. We didn’t have to talk. Joankunda and her daughter Tida quickly washed the dishes that included the dried gourd calabash that was used to ladle out the food. I had always admired the natural scoop grown in the garden and used in stirring cooking pots. I had mentioned to Joankunda that I planned on buying some calabashes to bring home as gifts when I did my last minute shopping in Banjul before I boarded the plane for America. After dinner that night, Joankunda gave me not only her calabash ladle but also ones she had collected from her mother, two sisters and M’Bafilly. Joankunda said they were to go from the outdoor kitchens of Gambian women to the indoor kitchens of American women. Nothing I could buy in the Banjul market could ever be as valuable as the simple gift I had received from Joankunda. When I returned to America, I kept one calabash for myself and passed the others onto my mother and three of my closest women friends. I am not sure what happened to my mother’s when she died. I have used mine many times over the years since I have been back. Just last summer the bowl on it cracked in half. I haven’t thrown away the pieces. They sit on the table as I type. I take a break and hold the pieces together in my hand. The jagged parts fit perfectly, though a crack of light marks the break. The hard smooth roundness fits comfortably in my right hand. I hold the calabash firmly like my memories of The Gambia, knowing that if I let go it will fall apart. That does not bother me. Though without repair, this calabash may never hold water again, I doubt I will glue it. Any time I want I know that I can piece it together the way I pieced this story together out of memory and emotion. That is practically all any of us can do.

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