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She sits in the shade on a worn pink silky cloth laid on the raised cement slab that is a resting place in the late afternoon. Joankunda and three of her grandchildren gather under the sloping grass roof while the children’s mothers sweat over simmering pots of spicy stew that will be the evening meal for the family. Now that her two oldest sons are married, Joankunda no longer has to cook. The daughters-in-law take turns preparing the food. This is a well-deserved break for Joankunda, and she helps out by watching the youngest grandchildren with the patient assistance of her twelve-year old grandson Sanuboy.
Joankunda and Sanuboy lean their backs against the whitewashed mud brick wall of the adjacent hut. Joankunda’s long barely curved legs are stretched out and crossed at the ankles revealing her narrow, knobby, sole-cracked bare feet. Sanuboy’s gangly body is curved around his baby brother, who has been nicknamed Daddy. Sanuboy, two-year old Isatou and Joankunda are gazing solemnly at me – I am behind the camera. Daddy is looking wide-eyed at Joankunda, his dimpled hand extended out to give her an affectionate pat on the arm.
Babies have always loved Joankunda. Daddy is no exception. Joankunda sings to him in English, which she does not really speak. “Daddy, Daddy, carry me! Carry me!” She sings to him in Mandinka songs I cannot understand. I don’t think Daddy can either. He is only seven months old, but it doesn’t matter. He bounces up and down on chubby legs when she sings. His eyes focus on Joankunda, and he laughs the laugh that only babies can laugh – the trilling kind from deep within the belly.
Daddy doesn’t care that she is missing her four front teeth or that the remaining ones are streaked brown from years of chewing kola nuts. He doesn’t mind that the soles of her feet are tough as crocodile skin. Daddy doesn’t care that her body is no longer young and firm. Her curves and sags from bearing six children do not matter to Daddy or any of her other fourteen grandchildren. A dingy t-shirt that says, “Hug me” on it and a faded print wrap, covers her aging body but her looks don’t matter to me either. When I look at Joankunda, I see a beautiful woman. The way the baby is gazing with wonder at her mirrors the way I feel about her.
Here I sit after twenty-five years away. I want to reach out to her the way Daddy is doing, because nothing has changed even though many things have happened. Joankunda and I are still comfortable with each other. We still understand each other even though we have lost some the words to express our feelings. There are usually people around to help us with bits of translation when we need it. But mostly we don’t. Joankunda was the one who could understand my Mandinka long before anyone else could. It is still that way. We adjust to the limits of our common words and it doesn’t matter. The repetition of our conversations expresses the deepness of our feelings in a profound way. We repeat to each other and everyone who comes to visit our reactions to receiving each other’s letters after twenty-five long years apart. I cried. Joankunda danced. I sobbed with relief that the people, the person that I most wanted to see on my return trip were alive. Joankunda danced, pounding her feet, waving her arms like a large bird trying to take flight and singing “Fanta Jaiteh’s coming; Fanta Jaiteh’s coming!”
I read her beautifully scribed letter over and over again - to myself and to anyone who would listen. I called each of my eight siblings and many of my friends and read it to them over the phone. Seldom did I make it through the reading without crying. For over a month, I carried it in a plastic zip-loc in my book bag, pulling it out whenever someone new asked about my trip. A few times I let people read it silently, but I didn’t find that nearly as satisfying as reading it to them myself. I knew the proper inflection to use, the best places to pause and how to silence their questions before I finished reading.
We thank you very much for remembering us through writing a letter dated April 6, 2007. Seeing your address alone motivated the entire family to jubilate for hearing again from a beloveth one after 25 good-years of silence. Part of the content of two lines of the second paragraph is sad and almost submerges our spirits of jubilation. Nevertheless, we extend our sincere heartfelt condolence to you and the rest of your family members on the death of both parents (your father and mother). May their souls rest in perfect peace. May God guides these souls through the right path to eternal light. May God strengthens you to reap the benediction of your departed parents.
On either side, be informed that Mariama Jabbie (Jonkunda’s mother), Nyimah Manneh (Jonkunda’s aunt), Wasageh (Jonkunda’s sister) to name few have all passed away. Death indeed is inevitable when the time comes. Thanks be to God that your prayers are answered.
Fanta, how are you and your family? How are your sons Nils and Leo doing? What of their dad Joel, your sisters and brothers? Extend our greetings to all without any limit.
Beloveth one, be rest assured that we most highly welcome your visit to The Gambia (Mansajang Kunda – Basse) come August 4 and anticipate to receive you all with open minds, hearts – and hands.
With perfect thanks in advance for your benevolent letter and look forward to hear from you at your earliest convenient time.
Love and best wishes from,
Jonkunda & Mansajang Jaiteh
Joankunda had to rely on others to read her letter to her, since she never went to school. Her sons told me she asked to hear the letter again and again. Each time she listened intently to the Mandinka greetings that I used at the beginning of the letter as well as the paragraphs that followed in English. Her sons told me that she too cried when she heard my words. And each time she told anyone about my letter and my upcoming visit, she danced. “Fanta Jaiteh’s coming; Fanta Jaiteh’s coming!”
When I arrive, Joankunda is the one I most want to see. We hug and laugh and cry all at once as the usual Mandinka greetings take on special significance after so many years. Long ago I told Joankunda that I would never forget her. I don’t think she believed me. She does now.