So I have made it home safe and sound now, with a surprisingly small amount of catastrophes! It’s great to be home and I can’t believe I go back to school tomorrow. I have a few more journal entries I wanted to share before I went back.
I think it’s about time I wrote something about one of the more interesting, inspiring and mysterious people I have met since coming to The Gambia. I asked him prior to writing this if he minded me posting his personal story on my blog, to which he responded, understandably, by asking me what a “blog” was. After I explained blogs, delving into the realm of Twitter, Facebook and social networking, he agreed. Because of the religious, political and personal nature of our conversations, and because he is a cautious and meticulous man, he asked me to refrain from using his name. For someone who did not know what a blog was, he is certainly more internet-smart that many of us. For the sake of my post, I’m just going to call him John.
John is a local security guard. Despite the lack of violence and low crime rate here, many large buildings have private security. John does not have a night stick, nor does he have a phone, but his incredibly tall presence is enough. John has one of the more distinct, draw-able faces I have ever seen. Filled with deep crevices, lines and sharp angles, I wish I had artistic talent every time I see him.
John was born in The Gambia, and is, by my guess, around 40 years old. He comes from a small farming village, son of a Senegalese father and a Gambian mother, joined in an arranged marriage, and has three older sisters. When John’s paternal grandfather fell ill, his father had to go back to Dakar to take care of his family’s shop and his mother. John had not yet been born. This was before texts, e-mails, phone calls had come to The Gambia, so his mother and father wrote letters every day. The unreliable nature of the post office meant these letters were rarely delivered, and after two years of waiting, John’s maternal grandfather ordered his mother to marry a family friend in a village further away, tired of supporting her financially. She was deemed a widow, not a divorcee, so it was acceptable in her particular social circle that she find a new husband. 16 years later, she died tragically and suddenly, and by some serendipitous luck, John’s father was in The Gambia on business and heard her name mentioned in a list of deaths on the radio. He jumped out of the bus he was on and walked 40 miles to the site of the funeral, where he met his son for the first time. He had not stopped writing for five years, but had eventually assumed his wife had died or had been married off.
John went back with his father to Dakar, where he eventually got married and had three children, one of which he lost within its first five years of life. Soon after, they moved back to a rural Gambian farm, where John still grows maize. His wife makes soap, and he travels an hour each day each way to work security from 7 PM to 6 AM. Despite this being considered a fairly lucrative and desirable job here, each member of his family lives on less than a dollar a day. If you ask him when he sleeps, he will just laugh.
In our conversations, he has referenced Marxism, Nelson Mandela, the Holocaust, the ICC (to which a Gambian woman has just been named chief justice), and feminism. He has shown me how to make a strong Gambian green tea called assaya, drawn and identified birds, and last night explained the danger of the centipede. Apparently if they spit in your food, you have about a 50-50 chance of survival. When I brought him a 300 page book on Winston Churchill, he finished it in one sitting, and couldn’t wait to talk about it. We have talked about cremation, Michael Jackson and basketball, and one night discussed the concept of drive-thru’s for almost 30-minutes, an especially difficult concept for him to grasp. He has asked me to explain American holidays, Starbucks and snow.
But the most interesting thing to me about John is his incredibly fascinating view on politics, religion and their tendency to become tangled. His ability to phrase things in a careful, decisive and precise manner is amazing to me. In The Gambia, religion is free and the people claim religious tolerance and openness. However, you are either a Muslim (90%) or a Christian (10%), no exceptions. The first time I tried to explain I was raised without a religious background, I was met with incredulous, borderline disgusted and appalled stares. That wasn’t an acceptable answer I soon learned. But John, I discovered, has no religion either. His reasoning, he explained, was “it’s too much.” Curious, I pressed him for details. After about five minutes of silence, a common occurrence with John, and something I have grown to admire, he explained. He asked if I had ever seen the sign at Traffic Light, reading “a vote for him in 2012 is a sacred duty for all Gambians,” with an absurdly and astonishingly large photograph of the president. Indeed, I said, I had. He replied, “in what way is that not a threat?” He explained further. John says he has never lost faith in God. He believes in a higher power, but to him, politicians and extremists have taken what he calls “the magic” from religion. He no longer knows what to believe. What is authentic, and what is just a trick, used to manipulate the people to the liking of the government or institution. He says when people use religion, its power transfers to them, and he has resorted to his own beliefs, a belief in karma, in kindness, in responsible behavior, and in having faith in those around you. He said all of this to me in a whisper, making interjections regarding the behavior of this specific president, and the development of his country. “The trust in religion is too great,” he explained, hitting a mosquito off his ear. “Why can’t we just trust ourselves, and each other instead?”