A Jola jig, goodbye gig

Five days before I would move to a new village, my mother left before dawn with no word on when she’d be back. My sisters said it would surely be awhile because she took a big bag and left with her young grandson in tow.

I was disappointed I didn’t get to say goodbye to the woman who took me in as her own and did all she could to prepare me for my life in The Gambia. But, I tried not to show it since emotions here are for the weak. Plus, my inna, or mother, had gone to the city to care for her sick brother – a duty admittedly more important than bidding me farewell.

But, a few days later, as unexpectedly as she left, inna swung open the compound gate and bellowed that she had arrived.

“Inna! You are here,” I beamed, quizzically. “I thought I wouldn’t see you.”

“Your program is tomorrow, Fatoumata,” she said matter-of-factly. “Of course I am here for my toma. Tomorrow we dance. I show you Jola culture. After, I go back to my brother.”

With that, she pulled an orange gown from her bag and simply presented it to me as a going-away gift.

“Put it on,” she said. “This is your present. I want you to take first tomorrow.”

I tried explaining that the next day’s cultural program for Peace Corps trainees and their host families was no competition. The program was instead a way to celebrate the end of our training and to say goodbye as we moved to our permanent sites, I said.

“Oh, I know it’s not a competition,” my mother laughed. “But I feel happy when I see that my toma is the most beautiful Peace Corps volunteer.”

The next day, she draped strings of beads around my neck and across my chest in a traditional Jola fashion. She stood back, looked at me and sucked her teeth.

“Ahaaaaa,” she said. “Nice, nice! My toma will be first.”

My sisters ordered me to pose this way and that as they snapped my picture.

I urged my mother and her co-wife to get dressed since we’d be taking Peace Corps transport to the show. The car wouldn’t wait, I warned; but my mother just shook her head.

“You’ll see,” she said. “I make them wait.”

And to my surprise, she did. The driver arrived and my mothers were still not ready. But like everyone else, the driver obeyed my boisterous namesake and waited.

After much ado, my mothers and I clamored into the van. Just as I let out a sigh of relief that we were finally on our way, my inna cried out for the driver to wait once more.

“Your shoes! Change,” she demanded, motioning that I trade with her because her orange sandals matched my dress.

I rolled my eyes, trying to laugh off the big fuss my mother manages to make of every situation.

Little did I know, that scene was just the beginning.

We arrived to the cultural program and joined the circle as the drumming began. My father’s first wife, innanding, hopped right into the middle and began to dance.

I was trying to join her when my mother pulled me back into my seat.

“You will only dance with the Jolas,” she said quite seriously.

She feigned a headache when I implored her to stop being so stubborn and to get up and dance.

Her ethnic group, the Jolas, only make up 10 percent of the population and mostly reside in the West Coast Region; and I knew that because of the distance, the Peace Corps had no plans for Jola drumming or dancing at this show.

As soon as the Mandinkas stopped their song so the Peace Corps staff could say a few words, my mother jumped up to demand a Jola song, arguing with the emcee in the middle of the gathering.

“Oh Inna!” my other mother whispered to me as she embarrassingly bowed her head.

But just as she always seems to do, my namesake got her way.

Suddenly her “headache” was cured and inna pulled me to the middle of the circle. I slipped crisp dalasi bills, one after the other, from her hand to the singer’s, while inna prodded the woman to call out my name over the megaphone. I stomped my best Jola moves alongside the other Jola girls. Our host mothers clapped along. The crowd watched somewhat confused at how we had managed to steal the show.

Of course one song was not enough for inna. She pushed the singer aside and led a tune of her own, compelling her neighbors to accompany her. I flailed my arms and stomped my feet some more.

“Ahaaaaa,” inna roared when our performance had ended. “That — is Jola cultural show.”

The other ethnic groups joined in and then we all shimmied to the errant drumbeat ‘til the African rains brought the house down.

–JDF