Age is just a number

Mbassey, Iso, Rohey and Sali

Mbassey, Iso, Rohey and Sali

My brother, Ebrima: All your friends are like 12 years old.
Me: No they’re not.
Ebrima: Oh, really?
Me: Some are 10.
Ebrima: (erupting in laughter) Well, however old they are, you’re friends are out front asking for you.

It is true that most of my closest friends in village are children. There is one group of fifth grade girls who treat me as if I’m as cool if not cooler than Miss Taylor Swift herself. Nearly every day after school, they come to my compound bearing handmade drawings and letters declaring me as their number one friend. It’s adorable. In time, though, the girls became more than just adoring fans – they became some of my best friends.

Me and Iso

Me and Iso

It all started with Iso, my 12-year-old neighbor who might as well live at my house. She has been a friend of my host family’s for many years because our moms were best friends. Iso’s mom died a few years ago, but she has continued coming to my compound to hang out even though the kids at my house are either much older or much younger than she is.

When I moved in, Iso immediately latched on to me. Every time she came over, she asked if we could play cards or draw together. On school days, she brought me her homework questions and on the weekends she tagged along when I brought my sisters to the river. She taught me how to de-feather a chicken and always invites me to attend weddings and naming ceremonies in the village with her.

When I started my jewelry making club at school to raise money for the library, Iso was the first one to show up. Each week, the shy fifth grader comes to my compound well before the meeting and we walk to the school together stopping to collect a few of her friends along the way. Iso learned how to make necklaces and earrings so well that she became my sort-of assistant on jewelry-making days at school. She decided she would just help the other students on those days and make her own beads with me at my house when it was just us.

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The first time I left site was when I traveled to neighboring villages for the HIV bike trek. When I returned, Iso wouldn’t talk to me and even ignoring me when I greeted her – the ultimate Gambian snub. The next day she came to my house and apologized, explaining that she was upset because I went on holidays without informing her. It was then I realized she considered me more than another teacher. We were friends.

Soon, Iso started opening up to me about more than just her struggles with math. One night she came over crying. I wasn’t sure what to do because Gambians don’t typically show emotion. I put my arm around her, and she pulled me into a hug – the first she’d ever given me. She cried on my shoulder and said she was just having one of those days, one when she terribly missed her mom who suddenly died when she was in third grade.

On those days when I am also terribly missing my mom and friends back home, wondering if I am really accomplishing anything here – I look at Iso and feel that if I can make just one day better for this special girl than these two years are worth it.

–JDF