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In My Grandmother’s Village: A Dispatch From Fouta, Guinea

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Dispatch From Fouta, Guinea

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In My Grandmother’s Village

By Cherno Baba Jallow

December, 2016

I am in my maternal grandmother’s village of Djoungol, Dalein, north-central Guinea. I have been here for the past four days now. On my first day of this visit, I thought I could not live here; I was somewhat anxious, I must confess. Djoungol is deep in the wilds. On my first night, I went to bed with a secret dread that there might be wild animals roaming around here. But now, on my fourth day, I am afraid no more.

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I feel I’ve built enough familiarity with this environment that I can now run errands between these villages on the opposite ends of this wilderness. I can now, unaccompanied, take a walk down this narrow bush road to Hamdalaye, my maternal grandfather’s village. I can even go on a solo wander down to Kolla, the ancestral home of Elhadj Cellou Dalein Diallo, Guinea’s main opposition leader. I need no help with directional precision. And my hosts need not worry about me as I walk to the sunset or disappear in this canopy of trees or beyond these tall shrubs. I am a stranger no more.

But what does it take for a stranger, like me, to build such immediate rapport with a new environment and quickly get into the groove of routine? First, there is no gainsaying it: you must like the place. And second, you must be curious about it. Visiting a place is one thing. And immersing yourself in the totality of its experience is another. For me, though, and there is nothing allegorical about it, my adjustment in Djoungol has been swift and largely hassle-free. But something deeper explains it all. This visit is no ordinary visit. It isn’t just a quest for adventure. This visit is a homecoming. Well, kind of. I wasn’t born and raised here. I was born and raised in Basse, eastern Gambia. But some of my ancestors —— maternal side —— came from here.

This is my first trip to Guinea, and I am the first in my Gambian family to set foot here. I am conscious of the extraordinariness of this visit and what it means to me in the context of kinship and ancestry. These are my people, and I am meeting most of them for the first time. And these are my ancestral lands; I am on a mission to mine a rich vein of my family history, to unearth the maternal side and pay homage to it at the same time.

My late grandmother Adama Oury Diallo was born here in the early 1900s. She had three siblings. In the late 1920s, she joined grandad in Basse, where they had three children, including my late mother Mariama Jallow. Granny often visited Djoungol, staying in her old mud and thatch-roofed house. Out of respect for her, and in order to preserve its quaintness and give it a sense of historical continuity, the house’s original structure has been left intact and the house itself has been shielded from the embellishments of modernity.

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Every morning, I start my day with a visit to the house. When I go inside of it, my mind harkens back to those long-gone years when granny visited, bringing along gifts from The Gambia. They would be kept here and then eventually distributed among the family. Once, she brought with her a family photo of me, my little siblings Alieu and Jariatou Jallow, my little cousins Adama Wurie and Ousman Jallow and my aunt Hulaimatou Jallow.

Except for what the mice did to it, chewing off Aunt Hulaimatou’s head and face, the photo has managed to retain its distinctiveness. Long receded from my memory, the photo is a sweet and surprising ‘’archeological’’ discovery for me. It summons the memories of distant childhood and bespeaks the innocence of youth. It shows our different levels of timidity in front of the camera. Ousman, the youngest one amongst us, and still in his mother’s arms, is a cut above the rest in composure and dazzling appeal.

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It used to be about 15 houses here in this one-family village. Now, only four remain. My uncle Boubacarr Issa Diallo lives with his mother, two wives and kids in the larger share of the family home. In another part, live my cousin Omar Telli Diallo, his dad, wife and kids. And located beyond the outskirts, near the hill, is the cemetery, housing the remains of several members of the family, going back over 200 years.

Djoungol is a picturesque setting with no immediate neighbors. It is closed in on all sides by thick forests and hills. Perhaps it is the smallest in central Dalein. Perhaps it is comparable only to the tiny hamlet of Tongo in Dalein Hinde, further west. Hamdalaye, my maternal grandfather’s village, lies further southwest. M’bohel is in the west; Keriwoye to the east. And beyond the hilltops, on the far north, is Boundou Mawn’dou. Perhaps Djoungol’s isolation is a consequence of geographical providence. Or perhaps this is simply the result of the natural hollowing-out of communities or the cyclical nature of life or the migratory patterns of humans. Or all of it put together.

But this microcosm of a village, nestled in no man’s land, brings a certain anthropological allure to it. And I, this stranger from distant shores, has been thinking much of it. I am struck by how eerily quiet this village is. The only sound heard here is the one coming from the distance. It’s a jumble of calls —— the calls of diurnal birds. Perhaps these are the African eagle-owls or the Pied Kingfishers or the Great Blue Turacos, forestial birds found in the woodlands of Guinea. Their calls are daily and come from the hill near the family cemetery. I am fascinated but unbothered. I know I am soaking up history and natural beauty, rejoicing in peace and tranquility, far removed from the clangor of city life —— the life of Labe or Conakry, or New York City, my home.

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Folks pass by here every morning. They stare at me, and wonder, I am sure, who I am and where I come from. Some are unable to restrain their curiosities. So, they openly ask about me. And they walk up to me as I read a book or sit around the log fire in the family courtyard. They say hello and thank me for coming. They share pleasantries and stories with me and my people. But generally, they —— mainly everyday women —— just want to go about their daily errands. So, soon they head out towards the hills or into the thick bushes on the way to the other villages or to the stream down the trail.

Life carries on.

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Editor’s Note: A shorter version of this article was first published here last year.

You can write to the author: [email protected]

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