Monday, June 17, 2024

In The Company Of Relatives, And For The First Time

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By Cherno Baba Jallow

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A day before I visited my maternal grandfather’s village of Hamdalaye in Dalein, north-central Guinea, I was swept up in a whirlwind of apprehensiveness. My uncles at my grandmother’s village, Djungol, where I stayed for the entire duration of my stay in this part of rural Guinea, had given me the heads up that we would visit grandpa’s family in the morning. It was a day after my arrival on a chilly December evening in 2016.

But this was going to be no ordinary visit. If arriving in my grandmother’s village was easy because I was already used to some of the kinsfolk here (they had once stayed with us in Basse, The Gambia), Hamdalaye would prove far more formidable. There, I won’t be comforted by the ease of familiarity —- I was going to meet with relatives for the first time ever. And they included the most senior members of my extended family.

I was curious. ‘’What is it going look like tomorrow when we visit Hamdalaye?,’’ I asked my uncle Boubacarr Issa Diallo. ‘’The entire clan will be there to meet you,’’ he said. ‘’It will be a lot of people, some are coming from the other villages.’’ This was going to be an awkward meet-and-greet encounter, I thought. All eyes were going to be on me, I imagined the inconvenience awaiting me. Certainly, I wasn’t oblivious to the heightened curiosity about me or to the anticipation of my arrival. I was the distant relative, this stranger in the village, who had come to the land of his forbears to trace his roots.

But I had no clue how many relatives there were. Or how the ties ran within the family. Or how to even call some of them, especially the clan elders. Brother? Uncle? Cousin? Aunt? Granny? ‘’Ko kaw-ma Mamadou eh Kaw-ma Alimou eh Kaw-ma Ibrahima Soury … . ‘’ (it’s your uncle Mamadou and your uncle Alimou and your uncle Ibrahima Soury), Uncle Issa rattled off the names of some of the people I was likely going to find at the gathering.

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By mid-morning, we were on the move. I was dressed up in a turquoise Kaftan and a multi-colored local hat. I had bought both of them in Labe a few days ago in preparation for this occasion. I didn’t want to go to Hamdalaye dressed in a T-shirt, jeans and a New York Yankees hat. The occasion was too reverential for that. And I didn’t want to give off the wrong impression about my personality, certainly not on my first day with these new-found relatives.

Six of us sauntered down this well-traveled path snaking through the woodlands. The narrowness of this bush road meant that we all had to walk in tow. But by design, I was in the middle of the pack. I couldn’t lead upfront because I had no familiarity with the geography of this place. And I couldn’t be the last one walking behind the crowd because it would look awkward, discourteous even, to have a stranger walk behind everybody else, and in an eerily, unfamiliar place like this wilderness.

For the most part of this journey, I remained silent. I was more enchanted with my new environment, trying to process it all in. This was the typical African wilderness, the likes of which I had never seen growing up as a kid in rural Gambia. These were high grasses and thick trees with sprawling branches. And these were hills picturesquely perched above the treetops in the distant vicinity. Occasionally, my attention was drawn to the chatter among my fellow travelers. They laughed and jabbered and teased one another. Perhaps, it was a way for them to pass the time during this trip. But for me, the time was spent on something else: reflecting on this idyllic setting I found myself in.

In about 45 minutes, we had arrived in Hamdalaye. From my grandmother’s village, the trip was one circuitous walk through the wilds. We could have gone through B’hohel, a tiny village along the way, but it would have expanded the distance to our destination. So from Djungol all the way to Hamdalaye, only one village came into our sights: Borouwal. My travel companions passed by and exchanged pleasantries with the inhabitants here. It was the only lull during our trip.

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Hamdalaye turned out to be a big village with about 25 family homes. It was bigger than I had expected and certainly bigger than most villages in the area. It was about a 20-minute walking-distance to Kolla, the ancestral home of Guinea’s main opposition leader Cellou Dalein Diallo. But like Djungol or B’hohel or Donghol Gokitereeh or Boundou Mawn’dou, Hamdalaye has no immediate neighbors. Once you step outside the village limits, you are walking into an expanse of raw wilderness.

My family members had been sitting in the family courtyard when I arrived. It looked like the seating arrangement had been carefully planned: three elderly men sat by themselves. They were the leaders of the family. Sitting close to them was a multitude of men of various ages. And further away, at the back, women, mostly elderly, huddled up.

The three elders immediately welcomed me into their orbit. They suggested that I should sit with them. And they had me in the middle. All eyes now shifted towards us as if we were the main characters on a theater stage. ´’Ko Toli,’’ (‘’welcome’’), they said. I beamed with smiles and felt an upsurge of emotion. This was a landmark occasion. It was the first time ever a distant relative from the Gambian side had set foot in this village. I was the first —- and still the only one in my family —- to make it to Guinea and to meet with the other side. My late parents never did.

I was certain that I would find no written, only oral, accounts, of the early life and times of my grandfather Thierno Mamadou Boye Diallo. He was born here, certainly between 1880 and the early 1900s. He had two younger sisters Haoulatou Diallo and Djamillatou Diallo. Granny left in the early 1920s and later resettled in Basse, ‘’Bappa Boye was a gracious and humble man,’’ Uncle Mamadou Aliou Diallo, since deceased, remembered my granny. (Uncle Mamadou’s dad and granny were half-brothers.)

Uncle Mamadou was a frequent guest of the family in Basse. He made several trips in the 1940s and 1950s during the halcyon days of British colonial rule in The Gambia. He recalled stories about his run-ins with the colonial police in Basse and granny’s interventions to get him out of trouble. He told fond memories of my late mother during her early teens, running around the family home.

It was a gathering of relatives, and an opportunity to indulge in good-natured banter and deepen the family ties. But from an epistemological standpoint, this was also a conversation about ancestry, kinship, lands and history. I sat through this meeting with a mind absorbed in the perplexities of the distant, maudlin past: When was this village founded? How was it like in the early days? Before here, where did my family live? What made them settle here in the middle of nowhere? How many generations back does the family go? Expectedly, the elders had no way of knowing with exactitude. Some of my queries had the anticipated effect of racking—- to a breaking point —- the brains of the most senior members of the clan.

As we prepared to return home, my hosts showed me around the ancestral home, a sprawling estate. ‘’Here is your grandfather’s share of the family land,’’ Uncle Mamadou said, showing me the size of the property. It was bestrewn with shrubs and gravel. An old, abandoned mud-house stood in the far corner. A mango tree hovered in the back. This property showed no signs of human occupancy —— at least, not in recent times. This wasn’t surprising. What was surprising was that my grandfather’s share was still here, and for this long. He left this village about 100 years ago.

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