By Rohey Samba

Recently, I was chatting with an aunt who came back home for good after spending many years overseas. During the period of her enforced absence, predicated by necessity, a lot had happened and catching up on truthful, innocent details made taking liberties easy. There is a certain contention and permission one gives oneself with age that no code of honour can neglect, which is love for family.
Loud-, mean-, deceitful-, backstabbing-, helpful-, good-, kind hearted- or not so people, in so far as they are related to you by blood, they are all family. Anyone who understands and accepts this fact has neither time nor vitality to waste in trying to escape the inconveniences and/or shrink from his/her duties towards his/her own family.

So as the conversation dragged on, Aunt X of once ungovernable temper, mellowed down by time and perhaps fate/circumstance, asked without really asking, “You have not changed one bit.”
I fumbled for a tongue in the cheek response before I realised that truth telling would not hurt. I have conditioned myself over the years to be sparse with my words and dodge indirect questions I am not really prepared to answer. But then I realised that I would not hurt me or her in anyway, by giving her an honest reply. Thus instinct was a sufficient guide as I overcame the desire for evasion and answered carefully, “I am incapable of change. I cannot change. I am still the girl who called ginger, jimburr; the girl who said, ‘auckam café’ before I could say, “meiye mah attaya.”

These recollections were so way back; it was improbable that I would recall them. I was probably three or four years old then when those utterances were made but it was a stimulus for my well rounded personality. Thus it stirred my aunt.
Aunt X laughed out loud. In fact, she laughed so hard; I thought she was going to fall over from her seat.
I laughed with her… it was comfortable laughter because I knew she was not laughing at me than with me, and also because I knew to laugh at myself. Laughing at myself adds to my knowledge of my own character every time it happens.

The absence of discomfort was sufficient to cause Aunt X to declaim to me, “You don’t forget,” after we were both able to contain ourselves.
“No. I don’t. Life is too short to forget anything. It seemed just like yesterday when I was a little child. I would not have excelled in class if I had learnt to forget, I guess,” I added carefully with that wary self-confident tone life has taught me with élan, which by the way, a lot people have learnt to hate. But do I care?
When you look in the mirror and you see in yourself both sides of your family reflecting back at you, whether it is the long limbs of your mother’s side of the family or the flat nose of your father’s side, you realise that you are a cooking pot whose ingredients are both sides of your family.

Your qualification at the basis of stern reality is to fix a code, a family code of first; acceptance of reality that you are unescapably and inexorably part of your family, then, tolerance of your relatives no matter what the circumstances, and finally, manifest kindness and acceptance in every given situation of your family. Simply because they are your family.

We will not all be successful, for nowhere is it evident that we succeed by dint of our own efforts. We will not all be rich, for riches are those unexpected guests to select households, whose origins and final destination are not assured. Even under the most fortunate circumstances, we will not all be good people, for every man and by man I refer to all human beings, were born different. But at the very least, we can all learn to coexist as family by the family code appointed by blood and ordained by God, which we share when we are born.
On the plea of ‘not liking’ someone or many people in your family for being lazy, beggarly, unworthy of your affection for whatever reason(s); caught whispers or passed comments of defamation, incriminations or mere jealousies and ‘hebaateh’, I prefer this word to superiority complexes, many families are disintegrating. This is a sad phenomenon.

Poor I am but bitter blood in me. These were the words of my favourite English teacher, Mrs. Camara, who taught me to know the Students’ Companion and to read First Aid in English like a novel, when I attended Grade 3 in Mrs. Ndow’s School. The effect of her words are potent, describing how the ‘less blessed’ are proud enough to find their own way, when disregarded as such by their more endowed relatives.
Unless we take deliberate and definite steps to work on being family new Gambia, the greatest loss of our society will be the collapse of the family unit. Not the lack of peace. Not even the lack of trust among communities and tribes.

Feeling a little nostalgic already, and being the sole director of my own column, I will present an excerpt from my upcoming book 35 where I reminiscence about one part of my family! Humour me as you read on…
“My maternal grandfather had two wives, who cohabited in the same household. The first wife, Nenneh Fatmata, was my maternal grandmother and mother to all of my grandfather’s children, who were four in number. They were three girls, of whom my mother was the middle girl, and one boy. My uncle was the last-born and the only boy born to my grandparents, who made it alive well into adulthood. In later life, my maternal grandmother would tell me about another son she had following her first child, my aunty Aminata, who was called Omar. Omar died before he reached the age of five.

All of my grandparents’ children were born in the Fulladu Region of Senegal except my uncle Buba, who was born in The Gambia, on the day The Gambia gained her independence from the British, in 1965. Tragically, it would be on such a day that my maternal grandmother, Neneh Fatmata, would die 50 years later, on February 18th 2015.

My grandfather did not know his own father. He was raised by his uncle, the father of my maternal grandmother, my great grandfather Samba Maodo Wandianga. At the age of ten, his own mother died following a brief illness, and he was rendered a complete orphan. Growing up in the household of Samba Maodo who had only male children aside from my maternal grandmother, my grandparents were very closed. When my grandmother attained the age of puberty and was primed for marriage, my grandfather was the natural spouse selected for her by her own father.

My grandfather’s second wife was called Neneh Hawa. She was a divorcee who never had conceived her own child in her previous marriage. Unlike my maternal grandmother, who was dark in complexion, both my grandfather and her co-wife were very light-skinned black people. My grandfather’s second wife did not produce an issue for him either but she was given the daughter of her own little sister to raise, who was called Mawdo.

Mawdo was like the elder sister I never had. She was quiet and reserved but very jovial and charming to my younger cousin, Mariama and me. Mariama was born nine months after I was born and was the daughter of my mother’s youngest sister, Khadja. Mariama was my buddy, friend and playmate. We grew up pretty much together as sisters even though I was much bigger for my age than she was and treated her like a much younger sister, commanding, controlling and mostly manipulating her to do my bidding.
Playtime was any spare time we had at every waking moment. We made dolls with twigs, tins, shreds of materials etc. that we found, and anything else we could improvise. We role-played all the time, with me always taking the driver’s seat as the boss. Mariama was very affable. She was a willing participant in our games. I suspect she liked being bossed around. Or perhaps she had no choice. Annoying at times, but never putting a strain upon the patience or goodwill of Mawdo, which I did repeatedly, Mariama was definitely Mawdo’s favourite.

My grandfather was a very strict Muslim, who controlled his household with iron fists. His word was law, and even though he did not talk much, his mere presence in the house was felt. His house where all of his family resided consisted of two huts attached by a wall, which separated the two structures.
A common thatched roof made out of straw connected the structures to each other. A short railing made of mud and thatched with straw abutted a veranda in front of the house. The railing was short and was subdivided by columns made of rhum palm tree stumps. The short railings gave way to wide openings on top, which brought in fresh air and cool breeze from the trees that enclosed the large compound.
On each of the railings’ edges, and at the very middle of the veranda, there were breaks that were accessed without flaps. The veranda, which was quite sizable, was the place where the family sat together and chatted after the chores of the day had been completed and before the family dispersed to their respective rooms at night.

Each of my grandfather’s two wives had her own room in the first hut. Their rooms opened inwards to an adjoining sitting room, which they shared and outward to the backyard, which consisted of a common bathroom at the extreme end of two big mango trees. Like the adjoining wall that separated the two huts, the backyard was also fenced.
My grandfather’s own bedroom was located at the edge of the salon shared by his two wives. It also opened to a detached bathhouse of its own and an adjacent room, where he kept his personal items. My grandfather was a jack-of-all-trades. He was a hunter, farmer, mason and marabout. He was the actual architect of his own house, which took a pride of place in Farato village.

Life as I remember it was full of laughter, love and care. We were never rich. I don’t know what rich was at that time, but I never remember being poor. I don’t know what being poor meant either. We had four meals a day. My grandfather had cows, so milk was abundant and fruit trees ripened with each season, foiling against hunger. I was probably 3 or 4 years old then, but I felt loved. I felt safe. And above all else, I felt wanted. These feelings would serve me in later life.
Of course, there were agreeable surprises in store but that will be fodder for a subsequent narrative…

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