Preface: I have been trying to get decent internet access for over a month now, so now that I have a slow connection for about half an hour and no notebook to write from, I'm going to try to relate a brief event in village. I have several pages of posts that will appear here in late April when I travel to Kombo.
When I first arrived at site visit, I greeted everyone I met, and usually received a reply, even in the case of children. One pretty girl of about 13, however, gave no vocal reply. "Saalaam aleekum." I said to her, all I got back was a questioning arm gesture. She then came right up to me and poked me on the arm, again making the same gesture. I was puzzled. At first I thought she was just very shy, but what shrinking daisy directly approaches a stranger (of a different skin color, no less) and makes physical contact? And why wouldn't she answer me? A nearby woman enlightens my cluelessness: her ear is broken. She's deaf.
Over the coming weeks this girl, named Fatouma Touray, will frequently accost me with wordless questions. Even if I spoke perfect Mandinka I would be at a loss for what she was asking me much of the time. I think that her basic question is, "What are you doing?" to which I usually reply by pointing the direction I'm walking and making an improvised sign denoting sleeping, eating, or reading. When she is frustrated she will make more urgent gestures and sometimes unsettling shrieks and screams, more akin to the snarl of a wildcat than a young girl. Another very common guesture from Fatouma is to cup her breast and make a sucking noise. While in America this would be seen as crude, this is a universal sign for the hearing as well as hearing-impaired in The Gambia for "mother." She wants to know where my mother is. All I can really reply with is an emphatic point over the horizon-- very, very far away.
I came to enjoy these brief interactions for a time, but I started feeling she was a little to persistent sometimes, not letting me leave the "conversation" for some minutes even though no real communication was occurring. I also was surprised at the reactions of others to Fatouma's antics--she is almost universally ignored or told to go away. This changed one night during a music program, when a Jali, or musician, from Mali was playing to a large crowd. Suntu became extremely agitated, trying to rush up to the man for some unknown reason. Perhaps she was enamored with him, or maybe was enraged that everyone else could hear what he was playing and she could not. She became frenzied to the point that several other girls restrained her, and finally her father yanked her, screaming, by her hair, out of the congregation.
A few weeks ago my friend Mamadi and I were sitting, chatting and drinking attaya by my hut. Fatouma came by and started to interrogate me as usual. Mamadi joked with her a little, but then started to become irritated and tried to shoo her off. This had the reverse effect of making her even more bold in her mocking. She made gestures that indicated that she would beat him and that he was no good, and started to do cartwheels around us. Mamadi finally picked up a stick to chase her off, causing her to run to the edge of the compound, but not to leave entirely. There, in full view, she leaned over and proceeded to lift up her skirt. I believe I can safely say that at this moment I had the most surreal thought I have ever had in my life: I am in Africa, sitting next to my own mud and grass hut, and I am being mooned by a deaf and dumb girl.
Fatouma hasn't come by my compound as much lately. Maybe some of her antics got back to her father and she caught a beating as a result. Maybe I'm just boring her. But she still stands out in a community of people who generally conform to societal norms in almost every way. Manner of speech is standardized. Stores carry the same basic household supplies. There is usually at least one person named Lamin and Fatoumata in every family. But Fatouma, apart from her common name, doesn't fit into this framework, and I don't think she will any time soon. What will happen to her when she gets old enough to marry? Who will have her? Can she perform all the duties expected of her? I have no way of knowing and will leave before any of these things become evident. All I can do is try to be at least one person who is willing to give her some type of positive feedback, to show her some respect, when she merits it. And that, like everything I'm trying to do in village, is at least something.