Happy Koriteh

Trip Start Aug 26, 2007
Trip End Dec 16, 2007

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Flag of Gambia  ,
Wednesday, October 17, 2007

This past month has been a hot, lazy, hungry one for Gambia. It was the month of Ramadan, and in this 90% Muslim country that means that most people are waking up well before the crack of dawn to eat, going all day without food or water, and generally restricting any celebration or partying. Towards the middle of the month we'd gotten used to the very subdued atmosphere of Gambia during Ramadan - I'd even been fasting myself for the experience, so it was hard to imagine Gambia any other way.
But the beginning of the month of Koriteh, which came on Saturday after the sight of the moon Friday, according to the Muslim lunar calendar, was a very loud, bright, active reminder of the kind of vivacity Gambia can have. So with the first sunrise Saturday morning, instead of groggily preparing for yet another hungry day, Gambians donned their brand new, colorful, intricate dresses and outfits they'd bought over the past week or two and stepped onto the streets to celebrate with family and friends. Girls wearing tiny, fancy dresses and adorned with flowers skipped down the street, and little boys moved with visible pride under the long, stiff tunics they wore today - just like their fathers. Even young men who might usually prefer European brand name T-shirts showed off their bright new African robes as they laughed down the streets with their friends. Music too filled the streets - it is inappropriate to play music loudly during Ramadan - so people now enthusiastically turned their speakers loud to the streets, an invitation for passersby to come sit and visit.
To celebrate we went to a feast at Hatab's compound, who is a friend of ours who helps us out at the compound. Brothers, sisters, cousins and neighbors played football and jump rope in the yard, and the smell of benechin seeped out from a small steamy outdoor room.
Visiting in Gambia is really seen as an art (or at least everyone takes it seriously enough and seem certain that practice makes perfect.) This fact became very, very clear to me during our various Koriteh experiences. Sitting is very key to visiting, whether in a compound or under the shade of a tree. People may be laughing and joking, but relative silence is accepted too. Most important is just that the people are really there, not doing any other little tasks like reading, working or texting Gambians seem to really value this relaxed togetherness, without the flashy distractions like movies or video games necessary to get many Americans to sit together. Attaya and Gambian Crazy Eights might be involved, but these are merely secondary.
Before eating at Hatab's we did much of this visiting around the compound and and wandering through winding streets and in and out of the open doors of compounds. Groups of people sat on ever corner, under every tree. Everyone greeted us with enthusiasm as we rolled through Wolof greetings.
Back at the compound the food - Benechin with cow stomach and intestine - was warm and ready on large platters on the floor. A few of us gathered around each platter, some of us with spoons, some with our hands. I struggled to eat with my hands, scooping up rice in my hand, squeezing it tight till the hot oil ran through my fingers and the rice formed a compact ball before I popped it in my mouth. Needless to say, my skirt was littered with rice by the time I was done. As for the beef... I did try some of the intestine clumps, but I had to leave the stomach alone.
All in all, it was a very happy first day of Koriteh. It was a little like Christmas in that everyone was smiling, with that extra glow of excitement about them, except it was better. They'd gone so long having to abstain, feeling weak and tired. But no more. And they also had the pride of accomplishment you could expect from the fulfillment of such a vigorous religious practice, and a certain purity people describe as both physical an spiritual. It was great seeing our friends with this vivacity, and only became more intense at night. We went to Westfield, the area known as the least touristy, more genuine Gambian place to hang out. We made our way into the Jokor Club (which means 'togetherness' in Wolof) after midnight, but people were still only warming up for the night's activities. The outdoor garden bar with a stage and dance floor was filling up, and different performances were coming onto stage. Things started to pick up more as performers came on talking about African unity and Reggae. But it wasn't until dancers in traditional dress came into the crowd to drumming that the night really began. Men were taking bites out of glass bottles and chewing them, and two men with burning sticks were running them over their body and sticking them in their mouths. They must have known that my group - which stood out as a primarily tubab table - would have been most shocked by this, because they came right up to us. One bowed down before me and held the fire up to me, spitting glass up in the air. Another man moved to Jenny and scooped her up, leaving ash marks along her arms and legs. And we were shocked, as they ran on stage we were left open-mouthed laughing at one of the several new, crazy things that weekend that we just took with a shrug, smile, and "happy Koriteh."
The rest of the night, and early morning, was filled with dancing. The energy of Koriteh kept me going long into the night, and it wasn't until after 4 am that we danced out of the club, and at least 5 am before I was able to wind down enough to fall asleep. And that was only the first day of Koriteh. The next day had to start a little slower, as one might expect, but a trip to the Serekunda market, where people are often at their pushiest and shortest (this was where I was conned, after all), proved that people really are more good-natured during Koriteh.
We were able to go to the beach and dinner with a Gambian friends of ours too, after such outings were restricted during Ramadan. The beach was filled with Gambians for the holiday, not just the occasional tourist like previously. But one of my favorite sights of Koriteh came later that night. Koriteh is something like Christmas and Halloween combined for children in The Gambia. Not only do kids get new clothes, gifts and money, they also perform something called 'Salibaiu.' These kids, dressed in their Sunday best, take to the streets the first couple of days of Koriteh, going from town to town knocking on doors and asking for money. The fact that this is possible says something about the safety of Gambian society, though there is a real problem with children wandering for days before they suddenly realize they can't find their way home. The news for the next few days will be filled with reports of lost children, and the schools are significantly emptier.
But, after a day or two collecting money, many children go out for a night on the town and spend all the money they've collected. They fill the restaurants and supermarkets, spilling out onto the streets. We saw this spectacle on the main street of Serekunda at around 10pm. Literally hundreds and hundreds of small children ran around, swarming us, singing, throwing pop rocks and shouting. It was a little like the whole world had erupted into chaos... and miniature.
The next day, Monday, was still a public holiday, so we headed off to a town called Brikauma, out from the main urban area about 45 minutes away. A friend of ours had invited us to a naming ceremony. These are a very important Gambian tradition that take place shortly after a baby is born. Hundreds of friends and family come to celebrate and give money to the family. During the celebration, griots dance and sing, the family slaughters a ram, and all the guests spend the whole day visiting and relaxing, munching on the little snacks and meals the family provides. The celebration itself is supposed to welcome the baby into the world: it has its head shaved as a symbolic sort of cleansing for the world, and it is believed that it is during this celebration that the spirits release the name of the child to the parents.
There were many people in the compound and the yard when our small tubab group entered, and after paying our respects to the griots we sat down under a tree for a long, long day of visiting. The Gambian hospitality was, as usual, overwhelming. Everyone greeted us, giving us chairs and trying to make us comfortable. A large platter of yogurt-like milk with a grainy substance was brought out and put in front of us: it was fresh milk from the cows at the village. I should mention here that I have gone most of the time here without milk. Most milk is condensed milk from cans, and it is very rare to see milk refrigerated. So, regardless of the thickness, I was a little excited. Not that I really had a choice, either, as they set ladles down in front of all of us. When offered food, one is expected to eat it with enthusiasm, and a host will continue to watch to make sure you are eating enough. I was actually quite positively surprised though, it tasted a lot like Grapenuts cereal, actually, though the milk was a bit sour. Later I found out one of our friends got very very ill from this dish, but as of yet I'm still doing ok. After the milk and grains we moved on to attaya and crazy eights...for hours. This was followed by hours of....well, sitting. From about 10:30 am until 6 pm I stood up maybe two or three times. I can say with confidence that I am not nearly as practiced at visiting as the many other young Gambians we were sitting with. My legs were cramping, I was getting restless and anxious, the periods of silence made me uncomfortable...but after a certain point it was just kind of funny. Cups of attaya were continually being offered to us, so the sugar was definitely not helping me at all. But everyone else seemed very happy, and it was beautiful sitting there with grasses and fields all around, underneath the shade of a large tree. A nice breeze was blowing we were surrounded by colorfully dressed Gambians, and no one seemed worried about anything. Maybe with a little more practice I can sustain that simple enjoyment a little longer.
It was also interesting to go pay our respects to the mother. We were brought into the bedroom where women were lounging together. The mother and the baby came out, and us girls were given the baby - a small, frail little thing with beautiful little lips - to hold. It is strange how quickly complete strangers are accepted into traditions here in The Gambia. I have to wonder how strange they think we are, coming from a different country and entering their home with slightly confused, eager smiles permanently on our faces. But at least this woman trusted us enough to hold her baby, and even with the language barrier that does create a certain degree of closeness. After this we resumed our sitting, until a bean and onion dish and rice with - yet again - cow intestine and stomach came out on platters. To a continuing chorus of 'Eat! Eat, Eat!' we scooped our hands into the platters. After another hour or two of sitting we finally left with the sunset, though many others seemed ready to stay through the night.
Once we arrived home we all immediately sprawled out under the air conditioning, strangely exhausted after a day of doing nothing. It had been a long, fun, tiring Koriteh.
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