Only having been in Gambia for just about two weeks, we were still trying to figure out the simple, yet complicated traditional African dress. Facing Hannah’s glorious mop of golden curls, I felt the unsure answer, “Uhhh …. A wedding ceremony I guess. I heard it is one of Kaddy’s best friends, getting married as a second wi—” The remainder of my sentence cut off by our older Gambian “sister” Kaddy as her vivacious presence burst through the sheet that was the door to our room in the compound.

Kaddy was bejeweled to the nines. She was dressed in a full-length Gambian-style outfit that matched mine and Hannah’s, a bright, outspoken pattern of yellow and swirling colorful flowers. Her make-up was beyond stunning, to the point at which she was unrecognizable—her hair fully equipped with extensions and shimmering clips and the ridiculously high heels to boot. What a woman.

She exclaimed to us in a mixture of Mandinka and broken English that it was time to leave and we needed to hurry in order to catch the bus. She also advised us not to bring any valuables, money, or anything cumbersome. This was all a surprise to us. We had no idea what to expect seeing as how this would be our first real outing in Gambia, not to mention we had no idea where exactly we were going but we hadn’t expected to empty-handedly drive anywhere.

Gabby Roos at a wedding in The Gambia.

We awkwardly gathered the few things we planned to bring (chapstick and pepper spray) and followed Kaddy out into the center of the compound, all three in our matching full-length wedding attire. We were met in the compound by about seven or ten more women all dressed and outrageously accessorized, excitedly and incomprehensibly chattering away, teetering on their high heels. We didn’t really know any of these girls well yet, or even their names or faces at this point—not to mention everyone looked totally different with their epic makeup and fake hair. They did not try to include us in conversation; instead they sort of engulfed us into their circle and whipped out the lip-gloss and mascara, which was immediately applied to both mine and Hannah’s make-up-less faces.

Then, on the flip of a coin we were off. Surrounded by this wave of excited Mandinka chattering and yelling we were swept away out of the gates of our safe haven compound out onto the streets of New Jeshwang Serrekunda. I felt my mind quiet and let the mass of warm feminine energy and unfamiliar language move my body, now part of the whole. We walked along, the women impossibly maneuvering their heels through the dusty streets of sand. We walked about maybe five minutes through a neighborhood that would eventually become familiar, until we came to another compound, looking just the same as all the rest. The sun was going down and it was dark in the enclosure. The second we walked through the gates we were met by yet another group of rambunctious Mandinka women. A few of these new faces attempted to talk to me in the rapid unrecognizable noises and sounds. All I could do was smile and nod and catch Hannah’s eye for a split second for that comfort of knowing I wasn’t alone in this madness.

Hannah Mencher and Gabby dressed for a wedding.

Upon arriving we were all ushered into one of the “houses” in the compound. We ended up in a living room with a cement floor, full of ratty couches and a TV. The TV was blaring some old, terrible American soap opera—subtitled and dubbed over in Arabic. I was gently pushed down onto a spot on one of the couches where I stayed for the next 45 minutes listening to, but not understanding the conversations and watching the ridiculous TV show. Towards the end of our visit (which seemed pointless), a cup of water was being passed around; I politely declined—thinking of the “don’t drink the water” warnings I’d been getting for months of trip preparations. As I passed the cup on its way, I turned to see Hannah sitting a few people away from me. She was surrounded by children between the ages of three and ten, all hypnotized by her shiny blond hair and friendly smile. I watched one little boy turn to her and quietly say in surprisingly good English “Do you do magic…?” She looked this boy right in the eyes and with the straightest face replied, “Yes.” The boy started exclaiming to all his friends in their language and they all started laughing hysterically and ran from the room.

Shortly after the exodus of ecstatic Gambian children, one of the women who was assertively barking into a cheap Gambian cell phone stood up and yelled “Let’s Go!!” and all the women, now doubled in number, stood up and excitedly rushed out the door, through the compound and into the street. Walking in complete darkness, once again I let myself float along with the flock of happy, strong women teetering on their heels through the sand. I was startled when a brightly painted fourteen-seater van came ripping around the corner and screaming to a halt in front of the herd of women. Two Gambian men hopped out of the front seats, reggae music spilling through the open doors. The second the shorter of the two men slid the van door open, the women turned into wild animals and defying all logic and physical space, rushed at the open door pushing, clawing and tripping over each other in order to get in the van. I froze in awe and disbelief as the women whipped by me, then out of the masses Kaddy grabbed my hand and pulled me through the rush of madness into the van. I temporarily lost Hannah now that I was packed tightly into a fourteen-seater van filled with about thirty women, all yammering excitedly at the top of their lungs. I was seated on the lap of Nimanding, one of our other sisters, thankful to be close to someone I knew. I spotted Hannah closer to the front of the van and I immediately relaxed into the crackling sound system of reggae jams, for the ride to God-knows-where.

After about forty-five minutes on this increasingly uncomfortable bus excursion we pulled to a screeching halt in front of what appeared to be two empty buildings beside a dirty paved road and an alleyway of sorts. Through the chatter it became clear that we were in Gambia’s capital city, Banjul, and this is where the wedding would be held. I looked around wondering if we were lost, or made a mistake on the date … totally mystified as to where this wedding was taking place. Nobody else seemed overly confused, so I once again relaxed into the mystery of the situation and chilled out.

Sooner then I had time to really get a sense of the latest scene, the herd was on the move again, this time headed straight into the alleyway. As we moved into the darkness the sounds and the energy around me began to change and the next thing I knew we were filing into an open space wedged between the buildings.

Hannah Mencher at a naming ceremony.

A steady pulsing beat echoed against the plaster walls of the buildings surrounding us. The deeper we went into the alleys, the louder the pulsing became—shrouded in a flood of loud yelling, laughter and excited voices. Suddenly the alley emptied the herd of giggling women into an enclosure of sorts, what seemed to be a hidden parking lot. As we burst from our wanderings, noise, joy and people absolutely enveloped us into this huge mass of dancing, stomping Mandinka women. The dancing masses were headed by two huge mamas; their bodies draped in all sorts of patterned fabrics and jangling jewels. Both women were taking turns singing and blowing on referee whistles. Surrounding them were about five more women, each equipped with drums, shakers, or clappers. The drums were basically all plastic, square, empty water tubs, the pulsing that had drawn us into this bizarre celebration was a huge half-calabash in a shallow barrel of water—the water drum. The sound was unearthly in the best way.

There was so much movement it was hard to keep my head on straight. Dancing women of all shapes and sizes went stomping by in every direction. I especially loved seeing the pregnant women and the women with babies tied to their backs bouncing on their glorious booties—it makes so much sense that children grow up with such great rhythm. Hannah and I eventually found each other again and found a couple of chairs to sit down to take it all in. We were probably only seated for about three minutes before we were grabbed by our friends and pulled into the swirl of the dance floor.

A typical wedding ceremony in The Gambia, though this photo is taking during the day, and is much calmer than the one Gabby is describing!

Amidst all the dancing I did not see Hannah again until I wandered back to our seats, exhausted and dying of thirst. I plopped into a metal folding chair; seconds later I was met by Hannah with a dazed and baffled look on her face. She told me that she was dancing with one of the girls we had arrived with and then the girl started laughing hysterically and yelled through her hysterics for Hannah to “SIT DOWNNN!”… We pondered this for a moment, but too exhausted to look into it further we let ourselves become distracted by Kaddy who came running up to us drenched in sweat and beaming. “Drink!” she ordered us as she thrust a bag of water into each of our hands. The bag was sealed with the words “Purified Drinking Water” typed across the top. Seeing as how it was about 80 degrees, one in the morning and I was dehydrated … I drank. I drank my entire bag and most of Hannah’s, quenched for the time being.

Soon enough we were dragged back out to the dance floor only to be immediately approached by the jangling big mamas with the microphones. They came dancing up to Hannah and me, thrusting fists of bills safety-pinned together towards our faces. They were aggressively singing at us in Mandinka and waving the money under our noses. We had no idea what to do. I felt myself becoming scared and embarrassed, my eyes darting around looking for our sisters in the crowd. I suppose they wanted money, but as advised, neither Hannah nor I had brought anything. Right when I was about to offer our can of pepper spray instead of cash, our other sister Nimanding came to the rescue, handing each of the women a small bill. She pulled us back out into the alley that we came from and informed us that the wedding tradition involved giving money. And of course the only two tubabs (the common term for Caucasians, not necessarily derogatory) at the wedding must be absolutely filthy rich, so are expected to give a gift.

At this point Hannah looked like she was about to drop, and my stomach was gurgling in a bad way, so we were both more then relieved when our girls came rushing out of the enclosure looking like they were ready to go home. Without much conversation we wandered back out onto the street looking for a public van to take us home. We finally found one and climbed aboard, this time accompanied by some different strangers, including some of the old woman equipped with their water-tub drums and clappers.

Hannah and Gabby join some friends in a drumming session.

We began the trek home, Hannah was conked out next to me and I had my face pressed against the cool window, trying to mentally calm my turbulent stomach. I was jolted out of my trance as the van came screeching to a halt in the sticky night air. I craned my neck around all the ladies sitting ahead of me, trying to get a glimpse out the front windshield. I did not have to try too hard, my stomach dropped as a police officer walked past my window, shining a flashlight inside. The officer went straight to the driver of the van and they started conversing quickly in hurried words I didn’t understand. Soon the tones changed from hurried to angry and the officer and driver started arguing and yelling at each other. The intensity rose to an uncomfortable level—Hannah, who was now wide awake, grabbed my hand and we looked at each other, feeling helpless and slightly panicked. The driver made a sudden, aggressive move to leave the van, but was halted by a huge, resounding beat coming from the back of the bus. Time seemed to freeze. The pulsing beat was joined by some clappers, then shakers, and soon after—one voice, then two and then fifteen voices, singing as one. The pace was slow and eerie at first and then it sped and gained intensity until everyone in that van was singing and stomping straight from the bottom of their collective soul. The driver and his assistant joined in from their front seats. That was the last straw for the officer; he threw up his arms and stormed off. As he retreated we sped off into the night, continuing to sing until we rolled up in front of our safe little compound.

Some hours later, I found myself sitting on the cool concrete slab that was the outdoor enclosure behind my room in the compound. I had been sitting with a bucket between my knees and my clammy forehead resting on my shivering arms, wrapped around the bucket upon becoming violently ill and feverish minutes after arriving back at the compound. Now the sun was beginning to rise.

Up in a tree….

In an attempt to calm my head—dizzy from fever and vomiting—I put my bucket companion aside and lay my naked, sweating, shivering body flat on my back. I slowly opened my eyes to the moon, huge and full, staring down at me—so huge and low I thought it might completely encompass me and I’d never return. In opening my eyes, I felt as if I opened my whole being and connection not only to the moon but also to the age-old consciousness and wisdom which embodies our Mama Africa. I felt it in me and in everything. For a split second I felt as if I was floating weightlessly in the glorious and overpowering moonlight. I was dropped back to reality by a combination of the equally overpowering ‘Call to Prayer’ coming from three different mosques all a stone’s throw from the compound, and a tremendous lurch of my stomach. My shaky muscles managed to sit up and grab the bucket in time to continue vomiting … wishing the moon had just taken me with her. I stayed there for a while, moonlight on the nape of my neck, worshiping the space of the ground between my feet while the Call to Prayer rang melodiously through the entire country—calling me home.

By Gabrielle Roos
Experienced during a winter internship in The Gambia; written for Bill Carpenter’s Voyages class, Spring 2012