One of the benefits of my slowly improving Pulaar is understanding stories that I couldn’t have followed six months ago. The seemingly simple task of asking questions has always been complicated by my limited vocabulary and my inability to correctly phrase abstract questions. Now that I can ask those questions, though, one answer can often lead to a whole series of illuminating explanations.
Mamadou Jallo is a 30-something guy who lives in our household but who doesn’t seem to be directly connected to anyone. I could never figure out why he was here or where his wife and children were. The other day I asked Deya if he and Mamadou were from the same family. He answered they aren’t literally family, but that Mamadou is part of his family now: he came from Guinea to find work, and last October was hired to help with Deya’s harvest. Deya explained that he has to bring in nephews like Hassana and hired help like Mamadou because there aren’t enough men in his household to do the field work: his two brothers are working in Spain, and the family’s sons aren’t old enough yet. Mamadou stayed on this year to continue working for Deya and to farm his own cotton field; after this coming harvest he’ll decide whether he wants to stay longer or go back to Guinea.
There are also stories that I just happen to be in the right place at the right time to hear. I was riding a charette into town with Aissatu, taking the dirt path that cuts through fields and grazing land—about seven or eight kilometers total from the village to the outskirts of Tamba. We’re bumping along when Aissatu points to a spot under some trees and casually remarks that, oh, that’s where Hawa gave birth to her youngest son.
I look around. Um, here? Yes, yes. Apparently Hawa, nine months pregnant, was having “stomach pains,” so Deya (her husband), Aissatu, and several other villagers piled onto a charette to take her to the hospital in Tamba. But they only made it a short distance before the baby decided it was time to be born.
So what do you do when your wife has just given birth on a dirt road, a third of the way to the hospital? Wash the baby off and head back to the village, of course.
Then there are the things along the lines of Gretchen’s cat-on-a-stick experience that you’d just rather not have to know.
After the rains started, flocks of village weavers appeared in the neem trees in our compound—they’re smallish, bright yellow, chattering birds that weave hanging, globe-shaped nests in trees and shrubs. My family doesn’t like them. At first they just threw rocks, but then, when it was clear the birds would keep coming back, they chopped off the top halves of the two large neem trees in our compound. When I asked what exactly that accomplished, my dad explained that the birds pick leaves off the trees, the leaves drop into the rain puddles, and the puddle water turns nasty. So if you remove the trees’ branches… the birds can’t perch in them anymore.
Strangely enough, the birds simply sit lower in the trees. So the current solution is to make bird traps. Last week, Aissatu made tiny nooses out of horsehair and fixed them in a bowl of mud. Then she scattered rice and millet between the loops and put the whole thing on top of a fence post, the idea being that the birds come to eat and get their legs caught. When I asked why catch birds, Aissatu answered that the birds eat millet that’s either left on the ground (pre-pounding) or in uncovered bowls (post-pounding), so they trap the birds, break their wings, and give them to the kids so that the birds can’t eat millet anymore and the kids have something to play with.
Sure enough, within a few minutes a bird snagged its foot in one of the loops. The bird was retrieved, one wing broken, a string tied around one leg, and the string handed to a child.
I went off to a field and sat in a tree for while.
When I returned to the compound, five kids happily ran through, each dragging a bird by a strip of bright fabric. I… hid in my hut. I’m not sure what kind of reaction to have: disgust? sadness? tolerant cultural empathy? Disgust is definitely tempting. But what do I say? I don’t know the Pulaar for “inhumane” or “unnecessarily cruel,” and suggesting that maybe covering the millet could be a better solution than torturing birds (or disfiguring trees) probably wouldn’t have much effect.
I suppose in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t much matter that a few birds are swung around in the air, dunked into buckets of water, and eventually plucked, roasted, and eaten. They’re just birds. Beautiful little yellow birds.
Besides, the next day at the Tamba house PCVs were shooting at lizards with a crossbow.