I was 22 years old when I arrived at Yona village in Gambia, West Africa, the first Peace Corps volunteer ever posted there. Officially, I was the ward of the alikalo, the village head, but like the rest of the village, I was more in Amadou’s care than that of the oft-absent alikalo.
Amadou was a village elder with high, prominent cheekbones and a shaved head. His traditional West African caftan, with its intricately embroidered neckline, billowed around his tall frame revealing only his thick-soled feet and long-fingered hands.
Despite the robe, his leanness was evident. Most of the day he sat watching the comings and goings of village life, but when he moved, it was with long, graceful strides.
Each day when I left to make my rounds among the schools and farmers I worked with, Amadou demanded to know where I was going. At first, his barked questions felt intrusive, and he seemed aggressive. I didn’t like that he sometimes called me “Toubab.” It was Mandinka for “white person” or “foreigner.” Gambians who didn’t know my name yelled “Toubab” at me. It was annoying from strangers, but coming from Amadou, who knew my name, it felt rude and insulting. I found his sometimes imperious looks intimidating.
But Amadou was among the great communicators. I was a foreigner struggling with language; he offered me a haven of comprehension. He managed to understand me – even my early, garbled baby talk – and, in turn, always slowed his machine-gun Mandinka, enunciating deliberately to help me understand.
My halting conversations with Amadou were often punctuated with him breaking into laughter. In my language haze, I didn’t always know what he was laughing at. I was uneasy. Was he being mean?
One day, Amadou called me “Sula wuleng,” the red monkey, a mildly derogatory term for a white person. Taken aback and without thinking, I called him “Sula fing,” the black monkey.
I froze when I heard what had just come out of my mouth, certain I had violated every cultural norm, both his and my own. The instinct to stand up for myself had overcome my training in good manners. Just as I began to panic that I had insulted a revered village elder, Amadou threw back his head and laughed as hard as I had ever seen him laugh.
A cultural neutral zone had been crossed in this name-calling exchange. Amadou wasn’t mean, I realized; he was just having fun. I was an entertaining diversion, a curious, incongruous beat in the rhythm of village life.
Making Amadou laugh became my daily pleasure. He loved calling, “Sula wuleng!” just to hear my quick “Sula fing!” rejoinder. He delighted in playing this game in the presence of visitors, so he could show off his sassy white girl.
Having grown up in race-sensitive America, it was not the most comfortable game for me, but this was Amadou’s game in Amadou’s world. My American sensibilities were just that – American.
With time, I came to see Amadou as not just my guardian but my friend. His questions became comforting, and eventually I didn’t like to leave the village without telling him my plans. In the evening, I chatted with him about whom I had seen and where I had gone. I asked for, and he offered, advice. And always we laughed.
After two years in the village, the day came for me to return home. I spent the morning of my departure sitting with Amadou on his porch, not knowing if I would see him again. “Greet your father and mother,” he told me.
Many years later I returned to Gambia. I walked to the village and sought out Amadou. He looked older, as did I, but his smile was just as large. He held my hand, looked warmly into my eyes and said:
“Sula wuleng, you have come.”
Editor’s note: The author adds that she received copies of The Christian Science Monitor newspaper as a Peace Corps volunteer. She read every word, she says – then gratefully used the rolled-up papers to swat mosquitoes.